Tag Archives: The Kingdom of God

Setting Our Faces to Go to Jerusalem

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

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

The full readings for today can be found here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

          Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.
© 2016

The Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola: A Homily

Ignatius of Loyola

The readings for the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola can be found here:

 
Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’

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

          Good morning, and welcome as we come together to celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Society of Jesus, which most of us know as the Jesuit Order. I feel especially close to him, because many of my first teachers were Jesuits.

          You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about the modern Christian Church, and it seems to me one of the central problems we have today is that many of us view our faith like a drunkard views a street lamp. We use it for support, rather than illumination.

          It was not always so. In fact, St. Ignatius of Loyola was one of the brightest lights in the history of Christianity. He was born in 1491, and in his former life he was a Spanish knight from a Basque noble family. When he was seriously wounded in battle around the age of 30, however, he underwent a significant religious conversion. Ignatius became a mystic, spending many hours a day in prayer and also working in a hospice.

          During that time, he had a remarkable spiritual experience. He had a vision in which he said that he learned more than he did in the rest of his life. This vision seems to have involved a direct encounter with God, so that all creation was seen in a new light and took on a new meaning and relevance, an experience that allowed Ignatius to find God in all things. This grace, finding God in all things, serves as one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality.

          At the age of thirty-three, he began to study for the priesthood, although he was so poor at the time he found himself begging for food and shelter. He was also jailed by the Inquisition at this time. Around then, he and six companions made solemn vows to continue their lifelong work of following Christ. He founded what would become the Jesuit Order.

          While he was living as a hermit, Ignatius began to develop a set of exercises, designed to help believers discern the movement of the Spirit. One of the crucial notions in these exercises is the idea of “indifference,” of being indifferent to the concerns of the world—not in the sense of caring about people or things less, but in the sense of not letting our ego and our attachments get in the way of our relationship with God. As Christians, we are called to be indifferent to whether we’re well-known and influential or obscure, whether we’re rich or poor, or even healthy or sick. Our focus must be on whether God is present in our lives—and God is always present, is right there with us, closer than we are to ourselves.

          And I think that’s part of what Luke is trying to explain in today’s passage from the Gospel. It’s a harsh passage, a shocking thing: hearing Jesus tell a man to disregard the burial of his father, and it doesn’t give way to easy explanations. But sometimes we have to ignore a good thing to pursue a holy thing: our highest calling to follow God single-mindedly. I think Jesus is explaining that being a disciple sometimes requires us to make hard choices: to decide if we really do love the Lord our God with all our hearts, all our souls, and all our strength. In the kingdom of God, traditional loyalties are going to be rearranged.

          If we want to follow Jesus, to be disciples, we’re going to have to learn to seek the kingdom of God first, and not let anything get in our way. Once our hand is on that plough, we cannot turn back. And we might find some help in this little prayer, the prayer of St. Ignatius:

“Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will. All that I have and cherish, you have given me. I surrender it all to be guided by your will. Your grace and your love are wealth enough for me. Give me these, Lord Jesus, and I ask for nothing more.”

Amen.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

St. Boniface: A Homily

Boniface

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’ Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke 24: 44-53.

He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah* is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses* of these things.

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

          Good morning, good morning. And welcome to you all as we celebrate the feast of St. Boniface, a great saint of the Church. He was born somewhere around 675 A.D. in Wessex. At birth, he was given the name of Winfred, but later took the name of Boniface, probably when he was ordained a bishop. In 716, he set out as a missionary for Frisia, in modern-day Germany.

          There’s a wonderful old legend about St. Boniface. They say that one winter he came across some men who were about to offer up a child sacrifice to the pagan god Thor. Boniface stopped the murder of this child by going over to an oak tree and striking it. The tree fell to the ground. When all the snow, they saw a small fir-tree there. Boniface pointed to the tree, which was green in the dead of winter and announced, “That is the tree of life and this boy is to live not die.” He then pointed at the tree again and said, “This tree does not die in winter like others but lives and it symbolizes the eternal life offered to you through Jesus Christ.” He then noted that the shape of the fir-tree is triangular and thus represents the Trinity of God. Upon this declaration, the men repented and gave their hearts to Jesus and they spared the boy’s life.

          So, what’s the point of that story? You know, neuro-psychologists have described something called a perception bias. It’s sometimes called selective perception. It’s the tendency of the brain to seek out what it’s looking for, and to disregard all the other noise around it. It explains how we do those Where’s Waldo puzzles, and how the brain finds what it’s looking for and sets aside everything else. It explains why we see the good in people if we’re looking for it and why, if we go searching out the ways in which people can be selfish and cruel, we’ll find that, too.

          What does that have to do with the story about St. Boniface? I think it explains the reason St. Boniface saw eternal life in Christ when he looked at the evergreen fir-tree. And it explains why he saw the life of the Trinity when he noticed the triangular shape of the tree. He saw those things because he was looking for them. And that’s why St. Chrysostrom observed that unless you can see Christ in the face of the beggar on the street, you’ll never find Him in the chalice.

          And so, we come to today’s Gospel reading. This reading comes right after the story of the road to Emmaus. And we wonder, “Why didn’t the disciples recognize Jesus? How could they not see him, right beside them?” I think part of the answer is that they didn’t see Him because they weren’t looking for him. They thought he was dead; there was no reason to look for him. But in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, tells us, that we are to be his witnesses. We are to see and hear, and speak of what we’ve seen and heard: that Jesus is risen, that he preached repentance, and promised forgiveness. And that He’s still with us.

          So, what are we supposed to be looking for? He told us: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God.” If we follow Jesus, that’s our perception bias. I pray that we’ll look for it, because He promised that if we did, we’ll find it. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2014 James R. Dennis

The Feast of Mary Magdalene: A Sermon

Mary MagdaleneMary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, `I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”; and she told them that he had said these things to her.  John 20:11-18.

It’s a pleasure to be with you this morning as we celebrate the Feast of a great saint of the Church, Mary Magdalene. Magdalene: the first witness to the resurrection, Mary, who had her heart broken and then restored.  So, I thought I’d borrow very liberally this morning from a sermon first preached by Meister Eckhart, one of my Dominican brothers, around the thirteenth century.

“Mary stood at the sepulchre weeping ….”

A wonder that in such sore distress she was even able to weep. She stood there because she loved, she wept because she mourned. She approached and looked into the sepulchre. She was looking for a dead man: she found two living angels and the living son of God.

Origen says: “She stood – why did she stand when the Apostles had run away?’ Because she had nothing to lose. Everything she had was lost with Him. When He died, she died as well. When they buried Him, they buried her with Him. So she had nothing to lose.

She moved on. Then he met her. She thought it was the gardener, and said “Where have you put Him?’ Anxious for Him, she does not answer His question; just, ‘Where have you put Him?’ Those were her words. Then He showed her plainly Who He was. Had he announced Himself straight away while she was in the throes of longing, she would have died of joy.

If the soul knew when God would come to her, she would die of joy! – and if she knew when He would leave her, she would die of grief. She knows neither when He comes nor when He goes: she knows well when He is with her. It is said, “His comings and goings are hidden; His presence is no secret, for He is Light, and by its very nature Light is Manifestation.”

Mary sought God and only God. That is why she found Him, because she desired God and nothing else.

While we didn’t get to hear this part of the story, unlike the other gospels that begin the story of the resurrection at dawn, John begins this chapter “while it was still dark.” Of course, the opening phrase of John’s gospel is: “In the beginning.” John wants to take us back to the moment of creation, to another garden from which we were cast out. And the contrast of the darkness of a world without Jesus, and the light we encounter with Jesus: well, that’s quintessentially John.

It’s interesting to note that the very first words Jesus says in John’s gospel are a question directed to the followers of John the Baptist: “What are you looking for?” Here, Jesus repeats almost exactly the same question, asking “Who are you looking for?” It’s a question we should each consider. Who are we looking for? It’s also important that Mary does not recognize Jesus until he calls her by name. I’m wondering whether we can hear him calling our names as well.

In that moment as Jesus calls her name,”Mary”, she knows Him just as He knows his own. And she knows that death has not taken her teacher, her friend, that death has no claim on Him any longer, nor those who follow Him. And that morning, sadness had no more claim on her life, and I pray that it has no more claim on ours.

Mary saw it: the kingdom of God had broken into the world. The kingdom of God is coming into the world. The kingdom of God will come into the world. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2013 James R. Dennis

To an Immeasurable Extent

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

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

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

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

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

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

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

P.S.

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

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

Shocked and Grieving (A Sermon)

“And when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” In the name of the Living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, if there’s someone in your life that you’d really like to get rid of, there are a number of ways to make them feel unwelcome. You could ask them to help you scrub the grout on your tile kitchen floors.  Or, you could invite them out to dinner at the all you can eat liver buffet.  Or, you could ask them to come to your parish and give a stewardship sermon.  And so, when my good friend, your priest, the father of my godson, invited me here today, well, I took the hint.  But we’ll get to that stewardship thing in just a bit.

For now, let’s look at that young man in today’s gospel. The Gospel tells us that Jesus was setting out on a journey, when a man runs up to him and kneels down. So, from the very beginning, we know that this story concerns an interruption, a profound interruption while Jesus was about to do something else.  It’s interesting how many of the gospel stories work like that, and how our own spiritual lives work that way too.  Woody Allen famously said, “If you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans.”

So this young man comes to Jesus and asks him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies with a stark statement: “No one is good but God alone.” Jesus begins by reminding him, and us, that God is the source of everything that is good.  We acknowledge that in our liturgy every Sunday when we sing “Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.” Or perhaps we say, “All things come from Thee, o Lord, and of Thine own have we given thee.”  The point in all three is the same: all goodness, all that is, comes from God alone.

Jesus then tells this young man “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” And the young man tells Jesus, “Rabbi, I have kept all of these commandments since I was a child.” Of course, Jewish tradition held that no one other than Abraham and Moses had been able to keep the law.

But I want us to look at this man carefully.  He’s not a bad guy, not a bad guy at all.  In fact, I think he’s a lot like you and like me.   When we get to that part of the service where we confess our sins, sometimes we’re kinda scratchin’ our heads and lookin’ at our shoes and thinking, “Surely there’s something bad, some minor infraction,  I’ve committed this week.”

This young man comes to Jesus mostly for an affirmation.  What he wants, like what we want, is for Jesus to tell him that everything’s okay, that he’s doing everything he’s supposed to, and when it comes to him, eternal life is pretty much a shoe-in. That’s what he wants, and I think that’s what we want, too.  But that’s not exactly what’s going to happen.

The next line is often overlooked when we hear this story.  “Mark tells us Jesus, looking at him, loved him and spoke.” Somehow, despite his self-assurance, despite his remarkable confidence in his own spiritual maturity, Jesus loves this young man. Just like He loves us. There’s only one authentic response to that kind of love:  gratitude.

Our Savior tells him, “You lack one thing; get up, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” That phrase Jesus uses, “get up”, it’s a phrase often used in the stories of Jesus healing people.  In Capernaum, when Jesus heals the paralytic, he tells him to “get up, take your mat and go home.” In the 5th Chapter of Mark, when he casts demons out of a man by the shore, he tells him to get up and go home and tell your friends what God has done for you. He uses the phrase again and again.  And so, we begin to wonder, is Jesus trying to heal this man, too?

Yet, like so many of us, this man can’t take this teaching.  Scripture tells us: “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”  Jesus often taught about the cloud that our possessions, our wealth, place over our spiritual lives.  The only subject he talked about more was the Kingdom of God, and in today’s reading He talks about both.

I want to suggest to you that one reason that young man went away sad is that he had betrayed his own true nature.  You know, it’s one of the first things we learn about God in Scripture.  He gives us a world, he gives us a garden, he gives us freedom and gives us a promised land to live in, and then, he gives us a son. God is by nature a giver, a giver who teaches us again and again how to be generous.  Each breath I draw, I draw because of God.  The car I drove up here in this morning, very early this morning, that came from God.

Someone might say, “No, that car came from the money you made at your job.  That didn’t come from God.” But the simple truth is, that job came from God, as did my education, which flowed out of the parents God gave me.  Praise God, from whom all blessings flow. Everything, my family, my friends, and my godchildren: all of these things came from God.

You may remember that just last week, Jesus told us that to receive the kingdom of God, we must receive it as little children. Children, particularly little children, can’t make their own way in the world.  Rather, most everything they have, they have gotten as a gift.  Somehow, we’ve managed to forget that.  In a culture that perpetuates the myth of the self-made man, we’ve forgotten that we are utterly dependent on God for our very lives.

And when the Book of Genesis tells us that we are made in the image of God, I think it means, in part, that we were made to be givers.  We were created to be generous creatures.  And that’s part of the reason why that wealthy young man went away so sad.  He had betrayed his real nature, the purpose for which he was created.  He had revealed that his heart was with his treasure, the things he owned. He had denied his real nature, revealing that his heart lay in a wealth he could not part with.

We might well ask ourselves, what are the things of which we are not willing to let go?  What’s getting in the way of our relationship with the God who sustains our lives in every moment? This young man who came up to Jesus lived in a world of scarcity.  Perhaps he wondered, who’ll take care of me when I’m old, or what happens if the economy takes another turn for the worse?  You see, it’s largely a question of who we trust.  Do we trust in our real estate holdings, our financial institutions, or our ability to make a living, or do we trust in the God who spun the world into existence?  Learning to give is important for our spiritual lives, in part, because it’s a matter of learning to trust. Like many of us, this rich young man comes to Jesus with reverence, but without much trust.

On the other hand, most of us know that giving is in our very nature.  We give to our children, our spouses, our friends, and this giving brings us joy.  When we give to the Church, however, we also engage in a liturgical act.  We know that our word liturgy means “the work of the people.”  It is a private sacrifice for a public good. And so, when we write those checks on Sunday morning, it’s not the same thing as writing a check to the grocer, or the dentist, or the landlord.  Our giving to God becomes a sacrament, just like the sacrament we’ll receive at the altar shortly. And we’ll gather those offerings together, and ask God to take them and make something holy out of them. And in that, I hope we also can find our joy.

As a congregation, our treasure reveals itself in all sorts of acts of liturgy, acts which are both spiritual and material. When we baptize a child or tend to the sick or serve food in a shelter, we are make an offering of a materialism of the sweat and tears of our days, not a materialism of furniture or jewelry or 401ks. Becoming a disciple of Jesus means that we have been adopted into this new life.

Our giving, our charity, is both a spiritual event and a denial of the materialism that the world embraces.  We choose a radically different kind of materialism.  In that sacramental moment, as we make our gifts to God, I hope we can hear Jesus’ voice, wondering if we might do just a little more, just as he asked that rich young man to do so long ago.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Have Salt in Yourselves

John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell., And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.

“For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Mark 9:38-50.

Jesus had a funny habit.  He often encountered those who would try to draw a boundary between the holy and the unholy, between the sacred and the profane, between the clean and the unclean.  Whenever he ran into these boundaries, Jesus would step on the other side.  He did it with lepers. He did it with tax collectors. He did it with prostitutes and those who were sick and lame and even the Gentiles.  He even crossed the boundaries drawn around the Sabbath. He did it so often that we begin to wonder if there’s a message in there.  And in today’s Gospel, He does it again.

In the first section of this passage, the disciples express their concern that someone outside their circle has also engaged in the healing ministry. It’s at least worth noting that this passage in Mark follows the scene in which the disciples were squabbling among themselves about who was the greatest. Mark 9:32-34. That story ended with Jesus taking a small child (another outsider in that society) into his arms and explaining that those who welcome such a child actually welcome Jesus and his Father. In today’s reading, Jesus continues teaching his disciples about letting go of their sense of self-importance and widening the circle of holiness far beyond themselves.

We hear the echoes of John’s criticism (he was “not following us”) too often as we hear Christians speak of other believers, other denominations, and other faiths. Jesus wants to “welcome” the children; John is concerned with those who are “not following us.” Jesus affirms even the simplest act of kindness, a cup of water, done in His name.

Jesus sharply contrasts those who offer kindness, who encourage, with those who get in the way of someone’s journey to the Father. Those who scandalize these little ones or cause them to stumble, Jesus teaches that Gehenna awaits them. (Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, was a ravine south of Jerusalem where child sacrifices to Moloch had taken place.  Jeremiah 7:31; 32:35.)  After King Josiah destroyed the altar to Moloch, it became a continuously burning trash, used as a metaphor for the torment of the wicked.

Jesus teaches that we must rid ourselves of whatever causes us to stumble, even if it’s our hand, our foot, or our eye. I don’t think Jesus is advocating self-mutilation.  He’s telling His disciples to separate themselves from anything that interferes with their path to the Father. He advocates a clear focus on the things that bring us closer to the kingdom of God, even if we must shed ourselves of ourselves.

The closing paragraph may seem strange to our modern ears.  At the time, however, both salt and fire were used medicinally.  They were used to treat wounds; thus, Jesus is saying that everyone will find their healing, their wholeness. To “share salt” with someone, to share a meal, carried with it the implication of fellowship.  The expression “have salt in yourself” meant “be at peace with yourself.”  Salt was also used as a preservative and carried with it the implication of permanence. Jesus thus encourages His disciples (and us) to find our healing and reconciliation by making peace with ourselves, and with our brothers and sisters.

I pray we find that peace, not by excluding others from the circle of holiness, but my looking for God and His kingdom in all times and all places.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis