On S. Stephen, pt 2

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-third Sunday after Trinity (Proper 28), 2020.

We continue today with our reflection on Saint Stephen the hoy Martyr, looking at how his story in Scripture makes more real for us the profession in the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in the Communion of Saints”—a living relationship with the Saints being fundamental to baptismal living. Saint Stephen is such a poignant example of everything it means to be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world; witness to Christ to others both in word and in deed. Last Sunday I spoke of how his preaching as a Deacon, not so much liturgically as a sermon during Mass but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes as he served the poor, embodied the wise maidens and how they made sure to have enough oil—oil being a composite symbol of Scripture of giving oneself in sacrifice with prayerful compassion according to Scripture (the primary symbolism of oil being seen in the example of Saint Mary Magdalene).

Summing up also is the term taught by Jesus in that parable of the wise and foolish maidens—His teaching to “watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him through prayer gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread. And we can be sure that St Stephen himself took this to heart, and made his own life by God’s grace over into a life of watching—finding Christ through prayer in Scripture and thereby suffering with Christ (what we mean by having compassion) all as a living sacrifice of his life to Christ, offering and presenting his soul and body unto Christ, as we say in the Mass and as Saint Paul says, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. As we hear the story of Saint Stephen and take his story into our heart, we partake more and more with Him in the Holy Communion of Christ, and share more and more with Stephen the grace and heavenly benediction, or blessing, of Christ—for Christ blesses all who partake of Him.

The most significant signal that Stephen was full of grace and heavenly benediction is the description of him at the end of Acts 6, that all how sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel. It is an arresting image, particularly because it comes from the hand of Saint Luke, the author of the Gospel account attributed to him but also of the Acts of the Apostles. Angels figure prominently for Luke in the proclamation of the Gospel—the archangel Gabriel’s message first to Zachariah and then to Blessed Mary: the angelic light in Luke’s telling always shines with the heavenly light of Christ. To Zachariah the angel proclaimed Zachariah’s son John Baptist would be great in the sight of the Lord, and would turn many of the children of Israel to Jesus. And to Our Lady, the angel proclaimed “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. Mary herself thereby so shone with the angelic light that her mere voice a short while later to her cousin Elizabeth caused the baby John Baptist to leap in her womb, and to fill her with the Holy Spirit herself. And it is the angelic light that proclaims the Resurrection of Christ—as the two men stood with the holy Women at the tomb, and reminded them of Scripture so as to be able to recognize the living among the dead, and to understand that suffering leads to eternal life.

This is what it means for the council of Jews to see Stephen’s face as the face of an angel. The glory of Christ shined through Stephen—through his eyes, through the disposition of his face, through his voice, through his fragrance. The defense he then gave radiated with angelic energy that revealed Christ through the Old Testament. To become one with Christ is to receive the radiance that shown from Stephen’s face—at that moment, on trial for his faith in Christ, Stephen was beholding God’s face, for the face of an angel is the face that see God, the face that sings to God around the heavenly throne, singing unceasingly “Holy, holy, holy.” The holiness of Stephen took everyone’s breath away, the peace of Stephen made their jaw drop, the love of Stephen began to soften their hardened hearts (especially that of Saul who looked on), and the authority of his presence, the authority of his face, the authority then of his words giving testimony to the living Christ, the Lord Christ, Son of the living God, who gives mercy to all who truly turn to Him—this holiness, this angelic presence, this love so convicted them of their sins that all their demons were scared up from their hidden places in the hearts of the council that they acted as demonic animals and stoned Stephen to death. But no before Stephen would drop his last bit of heavenly dew upon them—saying, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin. Do not hold this sin against them”: an echo of Our Lord Jesus Himself on the Cross, again captured by Luke: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Stephen teaches us that the angelic light shines to others in our faces when we ask the Father to forgive our enemies, forgive our persecutors. True forgiveness from the Father is Christ’s light in the world.

On Saint Stephen, pt 1

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-second Sunday after Trinity (Proper 27), 2020.

In my sermon for All Saints’ Day I preached that God desires His Saints to have a living relationship with us, and He desires we have a living relationship with the Saints. That the Church recognized this is why the phrase “I believe in the Communion of Saints” was seen as necessary to the Apostles’ Creed, which from ancient days has been the profession of faith at a person’s Baptism. We therefore, in being baptized into Christ’s Body and incorporated into Him, are at the same time baptized into living relationship with the Saints through Christ. And so continually responding to the fact of our Baptism, which is the life of mature Christianity taught by Archbishop Michael Ramsey, invites us to reflect on our relationship with the Saints, and to develop a devotion to the Saints, even one or two Saints who we might find particularly teach us the Gospel of Christ.

I went on to say that, at least by my lights, perhaps the most poignant example of everything it means to truly be a Saint who gives witness to Christ in the world is Saint Stephen the holy Deacon. And so what I am beginning today is a series of sermons in which, through reflecting on the appointed scripture passages, we seek to find how these describe Saint Stephen’s commitment to Christ, as an example to all of us—a great example within the great cloud of witnesses that is the Saints.

Stephen is the first Martyr of the Church recorded in the New Testament. His saint story is found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, chapters 6, 7 and three verses into chapter 8. He was among the first Deacons of the Church, which is where his story begins in Acts chapter 6. The Church discerned a need for Deacons because the Twelve Apostles needed help. Having the necessary devotion to prayer and the ministry of the Word—meaning the study of scripture and the liturgical celebrations both Office and Mass—meant they were not able to serve the poor as the numbers of the poor demanded. At this point there is not yet the threefold division of Holy Orders—Bishop, Priest, and Deacon—that developed certainly by the early 2nd century, if not by the late 1st century. But even at this twofold division of Holy Orders we see that the ministry of the Deacon comes out of the ministry of the Bishop. The Deacon extends the hands of the Bishop, hands that reach to the poor, the lonely, and the widowed. The Deacon, in a very real sense, leads the ministry of the laity. Lay Christians, too, are to extend with love the hands of our bishop toward those in need of the Gospel.

Undoubtedly this ministry of Stephen and the other six Deacons included what is generically called “preaching.” That is, not preaching in the liturgical sense but speaking about the power of Christ in the public square, in the streets, in people’s homes. This sort of preaching could have risen to what we would call teaching, catechesis, even formation. But prior to that, Stephen’s preaching would be first and foremost his sharing with others the truth of Jesus Christ being the Son of the Father Almighty, spoken by Moses and the prophets, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the truth of His crucifixion as the revelation of personal salvation through Christ’s Resurrection. This preaching by Stephen is described in Acts as wisdom and the Spirit by which Stephen spoke. We have an extended account of his preaching, in the defense he gave in front of the council of Jews after Stephen was accused, falsely of course, of blasphemy against Moses, the Law of Moses God, and the holy Temple itself. All of Acts chapter 7 is given over to it.

It is a remarkable account, one that might draw us to ask, how on earth did he give such an account? How was he able to do it, given that he was facing sure death, sure stoning? Who among us would be able to give such glorious witness of the faith under such imposing circumstances?

The means to do so is actually what Our Lord Jesus is getting at in his parable of the ten maidens, and specifically with his teaching about oil. Stephen is an imitation of the five maidens who were wise in taking with them flasks of oil. Oil in scripture is a symbol of sacrifice, such as when Saint Mary Magdalene pours all of her most precious oil upon Jesus to anoint Him. She is described as anointing Jesus for burial, and so she is already suffering with Jesus, which is what compassion means: suffering with. Sacrifice, compassion are what oil symbolizes, but also prayerful listening to God, which again is Mary Magdalene’s example of choosing the better part, sitting at the feet of God, listening to Him: which for us means listening to God through Scripture. Just as having oil means the lamp can light up, so as by reading Scripture God lights up and reveals Himself as the scripture is opened.

All of which is to say that Stephen understood that the life of following Christ is a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ revealed through Scripture—indeed, a life of sacrifice and compassion according to Christ Who is the Crucified and Risen One revealed only through Scripture. We see how deeply Stephen had drunk of Scripture in Acts 7 and his glorious defense, which is the whole of salvation history through the Old Testament retold by the Light of the Resurrection. One cannot just do that without giving one’s life over in sacrifice, compassion towards Christ, and deep prayer with Scripture. All of which is what Jesus means when He says, “Watch.” For us to watch is to live baptismally: our living sacrifice, suffering with Christ, and finding Him gloriously revealed in Scripture as our daily Bread.

Living Baptismally, pt 13: On Sin and Forgiveness

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 19), 2020.

There can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to the Christian life. Plenty of passages of scripture show that—obviously our passage today from Matthew 18; but also in the only prayer taught by Jesus to His disciples (the Our Father) forgiveness is key; and even more so with the Eucharist, when in the Upper Room with the Twelve on the night when He voluntarily gave Himself up to be betrayed, He said, “Drink ye all of this; for this is My Blood of the New Testament, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins.” Jesus gives us Himself in His Body and Blood, and His giving of Himself is for the remission of sins, the forgiveness of sins. Given that the Eucharist is the summit of Christian experience, and forgiveness of sins is central to its purpose according to Our loving Jesus, there can be no doubt that forgiveness is central to Christian life.

Saint Peter’s question to Jesus echoes this. He says, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?” The practicalities of following in the footsteps of Jesus for Saint Peter and the disciples already we bound up in the seemingly unresolvable problem that sin abounds all around them. And that should no surprise us in the least, not if we pay attention to our daily human life, and know anything at all about the human condition. We live in a fallen world, and all of us sin against our sisters and against our brothers. And likewise, our brothers and sisters sin against us. But let us be clear about what the Church means by “sin.” We often might think, because wider society thinks this way, that the word “sin” is simply a Christian term for “wrong-doing,” and basically synonymous with it.

We see this demonstrated in what used to be called “sin taxes,” that is, taxes government would place upon the purchase of, say, cigarettes or alcohol—taxes on things society preferred people not so (at least publicly) and saw as wrong behavior. But the Christian meaning of sin has nothing to do with this. The Christian theology of sin begins in the recognition of the absolute necessity of the Cross to salvation. Or put more simply: sin in its primary sense is the condition of being in need of a Savior. Every human being is born in sin, because every human being is born in need of a Savior from the first breaths and cries of life. Adam and Eve were always in need of a Savior, therefore from their creation, and even the creation of Adam which preceded the creation of Even, Adam was never not in need of a Savior. Adam was born in sin, prior to any specific act of sin. Adam and Eve were in sin, in other words, before they choose to go against the will of God and eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

Yet this specific act of sin, or occasion of sin—the choice to eat the forbidden fruit, and then the eating itself, for that is two sins, the choice and then the eating, with other sins to immediately follow—springs from the human condition of always, from birth, being in need of a Savior, being in need of Christ. It was because Adam and Eve were in need of a Savior—were in the condition of needing a Savior—that their act of sin occurred. And it is important to notice as well, that according to the economy of salvation which is God’s overall plan for His creation, through their act of sin, grace abounded, and they began on the hard road of living consciously within the condition of sin, the condition of needing a Savior. And, for themselves, we can reasonably speculate that they committed more acts of sin before they ran the full course of their mortal life—each and every time of committing an act of sin tied irrevocably into the prior reality of their sin, the condition of always needing a Savior. This is a condition that no one can avoid—we are never not in need of a Savior, and we can do nothing to escape that fact. All specific acts of sin by our brothers and sisters against us (and all acts of sin we commit against others) are anchored in the condition of sin we all find ourselves in, as Paul did at his conversion—prior to which he regarded himself blameless with respect to the law; after which and after being convicted by the Cross which is the glory of God, he regarded himself as the greatest of sinners, able to do good thing despite wanting to.

This is why forgiveness is central to Christian life; this is why forgiveness is central to Christ’s voluntary self-offering of Himself, His precious and holy Body and Blood, to us for the remission of sins. He gives us the heavenly reality of Himself to ever wake us up to the deepest reality of sin and the deeper reality of salvation only through Him. Knowing that we are filled with Him through the Eucharist, we are Him, for He is in our bodies. And our minds are transformed into the Gospel: that where sin abounds, which is everywhere and in all persons, grace abounds much, much more.

Living Baptismally, pt 12: Being a Living Sacrifice

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 18), 2020.

The previous two Sundays’ Gospel lections, being the dramatic telling of Saint Matthew’s of Peter’s confession of Christ’s full nature through heavenly grace given to him by the Father, which was followed immediately by Peter trying to put himself between Christ and the Cross, and thereby being called “Satan” just after being called the “rock” upon whom Jesus would build His Church—all within but a few verses—these lections being so central to the faith left little room to reflect upon the guidance given to us by Saint Paul the Apostle last Sunday, as we heard, in the Epistle to the Romans, the beginning of chapter twelve. Last Sunday, in the beginning of Romans twelve, we heard guidance from Saint Paul which began with the famous words, “I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” All told we heard last Sunday the first eight verses from Romans twelve, and today we hear the next batch of verses, from verse 9 through verses 21, which likewise continue valuable guidance to Christians, who, in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, should be continually responding to the fact of our Baptism.

And it is likewise important specifically for us Anglicans to reflect upon Saint Paul’s guidance on being a living sacrifice, because this whole theology gets taken up in our Eucharistic Canon from its beginning in 1549 and the first Book of Common Prayer—words that Anglicans indeed treasure: “And here we offer and present unto Thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto Thee.” It is hard, I think, not to be caught up in those words during the Eucharistic Canon, and even be confronted by them. “Am I prepared to truly offer myself, my soul and body, as a living sacrifice?” we might ask ourselves. “Am I truly signing on to this? Because it sounds like a real commitment” we might further wonder. And make no mistake, brothers and sisters, what Paul is directing, and what we as a Body are doing during the Eucharistic Canon, is a real commitment, and it has everything to do with being baptized. There can be no doubt about this. Receiving the nourishment of God’s grace for mature Christian living demands we offer and present our bodies unto God, just as the bread and wine are offered and presented on the Altar. We are offering our selves likewise on the Altar. Doing so is our response of cooperation with the grace given beforehand by God in baptism—for God always, always, acts first. Yet if we desire and yearn to grow in the faith—in Saint Paul’s language, if we want to move from mother’s milk to beefsteak, from liquid food to solid food, we have to respond to the grace gifted to us in Baptism, which grows into Michael Ramsey’s “continual response to the fact of our baptism.” And the primary way we do so is to take up Paul’s direction, indeed Paul’s spiritual direction, and desire to present our body as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which, as Paul says, is our spiritual worship.

This is not one of the things we do as Christians. It is the thing we do, and everything else flows from it. Loving our neighbor, whether we think of it as serving the lonely or as anything else, only becomes Christian loving when what comes prior to it is offering and presenting our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice. To do so is simply to love God, as we hear in our Liturgy, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. That kind of loving is what living sacrifice means. And it is from that first offering, and only from and after it, that we can take up the second commandment, to love thy neighbor as thyself, as a truly Christian offering of our body to another through our love for them. There are plenty of people in this world who love and take care of others without first making this prior offering of self to God as a living sacrifice; and there is nothing wrong with that, nor should they cease doing so. But it must be clearly seen that despite outward appearances, their service is not properly named Christian service. It can be good, and helpful and consequential, but it is not Christian, and this is because Christian service to the world (the second commandment) derives its Christian identity by the prior offering of our heart, soul, and mind to God as a living sacrifice.

When we do that, and make it around which our lives are ordered, then not only is loving our neighbor Christian activity, but so is everything else we do—our day to day duties, raising our family, doing our mundane work, reading, walking, smelling the flowers: all of it is truly Christian activity when what comes before is our willing self-sacrifice to God, Who loved us long before we loved Him. Because when we love God, when we offer ourselves as a living sacrifice to Him, in response He begins to transform our whole way of thinking and being. In Saint Paul’s words, we are no longer conformed to this world but allow ourselves to be transformed by the renewal of our mind. This is the transformation into the likeness of Christ that is the fundamental purpose of Christian religion. Being transformed, as Saint Paul’s directs, allows our love to be truly genuine, to love one another with brotherly affection. Because, as Christians, we regard all people as made in the image of Christ. When we practice hospitality as Christian, when we welcome another person no matter who they are or from where they originate, we are welcoming Christ Himself. When we rejoice with those who rejoice, we rejoice with Christ; when we weep with those who weep, we weep with Christ. And when we are confronted with evil, Saint Paul directs us to overcome evil with good—for this is precisely what Jesus Christ does on the Cross: the evil of the world forever blinded by the Cross’s transfiguring Light.

Living Baptismally, pt 11: Being Open to God’s Correction

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 17), 2020.

Last Sunday our Gospel passage from Saint Matthew was the first half of a momentous episode in Scripture. Today’s passage completes the moment. Recall that, after Our Lord’s second, more provocative question to the Twelve, “But who do you say that I am?”, and Peter’s proclamation that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Jesus responded to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven.” And so as I observed last Sunday, it was not seeing Jesus—what He looked like, what He sounded like, what He said and taught, none of this—it was not seeing Jesus that gave Peter this deep insight into Jesus’s divinity, the insight that He is God. It was only a revelation from the Father, given to Peter from heaven that, at this for this moment, opened the eyes of Peter to reveal Christ transfigured in some sense so as to cause Peter to proclaim Him the Son of the living God.

All of which makes what comes next, the second half of this momentous episode, all the more intriguing. Because it was from this time that Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Note that it was from this time—and not before. In Saint Matthew’s version of the Gospel, the teaching to the Twelve by Jesus of the Passion that is necessary begins here—begins in the transfiguring revelation given to Peter from heaven, and the response by Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (words, as I said last Sunday, that are a summary of the whole Nicene Creed). Coming to some kind of sense of what the death of Jesus truly means is tied up into a sense of the divinity of Jesus, and even beginning to grapple with this Truth is itself a gift from the Almighty Father in heaven. Christian worship begins in this, what Jesus calls this rock.

But, Saint Peter did not like Our Lord’s teaching about the Passion. (And I added here his title “Saint” to remind us that Peter, in his error, is still a profound example to us about discipleship; more on that in a moment.) He did not like this teaching, and said, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.” Notice the words of Our Lord. Peter is not condemned because he said words “like Satan”; not condemned because his words could remind people of Satan”; what’s more, Jesus does not say, “Get behind me, person who is like Satan,” as if the problem is that Peter’s ideology is simply too close for comfort to that of Satan. No! Jesus clearly says, “Get behind me, Satan!” Peter is not like Satan; here, he is Satan. The very man on whom, but a few verses prior, was proclaimed in no uncertain terms that the Church is to be built. What is going on here? Is this Jesus making a joke, an example of His divine sense of humor?

I do not think so. Jesus does have a divine sense of humor, and we always do well to remember that as we reflect on His words and actions that might trouble us or seem contrary to the nature of He Whose nature is love. But here, Jesus has for His Church fundamental doctrine. And that doctrine is seen when we remember that Peter, in objecting to Our Lord’s showing the Twelve that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things, and be killed, and on the third day be raised, Peter said “This shall never happen to you,” meaning Peter would not let it happen. In other words, Peter put himself between Our Lord and the Cross. And because of it, he was called Satan by Jesus. So who is Satan? Satan is anyone who gets between the Cross and Jesus. That’s who Satan is, that is, the primary characteristic of Satan, no matter the outward form Satan might take; the thing underneath the outward appearance is getting between Jesus and the Cross, or between us and the Cross—for the Cross is where Jesus is, and always has been the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

So how, then is Peter a profound example to us about discipleship? Peter is an example to us because despite his erroneous understanding, Peter remained an agent through whom Jesus extends His Incarnation in the world. Peter was vocal about his view, but he also left himself open to being corrected by Jesus, which Our Lord did over the course between this moment and the Upper Room when Peter’s leadership truly became the solid rock foundation of the Church at Pentecost. Having erroneous views is, therefore, not itself any kind of disqualification from membership in the Body of Christ. As disciples who are, in the words of Saint Paul, working out our own salvation with fear and trembling—grappling with the paradoxes of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ—we are allowed to get things wrong, as long as are not rigid in such views, but allow them to be corrected by the Holy Ghost as He sees fit, and in the way He sees fit. Peter went on to deny Jesus three times on the very night of His voluntary entering into His Passion. But, after the Resurrection, Peter allowed himself to be corrected by Our Lord in His glorious Body, saying three times to Peter: “Feed my sheep,” then “Tend My sheep,” and again “Feed My sheep”—three teachings to correct Peter’s three denials. It is in this way that Our Lord’s teaching and direction to us happens on the course of our life in Him, that He might graft in our hearts the love of His Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us, as He did Saint Peter, the fruit of good works.

Living Baptismally, pt 9: Sharing God’s Mercy with All

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Tenth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 15), 2020.

The thing to immediately notice in our passage from Saint Matthew today is the tension evident between the disciples and Our Lord Jesus. “Send her away, for she is crying after us,” they implore Jesus. But Jesus does not send her away, but rather listens to her, talks with her, and eventually praise her great faith, so much so that we are left with the impression that it was her great faith that healed her daughter from the demon, indeed exorcised her of the demon. It is Our Lord’s behavior towards the Canaanite woman that indeed shut up the noisy disciples, which is consistent with the fact that this episode with the Canaanite woman is directly preceded by Our Lord verbally tussling with the scribes and Pharisees, who constantly accused Jesus of trespassing the Law, and constantly tried to trick Jesus into outward contradiction of the Law, so that they could put dents into the wide popularity that Jesus enjoyed throughout the twelve square miles of Palestine that Jesus visited during his public ministry. Noisy scribes and Pharisees, noisy disciples, hardened hearts abounding—Our Lord teaches us the value and necessity of withdrawing from the noise of life occasionally so as to be able through prayer to transcend it and rest in the Father Almighty, and then return to the fray as the tides of the water return to the hard rocks of the shore. For as Jesus spoke to the prophet Isaiah: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

It is trying to reach a kind of conversational prayer that is the way to understand the dialogue between Jesus and the Canaanite woman—a kind of mystagogical prayer that draws us deeper into the mystery of Christ. But that not self-evident in a plain reading of the text from Saint Matthew. After the disciples attempt unsuccessfully to command Jesus to send her away, He says “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, help me. And He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” And she said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Then Jesus answer, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” It sounds on a plain reading that Jesus is being unloving at first and exclusionary; but that violates basic doctrine about Jesus, that His very nature is love and that His Mission from the beginning is always to all peoples. How then to understand this properly?

In this dialogue with the Canaanite woman, it is not Our Lord who is being taught about compassion and love, but rather the disciples and their hardened hearts. Both of the seemingly inflammatory statements by Jesus—the first, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and the second, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs”—reflect the very exclusionary attitude of the Jewish religion of Jesus’s day, as well as the centuries prior. The Jews had been looking for a political messiah to restore political power to them and allow them to complete the rebuilding of the Temple and thereby overthrow their occupiers, the Romans. The last thing they wanted was a Messiah for all peoples Whose very showing of divine power was to die on the tree of the Cross—and be a voluntary failure in the eyes of the world. But it was always the plan of Jesus to show the world what it means to be God by the way He died as a human being.

In other words, Jesus used this moment with the Canaanite woman to teach not her but the disciples words He had taught to Isaiah centuries before: “Foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to Him, to love the Name of the Lord, and to be His servants, every one who keeps the Sabbath, and does not profane it, and hold fast My covenant—these I will bring to My holy mountain, and make them joyful in My house of prayer.”

Brother and sisters, our prayer serves all people. Let us consecrate ourselves to this Mission given to us in our Baptism, that the mercy of Our Lord may be experienced by all people in their daily life and work.

Baptismal Living, part 6: Shining like the Son

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Sixth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 11), 2020.

Those attentive to our Gospel passage today may have noticed that Our Lord shifted the definition of the seed as compared with the Gospel passage we reflected upon last Sunday. In that passage, it is clear is that the seed is God’s eternal Word, indeed Christ the Word, in us. The seed of Christ the Word in us is powerful beyond measure. Christ the Word performs awesome things, moves mountains in His power, stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves of insecurity, anxiety, and desolation; Christ the Word makes the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy, and He visits the earth and waters it abundantly with His grace, endless grace for His river is full of grace.

In the passage we hear today, the good seed is defined by Our Lord as the sons of the kingdom. Christ the Word is now the man sowing good seed in His field—sowing good seed in the world—sowing sons of God in the world. Immediately let us hear this and see that God always puts us where we are for a reason—wherever we find ourselves in life, we are there as part of God’s plan, and that God intends His plan to be fulfilled through us. Being His seed, He desires that we grow up—that is, grow into deeper relationship with Him, grow more into spiritual maturity (for mature trees and bushes bear fruit, and those immature do not), and grow in spiritual height and width and breadth so that the weeds of the world—that is, the devil’s temptations in the world—become weaker from lack of nourishment, crowded out by God’s mature trees and bushes, which is us, being spiritual mature baptized persons.

This is why, in the words of the Apostle Paul, the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. All of creation needs the redemption of God, and God’s chosen vessels of redemption of creation are human beings who are baptized and take on the responsibility of sanctification by constantly seeking to cooperate with God’s grace. Christ said to the prophet Isaiah “Those who hold fast to Me shall possess the land and inherit My holy mountain.” Possessing the land means redeeming the world for God, and inheriting God’s holy mountain means living each day with reverence and holy fear that the eyes of Our Lord are always upon us. The world is unable to redeem itself—it is only human beings who are endowed with the capacities necessary for to be agents of God’s redemption in the world.

In our Psalm we asked God to keep watch over our lives, for we are faithful; asking Him to save us His servants who put our trust in Him. This really encapsulates our daily prayer, indeed it articulates why we pray at all. We also in the Psalm ask God to teach us His way, that we might walk in His truth; also asking Him to knit our hearts to Him that we may fear His Name. In these two verses is everything of what it means to live a baptismal life. In asking Him to keep watch over our lives, we abandon ourselves to God’s providence, acknowledging He, not you or me, is always in control. In pledging to be faithful, we promise that through thick and thin, we will flee to Him, talk with Him, and know that our lives are always in His hand. In asking Him to save us, we acknowledge that we can never save ourselves—that His grace is not optional but a necessity to true life. In asking Him to teach us that we might walk in His truth, we put ourselves with humility at the throne of His Wisdom, asking to be shown the Truth about ourselves so that the impediments that keep us from recognizing Him might be removed. And in asking God to knit our hearts to Him that we might fear His Name, we express our desire to live out the baptismal life: for in being knit to Him, we are incorporated into His Body, dwelling in He Who is the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. The fear of the Lord is always the beginning point for wisdom.

Brothers and sisters, for about the last month sunflowers have been in bloom in the gardens around us. These are glorious and grand flowers for the strength and beauty that each one radiates. Our loving Jesus intends that each one of us, in being transformed into His likeness, shines like the sun in the kingdom of Our Father—indeed, intends us to be Son-Flowers, that God’s economy of salvation, His redeeming of all creation, may be accomplished through us, through the baptized members of His Body, who knowing His great love towards us, radiate His wondrous things to the world.

Baptismal Living, part 5: God in Us

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 10), 2020.

We have been ruminating upon the teaching of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, that “The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism.” And the reason it is a continual response, is because the mystery of Baptism is inexhaustible. Thinking about our baptism can never fail to take us into the heart of the faith—the heart of the mystery of Christ Himself, the mystery of His blessed Passion and precious Death, His mighty Resurrection and glorious Ascension. Because through Baptism, which unites us permanently with Christ—ingrafted into Him, incorporated into His Body—the events of His glorious life lived entirely on our behalf become the events of our life: that we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. This is all part of the economy of salvation—that the life of Christ revealed to us through the life of the Church (fellowship with the apostolic doctrine, the breaking of bread, the daily prayer according to scripture) becomes the life we live. Jesus lived all the episodes captured in the books of the New Testament, and He spoke anonymously through the episodes captured in the books of the Old Testament) to bring our lives into His Life. Baptism is God’s seal and pledge to us, that being forever His, the more we cooperate with His grace offered freely to us, the more we will bear fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold.

What Our Lord’s parable today, as captured by Saint Matthew, invites us to take seriously is what it means to be “good soil,” and what as a result we should do in our lives. Our Lord says to us that good soil is “he who hears the word and understands it.” What is clear is that the seed—which is God’s eternal Word, indeed Christ the Word, in us—is powerful beyond measure. Christ the Word performs awesome things, moves mountains in His power, stills the roaring of the seas, the roaring of the waves of insecurity, anxiety, and desolation; Christ the Word makes the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy, and He visits the earth and waters it abundantly with His grace, endless grace for His river is full of grace.

How do we receive this divine seed? By putting to death selfishness, blindness of heart, pride, vainglory, hypocrisy, envy, hatred, malice, and all want of charity is how we become good soil. By giving over all inordinate and sinful affections, and resisting the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil, is how we become good soil. From avoiding false doctrine, heresy, schism, hardness of heart, and contempt of God’s Word and commandment, is how we become good soil.

Or, in a word, we are good soil through our humility. Humility—knowing that it is God Who has made us, and not we ourselves. Humility—knowing that without God’s grace we can do no good thing of ourselves. Humility—knowing that the eyes of the Lord are always upon us, and upon the baptized all the more. Humility—that the same Spirit Who hovered over the fact of the primordial waters hovered over the waters in the font at our baptism. The basic facts about God and about humanity ought constantly catch us in our sinful ways and draw us back to humility before God—draw us back to humility before the maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

Brothers and sisters, let us allow the fact that God’s Holy Spirit—God Himself, the gift Who proceeds from the Father sent by the Son—that God’s Spirit dwells in us throw us into humility, into peace, into restfulness. And let the restfulness of the fact of who we are calm the seas and storms of our emotions, our hearts, our minds. And let us recognize God alive in us, that He might lead us—for all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. And let us be humbled in knowing, according to the teaching of Saint Paul, that whenever we cry “Father!” such as in the prayer taught us by our Lord, the Our Father prayer, the Spirit Himself speaks through us, allowing us to say the Name Father, allowing us to the Name Jesus. As we pray to Our Father, day by day, we are crowned with goodness, and our paths made to overflow with plenty.

Baptismal Living, part 4: Finding Rest in God

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fourth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 9), 2020.

“The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism,” taught Michael Ramsey, the late Archbishop of Canterbury. Responding to our baptism through all of life becomes disposition we have towards all of life, a fundamental attitude toward the world. The life of a Christian, in other words, means having a baptismal disposition, a baptismal attitude. Our baptism is not like the clothes we wear on Sunday when we head to our local parish church. We are not baptized people only on Sundays so we can hear a sermon and receive Holy Communion. Baptism, rather, is the garments of grace we wear seven days a week, not only on Sundays but Mondays through Saturdays as well as we go about our largely quiet and domestic lives—garments of baptismal grace we wear day in and day out, week in and week out, all the days, weeks, months, years, and decades of our life. The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of all this.

It was through responding to the fact of his own baptism that led Saint Paul to preach and teach. His journeys took him around the known world, planting Christian parishes everywhere he went. And what he planted were communities centered around baptism. And he taught them, as he teaches us, that through baptism, we are the Body of Christ, members one of another through Christ. The only way to grapple with this, and indeed the only way to live with the fact of baptism is, as Paul teaches us, to set our minds not on things of the flesh but to set our minds on the things of the Spirit and thereby live according to the Spirit. Setting our minds on the things of the Spirit and living according to the Spirit leads to life and peace. It allows us, in the words of Our Lord, to find rest for our souls. “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” As an early Father of the Church, Saint Augustine of Hippo wrote as a prayer to God in his book The Confessions, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in You.”

We might ask, why are we restless? What is the source of restlessness that Jesus, through the grace of baptism, desires to give us? Our Lord taught on this immediately after his baptism in the River Jordan by the hands of Saint John the Baptist. Our restlessness is rooted in temptations we face of the devil. Everyone faces them, and they seem part and parcel of the baptismal life itself.

He taught there are three kinds of temptations inherent in the baptismal life. The temptation Our Lord faced to command the stones become bread represents for us that temptation to seek security from things other than Our Lord. But we cannot find real security, Jesus teaches, anywhere but from “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

In addition to the temptation to security, there is the temptation to control. Our Lord was tempted this way on the pinnacle of the temple, to throw Himself down and control the angels to save Him. But we cannot control God—and likewise, we cannot control the world, or other people—and this is through Our Lord’s teaching “You shall not tempt the Lord your God.” We are members of a Body other than our own: members of God’s Body, and He is always in control.

And then with the temptations to security and control, there is the temptation to need approval. Our Lord was tempted to need approval on the high mountain seeing all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, being giving these if He would fall down and worship the devil. Tempted to worship and serve approval, He said rather, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve.” The Christian life, lived according to Our Lord, is often a life greatly disapproved by wider society, for disapproving society nailed Jesus to the Cross. When we worship and serve God, no matter what discord may be around us, God approves of what we are doing, and God gives us all the protection we need.

And so it is the need for security, control, and approval sought from sources other than Jesus leads to restlessness. Leads to anxiety. Leads to acting out against others with anger—without Christ, when our sense of security, control and need for approval are threatened we lash out, whether vocally or silently, against other people. This is the war Paul speaks of between the law of sin and the law of God. Being a baptized person means learning by His grace, how to come to Jesus and rest in Jesus. It means abandonment of ourselves to Him and His divine providence, His loving Hands, and His heavenly power.

Baptismal Living, part 3: Living Selflessly

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday after Trinity (Proper 8), 2020.

“The life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism.” This teaching from Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, who in the eyes of many is the most important person to hold that office in the modern era (my eyes being included in that sizeable group), I have included in my sermons the last three Sundays. The reason I have done so is that Archbishop Ramsey’s teaching points us toward the central mystery of our lives as Christians—the mystery of Christ Who is in us, because through baptism, we are in Him. We are given the gift of being able to live in His freedom, to live in His love—the gift of receiving Christ by means of the Holy Spirit, and in receiving Christ, receiving Him Who sent Christ, that is, receiving the Father, the maker of all things visible and invisible. The fact of our baptism begins with the fact that God, having begun the project of making us into the image of His Eternal Word, thereby makes His dwelling in us.

This wondrous gift is a fact of our baptism, and Archbishop Ramsey, along with all the Apostles and Saints, would have us understand the gift as something we are to be continually responding to. And the way that the Church has always responded to mysteries that originate in heaven is by asking the simple questions—what does this mean? and what, as a result, shall we do? These are the two questions, and the only two, asked to the 120 apostles represented by the Apostle Saint Peter on the day of the Coming of the Holy Ghost, and from these two questions the Church grew exponentially in all directions of the known world.

But it is not the case that we no longer need to ask them in the Church today. We do need to ask them, for in asking what an aspect of the faith which was once delivered unto the saints means, and then what as a result we ought do, we are embodying Archbishop Ramsey’s teaching about mature Christian life— that the life of a Christian is a continual response to the fact of his Baptism. And it is in this sense—of an ongoing inquiry into our real participation in Christ’s heavenly Body—that so much of Saint Paul’s teaching finds its basis.

“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” the Apostles asks—not that in asking it we today no longer have to, but that we today will continually reflect on our baptism, seeking new meanings of it and at the same time seek new ways of ordering our lives to fully live by it. “We were buried therefore with by baptism into death,” Paul teaches us, “so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” The desire to be shown by God deeper aspects of the meaning of our baptism issues forth by God’s grace the invitation to walk in newness of life—to be, as Paul teaches elsewhere, a new creation.

And this is the meaning of Our Lord’s teaching that he who loses his life for His sake will find it. Being a Christian means growing in our ability to live selflessly for others, as Christ Himself lives in perfect selflessness for us. Living in perfect selflessness is eternal life, and baptism is God’s seal upon us which begins with our cooperation the process of sanctification—of the purging of our sinful ways, which gives way to being illuminated more and more by God’s presence, and in the next life, continual growth in Christ’s love towards unity with God—united with God in a resurrection like His.

Brothers and sisters, considering ourselves (in the words of Paul) dead to sin means we seek and strive to live our lives selflessly for God and for others. The gift of Baptism is being able to walk in the light of God’s presence, knowing that death no longer has dominion over us, so we need not fear physical death—because that the Holy One of Israel is our King, and His love is established for ever.