Homily: “On Forgiveness, part two”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.

As I spoke last Sunday, there are seven sayings by Jesus from the Cross in the four books by the evangelists. These seven sayings are also called “the Seven Last Words,” and each of these, individually and as a group, have been the subject of much reflection, speculation, and prayer over the course of the nearly two-thousand-year history of the Christian Church.

If we recall the image of Jesus Christ given to us by Jesus Himself—that He is the true Vine—then these Seven Last Words can be thought of as seven “leaves” of the Vine. We can carry the image still further when we remember that a vine, such as grow grapes, are fastened to a structure, even a wooden structure, both so that the vine develops properly and so that its leaves provide shade to the fruits, to the grapes. Indeed our Jesus, the true Vine, was fastened to the wood of the cross, and Christians have been finding shade under His leaves, His Last Words, ever since, even as we are in this season of Lent.

The second of His Last Words was recorded by Saint Luke in the twenty-third chapter of his Gospel. Jesus was crucified with two criminals, one on His right and one on His left. When one of the criminals confessed his faith in Christ and asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Can we imagine the shelter this provided the criminal? Can we fathom how this quenched the criminal’s thirst? As I imagine this moment, I see Jesus looking directly at the criminal—looking at him with the most loving, comforting, and penetrating eyes—Jesus’ eyes looking directly at the criminal, so directly as to be felt deep in the soul. Jesus would have had to turn His head, stretch His neck, something like would have caused Him still more pain. Jesus looked with His divine eyes revealing His divine heart—a heart that has loved this criminal already, and so promptly responds with a tremendous promise: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Not you might be with me; not, “You will be with me if . . .” Nor is it that the criminal will be with the angels, or with other souls—undoubtedly the case, but the promise by Jesus is that in Paradise the most immediate presence will be that of Jesus Himself. Read more “Homily: “On Forgiveness, part two””

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part one”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.

Our Lord tells Nicodemus that “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Our Lord hung on the Cross, nailed to it, as the true Victim, as God’s love for us, that we might be saved by His love. It is for this reason that everything in the Church’s life and prayer revolves around the Cross, itself an inexhaustible source of grace. As is well known, Jesus spoke seven sentences from the cross as recorded in the Gospels. These seven sentences are called “The Seven Last Words of Jesus,” it is a common tradition to devote preaching and reflection to these Seven Last Words on Good Friday services. I will be doing so today and over the remaining Sundays in Lent, tying these Words into the appointed Gospel readings and the ongoing life within the Parish of Tazewell County.

The first word uttered by our most compassionate Jesus, as he hung on the cross, was, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” There can be no more dramatic demonstration of the centrality of forgiveness to the Christian life than this first word. Jesus is asking His Father to forgive the actions of His murderers, to overlook their deeds. Jesus knows that His Father always hears Him. He is saying: Look, Father, at the love of Thy Son, not their behavior. Through the Son’s plea, indeed through the Son Himself, those who were responsible for nailing Jesus to the Cross are made present to God the Father, and God the Father made present to them, through Jesus. Forgiveness has everything to do with presence—and particularly with the presence of Jesus.

That forgiveness is central to the Christian life is demonstrated by how it echoes throughout the Mass. By plainly reading of the words of the Mass, forgiveness shows up explicitly in four places, and it is worth noting them now. There is a fifth location where forgiveness is prominent, perhaps its most prominent moment, that is somewhat hidden and does not appear in the plain words of the liturgy, but is directly alluded to; this fifth location we will look at later in Lent.

The first instance of forgiveness is in the General confession of sin which begins the Mass. Amid our confession of sin—of separation from God—as a body, we petition God to “Have mercy on us and forgive us.” We ask this so that we might again delight in God’s will and again walk in God’s ways. We have lost something of Christ’s immediate presence, a presence that guides and leads us in our lives, a presence that directs us in our journey. And the Priest responds: “Almighty God have mercy on you and forgive you.” When we ask for forgiveness as a body through the means that the Church provides us, our separation is removed—God is most willing to do that, most willing to restore and renew His presence and availability to us.

The second instance where forgiveness shows up is in the Nicene Creed: “We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.” This Creed took final form in the fourth century through a council of Christian bishops east and west, and so it is seen as one of the most ecumenical fruits the Church has been given by God. Here forgiveness is seen in a different light than it was in the Confession. Here it is connected to baptism. Baptism is permanent; it can never be undone nor can it be re-done. Being baptized in some sense permanently removes a certain kind of separation from God, and likewise through baptism God is made more present in the person who is now incorporated into the Body of Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, that person’s own body now being a temple of the Holy Spirit.

The third instance of forgiveness in the Mass is during what is called the Words of Institution. Holding the prepared Chalice, the priest repeats the words of Our Lord: “This is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Forgiveness is intimately tied into the nature of the Eucharist, and at the heart of Holy Communion. By the consecrated Bread and Wine—the Precious Body and Precious Blood of Jesus—Jesus is really and actually present, palpably, tangibly and sacramentally—and this presence is for the forgiveness of sins. By the Eucharist, we are completely un-separated from God. This mystery requires our utmost reverence, our best prayer.

The fourth and final plain instance is in the Our Father prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Note that we are agreeing to a contract, you might say. The contract that we enter into by our own free will is that God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiving of others. Our forgiveness of others precedes, it comes first, says the contract. This is a condition that we place on ourselves. Yet we do so because we know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: it is all grace, it is all a gift from God. When we truly forgive another person, it is owing entirely to God’s presence in us, His action in our souls.

And so see Jesus on the Cross; hanging on it; nailed to it. He has been lifted up, not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. And the first of His Seven Last Words is “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” What an example to us! By this example we are shown the kind of affection with which we ought to pray for our enemies. By this example we are shown the kind of affection with which we ought to pray for those that have wounded us, have hurt us, wounds and hurts that are still bleeding, as Jesus Himself bled on the Cross. Lay this Word  in the treasury of your heart, so that whenever your enemies rage against you, you may be able to utter this memorial of the good Jesus’ overflowing kindness. Hold his word up against the insults of enemies, as if it were a shield. If your Bridegroom can pray for his murderers, can you not also pray for your detractors?

Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.

Homily: “On the Lamb of God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Second Sunday after the Epiphany (the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time) 2017, Year A.

Whereas last Sunday we heard described the Baptism of Jesus in something of a first-person account, Jesus’s own experience of the moment, handed down to Saint Matthew, today the account is from the perspective of John the Baptist, which reached Saint John the Evangelist.

Now, despite that we are told by Saint John that this is the day after the Baptism in the River Jordan, if we consider this account from the Gospel of John while flipping back and forth from accounts of given to the Church by the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, we can suspect the plausible and even likely scenario that John the Baptist is here seeing Jesus coming toward him after Jesus had returned from the forty days in the wilderness and the temptations concerning the manner of His messiahship. A biblical “day” is often longer than a 24-hour period. In the wilderness, recall that Jesus rejected being the king of satanic magic, rejected being a king outside the natural order of creation, and he rejects being a king of earthly politics. Having battled the Devil in the wilderness—which is a biblical symbol involving contemplative, silent prayer—having battled the Devil in the wilderness, and forever vanquished the forces of evil, he returns to the community, and John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him.

What light must have shined from Him—the Light of all light! Jesus has taken hold of the life of perfect love. Jesus, always the divine Son, from His birth and maturing as a wee baby, then a toddler, then a big boy, then a teenager going through puberty, then young adult, and finally a fully mature man, increased in wisdom and increased in stature—Jesus through it all was the perfect pray-er. He always held His Father in perfect adoration. Jesus’ consciousness was always heightened and expanded, and because of that, His conscience always attuned to reality, and because of that, His compassion always sensitive to those around Him. He knew who He was—He is the Son of the Most High; He is to sit on the throne of David, He is to reign over the house of Jacob for ever, of His kingdom there will be no end—indeed, He is the Son of God.

And He knew that as the Son of God, He was to live His whole life for us, and for our salvation. And in living His whole life for us, He knew that He is to suffer. He was to suffer because He has taken on our sins, He shares our human nature, He would live and die as one of us. He lived His life on earth at all times bearing His cross, knowing somehow that it is His Father’s will that His Son be nailed to it.

John the Baptist, blessed by being born into a family of devout Jews and blessed still more by the presence of Jesus when both we still in the womb, not perfectly but intuitively understands who Jesus is, for John says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” We hear these words at the moment of eucharistic communion. Jesus, actually and really Him, offers Himself to us in love. The term “lamb” for the hearers of John the Baptist was rich in symbolic meaning. Preeminent among the meanings is that of sacrificial victim—the Passover lamb as well as the lamb of daily morning and evening sacrifice, and weekly Sabbath service. Lamb refers to oblation—an offering to God—for the atonement of sins; a lamb was presented to the Most High has a peace offering and a sin offering. A lamb is offered to make pure that which is impure. Furthermore, “lamb” means innocence, a lamb needs care and nurturing, a lamb is a sign of gentle and serene peace as well as prosperity.

This is why the Church appointed last Sunday the 42nd chapter of Isaiah, and today the 49th. These are two of the four “servant songs” that reflect the prophesy of the “suffering servant.” What it means for Jesus to be the Lamb is described by Isaiah: bringing justice to the nations, not a political but a spiritual king, the Light of light that opens the eyes of the blind and saves those in darkness, a salvation that reaches to the end of the earth. For He takes away the sin of the world—He gives us a permanent way out of our self-centeredness, out of our tendency to put ourselves and even those we love before God, before our love for Him. When the resurrected Jesus walked with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, undoubtedly among the Scriptures he explained to them were the four suffering servant songs of Isaiah, and how these concerned and described Him.

Brother and sisters, God releases us from the bondage of our sin as we cooperate with His grace, the grace that always goes before us. Yet in the vast majority of cases, this is a slow and even laborious journey. Indeed the true nature of Jesus Christ is revealed little by little. But let us in our imperfect and incremental ways recognize indeed that the Lamb of God walks among us. We sang about the Lamb of God during the Gloria, asking him to have mercy on us and receive our prayer. We will sing again of the Lamb of God during the Communion Rite, asking again for Him to have mercy on us, and also asking Him to grant us peace, a peace which we recognize in those around us, a peace that shows us what forgiveness really means. And then Behold the Lamb of God immediately before Communion itself. We receive the sacrificial offering, and we continue to become that which we behold—that we too may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory. Amen.

Homily: “On the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Solemnity of the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ 2017, Year A.

Brothers and sisters, we have seen a great light, and on us and the whole Church has a great light shined. For to us a Child is born, to us a Son of God is given. He has been given for the salvation of all men, He has poured Himself out richly upon us. Think of what has been revealed to us through the Liturgy and the biblical revelation over the last two months: babes leapt in wombs, the mute and dumb sang joyously, souls have proclaimed the greatness of the Lord. Angels we have heard on high, shepherds and wise men have come to see the Child, and been shown the Child by His Mother, indeed the Mother of God, who bore God in her heart before she bore Him in her womb, a Mother of God who has felt and seen glory inexpressible. And the Holy Name of this Child has been revealed—Jesus, He who saves, He who loves, He who forgives, He around whom the stars and planets and moons arrange, He by whom lives are changed, journeys reordered, hearts opened.

All that has been revealed to us is wonder and awe. All that has been revealed cannot but soften the hardest of hearts, cannot but loosen the tightest of fears, cannot but open closed doors. And through these glorious seasons of Advent, Christmastide, and now into the season of Epiphany, what have we done but sing? What have we done but pray together in joy and hope? What have we done but reminisce of the Spirit’s presence in our lives, in our families, in our homes? What have we done but savor the holy? Read more “Homily: “On the Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ””

Homily: “On the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 2016.

Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by His most loving presence, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man.

These words that I chanted before the Mass—what wonder they hold! What mystery they tell! What invitation they extend! Brothers and sisters, we must never weary of giving our deepest contemplation to their meaning. For amid all of the warm memories of Christmastide that we all have with our families and friends, which we recall and live again in this holy season, let us also savor above all else the fundamental reality of this moment: that God has come to earth and Mary is Mother of God.

Read more “Homily: “On the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ””

Homily: “Advent and Joy”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday of Advent 2016, Year A.

In my homily for the Second Sunday of Advent, to all of you I said the following words:

“Let us continue to seek harmony with each other through prayer. For when we do so, God will send forth to us His increase. The increase of the harvest is completely up to God—he will send new disciples not when we think we are ready for them, but only when God decides—when He judges—that we are ready to receive new disciples, when we show the fruits of our prayer and harmony.”

I said those words last Sunday, and I repeat them again this morning, and I probably will repeat them again in the future, because they reflect accurately the Gospel as the Church has received it from Jesus Christ. The theology of those words is derived primarily from the 10th chapter of the Gospel of Saint Luke, when he appointed the Seventy for mission, “two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to come.” And when he appointed them, Jesus said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go your way; behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves.”

Jesus sends us out as lambs in the midst of wolves. We are lambs by virtue of our baptism, being incorporated into Him, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. We are lambs because we hear the voice of our shepherd, we hear Christ’s speech, we hear His voice. And hearing His voice, we are filled with joy—the real joy, against which all other joys are secondary. This joy protects us, it shields us, for it is the shield of faith. This joy is our breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of our salvation, the sword of the Spirit. This joy is true peace.

Read more “Homily: “Advent and Joy””

Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 4”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of Christ the King, the Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 29, Year C).

I will conclude today with my series of sermons on the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. It was four Sundays ago that I began in on this area of Christian religion. Recall part of our Collect from that Day: “Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command.” Well, we do not properly pray if we say words that we do not grasp and have a decent handle on as far as their meaning. And what understanding we might have already of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity can always be renewed and deepened; it is the very nature of Christianity that we continually revisit and in so doing, re-experience, the terms and principles we use to attempt to grasp the revelation about ultimate reality—God—that is in Jesus Christ, and in Him definitively.

I have said that the theological virtues are habits. In so saying, it should become clear that in considering what Faith is, what Hope is, and what Charity is, we are not merely looking at their everyday meaning in wider society, but the particular depth and richness that the Church has found in them over the course of its two thousand year investigation. We are talking about patterns of repeated behavior—not merely ideas, much more than inward, emotional feelings, but actually what we do in our lives. Now it is often the case that there can be differences or disjunction between what we think, what we feel, and what we do. That there may be inconsistencies is to be expected, as part of the journey. The working out and making our own of the Christian revelation—given to us in the Person of Jesus Christ, and living and breathing within His Church and offered to us through His Sacraments—is a process. It is movement, a movement that involves our rational faculty, our emotional faculty, as well as our behavior.

Read more “Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 4””

Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 2”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of All Saints.

I said previously that I would be exploring the theological virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity as a kind of running theme over the course of several sermons. Recall that I said that these three virtues are potentials in every human being, gifts given us when we were knit by God in our mother’s womb, and that the cultivation of these virtues through religious practice makes us not like the Pharisee who exalts himself, but like the tax collector, who humbles himself and can only say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

It is also true that cultivation of the virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity makes us more like the Saints of the Church. It is very helpful, I think, to recall that the Saints, and not intellectual biblical theologians, are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture. The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most intelligible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. The Saints are those of the baptized who have lived out their membership in Christ most fully. Doing that, making that journey, living out our membership in Christ to the fullest extent possible, is really what the Bible is for. The purpose of Holy Scripture is to help us love Jesus more and more; when we contemplate Holy Scripture, we allow the Holy Spirit to throw logs on the fire in our heart. Read more “Homily: “Religion and the Theological Virtues, part 2””

Homily: “On Mary and Martha”

Offered for the Parish of Tazewell County at All Saints, Morton on the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 11, Year C)

Baptism today is not a given, hence it is a decision that has behind it a great deal of intentionality. Many people no longer think it is necessary to be baptized. They may have no strong opinions against it, but it is no longer even on their radar. In the not too distant past, to be baptized was more a matter of course, even of social custom. People of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came by this honestly. There are some commentators today who look at the changed environment in which the Church lives, and immediately say that those baptisms were less genuine, even more superficial, because “everyone was doing it.”

I am not quite of that view. Read more “Homily: “On Mary and Martha””