On the Fever of the Passions

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany (Sexagesima), 2021

The healing of Saint Peter’s mother-in-law must have been a pretty big deal to warrant its coming down through the decades of oral tradition after the Passion of Christ all the way to Saint Mark. Many biblical scholars suggest Mark’s gospel dates from the early 60s; some even as late as the year 70. Even at the earlier date, we are talking about 30 years of oral preaching and teaching about a healing of a fever. It seems like a rather mundane problem to have—which is not to diminish how serious a high fever can be from a physical perspective, of course. I mean that, this episode is one of the first healing miracles of Jesus, and it is a healing of a woman, which is significant for a reason I will mention in a moment.

It is a fairly iron-clad rule of the New Testament that what is included in the four Gospel accounts is not mundane or unremarkable, but rather what is included is included for a very specific purpose: that is conveys spiritual knowledge about Jesus Christ and how He is the Messiah and Eternal Word of the Father; and on a practical level this means that what is included in the Gospel accounts of Jesus has spiritual meaning for us that feeds our desire to be transformed by the Holy Spirit—transformed heart, and thereby a transformed life. The Gospel details from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are included to, in the words of our Collect, set us free from the bondage of our sins, that we might receive the liberty of that abundant life which the Father manifested in His Son Jesus, our Lord and Saviour.

So, we must ask, given this iron-clad rule, might it be the case that the fever described by Saint Mark might indicate something more than Peter’s wife’s mother having a temperature higher than 98.6 degrees—that the image of her having a fever represents not a physical condition, but one spiritual?

It turns out there is plenty of support for just that interpretation, and it shows up early in the life of the Church (the early Church being generally referred to as the “patristic era”). A great voice of the Church, Saint Jerome, for example, interpreted the fever as intemperance. In traditional moral theology, “intemperance” refers to lack of moderation or restraint, and an excessive indulgence of any passion or appetite. More recently, the term is used to refer to an addiction to intoxicating beverage (that is, to alcohol), but in the Church it means an addiction to anything at all. The Venerable Bede, another great patristic voice, interpreted “fever” in the same way, and also included under its category addiction to sexual gratification. Many other voices could be cited here.

Now, we do not know (because Mark does not specify) which particular form of spiritual malady Peter’s mother-in-law possessed. For Mark, it is not an important detail to include. What is important, however, is that whatever the specifics, Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. And of course, we all are sick, from time to time: spiritually sick. Being unable to exercise restraint over some sort of addiction is something every human being suffers from, at least from time to time. Addiction to television, addiction to cell phones, addiction to gossip, addiction to control, addiction to victimhood; but also addiction more broadly: addition to anxiety, to judging others, even to family (putting family before God), addiction to politics is a prevalent one today, addition to laziness; and, of course, addiction obviously to food, as well as addiction to things we normally speak of as addictive (drugs, alcohol)—these are part of the normal human condition of being fallen, and the Church generally calls these “passions” and what is named in our Psalm as “prison.”

And what spurs our giving into our passions (our addictions) are, in the language of the Church, of course demons. We should note in this passage that Mark uses the word “demons” four times in this passage. When sick, look for demons. Within the Christian faith, being sick has everything to do with our inability to exercise restraint against our common human impulses and human addictions: that is, unable to resist temptation dangled before our eyes like the serpent dangled the fruit of the paradise Tree in front of Adam and Eve. Being sick, in short, results from giving into our passions.

And yet, it is to provide healing from our human weakness that Christ came as the Light that lighteth all human beings. That is what we see right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel: immediately we see Jesus healing, and in our passage today, Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. And again, Mark means “spiritual healing,” and that is indicated by the fact that as the fever left her, after Jesus “lifted her up” (itself a signal of spiritual healing), she served them. Now, it is easy to overlook the significance of this act of serving, but in the Greek the word is of the same root as the term we today use for an ordained Deacon. Older English translations often use, “the fever left her, and she ministered unto them,” which is closer. Ministering is the activity, of course, of Jesus: and the significance I mentioned earlier of this episode involving a woman is that this woman, Peter’s mother in law, after being healed of her spiritual fever, of her spiritual “passion” (meaning addiction), is the first person in Mark’s gospel to imitate Jesus. Jesus came that His disciples would imitate Him. To be healed, which is what salvation means, is not just to receive relief (or absolution) from Jesus from our sinful temptations, but it is to lead a different way of life thereafter—to walk from henceforth in Christ’s holy ways. It is to lead a transformed life with an illumined heart, guided by grace.

Brothers and sisters, as we continue to approach Lent with the knowledge of the new light of Christ shining in our hearts, let us understand that if we say we have no sin (that is, no passions), we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins (our giving into passions), the Father is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

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 10: Living with God’s Revelation to us through Christ

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity (Proper 16), 2020.

The young Church that began in the Upper Room in Jerusalem after the Ascension of Jesus were people that knew Scripture (here of course I refer to what is called now the Old Testament). Within this first parish Church (with, as Saint Luke tells us, an average Sunday attendance of one hundred and twenty, souls, all of whom were apostles, both men and women alike), were people whose whole lives had been lived within the profoundly pervasive influence of religious life according to the Scriptures. Certainly not all or even many were Scripture experts—for being expert in the Sacred Page has always been a calling for a very few; important, but numerically small. I mean rather that the Upper Room apostles had heard the stories of Moses, of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob their whole lives; and likewise their parents and relatives, and all of their parents and relatives, as far back as anyone knew, potentially thousands of years. God, through Moses, parted the Red Sea—“heard it, maybe a thousand times!” they might have said if asked. The flood of Noah and the ark, same thing. And so many others stories in Scripture. These stories made up their imagination, made up their way of life, made up how they understand reality. It is impossible to overstate the deep-rooted effects of these stories every which way.

Another of these stories was water out of the rock, another of the stories of Moses. The people of Israel, having escaped debilitating slavery by extraordinary actions by God culminating with the Red Sea event, were thirsty, murmured against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?” So, we are told, Moses cried to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel; and take in your hand the rod with which you struck the Nile, and go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb; and you shall strike the rock, and water shall come out of it, that the people may drink.” And, we are told, Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. And he called the name of the place Massah (which means “proof”) and Mer′ibah (which means “contention”, because of the faultfinding of the children of Israel, and because they put the Lord to the proof by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” It is a remarkable story, easy to remember, and inexhaustible for preaching and reflecting upon. And we see this reflected in the Psalms, which were the hymns of Jewish religion. Psalm 18 says, “My God, my rock in whom I put my trust.” God not only bring water out of the rock, but the rock is Him, and out of Him comes water. This is rich and formative of worldview. And that is precisely what happened century after century in Jewish religious life. And this formed the minds of the 120 Upper Room apostles like the story of the American revolution forms ours. Only much more so.

This is important to know as one considers the account of Saint Matthew of Jesus asking the disciples (and it appears here to be just the Twelve), “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Clear proof that these disciples knew Scripture!) Then then, masterfully, Jesus refines the question, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter famously responded, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Peter recognizes, for this moment at least, not the humanity of Jesus (for everyone saw that, obviously); rather, in this moment Peter recognizes the divinity of Jesus. He, Peter proclaims, is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He is the anointed and chosen one (spoken of throughout the Scriptures) and the Son of the living God (the Son of the God of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, and all the prophets). In other words, Peter sees, at least enough to proclaim it, that in some sense, Jesus is the Rock. And if this is true, then it was Jesus speaking to Moses, Jesus commanding Moses to strike the Rock (which is Jesus), and water for the Jews coming out of Him. Truly, Peter can easily intimate, out of Jesus comes living water—He is the Messiah.

So Jesus responds, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jona! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father Who is in heaven.” 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. It was only a revelation from the Father, given to Peter. It was only an apocalypse (for apocalypse is what “revelation” translates) 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.

And so we easily proclaim with Paul, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways!” And then, “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things.” And let us, brothers and sisters, in celebrating with Paul our God and His gloriously profound mystery revealed only through Jesus Christ, be likewise thankful. Because seeing Jesus in person during His life provided no advantage to the Twelve and the 120 apostles, and seeing as we share with them the stories they knew and told themselves and proclaimed to the Church, about the words and deeds of Jesus, they (the young Church) are our contemporaries, the communion of the Saints means that living relationship with them, and together we are learning how to emulate the words of Peter given Him only by grace: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God: learning how to emulate them, and day by day, how to order our lives by them. Learning, with Peter and the apostles, how to live with the glorious revelation given unto us.

Baptismal Living, pt 8: Abiding in God’s Abundance

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Proper 13), 2020.

It is always important when reflecting on the Gospel as recorded by Saint Matthew, as well as by Saint Mark, Saint Luke, and Saint John, that these authoritative accounts of Our Lord only began to be distributed some two, three, or four decades after the Day of Pentecost. Saint Paul’s epistles, which record his own apostolic preaching primarily about community life in and around the Cross and Sacraments, were written first, then the Gospel accounts. And what the four Gospel accounts capture are four traditions of apostolic preaching, less about sacramental community life, but about the words, deeds, and episodes in the of Jesus Christ. That is, we have the Matthew tradition, the Mark tradition, the Luke tradition, and the John tradition of those words, deeds, and episodes.

Very early on the Church decided, through guidance given by the Holy Spirit, that no fewer than these four accounts can give the full picture of Our Lord as He was preached by the Apostles. The four Gospel accounts, then, are apostolic preaching over several decades, always by the Light of the Cross, guided by the Holy Spirit, but also mediated by Scripture (what is called the Old Testament) and, it must be added, memory. For the early Church, starting in the Upper Room after the Ascension, the presence—the I Am-ness of Jesus—was made real and manifest through the prayerful process of scripturally mediated memory taught to the 120 Upper Room apostles by Our Lord Himself during that first Eastertide season. The threefold life of the Church that gestated in the Upper Room and was revealed on Pentecost is how the Church uses her scripturally mediated memory to be in communion with unfathomable mystery of God—adoring the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit and through the Son.

It was an unfathomable mystery of the feeding of multitudes that the apostles preached about. All four evangelists recorded such an episode—therefore we can be sure that this miracle was a clear historical basis. What it looked like to be there—that is, if someone had a video camera to record the event—neither you, nor I, nor anyone in the Church can say, which is precisely Our Lord’s intent. Our only access to the episode is the description recorded by the evangelists, today by S. Matthew, and the tradition of apostolic preaching based upon the active ferment of scripturally mediated memory.

And the mystery of it all is not only God’s abundant grace in the moment of the miraculous feeding, but how at the same time Our Lord declares the harmony of this miracle with the mysteries of ancient times. For despite a constantly presumptuous and stiff neck that refused to obey God’s commandments, God was always ready to forgive, gracious and merciful to the children of Israel under Moses. Despite having committed great blasphemies, they were not forsaken in the wilderness—the Holy Spirit of Christ was always given them for instruction, manna from heaven was never withheld from their mouth, and water from rock was always given them for their thirst.

This is why Saint Paul so emphatically teaches us that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ—whether tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, or any peril, nothing can separate us from God’s ability to bestow His nourishing and sustaining grace. Despite our stubbornness, despite our stiff necks, despite our hardened hearts that so often forget God, distrust God, and fail to call upon His Holy Name in the adventures and ordinary days of our lives, and as a result fashion idols in place of Him, God is always willing to feed with the bread of angels those who turn to him with meek heart and due reverence to the maker of all things, visible and invisible. This speaks directly to reason why Sunday worship is a true obligation: without this worship, we are not fed by God, and as a result fashion idols in our life to replace that feeding, as important to our spiritual life as air is to our mortal life. We crave the heavenly bread, and when we turn to God,  God in His immense wisdom and love sees fit that all eat, and that all are well-filled.

Baptismal Living, part 7: Domestic Life in the Spirit

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Seventh Sunday after Trinity (Proper 12), 2020.

With the return starting next Sunday of eucharistic worship in the Mass with Holy Communion, the elements that make up the baptismal life of the Church will all be again in place for us. The elements of Christian life are fellowship in the apostles’ teaching and doctrine (which is our overall devotional life loving God and neighbor according to Scripture), the breaking of bread (which is the Mass with Eucharist), and the prayers (the daily liturgical praying of the Church). This is the Christian way of life revealed on the Day of Pentecost, empowered in all moments of the life by the Holy Spirit, as the way to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, Who is the promise of the Father. This threefold Regula (or Rule) is everything that is meant by Christian discipline, and it is the sure means for everything that is meant by Christian repentance, that is, turning to God.

While the Christian life obviously demands commitment, it is not in any way complicated. It is not the province only of those with intellectual gifts, or of certain personality or temperament. Rather it is an everyday life of discipline and repentance meant for all, available to all, and benefiting both all of the baptized, as well as, through the local worshipping community, the whole world. The Christian life is far more domestic, quiet, and even mundane than it is spectacular. It is picking up your Bible and Prayer Book and praying when no one is watching; it is tending responsibly to the Christian duties of life, when no one is watching; it is loving God in our neighbor when no one is watching, and even our neighbor is unaware.

It is in the unspectacular life of fully loving Jesus when no one is watching where Our Lord teaches the kingdom of heaven is often found. The mustard seed, growing into a mustard bush—not a very large bush, not beautiful or itself awe-inspiring; but just as in a small seed and small bush nonetheless a whole world can be found for those with patience and quieted mind, so as God’s glory can be found in the normal domestic life of tending our garden, keeping our homes, protecting our family life through prayer and humility before God.

And Our Lord teaches that the kingdom of heaven is as everyday unspectacular as leaven that is hid in flour. Flour by itself is lifeless and inedible, as we are without God’s grace. But just as a little leaven leavens the whole of the lump of flour so as to become delicious and enriching loaves of bread, so as God’s grace, being the heavenly reality of Christ’s sacred humanity, grace which teaches us how to pray and calls us ever closer to Him, this grace raises up our pitiful, sinful, unfulfilled lives that we might become the Sacrament of Christ’s heavenly bread for the world.

And Our Lord teaches that the kingdom of heaven is as treasure hidden in a field, and in which a man sells all he has and buys that field. The treasure is the daily bread of God’s Word in Scripture, and the field is the world. The man selling all he has signifies placing nothing in our lives before God, above God, or with greater priority than God. For when we do that over the course of our growth in the Spirit, which is the process of baptismal living called “sanctification,” the world is seen as full of grace, and we receive the world as in all ways made by God through His Eternal Word which is Christ. And while this may sound spectacular, extraordinary, and even mystical, such recognition of God’s grace permeating the whole of creation is captured so well and in such earthy terms in the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”—for all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all. God’s endless grace fill all in all—and He does so in ways miraculously ordinary.

Brothers and sisters, the Psalmist as he often does captures all of this poignantly when he sings “When your word goes forth it gives light; it gives understanding to the simple.” The baptized people of God are not asked to be anything but simple—people who fear God, and as a result live an uncomplicated, largely unspectacular domestic faith that knows the eyes of Our Lord are upon all who love Him, and that His grace is hidden everywhere in the world to seek, find, and treasure like the pearl of great price. We are people seeking light—light which can only be found through the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread, for it is only through the opening of the scriptures and the breaking of bread that the Christian God is revealed in Jesus Christ.

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.

On Being a Sacrament of Hope

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday in Lent, 2020.

We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves. We hear these words in our Collect, and for many of us these might be difficult words to hear, difficult words to take seriously, difficult words, that is, to believe. Of course I have power to help myself, we might think to ourselves. I can be a responsible person; I can live morally; I can take care of my family and provide for them as I am able; I can clean up my room and my house; I can cook and clean; my gosh, I can dress myself; I can read books or whatever in order to improve my mind; I can make sure I am in relationship with others in case I need their help, or they need mind. What do you mean, holy Mother Church, that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves? Has God given me nothing?

And of course, God has given us the faculties to help ourselves, in all those ways I just listed. And we are to use them, use them as best we are able, even when it hurts. And we are to remember that God has given them to us. God has given us bodies to live in; God has given us morals towards which to aspire; God has given us a sense of responsibility to our family members; God has given us hands and legs to do the cleaning and cooking; God has given us a mind, and He has given us a conscience. And underneath it all, God has given us the very reality of love—true love, what is called charity, self-less giving of oneself for others. And He has given us His peace, which is what His love feels like when it is received. We have no power of ourselves to help ourselves because the power of peace and love by which the world even exists comes only from God.

Through our faith—that is, living relationship with God—we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, is what Saint Paul teaches us. Through Him, Paul continues, we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoices in our hope of sharing the glory of God. Through our faith, our living relationship, we participate in the redemptive Body of Jesus Christ; and through Him, we have obtained access to the grace by which we stand—and, Paul might have added to elaborate—the grace by which we breath, the grace by which we move, the grace by which we think, the grace by which we listen and pray and love and sleep and serve. This grace is called by Jesus “living water,” and the living water has been poured into our hearts. If we would drink of it, let us not harden our hearts, brothers and sisters.

Although our translation of scripture is often very good, the translation of the beginning of our lesson from Saint John does not quite capture the sense of the original. It reads that Jesus, wearied as He was with His journey, sat down beside the well. No—it is literally that Jesus sat down not beside the well, but that Jesus sat down on the well. The water of the well, in other words, is no longer the water that truly quenches thirst. Rather, Jesus is the Temple, the Temple is His Body, and the living water flows through the Temple which is Him.

His sitting upon it is deeply symbolic, in that His doing so recapitulates, or sums up, all of the well-scenes of Scripture: Isaac’s servant and Rebekah in Gen 24; Jacob and Rachel in Gen 29; Moses and Zipporah in Ex 2. And note, too, each of these well scenes have something to do with marriage, as does this scene with Our Lord. Living relationship with Jesus means marriage to Him, Who is the Bridegroom, and the Church His Bride; and this is the deepest meaning of baptism: through the waters, we are married to God. And there is symbolism in the location. On this mountain where the well is, is where Abraham sacrificed Isaac, where Jacob had his vision, and where God revealed Himself to Moses. Images of Christ nailed to the Cross often have at the very bottom of the Cross a mountain—it is all one well of grace, it is all one mountain of pilgrimage. By His holy Cross has Christ redeemed the world.

And note as well that it is the Samaritan women who so shares the Gospel with her people that her people believe in Jesus through her. She has no power of herself to help herself or help her people find Truth—but Jesus works through her, being fully present in her proclamation of Him.

Brothers and sisters, what are we to make of all this? In this time of plague and uncertainly, we are to make of it this: in our love for others, Christ makes Himself known through us. The living waters that flow between Him and the Father flow through us in our service to the lonely. We have no power of ourselves to help the world—but when we recognize that, we have at our disposal the power of heaven, the living power of God Almighty, His heavenly peace and love. Let us be this Sacrament of Hope for the world.

On Being Angry with Your Brother

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, 2020.

Our loving Lord Jesus speaks to us today about being angry with others and being insulting towards others. He says, “Every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment.” And He adds, “Whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool’ shall be liable to the hell of fire.” And so Jesus is speaking to us about ordinary emotions and reactions—emotions and reactions we experience in our normal, work-a-day lives. Being angry with another person; speaking to them in an insulting way that ignores their dignity; and then going yet the next step and calling them a name—you fool, you idiot, or something I heard a lot growing up around Jewish friends and schoolmates, you schmuck. Anger, insult, name-calling—these are all sins, and committing them is to act contrary to Scripture, which teaches clearly that God has not commanded any one to be ungodly, and He has not given any one permission to sin.

This is the immediate context of our Lord’s next teaching: “So,” He continues, “if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brothers, and then come and offer your gift.” Our Jesus is giving spiritual direction to His disciples, knowing that there will be moments in the worship of Him that will develop after His mighty resurrection and glorious ascension that His disciples will feel convicted by their own sin. When we follow the light, we see our shadows. When we walk in the footsteps of He Who is utterly clean, without sin, we see how much we need cleansing to truly walk in the law of the Lord. And so Jesus gave this teaching which was remembered by the young Church and preached about for decades before it was written down by S. Matthew, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brothers, and then come and offer your gift.”

Certainly this is a teaching to us. Every Sunday, week by week, we offer our gift at the altar: we offer and present unto God our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto God, Who did the same for us on the Cross. And so in our life within the Liturgy if we remember moments when we have been angry—not righteously indignant, for that is another matter and not sinful—rather, that we at some point let our anger go, to make ourselves feel better at the expense of another person (for that is the sin); if we in offering ourselves to God as gift remember that we have derided another person and treated that person in a less than dignified manner, insulting to honor owed them; and if we have name-called another person, either to their face or to the television or radio or smart-phone—Jesus has given us spiritual direction about what to do: first, be reconciled to the person.

But, it bears asking, how? How shall we be reconciled to another person. And here let us see how important it is to remember the words of our Collect today: “because, through the weakness of our mortal nature, we can do no good thing without Thee, grant us to the help of Thy grace.” In other words, we are not able to reconcile with our brother or sister on our own. We can do no good thing on our own. Rather, all we can do that is good comes through the grace of God empowering us by the peace of Christ.

Brother and sisters, whenever we feel wronged by another person, flee to Christ and ask Him by prayer for help. And to be more specific, ask Him in your prayer for help to pray for the person who you feel wronged by. Often our anger comes from an unresolved issue in our past—unresolved because we have not allowed God into the hurt, into the pain, into the embarrassment, into the wound. But the peace of Christ brings health to our wounds—this is what “salvation” means. When we let God into our pain, and being very honest with Him about exactly how we feel—God responds with His grace, and then and only then does the wound begin to heal. We must listen to the pricks of our conscience reminding us of persons we harbor anger towards—because in praying for people towards whom we are angry, we love them. And by loving them, we are loving God; for God always looks upon that which He has made with love that passes all our understanding.

On Being Salt and Light

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, 2020.

Our Jesus said “Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them.” And He adds: Till heaven and earth pass away, nothing—not iota, not dot—will pass from the law until all is accomplished. About the centrality of the law and the prophets, Our Lord and Saviour is unambiguous. And this was underscored on the very day of His Resurrection, when in walking with the two disciples towards Emmaus, beginning with Moses and all the prophets—that is, the Law and the Prophets—He interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning Himself, and how they described and gave explanation of how Christ needed to suffer in order to enter into his glory. He underscored this again later that evening when the young Church was gathered in the Upper Room, again emphasizing that everything written about Him in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled.

The predominant significance, then, of Our Lord’s teaching—“Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them”—is scriptural: we cannot understand Christ without the Scriptures (commonly called the Old Testament). If the Church could, then there would be no need for Christ in His resurrected Body explaining to the young Church how to find Him in Law, the Prophets, and the Psalms. A helpful image to have about the Scriptures, that is, the Old Testament, is this: they are a thesaurus. Why do we use a thesaurus? We use one when we are looking for other words to describe the word we have. The thesaurus is a treasury of words and the relations between words in the whole of language. The Scriptures, commonly called the Old Testament, is the same: they are a treasury of words and images that the Church has used from the beginning, through the help of Jesus, to find words to describe Jesus Who is the Eternal Word, as well as the relations between the Christ the Eternal Words and all other words and images. So to understand anything about Christ—Who He is, How He lives, How He is the Son of God, what He taught, and so forth—we must look at the treasury given to us to understand Him: that treasury is Scripture.

Saint Matthew records two memorable teachings from Our Lord: “You are the salt of the earth,” and “You are the light of the world.” In this Epiphany season, “light” has been an overriding emphasis in our Liturgy, captured and concentrated in our celebration of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, and the wondrous words of old Simeon, that our Lord, even as a 40-day old Child, is the light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to His people Israel. It is in this sense that we—incorporated into His Body through Baptism and nourished by Him in the Eucharist—are to be light: that in our relationships with the world, God is revealed. God is our light and salvation, so much so that we reveal this saving Light to people we talk to and interact with everywhere we are: that in our Outreach to the world we give knowledge of salvation, that the separation people feel from God is removed, for this is true forgiveness.

How are we to be “salt”? If we look to Scripture, we see that salt is associated with holiness. In Leviticus we read that every offering of grain shall be seasoned with salt; that the people shall not allow the salt of the covenant of God to be lacking; and even more, “With all your offerings you shall offer salt.” Later in the Temple, any offering included salt. In Numbers, salt is at the heart of covenant between God and His people. Newborn babies even were rubbed with salt, on the very day of their birth, as described in Ezekiel.

Salt, then, is a cryptic image of Christian baptism. In our baptism, we are consecrated—that is, set apart for holiness entirely through God’s grace. And baptism represents both our vow to God to be married to Him, and the culmination of God’s vow to us, which is the gift of Himself, permanently and irrevocably given. Without this covenant, we are not given the gift of the Holy Ghost; and without the Holy Ghost, no one can say “Jesus is Lord,” Saint Paul teaches—in other words, we cannot worship God without being rubbed with the salt of baptism on the day of our rebirth.

Brothers and sisters, by God’s grace and God’s grace only can we truly be salt and light in the world. By God’s grace only are we baptized and incorporated permanently into His Body and married to God; and by God’s grace only can Christ be the Light to the world through us. Make no mistake, the Christian life is a high calling; but let us also remember the Apostle Paul’s teaching, that our testimony which is our lives is not about lofty words or lofty wisdom—it is about knowing nothing else but Christ and Him Crucified. That fed by the Eucharist and guided by the Holy Ghost, we can follow Saint Teresa’s example to be Christ to the world, and to every person we meet.