Homily: “On Seeking His Face”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Second Sunday in Lent, 2019.

We ask of our loving and glorious God in our Collect this week something quite appropriate to this season of penitence: We ask Him to be gracious to all who have gone astray from His ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast fast to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of His Word, Jesus Christ His Son. We are asking for God’s action in them, in us. We are asking for God to act first, and He always does. It is God who decides when a person can bear the weight of self-awareness of their sins. There are times in our life, even long stretches, when we are unable to bear the weight of self-awareness, of truth, of the reality of what we have done contrary to God’s will. Perhaps knowing it was wrong at the time, but in the subsequent flux and turning of life, have forgotten, or repressed our wrong actions, our wrong deeds, whether done or not done, said or unsaid. This is perhaps why those in the occupation of psychologist might never be unemployed.

Of course, God knows when we are ready. Our Collect is not trying to persuade Him to do something—to bring them again with penitent hearts back to Jesus, which means giving them penitent hearts in the first place, which means making them aware of their sins—we are not trying to persuade God to do something He would otherwise be inclined not to do. God always wants repentance, and He is always working and battling in our hearts for our hearts—the heart is the depth of one’s being, where a person decides for or against God. The heart is where the good angels of God battle against the fallen angels of Satan for our attention, for our obedience, for our devotion.

It is not attempts at persuasion, then, but rather our telling Him we are ready for our sins to be revealed—that our community, our Parish is ready for them to be revealed. For implicit in this Collect is the claim that our Parish life—our total life around the Cross through daily Prayer, Eucharist, and devotion to God’s creatures according to the sacred humanity of Christ revealed in Scripture, the threefold Regula or threefold pattern of total Christian life—our Parish life itself is ready to bear the burden of the knowledge of sins committed by individuals or by groups small or large within us.

This is where the story of the paralytic brought to Jesus by four men by lowering him through the roof takes on profound significance. It was not the faith of the paralytic that Jesus saw as much as the faith of the four men—this faith Jesus saw (belief acted out) and seeing the faith of the four men, Jesus healed the sins of the paralytic. Through the faith—the belief in God acted out through our corporate prayer life according to Regula—of our Parish, God heals the sins of those unable of their own to come to Jesus. Prayer, real prayer, is that powerful. The prayer life of our Parish has the real potential, if it is strong and regular enough, to show faithfulness to God such as to heal the sins of people unable of themselves to come to Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, we are able to proclaim to God that we are ready to bear the burdens of the weight of self-knowledge of any sins we have committed—that is to say, proclaim the Collect authentically—not only because we are increasingly regular in our daily prayer, our reverence for the Eucharist, and our participation in the sacred humanity of Christ, but because, like Peter, James, and John after the Transfiguration—like Moses after receiving the Ten Commandments—we are filled with the light of Christ Who revealed His glorious nature in the Transfiguration that the verse of the psalm “The Lord is my light and my salvation” became very real. That the truth of the verse, “You, Lord, speak in my heart and say, ‘Seek my face.’ Your face, Lord, will I seek” are direct instructions from our Master as to how to act, what to do.

Yes, because we are so close to the Light, our shadows become clearly delineated, even in haunting, and unsettling ways. But we are also close to the Light! Let us be strong and made stronger in our self-awareness, in our vulnerability, in our bleeding, in our abandonment of the needs for security, for approval, for control—strong and made stronger, not by our own efforts, but by the Lord Who holds His children in His hands and dresses our wounds, pouring His healing oil upon our wounds—and in so doing, showing us His beautiful and tender face—His face of goodness, love, and strength beyond measure.

Homily: “On Temptations in Lent”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The First Sunday in Lent, 2019.

I ended my sermon for Ash Wednesday with these words: “We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentance.” The Church has entered Lent in dust and ashes, not as a sign intended to make us unnecessarily sorrowful or weak; not to force us to focus inordinately on our mortality—rather as a sign of our creatureliness in the face of a Creator Who is both tremendous and mysterious in His power—wholly other from us yet walking, talking, and dwelling among us—His nature being that of boundless love Who guides all things with His hands and causes the dawn to know its place and gave the clouds their garments, Who possesses us that we will be agents of His boundless love, and proclaim through our words and deeds God’s heavenly peace—that frees the captives and ennobles the poor and downtrodden—a heavenly peace that shines from the glorious cross and which transforms ordinary reality into sacramental reality—a universal message for all people that is captured in the simple yet radiant image of Mother and Son: because God chose to reveal Himself to the world in the arms of Mary.

This and so much more makes for the overwhelming way God manifests His glory. And the Church has taught, because it was revealed by God directly, that her members need to be overwhelmed by the mysterious tremendousness of God—not once, or twice, but constantly, all the time, even every day, and multiple times a day if possible. Because being overwhelmed by God is what called holy fear, and time and time again we find in the Scriptures the teaching that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And therefore it is the beginning also of repentance, and it is necessary for a holy Lent.

A good way to think about Lent—not the only way but a good way—is that it is like the walking down from the mountain that Peter, James, and John did with Jesus after the Transfiguration. It did not take them forty days to reach the bottom; maybe it took them forty minutes. But even as an analogy, why is this period of time a good way to think about Lent? It is because their shadows had been revealed in crisp detail, because that is what happens when we are close to the Light. Too often we think we have to struggle to find our shadows, digging tirelessly through our mind, our memories, to uncover our hidden sins—the Transfiguration story sets things properly: put ourselves close to Jesus, close to His Word, as close as we can to the Cross—and then in humility, abandon ourselves at His feet, that through our surrender, we listen. God will reveal to us our sins as we are able to bear the load of them upon our shoulders. God will handle that: our job is to sit at His feet like Mary Magdalene and listen.

It is a very curious thing that despite what must have been an astonishing experience beyond words—Jesus brighter than the sun with Moses and Elijah on His right and left—the Evangelists do not give us any details of the reactions of Peter, James, and John after the experience. It is another instance of what I have called “holy silence” by the evangelists where we would think detail would be abundant. How did these three disciples process this experience? We get an important clue from Saint Mark, and we see it when James and John ask to be on Christ’s right and left in His glory—ask, that is, to be just like Moses and Elijah were. It seems like a desirable place to be, and it is an understandable, and frankly admirable, thing to request of Jesus—and Jesus, far from admonishing them, simply says that such a request is not for Him to grant, but the Father. And perhaps Peter and John, after the Coming of the Holy Ghost later, winsomely chuckled about their request, admirable as it was for the time: because after all who ended up being on Christ’s right and left but the two robbers crucified with Jesus.

In an understandable way, nonetheless James and John (and we might presume Peter as well) did succumb to a temptation—such as Jesus was faced with in the wilderness when the Devil showed Him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time, and said to Him, “To you I will give all this authority and their glory . . . If you, then, will worship me, it shall all be yours.” It is the temptation to prideful ambition with a dash of Envy thrown in, based fundamentally on a very human need for approval. And Jesus, in answering the Devil’s temptation, gives us the remedy whenever we might face such temptation to authority and power: the Scripture “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve.” We are to allow ourselves to be prostrate at the foot of the Cross as our service to God, and wait for Him to speak with us and tell us what to do. God in His Providence has all things in His hand, including a plan for us, and it is in His interest to make known to us His plan for our lives: our job is to come to Him in humility, surrender, and openness so that we can listen and learn how God approves of us, loves us, cares for us.

We are told by Saint Luke that the Devil addressed Jesus as “the Son of God.” Biblical scholars tell us that the term “Son of God,” despite how it rings in our ears, did not ring in the ears of the early Church the same way—it would have meant not the Second Person of the Trinity but rather the official representative of the historic faith of Israel—the significance of which might be startling: the Devil probably did not know quite who Jesus was. He addressed Our Lord by saying, “If you are the Son of God” something like “If you are a Prophet like Moses and Elijah and Isaiah.” Jesus, therefore, chose to go into the wilderness so that He could use the experience to teach more effectively His disciples the key aspects of overcoming the primary temptations in mature Christian life: the temptation to need security (the first temptation: magic for food in the stones turned to bread), to need approval (the second temptation: adulation by all), and to need control (the third temptation: commanding the angels to save Him from His fall).

In our lives, we face these temptations in every day ways, and in serious Christian life, they are heightened: the need for security, the need for approval, the need for control. But it is by meditating only on God’s holy words in Scripture that we can overcome these temptations. Because when we meditate on God’s holy words, we find Jesus. And when we find Jesus, we again realize that His boundless light is closer to us than our own breath.

Homily: “On Ashes”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on Ash Wednesday, 2019.

It is important to understand that the great cloud of witnesses alluded to by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews is the cloud by the likes of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and all the great men and women of the Old Testament. The cloud that surrounds us in the cloud of their faith. It is the way we talk about God’s intimate presence—what’s called God’s immanence—and the response of faith to His immanent presence. It is always the recognition of God’s presence amid us that comes first, and our response second. God always acts first, His grace precedes our awareness. And what we call God’s calling to us is the very act of Him making Himself available to our awareness.

This is demonstrated unforgettably in the Book of Job, and the faith of Job is certainly a central aspect of the cloud of witnesses that surround us. In the book, Job is described as blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Despite living such a holy life, Job loses everything through interference by Satan that is allowed by God, and furthermore is afflicted in his person by Satan. And Job in his humiliation sat among the ashes. A long series of discussions ensue between Job and friends, about God and Who God is, and how He acts. And with respect to their arguments, Job remains in the right.

And then as the friends are rendered speechless by Job’s insight and reasoning, or at least they stopped talking, out of a whirlwind appears God. And how God answers the three men and Job is truly remarkable. It is an account certainly based on God’s power, but even moreso on God’s mysterious power—God has not only laid the foundation of the earth but done so as the morning stars sang together. He not only shut in the sea with doors but gave the clouds their garment. It is He that accounts for the inexplicable instincts of animals such as the eagle, the ostrich, the deer, the mountain goat, the horse. But He also commands the morning, and causes the dawn to know its place. It is a tremendous account of God’s majesty and His mystery.

It puts the four men and Job in their place. Job’s response is “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. . . therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” And all that Job lost is restored—his family, his land and animals, even more so than before. Job therefore is strengthened through it all, he is not made weak but stronger but this encounter of God. But this encounter nonetheless revealed something absolutely central to healthy faith and spiritual growth—and it is the recognition that we are creatures. It is the profound truth that we are created—it is God who hath made us and not we ourselves. God walks among us. God talks among us. God knows all our thoughts, desires, and secrets. But our relationship with God is fundamentally unequal—our creaturehood in the face of the Creator of all things visible and invisible is a truth of inexhaustible value in prayer, and it is the basis for the proper understanding of God and His divine holiness. It is the basis for peace and calm.

It is this question of who God is that is at stake in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which, in the words of one New Testament scholar, “speaks to something deep within the heart of every human.” The heart is where we encounter God and is the arena where God encounters us. It is in our heart that we do battle against temptations—for the heart is the seat of the will, the mother of our decisions and intentions. What happens inwardly in our heart in this battle between the conflicts that make up our human existence is lived out in our actions, our behavior, our words and deeds.

This is why it is often said that what we say we believe is less important than how we live our lives according to those beliefs. When Christian actions, broadly construed, are at great odds with stated beliefs, the term for that is hypocrisy. But when Christian actions are in accord with stated Christian beliefs, the term for that is holiness. But the lives of holy person and the hypocrite can look quite similar, as the that of the Pharisee and Tax Collector probably did from about fifty feet away. It is only by knowing something of their inner world of prayer, which Saint Luke gives us from the words of Our Lord Jesus, that we can discern that despite appearances, the differences between the Pharisee and the Tax Collect are great.

At root in this parable is the attitude towards God. Behind the boastful, love of self that we see in the Pharisee is a very ordinary view of God. This is a god that loves gossip, that loves bragging, that favors the elite, and favors the proud. And the teaching here is that the Pharisee is making God out to be exactly like himself: God in the image of man, and specifically, of this man. And the Pharisee is addressing God as if he and God are on the same plane, the same level—and even because the Pharisee’s words are little more that gossip, secretly the Pharisee inwardly thinks he can control God, and that is why he fasts and that is why he tithes, so that he can claim a holy specialness.

What the Tax Collector says in his prayer is equally illustrative, but notice how different it is. Not lifting his eyes to heaven, he beats his breast and says, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” None of the comparison of himself to others, none of the idolatrous self-love, none of the celebration of self-accomplishment seen in the Pharisee. Rather, the simplicity and truth of the Tax Collector expresses humility. The words of the Tax Collector are the words of Job. Both recognize the immanent presence of God in their hearts, and both are struck nearly speechless by His presence both mysterious and tremendous—fundamentally incomprehensible. Their prayer is the prayer of creaturehood—of ultimate humility.

This is why the Church imposes ashes upon our foreheads. It is not a mark intended to evoke sorrow, to make us weak, or to focus inordinately on our mortality. Job was in ashes and he was empowered by God. The ashes are a mark of truth—that we are creatures. We are created. God’s power and majesty is inexplicable in human terms and yet this is a power we participate in by His grace, and indeed that we are to be agents of for others. Ashes are to give the same peace and calm to us that God gave to Job—a peace that settles us, a calm that pervades us, that comes through the right knowledge of who God is and who we His creatures are. And with that knowledge—with that peace and calm, and only with that peace and calm—can we rightly enter Lent, and allow the deepest truth of our creaturehood in the face of an unfathomable Creator to work on our hearts. We enter Lent much like Peter, John, and James walked down the mountain after the Transfiguration—overwhelmed in such a way that provides clarity necessary for proper repentence.

Homily: “On Wanting A Clean Heart”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 2018.

We have asked in our Collect for the grace to love what Jesus has commanded us to love, and to desire what He has promised to us. And we have asked that our hearts be fixed to where true joys are to be found, amid the swift and varied changes of the world. Life indeed does change on a dime. Our sense of normalcy, of just wanting things to get back to the way they used to be, because they were going along, well not perfectly, but well enough—the rug gets pulled out from under us. Dramatic changes in our life are swift—too swift.

To love what Jesus has commanded us to love, and to desire what He has promised to us. A superficial reflection on these words would render them little more than sentiment one finds on a Hallmark greeting card. Sure, I will love what Jesus has commanded; sure, I want what He has promised. Well, He wants us to carry our cross and He has commanded us to follow Him. That’s all well and good when we get to sit down on the grass, listen to Him teach and watch Him preach, and then be fed by Him with bread from heaven.

That’s all well and good, in other words, when Christianity is something of a spectator sport—when we can watch the action from a distance, and even when the action gets tough, when Jesus says to the crowd, “I am not the Messiah you thought I would be. I am not a political leader who will overturn injustice and oppression through political action.” Instead He again teaches who He really is: He is the kind of messiah who will suffer mightily, He will die on the cross, with no political victory of any kind attained.

That’s all well and good, except the hard part: which is that Christianity is not a spectator sport. Read more “Homily: “On Wanting A Clean Heart””

Homily: “On Seeking Our Mother”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2018.

In Anglican and Roman Catholic tradition, the Fourth Sunday in Lent has a characteristic unique from the other Sundays in Lent. Coming roughly in the middle of the season of Lent, seen as the time from Ash Wednesday to Easter, this Sunday has taken on a characteristic of being a kind of intermission or half-time. In England, today is known in popular piety as Mothering Sunday, and indeed this is where the secular holiday of Mother’s Day originates. In England, people would travel back home to the parish church of their youth, their “mother church.” The day has other names: “Refreshment Sunday,” “Mid-Lent-Sunday,” “Rose Sunday.” It was also the only Sunday in Lent when the Sacrament of Matrimony was allowed to be celebrated. Food is involved, with a variety of cakes and buns often baked for this occasion. Mothers themselves were honored with presents, such as small bouquets of early spring flowers. In this season wherein we give a certain emphasis on the Ten Commandments, Mothering Sunday becomes something of a robust enactment of the commandment to honor thy mother—because to genuinely believe is to not only to say what we believe but to act it out.

This sense of refreshment shows up, in a way, in our Gospel reading. Read more “Homily: “On Seeking Our Mother””

Homily: “On Trusting God”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Third Sunday in Lent, 2018.

We have no power in ourselves to help ourselves. No matter how much we try to control of the world around us—the things and the people in our orbit—none of it will bring salvation. No matter how much we try to control the world inside us—the emotions, thoughts, and desires in our heart—none of that controlling will bring salvation. Our Collect pours ice-water over any kind of pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps mentality. It rejects entirely any idea that we can earn grace. We are entirely dependent upon God for everything. Read more “Homily: “On Trusting God””

Homily: “On the Binding of Isaac”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The Second Sunday in Lent, 2018.

Even though the Sundays during the season of Lent are not part of the season properly understood, which means that we are given refreshment from any fasting or particular ascetical disciplines we might be following—these Sundays are in Lent, but not of Lent—nonetheless these Sundays certainly take on a Lenten character. This happens through the various displays of the liturgical color of purple, the color of expectancy, the suppression of liturgical proclamations of the Gloria and Alleluia, as well as the prayers and appointed lections from the Sacred Scriptures.

Yet the Eucharist takes us out of time, up on the holy mountain, alongside Saints Peter, James and John as they, and as we, witness Jesus transfigured, the Eucharist glistening with a love intensely white, as no fuller on earth could bleach further; on the mountain with Moses and Elijah on the right and on the left of Jesus, because the divinity of Jesus cannot be seen without the lenses of the Law and the Prophets, without the Old Testament. Read more “Homily: “On the Binding of Isaac””

Homily: “On Baptism and the Flood”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on The First Sunday in Lent, 2018.

Although it is often not the first question we ask, the most important question we can ask of a passage from the Sacred Scriptures, how does it impinge upon our prayer life? How might the passage have a bearing on our relationship with God as that relationship is expressed in the complex of actions both inward and outward that we call prayer? Now I say that is the most important question, but often not the first question we ask. It is the most important question because asking how a passage touches our prayer life—and I mean prayer life both personally and uniquely to each individual and also corporately and shared by the Body as a whole—because the most important thing to Christians is our relationship with God, and the word “prayer” in the widest sense means just that: relationship with God; and relationship with God is lived out through actions, both inward and outward, the question, “How does this passage impinge on our prayer life?” closely corresponds with our actions inward and outward, and it is in our actions inward and outward that our belief in God is really shown. What we say we believe is important, but what is more important is whether we act out what we say we believe.

Yet this is often not the first question we ask. Read more “Homily: “On Baptism and the Flood””

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part six”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on Maundy Thursday, Year A, 2017.

The sixth word of Our loving Lord Jesus Christ from the Cross come right on after the fifth word. Like the fifth, it was recorded by Saint John, so let us return to the moment we experienced on Palm Sunday. Again we are close to the very end of Jesus’s life on earth. He has been mocked, spat upon, tortured and crucified on the Cross. His garment torn, His Body emaciated—yet the loving words to His Mother and to John the Beloved Disciple have been uttered, along with the words, “I thirst,” that fifth words that reminds us that Jesus always thirsts for us. And then Saint John tells us in his Gospel these words: “When Jesus had received the vinegar, he said, “It is finished”; and he bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” That is the sixth word of Jesus from the Cross: “It is finished.” For John, this is the final utterance, for as he tells us of Our loving Lord Jesus, then “He bowed His head and gave up His spirit.” Read more “Homily: “On Forgiveness, part six””

Homily: “On Forgiveness, part four”

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

The fourth of the Seven Last Words of Jesus echoes about the hearts and minds of faithful Christians as we approach the events of Holy Week. This word from Jesus is plain, and it is unadorned. It is: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It was Saint Matthew who recorded these words in his Gospel. Saint Matthew tells us this happened at about the ninth hour of the day. That sort of reckoning of time began at what we would call 6 am, or thereabouts. So the ninth hour of the day would be about 3 pm in the afternoon, and has traditionally in the Church been a holy time each day for prayer and recollection of Our Lord’s crucifixion. Saint Matthew also tells us that in speaking these words, Jesus cried with a loud voice. He wanted this to be heard by all close enough to hear, indeed with ears to hear. He did not want there to be any mistaking what He said. He cried with a loud voice so that what He was saying would be clear.

This fourth of the Seven Last Words is a direct quotation from the first verse of Psalm 22. We will pray with this Psalm at the end of the Maundy Thursday Mass as the Altar is stripped bare of all candles, linens and decoration to bring to our minds that Jesus, the Last Supper having been Instituted and given to us in tremendous glory, is now beginning to enter into His humiliation—first in His Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then to His Passion and death on the Cross. As the Altar is stripped, Psalm 22 will be chanted, so that we share in the feelings that Jesus Himself was experiencing during this unspeakable time. Read more “Homily: “On Forgiveness, part four””