Sunday, July 29, 2012

Human Weakness, God's Power

(Illustration by Lika Tov)

Comfortable congregations prefer to hear tame sermons about mustard seeds and lilies of the valleys rather than be disturbed by the genuinely human behavior of David and his court.”
(Rolf Jacobson. “Preaching the David Story”, Word & World)
The opening words of the reading from 2 Samuel (11:1-15) remind me of a saying I once heard that “In the spring of the year a young man’s heart turns to love, or to what the young lady’s been thinking about all year round.”  Actually, “in the spring of the year” isn’t what the Hebrew text says.  The meaning is “at the turning of the year”, when kings went to battle.  That David is taking his afternoon nap, while his generals are out on the battle-line is, in itself, a telling fact in the story. Sauntering about on his roof, probably bored, David, now in his young manhood, must’ve cast a virile figure because even as a young sheepherder the Scripture writer in 1 Samuel 16 couldn’t help but noting: “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”  Almost makes you wonder if the writer wasn’t a woman! At any rate, David can’t help but notice below in the courtyard of an adjacent villa the beautiful and undoubtedly naked body of a woman who is bathing there. She is, in fact, ritually purifying herself, the Scripture says, after her period.  David dispatches an underling to get a profile on the woman who turns out to be Bathsheba, wife of one of his top 37 warriors, Uriah the Hittite, and granddaughter of his royal counselor, Ahithopel.  David, as decisive in his wants as he is in battle, wastes no time: “...he sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her.”  A very human situation.  Husband is off at war.  Woman is lonely.  A studly king summons her, simply because he can. She doesn’t or can’t resist.  And the rest is history.
Time passes, and Bathsheba sends the “oh-oh” message to David that she’s pregnant.  No question who the father is.
In light of our ongoing and frequent experience of hearing about political figures and star celebrities being caught up in sexual scandals, thinking they’re invincible, we shouldn’t be surprised to learn that King David also plays “the fool”, in the words of Psalm 14, for that is really what sin is: the folly of selfishness.  David figures he can utilize his spinmeisters to veil and downplay his culpability in this situation. Exercising his regal power, he hurriedly summons Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, direct from the battlefield, on the pretext of getting a status report from Uriah on how Commander Joab and the troops are faring.  The thought may have crossed Uriah’s mind that he was being tested for one  reason or another.  In the meantime, David suggests that Uriah take some R & R, kick back, go down home, and “wash your feet”. David didn’t have in mind for Uriah to kick off his military boots and take a probably much-needed bath. “Washing the feet” would have been a familiar Jewish euphemism for having sexual intercourse with his wife. Unexpectedly, Uriah, military man that he was, decides to “go by the book” and resists the suggestion, even though it comes from the king. He sleeps on David’s doorstep with all the servants, because that’s what disciplined soldiers did, abstaining from “that” sort of thing while on duty.  
The next day David finds out about this. He questions Uriah, who protests his utter loyalty to the king and to God: “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the [other soldiers] are camping in the open field...As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.”  So, David is forced to set in motion Plan B. He invites Uriah to dinner the next evening and gets him so tanked that he’s sure that now Uriah will head down the hill and jump in bed with his wife.  But, again, no luck: Uriah again ends up on the porch with the servants.
David is now feeling a little desperate. Taking his foolishness to the next extreme, which is really what sin is, he writes an order for Joab, having the gall to send it with Uriah’s as he returns, since he certainly trusted Uriah’s complete loyalty by now. He instructs Joab to put Uriah on the frontline in the thick of combat, and then to draw back so that Uriah will most certainly be killed.  “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’...all are corrupt and commit abominable acts...every one has proved faithless...[they] eat up my people like bread and do not call upon the Lord...”  David has, in a sense, eaten up Bathsheba, then Uriah, “like bread”.  David isn’t filled with the bread, that is, the wisdom of God, but with his own self-seeking power.  Today’s reading ends here, but there’s much more to the story.
2 Samuel continues: “16As Joab was besieging the city, he assigned Uriah to the place where he knew there were valiant warriors. 17The men of the city came out and fought with Joab; and some of the servants of David among the people fell. Uriah the Hittite was killed as well. 18Then Joab sent and told David all the news about the fighting; 19and he instructed the messenger, ‘When you have finished telling the king all the news about the fighting, 20then, if the king’s anger rises, and if he says to you, “Why did you go so near the city to fight? Did you not know that they would shoot from the wall? 21Who killed Abimelech son of Jerubbaal?* Did not a woman throw an upper millstone on him from the wall, so that he died at Thebez? Why did you go so near the wall?” then you shall say, “Your servant Uriah the Hittite is dead too.’” 
22 So the messenger went, and came and told David all that Joab had sent him to tell...25David said to the messenger, ‘Thus you shall say to Joab, “Do not let this matter trouble you, for the sword devours now one and now another; press your attack on the city, and overthrow it.” And encourage him.’
26 When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
“But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, 12 1and the Lord sent Nathan to David...”  Nathan the prophet confronts David in no uncertain terms, though David at first tries a coverup snow-job on Nathan.  Nathan puts David’s sin right up in his ruddy face and in front of his beautiful eyes.  There will be consequences, he tells him, even though David has a “come-to-Jesus” moment and , at least, admits and laments his sin.  Nevertheless, Nathan says:  “Why have you despised the word of the Lord?...Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house...Thus says the Lord, ‘I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house...’”   The firstborn son of David and Bathsheba later becomes very ill and dies.  David is shattered.  Bathsheba conceives again and bears Solomon, who is destined to be a great, mostly faithful king.  Another son, Amnon, commits incest with his sister, David’s daughter, Tamar who ends up, “a desolate woman”, according to Scripture, living with their brother, Absalom.  Absalom bides his time for two years, then murders Amnon in an ambush, before going on the run for several years.  At length David forgives him, but the ingrate Absalom, playing the fool very much like his father, usurps the throne, driving David out of Jerusalem.  Upon the advice of Ahithopel, grandfather of Bathsheba and royal counselor mentioned above, and who has now turned on David, Absalom, in an ultimate “dissing” of his father, David, goes “in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel”.
David is forced to flee, and he eludes all of Absalom’s supporters.  Ahithopel, having been outsmarted, goes home, sets his affairs in order, and ingloriously hangs himself.  David sends three army groups to pursue Absalom, who’s again on the run, but with very public and specific orders not to harm Absalom when they arrest him.  Absalom, in a hasty retreat, gets his coif caught in the branches of an oak tree and is, so to speak, left hanging! Joab, David’s commander, in a deliberate and wanton violation of King David’s order, not only hurries to do Absalom in, but thrusts three spears into Absalom’s heart, while ten of Joab’s young warriors surround Absalom and deliver the coup de grace.  Thus, the results of the utter foolishness of sin and of misguided human power multiply, and David’s misery along with it, proving once again that “God is in the company of the righteous...[the wicked’s] aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the Lord is their refuge...
What a stark contrast the example of Jesus offers us in the 6th chapter of John’s Gospel.  The point of this section of John’s Gospel is to counsel hearers and readers to abide in the word.  At the Last Supper Jesus had taught the disciples: “If you remain/abide in my will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”  John is saying that this is what’s possible for us.  In fact, he structures his Gospel so that rereading it over and over will help us get the point.  
In today’s Gospel selection (6:1-21) John recounts two major events, both so important to the early Christian community that they’re repeated in all four Gospel accounts: the story of the feeding of the 5000 and the incident of Jesus walking on the water.  In the first the feeding takes place in the context of Passover; in fact, John refers to it three times.  John’s version of the story has Jesus himself distributing the bread and fish to the people.  Later, in verse 35, Jesus states very clearly: “I am the bread of life.”  Jesus’ words and actions are inseparable, for he himself is the nourishing and sustaining Word which is the bread of life for all.  
In the incident which follows this feeding sign, John differs from Mark’s story of the boat in the storm which we had several Sundays ago.  Here Jesus isn’t in the boat with the disciples, and though the sea is rough and a wind is blowing, there’s not the desperation of Mark’s version.  Here Jesus is “revealed” by appearing, walking on the water towards them.  They’re “terrified” of that, true, but all Jesus has to say is “Here I am; don’t be afraid.”  For John “I am” verbalizes the very name and nature of God.  It describes who Jesus is: the power of God acting, to bless and multiply bread and fish, the power of God acting, to accompany and comfort people safely through life’s storms, and to allay their fears.
St. Paul knew all about the foolishness and consequences of relying on one’s own selfish power, as so graphically depicted today in the story of David and his family.  In Paul’s letters to the Corinthian Christians, he eloquently teaches them and us who is really the Lord of all life.  Paul says: “...We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word...we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord...But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us...” (2 Corinthians 4:1-2; 5; 7)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Mary of Magdala: The One Who Loved Much

"'Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?' Mary is asked the cause of her sorrow so that her desire may increase, for as she names the one she seeks, she discovers herself burning with yet greater love for him. 'And Jesus said to her: 'Mary'. First of all, he called her 'woman', the common address at that time for one of her sex, and she did not recognize him. But now he calls her by her own name, as if to say: 'Recognize the one who recognizes you.' You will remember that the Lord had said to Moses, 'I know you by name, as if saying 'I do not know you in some general way, I know you personally.' In the same way, addressed by her own name, Mary too recognized her creator and immediately calls out 'Rabboni', that is, 'teacher'. Outwardly, it was he who was the object of her search, but inwardly it was he who was leading her to search for him.
(From a homily of St. Gregory the Great, in Celebrating the Saints, p. 249)

Thursday, July 26, 2012

SS. Joachim & Anna, Grandparents of Our Lord

Prayer of Thanksgiving for Grandparents/Elders

God of Abraham and Sarah, grandfather and grandmother in the faith
God of all generations: We thank you today for those who are grandparents
to us - those who are grandparents by blood relationships, and those 
unrelated but older than we who generously share their love and wisdom, 
their time and traditions so that we have roots, stories, and hope. 
We bless you for the gift of grandparents, and we ask your blessing upon 
them, that their days may be filled with delight in their grandchildren.
May their giving and grace toward younger generations bring
fulfillment to them and may they be a blessing to all they love
and call grandchildren, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Amen.

(Daniel Benedict & Taylor Burton-Edwards,
General Board of Discipleship, 
The United Methodist Church)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Living In Hope

The great question is whether our hope in God makes it worthwhile to contribute what we have to offer at any given moment, even if we feel quite sure it will not be enough. Hope is a central Christian virtue. The alternative, much of the time, is passive defeatism. Hope is the expectation that the goodwill we have experienced from God in the past is not exhausted, that God will continue to work with us even under the most difficult of circumstances. Such a hope makes it possible for us to act, too...” (L. William Countryman, Scripture professor at CDSP)
We acknowledge in today’s Collect that God “know[s] our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking...”, and we pray that God might “mercifully give us”, through the worthiness of Jesus, “those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask...”   If our prayer is honest, then you and I can surely identify with and relate to those sheep, of whom Jeremiah speaks in the first reading (Jeremiah 23:1-6): destroyed and scattered and unattended; with those “called ‘the uncircumcision’”, those aliens and strangers “having no hope and without God” of whom Paul speaks in the Epistle (Ephesians 2:11-22); and with the crowd coming to Jesus who “were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mark 6:30-34; 53-56).
 Perhaps we feel this way, particularly, in light of the horrific massacre this week of 12 people and the wounding of 58 others in a movie theater in Aurora, CO. As if it weren’t enough already to be feeling the pinch of a receding economy, the inane antics of one-ups-manship among currently gridlocked political parties and the bickering of Presidential candidates and their constituencies, and the loss of safety nets, perhaps among our own family or friends, and among the poor, the homeless, the disabled, those without health care, and those losing their homes to foreclosure.  
The question which the Scriptures pose for you and me today is this: aware of and acknowledging all of these realities, are you and I willing to trust God when called upon to respond to these needs with hope, peace, justice and righteousness, and the selfless compassion of Jesus?
Mark, whose Gospel we’ve been following for several Sundays, continues to remind us through his stories that the opposite of faith isn’t unbelief, but fear.  Over and over in these stories Jesus counsels us to not be afraid, to take the risk of hope, and to do that primarily by reaching out beyond ourselves to minister to others.  “ are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into...a dwelling place for God.
What better teaching example for this could we have than Mark’s Gospel reading for today? Jesus had sent his disciples out by two’s to missionize the surrounding villages.  They had done so, and Mark notes that it’d been rather successful.  The apostles return and gather about Jesus, excitedly sharing “all that they had done and taught.”  Jesus, always one to keep priorities straight, listened attentively, then said “Come away [now] to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.”  You and I can’t minister to others effectively unless we take time off: to rest, to pray, to keep things in proper perspective.  Mark adds, as if to justify Jesus’ proposal, “...For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat...
So off they go, in a boat, to a deserted place.  Or so they think.  As so many of us have experienced, I suspect, just when you’re about to have some alone time, someone recognizes you, sees where you’re going and beats you there ahead of time.  Jesus and the apostles are no exception.  Jesus comes ashore, Mark tells us, to find not only a crowd , but a “great crowd”, waiting: “like sheep without a shepherd”.  And Jesus “had compassion for them,... and began to teach them many things.” [The RCL reading stops here, but Mark goes on to tell the story of the feeding of the 5000, responsibility for which Jesus handed off to -- guess who?? -- his disciples.  Mutual ministry is Jesus’ customary way of doing things!]
Notice several things: Jesus and the apostles had plans to kick back and rest.  But those plans were interrupted, both here on the shore and later in Gennesaret, by a crowd of needy, ailing, spiritually and physically hungry, men, women and, undoubtedly, children.  In every instance, Jesus set aside his own preferences in favor of others‘ immediate needs:  “...he had compassion for them...”  He and the apostles didn’t even have at hand all the things they needed to address these needs. All we have are five loaves of bread and two fish.”  Yet Jesus wasn’t about to leave these folks hopeless or despairing.  

Jeremiah today speaks of the hope God gives the people in God’s promise of “a righteous Branch” of David who will reign as king and deal wisely, and administer justice and righteousness.  Scripture scholar Matthew Skinner says: “ talk about the righteousness of God is to indicate God’s commitments to deliver and preserve God’s people.  Righteousness summarizes all of God’s salvific activity...the Lord’s unswerving commitment to ensure the welfare of God’s people.”  That is always Jesus’ priority agenda, and ours as his followers: to take care of those who need it, even if it disrupts our plans, even if the timing isn’t the best, even if, at first, we can’t imagine how we’ll go about filling all those needs.
This all became very real to me on a very personal level about two years ago.  My son, Andrew, had just had a recurrence of a major illness, which had nearly leveled him nine years earlier and from which he’d undergone an almost two year recovery process. After a long hospitalization in Florida, during which he almost died several times, he came back home to California to have test run at UCSF.  At that time he was essentially confined to a wheelchair, had serious breathing problems, some memory deficit, periodic seizures, etc.  Because of his illness he had to give up his apartment and many of his possessions in Florida, his car was repossessed, and through all this he had no health care insurance.  No insurance company would touch him because of his previous illness. After his return to California he had several relapses and hospitaliztions.
During one of these, I happened to visit him at the hospital in Sacramento, aware that he could be discharged soon, presumably to a skilled nursing facility temporarily.  While I was there a discharge team of a social worker, physician and therapist unexpectedly marched in and asked Andrew what his “discharge plan” was.  Having tried, without success, for several days previously to get someone to come and discuss this with him, he acknowledged that he had no plan.  The alternatives, it was then explained, were family, which wasn’t feasible in the long term; a half-way house at $500-1000/week; or an “intermediate care center sponsored by the Salvation Army”.  When I asked what the latter was, the response was: “a shelter where he’ll have a cot and a pillow”.  I don’t often get really angry, but I confess to God and to you that I was beside myself with rage! I helped Andrew pack and brought him straight to my home in Cotati where he stayed for a month and a half.  
Was it scary to make that decision? You bet. Was I afraid of the outcome? Most definitely.  Was it inconvenient? Yes.  Did I have any inkling how I was going to manage it? Not really. But a phrase kept rolling around in my mind and heart, from 2 Corinthians 12: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.”  That carried me through the weeks ahead.  And we made.  Andrew began to improve, and during that time Social Security approved his application for disability.  When God calls you and me to care for the other, even if it isn’t timely, or disrupts our convenience, or challenges our ingenuity and resourcefulness, God’s presence and grace is sufficient for us, for God’s power is made perfect in our weakness. 
I leave you with a few other words from Fr. William Countryman, whom I quoted at the beginning: “...We do not have to resolve all the problems or produce the perfect solution. What is important is to offer what we have in the hope that God will make use of it to do more than we ourselves could imagine. Christians should not be living as if there were no hope in this world. We should find ourselves at the rash edge of expectation, if necessary, rather than submerged in despair. Perhaps it is still possible to retrieve the vision of "one new humanity" in Ephesians—at least for a little while here in the place and time that we inhabit. Perhaps it is still possible to build highways for returning exiles, to renew human communities riven by conflict, to step beyond ancient ways of defining one another—but not unless we try, in whatever fumbling and inadequate yet hopeful way we can offer.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566)

Eternal God, we give you thanks for the witness of Bartolomé de las Casas, whose deep love for your people caused him to refuse absolution to those who would not free their Indian slaves. Help us, inspired by his example, to work and pray for the freeing of all enslaved people of our world, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Cash & Prizes" Or "Come & Die"?

“I serve a funky little Lutheran congregation, a liturgical and sacramental emerging church. Someone recently asked, "Do you think the church you planted will, you know, get really big?"
I smiled broadly, looking up at the sky and then back at my friend. "Um," I said, "" She looked at me, shocked at my seemingly low self-esteem. "There's just not a huge market for the message 'Jesus bids you come and die'," I explained. "People don't exactly line up around the block for that. But 'Jesus wants to make you rich!' seems to be doing really well right now."
It's easy enough to understand the attraction. On some level we all want to be victorious, successful and wealthy. So if someone is willing to tell me that Jesus happens to also want that for us, well, sign me up! That's good news.
Except that it isn't. It's not good news, just tempting news. Jesus knew that.
He knew how tempted people would be to hop on the Superman-miracle-worker-healer-rock-star bandwagon. This is why in Mark Jesus keeps instructing people not to tell anyone about the healings and miracles—because there is no way to know what this God/man is about based only on miracles. We only see who he is when we look upon the cross. The problem is that we'll choose the miracles every time.
This is perhaps why the Gospel writer puts the John the Baptist story here, totally out of time and place. The disciples are riding high on the power of Jesus' healings, teachings and miracles, and it is in this state that Jesus sends them out. In last week's Gospel lesson, he tells them to do their work in poverty and to expect rejection. Just in case we don't get it yet—in case we think that this thing is about our own glorification—we are now told of John the Baptist. Lest we think that this whole following-Jesus thing is about glory and not the cross, we are faced this week with the stark contrast between Herod's glory, wealth and power and John's suffering, poverty and weakness.
It just isn't about cash and prizes. It's about a suffering God who offers us life and salvation, a God who bids us come and die. Is there a line around the block yet? “

(From Blogging Toward Sunday - "Good, unpopular news",  July 06, 2009, by Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor serving House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver. )
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Herod Antipas was the son of Herod the Great and Malthace, and along with his full brother Archelaus and his half-brother Philip, was educated in Rome.  Antipas wasn’t Herod's first choice of heir; only later did Herod revise his will. During his fatal illness in 4 BC, Herod had yet another change of heart about the succession: making the elder brother Archelaus king of Judea, Idumea and Samaria, while Antipas would rule Galilee and Perea with the lesser title of tetrarch. Philip would receive what is now the Golan Heights, southern Syria, Trachonitis and Hauran.  Since the plans had to be ratified by Augustus, the three heirs travelled to Rome to make their claims. In the end, Augustus confirmed Archelaus as ethnarch rather than king, and Antipas as tetrarch.
Early in his reign, Antipas had married the daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea. While staying in Rome with his half-brother Herod Philip, he fell in love with his host's wife Herodias, granddaughter of Herod the Great and Mariamne I. Antipas and Herodias agreed to divorce their previous spouses in order to marry each other. Relations between Antipas and King Aretas understandably soured and in time preparations began for war.
Today’s Gospel reading (Mark 6:14-29) exposes the kind of human values which are opposed to the way of God’s reign.  It begins with Herod Antipas in a state of fear and anxiety: Jesus’ fame had begun to spread, with reports about demons being cast out and of others cured after he anointed them.  Rumors were flying that John the Baptizer had returned from the dead.  There were other speculations that Jesus was a prophet, in the style of the great Jeremiah or Ezekiel.  Herod’s paranoia kicks into overdrive as he whispers to himself, “John, whom I beheaded, has been raised.” 
Verses 17-29 are a flashback to the time when John, the wildman desert preacher, had begun a ministry of preaching and baptism by the Jordan River, which marked the western edge of Antipas' territory of Perea. John had pushed the envelope too far by publicly castigating the tetrarch for his unlawful bedding down of Herodias, former wife of Herod’s brother, Philip. That was cause enough for Antipas to imprison John in Machaerus. The Jewish writer Josephus also suspects that John's public influence, and later that of Jesus, made Antipas fearful of rebellion.  

Herodias didn’t take kindly at all to John’s criticism.  Zara’s comment in 17th century William Congreve’s play, The Mourning Bride, was never more true: “Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turn'd, nor hell a fury, like a woman scorn'd.”  Herodias was seething, and looking for every opportunity to have this religious meddler executed.  
The major obstacle in Herodias’ way was Antipas’ fear: fear of the Baptizer, coupled with Antipas’ curious unexplainable respect.  John fascinated him; he could sense that John was righteous and holy, and so he protected him by keeping him safely locked in the prison.  John also frustrated Antipas, though he was drawn to what John had to say.
When people live as Antipas and his family and and friends did, as we sometimes do, in fear and with irresponsible disregard for the deeper, more basic needs of the spirit, they oftentimes tripthemselves up through serendipity circumstances.  Once caught up in them, people often act in unpredictable ways, with dire consequences.  
Antipas, celebrating his birthday, gives a lavish banquet to which he invites all the big-wigs of Galilee: courtiers, officers, leaders, anyone who was anybody.  The wine, of course, flows freely.  Usually table wine was diluted with water: two to four parts to one part of wine.  A stronger mixture was half and half, and if immediate drunkenness was preferred, wine was served straight.  People ate, reclining on couches, with food served from a table in the middle of the room, brought by slaves who attended to one’s every need.  After dinner more wine was served, whether for political, philosophical, or social discussion, or to accompany games or entertainment by dancers.  Female companionship might be provided by the Greek equivalent of geishas: hetairai, as they were called.  One commentator notes: “Again, the percentage of the wine had something to do with the intimacy of the entertainment.
We don’t know who instigated it, although my bet is on Herodias, but Herodias’ daughter, Salome, was chosen as the evening’s designated dancer, probably and sadly a young girl not much older than the 12 year old daughter of Jairus in the Gospel two weeks ago.  To have an aristocratic daughter dance before a roomful of men flies in the face of many cultural standards of that day.  Mark modestly observes: “...she pleased Herod and his guests...”.  Indeed, she must have, because Antipas, no doubt well into his “cups” by now, makes a vainglorious and irresponsible promise in order to impress his colleagues: he’ll give Salome anything she wants, anything at all: even up to half of his kingdom!  The girl, almost surely prompted ahead of time by Herodias, checks with her mother and asks “What should I ask for?”  To which Herodias, probably with a vindictive sneer, spits out “The head of John the Baptizer.”  Mark says that the girl “immediately... rushed back” to Antipas and relayed her wish: John’s head, adding a further detail: “at once...on a platter”.  John the Baptizer is to become a sort of final course for the meal.  Mark’s image is one of fear, hatred, depravity and lack of control run utterly amok: in individuals, including a child; in families; and in Antipas’ political domain.  
Antipas is stunned, then sobered, then, realizing the full impact of what has taken place, is grieved.  The repentance which is called for seems simply impossible to such a culture’s self-absorbed, corrupt and prideful will.  Mark says, “...out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her...”  He immediately sends a soldier with the order to bring John’s head.  And it was done, on a platter, “and [he] gave it to the girl.  Then the girl gave it to her mother.”   Such is the corrosive, destructive power of systemic, familial, cultural, and political sin.  
Placed as it is between Jesus’ sending his disciples out in humble ministry with a call to repentance, and his receiving them back, gathered around him, telling all that they’d done and taught, this passage provides a reminder of the resistance which awaits those who would embrace the foolishness of the cross.
But that’s not quite the end of the story.  The evangelist Luke later tells us that a group of Pharisees warned Jesus that, because of the stir he was making among the polticial powers that be,  Antipas was plotting his death also.  By this time Jesus would have had a pretty good idea of the character of Antipas and his family.  Not one given to name-calling, Jesus denounces the tetrarch with a kind of surprising reference: "that fox", and declares that he, Jesus, will not fall victim to such a plot because "it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem".  Luke also credits Antipas with a role in Jesus' eventual trial in Jerusalem. He says that Pilate, on learning that Jesus was a Galilean and therefore under Herod Antipas' jurisdiction, sent him to Antipas, who was also in Jerusalem at the time. Initially, Antipas was pleased to see Jesus.  Always one ready for the spectacular and the outrageous, he hoped to satisfy his lust for novelty by seeing Jesus perform a miracle. Jesus, however, remains silent in the face of questioning, and Antipas mocks him and sends him back to Pilate, improving, according to Luke, relations between Pilate and Antipas despite their earlier enmity.
About three years after Jesus died, in 36 CE, the conflict with Aretas of Nabatea, caused by Antipas' divorce and the rulers' disagreement over territory, developed into open war. Antipas' army suffered a devastating defeat, and Antipas was forced to appeal to Emperor Tiberius for help. Antipas eventually fell from power due to the Emperor Caligula and to Antipas’ own nephew, Agrippa, brother of Herodias. Agrippa fell into debt and despite his connections with the imperial family, Herodias persuaded Antipas to provide for him. But the two men quarrelled and Agrippa departed and was later imprisoned because of an indiscreet political comment. When his friend Caligula finally became emperor in 37 CE, he not only released Agrippa, but granted him rule of Philip's former tetrarchy, slightly extended, with the title of king.
Jealous at Agrippa's success, according to the historian, Josephus, Herodias persuaded Antipas to ask Caligula for the title of king for himself. It all backfired, however, when Agrippa brought charges against Antipas to the emperor, Caligula, in the summer of 39 AD, seized Antipas' money and territory, giving them to Agrippa, while he exiled Antipas.  Herodias joined her husband in exile, where Antipas died. Among the followers of Jesus and members of the early Christian movement mentioned in the New Testament are Joanna, the wife of one of Antipas' stewards, and Manaen, a "foster-brother" or "companion" of Antipas.  Presumably, these were sources for early Christian knowledge of Antipas and his court. 
If we’re to take anything away from this rather lengthy portrayal of Herod Antipas and those surrounding him, it might be the dramatic contrast between him and them, and John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth and their followers.  In the words of Nadia Bolz-Weber above, “There’ s just not a huge market for the message ‘Jesus bids you come and die’...” -- an echo of Jesus’ words: “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me...For those who lose their life for my sake will find it...”, or as  Paul says in 1 Corinthians: “For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” 
In today’s first reading (Amos 7:7-15) the herdsman/dresser of sycamore trees, called by God to prophesy, sees the vision of the plumb line by which God’s measures Israel. God sends Amos to warn them of the coming disaster because of their complacency and self-indulgence, similar to Herod Antipas’ behavior. The irate priest of Bethel, Amaziah, reports Amos to the king, and warns to go back to Judah; his message is unwelcome. But Amos stays the course and continues to speak the uncomfortable truth.  
St. Paul outlines Christ’s life-giving power in the Epistle (Ephesians 1:3-14): Jesus’ followers are “blessed”, in the midst of and despite opposition, persecution, even death, by those who would deny the cost of discipleship. He assures the Ephesians and us that we’re given every imaginable spiritual blessing: chosen in Christ, adopted into God’s family, redeemed through Jesus’ blood, forgiven our sins, lavished with grace upon grace.  To those, who like John the Baptizer and Amos, are courageous enough to stand up for what is right and just and holy, God-in-Christ gives wisdom, insight, and understanding into “the mystery of [God’s] will”, visibly in Jesus’ words and actions, and interiorly in our hearts through “an inheritance”,  the “seal of the promised Holy Spirit” of Love. It’s this Spirit which gives us hope to endure beyond the cross as we turn all our effort toward living “for the praise of his glory.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lily Of The Mohawks

Kateri (Catherine) Tekakwitha (Tagaskouïta, Tegakwitha), the daughter of a Christian Algonquin squaw and a pagan Mohawk, was born in 1656 at Ossernenon (Auriesville, N.Y.).  Her mother, who had been brought up by French settlers at Trois-Rivières, was captured c. 1653. Shortly afterwards she was chosen as wife by a Mohawk . In 1660 she, her husband and her last-born child died of smallpox. Four-year-old Catherine almost died; her face was left pock-marked and her eyes were badly affected. The sun’s brightness bothered her and she had to feel her way around as she walked. Her Iroquois name “Tekakwitha” can be translated as, "One who places things in order", “To put all into place”, or possibly "She pushes with her hands" or "Who walks groping for her way", referring to her faulty eyesight. She was taken in by her two aunts and an uncle, the first chieftain of the village and a declared enemy of the Christian faith.       

 In the autumn of 1666 the Mohawk villages, with all their stores, were burned down. Ossernenon was rebuilt under the name of Gandaouagué, on the other side of the Mohawk River, west of the former site. As a result of this the Mohawks begged for peace and asked for missionaries, three of whom arrived in September 1667. During their stay, Catherine took care of the Jesuits, and she was impressed by their piety and kind manners. 

 Attempts were made several times by her family to arrange marriage for her, but she always refused, to their great displeasure. Since two-thirds of the population of Gandaouagué were Christian Algonquins and Hurons, Catherine had undoubtedly heard much about the Ursuline Sisters of Quebec and about religious life. 

In 1674, when she was 18, Jesuit Father Jacques de Lamberville came to Gandaouagué and established a chapel.  Her uncle disliked the "Blackrobe" and his strange new religion, but tolerated his presence.  Catherine vaguely remembered her mother's whispered prayers, and was fascinated by the new stories she heard about Jesus Christ and wanted to learn more about him in order to be baptized. Father de Lamberville persuaded her uncle to allow Catherine to take religious instructions.  On Easter Day, 1676, 20 year old Catherine was baptized.  With great joy, she received the name of “Kateri”, Mohawk for “Catherine”.         

 Kateri’s conversion and her desire to devote her life to God’s work resulted in increasing hostility from her people, even to the point where she was threatened with death. Father de Lamberville urged her to pray unremittingly and to leave the village to go to the Catholic mission, Saint François-Xavier at Sault Saint-Louis, near Montreal, some 200 miles away. In the autumn of 1677, with the aid of three Indian neophytes, she succeeded in fleeing.       

 At Saint-François-Xavier Mission Kateri Tekakwitha was finally able to prepare herself for a life devoted to God. Anastasie Tegonhatsiongo, who had formerly been her mother’s friend at Ossernenon, acted as her spiritual guide. Because of her exceptional qualities Kateri was allowed to take her first Communion on Christmas Day, 1677, sooner than for most converts. Then, in the spring of 1678, though she was still very young, she was received into the Confrérie de la Sainte-Famille. She taught the young and helped those in the village who were poor or sick.  Kateri spoke words of kindness to everyone she encountered.  Her favorite devotion was to fashion crosses out of sticks and place them throughout the woods.  These served as reminders to her of continual prayer.       

Kateri Tekakwitha’s spiritual life was marked by extraordinary purity of body and spirit, and great charity towards all. As a Christian laywoman Kateri participated in full the life of the Indians, whether in the village or on the great winter hunts, up until two years before she died. During the latter she would create a “chapel” by carving a cross on a tree and spending time there in prayer. When she could no longer go on the hunts, she relied on the Eucharist to which she was greatly devoted. Even at the risk of suffering physical hunger, she no longer wished to be away from the church for long months. She used ascetic practices throughout her life, sometimes painful ones, though Father de Lamberville helped her keep them in moderation. On the other hand, she appreciated good jokes and knew how to laugh heartily.       

One of Kateri’s dreams was to found a community of Indian nuns, but Father de Lamberville persuaded her to give up the idea. Nevertheless, on March 25, 1679, the feast of the Annunciation, she was permitted to take a private personal vow of life-long chastity. Thus, the origin of her later nickname: “Lily of the Mohawks”.       

Though she’d endured health problems throughout her life, Kateri became aware at the beginning of 1680 that she was seriously ill. On the Tuesday of Holy Week she received the Last Sacraments, and died the next day, April 17, 1680, at almost 24 years of age, while uttering the names of Jesus and Mary. 

After her death Father Pierre Cholonec and others observed that Kateri’s face, scarred and disfigured by smallpox, had become remarkably clear and beautiful. A strong devotion of intercession to her rose very quickly. In 1688 Bishop Jean-Baptiste de La Croix de Chevrières de Saint-Vallier, the second bishop of Quebec, called her “the Geneviève of Canada”, a theme that François-René de Chateaubriand was to develop in Les Natchez. In 1744 Father Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix wrote that she was “universally regarded as the Protectress of Canada”. Devotion to the Venerable Kateri Tekakwitha has spread throughout the world, especially to Canada and the United States. Each year there are increasing pilgrimages to Auriesville and to Saint-François-Xavier Mission at Caughnawaga, where Kateri’s relics are preserved. 

On June 22, 1980, Pope John Paul II declared Kateri Tekakwitha “Blessed”, and Pope Benedict XVI is scheduled to canonize her as Saint Kateri Tekakwitha on October 21, 2012, the first Native American woman to receive this honor. 

(Primary source: Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, University of Toronto/ Université Laval) 

Alma Ransom, a lifelong resident of the Akwesasne Reservation 
and was the elected chief of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. 
She has helped lead the finally successful efforts to make 
Kateri Tekawitha a Roman Catholic saint. 
Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintan, the Apostolic Nuncio in Canada, 
will give Pope Benedict XIV a traditional Indian basket 
when he canonizes Blessed Kateri on Oct. 21  (Courtesy Alma Ransom)

Friday, July 13, 2012

The First Saint of Chile - St. Teresa de los Andes

St. Teresa was born in Santiago, Chile on July 13, 1900. At the font she was christened Juana Enriqueta Josefina of the Sacred Hearts Fernandez Solar. Her family and those who were close to her called her "Juana" or "Juanita". She grew up in the midst of a large family: her parents, Miguel Fernandez and Lucia Solar, three brothers and two sisters, her maternal grandfather, uncles, aunts and cousins. Her family lived comfortably, and were faithful in living their Christian faith. 

Juana had been educated in the college of the French nuns of the Sacred Heart. When she was 14, under God's inspiration, she consecrated herself to God as a religious in the Discalced Carmelite Nuns. This desire of her was realized on May 7, 1919, when she entered the tiny monastery of the Holy Spirit in the township of Los Andes, about 90 kilometers from Santiago. 

She received the Carmelite habit on October 14 that same year and began her novitiate with the name of Teresa of Jesus. It appears that God revealed to her that she would die young. A month before she died, she related this to her confessor. Nonetheless, she accepted all this with happiness, serenity and confidence. She was certain that her mission to make God known and loved would continue in eternity. 

She became ill early in 1920 and received the last sacraments with the utmost fervor. On April 7, because of the danger of death, she was allowed to make her religious profession. She was three months short of her 20th birthday, and had yet six months to complete her canonical novitiate and to be legally able to make her profession. 

After many interior trials and indescribable physical suffering caused by the disease of typhus which cut short her life, she passed from this world on the evening of April 12, 1920, as a Discalced Carmelite novice. 

 Her community was quick to discover the hand of God in her past life. The young novice found in the Carmelite way of life the full and efficient channel for extending to others Christ's grace of life which she wanted to give to the Church. It was a way of life for which she was born and that, in her own way, she had lived among her own family and friends. The Order of the Virgin Mary of Mount Carmel fulfilled Teresa's desires. It was proof to her that Christ's mother, whom she had loved from infancy, had drawn her to be part of it. St. Teresa of Jesus of the Andes was beatified by Pope John Paul II in Santiago on April 3, 1987, and canonized by him on March 21, 1993. Her remains are venerated in the Sanctuary of Auco-Rinconada of Los Andes by thousands of pilgrims who come each year. St. Teresa of Jesus of the Andes is the first Chilean to be declared a saint.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Prince of Humanists - Desiderius Erasmus (c. 1466-1536)

Born Gerrit Gerriszoon, an illegitimate child of a physician's daughter, by a man who later became a monk, Erasmus later changed his name to Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus. A gay Roman Catholic Augustinian monk and a priest, social critic, teacher, and theologian, Erasmus was a champion of religious toleration. He was very independent throughout his lifetime, and though critical of many things, not least of which was the Church, he believed in cultivating common sense to apply to human affairs, and in the value of people trying to work things out amicably and of trying to reform the Church from within. Understandably, he made few friends. When the Reformation started, he supported the Reformers, by and large, though he had major disagreements with some of their ideas and decisions, particularly those of Martin Luther. Erasmus was a prolific writer, even penning A Handbook On Manners For Children. He died on July 12, 1536, and was buried in the former Catholic cathedral, converted into a Reformed church in 1529. 

As part of his legacy, Erasmus left behind a wealth of memorable quotes:

"I consider as lovers of books not those who keep their books hidden in their store-chests and never handle them, but those who, by nightly as well as daily use thumb them, batter them, wear them out, who fill out all the margins with annotations of many kinds, and who prefer the marks of a fault they have erased to a neat copy full of faults." (Letter to an unidentified friend, 1489)

"A constant element of enjoyment must be mingled with our studies, so that we think of learning as a game rather than a form of drudgery, for no activity can be continued for long if it does not to some extent afford pleasure to the participant." (Letter to Christian Northoff, 1497)

"I have turned my entire attention to Greek. The first thing I shall do, as soon as the money arrives, is to buy some Greek authors; after that, I shall buy clothes." (Letter to Jacob Batt April 12, 1500) (Also translated as: "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.")

"The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war." (Adagia1508)

"I am a citizen of the world, known to all and to all a stranger." (Quoted in Erasmus (1970) by György Faludy, p. 197)