Tuesday, August 30, 2011

"The Fond du Lac Circus"

Today we celebrate the commemoration of Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton (1830-1912), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac (1888-1912) and ecumenist. The Episcopal Church has been noted through the years for having a wide range of theological and liturgical "styles", ranging from low Evangelical to high Anglo-Catholic. The Diocese of Fond du Lac has longed been noted for its high Anglo-Catholic character. In fact, more staid wags, especially among Episcopal clergy, have often referred to it as "Fond du Lace". 

Charles Grafton was one of five children, born into a family with a rich history dating back to 1636, when the Graftons came to the U.S. from Southwell, Suffolk, England. Originally, Charles studied to be a lawyer, attending Boston Latin School, then Phillips-Andover Academy. Having developed a serious problem with his eyes, he was forced to complete his secondary education at home with a tutor. In 1851 he entered Harvard Law School, receiving an LL.B. in 1853. By this time, he'd been attending the Church of the Advent in Boston, where he later became the fourth Rector, and where he began to follow the stirrings of a vocation to the priesthood, as well as a great interest in the Oxford Movement.

In 1865 he travelled to England to meet with one of the great Oxford Movement leaders, Edward Bouverie Pusey. Within a year, he co-founded the Society of Mission Priests of St. John the Evangelist, along with Richard Benson and Samuel O'Neill. The group later became known as the Cowley Fathers, from the town of Cowley where the original band lived in community. Three years later, Charles Grafton was elected bishop of the Diocese of Fond du Lac, WI, one of the smallest and poorest in the American Church. The work which Grafton did as bishop is a long record of major signifcance to the later spiritual life of the Episcopal Church. He made rich contributions to the liturgy, to the ecumenical movement, and to religious life by the founding of the Sisters of the Nativity. Unfortunately, not a lot of his fellow-bishops, clergy and people, generally in the Episcopal Church, were as enthusiastic as he was in these areas, and, understandably, he took a lot of flack through the years.

One of the most noted, and perhaps most controversial, events in Grafton's long life was the ordination of Reginald Heber Weller as bishop coadjutor on November 18, 1900, at St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral in Fond du Lac. It's quite awesome to realize that two great later Russian saints, St. Tikhon, then Bishop of Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and North America, and St. John Kochurov, young priest and later hieromartyr in the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, were, at Bishop Grafton's invitation, participants in the event. A large group of traditionally vested, high Church Episcopal bishops and one bishop of the Polish National Catholic Church, Prime Bishop of Old Catholics in America, Anthony Kozlowski, were present. After the service the group photo [seen above] was taken, probably the first time that high Church Episcopal bishops had been photographed in full regalia. Needless to say, it caused quite a stir throughout the Church, especially among low Church Episcopalians who considered such vesture far too "popish". The event came to be called the "Fond du Lac Circus". 

Seated l to r above are: The Rt. Rev. Isaac Lea Nicholson, Episcopal Bishop of Milwaukee; the Rt. Rev. Charles Chapman Grafton, Episcopal Bishop of Fond du Lac; and the Rt. Rev. Charles P. Anderson, Episcopal Bishop Coadjutor of Chicago.

Standing l to r are: the Rt. Rev. Anthony Kozlowski of the Polish National Catholic Church ; the Rt. Rev. G. M. Williams, Episcopal Bishop of Marquette (now Northern Michigan); the Rt. Rev. Reginald Weller, Bishop Coadjutor of Fond du Lac; the Rt. Rev. Joseph M. Francis, Episcopal Bishop of Indianapolis; the Rt. Rev. William E. McLaren, Episcopal Bishop of Chicago; the Rt. Rev. Arthur L. Williams, Bishop Coadjutor of Nebraska; St. John Kochurov of Chicago and Fr. Sebastian Dabitovich, chaplains to the Russian Bishop; and St. Tikhon, then Orthodox Bishop of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Shortly before he died a peaceful death, after receiving the last rites, Bishop Grafton woke suddenly and cried out: "Glory! Glory! I have seen the Lord and he turned and embraced me!" Fr. John Julian, OJN, says of this extraordinary servant of God: "It can be said without qualification or question that this one man holds the principal responsibility for permanent and earth-shaking changes in the Episcopal Church. A major portion of the practice and teachings that are now universally normative in the Church can find their origins in the life and work of Charles Chapman Grafton and his disciples." (Stars In A Dark World, p. 475)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Beheading of John the Baptizer

The story of John's beheading is tailor-made for a novel or movie, having all the necessary elements: an unjustly imprisoned hero; a femme fatale; luxury; power; politics; a sexy dancing girl; drunken bravado; murder. 

Here is St. Mark's version of the story: "For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married. For John had been saying to Herod, 'It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.' So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

Finally the opportune time came. On his birthday Herod gave a banquet for his high officials and military commanders and the leading men of Galilee. When the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests. The king said to the girl, 'Ask me for anything you want, and I’ll give it to you.' And he promised her with an oath, 'Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom.'
She went out and said to her mother, 'What shall I ask for?' 'The head of John the Baptist,' she answered. At once the girl hurried in to the king with the request: 'I want you to give me right now the head of John the Baptist on a platter.'

The king was greatly distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he did not want to refuse her. So he immediately sent an executioner with orders to bring John’s head. The man went, beheaded John in the prison, and brought back his head on a platter. He presented it to the girl, and she gave it to her mother. On hearing of this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb."

Herod Antipater was probably born pre-20 BC and died after 39 AD. Known by the nickname Antipas, he was a 1st-century AD ruler of Galilee and Perea, and bore the title of tetrarch = "ruler of a quarter". After inheriting his territories when the kingdom of his father, Herod the Great, was divided upon the latter's death in 4 BC, Antipas ruled them as a client state of the Roman Empire. He was responsible for building projects at Sepphoris and Betharamphtha, and more important for the construction of his capital, Tiberias, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. Named in honor of his patron, the Emperor Tiberius, the city later became a center of rabbinic learning.

Antipas divorced his first wife, Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, in favour of Herodias, who had formerly been married to Antipas' brother Herod Philip I. Aside from occasioning a disapproving rebuke from the Baptizer, Antipas' divorce added a personal grievance to previous disputes with Aretas over territory on the border of Perea and Nabatea. The resulting war proved disastrous for Antipas. A Roman counter-offensive was ordered by Tiberius, but abandoned when he died in 37 AD. In 39 AD Antipas' nephew, Agrippa I, accused him of conspiracy against the new Roman emperor, Caligula, who sent him and Herodias into exile in Gaul. Antipas  died there at an unknown date. 

The Synoptic Gospels agree that Herod had imprisoned John because he reproved Herod for divorcing his wife, Phasaelis, and for then unlawfully taking Herodias, wife of his brother Herod Philip I. On Herod's birthday, Herodias' daughter, presumably Herod's niece, and traditionally named Salome, danced before the king and his guests: described by Mark as "high officials...military commanders...and the leading men of Galilee." Mark's observation that Salome's dancing pleased Herod so much that, in his drunkenness, he promised to give her anything she desired, up to half of his kingdom, depicts Herod as a randy royal. When the young Salome asks her mother what she should request, perhaps innocently, perhaps teasingly, Herodias, no doubt with a sneering smile on her face, sends Salome back to demand the head of John the Baptizer on a platter. Herod undoubtedly, blinks his eyes, swallows hard and blanches at the request, and very reluctantly agrees, out of human respect for his leering cronies who were probably sitting on the edge of their lounges, waiting to see what he'd do. He gives the order to execute John in the prison, by beheading.

Jewish historian Flavius Josephus relates in his Antiquities of the Jews that Herod, in fact, killed John, stating that Herod did so, "lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his [John's] power and inclination to raise a rebellion, (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), [so Herod] thought it best [to put] him to death." Josephus further states that many of the Jews believed that the military disaster which fell upon Herod at the hands of Aretas, his father-in-law, Phasaelis' father, was God's punishment for his unrighteous behavior.

John the Baptizer became a popular saint early on. The liturgical commemoration of his beheading is almost as old as that commemorating his nativity, one of the oldest feasts, if not the oldest feast, introduced into both the Eastern and Western liturgies. Believe it or not, the Eastern Christians celebrate several feasts related to the finding of John the Baptizer's head.  The First and Second Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist is celebrate on February 24. According to Church tradition after John's execution, his disciples buried his body at Sebaste, but Herodias (?) took his severed head and buried it in a dung heap. Later, St. Joanna, of Herod's steward, secretly dug up the head and buried it on the Mount of Olives where it remained hidden for centuries.

The First Finding is said to have occurred in the 4th century. The property on the Mount of Olives where the head was buried had passed into the possession of a government official, who later became a monk, taking the name Innocent. Innocent built a church and a monastic cell there on his property. When he began to dig the foundation, a vessel with the head of John the Baptist was uncovered. Fearful that the relic might be abused by unbelievers, Innocent is said to have hid it again in the same place where he had found it. Upon his death the church fell into ruin and was destroyed.

The Second Finding is said to have occurred in the year 452. During the days of Constantine the Great, two monks on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem reportedly experienced visions of John the Baptizer, who revealed to them the location of his head. Uncovering the relic, they placed it in a sack and proceeded home. Along the way they encountered an unnamed potter and gave him the bag to carry, not telling him what it was. St. John the Forerunner is then said to have appeared to the potter and ordered him to keep the bag and to flee from the careless, lazy monks. He took the head home with him, and before his death he placed it in a container and gave it to his sister. 

After some time, a hieromonk by the name of Eustathius, an Arian, came into possession of the head, using it to attract followers to his teaching. He then buried it in a cave, near Emesa, where a monastery was eventually built. In the year 452 John the Baptizer is said to have appeared to Archimandrite Marcellus of this monastery, and revealed where his head was hidden: in a water jar buried in the earth. The relic was brought into the city of Emesa, and was later transferred to Constantinople.

The Third Finding of the Head of St. John the Baptist is celebrated on May 25. John's head was said to have been transferred to Comana in Cappadocia during a period of Muslim raids, around 820, and hidden in the ground during the period of iconoclastic persecution. When the veneration of icons was finally restored in 850, Patriarch Ignatius of Constantinople (847-857) is said to have had a vision in which the place where John's head had been hidden was made known. The patriarch communicated this to Emperor Michael III, who sent a delegation to Comana where the head was found. Afterwards, the head was again transferred to Constantinople, and here, on May 25, it was placed in a church at the imperial court.

Over the centuries, it has been noted that there are many discrepancies in the various legends and claimed relics of the Baptizer's head throughout the Christian world. Even Muslim tradition claims that it was interred at the Umayyad mosque in Damascus! I think it's safe to say that no one knows where it is and, in the end, does it really matter?

St. Ambrose, in a section from his work On Virgins, Book 3.26 reflects on the story: "And since we must not cursorily pass by the mention of so great a man, let us consider who he was, by whom, on what account, how, and at what time he was slain. A just man, he is put to death by adulterers, and the penalty of a capital crime is turned off by the guilty on to the judge. Again the reward of the dancer is the death of the prophet. Lastly (a matter of honour even to all barbarians), the cruel sentence is given in the midst of banqueting and festivities, and the news of the deadly crime is carried from the banquet to the prison, and then from the prison to the banquet. How many crimes are there in one wicked act!

A banquet of death is set out with royal luxury, and when a larger concourse than usual had come together, the daughter of the queen, sent for from within the private apartments, is brought forth to dance in the sight of men. What could she have learnt from an adulteress but loss of modesty? Is anything so conducive to lust as with unseemly movements thus to expose in nakedness those parts of the body which either nature has hidden or custom has veiled, to sport with the looks, to turn the neck, to loosen the hair? Fitly was the next step an offence against God. For what modesty can there be where there is dancing and noise and clapping of hands?

'Then,' it is said, 'the king being pleased, said unto the damsel, that she should ask of the king whatsoever she would. Then he swore that if she asked he would give her even the half of his kingdom.' See how worldly men themselves judge of their worldly power, so as to give even kingdoms for dancing. But the damsel, being taught by her mother, demanded that the head of John should be brought to her on a dish. That which is said that 'the king was sorry,' is not repentance on the part of the king, but a confession of guilt, which is, according to the wont of the divine rule, that they who have done evil condemn themselves by their own confession. 'But for their sakes which sat with him,"'it is said. What is more base than that a murder should be committed in order not to displease those who sat at meat? 'And,' it follows, 'for his oath's sake.' What a new religion! He had better have forsworn himself. The Lord therefore in the Gospel bids us not to swear at all, that there be no cause for perjury, and no need of offending. And so an innocent man is slain that an oath be not violated. I know which to have in the greatest horror. Perjury is more endurable than are theoaths of tyrants.

Who would not think when he saw some one running from the banquet to the prison, that orders had been given to set the prophet free? Who, I say, having heard that it was Herod's birthday, and of the state banquet, and the choice given to the damsel of choosing whatever she wished, would not think that the man was sent to set John free? What has cruelty in common with delicacies? What have death and pleasure in common? The prophet is hurried to suffer at a festal time by a festal order, by which he would even wish to be set free; he is slain by the sword, and his head is brought on a platter. This dish was well suited to their cruelty, in order that their insatiate savageness might be feasted.

Look, most savage king, at the sights worthy of thy feast. Stretch forth thy right hand, that nothing be wanting to thy cruelty, that streams of holy blood may pour down between thy fingers. And since the hunger for such unheard-of cruelty could not be satisfied by banquets, nor the thirst by goblets, drink the blood pouring from the still flowing veins of the cut-off head. Behold those eyes, even in death, the witnesses of thy crime, turning away from the sight of the delicacies. The eyes are closing, not so much owing to death, as to horror of luxury. That bloodless golden mouth, whose sentence thou couldst not endure, is silent, and yet thou fearest. Yet the tongue, which even after death is wont to observe its duty as when living, condemned, though with trembling motion, the incest. This head is borne to Herodias: she rejoices, she exults as though she had escaped from the crime, because she has slain her judge."

The Collect for today's liturgy of the Beheading of John the Baptizer suggests the direction we might take, having ourselves reflected on all this:

Almighty God, by whose providence your servant John the
Baptizer was sent to prepare the way of your Son our Savior by 
preaching repentance: Make us so to follow his teaching and 
holy life, that we may truly repent according to his preaching; 
and, following his example, constantly speak the truth, 
boldly rebuke vice, and patiently suffer for the truth’s sake; 
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns 
with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

"Turn Aside & See"

There’s a perennial saying that’s passed around seminarian and clergy/preacher types, in a variety of forms, that a sermon should have three points and a concluding poem or story. Following that format, for whatever it’s worth, I offer the following.

POINT 1: Last week the Gospel from Matthew challenged us to answer a question which Jesus posed to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?”  Following up on that, this week’s reading from the Book of Exodus (3:1-15) poses two further questions:  
- Who am I?
- Who is God?
God pushes you and me continuously -- sometimes gently, sometime with a shove -- to “turn aside”, as Moses did, and to see: to see who we really are ourselves; and to see who God is for us.  In every case, it is God who speaks to us.  God confronts us with God’s own mystery, and also with a call to some kind of service to one others amidst the mundane routine of our lives.  God speaks to us a Name which defines Godself: who God is, and in the revealing also calls us to declare who we really are and what we’re committed to do.
As with Moses, it’s a sensitive, compassionate God who speaks to us, One who has seen, heard, and who knows what’s going on in our lives, but also a dynamic active Being who makes it very clear that God is ever with us, right in the thick of all the “action”.
Typically, like Moses, when you and I are called aside to face who we are and who God is in relation to us, we tend to react in two ways:
1) “Not me -- I can’t.
2) “Prove it.
God’s response, in simple terms, is:
1) “Yes, you can, because I will be with you.”  
2) “I AM WHO [I ]AM and I am with you.
God’s response is both an answer and an evasion to Moses’ and our questionings.  But God makes clear that it’s only through faithful living -- being what God wants us to be and doing what God wants us to do -- that the full meaning of God’s Name, which really stands for who God is, becomes known to us.  And this always has to do, in some way, with compassion towards others, with justice, liberation from oppression, and love.
POINT 2:  Neither you nor I really enjoy being confronted with questions like the one which Jesus asked last week and which the Scriptures raise for us this week.  What unnerves us even more, as followers of Jesus, are the nitty-gritty specifics of being and doing, such as those which St. Paul proposes to us in the Epistle today (Romans 12:9-21).  While Paul wrote them down as a sort of catalog of compassionate, justice-making, liberating and loving acts to which the Living God in Jesus calls us, we, fully aware of our inadequacy and selfishness, may tend to view them more as a list of horrors: really love one another, outdoing each other with honesty and generosity; hate evil; act with focus and passion; bring to others the joy of hopefulness; accept suffering; keep praying even if you’re spiritually dry, or it’s boring, or you see no results; let your first impulse be: “How can I help my sister/brother?”; welcome everyone.  Period.  No exceptions; be gracious even to those who give you a hard time; be empathetic and sympathetic whatever the occasion; let unity always guide how you live with one another; be humble and realize that you don’t know everything; never take revenge or avenge yourself; to the best of your ability, be at peace with everyone; give food and drink to the hungry regardless of who they are; refuse to let evil direct your life, but only what is good. Paul says that such a rule of life defines who you and I really are, or can become, in relation to the Living God -- not by oneself, but in the power of the God who assures us: “I will be with you.
POINT 3:    You and I don’t always “buy” this: whether out of fear, or laziness, or selfishness.  We’re much like Peter in the Gospel (Matthew 16:21-28) who, misunderstanding what God is really up to in our lives, is shocked and appalled -- scandalized even -- when Jesus acknowledges that his mission and ministry is taking him to Jerusalem, and to certain suffering and death.  We moderns don’t like the theology of the cross, and we seem to make every effort to shove suffering and dying into the background of our lives, and to “prettify” and dress it up so that it isn’t so....you know,...such a “downer”.  But Jesus, knowing that God is calling him to the supreme act of compassion, justice, liberation and love -- giving his life for us on the cross -- literally puts Peter in his place: “Get behind me, Satan!... you’ve set your mind not on the things of God but on human things.”  
Then Jesus throws down a challenge:  “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  It comes down to this: when you and I answer God’s call to turn aside to “see” , how much do you and I really trust God and accept God’s word, especially if there seems to be no apparent human reason to do so.  Even here, God continues to call us to respond by being and by doing, and that will cost us as dearly as it cost Jesus.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis, in his beautiful book The Cost of Discipleship, wrote from prison about “cheap” grace and “costly” grace.  He describes cheap grace as “Grace without price; grace without cost!”  We assume that, because Jesus has “paid” our account in advance, we can live our spiritual lives without it costing us much.  Costly grace, he says, “is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a [person] must knock...Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of [God’s] Son...it is grace because God did not reckon God’s Son too dear a price to pay for our life...
CONCLUSION:  Perhaps a simple story, called The Diamond Necklace, can say all this more succinctly:
“The cheerful little girl with bouncy golden curls was almost five. Waiting with her mother at the checkout stand, she saw them: a circle of glistening white pearls in a foil box. ‘Oh mommy please, Mommy.  Can I have them? Please, Mommy, please?’ Quickly the mother checked the back of the little foil box and then looked back into the pleading blue eyes of her little girl's upturned face.  ‘A dollar ninety-five.  That's almost $2.00. If you really want them, I'll think of some extra chores for you and in no time you can save enough money to buy them for yourself. Your birthday's only a week away and you might get another crisp dollar bill from Grandma.
As soon as Jenny got home, she emptied her piggy bank and counted out her pennies.  After dinner, she did more than her share of chores, and she went to her neighbor, Mrs. McJames, and asked if she could pick dandelions for ten cents.  And sure enough, on her birthday, Grandma gave her another new dollar bill.  At last she had enough money to buy the necklace. 
Jenny loved her pearls. They made her feel dressed up and grown up.  She wore them everywhere: to Sunday school, to kindergarten, even to bed.  The only time she took them off was when she went swimming or had a bubble bath.  Mother said that if they got wet, they might turn her neck green.  
Jenny had a very loving Daddy and every night when she was ready for bed, he would stop whatever he was doing and come upstairs to read her a story.  One night as he finished the story, he asked, ‘Jenny, Do you love me?Oh yes, Daddy.  You know that I love you.’  ‘Then could I have your pearls?” “Oh, Daddy, not my pearls!  But you can have Princess, the white horse from my collection, the one with the pink tail.  Remember, Daddy? The one you gave me.  She's my very favorite.' ‘That's okay, Honey, Daddy loves you.  Good night.’  And he brushed her cheek with a kiss. 
About a week later, after the story time, Jenny's Daddy asked again, ‘Do you love me?' ‘Daddy, you know I love you.’ ‘Then let me have your pearls.' ‘Oh Daddy, not my pearls. But you can have my baby doll. The brand new one I got for my birthday.  She is beautiful and you can even have the yellow blanket that matches her sleeper.’  ‘That's okay.  Sleep well, little one, and God bless you.  Daddy loves you.’  And as always, he brushed her cheek with a gentle kiss. 
A few nights later when her Daddy came in, Jenny was sitting on her bed with her legs crossed Indian style.  As he came close, he noticed that her chin was trembling and one silent tear rolled down her cheek.  ‘What is it, Jenny? What's the matter?’ Jenny didn't say anything as she lifted her little hand up to her Daddy.  And when she opened it, there was her little pearl necklace. Her voice quivering, she finally said, ‘Here, Daddy; this is for you.’ 
With tears gathering in his own eyes, Jenny's Daddy reached out with one hand to take the dime-store necklace, and with the other hand he reached into his pocket and pulled out a blue velvet case which contained a strand of genuine pearls, and gave them to Jenny.  He had had them all the time.  He was just waiting for her to give up the dime-store stuff so that he could give her the genuine treasure.” 

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Nathanael/Nathaniel comes from the Hebrew name נְתַנְאֵל/Nethan'el meaning "God has given".  Bartholomew/Bartholomaios comes from the Aramaic bar-Tôlmay (תולמי‎‎‎‎‎-בר‎‎), meaning son of Tolmay or son of the furrows, perhaps a ploughman. For a long time people have assumed that St. Bartholomew, Apostle, is the same person as Nathanael who appears in John's Gospel. In that story (1:43-51) Philip tells Nathanael that he and others think they've found the Messiah, the Anointed One: Jesus from Nazareth. Nathanael doesn't disguise his low estimation of Nazareth and its inhabitants: "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" You get the impression that Nathanael was probably one of those men who doesn't hesitate to say what he thinks, no matter how blunt, no matter how it might be taken. To his credit, Philip responds in a way which can serve as an excellent guide for us in responding to folks who initially turn up their noses at the mention of Jesus, or of God, or of religion: "Come and see.

Nathanael doesn't even finish approaching before Jesus exclaims: "Here's a truly honest Jewish man!" What better quality for one who, though he still doesn't know it, is being recruited to spread the Good News of God in the Christ! Nathanael, however, is still wary of this Nazarene. "Where did you get to know me?" We don't know the background of Jesus' cryptic reply, but the sense is that Jesus has had his eye on Nathanael for awhile without the latter's knowing it. He apparently observed Nathanael "under the fig tree", either close by or from afar, well before Philip approached Nathanael. What this "observation" consisted in, we don't know, but it was likely a rather deep experience. When Jesus acknowledges it aloud, Nathanael is blown away, and, in an instant, recognizes that this man from Nazareth is exactly who Philip claimed he was. "Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!

Jesus promises Nathanael that "You will see greater things than these...", then uses words referring to Genesis 28:12 and Jacob's dream at Bethel, where Jacob envisioned a ladder reaching to heaven, on which God's messengers were ascending and descending, an indication that God provides humankind with an open means  of communicating with the living God. It's an image of one's life, one's experiences, the people in one's life. In Jacob's words: "Surely the Lord is in this place -- and I did not know it!...How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God [beth + el], and this is the gate of heaven." Here, if anywhere, is where life is lived: in the exact context of my own given life circumstances, so that I don't have to go running around searching for where God is and operates. It's right here, even in the things, events, and people that I don't really prefer sometimes, even in places where I wouldn't ever think to look for God.

Nathanael was later present with the others beside the Sea of Galilee at the resurrection. Likely, he was by then, a long time after the fig tree, astounded at his depth of comprehension of what this Nazarene had come to mean in his life and in that of those surrounding him. I'm guessing he no longer so quickly voiced his opinions on peoples' places of origin!   

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Witnesses to Faith In South America

Born in Lima, Peru, in 1579, Juan Martin de Porres was the illegitimate son of a Spanish nobleman and a young black Panamanian former slave. Because he had his mother's dark skin, his father abandoned the family. Some "nobleman", indeed! Martin's sister, Juana, was born three years later in 1581. Victims of poverty, his mother wasn't able to support him and his sister. Martin was entrusted to a primary school for two years, then placed with a barber/surgeon in order to learn the medical arts. Even at only 10 years old, he already saw to the needs of others, at the same time earning his keep. Already he was spending hours of the night in prayer, a practice which increased rather than diminished as he grew older. At age 15 he applied to the Dominicans to be a lay helper. Received as a tertiary, he was employed as a servant, then as almoner in the Order which at that time had racial barriers against people of color. In his early 30's his superiors lifted the racial ban because of his faithfulness, and Martin took vows as a Dominican in 1603, clothed as a Coadjutor Brother. He was placed in charge of the infirmary, where he would serve until his death at the age of 60, and he became known for his tender care of the sick and for unusual cures. During epidemics, Martin, and even his sister, Juana, saw to the needs of those afflicted. During normal times, Martin fed as many as 160 people a day and distributed substantial alms to the poor and needy. He was a friend of St. Juan Macías, another Dominican lay brother who later evangelized in Peru, and St. Rosa de Lima (see below) who shared his passion for the sick and poor. Martin died in 1639 and was canonized a saint in 1962 by Blessed Pope John XXIII. He is considered the patron of people of mixed race,  innkeepers, barbers, and public health workers.

The first saint proclaimed in the Americas, Rosa de Lima, was born in 1586 in the city of that name, the daughter of Gaspar Flores, a cavalryman originally from Puerto Rico, and Maria de Oliva, a native Peruvian. Christened Isabel (Elizabeth), her nickname "Rosa" is attributed to the fact that, when she was a baby, a servant claimed to have seen her face transform into a rose. In 1597 she was personally confirmed by the Archbishop of Lima, Toribio de Mongrovejo (see below), also later a saint. She formally took the name of Rosa at that time. Devoted as she was as a young girl to the Dominican, St. Catherine of Siena, Rosa began to fast and do penance in secret.  Rosa was exceedingly beautiful and, because of  her family’s fading fortunes, she feared being married off to a wealthy  man in exchange for her dowry. Not wanting this to happen, Rosa, against the objections of her friends and her family, cut off her hair and disfigured her face with pepper and lye. In order to contribute to her family’s upkeep, Rosa took in sewing and served as a gardener. Her exquisite lace and embroidery also helped to care for the poor, while her nights were devoted to prayer and penance in a little grotto which she had built. She spent many hours contemplating the Blessed Sacrament, which she received daily. She was determined to take a vow of virginity, in opposition to her parents who wished her to marry. Finally, out of frustration, her father gave her a room to herself in the family home. Out of her prayer grew a strong desire to do works of mercy for the poorest of the poor, particularly for Indians, slaves, and others on the margins of society. She wanted to become a nun, but her father refused to allow this. Out of obedience to him, she entered the Third Order of St. Dominic instead, remaining in her parents' home. When Rosa was 20 she donned the habit of a tertiary and took a vow of perpetual virginity. She continued her life of prayer, penance and endured suffering for eleven years, with intervals of ecstasy, until she died in 1617, at the age of 31. She was canonized a saint by Pope Clement X in 1671, and became the patroness of native Indian people of the Americas, of gardeners, of florists, of Lima and of Peru, of the New World, of the city of Santa Rosa, CA, and of Sittard, The Netherlands, of India, and of the resolution of family quarrels. A park is named for her in downtown Sacramento, CA. A plot of land at 7th and K streets was given to the Roman Catholic Church by Peter Burnett, first governor of California. Father Peter Anderson built the first of two churches in the diocese to be consecrated in honor of St. Rose of Lima.

 Toribio Alfonso de Mongrovejo or Turibius of Mongrovejo was a Spanish judge of the court of the infamous Spanish Inquisition and missionary Archbishop of Lima. Born in Spain in 1538, in Mayorga de Campos, Valladolid, Spain, of a noble family, he was highly educated in law and theology. Toribio became professor of law at the highly reputed Universidad de Salamanca. His reputation for learning and virtuous living led to his appointment as Grand Inquisitor of Spain by King Philip II on the Court of the Inquisition at Granada. Around this time, the Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, needed a new leader and Toribio was chosen. He objected because he was a layman, but he was overruled, and was ordained a priest and a bishop. Arriving in Peru in 1581 as Archbishop, at Paita,  600 miles from Lima, he began his mission work by travelling to Lima on foot, baptizing and teaching the natives. He often repeated: "Time is not our own, and we must give a strict account of it." He is said to have traversed the 180,000 square miles of his diocese three times, generally on foot, frequently defenceless and often alone; exposed to tempests, torrents, deserts, wild animals, tropical heat, fever and sometimes threats from hostile tribes. Confronted with the worst of colonialism, Toribio fought injustice in both the church and civil society. It is said that he baptized and confirmed nearly a million souls. Among his flock were St. Rosa de Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He built roads, schoolhouses, chapels, and convents. He founded many churches, religious houses, and hospitals, and, in 1591, founded the seminary at Lima, the first in the Western hemisphere. He also inaugurated the first part of the third Lima Cathedral in 1604. Toribio was seen as a champion of the rights of the natives against their Spanish masters. "There was great opposition to Turibius from the governors of Peru whose authority he challenged," Elizabeth Hallam writes. "He learned local dialects so that he could communicate with–-and convert–-the native peoples, and he was a strong and effective champion of their rights.At Pacasmayo he contracted fever, but continued his ministry to the end, arriving at Saña in a dying condition. Dragging himself to the sanctuary he received Communion for the last time, and died shortly afterwards on March 23, 1606. He was canonized a saint by Benedict XIII in 1726.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

"Who Do You Say That I Am?"

Each of us reaches a time in our life when we can no longer “pass the buck”.  Sooner or later we have to learn to speak for ourselves, to be accountable for our own words and actions.  Every teenager knows the agony of making the transition from “everyone else is doing it” to risking unpopularity and staking a claim on his or her own convictions: a necessary part of the process of maturing.
Even as adults we continue to face such transitions over and over.  During traumatic times, whether with or without the aid of a counselor or a confidante, confronting ourselves and what we stand for can be like being in a crucible: a painful experience of uncovering truths about ourselves which we’d just as soon let lie, yet which, if we’re willing to walk through the discomfort and fear, can lead to a healing of deep wounds.  The word crucible comes from the Latin for a lamp kept burning before a crux or cross.  In common use, it’s a pot in which to melt metal; the hollow part at the bottom of a furnace in which molten metal collects and sits as it undergoes a hot, fiery, refining process.
Such was the experience of the disciples, especially Peter, as they gathered with Jesus at Caesarea Philippi.  They had followed this man, who had nowhere to lay his head, for nearly three years, and all they had to show for it was a lack of both money and prestige, and a growing opposition and outright hatred from the orthodox religious leaders and even from some of Jesus’ hearers.  It wouldn’t be surprising if the thought had crossed their minds: was he at all what he claimed to be?? In a sort of group reality-check, Jesus asks the disciples what other people think of him.  Probably answering with what they thought Jesus wanted to hear, they say that he’s being compared to John the Baptizer, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other great prophets.  At that point, Jesus’ “zings” them with a follow-up question, the only really important one, a very personal question, leaping suddenly out of Matthew’s story (16:13-20) to confront the disciples and us: “But who do you say that I am?
In one of his few finer moments, Peter steps forward and says: “You are God’s Anointed One, the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”  The experience of confronting and testing his own convictions  through the years of following Jesus had led Peter to own his faith.  Hopefully it helps us to realize that knowing Jesus the Christ has to be a personal discovery.  Jesus doesn’t dictate what he wants Peter or the others to say; he doesn’t ask them for a textbook definition or even a creedal quotation.  He challenges, even compels, them to discover the truth inside themselves, from their personal association with him.
Who do you say that I am?”  
How open are you and I to hearing that personal, direct question from Jesus? When, where, and how often, in the midst of our busy lives, do we allow ourselves the time and space to discover what Jesus really means to us? When was the last time you or I even thought about it?
Fr. John Westerhoff, in a book entitled Will Our Children Have Faith?, outlines several phases through which many people generally go in the developing of faith.  Bear in mind that what he suggests is a broad-stroke description and certainly doesn’t always unfold in such a neat manner.  None of us develops exactly the same; in fact, I believe that throughout our lives we may continue to find ourselves in and out of one or all of the phases which he describes.  First, there is given faith, which we usually receive early on and with which those who are baptized are marked, although in American society these days especially, that’s something which can no longer be taken for granted.  As we grow and become more aware we come to affirmative faith, when we begin to affirm or confirm what was given and taught to us earlier.  Traditionally, this has been a time of  “Confirmation” in the Episcopal Church, when one publicly and sacramentally witnesses to the reality of one’s faith.  But in order to keep growing, both as a human being as well as spiritually, there must come a time of questioning faith, when we experience the crucible of struggling with and testing what we hold to be true, periods of doubting and uncertainty, times, perhaps, when even the outward expression of faith is put on hold.  It would be very foolish to deny how important this stage is for a person to emerge eventually in owned faith, which likely will look much different from given faith, and which is where we can begin to tentatively answer Jesus’ question.
The living spirit of Jesus the Christ continues throughout our lives to push us and ask us: “Who do you say that I am?”  He seeks to know us and for us to know him: not as some great personage from the past, not as some egotistic deity, hungry for us to say the “right” complimentary words about him, but as a Person who truly cares for us and what happens to us, as Someone who truly loves us. Jesus asks the disciples this intensely personal question in a very public setting.  They were in Caesarea Philippi, located in the north of Israel (now Syria), between Mt. Hermon, where the River Jordan had its origin, and the Sea of Galilee -- in the midst of swirling idolatrous, political, economic, and religious forces at work at that time. Through many centuries Caesarea Philippi had been the site of Canaanite fertility idol worship of the god Baal, and later of the Greek god Pan, the god of nature, and came to be called Panías (or, today, Banías).  Herod’s son, the tetrach Philip, named it Kaisária, after the emperor.  In Jesus’ day it was called Kaisária Phlippou, to distinguish it from two other Caesarias: one on the Mediterranean Sea shore (northwest of Samaria) and another in Cappadocia (now Turkey).  Caesarea Philippi was one of the most beautiful Middle Eastern cities during Jesus’ time; it was also declared a place of asylum where fugitives could find shelter and safety.  So, it’s against that backdrop: the false gods, the physical beauty, the fugitives, and the escalating emotions of religious and political leaders against him, that Jesus asks the question: “Who do you say that I am?
The question, though intensely personal for us, too, has wider implications: no less than for the disciples of Jesus.  If we’re attuned, we can hear the question being asked of us as we read the morning newspaper, or blog online and surf YouTube, as we tune into the news media, or as we study the positions of those in power, when we participate in issues of local community interest, or as we confront challenges in our lives as Church members: moral, spiritual, and practical, including even the ecological stewardship of the parish grounds.   
Who do you and I say Jesus is in the midst of all the false gods surrounding and threatening us and the planet -- gods of oil, power, competition, partisanship, war?? in the midst of beautiful, but also deteriorating, sprawling, teeming cities?? in the midst of immigrants seeking refuge and sanctuary with us?? in the midst of the struggle for people to have the basics of food, shelter, jobs, health care, and human rights?? Who do you and I say that Jesus is in the midst of these crucibles of current life issues and debates??
As formidable as Jesus’ question is, it comes with a promise.  When we, as individuals or as the Church, are honest in confronting and answering the question for ourselves, you and I become, like Peter and the disciples, a foundation stone which enables Jesus to bring his reign, his kingdom, to reality.  By entering the crucible of his question “Who do you say that I am?”, you and I become a maturing community of people whose words and actions are guided by love of God and of one another.  Jesus uses our owned faith, in this sometimes messy and foreboding world to open to countless other children, women, and men the doorway to God’s reign of justice and love realized in the person of Jesus the Christ. We need not fear the question, formidable as it may sometimes appear, for we have Jesus’ assurance that, out of the testing and trial, God’s living Spirit of love and justice will find suitable expression in and through you and me.