Saturday, March 17, 2018

Feast of Patrick, Missionary and Bishop

Almighty God, in your providence you chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of you: Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is the Feast of St. Patrick, which is a huge celebration in the U.S.A., with parades and speeches and people wearing green and, from what I remember from elementary school, lots of pinching. I think the celebration of St. Patrick's Day has more to do with the pride of those of Irish heritage in the land of their ancestors than with the actual St. Patrick; leprechauns and green beer and getting plastered have nothing to do with the saint, and such celebrations do not take place in Ireland. Today we are going to remember Patrick as a missionary and bishop, and as the man who helped spread Christianity throughout Ireland.

Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland; there were Christians in Ireland in the fourth century, probably as a result of contact between the British, who had first heard the Gospel with the arrival of missionaries in the second century. The Celtic Church was different from the Roman Church; they kept a different date for Easter and their spirituality was different than that of the Western or Roman church.

Patricus was probably born in the year 390 in Britain. Patrick's family were Christians; his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon. His father, Calpornius, was also an important official in the Roman imperial government in Britain. Yet even though he came from a Christian family, Patrick, like many young people, didn't really concern himself with the faith or with his education. He regretted his lack of education for the rest of his life. When he was sixteen years of age, his village, Bannavem Taburniae, was raided by Irish pirates or slave-raiders, and he and many other people were captured and taken away. Here is how he tells the story in his Confession: I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people---and deservedly so, because we turned away from God and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.

And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.

Patrick was forced to work as a shepherd, and he spent a lot of his time in repentance and prayer. He also had a vision which told him that he would return home: But after I came to Ireland---everyday I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed---the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me---as now I see, because the spirit within me was then fervent. And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: "It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country." And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: "See, your ship is ready." And it was not near, but at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, and I had never been there, nor did I know a living soul there; and then I took to flight, and I left the man whith whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good, and I feared nothing until I came to that ship.

When he first came and asked the captain for work on the ship, the captain was angry and said, "There is no room and it is no use for you to ask to go along with us." Patrick, discouraged, turned away and started walking down the path. He was praying that God would guide him safely back to his hut, but before he even ended his prayer he heard a sailor calling: "Come, hurry, we shall take you on in good faith; make friends with us in whatever way you like." Patrick thanked God and hoped to bring them all to Christ, as they were all Pagans. Three days later they arrived on the coast of Britain. They left the boat and began traveling by foot. Patrick writes: . . . for twenty-eight days we traveled through deserted country. And they lacked food, and hunger overcame them; and the next day the captain said to me, "Tell me, Christian, you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again." I said to them full of confidence: "Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere." And, with the help of God, so it came to pass: suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them; and there they stopped for two nights and fully recovered their strength, and their hounds received their fill for many of them had grown weak and were half-dead along the way. And from that day they had plenty of food.

That night Patrick had a dream that Satan was holding him down, and he called out to God and was saved from Satan's grasp, and he realized from that moment on that the Spirit of God would speak and work through him. He eventually left this gang and returned to his family. He also as educated as a Christian and took on Holy Orders, being ordained deacon, priest, and eventually, bishop. All during this time back home he had visions calling him back to the land of his captivity: And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were "The voice of the Irish;" and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice---they were those beside the Wood of Covlut, with is near the Western Sea---and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more." And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry. And another night---whether within me or beside me, I know not, God knows---they called me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that at the end of the prayer He spoke thus: "He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;" and so I awoke full of joy.

Patrick decided to answer this call and return to Ireland, but he was opposed by other bishops and he also suffered a serious illness. Patrick decided that this was for his own good and that he was being purged by the Lord. He finally returned to Ireland in the year 432, arriving not far from the area where he had been a shepherd. He set-up a church in Armagh, which served as his head-quarters, and he traveled throughout Ireland, preaching and baptizing. He usually preached to the chiefs of clans and with their conversion the entire tribe would convert. He also Christianized the old religion, building churches over former Druid holy sites, carving crosses on druidic pillars, and putting sacred wells and springs under the protection of Christian Saints. His conversion of the three High Kings of Ireland put Ireland on the road to becoming a Christian nation. He educated the sons of the chiefs and kings, he established monasteries throughout the land, he ordained clergy and he instituted monks and nuns. The monasteries of Ireland became incredible powerhouses of education and spirituality. He stayed in Ireland for the rest of his life, and probably died around the year 461. We don't know the date of his death, but the celebration of March 17 dates to the seventh century. I doubt that he chased the snakes from Ireland, or that he used shamrocks to explain the concept of the Trinity, and most of the other miracles attributed to him were invented over the centuries. We do know that he was a faithful bishop and loved the people of Ireland.

I will close with the ending paragraphs of Patrick's Confession: Wherfore may God never permit it to happen to me that I should lose His people with He purchases in the utmost parts of the world. I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.

And if ever I have done any good for my God whom I love, I beg Him to grant me that I may shed my blood with those exiles and captives for His name, even though I should be denied a grave, or my body be woefully torn to pieces limb by limb by hounds or wild beasts, or the fowls of the air devour it. I am firmly convinced that if this should happen to me, I would have gained my soul together with my body, because on that day without doubt we shall rise in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God and joint heirs with Christ, to be made conformable to His image; for of Him, and by Him, and in Him we shall reign.

For His sun which we see rises daily for us because He commands so, but it will never reign, nor will its splendor last; what is more, those wretches who adore it will be miserably punished. Not so we, who believe in, and worship, the True Sun---Christ---who will never perish, nor will he who doeth His will; but he will abide for ever as Christ abideth for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and the Holy Spirit before time, and now, and in all eternity.

Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped.

I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever deigns to look at or receive this writing which Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, has composed in Ireland, that no one should ever say that it was my ignorance if I did or showed forth anything however small according to God's good pleasure; but let this be your conclusion and let it so be thought, that---as is the perfect truth---it was the gift of God. This is my confession before I die.

Patrick was creative in his evangelism, he understood that incorporating what was familiar would do much more to further the message of the Gospel rather than trying to force the Irish into some concept of The Faith Once Delivered. He understood the importance of education and the intellect in Christianity. He was faithful to God and faithful to the Irish. He is an example of a missionary who loved and served the people to whom he had been sent. And that is why we remember him today.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Feast of Perpetua and her Companions, Martyrs at Carthage

O God the King of saints, you strengthened your servants Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions to make a good confession, staunchly resisting, for the cause of Christ, the claims of human affection, and encouraging one another in their time of trial: Grant that we who cherish their blessed memory may share their pure and steadfast faith, and win with them the palm of victory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today is the Feast of Saint Perpetua and her companions, Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, and Saturas. They all lived in the city of Carthage, in North Africa, during the late second-early third century. Vibia Perpetua was a young, relatively well-off young widow with an infant. Felicitas and Revocatus were her slaves, but these three, with Secundulus and Saturninus, were catechumens, people studying in preparation for baptism, under the care of the priest Saturas. In those days people who wanted to be baptized had to study for three years. They were also watched closely during that period to make sure that they were sincere about their desire to become Christians, that they had begun to live a moral life, and to make sure that they were not sent to spy upon and betray the Christians to the government. Once a person had finished their three years in the catechumenate, they were baptized at the Easter Vigil.

In the year 202, the Emperor Septimius Severus decreed that there would be no more conversions to Christianity and that everyone must sacrifice to the divinity of the emperor. This required a person to take a little incense and drop it into the sacrificial fire in front of the government priests. Since Christians only believe in the divinity of Christ, they could not and would not participate. Perpetua and her companions were all arrested and put into prison. The conditions in these prisons were terrible and the only way one was fed was if family or friends brought the prisoner food. Visiting prisoners was a very important aspect of being a Christian in those days; Jesus said that when we visit prisoners in his name, we are visiting him, and this was taken seriously by the Christians of that era. Many Christians were being arrested because of their faith, and this had been happening since the earliest days; St. Paul, St. Peter, and almost all of the apostles had spent some time in prison, and St. John was even exiled on the island of Patmos for a while. Not only the leaders of the Church were imprisoned; people like Perpetua, a nursing mother, were locked in filthy cells with shackles on their ankles simply for desiring to be baptized. The martyrs and confessors went to prison willingly rather than betray their faith. in the Letter to the Hebrews, we read: “Recall the former days when you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to abuse and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated... For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised.” These people were spiritual athletes, and they endured these terrible trials for the sake of their faith.

When Perpetua was brought before the Proconsul, she refused to sacrifice to the Emperor and she refused to deny Christ. Her father came and begged her to think of what she was doing; he begged her to think of her little baby, to think of her family name. Here she was, a well-born woman, spending her time with slaves and others. Here she was, a nursing mother, imprisoned with her baby. Here she was, bringing great shame upon her family; all she had to do was offer a little incense to the divinity of the Emperor and denounce this “Christ” and his followers and everything would be all right. But Perpetua would not turn against Christ and the Christian faith. She stood before the Proconsul and her father and said, “I am a Christian.” The Proconsul finally let her father take the baby home with him, and Perpetua was returned to the dungeon. Perpetua and her companions were Montanists, a group who believed strongly in the direction of the Holy Spirit and were given to visions and prophecy. Perpetua experienced several dreams and visions in prison. She dreamed that she climbed a ladder to heaven, to a garden in which she saw those who were martyred before her. She had a vision in which her brother, who had died of cancer, appeared to her healthy and drinking of the water of life; and she also dreamed that she was a warrior, that she became a man and fought the Devil, defeating him to enter heaven. After that last dream, she awoke understanding that she was to fight in the arena, not with the wild beasts, but with the Devil himself.

On the day of March 7, 202, Perpetua and Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, and Saturas, encouraging one another to be brave before whatever pain they may suffer and before whatever awaited them, were led to the arena. There, wild beasts were unlashed upon them: a leopard, a wild boar, a bear, and even a wild steer attacked and mangled them. The steer tossed Perpetua and Felicitas about with its sharp horns but although they were bruised and dishevelled, they held up. Perpetua didn’t even know that she was being tossed about; like so many martyrs, she was in a state of spiritual ecstasy and she cried to the others: “Stand fast in the faith and love of one another. And do not let what we suffer be a stumbling block to you.” Eventually her five companions were killed by the beasts, but Perpetua was still alive. The animals were tired, the crowd’s bloodlust was sated, yet she was still alive. A soldier with a sword was sent to finish her off, but he was inept and unsure and his first blow merely pierced her throat between the bones, leaving her alive. She shrieked with pain, and then took the blade with her hands and guided the sword into her heart. The report of her martyrdom ends: “Perhaps so great a woman, feared by the unclean spirit, could not have been killed unless she so willed it.”

The memory of Perpetua was very important to the Christians in Carthage, and to all the Christians in Africa. The story of her martyrdom infused the African Church with much vigor and it was one of the strongest and most enthusiastic of all the churches in the first five centuries.

In the reading we heard from Matthew’s gospel this morning, Jesus warned the Twleve of the trials to come, but these trials were also experienced, not just by the Twelve, but by regular people like you and I. Jesus said, “They will deliver you up to the tribulation, and put you to death; and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake.” The martyrs of the first three centuries and in the centuries to come all experienced these things. Jesus also warned: “Many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray.” This was the experience of the Early Church and it is also the experience of Christians today. We need to be aware fo false teachings like the Prosperity Gospel and we need to be aware of those who create dissent and schism instead of unity and love. Jesus also said, “Those who endure to the end will be saved. And this gospel will be preached throughout the whole world, as a testimony to all nations.” Perpetua and Felicitas and their companions endured to the end, and in just over one hundred years after their deaths, the Emperor Constantine declared tolerance for Christianity and the persecutions in the empire ended. With the backing of the Roman Empire, the Gospel of the Christ spread throughout what they considered the world, and then continued to spread, day after day, year after year, century after century, until it spread even to the Americas, to this isthmus, a world of which Perpetua, Constantine, and the Apostles had no idea even existed. And now, some eighteen hundred years later, we sit here in a church in Parque Lefevre in the Republic of Panamá, hearing the story of the bravery of Perpetua and her companions, sharing the bread and wine as the Christians of her time did, coming together to pray and sing and heal, just as they did. The faithful witness of the martyrs, of people like Perpetua and the others, have made it possible for us to hear the Good News, have made it possible for us to learn of salvation, have made it possible for us to have eternal life. May we all share the bravery and faithfulness of Perpetua, Felicitas, Revocatus, Secundulus, Saturninus, Saturas, and all the martyrs.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Feast of Polycarp, Bishop and Martyr

O God, the maker of heaven and earth, you gave your venerable servant, the holy and gentle Polycarp, boldness to confess Jesus Christ as King and Savior, and steadfastness to die for his faith: Give us grace, following his example, to share the cup of Christ and rise to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today is the feast of Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, and martyr. Smyrna was a city in Asia Minor, in the nation we now call Turkey. Born in the year 69, Polycarp was a student of John the Apostle and Evangelist, studying under him during his time in Ephesus, after his exile on Patmos. Polycarp was one of the bishops actually consecrated in the Apostolic succession since he was ordained by an Apostle. He was a well respected bishop; when Ignatius made his journey to Rome for his own martyrdom, he wrote letters to various churches along the way, and one of the letters was addressed to Polycarp. Polycarp wrote an Epistle to the Philippians which was read by many early Christian communities, although it was not included in the canon. In this epistle he reminds the Christians in Philippi of the importance of holding on to the promises of God, of the importance of keeping the faith, and that the clergy must be self-disciplined, righteous, humane, and hard working. He was very clear that clergy must not be "in love with money" and live lives of holiness as examples to the flock. He also wrote that it was important to remember that Jesus had two nature, human and divine, in opposition to the Docetists.

The account of Polycarp's martyrdom may have been written by Irenaeus of Lyons, and it is the earliest account of a martyrdom after the story of the deacon Stephen in the Acts of the Apostles. One in the year 155 or 156, a crowd was at the stadium in Smyrna watching the spectacle of several Christians being thrown to the wild beasts. The Christians stood firm and died noble deaths, but the crowd, upset by the martyrs' heroism, broke into cries of "Down with the infidels!" and "Go find Polycarp!" When the bishop learned that the crowd wanted him, he was all for staying in the city and facing the music, but members of his church took him out of town and to a hiding place in the hills. He spent his entire time there, day and night, praying for those who were being persecuted. One day while praying, he had a vision in which his pillow ignited and burned to ashes. He went down stairs and told his companions, "I seems that I will be burnt alive." They kept moving him from one farm to another with the authorities hot on their heels. Soldiers arrested two servant boys at one location, and, under torture, they told the police where Polycarp was. When the police appeared at the farm, Polycarp surrendered rather than continue on the run. He asked the police for just a little time to pray, and, seeing that he was rather elderly and not much of a threat, they agreed. He prayed so full of God's grace that two whole hours passed before he could stop praying. Several of the police began to feel some remorse for having to arrest such a saintly old man. Polycarp was brought to the Police Commissioner, who took him into his carriage and said, "Come on, what's the harm in offering some incense and saying 'Caesar is Lord?' It will save your life!" Polycarp said, "No, I won't take your advice." Many people tried to convince him to offer incense to the honor of the Emperor but he would not budge. They finally arrived at the stadium, where the crowd was waiting for the day's entertainment and all worked up. When he walked into the stadium, a voice from the heavens said "Be strong, Polycarp, and play the man." Standing in front of the crowd, the police gave him one more chance to recant, saying, "Think of your years. Swear by the luck of the Emperor, or at least say 'Down with the infidels.'" The Governor finally said, "Take an oath and I'll let you go. Revile your Christ." Polycarp said, "I've served Him for 86 years and he had done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme and deny my King and Savior?" They threatened him with wild beasts, and he said, "Bring on the animals, because I will not trade a good way of thinking for a bad one. It might be a good idea for you, however, to switch from the wrong to the right!" Like most men in power, the Police Commissioner didn't appreciate smart-aleck answers, and he hollered "I'll have you burned with fire since you think so lightly of the beasts!" Polycarp responded "The fire you threaten me with won't burn for very long; it will eventually go out, but are you unaware of the eternal flames of judgment and eternal torment that wait for the ungodly? Come on, stop wasting time, do what ever yo are going to do!" The crowd shouted, "Polycarp has admitted to being a Christian!" (Duh! Ever notice how intelligent large crowds in stadiums are?) and started gathering wood to burn Polycarp. When the pile of combustible materials was ready, Polycarp took off his tunic and sandals and stood next to the stake. They fastened his feet with irons and were about to nail him to the stake when he said, "Let me be; He who gives me strength to endure the flames will give me strength not to flinch at the stake without your making sure of it with nails." So they tied him to the stake, instead. Polycarp looked up into heaven and prayed: "Almighty God and Father of our Lord, Jesus Christ, you are the God of angels and power and of the whole creation, and all the generations of the righteous live in your sight. I thank you for granting me this day and hour that I might be numbered amongst the martyrs, to share the cup of your Anointed and to rise into life everlasting. May I be received this day into your presence, a sacrifice rich and acceptable, for you are the God of truth and in you is no falsehood. I praise you, I glorify you, and I bless you, through our eternal high priest in heaven, your believed Son, Jesus, Christ, by whom and with whom be glory to you and the Holy spirit, now and for all ages to come. Amen." As the "amen" soared up and the prayer ended, the men lit the fire and a great sheet of flame blazed out. It enveloped Polycarp like a ship's sail and formed a wall around him, and he was in the center of the fire, like an ingot of gold being refined in the furnace. Then everyone smelled a wonderful fragrance, not the odor of burning flesh, but of fine incense. Finally, when they realized the fire would not destroy him, two tough-guys went up and stabbed him. As they did, a dove flew out of the fire and there was such a rush of blood that the flames were extinguished! And with that, the great Bishop of Smyrna, Polycarp, student of the Beloved Disciple, went to his reward, to a robe of white, standing with a palm branch in front of the throne of the Lamb, saying "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb."

Tertullian said, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." The witness of brave Christians like Polycarp has been an example to Christians for centuries. When I read of Christians in the U.S. claim that they are being persecuted because their children can't pray around a flag pole at school, or those in TEC who claim persecution because gay and lesbian Christians are being ordained, I think of someone like Polycarp, someone who knew real persecution, someone who stood up to the authorities, someone who braved the wild beasts and burning at the stake, and I think, "aren't we blessed that we don't know real persecution?" May Polycarp's witness be a model for us all.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Feast of Cyril and Methodius

Today is St. Valentine's Day, but no one is really sure who this St. Valentine was. He may have been a Roman priest martyred during the reign of the Emperor Claudius in the mid third century, or he may have been the bishop of Terni, who was taken to Rome and martyred and whose remains were returned to Terni. The feast of St. Valentinus was once on the Roman calendar but he was dropped quite a while back, and now his day is more of a "Hallmark Holiday" a holiday for selling greeting cards, flowers, and chocolates.

Today is also the Feast of Saints Cyril and Methodius, two very important saints. Cyril and Methodius were brothers and lived in Thessalonica, a town where Christians were gathering very early in the history of the Church. Methodius was born around the year 815 and his brother Constantine was born around the year 826. Constantine studied philosophy and later became a monk, taking on the name of Cyril. As a philosophy student, Cyril also studied languages and was well-versed in Hebrew, Arabic, and even the Samaritan dialect. In the year 860, Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople selected Cyril and Methodius as the first missionaries to the Slavs. He chose them not only because Cyril was good with languages, but because as children both brothers spent a lot of time around the Slavs who lived in Thessalonica; they learned the Slavic language and were fluent in that language. They were the natural choice to be missionaries to the Slavs. Their first missionary trip in 860 was to the Khazars who lived north of the Caucasus region, but it was unsuccessful and the Khazars actually ended up accepting Judaism instead of Christianity. In the year 863, Rostislav, prince of Moravia (which is the area we now call the Czech Republic), requested Christian missionaries be sent. He had one requirement: that the missionaries be able to preach to the people in their own language and must do services in Slavonic, which meant that they needed Bibles and service books in Slavonic. So, before they even left for Moravia, the brothers started translating the Bible into Slavonic. There was not actual Slavonic alphabet so they had to invent one with which they would write their translations of the Bible and prayer books. The alphabet invented by St. Cyril is called Glagolithic and his followers invented another alphabet called Cyrillic which is the alphabet used in Russia and the former Eastern Block nations to this day. They translated the Bible into the dialect they had learned as boys, a Macedonian dialect of slavonic spoken around Thessalonica, an this language is now called Church Slavonic, and it is the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Slavonic Orthodox Churches. This is very important, because the Slavs were one of the few peoples who heard the gospel read in their own language instead of Greek or Latin, the major languages of the Church at that time. The Roman church always insisted that everything be done in Latin, but the Eastern church felt that it was important that services and readings be done in the vernacular of the people, the same concept which is accepted in the Anglican Communion. Cyril and Methodius ran into some trouble in Moravia and in Bulgaria; the Church in the West had sent German missionaries and they did not like the Greek Orthodox monks working in their area. The brothers were doing services in the language of the people while the Germans did everything in Latin; the brothers recited the Nicene Creed in its Eastern form without the filioque. In order to end German interference with the mission, Cyril asked for the protection of the Pope as he really didn't get involved in the East-West arguments and the Church was still united at that time; Cyril just wanted to continue working in Slavonic. The brothers traveled to Rome in 868 to speak to Pope Hadrian II, and he received them favorably and gave full support to their mission, allowing them to work in Slavonic, and even approved their translations of the Bible and service books. Unfortunately, Cyril died in Rome in 869, and when Methodius returned to Moravia, the Germans ignored the Pope's decision and obstructed him in every way; they even put Methodius in prison for a year!
When Methodius died in the year 885, the Germans ran his followers out of the country and even sold some of them into slavery (fine Christian people!). The Slavonic church lasted there for another two hundred years but then vanished; it seemed as if the mission of Cyril and Methodius had failed. but while their mission died in Moravia their translations moved in to Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia, and Church Slavonic is the liturgical language of those areas. The Church grew and spread throughout that area and even lasted through fifty years of Communist oppression.

Some of the issues that Cyril and Methodius dealt with are still important today and are even important to us here in Panama. The issue of language is a very important issue here. I think that what saints Cyril and Methodius taught us is that it is important that people hear the gospel and worship in the language with which they are familiar, whether that language be English, Español, or Slavonic. When people hear the gospel in their own language the church takes root and grows. Cyril knew that it was important that the peoples of the Caucasus hear the Word in their own words and he was willing to go to those who spoke Latin to get the support he needed, because he knew that the Church is large enough to include everybody, whether they speak Español, English, Nippon-go, Hungarian, Greek or Slavonic, God hears us no matter what language we speak. What is important is that we remember that we are One Body, we are united as one body in Christ. One of the oldest Eucharistic prayers we have is in the Didache and it says "as this grain was once scattered over the hills and was brought together as one loaf of bread, so may your Church be brought together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom." Let us take the example of saints Cyril and Methodius to heart realizing that the Church is One Body in Christ.

Almighty and everlasting God, by the power of the Holy Spirit you moved your servant Cyril and his brother Methodius to bring the light of the Gospel to a hostile and divided people: Overcome all bitterness and strife among us by the love of Christ, and make us one united family under the banner of the Prince of Peace; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Feast of Absalom Jones, Priest

Absalom Jones was born in 1746, in rural Delaware. He was a slave born into a family of slaves. At the ages of sixteen, his entire family was split apart when his parents, his siblings, and Absalom himself were sold to different slave masters. His new master took him to the city of Philadelphia, and it was in that city, through the preaching of the Methodists, that he was converted to Christianity. He was a very intelligent person and taught himself to read using the Bible as his text book. In 1766, at the age of twenty, he married Mary King, another slave. Absalom took on extra jobs outside of his duties as a slave in order to earn money to buy her freedom, and eventually, his own. Many slave owners used their female slaves to satisfy their sexual desires and children would be born of these unions. The slave owners didn't want these children to inherit the plantation, so children born to slave women were considered slaves also, even though they were the children of the slave owner. By purchasing his wife's freedom before his own, he was ensuring that their children would be born free.

Absalom Jones attended St. George Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. St. George's was one of the few churches which had opened its doors to Blacks. He met Richard Allen there and they became close friends. They both served as licensed lay preachers, and they both shared the Gospel with the African Americans of Philadelphia, and, as a result of their evangelism, the African American population of St. George's increased. Unfortunately, the White members of the church became uncomfortable with the idea of worshiping with so many Black people and they decided that the Blacks would worship in an upstairs gallery of the church, a gallery which the black members had built. On the Sunday immediately following the completion of the gallery, the Black members of the church were rudely informed that they were no longer to worship at their regular places, but were to worship upstairs in the gallery. They were informed of this while they were praying at the altar rail! Absalom refused to move and was physically lifted from his place at the altar rail where he was praying, and carried away by the ushers (there is only one usher at San Cristóbal who could pull that off!). Jones and Allen objected to this humiliating treatment, and all the Black members of the church walked out with them, never to return. This took place in 1787. Jones and Allen formed their own religious community and named it The Free African Society. It was the first black independent organization in the newly formed United States of America. Its main purpose was to provide assistance for the economic, educational, social and spiritual needs of the African American community in Philadelphia. In 1792, the membership recognized the need for a church and they wanted to affiliate with religious denomination that would not be hostile to their presence and would receive them as an identified worshiping community. Absalom wanted to remain a Methodist, but the majority of the group was so hurt by their treatment as St. George's that they wanted nothing to do with the Methodists. Absalom Jones went and spoke with Bishop William White, the first bishop of Pennsylvania and the second Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Absalom presented the following terms of the Free African Society to Bishop White: 1. That the Free African Society be received as a body already organized; 2. That the Free African Society have control over their affairs; 3. That, if found fit, Absalom Jones be ordained as their priest. Bishop White accepted these terms in 1794 and the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church was established, becoming the first African American Episcopal Parish in the nation. On August 16, 1795, Absalom Jones was ordained a Deacon, and on September 21, 1802, he was ordained the first African American priest in the Episcopal Church. Richard Allen and another group joined with the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1795, where he served as a minister. Allen became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME, on April 11, 1816, and his friend Absalom Jones was there to participate at his ordination.

St. Thomas' African Episcopal Church started with 250 members, but in one year they doubled their membership, and it became the second largest church in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, although it was 69 years until this congregation was invited to participate in the business of Diocesan Convention with voice and vote. Absalom Jones served as the Rector of St. Thomas' and also as prophet, priest and pastor, for over twenty years. As a priest, Absalom Jones did a lot to help empower African Americans. The Rev. Samuel Magaw, rector of St. Paul's in Philadelphia, gave the sermon at the opening of St. Thomas' Church, and he preached a terrible sermon, talking about the "Pagan darkness" of the people's African roots and that they should be grateful to God that they had been brought from the "land of darkness to the land of Gospel Light." He also said that they had a debt of gratitude to their "earthly benefactors, who planned their emancipation from slavery" and in particular to the white Christians of Philadelphia who helped them. He told them to check any feelings of pride in their freedom or accomplishments, and to remember that they were the children of slaves. I guess he didn't know about Tertullian or Augustine or other African Fathers of the Church. Thanks be to God, Father Jones did not take the advice of Father Magaw; he and the people of St. Thomas were very clear about their mission to seek dignity and freedom for all people of colour. One month after the Rev. Magaw's sermon was published, the Rev. Jones composed a document entitled The Causes and Motives for Establishing St. Thomas' African Church of Philadelphia. It stated their intent to "arise out of the dust and shake themselves, and throw off that servile fear, that the habit of oppression and bondage trained them up in." The Rev. Absalom Jones and the members of the church attributed their commitment to "establish some orderly, Christian-like government" to their desire "to avoid all appearance of evil, by self-conceitedness, or an intent to promote or establish any new human device among us." They were adamant that the church be "governed by us and our successors for ever." Where the Rev. Magaw's sermon was condescending and paternal, the Rev. Jones' response was valiant and inspiring.

Absalom Jones also served Christ in the civic affairs of the city of Philadelphia. In the year 1793, the city was hit with an epidemic of Yellow Fever and many of the white citizens of the city were dying in their homes. Some were even dropping dead in the street. Others fled for the countryside, thinking that they would be safe there. This was long before the days of Dr. Gorgas; no one knew that mosquitos passed the disease to humans. They had the crazy idea that Black people were immune to the disease! Absalom Jones rallied the Black citizens of the city to help the sick and dying. These noble and unselfish men and women comforted the sick and buried the dead, sometimes at their won expense. Others paid an even higher price: they paid with their lives, succumbing to the disease after caring for the sick. Father Jones continued to work with Richard Allen on behalf of African Americans' they, along with Prince Hall of Boston, MA, and Benjamin Banneker of Washington, D.C., petitioned the House of Representatives to adopt measures that would in due course emancipate all persons held in slavery in the new nation. This was on January 2, 1800, and it was the very first formal effort on the part of Black Americans to redress their grievances to the federal government. Unfortunately, the petition was overwhelmingly defeated. Absalom Jones and Richard Allen also solicited the aid of 2,500 Black men to help defend the city of Philadelphia during the War of 1812. Absalom Jones died on February 13, 1818.

Absalom Jones understood the covenant of baptism, the promise to work for justice and righteousness, and to respect the dignity of all human beings. He was a living example of Christ's love, and he was a living example of one who stood up to oppression. We remember him today, not just because he was a Black man, not just because he was a slave, not just because he was the first African American ordained a priest in our Church, but because he lived the Christian life and was faithful to God. We remember him because he was a child of God and a person who was committed to to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. His life, as are the lives of all the Saints, is a wonderful example to us all.

Set us free, heavenly Father, from every bond of prejudice and fear; that, honoring the steadfast courage of your servant Absalom Jones, we may show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Feast of St. Brigid

This is my St. Brigid's feast sermon

Today is the feast of St. Brigid, who is also called St. Bride. Next to St. Patrick, she is the most beloved of Irish saints. She is known as one who was generous, handsome, and brave. Born in Fauchart around the year 452, she may have actually met St. Patrick as a young girl. She was the daughter of a wealthy chief name Dubhtach and his slave Brocessa. According to the miracle-filled "Life of St. Brigid" written in the eighth century, she was baptized by three angels who also anointed her with oil. When Brigid was very young her mother was sold to a Druid, so she actually grew-up in a Druid household. She, however, was a Christian and remained true to her faith throughout her stay in that pagan household. A few years later she was returned to her father's household. She remained a slave but it seems that she had a special standing in the household. She became known for her generosity, especially her generosity with her father's possessions. Nothing was safe; she would give anything she owned away and once she ran out of things she would give away the belongings of the household. Once while watching a flock of sheep a poor young man came up to her and asked for some alms. She gave him one of the flock without question. He, however, having heard of her generosity, came back seven times that day, receiving a sheep each time. It seems that everyone in the village knew what was going on, but they were all shocked when, at the end of the day, Brigid returned with the flock and not one sheep was missing!

She was very beautiful and many young men approached her father asking for her hand, but Brigid told him that she didn't want to be married, she wanted to dedicate herself to the Lord. According to the Life of St. Brigid she prayed that God would disfigure her so that she would no longer be attractive to all the young men. While she was praying her eyeball melted (ew!), making her no longer attractive to the young men (or anyone else for that matter!). Her father was so angry at her that he decided to sell her to the King of Leinster. While her father was talking to the king, trying to set up a deal, she gave her father's sword to a poor person to sell for food. The king asked her why she gave away her father's sword, she answered, "I gave it to Christ, and if God asked me for all your wealth and the wealth of my father I would give it to the poor to please God." The king looked at her father and said,  "Your daughter is of far too much worth for me to buy and of even greater worth to be sold by you!" He sent Brigid and her father on their way. Her father finally allowed her to become a nun, and she received the veil from Bishop Macaile of Westmeath. In the year 470 she gathered seven young women with her and started a convent at at Cille-Dara, which means "Church of the Oak" in Gaelic. It is now known as Kildare. She wanted to insure that she and her nuns would always receive the blessed sacrament of holy communion, so she convinced a monk named Conlaed to be consecrated Bishop and had him and his monks bring their community to Cille-Dara. They established the first Irish double
monastery of men and women. Brigid was made Abbess of the monastery, becoming the first woman to lead both men and women religious. She also participated in policy-making decisions of the Celtic church. There are some stories that she was made a bishop but most scholars believe that this story may only reflect the fact that she exercised the jurisdictional authority that was wielded by an abbess.

As I mentioned earlier, Brigid was known for her generosity and love for the poor, and there are many stories of her generosity and miracles performed on behalf of the poor. Once she and her nuns were traveling in a carriage when they saw a poor man and his family walking along the road weighed down by their heavy burdens. Brigid stopped the carriage and gave the horses to the poor family. She and her nuns were stuck with a carriage and no horses. A captain heard of what Brigid had done and brought her two wild horses, which she immediately tamed and harnessed to the carriage. They resumed their travel when they met three lepers. Brigid stopped the carriage and this time gave the lepers the horses AND the carriage! Another time she had but one garment to give to two poor men. She tore the garment in half and it immediately became two perfectly good garments. Another story tells that she gave all the Bishop's vestments away to the poor for clothing (now that sounds like fun!). When the time came for the bishop to vest for the Mass, Brigid told him that she had given all the vestments away. Before he had time to react or answer her, a carriage appeared full of Episcopal Vestments which were even better  and more beautiful than the ones she gave away. She gave the Bishop the vestments he needed  and then gave the rest of the vestments and the carriage away to the needy. It was said that Brigid never let the poor leave her empty handed.

Brigid is also known for her great love for animals. There is a story about her taming a wolf for a local chieftain whose pet dog had been accidentally killed by a peasant. Here are two stories from The Life of St. Brigid:

Once a lone wild boar that was being hunted charged out of the forest, and in the course of its panicked flight careered into a herd of pigs that belonged to the most blessed Brigid. She noticed its presence and she blessed it. Immediately the creature lost its sense of fear and settled down quietly among the herd of pigs. See, my friends, how even the  wild beasts and animals could not resist either her bidding or her will, but served her docilely and humbly.
On another occasion the blessed Brigid felt a tenderness for some ducks that she saw swimming on the water and occasionally taking wing. She bid them fly to her, and a great flock of them flew toward her, without any fear, as if they were humans under obedience to her. She touched them with her hand and embraced them tenderly. She then released them and they flew into the sky. And as they did so she praised God the Creator of all living things, to whom all life is subject, and for the service of whom all life is gift.
From these and many other episodes that demonstrated her power, it is certain that blessed Brigid could command the affections of wild animals, cattle and the birds of the air.

Brigid died around the year 524, at Cille-dara. The cathedral in the town of Kildare were built on the foundations of her fire house. Her relics were moved to Downpatrick with those of St. Patrick during the time of the Danish invasions of the ninth century. Her cult was very popular in England and Scotland  and many churches there are named after her.

St. Brigid was the physical manifestation of the Celtic Ideals  of one who was Generous, Handsome, and Brave. She never let the poor leave empty-handed, she saw Christ in all people, and that is why we remember her today.

Everliving God, we rejoice today in the fellowship of your blessed servant Brigid, and we give you thanks for her life of devoted service. Inspire us with life and light, and give us perseverance to serve you all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I've decided to add this poem by Phyllis Mcginly, titled The Giveaway:

Saint Bridget was
A problem child.
Although a lass
Demure and mild,
And one who strove
To please her dad,
Saint Bridget drove
The family mad.
For here's the fault in Bridget lay:
She Would give everything away.

To any soul
Whose luck was out
She'd give her bowl
Of stir about;
She'd give her shawl,
Divide her purse
With one or all.
And what was worse,
When she ran out of things to give
She'd borrow from a relative.

Her father's gold,
Her grandsire's dinner,
She'd hand to cold
and hungry sinner;
Give wine, give meat,
No matter whose;
Take from her feet
The very shoes,
And when her shoes had gone to others,
Fetch forth her sister's and her mother's.

She could not quit.
She had to share;
Gave bit by bit
The silverware,
The barnyard geese,
The parlor rug,
Her little niece's christening mug,
Even her bed to those in want,
And then the mattress of her aunt.

An easy touch
For poor and lowly,
She gave so much
And grew so holy
That when she died
Of years and fame,
The countryside
Put on her name,
And still the Isles of Erin fidget
With generous girls named Bride or Bridget.

 Well, one must love her.
 In thinking of her
 There's no denial
 She must have been
 A sort of trial
 Unto her kin.
 The moral, too, seems rather quaint.
 WHO had the patience of a saint,
 From evidence presented here?
 Saint Bridget?  Or her near and dear?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Feast of Thomas, Apostle and Martyr

Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son’s resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Today is the feast of my favorite apostle, Thomas. I was ordained a priest on his Feast Day (well, it fell on a Sunday that year, so I was priested the next day, Dec. 22. Tomorrow is the eighteenth anniversary of my priesting.) and that was no accident. I think that he is the coolest apostle. Peter used to say anything that popped into his head; James and John, the Thunder Boys (thanks, Robbin!) were in the Inner Circle with Peter; Simon was either a Freedom Fighter or a Terrorist, depending upon your point of view; Andrew was the First Called and served as a liaison between Jesus and the other disciples; Matthew's gospel insured his fame, and the rest (and especially Mathias) were so boring that we don't know anything about them except that their names appear on lists. But Thomas, well, Thomas was kind of modern, in my opinion. He needed some proof before he was going to believe something. When Jesus appeared to the others in the Upper Room while Thomas was away, he didn't accept their story. He said he would believe when he touched Jesus' wounds. I've always thought that Thomas was treated unfairly by the Church, with them calling him "Doubting Thomas." He didn't really doubt; he didn't say "You guys are lying! I don't believe a word!" He just wanted some proof before he accepted the story. He spent a lot of time with those guys so I expect he knew them pretty well. Maybe he thought that they were inclined to jump to conclusions without thinking things through; we know Peter had that tendency. Maybe they used to play tricks on him. While the others were all locked away in the Upper Room, Thomas was away. I don't know what he was doing, but he certainly wasn't hiding in fear of the authorities. When Jesus appeared to those present in the Upper Room, they didn't recognize him until he showed them his wounds. Then they rejoiced. When Thomas showed up, they told him what happened and he delivered his famous line. A week later, Jesus appeared while Thomas was present. This time Jesus showed Thomas his wounds and even had Thomas touch them. What did Thomas say? Did he say, "I don't know, this all seems a bit strange"? Did he say, "Yuck! Why did you have me touch your wounds?" Did he say, "Are you really Jesus or is this some kind of sick joke?" No. He said, "My Master! My God!" Those don't sound like the words of a Doubter, of a Sceptic. No, those are the words of one who recognizes who Jesus is, those are the words of one who truly believes. Thomas was a good and faithful person; the fact that he wasn't cowering behind locked doors with the others says something about his character. It was Thomas who was willing to follow Jesus to Judea when Jesus wanted to see his friend Lazarus. The others were worried that Jesus' enemies would try to kill him. Thomas said, "Let us also go, that we may die with him." It was Thomas who, in John's version of the Last Supper, interrupts Jesus for some clarification, to ask: "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" It isn't that Thomas didn't want to believe, he just wanted to believe for the right reasons, he didn't want to simply "jump on the bandwagon." I think that it is important to remember that nome of the others believed that Jesus was resurrected until Jesus showed them his wounds; they just saw Jesus before Thomas, it doesn't make them any better or more faithful.

I love the Acts of Thomas and that wild story about Thomas' time in India, even though I'm sure it's a bunch of hooey, especially since Jesus sells Thomas to a slave trader so that Thomas would be a slave to the Raja of Malabar. I like the idea that Thomas went to India and started the Church there, but I doubt the veracity of most of those stories. However, I love the story in the Acts of Thomas (and can’t help but tell it) in which the Raja orders Thomas to build him the greatest and most beautiful palace in the world. Thomas tells the Raja that a building of such magnitude will be very expensive but the Raja really wants this building and gives Thomas lots of gold, which Thomas promptly takes and gives to the poor. When Thomas ran out of money, he asked the Raja for more, and the Raja gave him more, which he continued to distribute to the poor. When the Raja learned of what was going on, he called Thomas before him and demanded an accounting. Thomas told the Raja that he was building him a spectacular palace in heaven, and through mystic means of which we have no information, was able to show the Raja his palace in a vision. The Raja was so impressed that he converted to Christianity. A great story and another example of Thomas’ character.

I think that the example of Thomas is an important and worthy example to Christians, because he didn't just accept things without looking in to them. We all know people who think that blind faith is important, but blind faith, a faith which is not based upon reason, will lead one into trouble. Way too many false Christs have led people astray because their followers refused to question, because they were afraid of their doubts. During my wayward youth, I spent some four years in a psuedo-Hindu meditation cult with a guru. We were told "never leave room for doubt in your mind" and "never question the purity of the master," but the "master" was a fraud and needed to be questioned! A true Master does not need to tell his followers not to doubt, because he does not see doubt as a threat to faith, but as a normal part of the spiritual process. Thomas wasn't hard to convince; when Jesus appeared to him and showed him his wounds, Thomas didn't debate with Jesus, he said "My Master! My God!" Peter and the Beloved Disciple didn't believe the women when they returned from the empty tomb and said that they had seen the Lord, and none of the disciples believed until Jesus showed them his wounds. God gave us large brains capable of reason and thought, and God expects us to use these brains even in spiritual matters. Questioning and study are all part of loving God with all our minds. Thomas and the women and the others all believed because they saw the Resurrected Jesus. The believed because they saw the and touched the nail marks. They believed because the Resurrected Jesus appeared in their midst and talked with them. Jesus said that we who believe without seeing are blessed, and Christians throughout the centuries and millennia have held on to the promise of that blessing, because we have no choice, really. We have believed without seeing. But I must admit, if I was given the choice of being blessed in that manner or actually seeing the risen Christ and touching the nail marks and putting my hand in his side, I would exchange places with Thomas in a heart beat!
This post was visited by the Alter Guild

I See You!

Sign by Danasoft - Get Your Free Sign