Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Now We Are Six

Wow! Padre Mickey's DanceParty has been around for six years now. When I started this thing is was going to be a place to talk about our work as missionaries and to discuss the idea of the Global Center. It eventually became another source of creative expression for me. It has served as a soapbox for my political rants as well as a place for me to post my hagiographies. And of course, this was the home of the Red Mr. Peanut Bank and Gallito Mescalito and Friends series. But for the past two years things have been a bit subdued around here. Why is that? Well, the Lovely Mona and I had decided that it was time to return to the U.S.A. so I was looking for a position, and I didn't want the Dance Party to be a source of trouble for me. Even though I toned things waaaaay down, there were still some who thought my blog and Facebook page were controversial! Hard to believe, right? This place has been so quiet that I have to fight to stay conscious just to re-post them saint's thangs. On December 20, 2011 (22nd anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panamá), the Lovely Mona, Señorita Chompita Wiggletail, and yer Padre left Panamá for California. We stepped out in faith as we had no home, no car, and no source of income. We spent the rest of December in Fresno with the parents of the Lovely Mona, then headed to San José where we stayed with my long-suffering sister Melanie and the Trippies. We eventually bought a banged-up car and, amazingly, after having no prospects whatsoever for a position suddenly had two places interested in yer Padre. Bishop Mary Gray-Reeves asked us to check out All Saints' Episcopal Church and Misión Cristo Rey in Watsonville, California. We liked them, they liked us, and now we're here. After spending the majority of our lives in Major Metropolitan Areas, we are now in farm country, but Berkeley is only a little over two hours away, so it all works out. We are renting a cute little house with a back yard so the Lovely Mona can grow vegetables. Our church has a Community Garden in which we grow more vegetables. We have a new car, we are actually able to save some money, and, much to the relief of Señorita Chompita Wiggletail, we are no longer living out of suitcases. Heck, last week Miss Bebé, the World's Most Beautiful Granchile™ spent the weekend with us. AND the Church Divinity School of the Pacific awarded yer humble Padre the degree of Doctor of Divinity honorus causa for our work in Panamá. Yeah, things are going well right now. So, is the Dance Party going to become a crazy, fun, place again? Will new episodes of Red Mr. Peanut Bank and Gallito Mescalito on the drawing board? Well, I can't say; I haven't been particularly inspired to come up with stories and take photos of them toys, and Chompy left several members of the cast back in Panamá, but who the heck knows what will happen?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Feast of St. James, Brother of Our Lord, Bishop of Jerusalem and Martyr

Grant, O God, that, following the example of your servant James the Just, brother of our Lord, your Church may give itself continually to prayer and to the reconciliation of all who are at variance and enmity; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Icon written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, friend of Padre Mickey's Dance Party
Let’s talk about siblings; not everyone has brothers and sisters, but if you do, I have a question: Did you always get along with your brothers and sisters? If your family is like most families, I would say 'probably not.' Usually there is some sibling rivalry in a family and there can be some competition between the children; competition for the attention of the parents, competition in the area of school work, competition in sports and winning awards. I am the eldest of four children, and the birth order is boy-girl-boy-girl, and there is eighteen months between my sister Melanie and I and eighteen months between Melanie and Jim and then four years between Jim and Marcella. Melanie and I are close in age and close in interests and close in abilities. We are both musicians, we both work in churches, and we have similar tastes in art, literature, music and politics. We are both rather competitive and always have been so. When I was trying to learn my multiplication tables, Melanie was right there paying attention and actually learning them. That's just normal sibling rivalry. Maybe your relationship with your siblings is similar, and maybe they think that you overshadow them or you thing that they overshadow you. I think that this is pretty normal in sibling relationships. But imagine having a brother who calls himself "the Son of Man," who wanders around the country, attracting crowds, healing the sick, bringing sight to the blind, preaching forgiveness of sins and proclaiming the coming of the Reign of God. Talk about overshadowing! How do you compete with someone like that?

Today is the Feast of St. James of Jerusalem, the brother of our Lord, Jesus Christ. James was one of Jesus' four brothers, but we don't know about birth order; some traditions each that the brothers and sisters mentioned in the gospels were Joseph's children from a previous marriage or that they were actually Jesus' cousins. These are good explanations for those who believe that Mary was "ever virgin." Personally, it seems more probable to me that Joseph and Mary had a normal marriage and produced several children. From what we read in the gospels, it seems that Jesus and his family didn't really get along that well; do your remember the story of Mary sending his brothers after him because the family was worried that he was crazy? Did Jesus say to his brothers, "Tell Mom I'll be there once I'm finished talking with these folks"? No, he said, "Who is my mother? Who are my brothers? Everyone who works for the Reign of God is my mother and sister and brother." That answer wouldn't have gone over well with my mother! We don't know what James told his mother back home about what Jesus was doing; we don't know if he told her that Jesus was alright and that he was only doing the will of God. We know that Jesus wasn't well received back home because everyone knew him, but we don't know if his brothers and sisters were part of the unreceptive group. We do know that James was an important leader in the Early Church along with Peter, and we know from Paul's writings and from the Acts of the Apostles that James was the head of the Church in Jerusalem. It was James whom Paul visited when in Jerusalem, and it was James who, after hearing of Paul's mission to the Gentiles decided that the Gentiles would not have to adhere to the Mosiac covenant and be circumcised but adhere to the Noachian covenant, avoiding sexual promiscuity, not eating food sacrificed to idols, and not eating meat from animals which had been strangled, or meat which still had blood in it. We also know that James was one of those to whom Jesus appeared after the Resurrection.
According to Clement of Alexandria, as quoted by Bishop Eusebius, the first historian of the Church, James was the first bishop of Jerusalem. James was a very important figure to the Jewish Christians and his importance is reflected in chapter 12 of the Gospel of Thomas, an early gospel which was not accepted by the Church. It is a collection of sayings of Jesus, and chapter 12 reads: The disciples said to Jesus, "We know that you are going to leave us. Who will be our leader?" Jesus said to them, "No matter where you are, you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being."

According to the Jewish party in the Early Church, James represented Israel, and this is reflected in that passage. James was called the Just or Righteous because of his strict adherence to the Torah. According to Clement of Alexandria, James was: Holy from birth; he drank no wine or intoxicating liquor and ate no animal food; no razor came near his head; he did not smear himself with oil and took no baths. He alone was permitted to enter the Holy Place (Holy of Holies in the Temple), for his garments were not of wool but of linen. He used to enter the Sanctuary alone, and was often found on his knees beseeching forgiveness for the people, so that his knees grew hard like a camel's from his continually bending them in worship of God and beseeching forgiveness for the people. Because of his unsurpassable righteousness he was called the Righteous and bulwark of the People. If it is true that he entered the Holy of Holies, then James was a High Priest of the Temple, which was an important position within the community, both Jewish and Christian (It would also mean that he did take baths, as a ritual bath on the part of the priest is an aspect of the Yom Kippur liturgy). According to Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century, James was well respected by Jews and Christians because of his righteousness. Some traditions, especially those of the Ebionites, a first-century Jewish-Christian sect, taught that James performed miracles just like Jesus.
I mentioned earlier that the family of Jesus wasn't always supportive of his ministry; we know from scripture that they worried that he might have been a bit crazy, and his brothers were sent by their mother to bring him home. Was James one of the brothers sent to fetch Jesus? Did he think that his brother was behaving strangely by wandering all over Galilee healing and preaching? We don't know what James thought at the time but we do know that he came to accept his brother as Lord. According ot St. Paul, Jesus appeared to James after the Resurrection, and if James had harbored any doubts about his brother's ministry, rest assured that they were swept away by this appearance! The experience was so life-changing that, although James remained a strict follower of the Torah, he also became the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, the first Church. James, just like his brother, was a strong defender and supporter of the poor, as was the Jerusalem Church. The name Ebionites, can be translated to mean "the poor." Paul collected donations for the poor, and these funds were sent back to James and the Church in Jerusalem.

Jesus was executed with the support of the religious authorities of Jerusalem, and according to both Josephus and Clement, as quoted by Eusebius in Historia Ecclesiastica, James, the brother of Jesus, was also murdered as a result of pressure from the religious authorities. According to Eusebius, James' example and his righteous life had convinced others, even members of the ruling class, that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, and the Scribes and Pharisees were afraid that all the people would accept Jesus as Lord. So, at the Feast of the Passover during the year 62, the Scribes and Pharisees asked James to stand on the Temple parapet so that everyone could see and hear him tell the facts about Jesus, since, as the Scribes and Pharisees said, "the people have gone astray after Jesus." James stood on the parapet, and the Scribes and Pharisees shouted to him: "Righteous One, whose word we are all obliged to accept, the people are going astray after Jesus who was crucified; so tell us, what is meant by 'the door of Jesus?'" And James answered in a loud voice, "Why do you question me about the Son of Man? I tell you, He is sitting in heaven at the right hand of the Great Power, and He will come on the clouds of heaven." And many people believed, and began to shout, "Hosannah to the Son of David!" So now the Scribes and Pharisees were worried and thought, "we really made a mistake putting him up there. We better throw him down so that they will be frightened and not believe him." So they began to shout, "Oh no! Even the Righteous One has gone astray!" and someone pushed James off the parapet and he fell down to the ground. Then they said, "Let us stone James the Righteous" because he was still alive after his fall. While the stones rained upon him, James got to his knees and prayed aloud: "I beseech thee, Lord God and Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing." While the stones were falling like rain upon James, the descendants of Rechab, a priestly family, shouted, "Stop! What are you doing? The Righteous One is praying for you!" Then one of the mob took a fuller's club, which was used to beat out the clothes, and brought it down on James' head, and James died a martyr's death. According to Eusebius’ version of the story, James was buried on the spot, by the Sanctuary, until the destruction of the Temple. According to this account, some believed that the siege of Vespasian and the Jewish War, which culminated in the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem, were the vengeance of God for the murder of James.

Icon written by Tobias Stanislas Haller, BSG, friend of Padre Mickey's Dance Party
Back in 2002 there was quite a stir caused by an announcement by Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archeological Review that an ossory, or bone box, had been discovered which was dated to the first century and bore the inscription Ya'akov bar Yosef akhui diYeshua which translates as James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, in Aramaic. After years of accusations that the inscription is not authentic opinion has changed and, according to the July/August 2012 issue of BAR, it is now considered authentic. This is quite a find!

The word 'martyr' means 'witness,' and James was a witness. He witnessed his brother's ministry, and he was a witness of an appearance of the Resurrected Jesus. His life was a witness to the people of Jerusalem; his strict adherence to the Torah was proof of his righteousness, but he was also able to understand that the Law was not for all, and he realized that the Law would be a burden for the Gentile converts. He understood that to work for the Reign of God meant to speak for, defend, and support the poor, and he did this as Bishop of Jerusalem. He was the brother of Jesus, and as family, probably knew Jesus better than most; even though, at one time, he may have shared the doubts of his family about his brother's sanity, he did believe, and was blessed with a post-Resurrection appearance. He believed his brother's message about the coming of the Reign of God, and he was faithful to this message unto death. The lives of the saints are examples to us all, and the deaths of the martyrs made the church grow. Tertullian, an African leader of the Church in the second century said, "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." James was a bishop, an Apostle, and a Martyr, and he is an example to all of us. Today we celebrate his life and his death. May we keep the memory of James and of all the saints and martyrs as important examples always.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Feast of St. Luke, Evangelist

Almighty God, who inspired your servant Luke the physician to set forth in the Gospel the love and healing power of your Son: Graciously continue in your Church this love and power to heal, to the praise and glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As is usually the situation when we talk about the first Christians, we really don’t have a lot of information concerning St. Luke. Some consider him the first historian of the Christian Church due to his book The Acts of the Apostles. I don’t really consider Acts to be a history as much as the second part of the Gospel of Luke. The person I would call the first historian of Christianity, the Bishop Eusebius, wrote that Luke was born in Antioch, in Syria. He was probably a Gentile and not a Jewish convert. In the letter to the Christians in Colossae, Paul mentions the friends who are with him. First he mentions “those of the circumcision,” who are with him (Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus) and then he names Epapharas, Demas, and Luke, whom he calls the beloved physician. We don’t know anything about Luke’s conversion or where it took place, and what we know about his ministry we learn from the Acts of the Apostles. Paul mentions him in his letter to the Colossians, a letter to Timothy, and the letter to Philemon. We know that he traveled with Paul on some of his missionary journeys and also spent time in prison with Paul.

Luke is known for his two volume work which some scholars call “Luke-Acts” or the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. We may consider this a two volume work rather than two separate books, because of the way it presents the story of the message of Christ. In the first volume, Jesus brings the Good News only to the people of Israel, while the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of how the Good News spread from Jerusalem throughout the Roman Empire. The Acts of the Apostles is interesting in that it is written in the third person, in the language of a historian collecting facts until the sixteenth chapter, when the word “they” changes to “we” and we get a first-person account of Paul’s vision and subsequent mission to Macedonia. Luke probably first joined Paul's company at Troas at about the year 51 and then accompanied him into Macedonia, where they traveled first to Samothrace, Neapolis, and finally Philippi. In the story of the imprisonment of Paul and Silas in Philippi, Luke switches back to the third person, which indicates that he most probably wasn’t in prison with them. It is believed that Luke remained in Philippi to encourage the Christians there. Seven years later, Paul returned to the area on his third missionary journey, and it seems that Luke rejoined Paul in Troas in the year 58, since his account in the Acts of the Apostles returns to the use of “we” rather than “they” in chapter 20. They traveled together through Miletus, Tyre, Caesarea, to Jerusalem. Luke was very loyal to Paul and stayed with him when he was imprisoned in Rome about the year 61. When everyone else had deserted Paul in his final imprisonment and sufferings, Luke remained with him to the end. This close relationship with the apostle Paul was the source of information for Luke’s two-volume work.

Luke's unique perspective on Jesus can be seen in where his gospel differs from the gospels of Mark and Matthew. Luke includes six miracles and eighteen parables not found in the other gospels. Luke's is the gospel of the poor and of social justice. Luke tells the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man who ignored him. Luke uses "Blessed are the poor" instead of "Blessed are the poor in spirit" in the his version of the beatitudes. Luke’s gospel includes angel visitations and the beautiful song of Mary, the Magnificat, in which she proclaims that God "has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Luke also seemed to have a special connection with the women in Jesus' life, especially the Blessed Virgin Mary. Luke’s gospel is the only one which includes the story of the Annunciation, of Mary's visit to Elizabeth including the Magnificat, the only gospel with the story of the Presentation, and the story of Jesus' disappearance in Jerusalem. A reading of Luke’s gospel may lead one to believe that forgiveness and God's mercy to sinners is also of great importance to Luke. Luke’s gospel is the only one which has the story of the Prodigal Son, and only in Luke’s gospel tells the story of the forgiven woman disrupting the feast by washing Jesus' feet with her tears. Throughout Luke's gospel, Jesus takes the side of the sinner who wants to return to God's mercy. The stories Luke included in his gospel give the impression that he saw Jesus as one who loved the poor, who opened the door of God’s kingdom to everyone, as one who respected women, and who saw hope in God’s mercy for everyone.

A tradition that Luke was a painter seems to have no basis in fact. Several images of Mary appeared in later centuries claiming him as a painter but these claims were proved false. Because of this tradition, however, he is considered a patron of painters of pictures and is often portrayed as painting pictures of Mary. One of the Eastern Orthodox websites I visited claimed that St. Luke was the first to paint an icon, that of the Blessed Virigin Mary.

No one is really sure about Luke’s life after the martyrdom of St. Paul. Epiphanius says that after the martyrdom of St. Paul, St. Luke preached in Italy, Gaul, Dalmatia, and Macedon. Fortunatus and Metaphrastus say he passed into Egypt and preached in Thebais. Nicephorus says he died at Thebes in Boeotia around the year 84, after settling in Greece to write his gospel. St. Hippolytus says St. Luke was crucified at Elaea in Peloponnesus near Achaia. There is a Greek tradition that he was crucified on an olive tree. The ancient African Martyrology gives him the titles of Evangelist and Martyr, and St. Gregory Nazianzen, St. Paulinus, and St. Gaudentius of Brescia all claim that Luke went to God by martyrdom. Bede, Ado, Usuard, and Baronius in the Martyrologies only say he suffered much for the faith, and died very old in Bithynia. Whether he died a quiet death at 84 or whether he won the martyr’s crown, he will always be known for his wonderful two-volume work. What would Christmas be like without Luke’s story of the shepherds and the angelic choir? His story of the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost has always been an inspiration. And what would Evening Prayer be like without the beauty of the Magnificat? Luke was instrumental in helping spread the word, helping spread the Good News, that forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Reign of God is available to all, and that is why we remember St. Luke today.

Friday, October 12, 2012

¡Muchisimas gracias, Church Divinity School of the Pacific!

Last night, while much of the nation was watching the vice-presidential debate, I was at All Saints' Chapel of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific with friends and family. It was great to be back in Berkeley. But the best part of the evening was receiving the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa with the Rev. Robert E. Reynolds. My friend, the Very Rev. James Richardson preached and he also presented me for the degree. He also wrote the following citation:

Michael Garrick Dresbach is a musician and music impresario, blogger extraordinaire, faithful priest, missionary, international liturgist and linguist, husband, father, grandfather, and treasured friend to many at Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Central America, and in cyberspace as well. Michael was born in Oakland; his parents were missionaries. At the age of 14, Michael informed his parents that he was called to be an Episcopal priest. As a young adult, he entered the music business, played in rock bands in the Bay Area, and married Mona Neimoyer - now known worldwide as "the Lovely Mona" thanks to his frequent postings on his popular blog, "Padre Mickey's Dance Party." Michael entered CDSP in 1994, and as a student he participated in The Panamá Project, which provides a summer of study and service in Panamá for U.S. seminarians. Michael received his M.Div from CDSP and an M.A. degree from CDSP and the Graduate Theological Union in 2000. While in Panamá, he was bitten with a call to return as a missionary. In 1999, Michael and Mona made a three-year commitment to live as missionaries in Panamá. They stayed 12 years. Michael began work in the Theological Education Department of the Diocese of Panamá and was Diocesan Missioner. After his first year Michael became Rector of Parroquia San Cristóbal, the largest parish in the diocese, and became co-director of the Panamá Project. Michael also served as chaplain to the Campamento Intermedio, a camp for adolescents, and worked with the youth in the diocese. Michael chaired the Diocese of Panamá Commission on Ministry for seven years, and was a member of the Music and Liturgy Committee. He oversaw the liturgies for Diocesan Convention and the Commission for Theological Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (CETALC). Michael produced a worship booklet that included the Daily Office and the Holy Eucharist (including lections) in Spanish, English, French, and Brazilian Portuguese. He is a member of the IARCA-TEC Covenant Committee (Iglesia Anglicana de la Region de Central America and The Episcopal Church) for the Region of Central America. Michael and Mona returned to the United States in December 2011, and he is now the Priest-in-charge of All Saints' Episcopal Church and Vicar of Misión Cristo Rey in Watsonville, in the Diocese of El Camino Real. For his selfless service and his commitment to proclaim the Gospel across cultural and national boundaries while living with the poor and forgotten of Central America and the United States, the Board of Trustees of Church Divinity School of the Pacific awards the Doctor of Divinity honoris causa, to Michael "Padre Mickey" Dresbach.

I was totally surprised when I received the message that CDSP would be giving me this degree, and I am quite humbled by it. It was great to see everyone last night. Miss Bebé, the World's Most Beautiful Granchile™ was there and, while playing with my hood, announced "I really like your award!"

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist

Holy God, no one is excluded from your love, and your truth transforms the minds of all who seek you: As your servant Philip was led to embrace the fullness of your salvation and to bring the stranger to Baptism, so give us all the grace to be heralds of the Gospel, proclaiming your love in Jesus Christ our Savior, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Today is the Feast of St. Philip, Deacon and Evangelist. The Roman Church celebrates his feast on June 6, but the Eastern Church and the Episcopal Church celebrate his feast today.

Philip was one of the first deacons of the church. He was in that group of seven, with Stephen. We call him “evangelist” because he traveled around preaching the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of God’s reign. We know he was a married man and had four daughters who were prophetesses. Esebius writes in his History of the Church:
“And in the Dialogue of Caius which we mentioned a little above, Proclus, against whom he directed his disputation, in agreement with what has been quoted, speaks thus concerning the death of Philip and his daughters: ‘After him  there were four prophetesses, the daughters of Philip, at Hierapolis in Asia. Their tomb is there and the tomb of their father.’ Such is his state-merit. But Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, mentions the daughters of Philip who were at that time at Caesarea in Judea with their father, and were honored with the gift of prophecy. His words are as follows: ‘We came unto Caesarea; and entering into the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven, we abode with him. Now this man had four daughters, virgins, which did prophesy.’”
I served as “Interum Curate” at St. Philip’s Church
in San José, California, when I was a deacon, so I am fond of this saint. Instead of writing a history of St. Philip, I offer the sermon I preached on the fifth Sunday of Easter in 2006.

The reading we heard from the Acts of the Apostles tells of the first Gentile to follow the Way. “Followers of the Way” was what the very first disciples of Jesus called themselves. Several years later, in the city of Antioch, in Syria, the Followers of the Way began to be called Christians. The Followers of the Way were Jews and they worshipped at the temple and in the synagogues, but they were different from other Jews because they believed that the Messiah had come, and that the Messiah was Yeshua ben Yusef of Nazareth. The proclaimed the Good News to other Jews, preaching in the synagogues. Even when they went to cities in other countries, such as Damascus or Antioch, they only preached to other Jews. But one of the deacons, Philip, met a person from Ethiopia, and the gospel message became a universal message. I believe this was an important event in the Church because the conversation between the Ethiopian eunuch and Philip made it possible for all of us to be here in church in Parque Lefevre. Philip was able to make this important move because he loved Jesus and he obeyed the movement of the Holy Spirit in his life.

In the passage we heard from John's gospel, Jesus was talking with the Twelve at what we call the Last Supper. He said, "If you love me, you will obey my instructions." And what were Jesus' instructions? This is not a complete list, but these are good instructions for us all:
"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength." Mark 12:30
"You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Mark 12:31
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you and persecute you." Matthew 5:44
Love one another as I have loved you." John 13:34
"Whatever you wish that someone would do to you, do so to them." Matthew 7:12
"Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven." Matthew 5:16
"Seek first the kingdom of God and God's righteousness." Matthew 6:3
"Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful." Luke6:36
As I have said before, if we love Jesus and obey these instructions, if we love our neighbor as our selves, we will want to share the Good News of forgiveness of sins and the coming of the Reign of God with everyone. Jesus also told the Twelve that night that he would not abandon them like orphans, that at his request the Father would send them an advocate, the authentic spirit who would be with them forever. This advocate, this authentic spirit, the Holy Spirit, would give them the strength and courage to go and preach the Good News in Israel first, and then throughout the world.

Philip wasn't one of the Twelve Apostles, but he may have been one of the seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out two-by-two throughout Galilee. He was one of the original seven deacons. He must have been very open to the movement of the Holy Spirit, because an angel of the Lord came to him and gave him instructions to go to the south road which leads out of Jerusalem to Gaza. And while he was there on the road, an Ethiopian, who was a minister of the Queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her treasury, a person who was an educated person and a eunuch, a man who was considered a "God Fearer," a gentile convert to Judaism, came by, reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. In those days everyone read out loud, very few people read silently like we do nowadays, so Philip had no problem hearing this man read. It may be difficult for us to understand how different this encounter was for a person like Philip, but the Ethiopian represented much which was outside of Philip's experience. From the point of view of those in Jerusalem, Ethiopia was at the edge of the known world. At that time Ethiopia covered the wester third of what is now Sudan, all of Eritrea, Yemen, Ethiopia, and most of Somalia. The court official who Philip met also represented the end of the earth in a cultural context. While he was a convert to Judaism, he was a Gentile and culturally removed from those born into Judaism. As the treasurer for the queen of Ethiopia, he also represented another "end of the earth:" he represented those in power. This is the first time the gospel touches the lives of those with wealth and power outside of those in Jerusalem. This was not a person whom Philip would normally approach, but the Spirit told him "Go up and join his chariot," so he did. Philip gathered up his courage and asked this stranger, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The eunuch responded, "How can I unless someone guides me?" Then he took a step outside of his normal comfort zone and invited Philip to sit beside him in his chariot. And Philip took another step outside of his normal comfort zone and climbed up into the chariot. The eunuch had been reading this passage: As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is mute, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth. The eunuch asked Philip "Is the prophet talking about himself or someone else?" And Philip opened his mouth and the Spirit spoke through him, and, starting with scripture, he told him of the Good News of Jesus, the Christ. Remember, they were out on a desert road, where it was dry and dusty. Atone point they came upon some water and the eunuch asked, "What is to present me from being baptized?" We live in a multicultural society, so we may forget that the answer to this question was "everything!" The Ethiopian eunuch was not simply a stranger from far away with no connection to any of the recent events in Jerusalem surrounding Jesus, crucified and risen. He was also a eunuch, which according to the scriptures he was reading, would have been labeled unclean and unfit for entry into the Temple for prayer and sacrifice. It is amazing how quickly his conversion takes place, but what is really amazing is how quickly Philip was ready to welcome him into the fellowship of the baptized. They stopped the chariot, went down into the water and Philip baptized him. And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit took Philip away and the eunuch went on his way back home to Ethiopia, rejoicing in his salvation. According to tradition, he helped found the Church in Africa, and the Church in Ethiopia still exists and has ancient liturgical traditions. This was the first event which helped spread the gospel to the ends of the earth as Jesus had instructed, and that is why we can be gathered together here in Panama, rejoicing and hearing the story of the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch.

The eunuch asked, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" This is not a problem nowadays. We baptize babies how have no say in the decision, and the padrinos agree to follow Christ on behalf of the baby. Nothing, not one's culture or race or physical status, will prevent one from being baptized in our day. Since most of us were baptized as babies we don't even remember being baptized. There really is to prevent us from being baptized. I think the questions for us are: What prevents me from living out my baptismal covenant? What prevents me from loving Jesus and obeying his instructions? How often does our culture demand we be something other than a child of God? In the world of economics, we are consumers, employees, and employers. In the world of politics we are citizens, voters, taxpayers. In our communities we have various responsibilities and privileges that require us to keep up, to prove ourselves. When we are honest about all the barriers that tend to make us forget who we truly are, when we are honest about our shortcomings, when we are honest about how we tend to forget to obey Jesus' instructions, when we realize that we don't always love the Lord with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, then we can repent and ask Jesus to help us live up to our promises, we can ask for help to obey his instructions. That is why the Holy Spirit is here, to guide us and give us strength to proclaim the Good News and obey Jesus' instructions, his commandments. Then we can remind others that, they, too, are children of God, and they will learn that this truth, this knowledge, can set them free. If we love Jesus we will obey his instructions, but these instructions are not easy to obey. It can be very difficult to love our enemies, to bless those who curse us. It ban be difficult to treat others in the same way want to be treated. We all know that it can be difficult to be merciful as God our Father is merciful; it goes against our fallen, human nature. But if we trust the Holy Spirit to lead us like Philip did, when we take that bold step to move outside of our comfort zone and follow the Holy Spirit's guidance, we will be obeying Jesus' instructions, proving our love for Jesus and we will experience the love and power of God in our lives.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Feast of San Francisco de Assis

Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Today I’ll talk about a saint who is not one of the early saints and I’m sure you’ll find much better posts about him all over the internet today, but I want to say my piece, too. It was the parish of St. Francis in San José, California, which raised Mona and I up in ministry and supported us in seminary, and they support our ministry in Panamá. But even though Francis isn’t a martyr or from the third century, he is one of my favorite saints. For me, the life of St. Francis is an example of total surrender to God's will, a life which full enjoyed God's creation, and his life is also a model to us of one who is gentle in spirit.

St. Francis was born in the year 1181 in the town of Assisi in Italy. His father was a wealthy merchant who sold cloth. As Francis grew up, he worked in his father's shop, helping sell cloth to the people of Assisi. He and his friends were kind of wild and had parties that lasted until early morning. When he was twenty years old he joined the army. He was captured by the enemy and spent a few months imprisoned. When he was finally released from prison, he returned home to Assisi. When he returned home, he had changed. He was no longer interested in hanging out with his friends, eating and drinking late into the night; he was no longer interested in singing outside the windows of the young women of Assisi. While he was imprisoned he had a lot of time to think, and when he returned to Assisi he no longer found happiness in the silly pursuits of his friends. He began to spend time with the poor of Assisi and helping the lepers on the outskirts of town. He spent less time working at Dad’s shop and more time in prayer in a little grotto outside of town. He and his father argued often about his strange behavior.

One day Francis decided to make a pilgrimage to Rome to see if he could figure out what God wanted of him. While in Rome he realized that he wanted to separate himself from his father's money, and one day he asked a beggar to change clothes with him. He gave the beggar his fancy clothes and put on the beggar's rags. He went around the city and experienced rejection from the well-dressed people and he began to understand the hard life of the poor. He returned to Assisi determined to find a way to please God. He continued to with the lepers of Assisi. Early one morning, he went for a ride on his horse, contemplating the glory of God in nature all around him. He almost fell off his horse when the horse balked at seeing a leper standing on the side of the road with his hand outstretched, hiding his face with his cloak. Francis was about to ride away when he heard a voice in his heart say: "Francis, all that up to now has been hateful to you must change into unspeakable joy!" He got off of his horse and was going to give the leper some coins when he bent down to kiss the sore hand of the leper as a means of seeing the face of Jesus in the leper's face. At the moment he kissed the leper's diseased hand, he felt a sense of liberation and purification. Francis continued to argue with his father and he lost all interest in his father's profession. He kept giving his father's money away. He was finally kicked out of the house and he began to spend a lot of time in a little decrepit church, the church of San Damiano. One day while he was there praying, he looked up at the crucifix and heard it say to him, "Francis, go and rebuild my house, which is threatening to collapse." Francis started working at San Damiano, reinforcing the walls, patching the roof, and fixing it all up. Other young men began to come help his with his work. Soon he had several followers, and they all took on the life of "Lady Poverty." They gave up everything and begged for their food. Francis wrote a Rule of Life for the group and after getting approval from Pope Innocent III, they became known as the Order of Friars Minor. Soon, a wealthy young woman named Claire and her friends desired to live the same life as the Friars, who were known as "Franciscans" and became known as the "Poor Claires." Both groups worked with the poor and sick and outcasts of society. Both groups lived holy lives of poverty.

St. Francis heard God's voice in the natural world which surrounded him, and he saw God's face in the elements and in all of creation. He saw the face of Jesus in the faces of the poor and sick. His understanding of the connectedness of all creation is evident in his calling everything either "brother" or "sister." An example of how St. Francis experienced God in nature is illustrated in a song he wrote, The Canticle of the Sun:

Most High, Almighty, Good Lord.
Yours be the praise, the glory, the honor and all blessing.
To You alone, Most High, are they due.
And no man is worthy to speak your Name.
Praise to You, my Lord, for all your creatures.
Above all, Brother Sun who brings us the day and lends us his light.
Lovely is he, radiant with great splendor, and speaks to us of You,
O Most High.
Praise to You, my Lord, for Sister Moon, and the stars
which You have set in the heavens, clear, precious, and fair.
Praise to You, my Lord, for Brother Wind, for air and cloud,
for calm and all weather by which you support life in all your creatures.
Praise to You, my Lord, for Sister Water,
whop is so useful and humble, precious and pure.
Praise to You, my Lord, for our sister Mother Earth,
who sustains and directs us and brings forth varied fruits
and colored flowers and plants.
Praise and bless my Lord, thank Him and serve Him with great humility!

St. Francis also experienced God through the animals, and as we know, he was very fond of the animals he met. As a result, many churches celebrate his feast with a blessing of the animals. When I was at St. Francis’ in San José, we always had the blessing of the animals as part of our Patronal Festival. This was also the day that the Bishop would visit, and there were many times when I helped the bishop bless dogs, cats, mice, snakes, lizards, birds, and all manner of pets.
Another story which illustrates the love St. Francis had for creation is the story of St. Francis and the birds: One day St. Francis and some of the brothers were walking between the towns of Cannara and Bevagna. While they were walking, St. Francis saw some trees next to the road and there was a large group of many different birds, varieties that he had never seen in that area before, all standing about (think of what he would think of our birds here in Panamá!). There was another group of birds standing in the fields next to the trees. While St. Francis was looking at this strange sight, he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and he told his companions, "Wait here in the road, I am going to go over and preach to our sisters the birds." As soon as he went into the field the birds began to gather around him, and the birds up in the trees flew down and they all stood about him quietly, even when he walked among them. St. Francis looked at the birds gathered around him and said,

"My sisters the birds, you have so much from God and should always praise God for the gift of flight, for your beautiful colored feathers, for the food you get, for your gift of singing,
and for the fact that God has blessed you with great numbers, for your species was saved on the Ark with Noah, and for the element of Air which was set aside for you to travel in.
You don't plant or harvest and God feeds you. God gave you rivers and streams from which to drink, and mountains, hills, rocks and crags to hid in tall trees for your nests; and since you can't sew, God gave you and your chicks feathers for clothes. It's true that the Creator who made you loves you very much. So take care, sisters of mine, the birds, not to be ungrateful but be happy and always praise God."

When St. Francis finished his sermon, all the birds began to open their beaks, stretch their wings and necks and bow their heads reverently, and sing. With their songs and actions they were telling St. Francis that they liked what he said. When St. francis saw this, he was very happy and full of the Holy Spirit, and was amazed at such a wide variety of birds who showed that they loved each other. He praised God for this creation, called the birds to praise God, and blessed them with the sign of the cross. The birds all rose into the sky and flew off in the four directions, north, south, west, and east, to show St. Francis a great cross.

St. Francis died on October 3, 1226. He had passed on leadership of the Order of Franciscans seven years earlier. He was made a saint on July 16, 1228, by Pope Gregory IX. St. Francis was one who was able to surrender totally to God, he was one who was able to trust God fully; he trusted God to feed him, to provide shelter, and to keep him safe. He trusted God enough to listen for God's voice in the world around him. He was able to see God in the lives of the animals he loved, but also in the face of the poor leper at the side of the road. He was extremely humble, yet able to lead a great order which exists to this day. The life of St. Francis is proof that, if one is to be great, one must be the servant of others. May all of us look to the life of St. Francis and see God in the faces of the least among us.

I See You!

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