Marginal Shepherds and God

Today the church unofficially honors one of its moveable commemorations: Good Shepherd Sunday.

The lectionary (prescribed calendar of readings for the church) annually incorporates shepherd imagery into this Sunday of Eastertide, giving a nod to both the agrarian notes of the ancient scriptures as well as an allusion to the Davidic tradition within the canon.

Ironically, of course, this Sunday’s reading from John focuses more on Jesus being a gate than a shepherd, but we won’t go there today.

The image of a shepherd king is a striking one, though it probably doesn’t feel that way to our modern sensibilities. Shepherds were not highly thought of (they couldn’t testify in ancient courts because they were seen as too “woodsy” and “backwater” to tell the truth), and their work was seen as menial labor. Yet it is from this stock that the Divine chose the preeminent king, David. And it is to these people that the angels first came to sing of the birth of the Christ.

It’s ironic that both Christ’s birth and Christ’s resurrection were first proclaimed to people who couldn’t offer official testimony in court (shepherds and women). God chooses the lowly and marginalized to hold Divine promises.

What passes for popular Christianity would do well to remember this as they pass laws in state houses to further marginalize the marginalized and silence voices who they consider ”other.”

Shepherds in the ancient world would rescue sheep, fight off predators, and sometimes carry errant, injured, or wayward sheep on their shoulders, keeping them with the flock (often despite the sheep’s best efforts).

On this Good Shepherd Sunday, though, perhaps it’s more appropriate to remember that in Jesus we see a God who is not “kind and caring” so much as a person on the margins themselves.

Which makes me wonder: if God is embodied in the marginalized, why do we treat folks on the margins of society so badly?

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-icon in the Byzantine style

The Blue Jay

The Blue Jay

My boys will look
at a Blue jay
and turn to the coloring page
and, choosing the yellow crayon,
go to town on the bird before them.

They call it a “blue jay,”
but it is canary yellow.

And instead of saying, “that’s wrong,”
which is my instinct,
my training by a world
that thinks in boxes…
(like damned auto-correct for the
creative heart)

I’m now just jealous.

Of that kind of insight.

The kind of insight that can see
what is
and riff on it like a jazz player.

The kind of insight that can make
a new world
using bits and pieces
of this one.

Seek to Know More Than You Should

Today the church honors the feast day of a number of saints in the mystic tradition including St. Catherine of Siena, Johannes Tauler, and Blessed Henry Suso.

But I’d like to lift up one of my favorite 14th Century mystics, Meister Eckhart.

Eckhart, whose formal name is Johannes, was born sometime around the year 1260 in Germany. He was trained as a Dominican, and true to form was known as a wonderful preacher.

His teachings were not only deeply mystic and spiritual, but were also seen as being on the fringe for his day (and still may be considered so, today!). Because of this, he was brought up on heresy charges by the Archbishop of Cologne, and died before the matter was settled.

Years after his death a papal bull was distributed that named some of his writings as heretical, noting that “he wished to know more than he should.”

My favorite quote of the great Meister is:

“What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture?

We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”

Eckhart is a reminder for the church, and for each of us, that the quest to “know more than we should” is one to be risked.

We should all quest to know more than we should…

Brevity is a Friend

I’m just a day late (due to crazy schedules), but think it’s important to note that on April 25th, the most perfect day in the whole calendar (not too hot or too cold, just enough for a light jacket in the morning) the church remembers the writer of what many consider to be the perfect Gospel account: Saint Mark, Evangelist and Friend of Brevity.

In the ancient days the church would take to the hillside on April 25th singing the Greater Litany in an attempt to neutralize any mildew that might even think about affecting the budding wheat harvest, a nod to the many agrarian examples that dot the Gospels, including the Gospel of Mark.

Mark’s Gospel is, as far as we can tell, the oldest Gospel in the canon (though certainly not the oldest writing in the New Testament). He is usually associated with John Mark, mentioned in the book of Acts, though the name “Mark” in ancient days was kind of like the name “Mary” back then: everyone and their brother seemed to bear the name (in fact, John Mark’s mother was named Mary).

Speaking of John Mark’s mother, if the Gospel writer is the same Mark as the one written of in the Book of Acts, then his mother hosted one of the first house churches recorded in the scriptures (check out Acts 12:12). Some even think it was perhaps this house, Mark’s house, where the disciples met for the Last Supper.

The John Mark of Acts went with his cousin St. Barnabas and St. Paul in their first missionary work (with St. Barnabas taking the lead…we forget that Barnabas taught Paul, not the other way around). Somewhere on this journey St. Mark and St. Paul became frienemies (Paul had a way of making enemies of those who would be his friends), and Paul decided that St. Mark would not be joining him on his other missionary journeys. Though they eventually made peace with one another, it’s interesting to note that the early church leaders were often butting heads.

Especially the loudest ones.

Saint Mark is often called the “interpreter of Saint Peter,” mostly because tradition holds that Saint Mark wrote his Gospel using the memory banks of that sage and salty Apostle. It is said Saint Mark went on to become the Bishop of Alexandria (though this may be mostly lore), and that he was martyred in 64 C.E. because he attempted to keep people from worshiping the god Serapis. In the mid 9th Century the remains of Saint Mark (or, at least what was called his remains) were moved from Alexandria to Venice, and are now in the cathedral there.

In many places throughout the world April 25th has been a “rogation day,” marked by processions through crop fields and prayers for a good planting season. In the 7th Century the church coopted this pagan processional meant to keep biological pests at bay through prayer and purification, and made it a liturgical act. In fact, once the church coopted this practice, the legend grew that it was on April 25th that Saint Peter entered Rome for the first time, and since Saint Mark is Saint Peter’s interpreter…well…they gave Mark the feast day and he forever became associated with both the litany and rogation festivals.

Saint Mark’s apostolic symbol is that of a lion. This figure, borrowed from the prophet Ezekiel, gives a visual to what Mark’s Gospel account is: fierce and loud, striking hot and fast. In Mark Jesus is always on the move. In Mark little details are swiped over in deference to big picture ideas. In Mark Jesus is the most human, seemingly glib to his Divine appointment in many instances.

All of the above makes Mark my favorite Gospel by far. I’m not big on Matthew’s attempt to fulfill prophecy, Luke’s penchant for inane details, or John’s flowery words and tortured imagery.

Mark gets the point and invites the reader/hearer to draw their own conclusions.

I like that.

Saint Mark is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes brevity says more than tortured details can ever say. May everyone who writes a sermon hear.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon written by Theophilia at DeviantArt

What Are You Doing?

For Spring, some Celtic wisdom on stewardship from a medieval Irish tale:

“A very old man went out one day on the land beside his house, and began planting fruit trees.

A young man walked by. “What are you doing?” the young man asked.

“Planting fruit trees,” the old man replied.

“But you will not see fruit in your lifetime,” the youth said.

“The fruit that I have enjoyed in my lifetime,” the old man answered, “has been from trees that people before me have planted. So to express my gratitude of them, I am planting trees to give fruit to those who come after me.”

No Saint is Perfect…

Today the Church remembers an obscure, but important, contemporary saint: Toyohiko Kagawa.

Toyohiko was the biological son of a member of the Japanese Cabinet and a geisha girl, and was raised by his father’s wife. He was eventually sent to live with an uncle, and learned English through a Bible course. At 15 he became a Christian, and was rejected by his family of origin.

He dedicated his life to serving in the slums of Japan. He lived in the most impoverished slum, Shinkawa, for most of his young adulthood, abiding in a 6ft by 6ft hut with his wife Haru.

From there he began organizing.

In 1912 he organized the first labor union in Japan for shipyard workers. in 1918 he founded the Labor Federation and in 1921 the Farmer’s Union. He was arrested numerous times in worker strikes and street riots, and in 1925 he worked successfully for universal male suffrage in Japan.

His work in both unionizing and social welfare was born from what he saw as the Christian ideal for social order, lifting up the poor and the marginalized. His writings helped the powerful see the plight of the poor in Japan.

As nationalist fervor started to bubble, he founded the Anti-War League in 1928. In 1940 he was arrested in Japan for apologizing to China for Japanese aggression, and in 1941 he was part of a group who came to the United states to try to avert the war.

Despite all of this, the climate in Japan during the war influenced him greatly, as did the fear of political retribution. He was known, during the war, as being a nationalistic hardliner.

After the war, Kagawa led efforts to establish democratic institutions in Japan. He died in Tokyo on this day in 1960.

Kagawa is a wonderful example of how the complexity of a heart for the poor and geo-political realities affect humanity. Hindsight leads us to see where we have succeeded, and where we have stumbled, and despite our best efforts to keep our feet under us, no one leads an unblemished existence.

His commemoration is a good reminder, for all of us, that our missteps should not, in the end, erase the times we were in alignment with justice. No saint is perfect, after all.

-historical information gathered from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints

Holy Wisdom

Today the church remembers not a particular saint, but rather the Mother to us all: Earth Day.

The first Earth Day was held in 1970 with the rise of the environmental movement. As the Industrial Revolution quickly began taking its toll on the planet, humans began noticing some tangible changes in the way things looked, tasted, and smelled in the world…and it was not good. Though these changes smelled like prosperity to some, others knew it was a warning sign that the Earth was…is…dying, and that death was being accelerated by humans.

In those early days, pollution was the main focus of most Earth Day activities. And while that is still true today to some extent, we’ve now recognized global warming as the true danger to life on, and the life of, this planet.

In the opening lines of Genesis we find the Divine carefully crafting the earth, separating this from that, throwing birds in the air and playing ultimate “catch and release” with the fishes of the sea. The plants are coaxed from their ground, and humans are shaped out of the black soil. This poetic vision of the creation was not meant to be science…it was art. The art of the Divine being infused in every good thing that inhabits this planet.

And then, as the Creator rested, they charged humanity with tending all that had been made.

Earth Day is a reminder for me, and for the church, that this planet was not given to humans, but rather entrusted to them. In our efforts to thrive we’ve stumbled and sacrificed the lives of so many of our fellow creatures…remember: we’re all creation. And while we may not be able to stop global warming, we can slow it and shape it a bit.

Indeed: we are called to do that.

-icon “Holy Wisdom” written by Robert Lentz.

-icon “Cosmic Christ” written by Alex Grey

The Reformer’s Pastor

Today the church remembers a 16th Century reformer who pastored The Reformer: Saint Johannes Bugenhagen, Pastor, Reformer, and Person of Unending Patience.

We should just get this out of the way at the beginning: St. Bugenhagen was Martin Luther’s pastor and the pastor of St. Mary’s Lutheran Church in Wittenberg. And, look, if you can imagine a more irritable or irritating parishioner than Martin Luther…well…I cannot. So blessings to this guy already!

Born in Pomerania in 1485, Bugenhagen was smart, well educated, and a beneficiary of necessity: there weren’t any theologians to be ordained, and he happened to be smart enough to pass as one, and so he was ordained a priest in 1509. He began teaching Bible courses at Belbuck Abbey, and in 1520 he picked up a little pamphlet entitled Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church by an exiled fellow priest, Martin Luther, and thought it was largely rubbish.

He eventually, though, became warm to the idea (perhaps his heart was strangely warmed?) and in 1521 moved to Wittenberg to support the growing Reformation in person.

Bugenhagen quickly grew into his Reformation role and was drafted into Luther’s writing team, tackling the daunting task of translating the entire Bible into German. He used his scholarly knowhow to take on Ulrich Zwingli in the inter-Reformation arguments, and he became a sought after lecturer and teacher in his own right.

Along with all this, he had to listen to Martin Luther’s confessions which, legend has it, were long and detailed. Bless.

Bugenhagen’s leadership is still felt today as it was he who ordained that first new cadre of Lutheran pastors into this fledgling movement of a church. He became one of the first three protestant doctors of theology, sponsored and paid for by Frederick III, Luther’s patron and protector.

While Luther took to traveling and speaking, Bugenhagen tended the ship at home in Northern Germany and Scandinavia, piloting the new church into a new frontier. He organized and wrote the rules for new church plants throughout the region, effectively becoming a Bishop for the parishes that sprang up in the Reformer’s wake. Under his influence the church in Denmark-Norway lost their Apostolic Succession as it was Bugenhagen, and not the local Roman bishop, who crowned Christian III and ordained local pastors. He was derisively called “The Second Apostle of the North,” but the name, though a bit of a slur, was true: he not only set up new rules for the churches in the area, he actually got leadership and the locals to follow the rules and fall in love with them.

He moved hearts, not just heads.

And all the while he had to listen to Blessed Martin Luther’s confessions. Bless him.

When Saint Martin died in 1546 it was Saint Bugenhagen who took care of Kadi and Luther’s children, faithful to his friend and parishioner to the end.

Saint Johannes Bugenhagen died on this date in 1558. He was more than just a pastor, but an influencer, and a brilliant community organizer. He knew how to get people together for a common goal and meet that goal…he deserves to be studied if only for that amazing gift.

And I would bet a large sum of money that most Lutherans, though we’ve lived eating the fruits of his labor for our entire lives, didn’t even know about him (or much about him) until reading this. I didn’t know much about him until I went to seminary, and my love for him primarily came from my Church History professor who, bless his German heart, loved him.

Saint Johannes Bugenhagen is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that in the shadows of great people we often find great people who quietly move mountains.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-information gleaned from public sources and from the memory banks of Church History II (thanks, Dr. Hendel)

He Refused to Play the Game

Today the church remembers the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die by martyrdom (but certainly not the last): St. Alphege, Bishop, Martyr, and Resistor.

St. Alphege was born in the year 954 and, having been raised in the faith, became a Benedictine monk. He served as the prior of the abbey at Bath, and then as Archbishop of Canterbury in the days when Viking attacks were rampant on the island.

In the year 1012, Viking raiders captured Canterbury. Alphege pleaded with the marauders to spare the town, but the Vikings did not listen. They pillaged the town, killed many of the people, burned the cathedral, and kept Alphege as their hostage.

From the remaining townspeople the Vikings demanded a ransom in exchange for Alphege’s freedom. Alphege knew his townspeople were poor, and refused to play their game, choosing imprisonment in perpetuity. The Vikings, incensed by his refusal, stoned Alphege. One Viking, a Thorkell the Tall, attempted to shield the Bishop from the blows, but the raiders ultimately prevailed.

St. Alphege died on this day in the year 1012.

St. Alphege is a reminder for me, and should be for everyone, that sometimes you prevent cycles of injustice by simply refusing to play the games of the powerful any longer.

-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

On Today

Today the Celtic arm of the church remembers the Eve of St. Expedite: Carrier of Messages.

St. Expedite, despite the humorous name, is an actual saint that the Roman church canonized, yet took from the rolls due to lack of ”lived evidence.” Like Sts. Christopher and Valentine, this saint doesn’t have much historical backing to legitimize their existence.

And yet, they remain an important part of lore. Why?

Glad you asked…

Expedient soldiers were Roman officers who carried no packs and could move with ease. They were often employed to deliver special messages or deliver pertinent materials to other divisions in quick step.

St. Expedite was thought to be an Armenian Christian who, rather than give worship to the Emperor, died a martyr as a faithful member of the faith, running their errands as necessary.

Calling the phrase “Hodie,” this fast runner yelled “today!” before him, delivering messages far and wide.

Yes, this saint is largely lore. But why are they important?

Because “today” is really the only day we’re promised, Beloved.

And this saint, like so many of the Celtic tradition, draws our attention to what is needful in the world.

So, as St. Mary Oliver rightly asked, what will you do with your, “One wild and precious life?”

-historical notes taken from common sources