Friday, December 7, 2018

Dee Kittany Has Something To Say Dec. 9th 2018 2nd Sunday of Advent

Advent II – Year C       9 December 2018

As 21st century urban dwellers, we easily recognize that our lives often unfold according to paradoxical signals and sentiments. Liturgically and spiritually, we savor the season of Advent, a time of hopeful waiting and an opportunity to cultivate patience and peacefulness.  Meanwhile, our secular milieu has been rushing headlong into Christmas since the first week of November.

Because Advent is part of the end-piece of our Gregorian calendar, it provides a natural prompt toward prayerful introspection. Whether we consider it the spiritual warm-up for celebrating the appearance of God-among-us at Christmas or for writing New Year’s resolutions, these weeks are rife with memories along with a generous portion of wishes, dreams and hopes. And perhaps we begin to wonder whether we should think of our lives as linear or cyclic.

It doesn’t take long to realize that the answer is “both/and” rather than “either/or” and this lifts our spirits and taps into the heart of the gift of being.

The cyclic character is manifested in our individual lives and in the levels of history.  We have a three-year cycle of Scripture readings, part of the story of our salvation.  But every time we return to the readings, we are different, thanks to the trajectory of our unique individual lives. The readings we will hear this coming Sunday remind us of our shared and timeless inheritance across millennia. And they still hold the promise! 

  • The psalmist reminds us that The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy!
  • Baruch offers the assurance that God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.
  • And Luke proclaims: The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
How we need to hear those words and hold them close to us in these troubled and confusing times!  They speak to us and belong to us as surely as to those who first wrote them.

The ever-widening circle that is our life and the life of the world draws us toward its Center, the one true Source of all that is good and holy and is Love itself.  That is the linearity, the one true path to which all are called and welcomed.

The writer Madeleine L’Engle describes this exquisite invitation:
As we move into Advent we are called to listen, something we seldom take time to do in this frenetic world of over-activity. But waiting for birth, waiting for death – these are listening times, when the normal distractions of life have lost their power to take us away from God’s call to center in Christ.  Advent is not a time to declare, but to listen, to listen to whatever God may want to tell us through the singing of the stars, the quickening of a baby, the gallantry of a dying man.

Dee Kittany has been a member of St. Francis Xavier parish and our music ministry since 1994. She is a music teacher/choral director and former Campus Minister at Xavier High School. A native of Arkansas, she first met Ignatius (and the Jesuits) while pursuing graduate degrees at Saint Louis University and Loyola University Chicago.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Roseann Bonadia Has Something To Say Feast of Christ the King

Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King; and so another church year comes to a close.  I am of an age now that with the end of another year, I feel, almost tangibly, time’s relentless and unyielding march forward.  Not only does time not ever stop, it actually seems to speed up as one accumulates years.    When we turned a new calendar year back in 2000 we turned also to a new century and, quite incredibly, to a new millennium.    In a certain sense, we use time to define who we are and how we fit in to the really BIG picture that is history.  As the actress Maggie Smith said in one episode of Downton Abbey, “we are the Edwardians.”  So, my friends, I guess we can say “we are the Post-Moderns.”   Simply put:  for us post-moderns, I am me and you are you, and not only is that okay, it is fantastic.  The individual reigns supreme.   I believe this is as it should be.  Each story matters, each voice matters, each life matters. 

This is the good news.....and, because we humans do nothing is also the bad news.  Just as 21st century technology provides radical enhancements for how we live our lives, we also find new ways using that same technology to harm and exploit one another, inventing new forms of criminal behavior.  And so it is with the struggle of the “one and the many.”    We have learned that we live in a world where there is more than one story, more than one narrative that occupies our living space.   This awareness has enhanced the post-modern world view, enlarged the lives of individuals and promoted global progress.    There is no denying the tension as well:  unhealthy types of competition, the use of individual violence and the desire to control.   The struggle has reached its nadir I think with a President promoting “nationalism” as a buzz-word for primitive tribalism and racism; sins that were thought to be part of our country’s past.  Not so it seems.  Not so. 

Time moves ever forward but we as a society, church and global community do not move steadily forward with time.  We stop short, or go backwards or go off track.  One of our post-modern authors, Ilia Delio, writes that we need to re-claim a meta-narrative.  One that is so large it can include diversity and difference, and in which each local story can thrive and find meaning.  The church could be poised to be a leader in such an enterprise. 

This is what this feast day means for me.   Christ as King speaks to me of God’s intention that indeed one person be the embodiment of God’s idea for the human race, of God’s desire for each story to matter, that as individuals we march relentlessly and unyieldingly towards life within the life of God.  The Jesus Christ event is God’s roadmap to that ultimate destination.  Jesus is the revealer of God in whom God proclaims each person, each utterance of the divine word, lives and moves and has being within the one Word that became flesh and dwelt among us.  The gospel for this feast ends with these words from Jesus:

For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. 
Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.
John 18:37

The truth is the path. I want to walk it wherever it may lead. 

Roseann has been an active parishioner at Xavier for over 30 years. She was a staff member for some of that time working in Spirituality and Social Justice ministries. She has a Masters of Divinity from the Jesuit Theology School at Boston College and a Masters Philosophy in Theology from Fordham. She currently works as a Research Analyst in a New York City law firm. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Joyce Marie Kraus Has Something To Say Nov. 18th 2018

Sunday November 18, 2018
Gospel Reading: Mark 13:24-32

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” 

Verse 33 goes on to say; “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.”  Mark’s entire Chapter 13 is about the end of time and narrates what Jesus said would happen. It sounds very much like Revelations. But, when I hear the words “no one knows the day or hour” and “you don’t know when the time will come” I cannot help but think how true these words are in reference to our own lives and eventual deaths. After just spending 10 years with the elderly, average age of 80-90, these phrases and thoughts ring home very personally. Chances are that we’ll probably see our own physical end before we see the world’s end. But then again, who knows?

“Only God knows” is what my Mother used to say when asked certain questions about the mysteries of faith or life. She was a very spiritual and devout Catholic  who did her best to live her faith. For her, God’s knowledge of all things was a certainty  and she repeated it often as I was growing up. I was her primary caregiver the last 10 years of her life during which she had a slowly progressive dementia. She could not tell you if she had eaten lunch but when it came to her prayers or subjects of  faith, she had little signs of memory loss. We had candid conversations about dying and about when she would be called home. Once again, her answer was “Only God knows for sure”.

Even though she knew that she had no control over the day or hour, she prepared my reciting a notable prayer called ‘Prayer for a Happy Death’. She said this prayer at least once a day with enthusiasm and remarkably with no fear. I also had to do my own preparing. I prayed that she would not die when she was sick, in pain or suffering. I was always a little envious of those who died in their sleep or while taking a nap and I wished that for my Mom. I thought that this request was maybe a bit presumptuous but I was later told by older friends in our parish that “not to worry, everyone over a certain age prays for this!”

Equally important was the question of whether I would be present or not at the time of her death. As her primary caretaker, I was with her almost all the time but every couple of months I would take a week off and travel out of state. This meant that there was a chance I would not be there when her time came. This too had to be left in God’s hands. Only He could know how it would all unfold. So I made sure every goodbye with my Mom, was like the last.

We are told to be watchful and alert. But, are we ready? Whether we’re talking about our own deaths or the end of the world, how ready are we today? What things could we do personally to prepare and be as ready as possible?
In the lesson of the fig tree Jesus tells us to pay attention to the signs of things to come. He uses nature as the example; summer is near when branches become tender and sprouts leaves. Right now the leaves have changed color and are falling so we know winter is fast approaching.

Similarly, in the last year of my Mom’s life I started to see signs that the end was getting closer. There were changes and definite signs in the things she said and did. As the end approached, it was something I felt as well. Even with this, she still had so many good days that my sister commented that Mom could still live another year or two. For Christmas that year it was decided that my husband would travel out west to be with his family and I would stay in the midwest with my Mom. My husband would return two days after Christmas and we would celebrate all together then. When that day finally arrived and my husband returned home my Mother was so happy to see him that she lit up like the Christmas tree. She extending kisses and hugs telling him that she loved him. Being tired from his overnight flight he went to rest while I spent the afternoon with my Mom.

It was a good day. We watched an old black and white movie together which was always one of our favorite things to do. She ate a good and healthy lunch, we did our prayers, went for a walk around the house and then it was time for her afternoon nap. At 93, this is what is called a ‘good day’. Around 6pm I got her up again to walk, which was our usual routine. I couldn’t believe how well she was maneuvering her walker and how fast she was moving.  I said “Wow, Mom you’re doing so well tonight, let’s do one more round” which we did. As we arrived in her bedroom to change into her night clothes I noticed how quickly she let go of her walker and sat down on the bed. As I grabbed the walker  to set it to the side, she slipped her feet up to lay down on the bed. I saw her head hit the pillow as I turned back around. At that very instant her eyes darted to the corner of the room. Something or Someone had grabbed her full attention and she was fixated. Her little brown eyes immediately got very big. In very slow motion her eyes  started to move from that corner of the room to the opposite corner. I stood stunned, watching as her eyes crossed the room. Then in the same slow motion her eyes returned to the center and stopped where I was, now kneeling right in front of her on the bed. I stared into her eyes and said “Mom?” but she did not see me anymore. She had gone blank. I took her hand and lifted it only to have it drop lifeless. I took a deep breath realizing what had just happened.

To my own surprise, I remained very calm. The day and hour had come. It was now. Never would I have thought starting that day, that it would end like this. It was too good, too ordinary. There had been signs but then again, not strong enough signs that would’ve put us on guard.

No, God surprised us when we least expected it. He answered our prayers in as perfect way as I think possible, and I will be forever grateful to Him. Now, more than ever do I believe that “of that hour or day, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father”.  This Sunday’s Psalm tells us that our faith will keep us watchful, alert and ready.

Psalm 16 You are my inheritance, O Lord!  O Lord, my allotted portion and my cup, you it is who hold fast my lot. I set the Lord before me: with him at my right hand I shall not be disturbed. 

Joyce Marie Kraus

Joyce Marie Kraus moved back to New York City two years ago after caring for her mother in Iowa, where she was born and raised on a working farm.  Upon her return, she found a spiritual home at Xavier and is a member of the Women Who Stayed.  She is a former fashion designer with a 30 year career working between Paris and New York.  She lives in Chelsea with her husband.  

Friday, November 9, 2018

Moira Egan Has Something To Say Sunday Nov. 11th 2018

This Sunday, our readings help us reflect on risk, fear, community and opportunity by giving us strong women role models to guide us in our own struggles for justice and inclusion today.  In the first reading, the courageous widow puts aside her well-founded fear of starvation to participate in community.  Without asking Elijah for any “documentation” she risks her own and her son’s lives to help a stranger.  In the Gospel, another generous widow contributes despite great need.  She risks her own survival in order to contribute to her community and do what she believes to be just.

It is no coincidence that the two women who demonstrated radical hospitality were widows.  Haven’t we all been awed by the generosity of those who seem least able to afford it?  Adversity can demonstrate practical benefits of community like pooled resources, but it can also instill solidarity: the belief that another’s joys and sorrows matter to us because we are all created in God’s image as God’s beloved children.

I often have ambivalent feelings about parables that focus on particular people Jesus interacts with.  Nobody likes being objectified, even If it is to teach an object lesson.  Rather than being an embarrassing singling out, , I imagine that this Gospel story is the culmination of a plan between this woman and Jesus.  I like to think that he witnessed previous instances of her generosity and spoke with her individually about whether she would be willing to join him in awakening others in the community to the message of equal dignity and the just sharing of resources.  We are surely called to be grateful for our privileges, but Jesus and his unnamed generous friend, drawing on justice traditions like Isaiah’s beautiful images of the equality of god’s reign, call us to act out of that gratitude.

I was reminded of the importance of using privileges to benefit the community when a friend told me about Eleanor, a new baby in her family.  To escape the Nazis, the family tried every avenue they could think of to get out of Europe to no avail.  Finally out of desperation, someone wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt asking for visas, and Eleanor Roosevelt said yes!  As in other situations, ER used her privileged position  to step outside the traditional role for wealthy women of her era and took public, challenging action.  She put aside fears of being criticized for doing for some what she could not do for all, risked being demeaned by the all-too-familiar labels “pushy” “shrill” or “strident” and said no to hatred and violence and yes to love and justice.

Eleanor Roosevelt and our two brave, generous Scripture sisters can feel like daunting examples.  It is overwhelming to think about how to change the many unjust structures around us.  Yet we must not simply say that because we can’t give everything, we will give nothing.  We can do more than we think we can.  This weekend, we have the opportunity to heed Liz Mccloskey’s call for Church reform that many of us read on this blog a few weeks ago.  Will you consider joining The Women Who Stayed and others at St. Patrick’s Cathedral at 10:00 on Sunday to share our Five Theses?  Organizations like Faithful America, Pax Christi and the Ignatian Solidarity Network make it very easy to study important issues facing our local, national, or global communities and to take actions rooted in our social justice traditions.

I’m sure Eleanor Roosevelt had no idea when she helped her unknown neighbors in need that a baby would be named for her nearly 80 years later.  Like her we may never know all of the consequences of our actions, however small they may seem at the time.  A friend is fond of saying “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”, an expression I find very encouraging.  The fact that we can always do more does not have to be an indictment, and it can in fact be an assurance.  We are not in competition with one another to win the prize of heaven when we die.  Rather, we are all working in the here and now to hasten the day when, as Isaiah tells us, all will share in a rich feast and God will wipe away the tears from all faces.  Like Baby Eleanor’s family, let us all practice Hakarat Hatov: recognition of a kindness and be inspired and supported by one another.  Through prayer, study, and individual and collective action, we can stretch ourselves and do a bit more work for justice today than we did yesterday.

******Moira Egan is part of the leadership team of The Women Who Stayed, a member of the Xavier Peace and Justice Committee and a member of Xavier's Environmental ministry

Eileen Markey Has Something To Say

Canonization for the Masses

The Catholic Church’s canonization of Oscar Romero is a welcome embrace of faith for the many, not the few. But the martyred lay Catholics who fought and died for liberation in Central America deserve recognition, too.
Pope Francis recently canonized Oscar Romero, making the martyred Salvadoran bishop an official saint in the Catholic Church. Romero is a favorite of the religious and secular left, assassinated because he advocated for victims of US-funded state terror during the civil war in El Salvador. His canonization is the culmination of Pope Francis’s efforts to open the deeply reactionary halls of the Vatican to liberation theology, an interpretation of Christianity that argues that God suffers when the oppressed suffer, that the physicality of the Christ story is an endorsement of humanity, and most importantly, that God isn’t on some other plane, elevated and distant, pie in the sky when you die: rather, this life and its physical conditions matter tremendously. The Latin American theologians who developed the ideas were suppressed under the previous two papacies.
It’s important that Romero has been named a saint. But the movement he has come to represent can’t be understood by the example of an individual great man. What made liberation theology revolutionary and dangerous to church and state alike is that it was about the collective — and it came from the bottom.
The archbishop’s bravery was in response to a religiously grounded social movement that swelled when farm laborers and shantytown workers began to see their religion as something that offered a blueprint for a more equitable society. It was their practice of claiming the stories in the Christian bible as their own that changed what church meant. The innovation came from a thousand reflection circles up and down the spine of Central America. If we recognize saints of that era, we need to recognize these lay Catholics, too.

A Saint Produced by a Movement

Romero was killed by a sniper’s bullet while celebrating mass for the mother of an opposition journalist, the hit arranged by the country’s wealthy. He had won the coffee oligarchs’ enmity by using the church to build a network of human-rights observers who documented the brutality of the right-wing government and by turning the grand colonial buildings of San Salvador into shelters for families fleeing the terror of an indiscriminate counterinsurgency campaign (guided by US advisors who learned their trade in Laos and Vietnam).
The weekend before he was killed, Romero used his nationally broadcast radio homily to urge soldiers to lay down their arms, reminding them that God did not require they follow an unjust command. He knew his death was imminent, but he continued. If there is such a thing as a saint, clearly Romero is one.
Canonizing him highlights the face of the church most Catholics would rather think about: the one that advocates untiringly with and for poor people, as opposed to the corrupt and criminal cabal the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse revealed (again) or the ugly scheming and self-reverence in the most patriarchal of organizations. It’s a step in the right direction for a church forever torn in its allegiances between the words of the Gospels and the prestige of its princes.
The next step is to honor the tens of thousands of ordinary Central American Catholics killed during the proxy wars of 1980s because they took their faith seriously. The Central American martyrs offer something to aspire to as examples of commitment under tyranny, but they also suggest an alternative model of organization for an institution desperately in need of one.
These lay Catholics applied liberationist Christian values under viciously unjust regimes in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Operating in lay-led and female-empowered small communities that doubled as centers of activism and resistance, ordinary Central Americans offer a lesson this endlessly disappointing institution needs to remember: it’s the people in the pews who constitute the church. They were the ones who led a mass movement animated by liberation theology. Brave and good as he clearly was, Romero was responding to a movement that rose from below.
The bishop has been venerated as a saint by poor Salvadorans and people throughout Central America since the time he died, his stoic face staring out from a thousand village ofrendas, his photo hidden beneath many mattresses during the war and hung on so many walls today that its absence is a disconcerting statement. But it took the Roman Catholic Church longer to decide on his holiness.
A church version of Cold War politics slowed down Romero’s sainthood. Too political, enemies whispered. Pope Francis pushed the cause along, declaring that Romero was a martyr: killed because of odium fidei, hatred of the faith. This is significant, because it establishes that the work of advocating for justice, acting in defense of the organized, standing against the gross accumulation of wealth, is the religion. If you hate those things, you hate this religion. The bishop wasn’t killed for his prayers, he was killed for his actions.
Likewise, the tens of thousands of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans who moved from church to street were religious in their conviction. The faith doesn’t happen somewhere else in the clouds. It’s applied here. They were thrown from helicopters and buried in shallow graves because they practiced their belief — a dangerous belief that God was close and wanted better for them.
The saints we need are those Central American martyrs who studied their faith and learned it meant justice, who understood their belief was unavoidably political and carried on attempting to build the society they believed that Jesus Christ heralded, even in the face of awful oppression. These people were the church, the students, workers, and farm laborers arrested, tortured, and disappeared; the ones who read the Gospels and learned they had far more to say about economics than sex; who studied the prophets’ definitions of justice with one eye trained on the door, knowing a government spy was listening; the ones who kept up when the priests evacuated, when the church buildings were bombed, who smuggled hand-painted crosses depicting Christ as a emancipated peasant woman into refugee camps and sang their songs about a God who comes to bring liberation to the oppressed.
Over and over they paid with their lives. They are the saints the broken institution of the Catholic church needs to honor — and the ones the secular fans of revolution should remember in their fullness.

People, Not Princes

In the United States, we’re so used to thinking of religion as the provenance of the Right that many on the Left wash it out of our stories, dismiss its radical potential for transformation, or condescend to the vast majority of the world’s peoples who build their lives under its realities as uneducated and superstitious. But something held so close, so intimately, that gives people a way of existing outside the market is worthy of consideration.
The faith practiced in El Salvador and its neighbors in the 1970s and ‘80s was so disruptive to the powers that be that it drove a wedge between the church and the other two legs of the five-hundred-year-old power structure: the landowners and the military. The separation was driven by farm laborers and slum dwellers meeting to study the Beatitudes, spurred by what had seemed innocuous church reforms in the 1960s. There are other famous martyrs of the period: the four North American churchwomen, nuns, and a lay woman, killed in El Salvador in December 1980, the Jesuits at the University of El Salvador and their housekeeper and her daughter killed in 1989. But the vast majority of the dead are regular people, those who made the church and carried the faith.
There is precedent for recognizing a large group of lay people. In 2000, Pope John Paul II canonized a group of eighty-eight Chinese Catholics killed during the Boxer Rebellion and a number of other Chinese and foreign missionaries killed in China the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of their religion. Canonizing a joint group of Central American martyrs would be a powerful reminder both for Catholics and secular progressives that power comes from the bottom.
The world we seek can’t be made by lone heroes: it’s built by us. For that most hierarchical of institutions to honor the martyrs of Central America would be a powerful reminder of how US foreign policy aided in the persecution, torture, and murder of Catholics throughout the region — and an acknowledgement that the people, not the princes, are who lead.

About the Author

Eileen Markey is a reporter and the author of A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura (Nation 2016). She teaches journalism at Lehman College of the City University of New York.

Friday, November 2, 2018

Boreta Singleton Has Something To Say

"Which is the first of all the commandments?"  Jesus replied, "The first is this: Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these."  

As a child, my life was full of the adage, "Children should be seen and not heard." There were rules at home, rules at Grandma's, and different rules at Aunt Ruth's house!  I knew that I could not speak until spoken to. Of course, studying the Commandments in Catholic grammar school meant examining one's conscience against them before going to Confession.  I always feared leaving something out as I methodically made my way through those 10 rules. That all changed when in 7th Grade, Sister St. Ignatius ( yes, that was really her name-- her brother was a Jesuit!) said to us, "Before going to Confession, I invite you to think about how you have loved God and your neighbor; it will be obvious to you when you did not."  As we reflect on the Shema , this ancient prayer found in the book of Deuteronomy  that is on the lips of Jesus this week,  we too aspire to hear Jesus say,  as He  says to the Scribe, "You are not far from the reign of God." 

These beginning days of November are filled with reminders of those who lived those two commandments well: All Saints and  All Souls Days ( Nov. 1 & 2) . They  provide us with memories of the lives  of both the celebrated and unsung who gave their best efforts to love God and their neighbor. You have experienced them-- family, friends, co-workers, classmates, and  neighbors. I remember fondly the living out  of these two commandments through the actions of my elders. They displayed  their faith in God  clearly despite  frequent battles with racist attitudes which prevailed in the past as in many ways now. .  Being gracious was always a part of these elders' lives, and although I know there were many incidences they had which  I never saw, I  am a witness to the fact that that their faith kept them focused on God and neighbor.   There was never a task too small or too complex that they were not willing to take on for both family and neighbor-- even strangers.  This was shown to me most clearly when my paternal Grandfather became gravely ill.  My Grandmother, despite being separated from him for more than 40 years because of my Grandfather's abusive  behavior, traveled from her home in Philadelphia  and spent six months in Louisiana caring for him until he died.  

Perhaps our world would be less desolate and more joyful if we could take those two Commandments to heart.  

I invite you to reread Liz McCloskey's post  here on October 19th and prayerfully discern if you would like to take on her invitation.  In our country and world that are so in need of healing, I believe that we need to refocus our priorities, and I like to say that it starts with me-- I need to always be about the business of loving God and my neighbor.  

The Scribe in today's Gospel states with clarity what is most important. Our Bishops, as we have seen through the sexual abuse  reports here in our country, have in some ways lost clarity and in some cases they have lost sight of their ministry.  They need to look at and practice more fully Jesus's call to love God and our neighbor.  One of our saints,  Sister Thea Bowman*, spoke  prophetically  to our Bishops  in 1989 . Her message to them, as I see it, has  mostly gone unheeded. But I am inspired and consoled every time I watch this video:

If you don't have time for all of it, please watch the last seven minutes.  Sister Thea was dying of cancer when she gave this talk.  But as you see, it did not diminish her spirit. She said, "I'm going to live until I die." Let us imitate our Sister Thea and do what she and Jesus  said:  "All we have to do is love God and love our neighbor..... Amen!!" 

*Here is Sister Thea's  Community's website which gives a brief biography of her:

Boreta Singleton has been  a parishioner at St. Francis Xavier Parish  since 2003 and  is a member of the  choir, serves as a Spritual Director in  the ISEL program and as a  liturgical minister.  She is  currently at St. Peter's Prep High School in Jersey City and ministers as  the Director of Faculty Formation.  Boreta lives in the Bronx, and sings with  The Ignatian Schola  and the chorus of  Choral Chameleon.   

Friday, October 26, 2018

Lesley Pella-Woo Has Something To Say

Mark 10:46-52
“They came to Jericho.”

My 4th grader is learning how to write a summary. Leafing through his ELA (English Language Arts) folder, I came across a worksheet which directed students to summarize a story they had read together in class. Reading what my son had written, I noticed that almost every sentence began with the word “then”, as if the story was just a series of actions that hinged on each other like the blocks of a Jacob’s Ladder, moving the plot inevitably to its finale. I think that Mark’s gospel is somewhat like this; Jesus and the disciples always at the crest of a forceful wave pushed onward by a current of urgency. Skimming Mark’s gospel, you find a repetition of “then,” “immediately,” crossings, and returns.

The gospel reading for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mark 10:46-54, brings Jesus nearly full circle in the journey of his public ministry. Jesus and the disciples are passing through Jericho on the way up to Jerusalem, and he and the disciples have a sense of what awaits. There’s been a sense of uncertainty, perhaps even dread, building in the disciples on this journey to Jerusalem. This uneasy feeling finds outlet in some confounding arguments about greatness. Two questions frame this extended dialogue/argument between the disciples and Jesus: 1) who is the greatest?, and 2) what do you want me to do for you?

Who is the greatest? Prior to the story of Bartimaeus, the disciples have been obsessed with this question. Who is the greatest? – meaning who among the 12 is the greatest. Now, to me, this kind of argument about who is greatest is boastful and arrogant. But I think that what is underneath this question is a turbulent anxiety about approaching Jerusalem and fear about how it will unfold. After all, Jesus has predicted his betrayal, murder, and resurrection…and the prospect of it all is frightening. So the disciples default to an argument about the future – future leadership, the future kingdom, the glory that awaits them.

I can totally relate to the disciples’ question. For example, on the first day of class when a professor would distribute the course syllabus, I was all about figuring out the answer to this one question: what do I have to do to get an A? My focus and energies in those first few weeks were all directed toward the end goal: a good grade. This is not a bad thing, but it does slightly miss the point of the educative journey and the joy of learning. Here’s another example. While on mission trips with high schoolers, typical questions I get asked – especially during the first couple of days of the mission – go something like this: “what will we be doing tomorrow?”, “can I switch jobs?” and “what day are we leaving?” These are reasonable questions and they come up, I have noticed, when expectations are not meeting reality. I’ve learned to respond with a gentle reminder: participation not anticipation. One goal of going on a mission trip is to live in the moment, even when that moment is boring or overwhelming. When our focus is on completing a task and moving on, or reward, we can lose sight of our purpose.

Jesus implies something similar to “participation not anticipation” to the disciples. As any good teacher would, Jesus finds a teachable moment to engage his disciples in an experiential lesson. When the disciples, in their anxiety about their present moment, get ahead of themselves and bicker about position and rank, Jesus tells them a parable: ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ (Mark 9:35b) In a kind of visual parable, Jesus then takes a small child; he is like a mother, cradling a child in his arms and, in doing so, placing that child at the very center.

There is no “greatest” or “best” that awaits us in some far off tomorrow; the Reign of God is not a hierarchy – it’s the very opposite. When James and John can’t let go of the question about greatness, asking Jesus to grant them a place at his right and his left in his glory, Jesus drills down on where, exactly, the disciples should position themselves. Jesus says, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” If we look at the Greek, we find that the word translated as servant is diakonos – deacon – and the word for slave is doulos. Our English word “doula” traces its origins back to doulos, and the meanings are similar, for the Greek doulos, like our modern doulas, are people who are devoted to the well-being, nurture, and care of another, putting someone else’s interests above one’s own interests.

When Jesus places a child at the center, the focus turns away from an abstract argument, and towards a person. And this person, this child, not Jesus’ own child, but born under systematic oppression and persecution, and living in an occupied, overpoliced land, is wholly dependent on others for full human flourishing. If our time is resonant with Jesus’ time it is in the reality that suffering and inequality exist, yet the impact on children is often hidden. Children lack standing in most societies and rely on adults to advocate for them. Children in poverty face hunger, inadequate housing, and deficits in early childhood development; children are facing the terror of gun violence in school, home, and neighborhood; and hundreds of children still face the heartbreak of separation from family with whom they sought safety in our country—these and countless other children find themselves in despairing acceptance of a seemingly limited future. Our time, like Jesus’ time, is contentious. Many things vie for our attention. Because of our faith in hope, we must remain present to the suffering and become advocates. Jesus tells us that the Reign of God is for the deacons and the doulas who serve the last, the least, and the left behind standing with and for all God’s children who suffer, embodying God’s love and will for justice.

But, we have yet another aspect of today’s gospel to consider. Earlier, I identified two questions that frame this particular moment in Mark’s gospel, this moment in time just before Jesus enters Jerusalem. The first question we considered, “who is the greatest?”, is put to Jesus by the disciples. The second question brings the arc of this story to an end -- the kind of end that is a new beginning. Significantly, this moment, takes place in Jericho, town of historical and spiritual significance. And the question is this, “what do you want me to do for you?” Actually, in Chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel, we hear two slightly different phrasings of this question. The first time we hear it, it is more of a statement. James and John say to Jesus, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” These disciples are being so impertinent! But, Jesus doesn’t seem particularly put out by the request and is at least willing to hear what they have to say. Jesus answers James’ and John’s with more questions about what they are willing to do, what sacrifice they are willing to make in reaching for greatness. Yet, even when they unhesitatingly declare their willingness and ability, Jesus distances himself from the disciples. He gives their illusions of grandeur no satisfaction.  

In contrast to this is Jesus’ conversation with a blind man named Bartimaeus in Jericho. Bartimaeus is begging on the road that leads out of town and hears that Jesus and his disciples are walking past. He starts making a lot of noise, yelling at Jesus repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops and asks for Bartimaeus to come to him. Bartimaeus immediately jumps up and goes over to Jesus. Jesus asks him, “what do you want me to do for you?” “My teacher,” says Bartimaeus, “let me see again.” Jesus’ provides the healing immediately. Bartimaeus regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way, -- the Way which leads to Jerusalem, to crucifixion,...and to resurrection.

Our lives, our country, our world, all harbor shadows -- even in the best of times -- that blind us. And those shadows and blinders can prevent us from seeing that salvation is at hand, walking down the road perhaps. Faith has shown us, in scripture and in our very lives, that we must always seek the truth that despair and fear has no hold over us. Christ is alive and hope lives within us, given to us by the One who gave his life as a ransom for many. If we are filled with anxious demands that are disconnected from our true selves, we may find -- well, not rejection exactly -- but perhaps that we’re always at a crossroad, unsure of our way. If like Bartimaeus we call out with abandon to Christ from the depth of our longing, aware of Christ’s presence, we will find vision and direction.

Let us heed Jesus’ vision and call to be doulas laboring with God for a world of humility, love, justice, and mercy. Let our hearts and minds be attuned to the needs of all God’s children, and let us seek to form bonds of care, concern, and empathy with those on the margins.

And let our prayer today and everyday be: Jesus, have mercy. Let me see.

Lesley Pella-Woo, a former Pastoral Associate at The Church of St. Francis Xavier (1999-2004), currently serves as the Director of Christian Education and Youth Ministry at Hitchcock Presbyterian Church in Scarsdale, NY. She lives in New Jersey with her husband, son, and a cat.