October 30, 2010

In Memory of Saint Marcellus

by Tobias Winright(Feast of Saint Marcellus)

This week the Jesuit Catholic magazine, America, posted video clips of US soldiers talking about conscience in the military. Pacifist and just war Christians respectively should support both conscientious objection and selective conscientious objection. While the former is legally recognized in the US at this time, the latter ought to be also, especially if such a stance is rooted in deeply held theological and philosophical beliefs and practices, too.

Thinking about this today reminded me that October 30th is the Feast of Saint Marcellus, who was martyred on this date in 298 C.E. for refusing to continue to serve in Caesar's army. Marcellus was a centurion, or captain, in the Roman legion of Trajan, which was stationed at Tangier in North Africa at the time. During the celebration of the emperor's birthday by the soldiers, Marcellus stood up and declared in front of the company, “I serve Jesus Christ the everlasting King.” In addition to his confession of faith, Marcellus cast aside his soldier's belt, with its sword, and his staff, which was a sign of his authority as a centurion. “With this,” he added, “I cease to serve your emperors, and I disdain to worship your wooden and stone gods, who are deaf and dumb idols.”

Indeed, one of the primary reasons that Christians during the first few centuries refused military service had to do with the idolatry associated with being in the Roman army. The festivities and sacrifices attached to the birthday party for the emperor thus occasioned Marcellus’ coming out of the closet as a Christian who cannot sin against his Lord Jesus by participating in idolatrous activities toward Caesar. “If such be the conditions of service that men are compelled to sacrifice to the gods and emperors,” Marcellus boldly stated, “then behold, I throw away the staff and belt; I renounce the standards and refuse to serve.”

The soldiers who witnessed his conscientious objection to continued service in the military quickly placed him under arrest and reported him to Anastasius Fortunatus, prefect of the legion. In their eyes his action was blasphemous and treasonous. After appearing before Anastasius Fortunatus and reiterating his allegiance to Jesus Christ, Marcellus was taken before Aurelius Agricolanus, the vicar to the prefect of the praetorium guard.

When asked by Agricolanus whether he had said these things, Marcellus answered, “I said it.” And when Agricolanus inquired about what madness provoked him to declare his allegiance to Christ, Marcellus replied, “There is no madness in those who fear the Lord.” When then questioned about why he cast aside his arms, Marcellus simply explained, “For it is not fitting for a Christian man who serves Christ the Lord to serve human powers.” Afterwards, Marcellus was sentenced to death and executed by beheading.

This account of Marcellus' martyrdom first came to my attention a decade-and-a-half ago while I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Notre Dame. I served as a graduate assistant for Professor John Howard Yoder, the Mennonite theologian, helping him with his course on Christian Attitudes Toward War, Peace, and Revolution. The story of Marcellus was required reading for his students, and Yoder felt that it was important to let them also know that Notre Dame has a Marcellus connection. Indeed, he asked me to find more information and documentation in the archives about this.

Unbeknownst to many of the Fighting Irish at Notre Dame, Marcellus is one of three saints whose bones are under the altar in the Sacred Heart Basilica on the Notre Dame campus. The founder of Notre Dame, Father Edward Sorin, C.S.C., had Marcellus’ relics, including either his skull or a fragment of it, transported across the Atlantic and placed at the base of the altar.

In 1996 Yoder encouraged some of his colleagues and students to brainstorm about how Notre Dame could honor the saint in 1998, the 17th centennial of his martyrdom. However, after Yoder's untimely death in December of 1997, nothing materialized with regard to Marcellus at Notre Dame until Michael Baxter revived the Catholic Peace Fellowship, which issues an annual Marcellus Award to someone who takes a public stand for conscience when it comes to war and peace.

In view of the unjustified wars of our day, St. Marcellus, pray for us.


October 20, 2010

Humble Pie*

by Janice Love
Joel 2: 23-32, Psalm 65, 2 Timothy 4: 6-8, 16-18, Luke 18: 9-14

About 15 years ago my husband and I began to notice a disturbing trend in the denomination in which we were both raised – the practice of eliminating the prayer of confession from the worship service, essentially making confession a non-practice. The reasons seemed to be caught up in the rejection of the idea of judgment and of not wanting to make people, especially seekers, feel bad.  Thankfully there were other Christians that continued to steward the practice because we were in great need of it when we realized what our participation in Native Residential Schools in Canada had unleashed upon innocent children.

Worse perhaps is the reason the prayer of confession was eliminated from our current congregation’s (of a different denomination) new worship service – to save on chronological time.  Especially concerning here is that the new service was designed to be more appealing to younger folk, with the introduction of drums and electric guitars.  I don’t know about you but when I was a youth, admittedly a goody-two shoes youth, I had trouble conceiving of my need for confession – did I really do anything wrong enough to warrant confessing?  That was before I had any idea of the sticky web of corporate sin in which we are all enmeshed.  It is one of the great gifts of the church to pass on this practice of confession that it might weekly confront us with the truth.  I shudder when it is absent.

Now if any of you are thinking that your tradition would never conceive of eliminating the prayer of confession, then the gospel text from Luke this coming Sunday is for you (and, of course, for me).  It is apparent from the texts that preface this reading and the one that immediately follows (18: 15-17) that Jesus is not addressing outsiders but rather insiders – folk who are already part of his wider group of disciples.  You could say he is addressing the “early, Early Church”.  There is irony in Jesus’ choice of a Pharisee to illustrate his point regarding those who trust in themselves if the reaction amongst any in the crowd then or reading this text now is to think to themselves, ‘Well, thankfully I’m (we’re) not like that Pharisee!’

Humility is a tricky thing.  The word derives from the Latin word humilis meaning “lowly”.  It literally means ‘on the ground’, from humus or ‘earth.’  This is the truth of who we are – humble, human, humus.  Perhaps the key to humility for the church is the relational aspect emphasized in Jesus’ parable.  The Pharisee has done everything correctly (there is no question about that) but remains, unbeknownst to himself, unjustified before God because he is trusting in his own actions.  The tax collector has come to the realization that his actions have been wrong and now stands in a corner, beating his breast and throwing himself on the merciful actions of God.  The Pharisee is not seeking a relationship with God and is unaware of his utter dependence on God’s grace, the tax collector is.  I would encourage you all (all you all) to add the next three verses onto this lectionary text as it beautifully illustrates Jesus’ point.  Infants are completely dependant on their parents for life – completely.  This is how Jesus calls us to be dependant on God.  If we can live here, on the ground, we are so much closer to God’s kingdom.  I have found it eminently refreshing, and relaxing, to be around humble folk – folk who know themselves to have made mistakes, who know their reliance on God’s grace, all of which seems to free me to be the same.

This is highly counter cultural stuff for us North Americans.  We are so accomplishment orientated (which also helps to feed our accumulation habits).  This text is unlikely to sell any seats in the pew to the enculturated and that may also apply to many of us already in one of those seats.  These accomplishment and accumulation orientations are so ingrained in us that their transformation seems almost hopeless.  I take a certain measure of delight in the observation that our belly buttons are ontological reminders that there is no such thing as a self-made person.  All of us have had to rely on others in order to live.  All of us rely on God as our Creator (so exquisitely expressed in the first two readings from Joel and Psalm 65) and on Jesus as our Saviour as we stand before God.  This is where the Church must live, for the sake of the world God so loves because it is here that we learn to confess our true joy in the steadfast love of God.

* the term ‘humble pie’ (1830s) came from ‘umble pie’ (1640s) which was a pie made from ‘umbles’ – edible inner parts of an animal, especially deer, which was considered a low class food [from the Online Etymology Dictionary found at]; somehow I think Luke would like this association with humility given how often Jesus ate with those who were dispossessed.


October 14, 2010

Learning, Knowing, Doing, Being

by Debra Dean Murphy
Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Last week the Pew Research Center made big news when its latest poll revealed that religious people don't know much about religion. (Atheists, though, according to the survey, are pretty savvy). Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof offered his own pop quiz, which, according to my unscientific calculations (counting the number of Facebook confessions), a whole lot of people flunked.

This news is instructive as far as it goes. Having spent a good deal of time thinking, reading, writing, and teaching about Christian formation and catechesis, I'm not surprised that life-long church-goers know so little about the history and development, the context and content of the Christian tradition. Not that it's really their fault. When I teach, say, the history of Methodism or the liturgical year to lay people, they can't get enough of it. They wonder where this stuff has been all their lives. Clergy don't teach or preach it much; Sunday School is about other things, sadly.

But the point of this kind of learning is not merely to transfer useful data from the knowledgeable to the uninformed. Mastery of material is not the name of the game - discipleship is. It matters, of course, that Christians know what pre-Constantinian Christianity was like or that the gospels were written decades after the time of Jesus, but not as a measure of fact-collecting competency. Rather, as the writer of 2 Timothy insists, "proficiency" in such matters is for the purpose of being "equipped for every good work" (3:17). It's for doing stuff - living a certain way, being a particular (and peculiar) kind of people.

This Sunday's passage from 2 Timothy is often cited by those who want to close off debate about complex matters of scriptural authority and doctrinal content - who see religion fundamentally as a set of fixed propositions to be assented to. Because it's a letter, 2 Timothy has the kind of didactic vibe that lends itself to this kind of reductive reading. (Sort of like the pastoral epistles, with their hortatory restrictions on women, trumping the gospels' -- and Paul's -- clear message of women's leadership in the early Jesus movement).

But the emphasis here is clearly on "learning, believing, and knowing" (3:14) as a "training in righteousness" (3:16). Discipleship is  not about just knowing but about living the strange truth of the upside-down kingdom of God, even when others turn from listening and "wander away to myths" (4:4). It's about "good work," says the writer, but it's also about hard work - about practicing a distinctive way of life which sometimes only makes you odd and out of step but other times costs you dearly.

In this week's Psalm there's a slightly different twist on the knowledge-content of faith - on its "laws, commandments, decrees, precepts, ordinances, and words." The Psalmist delights in the law for its own sake, for its intrinsic beauty and goodness and power.  Instead of using doctrine as a litmus test for determining orthodoxy or as a weapon to beat down those who are not keeping it satisfactorily, the Psalmist gushes, "Oh, how I love your law!"  What he "knows" about God offers the possibility for connection and communion, for life itself. It’s not mere knowledge for the head; it's life-giving water that soothes and heals and satisfies.

If this law comes down from a great high judge, the gospel lesson in Luke reveals a bit of what this arbiter of justice is like. Jesus tells a parable of "a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people" (18:2). A persistent widow kept coming to him asking for justice against her opponent. For awhile the judge refused but later, "so that she may not wear me out by continually coming" (18:5), he relented and gave in to her demands. God is like this, says Jesus. Not in mirroring the judge's laziness and indifference but in granting justice to those who cry out. But God is also not like the unjust judge for God's justice is swift (18:7).

These eight verses in Luke are framed by a concern for the uncertainty of the coming days. Speaking to the anxious in deeply anxious times, they constitute an encouraging word: "to pray always and not to lose heart" (18:1). But prayer is not mere private speech. It is not the half-hearted mumblings of the not-quite committed. Prayer in anxious times is like the persistent widow seeking justice: challenging the abuse of power – cruelty, corruption, laziness, indifference – even when it seems hopeless, when it's inconvenient or humiliating or mind-numbingly boring. Prayer is work: it's learning by doing, knowing by being.

We know this because Jesus concludes the parable by posing this question: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" This question wasn’t in the Pew Center poll or on Kristof’s quiz. But its answer might be the most important one of all.


October 06, 2010

Unchained Word

by Brian Volck
2 Kings 5; 2 Timothy 2:8-13; Luke 17:11-19

Mark’s Jesus is in a hurry, John’s Jesus is in control, and Matthew’s Jesus does parables. Luke’s Jesus forever crosses borders. This time, the border lies between the boondocks of Galilee and the enemy’s homeland, Samaria.

Nathanael – or any right-thinking first century Palestinian Jew – needn’t ask if anything good comes from Samaria. One might as well spout nonsense about a “good Samaritan,” or a “good Al Qaeda.”

This week, the border also divides clean from unclean. Unlike the encounter in Luke 5, this text doesn’t mention Jesus touching lepers, but the precedent’s set, he’s in unclean territory already, and now there are ten of them.

When they beg for mercy, Jesus says, “Go and show yourselves to the priests." One of the ten, it turns out, is a Samaritan, whose reception by priests might be compared to CIA headquarters welcoming Osama bin Laden. 

It just so happens that, as the ten leave, all are cured. Nine continue on their way, presumably to see priests who will declare them clean and welcome them back into community – a community in which, at the time, Samaritans had no place. The Samaritan turns back and makes a spectacle of himself, like a Holy Roller in a church of smells and bells.

“Where are the other nine?” Jesus wonders, “Why just this foreigner?” Then comes an offhanded punch line about the Samaritan’s faith making him well. It makes one wonder if the other nine are well too, or are they merely clean?

Like Naaman in this weeks’ first reading, it’s the outsider, the one from across the border who’s not only cured, but shows gratitude for an act of pure grace. (Read further in 2 Kings 5 for Gehazi’s counterexample.) 

Jesus is always crossing borders, breaking the rules, messing with the order of things. He meets with tax collectors and sinners, touches lepers, greets Samaritans, enters women’s homes. The Word isn’t chained by borders, categories, or convention. In the end, even death itself can’t chain Him. 

In an uncertain world like first century Judea or twenty-first century America, Jesus is dangerous. What if everyone started welcoming foreigners, ate with sinners, preached grace and gratitude? Paul did just that and lost his head.  Francis of Assisi (whose feast was this past Monday) embraced a leper and preached peace to the Sultan, and died visibly wounded.

Isn’t that precisely what happens when the Word’s not chained, borders aren’t policed, categories aren’t enforced? Isn’t that why we killed Jesus in the first place? Isn’t that why we crucify him still?