Saturday, July 31, 2010

Like sands through the hourglass...

HOMILY FOR THE 18th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 1, 2010:

“Though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.” If Shakespeare were to hear our Gospel today, he would be likely to say perhaps, “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore, so do our minutes hasten to their end.” Or, “Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth and delves the parallels in beauty’s brow.” No one was more distressed by the transience of life and the destructiveness of time than Shakespeare. For his character Macbeth, life was a “brief candle – a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage.” For Prospero, “we are such stuff as dreams are made on and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Or as a more contemporary reference might put it, “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.” [Cue the music.]

“Though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.” Our readings today cause us to reflect upon the question of what makes a life? Or certainly, what makes a successful life? Too often, in our material-obsessed, fame-obsessed culture, it is the accumulation of things that equals success. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker before, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.” To this notion God’s Word says, “Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” And, “Brothers and sister…seek what is above.”

“One’s life does not consist of possessions.” Possessions, of course, are necessary for life. But possessions can assume such an importance in our lives that they become obsessions. When we are so concerned about the things that we can have, so much so that we no longer hear the urgent call of God, then we have got our priorities all mixed up.

Such is the man in today’s Gospel who asks Jesus to come and make his brother give him his share of the family inheritance. Jesus is not against him having more wealth, nor is he against justice being done between him and his brother. Jesus is rather disappointed because He has been sharing with him the very words of life, preaching the Gospel of salvation, and after listening to all His preaching, the first concern of this man still remains his share of the inheritance. The words of life fell upon deaf ears. The man probably could not remember one word of what Jesus said.

I heard someone say once, “Some people get up in the morning and their first thought is ‘What can I get today?’ and others get up in the morning and their first thought is, ‘What can I give today?’” The second question is the only one that will ever make you happy.

Jesus, fearing there could be more people in the crowd like this man, turns and says to them, “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one's life does not consist of possessions.” To illustrate his point Jesus tells the Parable of the Rich Fool. When we hear this parable we might ask, “What wrong did this man do?” Think about it. The man did honest work on his farmland. The land gave a bumper harvest. The man decided to build larger storage for the crop so that he could live the rest of his life on Easy Street. Only he did not know that the rest of his life was less than 24 hours. Jesus uses him to make the point that putting material before God is a wasted effort; one that will do you no good in eternity. The man’s greed lies not in what he did; but rather in what he failed to do. Instead of using his wealth for the good of others – what can I give today – he used it only to better himself – what can I get?

There is a quote that says, greed is “the belief that there is no life after death. We grab what we can, while we can, however we can and then hold on to it as hard as we can.” This is the rich man. Instead of placing God first, he gave priority to the false gods of materialism. When we are focused on the true God, we look at what we have in life with gratitude at our blessing and ask the other question, “What can I give today?”

Today’s Gospel invites us to believe in the God of Jesus Christ who alone can give eternal life and not in the false gods of this world who give us the false promise of immortality through accumulation of things. “Thus will it be for all who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” God calls us to use whatever we have to further His kingdom. God calls us to realize that the most valuable possession in the world is faith in His Son; and we should desire to be rich in what matters to God.

The life to come is not made secure by what we own, but rather by what we are – in our dealings with others, and in the sight of God. Let us all pray today to become rich in the sight of God – rich in the Words, the Will and the Way of Our Lord Jesus Christ. What will you give today?

May God give you peace.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

"Who is my neighbor?"

HOMILY FOR THE FIFTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 11, 2010:

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” The Golden Rule, which we hear in today's Gospel is well known to us. What might not be so well known is that the Golden Rule is not just a Christian thing. Nearly every religion and culture in the world has the Golden Rule in one form or another. Here are some examples. In Judaism, “What is hateful to you, do not to your fellow man. That is the law: all the rest is commentary.” In Buddhism, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” In Hinduism, “This is the sum of duty: do nothing unto others which would cause you pain if done to you.” And in Islam, “No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.”

So, if the Golden Rule was so well-known in ancient cultures why did Jesus spend so much time teaching it as if it was a new thing? Well, it’s because as so often happens, Jesus is teaching a completely new understanding of this well-known command. The Golden Rule is understood differently in different religions and cultures. And the key to its understanding lies in the simple question that the lawyer asks Jesus in today's gospel, “Who is my neighbor?” Who is this neighbor that I have an obligation to love?

Among the Jews of Jesus' time there were those who understood “neighbor” in a very limited way. One group, the Essenes, for example, required new members to swear to love the sons of light and hate the sons of darkness. For them, your neighbor is the one who shares the same religious persuasion as yourself. Other groups, such as the Zealots, would understand neighbor to include only those who shared the same nationality and ethnicity with them. And so, in our Gospel passage today, the average Jew of Jesus’ time would not regard the Samaritan as a neighbor. This is something completely new. For them, Samaritans are outsiders and the circle of neighborly love clearly does not include them. Jesus came into a world of “us” and “them,” “us” being the circle of those recognized as neighbors, and “them” being the rest of the world regarded as hostile strangers and enemies of the people.

This radically different interpretation of the Golden Rule in Jesus' teaching of neighborly love is in His insistence that all humanity is really one big neighborhood. Jesus broke down the walls of division and the borders of prejudice and suspicion that humans have erected between “us” and “them” throughout time. To bring home this point He tells the story of the Good Samaritan. This man regarded as Enemy Number One by the establishment for no other reason than that he is a Samaritan, is ironically the one who truly proves himself to be neighbor to the Jewish man in need. Thus to the question “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus offers new and challenging answer to His hearers: Anyone and everyone is your neighbor – without exception.

We all know that this is a message that we need to be reminded of as well. Jesus ends this passage about being a neighbor with a command, “Go and do likewise.” This is a challenge that He means for us as well. How often do we restrict our understanding of neighbor. We, too, like to think in terms of “us” and “them. ” The “us” being people like us spiritually, politically, economically – sometimes even racially or ethnically.
But, Jesus reminds us that our understanding of neighbor must be expanded to include even the so-called nobodies of society. We all need to be reminded that the Christian understanding of “neighbor” has no borders or boundaries. Today we are called to identity and tear down all the borders we have erected between those who belong to us (and are deemed deserving of our love and concern) and those who don't belong to us (those we somehow allow ourselves to ignore or marginalize). The gospel today challenges us all to dismantles these walls. This way we work with Jesus to realize His dream of the world as a neighborhood without borders or boundaries.

Jesus' story tells us that when we truly love our neighbor, we must be willing to help no matter how the person got into their situation of need. It also shows us that our love and concern to help others in need must be practical. Good intentions and empathizing with others is not enough; we must do good to one another. And lastly, our love for others must be as wide as God's love. No one is excluded. God's love is unconditional. So we must be ready to do good to others for their sake, just as God is good to us.

Jesus said, “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” Let us love our neighbors as ourselves without restriction, without boundaries.

May God give you peace.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

We hold these truths to be self-evident...

One of my traditions is to take a moment on the Fourth of July to read the Declaration of Independence aloud. I invite you to find some time  today, as we celebrate our freedom, to gather some people around and read the Declaration out loud. You'll be glad you did.

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776 
The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America 

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his Governors to pass Laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his Assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other Laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their Public Records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected, whereby the Legislative Powers, incapable of Annihilation, have returned to the People at large for their exercise; the State remaining in the mean time exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.

He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.

He has obstructed the Administration of Justice by refusing his Assent to Laws for establishing Judiciary Powers.

He has made Judges dependent on his Will alone for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil Power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:

For protecting them, by a mock Trial from punishment for any Murders which they should commit on the Inhabitants of these States:

For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world:

For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent:

For depriving us in many cases, of the benefit of Trial by Jury:

For transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences:

For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these Colonies

For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments:

For suspending our own Legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated Government here, by declaring us out of his Protection and waging War against us.

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of Cruelty & Perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow Citizens taken Captive on the high Seas to bear Arms against their Country, to become the executioners of their friends and Brethren, or to fall themselves by their Hands.

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.

— John Hancock

New Hampshire:
Josiah Bartlett, William Whipple, Matthew Thornton

Massachusetts:
John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, Robert Treat Paine, Elbridge Gerry

Rhode Island:
Stephen Hopkins, William Ellery

Connecticut:
Roger Sherman, Samuel Huntington, William Williams, Oliver Wolcott

New York:
William Floyd, Philip Livingston, Francis Lewis, Lewis Morris

New Jersey:
Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, Abraham Clark

Pennsylvania:
Robert Morris, Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Franklin, John Morton, George Clymer, James Smith, George Taylor, James Wilson, George Ross

Delaware:
Caesar Rodney, George Read, Thomas McKean

Maryland:
Samuel Chase, William Paca, Thomas Stone, Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Virginia:
George Wythe, Richard Henry Lee, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Harrison, Thomas Nelson, Jr., Francis Lightfoot Lee, Carter Braxton

North Carolina:
William Hooper, Joseph Hewes, John Penn

South Carolina:
Edward Rutledge, Thomas Heyward, Jr., Thomas Lynch, Jr., Arthur Middleton

Georgia:
Button Gwinnett, Lyman Hall, George Walton

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Where ‘America’ really came from

By Toby Lester | The Boston Globe

July 4, 2010

Each July 4, as we celebrate the origins of America, we look back ritually at what happened in 1776: the war, the politics, the principles that defined our nation.

But what about the other thing that defines America: the name itself? Its story is far older and far less often told, and still offers some revealing surprises.

If you’re like most people, you’ll dimly recall from your school days that the name America has something to do with Amerigo Vespucci, a merchant and explorer from Florence. You may also recall feeling that this is more than a little odd — that if any European earned the “right” to have his name attached to the New World, surely it should have been Christopher Columbus, who crossed the Atlantic years before Vespucci did.

But Vespucci, it turns out, had no direct role in the naming of America. He probably died without ever having seen or heard the name. A closer look at how the name was coined and first put on a map, in 1507, suggests that, in fact, the person responsible was a figure almost nobody’s heard of: a young Alsatian proofreader named Matthias Ringmann.

How did a minor scholar working in the landlocked mountains of eastern France manage to beat all explorers to the punch and give the New World its name? The answer is more than just an obscure bit of history, because Ringmann deliberately invested the name America with ideas that still make up important parts of our national psyche: powerful notions of westward expansion, self-reinvention, and even manifest destiny.

And he did it, in part, as a high-minded joke.

Matthias Ringmann was born in an Alsatian village in 1482. After studying the classics at university he settled in the Strasbourg area, where he began to eke out a living by proofing texts for local printers and teaching school. It was a forgettable life, of a sort that countless others like him were leading. But sometime in early 1505, Ringmann came across a recently published pamphlet titled “Mundus Novus,” and that changed everything.

The pamphlet contained a letter purportedly sent by Amerigo Vespucci a few years earlier to his patron in Florence. Vespucci wrote that he had just completed a voyage of western discovery and had big news to report. On the other side of the Atlantic, he announced, he had found “a new world.”

The phrase would stick, of course. But it didn’t mean to Vespucci what it means to us today: a new continent. Europeans of the time often used the phrase simply to describe regions of the world they had not known about before. Another Italian merchant had used the very same phrase, for example, to describe parts of southern Africa recently explored by the Portuguese.

Like Columbus, Vespucci believed the world consisted of three parts: Europe, Africa, and Asia. He also knew that the world was round, a fact that had been common knowledge since antiquity. This meant, he realized, that if one could sail far enough to the west of Europe, one would reach the Far East.

This was exactly what Vespucci and Columbus both believed they had done. Columbus, in particular, clung doggedly until the end of his life to the idea that in crossing the Atlantic he had reached the vicinity of Japan and China. He had no idea he had expanded Europe’s geographical horizons, in other words. He thought he’d shrunk them.

The expanding horizons began with Vespucci. In his letter, he reported sailing west across the Atlantic, like Columbus. After making landfall, however, he had turned south, in an attempt to sail under China and into the Indian Ocean — and had ended up following a coastline that took him thousands of miles almost due south, well below the equator, into a region of the globe where most European geographers assumed there could only be ocean.

When Ringmann read this news, he was thrilled. As a good classicist, he knew that the poet Virgil had prophesied the existence of a vast southern land across the ocean to the west, destined to be ruled by Rome. And he drew what he felt was the obvious conclusion: Vespucci had reached this legendary place. He had discovered the fourth part of the world. At last, Europe’s Christians, the heirs of ancient Rome, could begin their long-prophesied imperial expansion to the west.

Ringmann may well have been the first European to entertain this idea, and he acted on it quickly. Soon he had teamed up with a local German mapmaker named Martin Waldseemüller, and the two men printed 1,000 copies of a giant world map designed to broadcast the news: the famous Waldseemüller map of 1507. One copy of the map still survives, and it’s recognized as one of the most important geographical documents of all time. That’s because it’s the first to depict the New World as surrounded by water; the first to suggest the existence of the Pacific Ocean; the first to portray the world’s continents and oceans roughly as we know them today; and, of course, the first to use a strange new name: America, which Ringmann and Waldseemüller printed in block letters across what today we would call Brazil.

Why America? Ringmann and Waldseemüller explained their choice in a small companion volume to the map, called “Introduction to Cosmography.” “These parts,” they wrote, referring to Europe, Asia, and Africa, “have in fact now been more widely explored, and a fourth part has been discovered by Amerigo Vespucci....Since both Asia and Africa received their names from women, I do not see why anyone should rightly prevent this from being called Amerigen — the land of Amerigo, as it were — or America, after its discoverer, Americus.”

Libraries today attribute this little book to Waldseemüller. But the work itself actually identifies no author — and Ringmann’s fingerprints, I would argue, appear all over it. The author, for example, demonstrates a familiarity with ancient Greek, a language that Ringmann knew well and that Waldseemüller did not. He also incorporates snatches of classical verse, a literary tic of Ringmann’s. The one contemporary poet quoted in the text, too, is known to have been a friend of Ringmann.

Waldseemüller the cartographer, Ringmann the writer: This division of duties makes sense, given the two men’s areas of expertise. And, indeed, they would team up in precisely this way in 1511, when Waldseemüller printed a new map of Europe. In dedicating that map, Waldseemüller noted that it came accompanied by “an explanatory summary prepared by Ringmann.”

This question of authorship is important because whoever wrote “Introduction to Cosmography” almost certainly coined the name America. Here again, I would suggest, the balance tilts in the favor of Ringmann, who regularly entertained himself by making up words, punning in different languages, and investing his writing with hidden meanings. In one 1511 essay, he even mused specifically about the naming of continents after women.

The naming-of-America passage in “Introduction to Cosmography” is rich in precisely the sort of word play Ringmann loved. The key to the passage is the curious name Amerigen, which combines the name Amerigo with the Greek word gen, or “earth,” to create the meaning “land of Amerigo.” But the name yields other meanings. Gen can also mean “born,” and the word ameros can mean “new,” suggesting, as many Renaissance observers had begun to hope, that the land of Amerigo was a place where European civilization could go to be reborn — an idea, of course, that still resonates today. The name may also contain a play on meros, a Greek word sometimes translated as “place,” in which case Amerigen would become A-meri-gen, or “No-place-land”: not a bad way to describe a previously unnamed continent whose full extent was still uncertain.

Whatever its meanings, the name America filled a need. By the middle of the 16th century it had caught on, and mapmakers were using it to define not only South but North America. But Ringmann himself didn’t live to see the day. By 1511 he was complaining of weakness and shortness of breath, and before the year’s end he was dead, probably of tuberculosis. He hadn’t yet reached 30.

Both Ringmann and Waldseemüller soon slipped into obscurity. The two would remain forgotten for centuries, but Waldseemüller’s star rose again in the 20th century, thanks to the accidental rediscovery, in 1901, of the sole surviving copy of his great map. A century later, calling it America’s birth certificate, the Library of Congress bought the map for the astonishing sum of $10 million — and in 2007, to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the naming of America, put it on public display. Waldseemüller now seems guaranteed permanent celebrity as the author of one of the most important documents ever created.

History hasn’t served poor Matthias Ringmann nearly as well. That doesn’t seem quite fair. So tonight let’s send up a few of our fireworks in honor of the man who had the audacity to declare, before anybody else, that the world had a fourth part — and to imagine that he might be the one who could give it a name.

Toby Lester is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of ”The Fourth Part of the World,” which comes out in paperback on Tuesday. For more about the book and the Waldseemüller map, see www.tobylester.com.

Where ‘America’ really came from - The Boston Globe