That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Advent (page 1 of 8)

Mad-Libs with John the Baptist – Sermon for Advent 3, RCL Year B

One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:

  1. He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
  2. He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
  3. He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).

She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):

“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”

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Death at Christmas – Sermon for Advent 2, RCL Year B

Today’s Gradual, Psalm 85, includes what may be my favorite verse in the entire collection of the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v. 10)

I think it may be my favorite because it figures prominently in the movie Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by the Danish write Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The story tells of a grand meal prepared for the residents of a small Danish village in memory of their deceased Lutheran pastor. In flash backs, we see his ministry and on several occasions we hear him quote this verse, which seems to be a rallying cry for his flock.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

It’s a lovely poetic summation of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in that book of prophecy.

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Here and Now – Sermon for Advent 1, RCL Year B

In a few minutes, when this sermon comes to an end, we will all stand together as we do every week and recite the Nicene Creed in which we will say that, among other things, we believe that Jesus Christ

. . . will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. (BCP 1979, page 359)

In the Apostle’s Creed said at Morning and Evening Prayer, and in our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm our expectation that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” (BCP 1979, pages 96, 120, and 304)

In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer we re-affirm this this belief by saying (as we will in Prayer C this morning), “We celebrate his death and resurrection, as we await the day of his coming.” (Pg 371) We say something very similar in Prayer A: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (Pg 363) In Prayer B: “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.” (Pg 368) And in Prayer D, we offer our gifts “recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to [the Father’s] right hand, [and] awaiting his coming in glory.” (Pg 374)

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Complicated Joseph: Sermon for Advent 4 – 18 December 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 4 in Year A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; Romans 1:1-7; and St. Matthew 1:18-25. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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angel-appears-to-joseph-in-a-dream1In these few verses, Matthew opens up for us the complexity of Joseph as a human being. He hints at, and we can imagine, Joseph’s distress, his sense of betrayal, his disappointment, and all the other emotions he must have experienced. We can imagine also the fear and hurt that Mary probably would have felt as she and her betrothed sorted out the complications caused by the divine intrusion into their relationship.

Unlike Luke’s pastorally pleasing story of the manger, the angels, and the shepherds, Matthew gives us a direct and simple story of Mary and Joseph as human beings, not characters frozen in a stained-glass window, but flesh and blood people, people like us dealing with a serious complication in their relationship. Thus, we can see ourselves to be people like them, people who live complex lives, who have all sorts of experiences, some of them quite detrimental, and yet whom God invites nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.

Poets have explored the complex humanity of Joseph and his possible reactions to the news given by the angel in his dream. For example, in Joseph’s Suspicion, Rainer Maria Rilke envisions Joseph arguing with the angel, forcefully refusing to believe even that Mary is pregnant, raising his fist to the angel defending Mary’s honor:

The angel spoke and patiently tried to
convince the man, who met him with clenched fists:
Can you not see that in every way
she is as cool as God’s first morning mist?

And yet the man looked at him glowering with
suspicion, murmuring: what has brought about her change?
But then the angel cried in anger: Carpenter!
Do you not yet perceive the hand of God’s own doing?

Because you handle wood and know your trade,
do you in arrogance call Him to task
who from the self-same wood you handle now
can make green leaves appear and swelling buds?

He understand. And as he raised his eyes;
now full of fear, to meet the angel’s face,
he was gone. Slowly Joseph removed his cap.
Then he began to sing his song of praise.

In his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden envisions Joseph asking for “important and elegant proof” that Mary’s word is true; the angel refuses and, instead, demands that Joseph simply have faith in what Auden clearly considers a scientific impossibility.

JOSEPH:
Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
Everything, everything,
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of the sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Stupidly, stupidly,
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me, Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them . . .
GABRIEL:
No, you must.
JOSEPH:
How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.
GABRIEL:
No.
JOSEPH:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
GABRIEL:
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

The Narrator of the oratorio then compares Joseph’s dilemma to that of Adam believing Eve and eating the apple, and traces the spiritual relationship of men and women through the ages, ending with this advice to Joseph:

You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.
There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.

The Jesuit poet John Lynch in his narrative poem A Woman Wrapped in Silence, writes of what we do not know, capturing through our ignorance what Joseph and Mary might really have been to each other in their mutual consternation:

What source we have of knowledge of her days
Is sparing, and has left us many days
Still veiled, and if there is enough to find
What Joseph found, and a few dear treasured words,
We must have more to lead us where our love
Would seek to go. And there is one sweet place
That distant watching eyes could fondly wish
To see and ponder on. Did Joseph come,
And with his sobs seek pardon for his fears?
And did he see how, suddenly, his love
Was greater than he knew and could be carried
Now along new pathways with his prayers?
God’s kingdom now was four, and claimed again
Another life to be with Zachary,
To listen with Elizabeth, and then
With her to serve. O, glad, he was for strength,
And glad for honor, and for nmae, and glad
His hand was skilled enough to fashion walls
And build the smallness of a crib that now
Would cradle more than all the world could hold.
Dreams of all his fathers fell on him
In one bright dream, and all bright hopes were clear.
We may not know for sure, and yet, and yet,
May we not see how quietly he came
And spoke no word. And Mary saw him come,
Finding a new thing shining in his eyes.
And when quick tears of gladness and relief
Were done, she saw him kneel, lift up his hands,
Two hands that held invisibly, his life.
She may have reached her own pale fingers out
And found them . . . callused, generous, and strong.

Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship, Perkins School of Theology, in her commentary on this gospel entitled The Fear of Betrayal offers not a poem, but a vignette offering another possible conversation between Joseph and the angel:

On this night, as much as on Christmas Eve, an angel hovered near, whispering a message from God into Joseph’s sleeping ear. The angel interrupted the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement that played in the theater of Joseph’s dreams. The angel replaced them with a manger scene and visions of a boy growing and becoming strong.

“Here,” whispered the angel, “is the key that unlocks your dilemma. Believe her unbelievable story. Marry her, and become the father of God’s child. He will need a father to be accepted by others as he grows to manhood. He will need, not just any father, but a father like you, capable of nurturing him, and giving him a name. ‘Immanuel — God with us.’

“He will need a father like you to teach him to take risks like the one you are about to take, for he will be tempted not to take them.

“He will need a father like you to teach him to withstand the disapproval of others, as you will soon have to withstand it.

“He will need a father like you to teach him what to do in situations like this one, when all hope seems lost and only pain remains; to model how to believe the unbelievable good news and to walk ahead in faith.

“If you do not walk the hard road to Bethlehem, who will teach him how to climb the cruel hill to Calvary?”

In this way, I imagine the father of our Lord was born that night.

These writers through their imaginative treatments show us what Matthew hints at in his simple story: that Joseph was a complex man, a human being like any of us, entrusted by God with the ominous responsibility of fostering God’s own son. We can imagine that his response to that invitation might have been as fearful and as conflicted as any of ours would have been and yet, although Joseph soon disappears from the gospel narratives, we can be assured that he accomplished that ministry with skill and grace. From that we can take the comfort that when God invites us to accomplish his purposes, as God surely does, we too will be able to do so with skill and grace.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Superbloom: Sermon for Advent 3 – 11 December 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 3 in Year A: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; and St. Matthew 11:2-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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01-death-valley-super-bloomMost of the time when we hear this story of John’s disciples coming to Jesus we focus on John’s question – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11:3) – and on Jesus’ answer to it which is neither a “yes” nor a “no” but a pointing to the evidence – “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5).

But the lesson adds a second conversation, one that happens after John’s followers leave. Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them a question, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” (Mt 11:7)

Whenever I read this gospel and encounter that question (especially when I read it in one of the translations that renders it as “What did you go out into the desert to see?”) I remember my childhood and early adult life in southern Nevada, where we would often “go out into the desert to see” something. Today’s prophecy from the Book of Isaiah – “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa 35:1-2) – reminds of those times when we would go out to see the wild flowers in bloom.

There is a phenomenon that occurs only rarely in the desert when there is sufficient rain, a blossoming of the wild flowers called a “superbloom.” You may have seen the news of a superbloom in Death Valley last year, in the fall of 2015. It’s an amazing sight to see! The desert bursts with color as thousands of plants come to life; coaxed to blossom by the rains, the flowers create intricate tapestries, the blues and purples of desert lavender, sand verbena, and Arizona lupine, the red of the California poppies, the brilliant orange of the Mariposa lily, and the yellow explosion of a stand of Palo Verde trees in full bloom. It is truly a vision worthy of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom!” It is what we would go out into the wilderness to see.

Most of the time, though, we go out into the desert and we see . . . wilderness, a “reed shaken in the wind,” as Jesus says (Mat 11:7). We go out into the wilderness with our expectations of wild flowers in blossom, of superblooms carpeting the desert with color, and we are disappointed. We miss the truly remarkable splendor of the “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains” that “repeat the sounding joy” of God’s creation. (I. Watts, Joy to the World) We dismiss the gray-greens of cactus and sage, failing to see that there’s “not a plant or flower below but makes [God’s] glories known.” (I. Watts, I Sing the Mighty Power) We fail to see the stark native beauty of the wilderness for what it is because it doesn’t meet our superbloom expectations.

That was the problem for John, and it was the problem for the religious authorities whom John opposed. They looked at Jesus but did not see; this Galilean peasant messiah was not what they expected and so John sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” If we are honest – and the point of the season of Advent is to call us to that sort of honesty – there are times we have seen and heard the work of God but called it something else, not recognizing it for what is. Like the Romans, like the religious authorities, like John the Baptize sitting weary in prison, we mistake what we see. Somehow, it just doesn’t match what we had in mind.

There is a danger during Advent – while we are preparing for the annual celebration of the winter solstice that we call “Christmas”, while we are hosting teas and attending office parties and going to school Christmas plays – there is a danger that we will create the Jesus we want, and miss the Jesus who really is. As Methodist campus minister Deborah Lewis at the University of Virginia notes, we can be confused by and miss “God’s willful, wily, wonderful ways of showing up in the world.” She advises us:

Don’t get carried away in your waiting, in your anticipation. Keep alert and keep paying attention. We’re called not to create and conjure the Prince of Peace but to recognize and welcome him when he arrives, when we see and hear what he’s doing. In the remaining weeks of Advent and when you go home to family and friends and a Christmas you’ve been expecting for a while now, remember what it was you came to see. Remember that wilderness vision and pay attention to how it might look and sound as it is revealed in new places and people. (Deborah Lewis)

Advent, as I said, calls us to be honest. It calls us, as Jesus called his first followers, to “keep awake, for [we] do not know on what day [our] Lord is coming.” (Mat 24:42) It calls us to “beware [and] keep alert, for [we] do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:33) We must be alert to the many cultural messages which obscure the Truth of Jesus Christ, cultural messages which lead us to expect something other than the Truth that Jesus offers. “Advent calls us to be honest about the values and beliefs that we hold because of cultural convenience, rather than the values and beliefs [of] our faith.” (Roman Catholic Bishop Paul D. Etienne)

So for the next couple of weeks, keep awake, be alert, be honest. Look to the wilderness beyond the teas, the office parties, and the Christmas plays. Look to the wilderness beyond the decorated trees, the colorful lights, and the blow-up displays in the neighbors’ yards. Look to the wilderness.

Look for God in works of mercy, healing, hope . . . .
Look for God in those who strive for justice and peace . . . .
Look for God in those who mourn and suffer . . . .
Look for God in your own heart. Go there. Into the wilderness. Follow the leading star of your longing for a closer relationship with God, a closer walk with Christ. There is where you hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. There you begin to see.
Three times Jesus asks the gathered crown: What then did you go out to see? Ask yourself the same question this week, and not only at church, but at any time or place: what did I come here to see?
Ask yourself the same question . . . .
(The Rev. Dr. Matthew Calkins)

Answer honestly and you will see the superbloom of God’s Presence!

Note: The illustration is from the article Marveling at the Super Bloom in the March 2016 issue of Vogue Magazine.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Our Immigrant Lord: For the Parish Newsletter, December 2016

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the December 2016 issue of The Epistle, the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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thirstednot-jesusindesert2A few years ago I read an essay about the trials and tribulations of relocation, particularly from region to region within our country. In it the author made the comment that when relocating to the South, there were two invariably asked questions of the newcomer: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” These, he said, are quintessentially Southern inquiries which serve to position the interrogated in a place’s social network and milieu. The assumptions, of course, are that no one would relocate to a town where they did not have “people” (i.e., family members) and that everyone goes to church somewhere.

I’m not sure, after making several regional locations myself, that those are only Southern questions. They seem to be universally asked, in one form or another, of newcomers to every American community. In fact, they may be quintessentially human questions asked around the world!

In 2005, when Evelyn and I made our first trip to Ireland, one of my goals was to find distant relatives, members of the Funston clan whose ancestors had stayed there when my great-great-grandfather had come to America. So we visited the places I believed he might have come from, the Funston township lands of Counties Donegal, Tyrone, and Fermanagh. During our stay in the city of Donegal we happened to visit a woolen goods store run by a delightful man named Sean McGinty. We entered the shop just as Sean was closing up for the day and he graciously stayed open so we could peruse his sweaters, tweeds, and other goods. Of course, that meant he was going to be late to dinner . . . and, as a result, his wife Mary came looking for him.

We’d been in conversation with Sean before Mary arrived and told him of my search for Funstons. He said he thought there might be some living in Pettigo, a small village on the border of County Donegal and County Fermanagh. When Mary came into the shop, he drew her into our conversation and asked her, “Mary, you’re from Pettigo. Were there any Funstons living there?” She thought for a moment and then replied, “Aye! But they weren’t our people.” I knew immediately what she meant: they weren’t members of the Catholic Church. And that would have been right! My ancestor was a member of the Anglican Church of Ireland and his descendants are still Anglicans!

So there were those same two concerns: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” They are the questions still being asked of newcomers to our communities wherever we may be, whether we are in the South of the United States, in Ohio, or somewhere in Europe. As so many people are on the move because of war, political unrest, and economic necessity, as so many are labeled “immigrant” and “refugee,” they are increasingly divisive and exclusive questions.

“Who are your people?” . . . “Where do you worship?” . . . What is your ethnic background? . . . What is your religion? . . . Instead of being asked to position the newcomer within the social milieu of his or her new home, the questions and their answers too often lead to the erection of social barriers, sometimes even physical walls. Instead of being welcoming questions of inclusion, they are the defensive or belligerent interrogations of exclusion.

Recently in the Christian press, particularly those journals which cater to a more conservative audience, there has been a lot of discussion about the assertion that Jesus was an immigrant and refugee. It is a common enough hermeneutic drawn from the story of the Holy Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt as related in Matthew’s Gospel: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matt 23:13 NRSV) It occurred to me that it may be a useful reminder that the Son of God was an immigrant from the very start, that he was not and is not a native resident of our world; he is from elsewhere, from heaven, from the very Throne of God.

As Dr. John Marshall, a Southern Baptist minister in Missouri, recently wrote: “Our Savior was an immigrant. He left His home in Heaven to become a stranger in the very world He created. There was no room for Him in the Bethlehem inn (Lk 2:7). He came to His own people, but they received Him not (Jn 1:11).” (Marshall) As we prepare once again to welcome him in the annual celebration of his Incarnation, we do well to remember that and to remember that he remained an immigrant and a refugee throughout his life.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, a land dominated by the Roman empire through a client ruler named Herod the Great. Apparently Mary, Joseph, and Jesus remained there for a couple of years before fleeing to Egypt where they lived until Herod died about four to six years after that. When they left Egypt, they returned not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth in Galilee, which was under the rule of Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. Jesus grew up, then, as a resident of Galilee; when he undertook his ministry to Jerusalem (which is in Judea), although he was returning to the country of his birth, he was an immigrant into Judea.

Judea, by the way, during Jesus’ life and ministry was ruled not by a local king but directly by the Romans. Herod the Great was succeeded by his son Archelaus, who had the title of “Ethnarch of Judea.” Archelaus died less than ten years after succeeding his father. After his death, a series of Roman governors or “Prefects” ruled, the last of whom during Jesus’ life was Pontius Pilate.

In truth, Jesus spent most of his time on the move. Both Matthew and Luke report him saying to a potential follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20; Lk 9:58) Jesus was not a settled person and, interestingly enough, neither are his followers (us) supposed to be. This goes back to the Jewish roots of our faith, a reminder of which is found in the Torah’s instructions for eating the Passover feast: “You shall eat it [with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (Ex 12:11) We are always to be ready to be on the move.

Our parish patron, St. Paul, takes up this theme in his letters. He reminded the Philippians that we are not to set our mind on earthly things because “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philip 3:19-20) And he promised the Ephesians that we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19) Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon expanded on this notion in their book Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989), arguing that today the church is not “a service club within a generally Christian culture,” but rather “a colony within an alien society.” (pg. 115)

How might this inform and shape our Advent preparations and our Christmas celebrations? What if we understood that we are not getting ready to welcome Jesus into our settled existence, our cozy homes and our warm hearths, our abundant feasts and our lovely dining rooms? Rather, we should be preparing for our immigrant Lord Jesus to invite us to join him on the road, to eat with him hastily consumed meals wearing our sandals and holding our walking sticks, to sleep with him in places where we have no place to put our heads. What might we do differently to get ready for the anniversary of his Incarnation and for his promised return? What might we do differently for all who, like him, are refugees and immigrants?

Who are our people? The people of God whoever they are and wherever they may be, temporarily settled in “a colony within an alien society” or on the road. Where do we worship? Wherever we find our Lord, in church, in a refugee camp, in places we cannot even imagine. Every year Advent and Christmas challenge us with what Hauerwas and Willimon call “the greatest challenge facing the church in any age” which is to be “a living, breathing, witnessing colony of truth.”

May that challenge be our blessing in 2016! May each of us, and all of us together, be living, breathing witnesses to the Truth!

(Note: The image is a digital painting by an internet blogger calling himself Horseman. I could find no further information about it or him.)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Swords into Ploughshares, But No Rapture: Sermon for Advent 1, 27 November 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 1 in Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; and St. Matthew 24:36-44. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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swordsploughsharesrockefeller“Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt 24:40-42) You probably have friends who have told you these verses from Matthew’s Gospel describe something called “the Rapture.” You may have read the Left Behind books or seen the movies. So you may think you have a handle on what these verses mean and why they are offered to us as we begin our Advent preparation to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s Incarnation and to look forward to his return, his “Second Coming.”

Well… just hold that thought for a moment and let’s explore the first reading before we get back to it.

This is such a great passage from the Prophet Isaiah that we have this morning. It’s got those wonderful verses that are carved into the wall of the broad plaza across the street from the United Nations building in New York City:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4, NRSV)

It’s got all that wonderful imagery of the nations of the world streaming toward the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, at peace with one another. It’s a wonderful, wonderful vision.

We keep waiting for it, don’t we?

Isaiah saw this vision during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah about 750 years before Jesus’ time. Isaiah promulgated what is known as “Zion theology,” a religious understanding of Jerusalem as the center of the world and the Temple as the center of Jerusalem. The Lord will come to it and its mount, Holy Zion, will be the most prominent mountain. The nations will all come to Jerusalem to learn divine teaching. Yahweh, enthroned in the Temple, will mediate and end all international conflict. The waging of war will cease.

Of course, none of that has ever happened, but for nearly eight centuries after Isaiah the son of Amoz this was the belief and hope of Israel, of all Jews. The realities of this text exist in the realms of promise, hope, and faith.

Or at least they did until about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here’s a little First Century history lesson:

Jesus was born sometime around the year we might think of as “Zero” – in truth, we think he was born about the year now designated 4 B.C. (The calendar designations we use were developed by a man named Dionysus Exiguus – Dennis the Short – around the year 525 A.D. Dennis made a couple of miscalculations and so our calendar is just a bit off; it really doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus.) He lived to about his mid-thirties; the most popular dating of the crucifixion is April 3 of the year 33 A.D.

The Gospels were written several years after Jesus’ Ascension. Folks apparently thought it would be a good idea to get things written down because the original followers of Jesus were dying off. So Mark’s gospel was compiled a few years before 70 A.D., perhaps in the mid-60s. Matthew’s gospel is believed to have come next, about 80 A.D., perhaps as late as 90 A.D. Luke wrote his gospel and the Book of Acts at about the same time. John’s gospel comes along about the year 100 A.D.

These dates are important because of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Around the year 64 A.D. the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled against the then-ruling Roman Procurator, a man named Gessius Florius, who had tried to take the Temple treasury for his own use. They succeeded in expelling Florius from the city, but only after nearly 4,000 Jews had been killed. Then they got into a battle amongst themselves. There was essentially a civil war between the forces of Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, who claimed to be king, and Eliezer ben-Hananiah, who was the high priest.

This division between the Jews allowed the Roman Procurator of Syria Cestius Gallius to lay siege to the city for four years between 66 and 70 A.D. and basically starve the Jews. In the late summer of 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus Flavius successfully breached the city walls and destroyed the city and the Temple. The contemporary Jewish historian Joseph ben Matityahu reported that more than a million Jews were killed.

That is when the Zion theology of Isaiah took a nearly fatal blow. There was no longer a Temple to which (as the Psalmist put it)

the tribes [could] go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord. (Ps 122:4, BCP 1979 Version)

This was also the background, the context within which Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels were written. When the authors set about to record the story of Jesus, they look back to view him through the smoke of burning Jerusalem, across the rubble of the destroyed Temple.

Thus, they remembered things that Jesus had said about the Temple’s destruction. They remembered things that Jesus had said about his own probable death. They remembered and interpreted and wrote about many things in light of what was happening and had happened in the world around them. Of course they did! They were just as human as you and me, and the way they saw things and understood things and reported things was influenced by their experiences.

“The impact of this catastrophe cannot be overestimated. The loss of the war was itself devastating. The loss of the city of Jerusalem, the symbolic unifier of the Jewish people and the physical link to the memories that make Jews distinctively Jewish, tying them together all the way back to David, who ruled from this city, this loss shook the people deeply.” (Prof. Richard W. Swanson) Including the followers of Jesus, who at that time still thought of themselves as Jews.

Which brings us back to those verses from today’s gospel reading . . . that much cited and much misinterpreted text! When they remembered Jesus saying, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matt 24:40-41), the evangelists didn’t think he was talking about something that would happen in some future when he would return. They believed, probably correctly, that he was talking about something that had already happened to them and to their families and to their country. They had lived through a devastating and now inescapable loss. As a result of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which they had 800 years of regarding as the center of the universe, “every extended family [had] lost many members.” (Swanson)

In Luke’s version of this story, by the way, the disciples ask a follow-up question: Jesus says, “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” (Lk 17:34-35) Then his followers ask, “Where, Lord?” and Jesus them to look for the ones taken “Where the corpse is,” where “the vultures will gather.” The authors of the gospels were not looking forward to this happening; they had already been through it. (See Benjamin Corey)

It wasn’t until a crazy Irish Anglican priest named John Darby took these verses out of context and mashed it together with something Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about being “caught up in the clouds together with [the risen dead] to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4:17), and stirred it all together with some crazy imagery from the Book of Revelation, that we get the notion of a “rapture.” That “pointless [and] weird theology has . . . produced some strange bumper stickers (In case of Rapture this car will be driverless, etc.), and bad movies (you know which ones), [but] it is not what these words are about.” (Swanson)

These words are about hope even in the worst possible of circumstances. As Professor Arland Hultgren of Luther Seminary says:

The message of Christ’s return is not meant to frighten us. It is to give us hope. ~ The Christ who is to come is the Christ who once lived among us on earth, and who is known in the gospel story as the friend and healer of those in need. Moreover, living in hope, expecting Christ’s return, is integral to the Christian faith, for by it we insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already. (Hultgren)

There is another prophet whose words convey this message, the Prophet Habakkuk who shouted his intent to praise the Lord even when everything had gone bad. He wrote:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Hab 3:17-19a)

This is the hope of Advent, the hope that lets us believe, indeed lets us know with certainty that although Jerusalem may be destroyed, although the Temple may be in ruins, although war may rage around us, still there will be a time when

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4)

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man [who will usher in that time of peace] is coming at an unexpected hour.” Amen.

Note: The illustration is “Swords into Plowshares” by Lee Oscar Lawrie at the International Building, Rockefeller Center, NYC, NY.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Save and Deliver: Fourth of a Series – Sermon for Advent 4 (20 December 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 15 [Luke 1:46-55]; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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hen-with-chicksLanguages and the study of languages fascinate me – if you didn’t know that before this series on the Lord’s Prayer, you probably know it now – and I am therefore always keenly aware of the difficulty of fully appreciating the Holy Scripture if we only consider the meaning of the English translation.

In the 1950s the social scientist Noam Chomsky proposed the idea that the ability to communicate complex data with our fellows is one of the characteristics that distinguishes human beings. He went so far as to propose that all humans, unlike all other animals, are genetically programmed with a limited set of rules for organizing language; this became known as “the Universal Grammar.” Chomsky’s idea became received wisdom and pretty much the basis for all academic study of linguistics despite the fact that there was not a shred of objective, empirical data to support it.

In fact, there is now plenty data contrary to Chomsky’s notion. We now know that a variety of animal species are able to communicate among themselves and convey very complex information to one another. Furthermore, studies of human languages around the world have repeatedly demonstrated that there are no linguistic universals; instead, there is abundant variation at all levels of linguistic organization. For example, there is a language spoken by one small group of people on one of the South Pacific islands in which verbs have no tenses; we would, I suppose, say that the verbs are all in the present tense but that would be misleading because their verbs, in fact, carry no sense of time. That sense is expressed, instead, by adjectives, and specifically by color adjectives; the color variation ascribed to the subject and object of a verb conveys the idea of past, present, or future.

Can you imagine how difficult it is to translate from that language into English, or vice versa? A direct translation

I bring this up because, although the difficulties are not nearly so great in the translation from Greek to English (which we must do to read the New Testament in our own language), such difficulties are nonetheless there, and especially so as we consider the last of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” in the older liturgical form; “save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil,” in the newer.

Some of the difficulties that confront us are (a) Greek words which can be translated in more than one way; (b) Greek word order which differs from, and is less important than, word order is in English; and (c) the fact that biblical Greek uses no punctuation, leaving us to guess about phrases and sentences. (I’ll only address the first today, but the others are also present here.) And, then, there is the overarching matter that Jesus, in teaching us to pray, is also teaching us something about God and such teaching is always contingent, partial, and problematic; no human language can encompass the reality of God. Any human attempt to describe God, even Jesus’, is incomplete and may be ultimately misleading.

In today’s Gospel, Mary pregnant with Jesus visits her kinswoman Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptizer. Elizabeth greets her, commenting on how active her own baby becomes at the sound of Mary’s voice and then praising Mary as “blessed” because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary’s answer is the Magnificat, the song which we recited as our Gradual, in which she says of God that God casts down the powerful, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away hungry, but that God lifts up the downtrodden, feeds those in need, and remembers those with whom God has made covenants. This doesn’t mean that God has nothing to do with the rich, nor that God ministers only to the poor, nor that God is not active in the lives of those outside of God’s covenants. It gives us a picture of God’s commitment to justice, but only a partial picture.

The same is true of the Lord’s Prayer. This petition (like all of the petitions in this prayer) is loaded with more meaning than we are aware of. Methodist theologians William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in their book Lord, Teach Us, say this about this petition:

Words like “save” and “trial” and “deliver” are words of crisis. They remind us that to pray this prayer means to be thrust into the middle of a cosmic struggle. At this point the temperature rises within the Lord’s Prayer. Things are not right in the world. It is as if something, someone has organized things against God. You pray this prayer faithfully, attempting to align your life to it and the next thing you know, it’s like you are under assault.

How often is salvation presented as some sort of helpful solution to everything that ails us. “Lonely? Come to Jesus and get that fixed.” “Alcoholic? Come to Jesus and be delivered of your addiction.” “Confused? Join the church and find all the answers.” In such a presentation of the gospel, salvation is the resolution of all your problems, the way to fix whatever ails you.

But this petition, in which we ask for salvation, deliverance and help in time of trial reminds us that salvation in Christ is an adventure, a journey, a larger drama. Praying this prayer is the beginning of problems we would never have had had we not met Christ and enlisted with Christ’s people. The forces of evil do not relinquish their territory without a fight and, in being saved, God’s newly won territory is you. (Willimon, Wm. H., and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us, Abingdon, Nashville:1996, ch. 8)

“At this point the temperature rises . . . . ” What a great way to present the tensions of this petition and of the protection for which it asks!

So let’s take a look at some of these “words of crisis,” as Willimon and Hauerwas label them. The first are the words translated in the King James Bible and in the earlier liturgical prayer as “lead us not into,” in the NRSV as “do not bring us into;” this is the Greek phrase me eisenenkes hemas eis, and either translation may be correct. The root verb is eisphero which can mean “lead”, “bring”, “carry”, or even “sustain.”

A problem for many people is not so much in the translation as in the idea that God could or would lead someone into temptation. Walter Kaiser in his book Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity, Downers Grove, IL:1996, p 366) exclaims, “Why should we ask God not to lead us into this? As if God would do any such thing! ‘God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone’ (Jas 1:13).” This is why the newer liturgical form paraphrases the Greek as a plea for protection – “Save us from.”

Save us from what? The Greek word is peirasmon. If that is translated as “temptation”, and that in turn is understood to mean an enticement to evil, then it does seems strange and perhaps even offensive to ask God not to do what God would never do. However, “temptation, when the word occurs in the older versions of the Bible, means more than temptation to sin; it has the wider sense of testing.” (Kaiser, 367) A 1st Century Greek physician and natural philosopher named Dioscorides used the word peirasmos to describe medical experimentation (Mat. Med. Praef. 5.12), and a Greek-speaking Indian philosopher of the century before named Syntipas used the word to denote the afflictions of life which tend to crush those who do not possess sufficient inner fortitude. It is in this way that Jesus or the evangelists seem to have used it when he went with the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper.

When they arrived at the garden, he went away by himself admonishing his friends, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Lk 22:40) When he returned to them, he found them asleep and again he admonished them: “Get up and pray that you may not enter into the time of trial.” (Lk 22:46) In the Greek of the New Testament, the words of Jesus’ admonitions are nearly identical to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, the full first half in the new liturgical form is, “Save us from the time of trial.”

The second half of the petition is rendered the same in both liturgical forms, “Deliver us from evil.” Sometimes the Biblical versions are personalized, “Deliver us from the Evil One” on the basis of some Greek variants, which would seem to limit it to being a request for protection from (perhaps) Satan. However, most translators and commentators support the more general understanding, many noting that Jesus seems to be using a Hebrew literary or poetic form known as parallelism. “‘Lead us not into temptation’ and ‘deliver us from evil’ mean just the same thing: Prevent us being brought into temptation too great for us to conquer.” (Palmer, Albert W., Humanity’s Greatest Prayer, in Prayer and Spiritual Living, Vol 2, Kregel, Grand Rapids:1995, p. 10) As Lutheran writer Lois Tverberg says, “[This petition] is an all-encompassing plea for God to protect us from what is outside us, but what is inside as well.”

The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff suggests that this petition “presupposes a bitter awareness that human beings are fragile, subject to temptation of betraying their hope, becoming unfaithful to God, actually succumbing to temptation, and consequently being lost.” (The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll:1983, p 97) And Franciscan author Michael Crosby observes, “We cannot offer this petition without being aware of how we ourselves might be contributing to the very evil (for others) that we pray to be delivered from ourselves.” (The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us, Orbis Books, Maryknoll:2002, p 171)

With that “better awareness” we know, even as we utter this prayer, that there will be times of trial. I’m sure that even as Mary sang the praises of the God who “casts down the mighty from their thrones,” she knew that she would still have to deal with life in an occupied Israel under the control of Imperial Rome. Even as she thanked God for “lift[ing] up the lowly” and “fill[ing] the hungry with good things,” she knew that she and Joseph would have to work hard earning very little to support themselves and the baby she carried. She knew and we know that there will be times of trial.

This petition, then, is for us, the family of Jesus, who know that despite our best intentions every day we will be faced with and tempted by choices which may be bad and unhealthy for us or for others, who know that left on our own we will give in and make (some of) those choices. This is a petition that God will give us the protection and the resources we need to resist those choices. “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” is a prayer for God’s protective guidance and strength to endure, because on our own, we cannot resist temptation; we cannot do what is right and good. It is a prayer that what Paul wrote to the church in Rome will be true for us:

[S]ince we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1-5)

Endurance, character, hope, and love: these are the protective gifts we ask for when we pray, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

An oft-repeated alliterative aphorism sometimes attributed to former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan summarizes the Lord’s Prayer as one for provision, pardon, and protection. We pray for our basic needs; we pray for forgiveness; we pray for safety from evil, both that of others and our own.

Despite the difficulties of translation from Aramaic to Greek to English, despite cultural differences between 1st Century Palestine and 21st Century America, in our world with all of its complications, in our world which is (as Willimon and Hauerwas remind us) a battlefield where the battle may already be won but still must be fought, this prayer reminds us that these three things – provision, pardon, and protection – are ultimately all we need to live for God, whose was, and is, and will be “the kingdom, the power, and the glory . . . now and for ever. Amen.”

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Forgive Us Our Sins: Third of a Series – Sermon for Advent 3 (13 December 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 [Isaiah 12:2-6]; Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:7-18. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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derrystatueJohn the Baptizer came, Luke tells us, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk. 3:3) In today’s Gospel lesson, John tells the crowds who came to him, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (v. 8) Our catechism teaches us that repentance is required of us to receive the Sacraments. With regard to baptism, the catechetical requirement is that we “renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior;” with regard to the Holy Eucharist, that we “examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people.” (BCP 858, 860) But John’s admonition and the Catechism’s requirements leave us wondering, “What exactly is ‘repentance’?”

It is something more than mere acknowledgment of transgression or wrong-doing, more than saying I’m sorry. The biblical and theological word for repentance is metanoia, which means a “turning around” or a changing of direction. We get a hint of this meaning in the invitation to confession used in earlier Anglican prayer books and still found in Rite One in our current Book of Common Prayer:

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith . . . . (BCP 330)

To repent is to turn from our path onto God’s “holy ways” and “lead a new life.”

John’s audience clearly knew that some amendment of life was part of what he was calling them to, for “the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?'” (Lk 3:10) His answers probably seem to us pretty common-sensical: share what you have, don’t take more than you deserve, don’t extort money, don’t make false accusations, be satisfied with your wages. That’s pretty much what the old prayer book invitation to confession said, too: follow the commandments, follow God’s ways, be on good terms with your neighbors. It’s common sense; it’s hard to do!

That’s why Jesus taught us to seek forgiveness, to repent every time we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Which brings us to this, the next petition in our consideration of the Lord’s Prayer.

Now the truth is that hundreds if not thousands of books of several hundred pages each have been written about the Lord’s Prayer, and hundreds of those books are specifically about this petition, and only this petition. Perhaps that is because sin, the subject of this part of the prayer, is so fascinating. Perhaps it is because of the difference in terminology used by Luke and Matthew; Luke uses the Greek word hamartia, usually translated as “sin” although it actually means something else, while Matthew uses opheilemata, usually translated as “debt” which is pretty accurate, and neither uses the word which means “trespass,” which is paraptoma, a word found in Matthew’s follow-up commentary on the prayer, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Mt. 6:14) “Trespass” made its way into the older liturgical version of the prayer because of the early English translation work of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale in the 15th Century.

So what do these two words tell us about sin? By the way, the English word “sin” comes from an old Germanic word meaning a failure to obey a rule and carries an inference of moral guilt; neither of the Greek words derives from anything like that. Hamartia comes from the sport of archery and means “to miss the mark”; opheilemata comes from business accounting and means a monetary debt. (The word meaning “forgive,” aphes, also comes from accounting and means cancelation of a debt.)

Bible commentator William Barclay, in his book The Lord’s Prayer (Westminster John Knox, Louisville:1998) explains hamartia this way:

Harmartia was not originally an ethical word; originally it meant quite simply a missing of the mark, as when a javelin, or an arrow, or a blow misses its mark. In this sense, sin is a failure to hit the mark, a failure to realize the true aim of life, a failure to be and to do that which we ought to have done, and which we could have been and could have done. (p. 86)

And of opheilemata he writes that Matthew was directly translating an accounting metaphor used by Aramaic speaking rabbis of Jesus’ time, probably the very word that Jesus used in his original teaching:

Now in the time of Jesus in Palestine the rabbis thought of sin almost exclusively as a failure in obedience to God. To them goodness was obedience, sin was disobedience. This is to say that man’s first obligation is to give God obedience; not to give obedience to God is to be in debt to God; and therefore their commonest word for sins was choba’, which in fact means debt. (p. 86)

Neither of the Greek terms necessarily carries a connotation of moral culpability. Certainly there are times when a person commits an intentional act which misses the mark of moral or ethical behavior, but there are many more times when we miss the mark because, like a trained archer, we aim carefully to do the right thing and then miss. Certainly there are times when a person intentionally fails to pay a debt, an unethical and perhaps even criminal thing to do, but there are many more times when we incur indebtedness because we have blundered or slipped through inadvertence.

These Greek words remind us that sinfulness is not about breaking rules; sinfulness is about harming relationships. This is why the great existentialist theologian Paul Tillich insisted that “sin does not mean an immoral act;” he suggested “that ‘sin’ should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.” (Quoted in Killen, R. Allan, The Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, J. H. Kok, Kampen:1956, p. 185) That problem, he said, is separation: “To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation.” (Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:46)

Thus the state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth; but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditioned is demanded of us; but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Chapter 19: You Are Accepted.)

In trying to make that urgent escape, we stumble. We say the wrong thing, or perhaps the right thing in a wrong way, or we hear what another says differently than that other intended, and we both incur the debt of explanation. We do something we shouldn’t do or fail to do something we should; we miss the mark. We blunder off the path, transgress a boundary, and put things out of balance. We may not break any rule, but we hurt feelings and damage relationships. We exacerbate the sin of separation and increase our estrangement from ourselves, from others, and from God. Sin is not about breaking rules; sin is about harming relationships. Sin is separation.

God’s forgiveness, aphes, the cancellation of any debt, balances the books, moves the arrow from wherever it went astray and counts it a bull’s-eye. This is the promise of God set out by Zephaniah in today’s Old Testament lesson: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. . . . . I will change [your] shame into praise . . . .” (Zeph. 3:18-19) God’s forgiveness sets the pattern for our own; we are able to forgive others because we know that we are forgiven. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in our liturgical version. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Lk 11:4) is how Luke renders it; “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12) is Matthew’s version.

Mark, of course, does not tell us about Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer, but he does tell us that on the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he instructed his disciples about the power of prayer and in that teaching said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk 11:25) In March of 2014, Pope Francis preached a homily on the feeding of the 5,000 in which he said this: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” It’s an insight that applies to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, as well: “You pray for forgiveness. Then you forgive. That’s how prayer works.”

Last week, on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Facebook page, he posted a picture of a statue erected in Derry, Northern Ireland, of two men reaching across a wide gap and reaching for each other’s hand. The Archbishop’s caption for the photograph said,

Reconciliation is about our relationship with God and with each other. It’s people, communities and nations learning to live together with deeply-held differences in a spirit of love and respect. It’s working for justice and seeking truth in the light of God’s mercy and peace. It’s the very heart of the gospel.

Forgiveness is the first step of reconciliation; together, forgiveness and reconciliation are chief among the fruits of repentance John the Baptizer admonished his hearers, and us, to bear.

There is so much more that could be said about this petition! Hundreds of books of hundreds of pages have been written about it. Please forgive me for only scratching the surface.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Give Us Today Our Daily Bread: Second of a Series – Sermon for Advent 2 (6 December 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16 [Luke 1: 68-79]; Philippians 1:3-11; and Luke 3:1-6. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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bread_1863824cIt’s the Second Sunday of Advent so according to our lectionary tradition, we hear the words of John the Baptizer, the voice of one crying in the desert, calling us to clean up the roadways and build a straight path for God’s coming. We are all familiar with the Baptizer. He’s some sort of cousin of Jesus. He’s a bit of a wild man; he lives in the wilderness wearing rough clothing and eating only what foods he can pick from desert plants and animals, “locusts and wild honey” is the way the evangelists put it. This year we hear Luke’s version of John’s story.

Later in his gospel story, Luke relates a tale of Jesus angrily denouncing the leadership in the towns of Galilee who refused to listen either to the Baptizer or to Jesus. Jesus says to them: “John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard….’” (Lk 7:33-34) John refused to eat bread, but for Jesus bread is an important element of his ministry; he even taught us to pray for it. So, today, we continue our examination of the Lord’s Prayer with the next petition: “Give us today our daily bread.”

Why do you suppose John refused to eat this staple food that Jesus found so important? There are two related reasons. The first is that bread and wine are processed foods associated with settled communities; for John, as for many prophets, the settled communities were places of corruption. John would have nothing to do with corrupt society and bread, for him, was a symbol of that society.

Luke tells us very clearly in political terms when John appeared on the scene. He situates the advent of the Baptizer and his revelation in the temporal context of the native ruler Herod, the local but foreign governor Pilate, and the final authority who sits above all, Tiberius. Our translation says it was during the “reign” of Tiberius, the “governorship” of Pilate, and the “rule” of Herod. However, the word Luke uses for Herod’s dominion is “tetrarchy” and for both Pilate’s and Tiberius’s governance, his word is “hegemony” (hegemoneuo and hegemonia, respectively). “Tetrarchy” refers to the fact that imperial Rome had divided Palestine into four arbitrarily defined regions and imposed on them the rule of puppet kings. “Hegemony” denotes a kind of imperial governance in which political domination is maintained by military force. In other words, Luke describes the very sort of corrupt and unjust political society that John eschewed and symbolically rejected by his refusal to eat bread.

John’s prophetic message is a call to build a straight, level, and smooth road for God, but as the scribe Baruch points out that road will be a two-way street. As Baruch puts it, “God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.” On that road, says Baruch, “God will lead Israel with joy, in the light of his glory, with the mercy and righteousness that come from him.” In other words, the justice which John found lacking in settled communities and in the hegemonic domination of imperial Rome will be found on the road prepared in the desert.

The second, related reason that John will not eat bread has to do with ritual impurity. The Jewish Virtual Library’s commentary on the Baptizer tells us, “The reference to John not eating bread or wine probably indicates that John preferred to eat foods that had not been processed by human hands and would not therefore be susceptible to impurity. For this same reason John was said to have eaten locusts and honey (Matt. 3:4), both of which were regarded by his fellow Jews as pure items of food.”

In many ways, John and Jesus were polar opposites. They seem to have had the same goal, the restoration of justice and righteousness in Israel, but their approaches were very different. If John was overly fastidious about ritual purity, Jesus doesn’t seem to have given a hoot about it! He regularly dined with tax collectors and outcasts, allowed prostitutes to touch him, touched dead bodies, conversed with gentile women, and allowed his disciples to eat without washing their hands (and presumably did the same himself). He just doesn’t seem to have cared much about the purity laws.

But Jesus did care about justice and for Jesus that is precisely what bread represents. If bread was John’s symbol for corrupt and unjust hegemony, for Jesus bread is the sign and symbol of divine righteousness and justice. He would even say of himself that he is “the bread of God . . . which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world;” “I am the bread of life.” (Jn 6:33,48)

I believe that a poem by the anti-Nazi poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht would have resonated for Jesus; it is entitled The Bread of the People:

Justice is the bread of the people
Sometimes is plentiful, sometimes it is scarce
Sometimes it tastes good, sometimes it tastes bad.
When the bread is scarce, there is hunger.
When the bread is bad, there is discontent.

Throw away the bad justice
Baked without love, kneaded without knowledge!
Justice without flavour, with a grey crust
The stale justice which comes too late!

If the bread is good and plentiful
The rest of the meal can be excused.
One cannot have plenty of everything all at once.
Nourished by the bread of justice
The work can be achieved
From which plenty comes.

As daily bread is necessary
So is daily justice.
It is even necessary several times a day.

From morning till night, at work, enjoying oneself.
At work which is an enjoyment.
In hard times and in happy times
The people requires the plentiful, wholesome
Daily bread of justice.

Since the bread of justice, then, is so important
Who, friends, shall bake it?

Who bakes the other bread?

Like the other bread
The bread of justice must be baked
By the people.

Plentiful, wholesome, daily.

“The bread of justice must be baked by the people” just as the road in the desert, the straight, level, smooth road of justice and righteousness must be cleared and built by God’s people.

Jesus taught us to pray for this bread, the bread of justice, daily in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us today our daily bread.” This is a petition for more than food, for more than nourishment.

There is, hidden in this petition, one of the strangest words in the New Testament. It is the word which our English bibles translate as “daily” although it doesn’t actually mean that. It is translated that way because, in all honesty, no one is exactly sure what it means. The word, in Greek, is epiousion; it is a compound word made up of a root meaning “substance” or “being” (ousion) and a prefix meaning “over” or “above” (epi). It is what linguistics scholars call a hapax legomenon, “something said only once.” The word epiousion appears only in the New Testament Gospels, and only in this line of the Lord’s Prayer as recorded by both Luke and Matthew.

What is it meant to convey? No one knows. The Gospel writers were reporting in Greek something Jesus said probably in Aramaic, but no scholar has ever been able to suggest an Aramaic original. Translating the Greek backwards into Aramaic yields no intelligible clue. When the first translators of the Scriptures from Greek into Latin undertook their task, being ignorant of the word’s actual meaning (whatever it may be), they took a hint from the words just before it in the text – “this day” in Matthew, “each day” in Luke – and rendered it as quotidian, which means “daily”. And thus it entered the liturgical rendition of the prayer known to us.

St. Jerome, however, when he undertook his new translation into Latin, refused to guess. He simply rendered the Greek into equivalent Latin, creating the term supersubstantialem, “supersubstantial”. “Give us today our supersubstantial bread.” Whatever do you suppose that might be?

Even though he refused to translate it, St. Jerome had two suggestions for how to understand it. First he suggested “that it means ‘for tomorrow’ so that the meaning here is ‘give us this day our bread for tomorrow’ that is, for the future.” (Commentary on Matthew 1.6.11) In this sense, this petition could be understood as a prayer for God’s abundance. Jerome’s second suggestion is that it means that “bread which is above all substances and surpasses all creatures.” (Ibid.) He seems particularly to have had in mind the Holy Eucharist.

Now I would make no claim to greater scholarship than St. Jerome, but I do want to suggest another connection that may have been there for Jesus, and that is the bread of the Passover feast, the Seder. Among some Jews today, during the ritual of the unleavened bread or matzah, each person is invited to hold a piece of matzah. The leader of the ritual says: “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” Then in silence all break their matzot in half and they listen to the sound of the bread of affliction cracking open. All then say together:

May our eyes be open to each other’s pain.
May our ears be open to each other’s cries.
May we live with greater awareness.
May we practice greater forgiveness.
And may we go forward as free people
able to respond to ourselves and to each other
with compassion, wonderment, appreciation, and love.

All of the broken matzah are put together on a single plate and the prayer continues:

Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in need join us in this Festival of Liberation.
May each of us, may all of us, find our homes.
May each of us, may all of us, be free.

In this ritual of the Seder, the matzah is understood to be changed. It ceases to be the bread of affliction and is transformed into the bread of hope, courage, faith, and possibility. The bread of affliction becomes something greater than it was, something above its original being, something more than its original substance; it becomes the bread of justice.

This, I suggest, is what Jesus taught us to pray for on a daily basis, the bread of affliction transformed into more than its original substance, something greater than its original being, the supersubstantial bread of justice.

Just as the road in the desert, the straight, level, smooth road of justice and righteousness called for by the Baptizer must be cleared and built by God’s people, so “the bread of justice must be baked by the people.” That for which Jesus teaches us to pray each day, we must do the hard work of creating: hope and courage, faith and possibility, righteousness and justice.

Give us today our daily bread. Amen.

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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