That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Advent (page 2 of 8)

Action and Fruit – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Action and Fruit

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (5 December 2015)

Matthew 22:16 ~ “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

People say a lot of things; people often say a lot of things they believe and, pretty much just as often, they say a lot of things they don’t believe. The Pharisees and the Herodians who said this to Jesus pretty obviously didn’t believe what they said to him. If they had truly believed that Jesus taught “the way of God in accordance with the truth,” they would not have been trying to trap him with a trick question about taxes.

Our nation is still coming to grips with the latest mass shooting, the 355th of the calendar year to date. The killing of 14 people at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center and the wounding of many more is the worst mass murder since the Sandy Hook school shooting. We can all, I’m sure, remember the statements of our political leaders at that time: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” We remember them well because they have said them again after this week’s event, as they have said them after every mass murder between Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.

I don’t believe them anymore, and I don’t believe that they believe them. I have come to believe that a politician standing before a microphone saying “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” is no more sincere than were the Herodians and Pharisees talking to Jesus in the Temple. Their words are lies and they know it.

Saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is a lie. The politicians who say it aren’t thinking at all … if they thought the least little bit, they would think of ways to regulate gun ownership. They also aren’t praying … real prayer leads to action. “Never pray for anything you aren’t willing to work for,” my grandfather taught me.

He also was fond of the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Jesus said something similar, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Mat 7:16) The silence of our political leaders’ inaction is deafening. The bitter fruit of their inaction is inedible.

The Bible most of them claim to follow says very clearly: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

If a nation is riddled by daily gun death, and one of you says, “I’m praying for you,” and yet you do nothing to end the gun violence, what is the good of that? So prayers, by themselves, if they have no attendant action, are a lie.

These politicians who “think and pray” but do not follow up with action, who do not bear fruit, cheapen both thought and prayer into meaninglessness. I don’t believe their words anymore, and I don’t believe they believe them.

Appearing with the Bishop of Los Angeles shortly after the San Bernardino shooting, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry said, “We must combine our prayers with work.”

This is what it means to believe: to combine prayer with work, to follow thought with action, to offer prayer and produce fruit.

Liturgy Done Well – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Liturgy Done Well

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (4 December 2015)

Matthew 22:2 ~ “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”

Jesus goes on from this statement to tale a rather weird and disturbing parable about wedding guests who refuse to attend because of more pressing business, of a host so outraged that he sends soldiers to murder the invited guests and sends slaves into the streets to drag in the uninvited, and of a dragooned and thus unprepared attendee who thrown into prison because of his attire. In these days of mass murders, of hostage takings and political kidnappings, of violence done in the name of disagreement . . . that parable is not something I want to touch in any way!

So . . . I’ll just stick with the basic opening metaphor of “kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet.” I can deal with that. It’s a nice analogy that makes sense. It tells me what that other analog for the kingdom of heaven, corporate worship, should be like.

Wedding banquets: food, drink, music, dancing, people having a good time, love and commitment on display and celebrated, gifts given and received, speeches filled with remembrance and silly jokes, toasts and blessings wishing all well into the future . . . What’s not to like about wedding banquets?

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from someone I believe to be a fellow Christian, but a co-religionist of a different ethic and a different aesthetic, who told me that God does not like liturgy. Citing Isaiah’s condemnation of the Temple worship of faithless Israel – “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them (Isa 1:14) – he suggested that God does not applaud our liturgy, but is instead sickened by it.

I rather doubt that. The God Incarnate who enjoyed weddings and even catered wedding banquets (remember Cana of Galilee?) knew what he was saying when he drew his analogy. If the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, then worship should include food, drink, music, dance, remembrance, jokes, blessings, and gifts, and when liturgy is done well, it does!

I believe that that makes God glad.

You Did Not Return – From the Daily Office Lectionary

You Did Not Return

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (3 December 2015)

Amos 4:6 ~ . . . . yet you did not return to me, says the Lord.

The fourth chapter of the prophet Amos is a litany of the things God had done to punish the people beginning with the oddest of all, “I gave you cleanness of teeth . . . ” obviously a reference to lack of food. After each calamity is described, God laments its ineffectiveness with these words, “Yet you did not return to me.” Five times this is repeated in today’s Old Testament reading. The reading concludes, then, “prepare to meet your God.” You did not return to me, therefore I am coming to you. The implication, of course, is that this meeting will not be pleasant.

Yesterday the 355th mass shooting of the year for the United States took place in San Bernardino, California. (A “mass shooting” is defined as an event in which four or more persons are killed or wounded by gunfire.) Immediately, politicians of every sort began to tweet, to post on Facebook, to issue statements, to hold press conferences, to be questioned by news reporters . . . and in every instance some variant of these words were uttered: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” This year . . . 355 times people have died; 355 times politicians have offered thoughts and prayers. “Yet you did not return to me.”

The Washington Post reported that there are now known to be at least 357 million firearms in a country with a population of 317 million. That’s more than one gun for every man, woman, and child from newborn infancy to deathbed old age. “Yet you did not return to me.”

Even though the Congress refuses to fund gun-injury and gun-death research or to allow the Centers for Disease Control to treat gun-injury and gun-death data as a matter of public health, such research and data exist. The statistical correlation between prevalence of gun ownership in a population and the rate of gun death or gun injury in that population is well established: more guns, more death. It’s a simple and statistically valid correlation that our political leaders refuse to acknowledge. “Yet you did not return to me.”

Repentence. That’s what the Lord’s lament is about. A failure of repentance, really. To turn around and return to sanity; to heal relationships among people, and between people and God; to get off the treadmill of daily mass shootings; to end the until-now ceaseless refrain of “thoughts and prayers” and replace them with effective action.

Does anyone doubt that the time has come for something more than thoughts and prayers? Does anyone doubt that the time has come to do something about the prevalence of excessive gun ownership in this population? Does anyone doubt that the time has come to permit the CDC to do its job and treat gun violence as a public health concern? Does anyone doubt that that the time has come repent?

If we cannot, if we do not, there will be a meeting . . . and it will not be pleasant.

#AdventWord #repent

Imperfection Incarnate – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Imperfection Incarnate

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (2 December 2015)

Psalm 119:1 ~ Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

The Old Testament can be so unforgiving! Who is “blameless”? What human being can attain such perfection? I wrote the following reflection on perfection for the December issue of our parish newsletter.

A few weeks ago, my wife Evie and I went to the movies! We saw Bridge of Spies (which I strongly recommend, by the way) and several promotional “trailers” for up-coming movies, one of which is playing in the local theater as I write this reflection.

The movie is a holiday comedy starring Diane Keaton and entitled Love the Coopers; I know nothing about this movie and hadn’t heard of it until seeing the trailer. As the promo begins, we see Keaton in a department store speaking to someone and saying, “It’s the only time of the year when we’re all together! I want the perfect Christmas!”

As soon as I heard those words, I turned to Evie and said, “O my God! She’s my mother!”

I love my late mother and miss her dearly, but if she had one besetting sin it was holiday perfectionism. Whatever the holiday – New Year, Easter, Fourth of July, end-of-summer Labor Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas – these were times for the family to gather and the festivities had to be perfect! And . . . of course . . . they never were. The holiday wasn’t perfect, Mother was disappointed, and her disappointment made the imperfection worse. Especially at Christmas.

Thank God that perfection is not what Christmas is all about! If it were, there would be nothing at all to celebrated because, in all honesty, it would be a dismal failure for all of us. Quite to the contrary, Christmas is about imperfection, about weakness, about foolishness.

If the Incarnation was all about perfection, the Word of God would have arrived as Someone like the Greek god Apollo, riding in a flaming chariot, bedazzling humankind with Sun-like brilliance. If the Incarnation was all about strength, the Savior would have come as Someone like Hercules, wrestling serpents and conquering lions. If the Incarnation was all about human wisdom, the Lord might have appeared as Someone like the lady Athena, the Greek goddess who sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

Instead, the Word of God arrived not in a shining chariot but in a dirty stable; the Savior came not as a strongman but was a weak newborn; the Lord appeared not uttering words of wisdom but unable even to communicate for himself. Foolishness indeed. Imperfection incarnate.

“Love came down at Christmas,” wrote Christina Rossetti and though it isn’t usually associated with Christmas, her verse makes me think of St. Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8) Love does not insist on perfection or strength or wisdom; love accepts and works through those human frailties, not against them.

As the infant born in Bethlehem grew and became a man, his life was filled with what we might call imperfections. He soon became a refugee in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20)

Love came down at Christmas to be a refugee, rejected and homeless. Christmas is about love, not perfection:

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Forgive yourself and others whatever imperfections there may be. The Incarnation is about love, not blameless perfection!

May your Advent preparations and Christmas festivities, imperfect though they will be, be filled with love!

Your Kingdom Come: First of a Series – Sermon for Advent 1 (29 November 2015)

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A sermon offered on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; and Luke 21:25-36. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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sunandmoonPerhaps you’ve heard about the recent advertisement that the Church of England wants to run in cinemas in the United Kingdom. It’s part of a campaign which includes the Church’s new website called justpray.uk (not to be confused with justpray.org) and which was conceived to encourage the British simply to offer prayer everyday. The website includes instructions and suggested short prayers. The advertisement is a video of a several people saying the Lord’s Prayer, each person or group shown says or sings a word or phrase of the prayer beginning with his Grace, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and including people of different races and ages in a variety of settings.

It’s just 54 seconds of the Lord’s Prayer. The advertisement was to begin running this week. The trade organization for United Kingdom cinemas, however, has declared the Lord’s Prayer unsuitable for screening. They believe it carries the risk of upsetting or offending audiences. This, in a country which, unlike the United States, is officially Christian, a country which has an established church and whose head of state is also the temporal head of that established Christian church.

Now, let it be admitted that I’m a liberal when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of commerce, and part of my liberal-ness means that I believe it’s entirely within a cinema owner’s rights to decline to screen anything he or she determines not to screen, including advertisements, including religious advertisements, including religious advertisements by the established church. On the other hand, as a churchman, I believe it is the church’s duty, not merely its right, to teach about prayer, to teach the Lord’s Prayer, in every place possible. In this instance, these two sets of rights and obligations come into direct conflict and, as much I applaud the CofE’s effort, I have to side with the cinema owners. The have the right to decline to show the advert and, furthermore, they are correct: the Lord’s Prayer is offensive!

As one British commentator put it, “The Lord’s Prayer is not mild, inoffensive, vanilla, listless, nominal, wishy-washy or wallpapery. If you don’t worship the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, in fact, it is deeply subversive, upsetting and offensive, from the first phrase to the last.” (Wilson, Andrew, The Lord’s Prayer Advert Has Been Banned For Being Offensive – Which It Is)

I think it was Mae West who said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and Oscar Wilde once quipped, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” This kerfuffle over the justpray.uk advert is getting the Church of England and the Lord’s Prayer talked about in Britain, probably more so than if the ad had run without objection from the trade association! That can’t be anything other than a good thing.

Interestingly, I had decided, before the English advertising issue cropped up this week, to do a sermon series for this Advent season about the Lord’s Prayer, because I do believe we need to understand it better. It’s become, for many of us, such a matter of rote memory that we say the words without really engaging with them. So for Advent, we’ll be using the second translation of the prayer, the so-called “contemporary” version, which is actually truer to the text of the prayer as Matthew and Luke record it in their gospels. Using words that are other than . . . slightly different from . . . those our automatic brains and mouths are used to saying will call them to our attention.

So let’s begin with some history about the Lord’s Prayer. First, of all, it’s not really “the Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not a prayer that we have any record of Jesus saying; it is the prayer Jesus taught his followers to say – it might better be called “the Disciple’s Prayer.” In the oldest Anglican prayer books, the presiding priest introduced the prayer saying, “As our Saviour Christ hath commanded and taught us, we are bold to say . . . .” Bishop N.T. Wright points out that this introduction stresses that the prayer is “a command and its use [is] a daring, trembling, holy boldness,” but he notes that it is also “an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself.” (The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer, in Longenecker, R.L., ed., Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids:2001, p 132)

As I mentioned earlier, the Lord’s Prayer is found in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. However, their two versions are not identical, nor is either the same as the liturgical form familiar to us, either the one we are more used to or the newer form added in the 1979 Prayer Book. Here is Matthew’s version (as translated in the NRSV):

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
(Matt 6:9b-13a)

And this is Luke’s (from the same translation):

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
(Luke 11:2b-4)

As you can see, they are very different. Luke’s is shorter, having no mention of the doing of God’s will, nor any petition for rescue from “the evil one.” Matthew’s addresses God more familiarly as “our” Father, but distances God by specifically placing God “in heaven;” Matthew’s version thus witnesses to both the immanence and the transcendence of deity. There are differences in verb tenses and slight differences in emphases; for example, Matthew’s prayer petitions for bread “this day,” while Luke’s asks for bread “each day.” Most strikingly, perhaps, are the petitions for forgiveness: Matthew’s seeks forgiveness of “debts,” while Luke’s seeks absolution of “sins.” The differing English words reflect the use of two different Greek words for transgressions, which I will discuss in a later sermon. And, I suppose, most surprising to many Christians is that neither Matthew nor Luke include what is known as “the power-and-glory clause,” the concluding doxology that rolls so easily from our tongues; that doxology was added in a late First Century church text called The Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”

We know from archaeological evidence that the Lord’s Prayer was being said regularly by Jewish Christians in their synagogues as early as 70AD and from The Didache that the Lord’s Prayer was part of Gentile Christian practice, as well. In fact, The Didache enjoins the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (with the doxology which it adds) three times each day!

Two significant early church theologians, Origen and Tertullian, both taught “that the Lord’s prayer is a sketch or an outline for prayer. Origen, for example, says concerning this prayer: ‘And first of all we must note that Matthew and Luke might seem to most people to have recorded the same prayer, providing a pattern of how to pray.’ Origen summarizes what an outline on prayer should be: praise, thanksgiving, confession and petition. The prayer should be concluded with a doxology. Likewise, Tertullian indicates that the Lord’s prayer embraces ‘the characteristic functions of prayer, the honor of God and the petitions of man.’” (Kistemaker, S.J., The Lord’s Prayer in the First Century, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, V. 21, No. 4, Dec. 1978, 327-28, citations omitted.)

So, now, let’s take a look at this prayer, its opening words of praise and its first petition: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

Right off the bat, Jesus invites (or, as the old Prayer Book said, commands) us to enter into the same “intimate, familial approach to the Creator” which characterized his own spirituality. (Wright) It gives us a sense of identity; it tells us who we are in relationship to God. As the bishop who ordained me like to say, “It tells us not only who we are, but whose we are.” We are not disconnect bits of matter existing in time and space separated from all other bits of matter; it asserts that humanity is not fragmented, but related one to another in that same intimate and familial way that Jesus and the Father are related. “We are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers,” wrote Dr. Steven Croft in an essay answering the cinema owners. “Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.” (Seven Reasons to Ban the Lord’s Prayer)

But this isn’t any old father. This Father is “in heaven” and his name is “hallowed.” This is a typically Jewish affirmation of the holiness of God; in fact, to the most devout of Jews the Name of God is so holy that they will not even attempt to pronounce it. Whenever they encounter it in Scripture, they substitute the Hebrew word haShem, which means “the Name.” We Christians are not so reticent to name God, but in Jesus’ Jewish tradition we hallow God’s name. As the privilege to address God as “our Father” reminds us of God’s immanence, God’s intimate closeness with us, so the hallowing of God’s Name reminds us that God is transcendent: God is above, other than, and distinct from all that God has made.

The first petition of the prayer is “Your kingdom come.” This petition is the very heart of the season of Advent which we begin today; the longing desire and expectation for the final coming of the kingdom of God – “We await his coming in glory,” as we will affirm in our Eucharistic prayer this morning. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations . . .” (Lk 21:25) These will, he says, be signs that the kingdom of God is near. In Mark’s Gospel a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus’ warning, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” (Mk 13:7) These are signs that the kingdom is near, but they are not signs of its coming; they are, instead, the signs of endings – the ending of the kingdom of division, the ending of the kingdom of hatred, the ending of the kingdom where children go hungry, the ending of the kingdom where airliners are bombed out of the sky, the ending of the kingdom where restaurant patrons and concert goers are blown up, the ending of the kingdom where men with guns shoot up women’s health care clinics – “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Lk 21:10-11) But these are not the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray; we do not pray for the coming of a kingdom of distress, a kingdom of war, a kingdom of destruction or famine or plague.

The signs of the coming of the kingdom of God are those Jesus commended to messengers from John the Baptist who came asking “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Lk 7:19,22) These are the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray: light and healing and good news. The kingdom whose coming we await is characterized by the cardinal virtues: “Faith, hope, and love . . . these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13) We pray for the coming of a kingdom of faith, a kingdom of hope, a kingdom of love . . . most of all for a kingdom of love.

Which brings us to the next petition and last that we will consider today: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “The will of God, to which the law gives expression,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, New York:1995, p 147) Love is the will of God. Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment might be. His answer was, “Love” – “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:37-40)

Love is the will of God for which we pray; love is the will of God which we are commanded to do. “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness,” declared the Psalmist. The will of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer is that we be given the grace and power walk those paths.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.

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

Seeds of Destruction – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Seeds of Destruction

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 25, Year 1 (Pentecost 22, 2015)

Matthew 13:24 ~ [Jesus] put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away.”

Years ago I heard a sermon in which the preacher told us that the parable of the wheat and the tares may not have been original to Jesus, that it was a common story used by other First Century rabbis and that discussion of it could be found in the early rabbinic literature. One gloss on the story tells of how, when the master planted a second field, the servants mounted a guard to be sure the enemy did not come and sow more weeds there. To the servants’ surprise, it was the master who came, walking in his sleep and unaware of what he was doing, and sowed the poisonous seeds.

In three decades of preaching, of leading bible studies, and of researching Scripture I have yet to find the rabbinic commentary to which that preacher was referring. Still, it’s too good a story to have forgotten and sounds much too rabbinic not to have at least the possibility of truth, so I continue to look for it and continue to find it helpful as an interpretive tool.

I don’t know if Karl Marx was the first to use the term, but in a speech to the central committe of the Communist League in London, England, in 1850, he said, “The rule of the bourgeois democrats, from the very first, will carry within it the seeds of its own destruction. . . .” What is true of political systems, the rabbinic gloss suggests, is true of individuals: we all carry and sow the seeds of our own destruction. Each of us is (or, at least, can be) our own worst enemy.

I’m overweight. That’s the nice way to put it. Medically, I’m obese. I hate that word, but it’s the truth. In fact, on Body Mass Index charts my height and weight intersect at the cusp moving from “obesity” to “extreme obesity.” Not good, I know this.

And yet . . . offered a lovely piece of raspberry coulis topped New York cheesecake . . . there is no way I am going to turn that down! My excess weight is the furthest thing from my mind when that happens; I might as well be sleep-walking through my wheat field scattered the seeds of poisonous darnel. Only by become self-conscious and self-aware (I believe those are two different things, by the way) and making the decision to take action about my excess weight will I cease sowing the seeds of my own destruction.

Perhaps this morning’s meditation is a wake-up call, a time to stop the enemy from walking through my field.

Mary Is No Different: Sermon for Advent 4B – December 21, 2014

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A sermon offered, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 4B, were 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16; Canticle 15 [Luke 1:46-55]; Romans 16:25-27; and Luke 1:26-38. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Annunciation by John CollierThe Episcopal Church is a church of refugees. The majority of Episcopalians were not born into this faith tradition; we came from somewhere else. We are a denomination which attracts refugees from other faith communities, those who’ve had a negative experience somewhere else, or those who can’t stay in their childhood churches because of life circumstances. We often find in our congregations those who were reared in the Roman Catholic tradition but have left that fold because they couldn’t accept the Roman church’s teaching about birth control or abortion, or about the ministry of women in the church, or the several other matters on which we differ with Rome. We also find in Episcopal Church congregations former Roman Catholics who married protestants of one type or another who were unwilling to become Roman Catholic, so we are the church of the marital compromise.

As one of my seminary professors observed, “As long as Methodists keep marrying Roman Catholics, there will be an Episcopal Church.”

I bring this up because today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus on the Virgin Mary in our gospel readings and whenever I talk with Roman Catholics who are interested in joining our branch of the catholic faith, the subject of Mary always comes up. Do we Episcopalians and other Anglicans revere and venerate the Blessed Virgin in the same way the Church of Rome does? When we consider our Advent 4 gospels, it would certainly seem that we do.

In each of the three years of the Lectionary Cycle, we hear a story about Mary and her pregnancy.

In Year A of the Lectionary (last year) we heard of Joseph’s dream in which an angel says to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And we are told that Jospeh “took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

In Year B (this year) we hear, as we just have, the story of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary.

In Year C we will hear of Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth who is “filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaim[s] with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,’” to which Mary replies by singing her famous song of liberation, the Magnificat, which we recited this morning as our Gradual.

So each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we consider Christ’s Blessed Mother and contemplate how she is a model for all Christians. But do we revere this holy woman in the same way as the Roman Catholic tradition. The answer is a fairly resounding, “No.”

There are at least two important medieval doctrines about Mary that the Roman tradition holds but that the Anglican tradition generally rejects, although there are Anglicans who adhere to them. (That’s the thing about being an Anglican. It’s practically impossible to say that there are universally accept doctrines or universally rejected doctrines; ours is such a large tent that nearly every variety of Christian belief has found a home under it. But these two doctrines about Mary are pretty generally not the Anglican norm.)

The first is the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception.” Most non-Roman Catholics think this refers to Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, it does not. It is, instead, the belief that Mary was conceived by her mother (whom tradition names Anne) and her father (whom tradition names Joachim) without the stain of Original Sin. Although found in the writings of some medieval theologians, particularly among the Franciscans, it was rejected by others, notably Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Eventually, however, long after the Reformation, it was made dogma in the Roman tradition. It was not until 1854 that Pope Pius IX decreed “that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, . . . was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin,” and enjoined this belief upon all members of the Roman church. (Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854) While some Anglicans may have accepted this, it is not and never has been a part of official Anglican or Episcopal doctrine.

The point of the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” is to set Mary apart from all other women (and men, for that matter) as a holier and more appropriate “vessel” for the incarnation of the Son of God. We may profess, as we do in one of our eucharistic prayers (Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer – 1979, page 370) that, “in the fullness of time [God] sent [God’s] only Son, born of a woman,” but this doctrine declares that she was a woman like no other. Anglican theology, on the other hand, would hold that that turns the whole importance of Mary upside-down; it is precisely because Mary is like other women that her motherhood of Jesus is to be celebrated.

The second of these doctrines about Mary is that of her “perpetual virginity.” Although this idea has been around since the very beginnings of the church, and probably more Anglicans would hold this belief than would accept the “immaculate conception” idea, I believe most Episcopalians would agree with the reformer John Calvin rejected as “unfounded and altogether absurd” the idea that Mary had made a vow or practice of perpetual virginity. In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he wrote: “She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God.” (Commentary on Luke 1:34, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1) On the basis of the clear evidence of Scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters, Calvin came to the obvious conclusion that Mary had other children. As the 20th Century Anglican New Testament scholar, Canon Leon Morris put it, the “most natural interpretation is that [the un-named ‘brothers of the Lord’] were the children of Joseph and Mary.” (1 Corinthians: Introduction and Commentary, IVP: Leicester, 1958, page 133)

Again the point of this doctrine is to set Mary apart from all other human beings and, again, the Anglican and Episcopal tradition would argue that it is precisely her identity with other human beings, not her difference from us, that makes her so important. Any piety which makes Mary somehow different from you and me misses the point!

Mary is regularly hailed as a model of faith for her acceptance of the role God invites her to play as the mother of Jesus. But what is the very first thing that Gabriel the Angel says to her? “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Before Mary accepts anything, before she hears another word, before she consents to God’s notion, she is greeted as “favored,” as one who enjoys the Presence of God. The Greek here is xaritoó which means “to be graced,” “to be blessed.” Mary is blessed even before she accepts her new role; she is blessed because she perceives and believes that God notices her, that God favors her, that God has blessed her, and that God has great things in store for her even before Gabriel tells her what those things may be!

This is important not because Mary is extraordinary or remarkable, not because she is immaculate or perpetually virginal. This is important for precisely the opposite reason. Mary is venerated not because she is an exception, but rather because she is an example of what can happen when anyone believes that God notices, favors, and blesses us, that God has great things in store for every one of us. You are important and so God notices, favors, and blesses you and, like Mary – like plain ol’ ordinary Mary – you may just change the world!

Some of you may now be sitting out there thinking that can’t possibly be the case. If so, by doing so you simply prove my point!

What happens next in this story? Luke specifically tells us that Mary “was much perplexed by [the angel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Again, if we look at the original Greek we get a much fuller understanding. The word translated here as “perplexed” is dietarachthé. Scholars disagree as to what the root of this adjective might be. Some believe it is diatasso which means “to be puzzled,” while others insist it is diatarasso which mean “to be agitated.”

And Mary’s response to all this puzzlement or agitation is to “ponder,” and here’s where the Greek really gets instructive. The original word is dielogidzeto, which comes from the word dialog. Mary carries on a dialog or debate with herself. Just like any of us, faced with that which puzzles or troubles us, she deliberates over it, facing doubts and uncertainties.

Mary is important not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. (She was even a refugee – after the birth of her Son, she and her family had to flee to Egypt for a time. Church of refugees that we are, Mary would fit right in!)

In the narthex of St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church in McKinney, Texas, is a painting of the Annunciation by contemporary artist John Collier. In it Mary is depicted as a young schoolgirl dressed in a blue and white parochial school uniform; she has dark hair pulled into a simple pony-tail; she is wearing white bobby socks and saddle shoes. The angel Gabriel approaches on the threshold of the front door of a modern tract home; it could be the door of any home here in Medina.

Collier’s painting, in my opinion, is brilliant because it emphasizes not merely Mary’s youth, but her utter lack of exceptionality! She is simply an ordinary person. Mary is an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance and, thus, she is an example for us. She is like us . . . and we can be like her.

I am indebted to my friend and colleague the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie for reminding me of this observation by the 13th Century German mystic Meister Eckhart:

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

Each year on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on Mary, not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. She is like you . . . and you are like her.

Please take a look again at the collect for this morning, the special prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s in the Prayer Book on page 212:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

“By your daily visitation . . . . ” Every morning an angel of the Lord crosses the threshold of your life . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to see that angel. And every morning that angel speaks to you . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to hear that angel. And every morning that angel greets you saying, “Hail! You are graced by the Presence of God” . . . every morning, though most morning you (like me) probably fail to apprehend that greeting. And every morning the angels hold their breath waiting to hear what you (and I) might answer.

Mary is important not because she was conceived immaculately or remained a virgin perpetually. She is important because she is like us and we are like her. It Mary is exceptional, it is because unlike us she saw, and heard, and apprehended, and answered: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In her exceptionality she is exemplary; she is to be venerated and revered because she demonstrates that we, too, can and should see and hear and apprehend and answer, because this is the fullness of time when the Son of Man is to be begotten in 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.

Clergy Saturday Before Christmas – December 20, 2014

Cluttered DeskI’m sitting in my office in the basement of the church building. So far as I know, I’m the only person here.

The food pantry volunteers have cleaned up and put away the tables, boxes, and other accoutrements of their ministry. The hundred or so client families have been sent away with bags of groceries, frozen chickens, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and all the rest of what they need not only for a Christmas dinner but for a week or two of everyday meals.

The ladies and gentlemen of the altar guild have done their duties. The altar is set with its veiled chalice; the credence table is laden with extra communion vessels, cruets of water and wine, the wooden and silver basins to receive the alms of worshipers.

The sexton has come and gone. The rack of parishioner name tags has been rolled into place in the entryway. The parish hall is set for coffee hour.

All is ready for the last Sunday before Christmas. All, that is,
except the sermon.

I’m sitting in my office in the basement of the church building trying to make sense of notes I’ve written myself over the course of the past two weeks, notes about Mary, notes about pregnancy, notes about the unexpected and the impossible, all of which I thought would somehow work themselves into a great sermon. And hopefully later today they will.

But right now, sitting here in my office in the basement of the church building, that isn’t happening.

What’s happening is that I’m dealing with my annual attack of Christmas blues. What’s happening is that I’m weeping like a baby remembering all the people who aren’t here, all the people (dead and living) who won’t be gathering for a Funston family Christmas.

What’s happening is that I am once again facing the reality of being a clergyman at Christmas, an aging, nearing-retirement clergyman with lots of memories of Christmases on which there was no gathering of the family.

Clergy (this should be no surprise to anyone, but I think it is to many) work at Christmas time. There’s no taking off a few days to visit parents and grandparents. There’s no traveling to some special family place.

So my children have very few memories of Christmas with grandparents, and none of Christmases at their grandparents’ homes; there are no stories to tell of sledding with Grampa or working in the kitchen with Gramma, no recollections of opening presents around a grandparental Christmas tree, of feasts at a grandparental dining table.

Most of my ordained life I’ve spent as the only ordained person in my congregation, which means that whatever Christmas services are offered, I’ve been the officiant or presider. So if there is to be a late afternoon service for tots and toddlers, an early evening service for families, and a “midnight mass” for the traditionalists, I’m the one who does them, energetically as if each were the only service of the holiday.

That means Christmas morning finds me wiped out, sleeping in, in no mood for fun-and-game, and with no interest in any sort of meal that takes any effort to prepare. I suspect that my children’s memories of Christmas morning are probably not happy ones.

I’m sorry, kids. I wish I’d done better by you. I wish I’d figured out how to get those plum corporate parish jobs with lots of clergy on staff so that we could have taken, occasionally, a Christmas away. I wish I’d figure out how to not spend my resources on my job and to have more energy for you. There are many times I’ve wished I could have ignored God’s nagging and said “No!” to God’s call to this ordained life. But that wasn’t possible.

So I am sitting here in my office in the basement of the church building. I have to make sense of these notes about Mary and pregnancy and the unexpected . . . and then I have to make sense of this other pile of notes about Jesus and birth and celebration.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!

. . . especially in this office in the basement of the church building.

Making the Organic Connection: Sermon for Advent 3B – December 14, 2014

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A sermon offered, on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 14, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 3B, were Isaiah 66:1-4,8-11; Psalm 8126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; and John 1:6-8,19-28. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Bible and Newspaper “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. . . .” (Jn 1:6) The baptism of Jesus is never mentioned in the Gospel of John, so John the forerunner is never called “the Baptist” in this Gospel. He is, instead, the one who testifies, the witness who tells the truth.

Truth telling is risky business, as we all know and as John the witness would find out. He told the truth about Herod Antipas and his adulterous relationship with Herodias, and he lost his head over it. Telling the truth is risky business.

John told the Truth to Power. Dressed like a wild man (according to Mark’s Gospel which we heard last week), he stood in the midst of the People of Israel and interpreted for them the signs of the time in light of the words of the Prophets who had preceded him.

The mid-20th Century theologian Karl Barth is reputed to have advised preachers that they should work the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Whether he ever actually said that is a matter of some debate, but in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen in November of 1918, he described himself as “brood[ing] alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament” seeking to discern “the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should … be able to give a clear and powerful witness.” (Barth to Thurneysen, 11-11-1918) John the testifier of Truth to Power was doing that very thing, making the organic connection between the world of his day and the world of his Scriptures, and giving a clear and powerful witness.

And that is the very thing which you and I and every follower of Jesus Christ are also called to do; it is the ministry not only of the professional theologian, not only of the parish priest and preacher, not only of the prophet; it is the ministry of each and every baptized person to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” (BCP 1979, page 305) That is the ministry which we promise to undertake when we are baptized, a promise we repeat at every baptism in which we take part.

Today is the second anniversary of the killing of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On the Sunday following that awful massacre I stood in this pulpit and told you that I had spent the previous “48 hours following the news reports, weeping, screaming at the television, reading the statements of bishops and other clergy, enraged at the injustice of it, angry because as a society we seem unwilling (not incapable, unwilling) to do anything about the epidemic of gun violence that seems to sweep unchecked across our country.” (2012 Sermon)

I was later advised by a well-meaning member of the congregation suggested that I should turn off the TV, put down the newspaper, disconnect my internet news-feeds, and “just tell the nice parts of the Jesus story.” But I can’t do that, you see, because that wouldn’t be making the organic connection between the world of our day and the world of our Scriptures. That wouldn’t be testifying to the light; that would be lying about the darkness. Psalmist didn’t simply sing about shouldering the sheaves with joy; the Psalmist also paid heed to the fact that that joy follows carrying out the seed with weeping; the harvest of rejoicing comes after the seed is sowed with tears. (Ps 126:6-7)

Rejoicing in the midst of difficulty is the theme of this Third Sunday of Advent! In the tradition of the church, today is known as Gaudete Sunday or “Rejoicing Sunday” because in the medieval church the introit, entrance chant which began the Mass, was Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice,” from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phns 4:4), the same message he writes to the Thessalonian church in today’s epistle lesson: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Th 5:16)

This year, as two years ago, it is difficult to focus on that theme of thanks and rejoicing. Although we hold in one hand the Gospel of light, in the other we hold the newspaper coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of a report detailing the unspeakable acts of “enhanced interrogation techniques” undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency as part of the so-called “war on terror.” (See, e.g., Mother Jones) It is difficult to focus on thanksgiving and joy when we read about the things done on our behalf . . . and let’s be honest and not try to distance ourselves from that fact, these things were done on our behalf to gain information to ferret out and punish those who had accomplished, and to protect us from other potential, acts of terrorism.

Let’s also be honest and put to rest the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and admit that it is more accurate and truthful to describe the CIA’s actions as torture, as Senator John McCain did in his statement on the Senate floor: “I have long believed some of these practices amounted to torture, as a reasonable person would define it.” (McCain Floor Statement) Unfortunately, the public debate about the CIA’s actions has, in the words of my friend and colleague Tobias Haller, gotten “lost in the utilitarian thicket of ‘did it produce results’ rather than sticking with the basic truth that ‘torture is wrong’.” (Facebook status)

Although it is clear that we, as Americans, can differ on the question of whether torture produces useful information – personally, I agree with Senator McCain “that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence . . . that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it . . . [and that] they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering” – although we can differ on that issue, we need to set aside the “utility” question, this red herring about whether torture produces useable intelligence. “Utility” underlies an ends-justifies-means morality which is contrary to, among other things, the Christian faith we claim to hold.

“Utility” is not and never should have been the basis of discussion or consideration of or decision to use torture to gather intelligence. As Christians we believe that God spoke to and through the prophet and commissioned not only him, commissioned not only Jesus who used his words to begin his public ministry, but commissioned all of God’s People

to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
* * *
to comfort all who mourn. (Isa. 61:1-2)

As Christians who have accepted this as our own ministry in our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, page 305) we must insist that morality, not utility, is and should have been the touchstone for that decision, and that that decision should have been other than it was.

We must speak that Truth to Power. Some of us may feel called to hold signs in marches and protests, though not all of us need do so; some of may feel called to telephone or write our senators and congressmen, though not all of us need do so; some of may feel called to author letters to the editors of national or local publications, though not all of us need do so. What we must all do, however, is witness to the Truth as we know it in our everyday lives: Jesus said to his disciples and says to us today, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

We are to witness to and rejoice in the moral truth of the simple command, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lk 6:31) This, as Jesus made clear, is the heart of the Law and the central message of the Prophets. (Mt 7:12) We witness to this truth when we “love [our] enemies, do good, and [give], expecting nothing in return,” when we are “merciful, just as [our] Father is merciful,” when we refuse to judge, when we forswear condemnation, when we extend forgiveness. (Lk 6:35-37)

There was another story in the news this week, one which initially made me quite sad but in which, in retrospect, I find cause to rejoice.

Last Wednesday there was a funeral in Los Angeles, California. People of faith, from several religious traditions, came together to assist the County of Los Angeles in burying the ashes of nearly 1500 people who had been cremated in 2011 and whose ashes, for a variety of reasons, had been unclaimed by family members for three years. They included over 900 men, over 400 women, and nearly 140 infants and children. They were buried together in one grave with a simple stone bearing only the year, 2011.

According to the report in the L.A. Times, those present decorated the grave with teddy bears and flowers; a cellist played a simple, somber tune. Clergy offer Christian and Jewish prayers; a Hindu chant was intoned. The Lord’s Prayer was said in English, Spanish, Korean and a language from the Fiji Islands. Religious leaders read poems by the late Maya Angelou.

I rejoice that people of faith joined together to pray for the repose of those who had been abandoned, that people of faith took the place of the families who had forgotten them, that people of faith provided for these forsaken dead a human community to mourn their passing.

And this is the relationship between these two otherwise unrelated news stories of the past week. Studies of the survivors of torture demonstrate that they are left with intense feelings of abandonment, with a sense of estrangement from their families and communities, with an inability to form or reform human relationships of dependency and attachments, and with muted and inexpressible rage and grief. Those who are tortured are made to feel like those dead and abandoned ashes.

In concluding his statement on the Senate floor, Senator McCain agreed with me that torture’s immorality, not any concern about its utility, is the reason it should not be used. “In the end,” he said, “torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.”

We Christians stand with our Bible in one hand, with the newspaper in our other, making the organic connection between the world of our day and the world of our Scriptures. Making that connection we must face the question, who do we aspire to be? Who are we called to be? Are we called to be those who, themselves or by delegation to others, make the living feel like dead ashes? Or are we rather called to be those who “comfort [and] provide for those who mourn, [who] give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit?” (Isa 61:2-3)

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Th 4:4) that we aspire to the latter calling, the great calling to be Christ’s witnesses, tellers of Truth to Power, to the ends of the earth! 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.

We Do Not Have The Privilege – Sermon for Advent 1 – November 30, 2014

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On the First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 1B, were Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; and Mark 13:24-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Racism Is So YesterdayWhen Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah and that he was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael’s immediate response was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Obviously Nazareth had a reputation, and not a good one. I often wonder if, as Jesus was making his way through the Holy Land, especially early in his ministry when he wasn’t well-known, people would ask him, “What was it like growing up in Nazareth?”

All of my life, whenever I tell my story to folks, they have asked, “What was it like growing up in Las Vegas?” And I have always answered, “Like growing up anywhere else. Las Vegas, when you get off the Strip, was just like anywhere else. It was hometown America.” Las Vegas at the time was smaller than Medina is today; the population of Las Vegas in the early 1950s was only about 25,000 people.

Although there was an airport by then, visitors to Las Vegas usually either drove across the desert or rode the Union Pacific Railroad. The line from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles went through Las Vegas; the railroad ran through town north-to-south and the business and hotel district now know as “the Las Vegas Strip” grew up parallel to, and east of, the tracks.

That’s the side of the tracks I grew up on; on the other side, “the Westside,” was where black people lived. Whites didn’t go there, and Negroes (as black Americans were then politely called) didn’t come to the east side of the tracks except to work, mostly in low paying service jobs as janitors, maids, cooks, porters, and doormen. Yes, indeed, the Las Vegas of my childhood was hometown America. Just like any other town in this country was, and just like many still are. Need I mention the St. Louis metropolitan area and its suburb of Ferguson? Need I mention the Cleveland metroplex and the westside neighborhood near the Cuddell Recreation Center? Need I mention, even, Medina itself?

Yes, I think I need to. A few years ago, our nation elected a black man to be president and many proclaimed that we now lived in a “post-racial” world, that racism is “so yesterday.” Throughout the whole of Barack Obama’s presidency, however, the rhetoric and behavior of many have demonstrated just how wrong that judgment was. We do not live in a “post-racial” society. The shooting deaths of black men and boys, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, John Crawford in Beavercreek, OH, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH, all by white police officers, and the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, a black man in the custody of white officers of the New York Police Dept., together with the perceived failures of the justice system and the social unrest which have followed, have demonstrated just how wrong that judgment was. We do not live in a “post-racial” world.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Elsewhere, ISIS in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan murder those who differ from themselves, Jewish nationalists in Israel pass laws denying basic human rights to Palestinian Arabs, and Buddhist monks in Myanmar threaten to kill Muslim children, demonstrating just how wrong that judgment continues to be not only in our own country but throughout the world. We do not live in a “post-racial” world. Racism is not “yesterday;” it is today!

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Meanwhile, epidemics such as the ebola crisis in Africa have caused social upheaval, ethnic conflict, and calls for borders to be closed and walls to be raised between nations. Really quite silly notions about vaccines have led people to refuse them and diseases once thought nearly eradicated are being seen again, such as polio and bubonic plague.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Weather extremes are being felt throughout the world and sea levels are rising threatening populations in low-lying areas in the South Pacific Islands, southeast Asia, various parts of Africa and South America, and even in our own country, and these things seem to be the result of our poor stewardship of the earth’s environment. At least, that’s what the great majority of the world’s climate scientists tell us.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Jesus said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines . . . Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death . . . There will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation . . . [and] after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mk 13:8,12,19,24-25)) Therefore, “Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Are we seeing the end-times? Are these things that are happening – the racial and ethnic conflicts, the wars, the epidemics, the weather crises, the floods – are these those fig-tree signs that “when [we] see these things taking place, [we] know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates”? (Mk 8:29) I don’t think so, but who’s to say? As Jesus made quite clear, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (v. 32)

So I don’t know if these are the signs of the end, but I do know this, that these are the signs of things that displease God. And when God is displeased, watch out! When God is displeased, God “tear[s] open the heavens and . . . the mountains . . . quake at [God’s] presence.” (Is 64:1) It is when God is angry that stars fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens are shaken. We do not want to face an angry God!

And yet we cannot dismiss God’s indignation. We would like to. We would like to focus only on the loving God proclaimed by Jesus, not that angry God that Isaiah and the Psalmist remind us of. We would like to, but we can’t because when we blind ourselves to the potential of God’s anger, we blind ourselves to the things that provoke God’s anger. We fail to see (and thus to deal with) the racism which is endemic our society; we fail to see (and thus to deal with) our poor stewardship of creation; we fail to see (and thus to deal with) the illnesses and diseases which are pandemic among populations less fortunate than ourselves.

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want to talk about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, the shooting of John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, or the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City. I don’t want to talk about the response of the justice system to those deaths and whether or not it functioned properly in not punishing, in some way, the police officers responsible for those deaths. I don’t want to.

In the same way, I don’t want to remember that when my father’s client and friend Sammy Davis, Jr., came to Las Vegas to perform in the Strip casino showrooms he was not allowed to enter those casinos through the front door but had to come in through the service entrance. I don’t want to remember that when Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington played in Las Vegas they were not allowed to stay in the hotels that hired them but had to put up at boarding houses on the Westside. I don’t want to remember that when Cab Calloway played at a casino bar in Las Vegas in 1954 he was refused a drink at that same bar during a break in the performance.

I don’t want to talk about or remember these things and, I suspect, neither would most people in this church this morning. Frankly, a large fraction of the white society in which we live would, likewise, prefer that we not do so. We believe that we enjoy the privilege of not talking about, remembering, or doing anything about those things, that those things really don’t affect us, that they really aren’t any of our business. The families of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and the communities within which they lived, however, do not have that privilege. Black performers who succeeded Davis, Armstrong, Ellington, and Calloway, who now can enter the casino through the front door, stay in the hotel, and drink at the bar, who are the beneficiaries of the groundbreaking they did, do not have that privilege.

And, truth be told, neither do we. If we do not remember and talk about these things, we will have failed to see and deal with the racism, the conflict, the poor stewardship of humankind that is all around us; we will have failed to follow Jesus’ admonition in today’s Gospel to “keep alert” and to “keep awake.” We will have failed to follow the second great commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We will have failed to heed to word of God recorded in the law of Moses: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him” (Ex 22:21); “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34); “You shall not pervert the justice due to [anyone]” (Deut. 24:17). We simply are not allowed to think of or to treat any human being differently from ourselves. We do not have the privilege not to talk about, not to remember, not to do something about the injustices done to others, whatever their race or color, whatever their religion, whatever their sex or sexual orientation.

Nathanael asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The world today is asking, “Can anything good come out of Ferguson? Out of Beavercreek? Out of Cleveland? Can anything good come of the shooting deaths of young black men by white police officers?” I pray that it can: we have had enough of the bread of tears; we have had enough of the derision of neighbors; we have had enough of the laughter of scorn. Some good must come from these things and it must start with our realization that we do not have the privilege to stand by and think these things have nothing to do with us.

We do not have the privilege to think of or to treat anyone differently from ourselves. We do not have the privilege not to talk about, not to remember, not to do something about the injustices done to others. If we do that, we fail to keep alert and to keep awake, and we risk the anger of the God who tears open the heavens and makes the mountains quake.

Are the things we are seeing signs of the end-times? No, I don’t think so. Are they signs to which we need to pay attention? Things we need to do something about? Oh, yes! Very much so!

“O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember [our] iniquity forever.” (Is 64:8-9) “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80:18)

Amen.

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

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