That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Acts (page 2 of 8)

Our Door-Blowing-Open God: Sermon for Easter 2, April 23, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Canon A. Brad Purdom III, Canon for Congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, while Fr. Eric Funston, rector, was attending his grandson’s baptism in Kansas.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Like many (perhaps most) Episcopal churches, my first congregation had a set of large red doors on the front of their building. But also like many Episcopal churches, no one ever used them because all the members knew how to enter through a more convenient door near the parking lot.

And because they were never used, again like many Episcopal churches, the front doors had become stuck over the decades. They no longer opened at all.

But it got really hot in there, so one day when I was alone in the church, I threw my weight against those doors and busted them open. I remember a loud, frightening crack, but, lucky for me, they were more stuck than broken.

The next Sunday I opened those doors up as wide as they would go, and sure enough, the temperature dropped immediately as the morning breeze easily flowed. And the church looked . . . open for business. Win/win.

A few minutes later I met the choir at the back of the church next to those beautiful open doors, and headed down the aisle to begin the service. At the front, I turned around to face the congregation and proclaim the Opening Acclamation: “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and blessed be those open doors!”

And you know what I saw: Two doors closed and locked. Two well-intentioned ushers had done their job . . . ensuring that we would not be in any way disturbed by that pesky world out there.

In the years since, I’ve come to think differently about what happened that morning than I did that day. That congregation had done exactly as we had taught them to do: made sure our little church was as it should be: snug . . . as a bug . . . in a rug: safe behind closed doors, a retreat from the distractions and dangers of the world.

This is the third of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel. The first was to Mary at the tomb. The second was later that same day, behind locked doors, to everyone except Thomas. And this morning’s, the third, one week later and again behind closed doors.

But . . . this morning’s account is the last time in John’s Gospel that we see them hiding behind closed doors. It is the last time we see them retreating from the world, the last time we see them controlled by fear; in fact, the last time we see them anything but fully engaged in a wonderful though often dangerous world.

What happened? I think what happened was that moment so reminiscent of the Creation story when God breathed life into the human formed of mud from the river; the moment when Jesus breathed on his friends and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For me that is the moment when the doors of that room, and of the disciple’s hearts and minds, blew wide open.

It is, of course, that same intimate breath of God that Jesus still breathes into us. Just as it was that same intimate breath of God that blew open the locked doors of that upper room once and for all and, I believe, is blowing open many once stuck sets of big red doors today.

The truth is, God has always been in the door-blowing-open business. And I think that’s exactly what God is doing today in the Christian church of western culture. You know, of course, that it is not just the Episcopal church that has lost its preeminence over the last fifty years. It is the entire Christian church in the developed Western world.

I have actually come to see that as a mostly good thing: not a curse but a corrective. I’m not saying there aren’t lots of other things going on that affect the relationship between church and culture, or that God is in any way punishing us. I’m just saying we’ve most certainly played our part.

The truth is that we did teach each other that our faith should be lodged behind locked doors and was private.

We did take faith formation of our children out of our homes and put it into the thirty minutes a week, or a month, they got in Sunday School.

We did develop a spirituality that understood the church’s purpose as providing a quiet, personal space to recharge enough to survive seven more days in the cold, hard world before getting back to some “us-time” among friends.

In fact, we did go down that kind of path so far and for so long that most of us didn’t even notice that so many of our big red front doors no longer opened. Talk about a metaphor!

But I said before that the breath, the Spirit, of God has always been in the door-blowing-open business. And I think we do notice those things now. I am confident your front doors open easily and wide!

And so do most of the front doors I encounter these days as I go to a different Diocese of Ohio church almost every week. I really do feel fresh breezes blowing through many of our churches.

Increasingly, everywhere I go, I see more and more of us getting that the church isn’t what happens to us in here nearly so much as it is what happens through us out there: as open-hearted, overtly Christian, people in the world.

The Spirit of God is breathing in and through us right now, and I believe American churches of most types are rediscovering our true purpose: to work alongside God in the world, restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

We can get all angry and judgmental with our non-Christian culture if we want to, but I think that is counterproductive. The church must always respond to the culture of its time and place.

That is what Jesus made possible for the disciples that morning when he breathed and filled them with the Holy Spirit. And that is what Jesus makes possible for us as he breathes upon us and fills us with that same Spirit again and again.

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Canon Purdom is the Canon for Congregations of Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

Act One: Use Your Towel – Maundy Thursday 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017, 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: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and St. John 13:1-17,31b-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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On Palm Sunday, I suggested that we think of Holy Week and Easter as a three-act drama beginning with an Overture on Palm Sunday. Today, we take part in the first act. The analogy of the Three Holy Days (or “Triduum”) to a play breaks down if we think of ourselves as the “audience.” We are not the audience.

The audience of worship is God. The one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is the audience. We, all of us, are the actors. We, all of us, are the cast.

So, here we are….

Act One, Scene One: The curtain rises. We see a group of people gathered in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

A meal is in progress… we wonder if it might be a seder, the ritual meal of remembrance of the Passover. We don’t really know; the playwrights have not made this clear and the theater critics, the scholars, debate the issue.

Three of the story-tellers suggest that it is. Luke and Matthew based their stories on Mark’s, so to be honest there aren’t three stories, there’s only one that would make us think that this supper is a seder.

However, the fourth, John, tells the tale very differently. John doesn’t even seem to care about the dinner – he spends no time at all describing the meal; for him, it’s not important. What’s important is what happened afterward.

So as we continue this three-act drama of redemption let’s just assume that that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are correct and what we see in this first scene of the first act is, indeed, a seder.

Those present are prepared to do all that is laid out in the instructions in the book of Exodus; they have worn their sandals; they carry their staffs; they expect to eat of roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They anticipate spending the night in remembrance of that which happened generations before in Egypt. If we can imagine that they celebrate as modern Jews celebrate, they are gathered in that upper room, those serving the meal coming and going, and a breeze blowing through the open windows. They are following along in their prayer books, the Haggadah; they expect the youngest among them to ask the questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” They know that the head of the household, their rabbi Jesus, will answer those questions in the prescribed way and tell the story of the Passover.

So, when the youngest asks “Why do we eat the broken matzah?” they expect Jesus to answer “This is the bread of our affliction; the unleavened bread of poverty, baked and eaten in haste,” but instead he takes the bread, brakes it and says, “This bread is my body, given for you.”

They look up startled, glancing at one another, murmuring to each other, “What is he talking about? That’s not here! That’s not the right answer. Where is he? What page is he on?” But the moment passes, the meal moves on.

At the end he takes up the fourth and final cup of wine, the kiddush cup, which recalls God’s promise, “I will acquire you as a nation; you will be my people and I will be your God.” As before, they expect Jesus to say the prescribed prayer, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine,” but instead they hear, “This cup is my blood!” “What?!” They look at one another in disbelief. “What is he saying???”

It is for Jesus and his disciples one of those fleeting opportunities when, because of the pupils’ confusion or frustration or grasping for understanding, the teacher can pass on to the students new information, new values, new moral understanding, a new behavior, a new skill, a new way of seeing and coping with reality; it is what we have come to call “the teachable moment” and so he teaches, yet again, “Remember! Remember,” he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The curtain falls as Jesus continues to teach; the disciples look mystified.

Act One, Scene Two: The curtain rises again. We see the same group of people gathered in the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

The meal is over, the dishes have been cleared. The disciples are arguing among themselves about who is the greater among them. Jesus looks frustrated and troubled; the teachable moment has passed and the disciples clearly have not understood! They just haven’t gotten it.

“Look,” he says, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Here, let me show you what I mean.” Getting up from the table, he takes off his robe, picks up a basin of water and a towel, and begins to wash and dry their feet.

As many of you know, I am a fan of science fiction, so when I hear about towels, one of the first things I think of is the late Douglas Adams’ hilariously funny novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book begins seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, when the protagonist Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who has been posing for the last 15 years as an out-of-work actor. The one thing Prefect makes sure that Dent brings with him is a towel. Quoting from the guidebook, he explains that a towel is the one, crucial, indispensable necessity that the intergalactic traveler must bring along on any journey:

A towel (says The Hitchhiker’s Guide) is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have . . . . you can wrap it around you for warmth . . . . you can lie on it on . . . brilliant marble-sanded beaches . . . . you can sleep under it beneath the stars . . . . use it to sail a mini-raft down a slow river . . . . wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes . . . . you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it sill seems to be clean enough.

Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

John tells us that Jesus made use of the towel to dry the disciples’ feet and then said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” It has occurred to me that The Hitchhiker’s Guide suggests many other ways in which we might use a towel in following Jesus’ lead.

When we baptize someone here at St. Paul’s Parish, the altar guild supplies towels for them to be dried with; I often joke about getting those towels back. But now it seems to me that we might better give them to the newly baptized with an admonition to follow Jesus’ example of loving service. The towel of service just might be the one, crucial, indispensible necessity that the Christian traveler should bring along on his or her journey through life. It just may be the most massively useful thing we can have as we serve others. We can wash and dry their feet; we can wrap them in warmth; we can provide a comfortable place to sleep; we can help them on a journey; we can protect them; we can signal to them and for them in emergencies; we can clothe the naked, swaddle a baby, comfort the sick. I’m sure you can come up with many more uses, small and large, for a towel and, by extension, for your heart, for your life, and for your willing hands.

That Jesus made use of the towel in the context of the Lords’ Supper is a really important point. There used to be what some thought of as a silly and useless bit of priestly vesture worn at Communion called a “maniple.” It looked sort of like a short stole and was made of the same material as the stole and chasuble. It was worn over the left forearm and looked like, and in fact was meant to symbolize, the sort of towel or table napkin often worn by the wait-staff in fancy restaurants, a symbol of service. Anglican clergy stopped wearing maniples long ago and Roman Catholic priests were allowed to discontinue them in 1967, one of the minor reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In abandoning that symbolic vestment, however, we may have lost a reminder that, in addition to being called to follow Jesus along the way of the cross, we are also called to follow him in his use of the towel! Just as Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he might also have said, “Take up your towel and follow me.” In fact, he did when he said, “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”

Perhaps we no longer use the maniple as a priestly vestment because the ministry of Christian servanthood which it represents is not limited to clergy; it is the ministry of all baptized people. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” we are asked in the liturgy of baptism, and every person present answers, “I will, with God’s help.” This servant ministry is one which we all share, just as this meal of Bread and Wine, of Christ’s Body and Blood, is one which we all share.

The disciples, however, don’t get the opportunity to serve one another, for this second scene ends with Jesus, visibly agitated, declaring, “One of you will betray me.” As the curtain goes down, the disciples are looking puzzled and Judas Iscariot is leaving.

Act One, Scene Three: The curtain rises again. We see a garden and an olive grove just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is there, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. “Stay here,” he tells them, “Stay awake while I go over there to pray.” As they settle themselves, he moves away from them, and collapses in a heap, sobbing: “O God … Father, let this pass!”

Three times he returns to find them asleep; three times they rise looking sheepish and embarrassed; twice he tells them again to try to stay awake as he goes away still pleading with God for a way out. “Enough,” he says the third time, “Enough! We’re leaving.”

When they look back on that night, how must they feel? When we look back, how should we feel? Poet Mary Oliver offers a glimpse in her poem Gethsemane:

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree,
and didn’t move, maybe the lake far away,
where once he walked as on a blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.

Yes, this too, our utterly human inability to fully keep company with our Lord, this too must be part of the story when it is told, part of the third scene of the first act of this drama that is retold again and again. This minor, little betrayal is as much a part of the story as Judas’ treachery which now plays out.

Scene Three ends as Jesus is arrested and taken away off-stage. In the wings, a trivial side-story plays out as Judas dies, either by hanging himself (as Matthew asserts) or by falling and suffering some sort of rupture (as Luke portrays in the Book of Acts). In any event, Judas dies and, in the church’s eyes, is condemned.

The Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan, in a very long elegy entitled The Ballad of Judas Iscariot, tells the tale of the soul of Judas carrying his body in search of a burial place, only to have it rejected by even the worst of places in all creation. Eventually, he comes to a banquet hall where a wedding feast is waiting to get started. The guests (that is, the church), recognizing Judas, demand that he be “scourged away,” but the Bridegroom has a different idea:

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

We sometimes use a Scottish invitation to Communion which comes from the ecumenical monastic community on the island of Iona:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready.
It is the table of company with Jesus,
And all who love him.
It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world,
With whom Jesus identified himself.
It is the table of communion with the earth,
In which Christ became incarnate.
So come to this table,
You who have much faith
And you who would like to have more;
You who have been here often
And you who have not been for a long time;
You who have tried to follow Jesus,
And you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.

All who have faith; all who would like to have more; all who have been to Communion often; all who have not been for a long time; all who have tried to follow Jesus (in the way of the cross or the way of the towel); all who have failed to do so. In other words, as John of Patmos witnessed in his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, everyone is called to the Supper of the Lamb; everyone is invited to the Wedding Feast! Even the disciples who fell asleep in the garden; even Judas Iscariot!

In this, the first act of the drama of redemption, Jesus has gathered his disciples. He has gathered us at the table that in the upper room. He has shared Bread and Wine. He washed and dried feet. He has given us the New Commandment: “Love one another.” He has said, “I have set you an example.” He might well have said, “Take up your towel and use it.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide says your towel can be used as a signal. So take up your towel; wave it so that all may see, and when you have their attention, invite them into this drama of redemption in which, tonight, we witness and take part in the first of three acts. Say to them, with Jesus, “Come! Come to this table! . . . . We have waited long for thee!”

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

Get Up! Get Dressed! Go to Work! – Annual Meeting Sermon, January 22, 2017

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A homily offered on January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the 200th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are those for the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle: Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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the-conversion-of-st-paul-1528May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. (Ps. 67:1) Amen.

Have you ever been knocked off a horse? I have. Twice. Once when I was 11 and again when I was 24. Different circumstances and if you promise not to laugh, I’ll tell you about them when we have our luncheon after the business meeting. In both instances, however, one element was the same: landing flat on my back, having the wind knocked out of me, and being stunned not quite to unconsciousness. Both times it was a startling and uncomfortable experience.

The story of Paul’s conversion is told not once but four times in the pages of the New Testament; three times in the Book of Acts and once in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Although not mentioned in any of those descriptions, artists often depict Paul falling from a horse or donkey. When I read or hear the story, therefore, I have some sympathy for Paul. In addition to being knocked flat on his back, having the wind knocked out of him, and being mentally stunned, his incident included a blinding light, an encounter with a living rabbi he was convinced was dead, and the voice of God, and it was followed by three days of blindness. Now that’s an experience!

Now this is homily is supposed to be both a sermon and the rector’s report for the 200th Annual Meeting of the parish. Were I to focus on the second purpose, I could give you a lot of history – but I did that at our Bicentennial Choral Evensong on the Feast of the Epiphany, so I won’t do that. I could give you a summary of all the good things and some of the not-so-good things that have happened in the last year – but you can read the various ministry reports and the financial statements in the Annual Journal for yourselves. I could tell you about all the wonderful things planned for the coming year – but, again, you have the Annual Journal in your hands with the bicentennial event calendar and the 2017 Budget, so there you have it.

A rector’s report would merely repeat things you already know or have available to you in that Journal. So this will be more of a homily and less of a report, more (I hope) of a proclamation of a theology for the future and much less a review of the past. I am convinced that God is merciful to us, does bless us, illumines the way with the light of his countenance, and comes to us every day. Perhaps God does not come to us as dramatically as the Risen Lord came to Paul . . . or perhaps he does and we just don’t recognize it. We may be getting knocked off our horses regularly and we may simply be too oblivious to notice.

A canon of Durham Cathedral a few years ago preaching on these same texts said:

The experience of a light, of falling, an involuntary act of submission doubtless sending him into great fear and shock, was further heightened by a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s reply uses the divine title “Lord”, “Who are you, Lord?” He recognizes that this is something from heaven, while being unsure of exactly who it is that is speaking. The response was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Of course, those words are moving words; Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his disciples; in persecuting them, Saul was persecuting him. It is a narrative illustration of the kind of mystical theology that Paul was later to develop in his letters; through faith and baptism we are mystically joined to Christ, incorporated in him – we become his body; he indwells us and we indwell him. (St Paul’s Conversion, the Rev. Canon David Kennedy, Durham Cathedral, Church of England)

This is an everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over, just like being knocked from a horse. I am reminded of the observation of Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row 1982), makes this point in an oft-quote observation:

Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Dillard, Annie, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Harper & Row, New York:1982, pp 40-41.)

Every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, after the presider has said Jesus’ words over the bread and wine – “This is my Body” – “This is my Blood” – we are invited to affirm the powerful everyday-ness and everyday power of Jesus’ presence, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:”

Christ has died.
Christ is risen
Christ will come again (BCP 1979, p 363)

These words remind us that Jesus is here with us now:

The person Jesus and his story are now.
The forgiveness and hope he offers are now.
The invitation and the expectation for us to change and to grow through his love and presence are with us are now.
The renewal, vision and hope that transformed Paul from bigotry and narrow-mindedness are open to us now.
But, only if we have the faith and the courage to respond: to get up and follow Jesus. (Sermon at All Saints, the Rev. Alan Wynne, Parish of Poplar, Church of England)

You know . . . the getting up part is really important! Getting knocked of the horse isn’t the whole of Paul’s conversion; it was just the beginning. In Paul’s own description of his conversion in our reading from Galatians we can see that it took some time; including going into retreat in the Arabian desert and then a three-year delay before he went to Jerusalem to meet the original apostles. In the early church, entry into the worshiping community replicated Paul’s experience. The training for baptism, called “catechesis,” often took years, typically three, before someone was “exposed to the very real risks and challenges of full membership of the Christian faith” and admitted to full participation in the mysteries of the Holy Communion and full responsibility for the mission and ministry of the church. As English priest David Rowett says,

Conversion isn’t some once-and-for-all process, over in a blinding flash, not even for the Pharisee from Tarsus. It is a life-long process of deepening and learning which may begin in one moment – with or without a donkey – but then requires working out throughout the rest of our lives, and in the company of other pilgrims. (Conversion of St Paul, the Rev. David Rowett, St Mary’s Church, Barton-on-Humber, Church of England)

Our conversion is an on-going and everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over. Like Paul, however, we couldn’t just lie there stunned. Jesus would say to us as he said to Paul . . . indeed, Jesus does say to us, “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus promised his first twelve followers that they would be handed over to councils, flogged in religious institutions, and dragged before secular rulers, but he told them not to worry about making a defense because, in words similar to those he would say to Paul on the Damascus Road, “What you are to say will be given to you at that time.”

I think it helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to in both stories. Talking to the Twelve he is not talking to the stained-glass saints they have become; he is talking to hide-bound, conservative, Law-abiding Jews. He is talking to Peter who, even after spending all that time with Jesus and going through the events of Jesus’ trial, execution, burial, and resurrection, would say, “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” and would refuse to eat with Gentile Christians. He is talking to Thomas who is portrayed as a skeptic, a doubter, and something of a pessimist. He is talking to Simon the Zealot, who may have been a member of that Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to Rome and pagan practices. And on the road to Damascus, he is addressing Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee set upon the path of persecuting and, indeed, destroying the fledgling Christian church.

Jesus in both the Gospel lesson and in the story from Acts is speaking to men who exhibit an attitude we still see in the church and in our society today – it is nothing new – an attitude characterized by bigotry, zeal, closed-mindedness, tunnel vision, intolerance, and exclusivity. “In varying degrees it may be present in each one of us:

our lack of openness to new ideas;
our total certainty that in all matters of faith, morality or ritual we are right and others are wrong;
the ease with which we judge or condemn those who see things differently;
the way we cling uncritically to the traditions and practices of the past;
our failure to see God’s continuing presence and work in creation;
our desire to contain God in our pockets and limit him to our shrines where he can be controlled and we can be cosy and unchallenged;
the way we call Jesus “Lord” and ignore the most basic of his teachings about love and respect for others.” (Alan Wynne, op. cit.)

When we discussed this Gospel passage during our bible study time at Monday’s last meeting of the 2016 Vestry, someone suggested that Jesus seems to be foreshadowing what would happen later to himself. While that is true, he is also, by forecasting this experience, demonstrating his authority and intimacy with God. His words assure the Twelve and us that:

Opposition is not a sign of failure or that Jesus was not trustworthy as a leader. And
Paradoxically, getting arrested is the only way you will have a chance to speak to the elites, so use it to testify. And [again]
Don’t worry about what you will say – God’s Spirit will speak through you. (Holy Textures, the Rev. David Ewart, United Church of Canada)

Quite a while after the event in today’s Gospel lesson, “the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt 18:1-4)

In the last sermon he ever preached, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of this story:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness . . . . It means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant. (Drum Major Instinct, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached February 4, 1968)

You can be that servant. You are that servant. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you.”

Two hundred years ago a few men and women living in Weymouth, Ohio, heard God speaking to them and founded this parish. In Annie Dillard’s words, the waking god drew them out to where they could never return. They got up because they heard the call of Jesus telling them what they had to do, and here we are as a result. I firmly believe that everyday Jesus is still speaking to his Church – to you and to me – still knocking us off of our horses and then saying “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

On Friday morning, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President. You may feel that’s a good thing; you may feel that’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is a fact; it is reality. He and his party colleagues in the congress will change the spending priorities of our government; this is the way our democratic system works. Already his administration has announced plans to cut funding to and to cancel a variety of government programs including some which support the arts and humanities, some which fund educational endeavors, some which fund housing projects, some which fund health care, some which fund food assistance programs. You may feel that this budget-cutting is a good thing; you may feel that it’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is reality.

We can all agree on reality – that there are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. And this reality means that if there are fewer government-funded programs to do these things, charities and charitable institutions, such as churches, church-run schools, nonprofit hospitals and clinics, volunteer food banks, and the like, are very likely to be called upon to take up new ministries to replace what is no longer being done by government-funded agencies. Whether we think this a good thing or a bad thing, it is reality. It is as real as being knocked off a horse, and like Paul we – the church – can’t just lay there. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” There are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. “And the king will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:40)

During this last week, two lessons in the Lectionary have stood out for me: one is the Old Testament lesson for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (that’s next Sunday and, yes, clergy do read ahead) and the other is yesterday’s Epistle lesson for the Daily Office. They speak to me, and I hope to you, about what it is we have to get up and do. The first is this from the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The other is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Stand . . . and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:14-17)

Two hundred years ago, that small band of Episcopalians in Weymouth got up because there was work to be done. Now it is our turn. Every day it is our turn. Get up! Get dressed! There is work to be done. And we have been told what we have to do.

We stand at the beginning of a new century for our parish, at the beginning of a new administration for our country. We pray for the new President and we pray for ourselves. May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is The Conversion Of St Paul by Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, a/k/a Parmigianino, (1527-1528). It hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.)

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

“In Order That” – Sermon for Easter 5C – April 24, 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; and St. John 13:31-35. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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janitorbucketDr. Robert Waldinger is the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development which is something called “a longitudinal cohort study” in which the same individuals are observed over a long study period. It is the longest running study of this kind in history. For 75 years researchers have tracked the lives of 724 men from all walks of life.

Last November, Dr. Waldinger gave a TED talk entitled What makes a good life? in which he drew on the results of the Harvard study. This is some of what he said:

The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills.

And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health.

And the third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.

Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community.

The good life is built with good relationships.

So . . . last week I began my sermon by trying to sing Led Zeppelin’s classic rock song Stairway to Heaven and, in the homily, I suggested to you that, unlike the lady in the song, we do not need to buy or build such a stairway because the good news of Jesus’ Gospel is that heaven is already here: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 10:7) “The kingdom of God has come to you.” (Mt 12:28) It’s here; we don’t need to worry about getting there. And later in the week I got some feedback about that sermon; two people asked questions about it.

One asked, “Don’t you believe in an afterlife?” That’s the easy question to answer, “Yes, I do. But I’m not concerned about it.” I trust that Jesus was telling the thief on the other cross the truth when he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:4) I believe he was telling the truth to the disciples when, speaking of his own death, he told them “I go to prepare a place for you.” (Jn 14:2) I believe that the afterlife is a given and that there is nothing we need to do, indeed there is nothing we can do, to “earn” it. As the Eucharistic preface used during a requiem in the Episcopal Church says, “to [God’s] faithful people . . . life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP 1979, page 382)

The second question was a little tougher: “What about someone whose life just sucks? How can you say to someone like that that heaven is here?” Now that’s a good question. And the answer lies in that research done by Dr. Waldinger and his colleagues and their predecessors, and in today’s Gospel lesson, particularly in Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn 13:34) – This is the way our New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek. There may be a better way to translate it, but let’s go with this for the moment.

Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes of today’s Lectionary reading:

Jesus’ command to love one another is dangerously out of context. Read without its literary framework, it becomes another biblical platitude quoted by those who think it’s easy and who rarely stick to it themselves. It ends up on posters with the backdrop being some sort of idyllic scene of an ocean, snow-capped mountains, a rushing waterfall, or birds flying across a bright blue sky. It actually seems doable. (Resurrection Is Love)

But, she points out, lovely scenery and idyllic circumstances are not the context of this “new commandment.” Rather, it was given to the disciples at a time when evil seemed to be getting its way. It was spoken at the end of the Last Supper when someone Jesus and the others thought they could trust had just left to betray especially him and in reality all of them. Jesus commanded his followers to love at time “when the actions and words of others clearly [came] from hate and suspicion and prejudice;” in the words of my questioner, at a time when life sucked!

Jesus’ “new commandment,” says Prof. Lewis, “remind[s us] to choose love when evil seems to be having its way,” when life sucks. “And,” she says, “our decision to choose love does not even have to be in the face of the most overt and blatant expressions of its opposite. Our lives are full of minor incidents, if you will, when we can decide to come from a place of love rather than one of frustration and anger and judgment.”

Theologians sometimes use the word irruption when talking about the Kingdom of God. It is a word related to such ideas as eruption (a breaking out of something) and disruption (a breaking apart). Irruption means “to break into.” It conveys the idea that God’s rule, the kingdom of heaven, has broken into our reality. “The kingdom of God has come to you.” When we make the choice of love, we actualize that irruption; we make that in-breaking of heaven apparent and perceivable in a world which seems very much to the contrary.

But we are left, still, with a very serious question: How do we do that? If the “new commandment” is that we are to love one another, what does that mean? How are we to love one another? What are to be the manifestations of this love we are commanded to have?

Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology in Cameroon, points out that in John’s narrative the “new commandment” is bracketed by two stories of action. (Commentary) The first is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples about which he says: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn 13:13-15) The second is the crucifixion about which Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn 15:13-14)

These two actions parallel and help to flesh out the meaning of the “new commandment”. On the one hand, “love one another” compels us to “heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another.” On the other, “loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks.”

So that’s one way to understand the “new commandment” – that we are commanded to love one another and to act out that love in these sorts of ways. But some will object that love cannot be commanded, and that telling someone to love another and demanding that the one serve the other only breeds resentment and contempt. I know this from experience and I suspect you do, as well.

For that reason, I find the work of a Presbyterian pastor named Mark Davis compelling. Pastor Davis has a Ph.D. in theology and is very accomplished in the study and translation of Greek. He has recently made the argument that our typical translation of John is wrong and that, as a result, we haven’t properly understood the “new commandment.” It’s easier to show you his argument than it is to tell it, so I’m going to put a slide up on the big screen TV. (Commanding Love; see also ‘In Order That’ You May Love)

Here’s what we’ve got:

greekcolorcode

This is John 13:34 in the original Greek, and the lower color-coded text is Dr. Davis’s translation. The color coding helps to explain his argument.

Dr. Davis first points out that the original Greek is one sentence, not two. The translation in the New Revised Standard Version breaks it into two sentences. Second, he points out that the Greek is written in a poetic form called “parallelism,” which is the balanced and symmetrical repetition of a thought or idea in slightly different forms as a way to emphasize the message. The New Revised Standard fails to honor the parallelism and, in fact, adds an imperative that simply isn’t there. Third, he points out that the Greek word “hina” (which he has color-coded in red) has been either overlooked or possibly mistranslated.

This third point is really the most important. Pointing out that the word “hina” can be translated either as “that” or as “in order that,” and that “hina” is normally understood to specify purpose, Dr. Davis suggests the second translation, as shown here, is the better choice.

Thus, the “new commandment” is not simply “love one another.” The “new commandment” is something else that Jesus has said, done, or taught which enables us to love one another in the same way that his empowering love enables us to do so.

Therefore, Dr. Davis’ asks, “What is the new command ([of] which loving one another is the result)?” and answers his own question, “I would suggest that the whole demonstration of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is the command.” In other words, the “new commandment” is not to love one another, it is to do what Dr. Johnson called those “mundane, menial tasks” and from that work will flow the capacity for and the actuality of loving one another, from that work will flow the actualizing and appreciation of the irruption the kingdom of God, from that work will flow the realization that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I know, from personal experience, that this is true.

In the spring of 1971, I was 18 years old and finishing my sophomore year of college. And I was failing, badly. So I dropped out. I went to work in a hospital where I eventually worked as an orderly, but I didn’t start out as an orderly. I started out as a janitor. Once I had learned how to clean toilets and mop floors in proper hospital fashion, I was turned loose to take care of the common areas and of the patient rooms.

Early in my employment, I became acquainted with Mr. Aronson. I have no idea what Mr. Aronson’s medical problem was . . . all I know is that whatever it was it made Mr. Aronson’s life miserable. Mr. Aronson’s digestive system was out of control. If he ate, he vomited and he had diarrhea. His doctors were trying to treat this, of course, and he had to eat to see of the treatment was working, and most of the time it seemed it wasn’t. Nearly every day I would get a call to go to Mr. Aronson’s room where I had to mop the floor of either puke or feces and to gather up soiled bed linens. I hated getting those calls. I hated going to that room. I hated mopping that smelly floor and packing up those stinking linens and, I’m sorry to say, I hated Mr. Aronson. His life sucked and it was making my life suck.

And he knew it. He knew his life miserable and that his misery was negatively impacting everyone around him. But he must have known something else because he never acted that way. He was always gracious and he was always grateful. I’d show up with my 18-year-old “I hate being here” attitude, and if he was awake he would greet me courteously. I’d mop up his puke and his diarrhea, and stuff his soiled linens into a laundry bag, and he’d thank me. I didn’t want to be there; I didn’t want to deal with his mess or his smelly sheets; and I didn’t want his gratitude. But, when you’re employed as a hospital janitor, that’s what you do.

And after several days of doing that, you stopped noticing the smell and the misery. Instead, you looked forward to the greeting and you were grateful for the gratitude. And when, after a few weeks, Mr. Aronson died because they couldn’t fix whatever was wrong with him, you wept because, you discovered, you no longer hated Mr. Aronson. You loved Mr. Aronson; he had become your friend, and your friend was gone.

Mr. Aronson, it turned out, was the rabbi of the local Reform Jewish synagogue. His wife invited all of the hospital employees who had taken care of him, even us janitors, to attend his funeral, and it was there that I first heard and first recited the prayer called The Mourner’s Kaddish:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

I think that what Mr. Aronson knew that allowed him to be gracious and grateful is what I have come to know and believe: that if we will just take care of one another doing whatever mundane, menial tasks are needed, God will establish his kingdom in our lifetime and there will be abundant peace from heaven and life for all of us. From those mundane, menial tasks flows the capacity for and the actuality of loving one another, and that from that love flows the realization that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Whether we understand the “new commandment” to be “love one another” or to be “do these things in order that love for one another can grow,” the point of Jesus’ “new commandment” is to foster good relationships between people, those good relationships that Dr. Waldinger’s research has shown are the foundation of a good life. I have faith that sometime in the future the kingdom of heaven will be complete and God will exercise a gracious and just control over everything in (and outside of) time and space, but I know that right now heaven is close at hand through Christians and other good people, individually and collectively, engaging the world in acts of love, both mundane and heroic.

Jesus insists that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand when we love one another. Medical science has proved it: “The good life is built with good relationships.” So I can say with confidence that heaven is here now, even for the person whose life sucks. Mr. Aronson taught me that. 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.

Stairway to Heaven – Sermon for Easter 4C – April 17, 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and St. John 10:22-30. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Stairway to HeavenThere’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for . . .

As I read and pondered both the vision of heaven in John of Patmos’ Revelation and the words of Jesus – “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27) – I could not get the words of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven out of my head!

The metaphor of God’s Presence – and of our future and eternal life with God – in a place “beyond the sky” may be the oldest metaphor in the human lexicon. It is shared, in some form, by every culture on earth. Our distant ancestors standing at night and gazing at the moon and the stars, watching the sun as “wide he goes through empty heaven with repose” (RL Stevenson, Summer Sun), or facing “the fierce wind, while mid-day lightnings prowl [and] untimely thunders growl” (Wm Wordsworth, Composed During A Storm) conceived of the sky as a place of unspeakable and unimaginable power, the dwelling place of the gods.

But we have been there; we “have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;” we have “trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space.” (JG Magee, Jr, High Flight) Men have walked on the moon and our machines are even now wondering the surface of Mars; our probes have studied the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and then left the planetary system entirely moving on “through corridors sublime, the [realms] of interstellar space and [the passageways] of time.” (And Have the Bright Immensities, The [Episcopal] Hymnal 1982, Hymn 459) We know that beyond the blue dome of our earthly sky is not some otherworldly domain filled with angels and gods, but the physical reality of the Solar System, the Milky Way galaxy, and the limitless universe. And, yet, the metaphor of heaven up there beyond the sky where we may get to go when we die, that metaphor still captures our imaginations and our spirits.

Our lesson from the Book of Revelation today is the second half of a two-part vision shown to John in Chapter 7 of the book; it begins with the words “After this. . . .” – “After what?” we may ask. In the first eight verses of the chapter, John is shown the “servants of our God [marked] with a seal on their foreheads,” an army numbering 144,000 – 12,000 from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. These represent what we traditionally call “the church militant,” defined theologically as Christ’s “disciples [who] are pilgrims on earth” (CCC 954), who are “engaged in constant warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil” (Turner, H.M., The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity, A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia:1885, online). In other words, you and me and every other Christian currently alive, the people doing Jesus’ work on earth right now. Bible commentator Christopher C. Rowland of Oxford University tells us that the number, 144,000, is neither exclusive nor limiting; instead, like all of the numbers and measures in the book, it is a sign of God’s possession and ownership of the earth and its people. John’s numbers are not “a measure of the success of human endeavours.” (NIB, Vol. XII, page 620)

It is after this part of the vision that John then sees the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9) This is “the church triumphant,” those who have died and “are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’” (CCC 954) In a word, these are the “saints in heaven.”

John says that “one of the elders” in his vision describes them as those “who have come out of the great ordeal.” (vv 13-14) Early translations use the term “great tribulation” and many have suggested that this refers to some kind of organized persecution that may have been experienced by John’s original audience. But other scholars suggest that “the ‘tribulation’ (thlipsis) of Revelation’s [original] audience was not state-sponsored persecution but rather the social, economic, and religious marginalization of those who refused to participate in the Roman imperial system.” (Barbara Rossing) Thus, the lesson for us “is not that all Christians must shed blood as a form of testimony but rather, all Christians are candidates for tribulation in some form or the other, and in whatever comes their way, it is paramount to follow the Lamb’s way.” (Israel Kamudzandu)

Laurence Hull Stookey, Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C, in his book on the liturgical calendar, reminds us that these saints seen by John are not there by their own merit: “Men and women do not by sheer determination and self-discipline become saints. Sanctity is a divine gift. It is indeed the power of the resurrection at work in human lives. * * * We are saints because God’s sanctity is at work in us, not because on our own we have come to great spiritual attainment.” (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1996, pp. 141-42)

In terms of Led Zeppelin’s famous song, we cannot build or buy a stairway to heaven on our own; we can only get there by “follow[ing] the Lamb’s way,” by hearing the Shepherd’s voice, being known by him, and following him. But if we listen to the Shepherd, what do we learn about heaven? What do we learn about where and when it is? Is it, as John’s vision suggests, only accessible after death? Is it, as John’s vision and Led Zep’s song and all the myths and legends of heaven suggest someplace beyond the sky?

Here’s an interesting thing . . . look the word “heaven” up in the New Testament and review all the times Jesus uses it and you will notice something fascinating: Jesus never refers to heaven in anything other than the present tense. Heaven is always now, never then. It’s not in the past; it’s not in the future; it’s now. And the other thing you will notice is that it is not far away: “The good news [is that]‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Mt 10:7) “The kingdom of God has come to you.” (Mt 12:28) “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mk 1:15) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27) He’s really just repeating something he said earlier in this same chapter: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (Jn. 10:14-15) In John’s Gospel, “knowledge is not a cognitive category, but is a category of relationship.” (O’Day, Gail R., NIB, Vol. IX, p. 670) Those who hear his voice and follow him belong to Jesus and are in relationship with him in the same way that Jesus is in relationship with the Father. This kind of relationship “does not mean to be acquainted; rather, it means to have a living bond.” (Haenchen, Ernst, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1984, Vol. 2, p. 48)

And what is that “living bond”? Bishop Charles Grafton, early 20th Century bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac, answered that in his commentary on the Catechism: “The Holy Spirit is the living bond which unites us in Baptism to Christ’s nature.” (Grafton, Charles C., A Catholic Atlas: Or Digest of Catholic Theology, Longmans Green, New York:1914, Vol. III, p. 112) It is through the action of the Holy Spirit that we are in relationship with Jesus and hear the voice of our Shepherd, or as the great 17th Century bible commentator Matthew Henry put it: “The great Shepherd of the sheep knows all that are his, guards them by his providence, guides them by his Spirit….” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary, online) The Spirit, as Jesus reminded Nicodemus late one night, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Jn 3:8) So we must listen carefully to hear the voice of our Shepherd.

“It is [a] voice which is especially precious in times of struggle and pain. And it is one we sometimes have to work harder to hear in better times when other voices especially seem to drown it out.” (Janet Hunt) Thus, “we tend to hear God’s voice better when we do so in community with others than when we are listening alone.” (Eric Mathis)

Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven ends with these words:

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

Our “stairway to heaven” lies on the wind; it depends on the Spirit, who blows where she will and cannot be controlled, but who conveys to us the voice of our Shepherd. “And as we wind on down the road,” as we follow our Shepherd on the path he sets, “all are one and one is all;” we are all in that relationship, that living bond, with God and with one another. And we are not in want. We are cared for and protected, for our Shepherd is also our “strong rock, a castle to keep [us] safe . . . [our] crag and [our] stronghold.” (Ps 31:3) A rock that will not roll.

This is the kingdom of heaven – where we are – on the path with our Shepherd, hearing his voice, and being in relationship with him. We need not buy or build, indeed we cannot buy or build a stairway to get there; we are already here. “The kingdom of God has come to [us].” (Mt 12:28) When the Shepherd speaks and we hear his voice and follow, heaven it is not far away; it is here, always here, never there. Heaven is not in the past, nor is it in the future. It’s always now, never then. It’s here and it’s now.

Let me close by quoting a song about a hundred years older than Stairway to Heaven, a hymn first published in 1883:

Oh, not in far-off realms of space,
the spirit hath its throne;
in every heart, it findeth place,
and waiteth to be known.

Thought answereth alone to thought,
and soul with soul hath kin;
the outward God he findeth not
who finds not God within.

And if the vision come to thee,
revealed by inward sign,
earth will be full of Deity,
and with his glory shine.

Thou shalt not wait for company,
nor pitch thy tent alone:
the indwelling God will go with thee,
and show thee of his own.

O gift of gifts, O grace of grace!
That God should condescend
to make thy heart his dwelling-place,
and be thy daily friend.

(Hosmer, F.L., The Indwelling God, in Sacred Songs For Public Worship, Savage, M. J., ed., Geo. H. Ellis, Boston:1883, p. 35)

Rejoice! The kingdom of heaven has come to you! No stairway required. 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.

Between Two Fires – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter – 10 April 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and St. John 21:1-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpg/1200px-Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpgIn Jerusalem, just outside the walled Old City to the south is a church built on the place where the house of Caiaphas, the high priest who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion, is believed to have been. The church is named St. Peter in Gallicantu; the name is from the Latin meaning, “St. Peter where the rooster crowed.” It is a reference, of course, to Peter’s three denials of Christ in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

In the interior of the church, in niches on either side of the altar, are two icons. One depicts that episode which gives the church its name; the other, the story which we heard in today’s gospel lesson. The icons are similar in that they both depict Peter and Jesus on either side of a charcoal fire.

In the first, the fire is quite small and several other people are gathered around it. Jesus and Peter are in the foreground. Jesus is bound and looking directly at Peter; Peter’s eyes, on the other hand, are downcast and he is holding up one hand, palm toward Jesus as if to fend him off. The icon is captioned in Latin “Non novi illum” (Lk 22:57) – “I do not know him.”

In the second, the fire is much larger and is accompanied by baskets of fish and bread. There are no other people around the fire; the other disciples are still in the boat some distance off shore. Jesus, again, is looking directly at Peter. Peter, in this picture, is looking directly at Jesus and holding his hand out to Jesus to receive a shepherd’s staff which Jesus is handing to him. This icon is also captioned, again in Latin, “Domine tu omnia scis tu scis quia amo te” (Jn 21:17) – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Some bible scholars believe that Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is an add-on, that the original text of this gospel ended with the statement at the end of Chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (vv 30-31) These scholars argue, and I think we have to admit, that that sounds pretty much like a definitive conclusion to the book. Thus, they argue that Chapter 21 from which we have heard today is either an afterthought that John felt compelled to add or the work of a second author, a false John who was apparently unsatisfied with the original text. However, I would suggest that Chapter 21 is neither an afterthought of John’s nor the forged addition of another: it is connected to the main body of John’s gospel by those charcoal fires and the number three.

Non novi illumOn that awful night, as all was being lost and his rabbi was being tried, mocked, and ultimately killed, Peter stood at that first charcoal fire and denied Jesus three times. As John tells the story in Chapter 18, Judas led the authorities to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was then taken away to Caiaphas’s courtyard and Peter, who had sworn that he would never deny Jesus, followed. The maid who watched the gate to the courtyard saw Peter and said to him, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

Peter replied, “No, I’m not.”

John then tells us, “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.” (Jn 18:18) There and here in today’s story in Chapter 21 are the only two places in all of the New Testament that fires are specifically described as being a “charcoal fire.” John is very deliberately contrasting these two scenes in his gospel.

A bit later, those with whom Peter was standing and keeping warm by the fire asked him if he were one of Jesus’ disciples; he replied, “No, I am not.” (Jn 18:25) And immediately another person asked Peter the same question and again Peter replied, “No.”

Just then, while Peter was still standing next to the charcoal fire in the courtyard, is when the crowed, confirming Jesus’ earlier word to Peter that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster’s call. Luke’s account tells us that at that moment, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Lk 22:61) That was when Peter realized what he had done and he was devastated: this is the moment depicted in the first icon in the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.

Peter left that first charcoal fire a broken man, weeping bitterly, and all alone. Eventually, he would re-connect with his fellow disciples. Eventually, with them, he would witness the empty tomb and encounter the Resurrected Jesus. Eventually, with Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, and two others John does not name, he would go fishing. Eventually, he would come to this beach and to the second charcoal fire.

Domine tu omnia scisLooking at Peter across this charcoal fire after their breakfast of grilled fish, Jesus would begin a conversation of three questions and three answers: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15)

What Jesus is asking is if Peter loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus. That is, after all, what Peter had said at dinner that night when he said that even if the others deserted Jesus he would never do that. But that, of course, is exactly what he did and more; he denied even knowing Jesus. So it must have been difficult for Peter to have this conversation at this charcoal fire remembering what happened at that charcoal fire.

Nonetheless, he answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” In words that can only be taken as a clear sign of forgiveness as much as they are of empowerment and commissioning, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.” But that doesn’t end the conversation!

Jesus asked Peter a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter must have wondered, and certainly we wonder, why Jesus would ask him the same question. Again, he answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” and again Jesus commissioned him, “Tend my sheep.”

And then, yet again, Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John changes the Greek verb here from agápe used in the first two questions to philía, naming in some circumstances a different sort of love, but whether that has any theological significance is a matter of debate. For us, today, it does not, but we should be aware of that change.)

John tells us that this third time, the question stings Peter. Says John, “Peter felt hurt . . . and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'” (v 17) And again, Jesus commissioned Peter, “Feed my sheep” but this time with a warning saying, in essence, “It will be dangerous and you will suffer at the hands of others.”

Jesus then ended the conversation with a simple, “Follow me,” an invitation ripe with forgiveness; whatever had happened at that first charcoal fire, it is put behind them; it does not matter. The three denials have been wiped away by three declarations of love and three commissions to service. All that matters now is that Peter follow his Master and live out the task he has been given.

The second icon illustrates this as Jesus passes the pastoral staff, the shepherd’s crook, to Peter who reaches out to receive it.

In Section IV of T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding the poet writes that we will all be “consumed by either fire or fire:”

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

The two charcoal fires of John’s Gospel, the two charcoal fires in the Gallicantu icons, show us the two fires of Elliot’s poem: the destructive fire of denial, or the life-giving, nourishing fire of resurrection, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The genius of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is that it is in the space between these fires, between the two icons, between these two stories in John’s Gospel that the people’s worship takes place, that our lives as the people of God are lived, wearing that “intolerable shirt of flame which human power cannot remove.”

What that placement of worship between those two icons says is that Peter represents all of us, that in a sense we are all Peters. All of us have committed ourselves, like Simon Peter, to follow Jesus. That commitment was made at our baptism and again at our confirmation; it has been reaffirmed again and again, as it was on Easter morning in the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, as it was last week when we joined in baptizing Anthony Jon and Laura May on whose behalf the promises of that covenant were made for the first time. But, just like Peter, we have all of us betrayed that covenant, broken those promises, and denied the Lord we have sworn to follow. But then comes that gentle but supreme act of absolution, uttered from the cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)

The image of the charcoal fires in the Gospel of John becomes an image of that divine mercy. One moment we’re warming ourselves at the fire of denial, potentially destroyed by the poor decisions we make, decisions that break our covenant promises. The next moment we’re with Jesus as he feeds us at the fire of mercy and forgiveness. The Lord is faithful to us even when we have not been faithful to him, and it is through his faith that we are healed and restored, and eventually, like him and with him, risen to new life.

Thanks be to God. 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.

God Is the Question – Sermon for Easter 2, Year C (3 April 2016)

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The-Doubt-of-St_Thomas-300x300Every year on the Second Sunday of the Easter season, we read the story from John’s Gospel of Thomas’s refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, but in each year of the Lectionary Cycle, it is coupled with different lessons from the Book of Acts and a different epistle lesson. So this year, in Year C of the cycle, we have heard of the confrontation between Peter and the high priest about the apostles’ teaching in the Temple, and we have heard part of the introduction of John of Patmos’ Revelation.

In the first, we see the clash between two parties each absolutely convinced of the truth of their conception of God: the high priest, speaking for the council, is absolutely sure that his God, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, had nothing to do with the itinerant rabbi from Galilee; Peter, speaking for the fledgling Christian community, is just as certain that his God, the Father of Jesus Christ, had everything to do with him. There is no way to avoid conflict between these two camps, their spokesmen, and their very different understandings.

In the reading from Revelation, John of Patmos gives us yet another view of God, whom he quotes as saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and who (says John) is and was and is to come. John’s God is a god of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

These lessons encourage us to grapple with the story and example of Thomas, the apostle whose insistence on solid evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection earned him the epithet “the Doubter,” but who in fact made the first post-Resurrection statement of convicted faith, crying out “My Lord and my God!” upon seeing Jesus.

My friend David Henson, a priest and journalist in North Carolina, says that “it hardly seems fair” to brand Thomas as “the archetypal doubter, the skeptic that demanded proof.” “He wasn’t the only disciple in the Christian gospels to express disbelief or doubt at the reports of resurrection.” (Easter for Doubters: The Unexpected Faith of Thomas, Patheos, April 1, 2013) And Professor David Lose, president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, agrees with him:

When you read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, you quickly realize that Thomas is not alone in his doubt. In fact, doubt isn’t the exception but the rule. No one – even after all the predictions – no one says, “Welcome back.” Or “We knew it.” Or even “What took you so long?” No. No one anticipates Jesus return and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.

Which makes me think that maybe doubt isn’t the opposite of faith but, actually, part of it, maybe even an essential part of it. (Faith and Doubt, Dear Working Preacher, April 8, 2012)

Last week in The New York Times, William Irwin, professor of philosophy at King’s College, a Roman Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an op-ed piece entitled God Is a Question, Not an Answer (The New York Times Opinionator Blog, March 26, 2016). In it he said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.

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We should all feel and express humility in the face of the question even if we think the odds are tilted heavily in favor of a particular answer.

Thus, Prof. Irwin says, “The believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt.”

Today, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon, and welcome them into the household of faith, into the community which believes not only that there is a God, but that that God is most fully revealed to humankind in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the course of their lifetimes, they will explore with us what that means.

We could tell them, as many Christian preachers do, that “God is the answer.” They will encounter people like the Christian writer Dana Gatlin who begins one of her books with this firm statement and admonition:

In every human difficulty I have learned to center on God as the way out. God is the answer! ~ Center on God quickly, completely. God cannot fail! God loves you, right now is waiting to help you, and if you really put your trust in Him with all your heart, He will not fail you. Trusting in Him utterly, you cannot fail! ~ Whatever your dilemma or need may be, God is the answer. (God Is the Answer, Kansas City: Unity School of Christianity, 1940, p 7)

And they will encounter many others who witness that many in this life do in fact fail and that there always seem to be dilemmas which cannot be resolved and needs that are never met, and thus just as firmly assert that not only is God not the answer, but that there is no God. This conflict of certainties is not unlike that between Peter and the high priest about which we heard in the reading from the Book of Acts.

In this Easter season of alleluias we can sometimes be blinded to the reality of human doubts, fears, and pain, even our own. We tend to forget, as Professor Lose reminded us, that for the first disciples, for every one of them, not just Thomas, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place. The loud alleluias of Easter can make us forget that, as Prof. Irwin suggests, we “all exist along a continuum of doubt. Some of us will approach religious certainty at one extreme and others will approach atheistic certainty at the other extreme. Many of us will slide back and forth over time.” The story and example of Thomas serves as a reminder.

Poet Denise Levertov in her poem St. Thomas Didymus remembers another man in scripture who, like Thomas, expressed his doubts, a father who came to Jesus in the midst of fear and pain seeking healing for his child. Mark tells us the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus saying, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. * * * If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replied, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” In answer, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24)

Levertov imagines that Thomas witnessed this encounter and, remembering that Thomas’s name means, “the Twin,” names the father as Thomas’s “spiritual twin.” Her poem gives voice to Thomas’s doubts and their resolution:

In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teeth-gnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tight-drawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life.

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

(St. Thomas Didymus in Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire; Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, p 81)

In a moment, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon. Before we do so, their parents and Godparents will make some promises and commitments on their behalf and then, as the presiding priest, I will ask them and you some questions about belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” And each time the answer will be, “I believe.”

Perhaps for some of us, perhaps sometimes for all of us, the unspoken answer will be “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” The affirmations of the Creed, which is what those answers are, are not statements of certainty like those of Peter or the high priest, of the author who asserts that “God is the answer,” or of the atheist who insists there is no God. They are, rather, statements of faith, statements of hope, statements of trust in the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come, the God of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “You cannot be a [person] of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning . . . .” Therefore, he said, religious faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, 2007, p 105)

It is said that when the early 20th Century novelist and poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her life partner Alice B. Toklas at her bedside, Stein roused herself and asked, “What is the answer?” Toklas was unable to respond and sat there silent. “In that case,” Stein said, “What is the question?”

The question is God. God is the Question. When we welcome Laura May and Anthony Jon into the household of faith, we welcome them not to a life of nailed down certainty, but to a life of exploring the Question, in the course of which some lesser questions may be answered, but for the most part they will find that, like Levertov’s Thomas, their questions (and ours) will not so much answered as given their part in a vast unfolding design lit by the risen Son. Amen.

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The illustration is “The Doubt of St. Thomas” by the Chinese artist He Qi.

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.

Sermon for the 199th Annual Meeting: Conversion of Paul (24 January 2016)

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A sermon offered on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 24, 2016, to the 199th Annual Meeting of the members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.
(Apostle by poet and priest Malcolm Guite)

A lovely sonnet getting at the contradictions and paradoxes of Saul the Pharisee, dedicated persecutor of the church, who became Paul the Apostle, greatest promoter of the church’s gospel. In lyrically detailing those polarities, Malcolm Guite gives us a hint at what is meant by “conversion.”

If we look up “conversion” on the internet, we find (in Wikipedia, for example) that there are definitions pertaining to its use in law, in finance and economics, in linguistic and computing, in sports and entertainment, and (of course) in religion. However, I think the Wikipedia article on religious conversion gets it sadly wrong.

We read there that religious conversion is “the adoption of a set of beliefs identified with one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. Thus ‘religious conversion’ would describe the abandoning of adherence to one denomination and affiliating with another.” (Wikipedia) That’s wrong. Conversion has nothing to do with “sets of beliefs;” adopting one of those in place of another is simply changing one’s mind. And it isn’t about abandoning one denomination for another; that’s simply changing clubs.

Conversion has to do with something much, much more. And I would suggest to you that it is something over which the person converting has really very little control. We do not convert; we are converted.

Certainly that is the case with Saul. His conversion as he describes it here to King Agrippa (and as Luke, the author of Acts, describes it earlier in Chapter 9), this is not conversion over which Saul has any control at all! I’m sure, though, that he was open to it. I’m sure that, as a faithful Jew, Saul prayed the daily Amidah (or “Standing Prayer”) which includes this petition: “You graciously bestow knowledge upon man and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from you, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are you Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.” (chabad.org) I rather doubt, however, that he expected it to be answered in quite so dramatic a fashion.

Religious conversion is a matter of being; it implies a new reference point for the convert’s self-identity, a complete change of direction. Whatever had been the pole star of the convert’s moral compass, another utterly replaces it. While there is a moment of conversion, an experience of being turned toward the new reference point, conversion is not complete unless it is appropriated, adopted, lived into by the convert; it is after the moment of conversion that “the adoption of a set of beliefs” or the affiliating with a new religious community takes place. Thus, conversion is never a one-and-done. Conversion does not end in the moment; it continues for a lifetime.

Saul became Paul, his baptismal name taken as token of that change in his being, that reorientation toward a new pole star, Jesus the Christ. We can see his living into all that that entails as he works out his new theology in his letters to the churches.

His example is for us. Each of us is, like Paul, living into a conversion. We may have come to our Christian faith by our upbringing rather than through a distinct moment of conversion. We may have been baptized as infants never to have known a moment when the direction of our life was changed. We may have come to faith slowly, perhaps we are not even sure we are there yet! Nonetheless, as members of the Christian community, like Paul, we are called to grow into the implications of conversion.

As the great Presbyterian story teller Frederick Buechner has written in his book Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, Scripture is filled with many examples unlike the great conversions such as Paul’s:

There are a number of conversions described in the New Testament. You think of Paul seeing the light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), or the Ethiopian eunuch getting Philip to baptize him on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:28-40). There is also the apostle Thomas saying, “My Lord and my God!” when he is finally convinced that Jesus is alive and whole again (John 20:26-29), not to mention the Roman centurion who witnessed the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Luke 23:47). All these scenes took place suddenly, dramatically, when they were least expected. They all involved pretty much of an about-face, which is what the word conversion means. We can only imagine that they all were accompanied by a good deal of emotion.

But in this same general connection there are other scenes that we should also remember. There is the young man who, when Jesus told him he should give everything he had to the poor if he really wanted to be perfect as he said he did, walked sorrowfully away because he was a very rich man. There is Nicodemus, who was sufficiently impressed with Jesus to go talk to him under cover of darkness and later to help prepare his body for burial, but who never seems to have actually joined forces with him. There is King Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s impassioned defense of his faith, said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28, KJV). There is even Pontius Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) under such circumstances as might lead you to suspect that just possibly, half without knowing it, he really hoped Jesus would be able to give him the answer, maybe even become for him the answer.

Like the conversions, there was a certain amount of drama about these other episodes too and perhaps even a certain amount of emotion, though for the most part unexpressed. But of course in the case of none of them was there any about-face. Presumably all these people kept on facing more or less the same way they had been right along. King Agrippa, for instance, kept on being King Agrippa just as he always had. And yet you can’t help wondering if somewhere inside himself, as somewhere also inside the rest of them, the “almost” continued to live on as at least a sidelong glance down a new road, the faintest itching of the feet for a new direction.

We don’t know much about what happened to any of them after their brief appearance in the pages of Scripture, let alone what happened inside them. We can only pray for them, not to mention also for ourselves, that in the absence of a sudden shattering event, there was a slow underground process that got them to the same place in the end.

There is another conversion in the story of Paul’s conversion. It is not in our reading today but in Luke’s version in Chapter 9; he tells us of Ananias, to whom the Lord appeared commissioning him to teach Paul. Ananias objects at first; “No way,” he says. The Lord’s words, however, convince him to do as he is bidden and he becomes Paul’s teacher. Paul, after receiving Ananias’s instruction, preaches in the synagogues that Jesus is Lord. These two men, Paul and Ananias, represent two different communities, the new community of the disciples and the old community of the synagogue, both of which are transformed by gospel of Jesus, the risen Lord. The two conversions are a vision, a sign, of how the name of the risen Lord takes shape and unfolds in the lives of believers and communities of believers.

These stories of Paul, of Ananias, of the rich young man, of Nicodemus, and the others, invite us to consider how we look at our own world, who we respond when God takes our “no way,” and our “we’ve never done that before” and transforms them into “yes.” God gives us new vision, God rearranges our ways of seeing, being, and acting. God changes our world.

We know this to be true in our community, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, a constituent congregation of the Diocese of Ohio, of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and (still, despite the demands of some foreign primates) of the Anglican Communion. We have seen this community, this parish grow, change, change directions, build, renew, and adapt, all in response to God’s “yes” even when many of us might have said “no way” and even when many of us did say “we’ve never done it that way before.”

And look where God’s “yes” has brought us. Fourteen youths and adults were confirmed or received this year; five persons were baptized. They represent a 3% growth in the registered membership of the parish. Our weekly attendance in 2015 increased 5% over 2014’s average attendance. There were twice as many marriages last year compared to the year before, 20% more home communion visits, and nearly 70% more weekly prayer services.

Free Farmers’ Market, our largest outreach ministry, fed over 4,000 people, distributing almost 50,000 pounds of food during the year. We helped sustain the Summit-Medina Battered Women’s Shelter with numerous gifts-in-kind including bathroom and kitchen supplies, personal hygiene and laundry items, and new clothing for women and children. We contributed over $1,200 to the United Thank Offering and made a grant (through the Gentlemen’s Cake Auction) to a local elementary school (Garfield) to create a college vision experience for their Fourth Graders. 2015’s 9th Annual Cake Auction, by the way, increased the total for that program to over $18,000 in monies raised for ministries outside the parish.

Our youth group, the Episcopal Youth Community of St. Paul’s Parish, has grown to over twenty young people who have traveled on mission trips, attended diocesan and national youth events, taken part in Happening and other youth retreats, and hosted the annual Homelessness Awareness Sleep-Out and raising hundreds of dollars for the homeless shelter program in our community. St. Paul’s youth program is recognized as one of the premier ministries to, for, and by teens in this diocese.

Financially, this has been a banner year. We began the year thinking we were going to spend over $18,000 more than we would have available through donations and other income. Well, we did end with a deficit, but not nearly so large as we thought: as the Treasurer’s Report will show, it ended up being only $6,000. We made up two-thirds of the anticipated deficit. For the coming year, based on the outstanding charitable generosity of our members and the good financial stewardship of the vestry and the staff, we have seen an increase in anticipated income, a decrease in anticipated expenses, with a deficit of only $8,000 anticipated. If we do as well in the coming year as we have done in the past year, we will overcome that budgetary deficit and end with the year with an operating surplus. Despite this year’s operating surplus, we nonetheless have seen an increase in the parish’s overall financial health. We are almost $55,000 wealthier at year’s end than we were at the beginning; about half of that is a decrease in our indebtedness, the other half is an increase in our savings.

We have seen where God’s “yes” can bring us. Looking to the future, what can we foresee? What do we imagine what God is going to do with St. Paul’s Parish? Where is God leading us? What will be our response when God says to us, as he said to our Patron Saint, “Get up and Go, because I have chosen you and am commissioning you for the life of my community?” What will be our response when Jesus says to us, as he said to the first apostles, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves?”

I know what our response will be, because we have already given it many times. It will be the same as St. Paul’s, the same as Ananias’s: “Yes, Lord!” And “God, our own God, [will] give us his blessing, [and] all the ends of the earth [shall] stand in awe of him.” 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.

Just Like Adam; Just Like Jesus – Sermon for 1 Epiphany (10 January 2016)

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A sermon offered on the First Sunday after Epiphany (The Baptism of our Lord), January 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17,21-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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James B. Janknegt, Baptism of JesusWe’ve heard this Gospel story before. We all know what happens (at least in the Synoptic Gospels) after Jesus is baptized: a voice is heard from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22) and then Jesus goes into the desert for forty days of retreat where he grapples with temptations.

As Matthew and Mark tell the story, they move immediately from the baptism to the desert. But Luke, who tells of the baptism near the end of Chapter 3 and of the desert retreat at the beginning of Chapter 4 of his Gospel, does something unexpected. After the portion we heard this morning, right after the voice of God is heard declaring the Sonship of Jesus, right at the end of Chapter 3, he adds these verses which (for obvious reasons) are almost never read in worship services:

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. (Lk 3:23-38)

Why does he do that? Mark doesn’t even bother to give a genealogy and Matthew (who gives us a slightly different list of Jesus’ ancestors) put his genealogy right at the beginning in Chapter 1. So why, do you suppose, does Luke give us a genealogy and plop it down here at the end of the story of Jesus’ baptism, interrupting the narrative flow from baptism to desert to temptation? And why does he call Adam “son of God”?

I posed that question in an online clergy discussion group and some of my colleagues’ responses are these:

“All are ‘sons (and daughters) of God.’ The question is to what degree is Jesus uniquely so? A reboot… a second Adam? (That is, of course, a Biblical concept.) A ‘new’ first born? But we all share that heritage – to what degree? Is the giving of the Spirit in fact a third Genesis of sorts?”

“I always thought Luke’s point in tracing Jesus to Adam, rather than to David or Abraham, was to state that Jesus is universal savior, identified as he is as Son of Adam, rather than (merely) Son of David or son of Abraham.”

“It’s the Creation narrative Lite for Gentile readers — the point being that God is the source of all life.

Those are all good answers and they encapsulate pretty much the scholarly and traditional understandings of why Luke plops the genealogy down in this place, between baptism and temptation: Jesus, only begotten son of God, is contrasted with Adam, the first created son of God, and we as created children of God descended from Adam and as adopted children of God baptized into Jesus share in the nature of both!

We definitely share in the nature of Adam and others listed in this genealogy. Phil Ryken, the president Wheaton College who has recently gotten some bad press for his (in my opinion) wrong decision to discharge a professor who suggested that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, has been quoted as writing this about the men listed in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus:

They were guilty of the same kinds of sins as we are. All these men were sinners. It’s nice to think that our ancestors were noble and good, and that they did something heroic. This is one of the reasons people like to study their family trees. Whether they were heroic or not, the people who came before us were just as deeply flawed as we are. We can infer this from the mere fact that they were human beings, but we can also prove it from the pages of the Bible. Consider some of the skeletons in the family closet as recorded in the Old Testament: Terah, the father of Abraham, was an idolater; Abraham was a liar; Jacob was a cheater and a thief; Judah traded slaves and consorted with prostitutes; David was a murderer and an adulterer. We usually remember these men as heroes, but they were also scoundrels, all the way back to Adam. At the tap root of the family tree, like any genealogy, the one in Luke’s Gospel records a long line of sinners. (Citation unknown; quoted in a sermon published on line.)

I think Dr. Ryken was wrong about firing the professor, but I think he’s right about human nature and “the skeletons in [our] family closet.” Just like these ancestors of Jesus, we all are people who make mistakes, make bad decisions (like wrongfully discharging an instructor), do bad things; we share in the nature of Adam.

My friend Mark Sandlin, an ordained Presbyterian elder in North Carolina, yesterday posted online a part of his sermon for today. He is saying to his congregation:

The Jewish and Christian religious stories are stories underlined with the constant reality of seeking out something, searching for something. Adam and Eve seek out knowledge. Noah seeks shelter from the storm. Abraham and Sarah seek out the unknown land God sends them to. Joseph seeks to understand the king’s dreams and bring his family back together. Moses seeks to bring his people to the promised land. David seeks to become the leader God clearly believes he is. The prophets seek to bring the people of God back to God’s ways. Jesus seeks to show us what love looks like and teach us God’s ways. Paul seeks to grow the church in the ways of God. We are seekers. It is our story. We cannot escape it. We should not try. We Christians are seekers. Always have been. Always will be. It’s in our ancestral DNA. (Posted on Mark’s Facebook page)

Mark might disagree with me if I were to say that he and Dr. Ryken are saying the same thing, but the truth is that often in our seeking, we seek in the wrong places, or we seek the wrong things, and we end up making the bad decisions and mistakes Dr. Ryken describes Jesus’ forebears making. Again, it’s that human nature that we all share with Adam as created children of God.

But from the earliest days of the church, it has been the Christian understanding that we also share in the nature of Jesus. In the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 130–202) said that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.” (Against Heresies, Book V, Preface) His contemporary, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) taught that Christians are “children of the Most High” because, in the beginning human beings “were made like God, free from suffering and death” and, therefore, “deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest.” (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 124)

Justin was quoting Psalm 82 in calling us “children of the Most High,” but he might have been quoting our Psalm from today, which (unfortunately) the Prayer Book mistranslates. In the first verse of our gradual for today, Psalm 29, the psalmist commands, “Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” The Hebrew words translated here as “you gods” are “bene Elohim,” more correctly translated as “sons (or children) of the Almighty.” Psalm 29 is believed to be derived from a very early liturgical hymn extolling the Canaanite god Baal or a similar ancient Near Eastern “storm deity,” and thus addressed originally to “heavenly beings” or lesser gods, but we might understand it to be addressed to us, to those whom God describes in today’s reading from Isaiah:

Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth –
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
(Isa. 43:6-7)

We were created for glory, descendants of Adam formed by and made children of God, and our original created goodness is renewed by Jesus in whom we are adopted children of the Most High. No wonder that “in the temple of the Lord all are crying, ‘Glory!’ ”

This, I believe, is why Luke interrupts the flow of action in his telling of the Gospel story, why unlike Mark and Matthew, he doesn’t move directly from baptism to temptation. He finishes the story of Jesus’ baptism and then adds, almost as an explanatory footnote, “O, by the way, this is who this guy is. He’s a human being, just like you; descended from a bunch of fallible, flawed human beings, just like you; a descendent of Adam, the original created son of God, just like you.” Only after offering us that reassurance does Luke go on to tell us about the forty days in the desert, a story in which we learn that there’s something about Jesus that isn’t just like us, that he is able to resist temptation. And the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say on radio) is that through his faithfulness and through our faith in him, we can become (by adoption) just like him. Telling the story in this way – baptism-genealogy-temptation – is Luke’s way of saying that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”

Thus, it is Luke’s way of underscoring the central message of the Gospel, which we hear in our readings today in the Old Testament lesson: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” (Isa. 43:1) If we had to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ into one phrase, it would have to be, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s what Gabriel said to Mary (Lk 1:30); it’s what the angel said to Joseph (Mt 1:20); it’s what the angels said to the shepherds in Bethlehem (Lk 2:10); it’s the first word the angel spoke on Easter morning: “Don’t be afraid” (Mt 28:5). It is what the risen Christ said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.” (Mt. 28:10,20)

It’s one thing to say it, however, and it’s another thing to believe it. That, too, is part of the human nature we’ve inherited from Adam; we know all about our ancestors, people like Abraham the liar, Jacob the cheat, and David the adulterer; we know all about how badly they screwed up, and we’re afraid we might do it, too. But remember the words of God, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isa 43:1) Remember that we share not only Adam’s nature, but Jesus’ nature as well.

A well-known theologian once confessed that he was plagued many nights by a terrible dream. He dreamed that he was traveling in some distant city, and he ran into someone with whom he had gone to high school. In the bad dream, the person would say, “Henri, Henri, haven’t seen you in years. What have you done with your life?” This question always felt like judgment. He’d done some good things in his life, but there had also been some troubles and struggles. And when the old schoolmate in the dream would say, “What have you done with your life?” he wouldn’t know what to say, how to account for his life. Then one night he had another dream. He dreamed that he died and went to heaven. He was waiting outside the throne room of God, waiting to stand before almighty God, and he shivered with fear. He just knew that God would be surrounded with fire and smoke and would speak with a deep voice saying, “Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?” But, then, in the dream, when the door to God’s throne room opened, the room was filled with light. From the room he could hear God speaking to him in a gentle voice saying, “Henri, it’s good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I’d love to see your slides.” (Note: this story has been used by many preachers; I’ve not been able to find an original source.)

I think there is truth in that dream. I think that’s exactly what will happen, that God will say to each one of us, “It’s good to see you! You are my child. I hear you’ve had a rough trip, but I’m pleased with you and I’d love to see your pictures.”

So, don’t be afraid. God has redeemed you; God has called you by name; you are God’s. Just like “. . . Nathan, son of David, son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, son of Amminadab . . .” and all the rest of them. Just like Adam. And just like Jesus. 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.

Caring vs Rules: A Sermon for Proper 27B, Pentecost 24 (8 Nov 2015)

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B, Track 1, RCL), November 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Ruth 3:1-5;4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44 . These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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The Widow's Mite by RembrandtI get letters. Sometimes they’re really nice letters. And sometimes they’re not. Today, I want to tell you about a letter and how it caused me to rethink the two stories of women in today’s lectionary readings: First, the end of the story of Ruth from the biblical book named for her, and second, the story of Jesus watching and commenting upon the sacrificial giving of a widow in the Jerusalem temple.

The Book of Ruth is a very simple story. As Dr. Alphonetta Wines, a Methodist theologian, has said:

The genius of the book of Ruth begins with its literary simplicity. In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself. Both are abundantly blessed in the process. In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. In chapter four, the birth of Ruth’s child Obed brings Naomi joy that she thought would never be hers again. What began in misfortune has turned out to be a blessing for generations to come. (Working Preacher Commentary)

It’s simplicity, however, obscures for us its very radical messages: one of hope for women in a patriarchal society where the rules are all stacked against them, and another for inclusion of the stranger and the alien for it tells us this foreign woman, Ruth the Moabite, was the great grandmother of Israel’s King David and, thus, an ancestor of his descendent whom we believe to be the Son of God.

The story of the widow in the temple is another study in simplicity. Jesus is in the temple teaching, very clearly teaching against the scribes whom he criticizes for their opulent and self-serving ways. Having just criticized the scribes for “devouring widows’ houses,” he watches this particular widow turn over to those same scribes everything she possesses. Jesus seems to praise her for giving “out of her poverty . . . everything she had,” while criticizing wealthier donors who merely “contribute out of their abundance.”

This story has been used countless times a “stewardship sermon” text to encourage sacrificial giving by modern Christians. However, while I certainly want to encourage your generosity to the church, I think that’s a misuse of the text. Elsewhere, Jesus has encouraged such giving (as when he tells the wealthy young man to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor”) but I don’t believe that that is his intent here. Rather, in this story he is (I believe) teaching a lesson about two approaches to religion, a lesson also taught by the whole story of Ruth.

I came to this conclusion on Friday. Two things happened on Friday. The first was my practice of reading every morning from Daily Office lectionary; the second was the letter I just mentioned, which was delivered to the church office by our mailman on Friday afternoon.

The Daily Office Old Testament readings for the past couple of weeks have been from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah telling the story of the return of Jerusalem’s exiles from Babylonia and their rebuilding of the Temple; the Gospel readings have been from Matthew’s Gospel. On Friday, the latter was the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread, while the lesson from Ezra told of the sacrifice made in thanksgiving for the completion and dedication of the restored temple:

At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord. (Ezra 8:35)

In my Daily Office meditation on Friday, I wrote that the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story from Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is a striking illustration of two very different understandings of religion: on the one hand, religion as rules; on the other, religion as caring.

In our contemporary society and for the past several years, it’s been fashionable amongst some people to make a distinction between being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Those who study modern religion, such as the Pew Institute, even have a classification, “SBNR,” as one of their demographic categories, the “spiritual but not religious.” That distinction, I think, is what is addressed by our bible stories today; I don’t think Ruth or Naomi or Jesus or the widow in the temple would ever make that distinction, however. They would never divorce spirituality from religion. They might, however, make a distinction between these two kinds of religious practice: religion as rules versus religion as caring.

You know that I love looking into word origins, what is technically called “etymology”. Usually when I do this in a sermon I ask you to consider the original Greek of the New Testament, or the Hebrew of the Old Testament, but today I want to look at the English word religion, its root and derivation, and what we mean by it. If we look in the dictionary we will find that it is defined as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, offers this definition: “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, as part of their web presence, has a really good subsection for reporting religious news from all over the world. On the homepage of that religious news section, the BBC includes this statement:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (BBC.co.uk)

Notice what is common to all these definitions: beliefs about gods (or at least the supernatural), regulations of conduct, and ritual ceremonies. In other words, they are all about religion as rules. Only at the end, and only as a optional element, does the BBC definition include anything about morality or social behavior or anything that could be called “religion as caring”.

These definitions apply fully to the conduct of the scribes Jesus talks about in the Gospel lesson: they “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and . . . for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” They also apply to the Israelite society into which Naomi and Ruth come from Moab, a patriarchal society dominated by religious regulations, the Law of Moses, which denied independent livelihood to women. Beliefs, regulations, rituals: religion as rules.

The first recorded use of the word religion in the English language was in the 12th Century to describe the state of life of those bound by monastic vows and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, but in both uses the emphasis is on religion as rules. Our word religion derives from the Latin word religionem which Roman philosophers, such as Cicero and Lactantius, used to connote a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods; St. Jerome used it in the Latin vulgate translation of the Bible to render a Greek word meaning “religious ceremonies” (threskeia, Acts 26:5 & James 1:26-27).

The root of the Latin word religionem, however, was a matter of some dispute amongst those same Roman writers. Some believed it came from the verb religare which means “to bind up,” which is what rules do. Others, however, argued that it derived from relegere meaning “to read again” or “to read carefully,” that it is related to the word religiens meaning “careful”, the opposite of negligens, or negligent. This second derivation suggests that religion is less about rules than it is about caring.

The beliefs-rules-and-rituals understanding of religion is the way a lot of people, like the temple scribes and like early Israelite patriarchal society, understand religion. When this is our understanding, we end up following rules that lead the grossly over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock described in Friday’s Old Testament reading, we end up following rules that leave widowed women unable to provide for themselves, and we end up with religious leaders who make a show of their piety but who “devour widows’ houses.” Religion, understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies, produces such results . . . and it produces that second thing that happened on Friday, this letter delivered to the church office by our mailman that afternoon. [Note: the letter may be viewed here as a PDF file; the highlighting is in the original as delivered.]

In the November issue of our parish newsletter, we published an article about applauding during worship services which my colleague, the Rev. Peter Faass of Christ Church, Shaker Heights, had written. In it Fr. Faass commented that he invites applause when introducing married couples and, in that, made oblique reference to the fact that following this summer’s General Convention the Episcopal Church now offers marriage to same-sex couples. He recommended, however, that most of the time applause should not be offered during worship because what we do in the liturgy is not done as a performance for the congregation, but rather as an offering to God. What Peter suggested was that

instead of applause it would be best to offer a moment of silence after a pleasing offering; a moment when we may reflect on the gifts God has given to the person who is offering them up in the liturgy. In that silence let’s offer thanks. In that stillness let’s hear God’s applauding approval. [Note: Fr. Faass’s entire article can be read in PDF format in the parish newsletter here.]

Apparently we have a neighbor who reads our newsletter and who often drives by our building because that’s who this letter is from. In it, our neighbor takes us to task not only for Fr. Faass’s points, but also for our sign on which we have, from time to time, put the statement which has become a sort of unofficial motto of our diocese: “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

The letter begins, “It seems that Episcopalians are proud of being Episcopalians, but ashamed to be Christian. That explains why they find it so easy to stray from Scriptures, and hold so tightly to ‘tradition.'” The writer condemns us as “heavily influenced by popular culture” and then goes on to proof-text from Scripture why, in our correspondent’s opinion, same-sex marriage is contrary to his understanding of religion citing particularly the story of Adam and Eve. He then suggests that Fr. Faass is incorrect about God’s applause saying, “It may very well be that God is not only not applauding, but is sickened by ‘the liturgy,'” and he cites the prophets Amos and Isaiah who condemned the festivals, sacrifices, and assemblies of unfaithful Israel.

With respect to our sign, our neighbor informs us that “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions” is simply not true, that there are, in fact, human beings whom God not only doesn’t love but whom God positively abhors. He cites one of the Psalms for this proposition.

This [the letter] is religion understood as that which binds, religion as rules; this is Scripture understood as a set of binding regulations proscribing behavior, prescribing some rituals and prohibiting others, and denying not only basic dignity but even the love of God to many of God’s children. This is the religion of the temple scribes.

To this sort of religion, Jesus contrasted the religion of the widow in the temple. No law, no rule required her make her offering of “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” This is not her tithe (that would have been paid at a different time and in a different way). This is not a sin offering or a burnt offering (that would have entailed the sacrifice of some animal). This is nothing more nor less than a gift of thanks, given “out of her poverty” because she cared for the God on whose blessings she depended, because she cared for the faith that was in her. Because she cared, she gave; “out of her poverty [she] put in everything she had.” This is religion as caring.

I could answer this letter. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes that when Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16) he didn’t put any qualifications or restrictions on that statement. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes with our parish patron, St. Paul, that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39) I could do that. I could answer this letter, but I think the better response is for us as a church community to continue doing what we are called to do, to continue living a religion that emphasizes caring rather than rules.

Our correspondent admonished us that it is incumbent upon every Christian “to set the good example of following after Christ,” and he referenced the Letter of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jm 1:27 NRSV) What James is saying is that religion is caring, and the Episcopal Church could not agree more strongly!

Imagine how different this world might be if the caring, rather than the binding rules aspect, were the general understanding of religion! If we understood religion to mean “caring,” rather than “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” I really don’t think there would be any people who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” When the story of Ruth is understood not as a story about the rules of ancient Israelite society but, as Dr. Wines suggested, as the story of “a blessing for [all] generations to come” . . . when the story of the widow in the temple is understood not as a story about following the rules of stewardship, but as a story of giving as an act of caring . . . when the whole Bible is understood not as a book of rules and regulations, but as a collection of stories about God’s love . . . then it is clear that, contrary to our neighbor’s letter, Episcopalians do not “stray from Scripture.”

Our calling as “Episcopalians [who] are proud of being Episcopalians, [and who are positively delighted] to be Christian” is to demonstrate, to live out, and to invite others into what our new Presiding Bishop likes to call “the Jesus Movement,” a religion of caring, not a religion of rules. Like the widow in the temple, we are called to give out of our poverty all that we have and all that we are, and to invite into our self-giving not only those who are like ourselves, but also and especially those are different, the stranger, the alien, the one who is not like us, without regard to his or her social status, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, or anything else because nothing “in all creation, [is] able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” because “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

Amen.

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

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