That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Amos

How To Be Good: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit who empowered the disciples to proclaim the Good News to peoples from many lands speaking many tongues: we now pray for those in many lands speaking many languages who have been hurt or killed by terrorist violence in the past fortnight in: London (England), Kabul (Afghanistan), Mosel (Iraq), Minya (Egypt), Khost (Afghanistan), Mastung (Pakistan), Gao (Mali), Borno State (Nigeria), Raqqa (Syria), Mogadishu (Somalia), rural Colombia, Manila (Philippines), Baghdad (Iraq), Basra (Iraq), Portland (Oregon, USA) and Manchester (England). May God grant eternal rest to the departed, healing to the injured, and comfort to those in grief. And since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies, we pray also for those who have committed these violent acts, and for those who may be contemplating additional violence. May God change their hearts and shed abroad the gift of peace throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs (13:14). The word translated there as “teaching” is Torah, the Hebrew name for the Law of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The biblical tradition tells us that seven weeks after the Passover the Hebrews camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, met God, and returned with the Torah inscribed on stone tablets. Therefore, the Jews celebrate on the fiftieth day after Passover the feast called Shavuot, which literally means “the feast of weeks.” It is also called “the feast of the giving of the Law” and “the feast of first fruits” because it also became a celebration of the barley harvest and a time of prayer for the success of the wheat harvest; it was a time when the tithe of the barley harvest, the first ten percent of the grain was brought to the Levites in obedience to the Torah’s requirement: “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)

When worship became centered on the Jerusalem Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot became a pilgrimage feast, one of the three annual festivals on which every male Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, which explains why there were so many people “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) in the streets of Jerusalem when the disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went out to proclaim the Good News. They were the Jews of the Diaspora and for many of them, Greek rather than Hebrew was the language in which they read Scripture and worshiped, and they called this feast “Pentecost,” a word which means “fiftieth day.” They had returned to Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Passover to offer their tithes at the Temple in gratitude for the giving of the Law.

A rabbi of the time famously described the Torah as a “disciplinarian” or “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:22). Writing in Greek, the word he used was paidagogos, a word describing someone in Greek society, usually a family slave, who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of growing boys. In other words, the paidagogos’ obligation was to teach the boys to be good. This was the purpose of the Law given at Mt. Sinai. A modern rabbi writes that one should immerse oneself in the Torah

to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a Godly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within . . . you, [until God’s] thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are [God’s]. (Tzvi Freeman, What Is Torah?)

That is what we as Christians believe happened in the event described by Luke in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, a sharing of the Holy Spirit of God until God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts and they had no alternative but to speak them to the world around them.

That First Century rabbi of whom I spoke was none other than our own parish Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Galatians. He would continue to say that with the coming Christ we are freed from the discipline of the schoolmaster, and instead are led by the Holy Spirit to bear the “fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Another word that describes this fruit is “virtue,” which St. Augustine of Hippo defined as “a good habit consonant with our nature.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Virtue)

The “fruit of the Spirit” should not be confused with the gifts of the Spirit. In the epistle reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul details many of the gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in other tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, 1 Cor. 12:8-10), one of which seems to have been exhibited by the disciples, the ability to speak in other languages. While these gifts are important for a variety of reasons, what is most important about them is that they are, Paul says, “given . . . for the common good.” (v. 7)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his listeners to be good, to do good to all, to enemies as well as friends, saying:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:37-38)

To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, echoing the words the Book of Proverbs applied to the Torah, Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the water of life which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) And in today’s gospel lesson in a similar metaphor, he says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38) This is what Pentecost is all about; this is what happened that morning in Jerusalem; the disciples were given a share of the Holy Spirit of God until, as that contemporary rabbi said, God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts, until the Torah of the wise became a fountain of life and flowed out of them like living water to the world around them.

So the Law was given to teach us to be good and the Holy Spirit empowers us to be good, but how do we actually be good?

An author whose poetry has often graced the pages of The Christian Century, a magazine to which I have subscribed for many years, offered an answer to that question a few years ago. His name was Brian Doyle; he lived in Portland, Oregon, taught at the University of Portland, and edited Portland Magazine. He died a week ago from the same sort of brain cancer which killed my own brother several years ago, so I took particular note of his passing. At his requiem day before yesterday at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, mourners were given a copy of an essay he wrote and published in his 2013 book The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press, Chicago:2013). The essay is entitled How to Be Good. I would like to read part of it to you now:

First, pick up your wet towel and at least, for heavenssake, hang it up to dry. And wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn’t have to be shining and spotless, that would be fussy and false, but at least don’t leave little mounds of your neck hairs like dead insects for your partner and children to find. At least do that. It’s the little things; they aren’t little. You knew that. I am just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from the street, where it fell broken and almost unrecognizable, and she saw it as a holy being and she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn’t little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and was thus holy beyond our ken. Or in the morning, when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say thank you to the harried girl with the Geelong Cats logo tattooed on her forehead. At least look her in the eye and be gentle. Christ liveth in her, remember? Old Saint Paul said that, and who are we to gainsay the testy little gnarled genius? And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving, yes, you are peeved, and yes, he could be chasing down murderers, but be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault, you could have checked the scores later, and for another, Christ liveth in him. Also in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man under the clock at Flinders Street Station, and in the foulmouthed man at the footy, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation and have detested since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful vulgar elephantine couch to yet another of his shabby flats, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so and who could blame you? But Christ liveth in him. Speak hard words into your closet and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch, for the ninth blessed time, and do not credit yourself with good works, for you too are a package of small sins and cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta, but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the kids’ team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear and give them away. Sell the old machinery and turn it into food for those who starve. Express gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write the minister and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is care for the bruised among us, not pose on television. Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter but we know that they matter. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like sharp swords against the squirm of despair and violence. The Church is you. Christ liveth in you. Do not cloak Him but let Him be about His business, which is using the tools the Creator gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love given and granted; savor that and disburse that which is not important. Use less, slow down, write small notes. All the way to heaven is heaven, said old Catherine of Siena, and who are we to gainsay that slight smiling genius? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance. If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out in the open. Try to forgive even that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I do not know how that can be so but it is so. You and I know that. I am only reminding us. Be who only you are. Rise to what you dream. Do not cease with joy. That is the nature of the gift we were given. It is the most amazing and extraordinary and confusing and complicated gift that ever was. Never take it for granted, not for an instant, not for the seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness and generosity and kindness and mercy. Also humor. Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what He said could happen if we loved well. He did not mean loving only the people you know. He meant every idiot and liar and thief and blowhard and even your cousin. I do not know how that could be so, but I know it is so. So do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Ready? (Page 15)

On this fiftieth day, this feast of the first fruits, this day of bringing our tithes and offerings of thanksgiving before God, this celebration of the giving of the Torah and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the church, let us begin again to be good, and let goodness be in us like the Torah of the wise, a spring gushing up to eternal life, running over, and flowing out, a river into the world around us, so that “justice [may] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us begin again to be good, you and me, today! Ready?

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

Living Generously: Sermon for Pentecost 19 – Proper 21C, Track 2 (September 25, 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 25, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 21C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Amos 6:1a,4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; and St. Luke 16:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Dives and Lazarus. Psalter (Munich Golden Psalter). England [Gloucester?], 1st quarter of the 13th century.We could, I suppose, spiritualize the story of Lazarus and the rich man. We could, but if we did we would be twisting it out of shape. This is not a spiritual story. This is a bare-knuckled street-brawl of a story about wealth, about money and possessions, about someone who had plenty and about someone who had none. If we are going to honor the biblical text, we cannot spiritualize this tale; we have to deal with it as it is given us, as a story about money.

Did you know that the rich man has a name? Not in the Bible, I grant you that, but in the tradition of the church he is known as “Dives” – D-I-V-E-S pronounced “Dye-veez”. That name comes from the Latin “Vulgate” translation completed by St. Jerome in the late 4th Century in which he translated the Greek word for “rich,” plousios – which means “one who possesses wealth” – with the Latin word dives (pronounced “Dee-vase” in this context) – which comes from the same root as our word “divine” and means “one who is favored by the gods.”

In the Bible, of course, only the poor man is actually given a name, Lazarus. This is the Latinized version of the Greek transliteration of a Hebrew name, Eliezer. This name, it turns out, means “one who is aided by God.”

So, in the church’s tradition, both biblical and magisterial, these men have the same name! “Favored by God” . . . “Aided by God” . . . they are both named as beloved children of God, helped by God, bestowed by God with God’s grace and love. That is why we cannot spiritualize this story. Spiritually, there is no difference between these two men; they stand in the same relationship to God who, interestingly enough, isn’t even mentioned in the story. This not a story about God; it’s a story about money.

Which makes perfect sense when we consider where it comes in Luke’s gospel and in our lectionary sequence of readings. Let’s just go back a few chapters:

In chapter 12 Jesus told the story of Barn Guy, the rich man who had a great year with bumper crops and lots of lambs and calves, thought he could keep his earnings all to himself, and built bigger barns to keep it in . . . only to be told that he was going to die and learns, as Paul writes to Timothy in today’s epistle, “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it,” so the best we can do is use our wealth to do good in this world.

In chapter 13, he talks about two trees both understood to be metaphors for God’s people and God’s kingdom: a barren fig tree which the owner decides to cut down and a mustard tree which starts from small beginnings but soon grows to provide shelter not only for the one who sowed it but for everyone.

In chapter 14, Jesus commands his followers to count the cost of following him and then tells them (that is to say, us) what that cost is: that until we sell all of our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor we are not worthy to follow him.

In chapter 15, we heard the parables of the shepherd who sought one lost sheep to complete his herd of 100 and of the woman who cleaned her whole house to find the one missing coin to complete her purse of 10, and then Jesus told us about the Prodigal who squandered all his wealth . . . but was nonetheless welcomed home with love and respect!

Now in chapter 16, we had last week’s weird story in which Jesus praised the dishonest steward who told his boss’s debtors to falsify the record of what they owed; Jesus’ punchline was that we should use our earthly wealth to win friends to welcome us “into the eternal homes.” Now he tells us this story about Dives who didn’t do that and wasn’t welcomed by Lazarus whom he might have helped or by Father Abraham, who (by the way) was quite a wealthy guy himself but clearly not sympathetic to Dives. (You know, it occurred to me that Dives could be Barn Guy. Jesus could have said, “Remember that guy who was really well off, had that great harvest, and built those new barns, but didn’t share his good fortune with anyone? Well, let me tell you about what happened after he died that night . . . .”)

Now, as I said, we could spiritualize all these stories and try to make them about God, but if we did that we’d have to wonder about Jesus, wouldn’t we? I mean the man has used stories about money so often that we would have to think that he must be unable to come up with another metaphor . . . or we would have to conclude that he doesn’t mean it to be a metaphor, at all. I think we have to reach the second conclusion and to understand, as Paul does, that Jesus believes “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil,” and that those who have wealth are expected “to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

“What’s implied here is that places in the kingdom [‘the life that really is life’] are not given out according to what we have, but according to what we give away. What counts is solidarity; what counts is love. [Dives] who made a name for himself but didn’t care enough to share his wealth has no name any more. [Lazarus] who couldn’t achieve a thing all his life has been given a name of honor.” (Wendt, F., The Politics of a Name)

So let’s talk about money. Throughout his life, Jesus showed love, compassion, and care for those who didn’t have any, those who were at the bottom of society, namely the poor, the sick, the outcast, the foreigner, and those whom others considered to be sinners because of their poverty. However, he never condemned anyone for having money; what Jesus seems to have been most concerned about in regard to the wealthy was their reliance on money to provide security, a security which is ultimately temporary because wealth cannot provide that ultimate security found only in God. What is condemned is the love of money, the putting of wealth into that place in our lives where God ought to be.

Therefore, it would be “inappropriate to affirm in a wholesale fashion that [Jesus or the] early Christians criticized material wealth. Instead, of crucial importance is the attitude of the person owning it. Material wealth can get in the way of putting one’s trust in God, and it can be a hindrance to following Jesus. Yet [we must admit that all of our] church ministries and services depend on the financial resources of those who are willing [and able] to share them.” (Eberhart, C.A., Commentary on 1 Timothy 6:6-19)

I want to repeat here what I wrote in this week’s parish up-date email and what I will publish again in the October issue of our newsletter:

It is this sharing of resources that God wants of us. Clearly, God doesn’t want us to be self-reliant and, frankly, selfish rich people like Dives, but God also doesn’t want us all to be poor, sore-covered, gutter-dwelling beggars like Lazarus. What God does want us to do is to share with one another and with God in the ministries of the church.

When Bishop Hollingsworth visits here in a month (on October 30), we will, as we do at each service of baptism or confirmation, affirm our agreement to that partnership by reciting five vows from the Baptismal Covenant:

  • Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
  • Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
  • Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
  • Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
  • Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

To each question, we respond: “I will, with God’s help.”

When we recite our baptismal vows, we are renewed in and reminded of God’s call in our lives and the life of St. Paul’s Parish. We are all God’s partners by virtue of our baptism, and we are all called by God to proclaim, in word and action, God’s justice, love and mercy for all creation, to do God’s work right here on earth.

Ministry, outreach, worship, baptisms, marriages, funerals, visiting the sick, praying for family and friends, offering spiritual and religious formation, helping those less fortunate than ourselves – doing these things in and through our church is part of our partnership with God. And each one of them costs money. God provides us with inspiration, skill, vision, and determination. But we have to provide the money.

Over the next six weeks, we will talking a lot about money. You will be asked to think about your support of St. Paul’s Parish for the next year. You will be asked to make your pledge of financial support for 2017. You will be asked to act on your promised partnership with God. Think of all your regular gift of money can do for our church, for our families, and (most importantly) for our neighbors. Think of all it can do for our partnership work with God here on earth. It is through our pledges, faithfully made and faithfully kept, that we partner with God to tell the good news, take care of children, visit the elderly, heal the sick, house the homeless, feed the hungry, and (yes) maintain our most important tool in doing all of that, this lovely building within which we worship today.

That’s what our pledged financial support does; that is what our sharing of our wealth does: God’s work in which we are partners. God expects us to live generously as God lives generously with us.

Like Dives, we are all favored by God. Like Lazarus, we are all aided by God. We stand in the same relationship to God as they did. In a sense, we are Dives’ siblings, those five brothers he asked that Father Abraham send Lazarus to warn. “We who are still alive have been warned about our urgent situation, the parable makes clear. We have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; we have the manna lessons of God’s economy, about God’s care for the poor and hungry. We even have someone who has risen from the dead. The question is: Will we – [Dives’] sisters and brothers – see? Will we heed the warning, before it is too late?” (Rossing, B., Commentary on Luke 16:19-31) Will we who have the God of Jacob for our help, whose hope is in the Lord our God, whose God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment . . . will we live generously and fulfill our promises of partnership with God?

I believe we will.

Let us pray:

Gracious and generous God,
your Son came that we might have life
and have it abundantly,
we pledge our trust in you and each other,
and we accept your invitation to be partners in ministry.
We acknowledge that your call requires us
to be stewards of your gifts,
shaping our lives in imitation of Jesus,
whom we have promised to follow.
As stewards, we receive your gifts gratefully,
cherish and tend them in a responsible manner,
share them by living generously with others,
and return them with increase to you, our Lord.
We pledge to attend to our ongoing formation as stewards
and our responsibility to call others to that same endeavor.
Almighty and ever-faithful God,
we are grateful
that you who have begun this good work in us
and will bring it to fulfillment
in Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

[The illustration is “Dives and Lazarus” from the Munich Golden Psalter, dating from the 1st quarter of the 13th century.]

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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.

You Did Not Return – From the Daily Office Lectionary

You Did Not Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#AdventWord #repent

Share Your Astonishment! – Sermon for Thanksgiving Day, 26 November 2015

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A sermon offered on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; and Matthew 6:25-33. 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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This morning, after I took the dog for her walk and poured a cup of coffee, I turned on my computer and found a message from my friend Melania, who is from Naples but is currently working in Spain. We were students together in Ireland. This is her message:

“Thanksgiving” has always been my favorite American festival. If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better! Don’t miss any opportunity to tell people how grateful you are for them! Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my dear American Friends and acquaintances out there!

Isn’t that lovely? That someone from another country would take the time to send greetings on what is a quintessentially American holiday?

There are a lot of myths surrounding Thanksgiving and we’re all familiar with them . . . the story of English pilgrims escaping religious persecution, their landing at Plymouth Rock, the help they received from the Native Americans, and so on and so forth. Do you know when Thanksgiving actually was made a holiday? 1863. By President Abraham Lincoln. It has more to do with the Civil War and the preservation of the Union than it does with our colonial origins. But it is, as I said, a quintessentially American holiday.

It is a day when we pause to give thanks for the abundance this nation enjoys, the abundances the prophet Joel describes and promises in the Old Testament lesson this morning. It is a day, too, when we reflect on our country’s beginnings, its original, aspirational ideals, and the social progress that has made here and that we have fostered in other places . . . but also a day on which we have to acknowledge our history and the on-going reality of brutal conflicts, of ethnic and racial oppression, of economic disparity here and abroad. It is a day when we must acknowledge that, despite Jesus’ assurance that we need not worry about food or drink or clothing or housing, there are many in this world who must worry about such things on a daily basis.

Another thing I did this morning was catch up on my daily news and blog reading. One of the websites I frequently visit is the On Being blog. On Being is a Sunday morning NPR show hosted by Krista Trippet, a religion journalist. She interviews someone each Sunday morning (at least that’s with our local station broadcasts the show) about their religious and spiritual life. She and several others keep a related blog and today I read a piece by Courtney E. Martin about being thankful. This is her conclusion:

[G]ratitude is not just about empty platitudes or forced dinner table exercises. It’s about marveling. It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do. It’s about natural science and human anatomy. It requires, above all else, slowing down and noticing and letting yourself be astonished. (Courtney E. Martin, The Sensory Astonishment of Gratitude)

“It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do.” It’s about sharing that astonishment. I think that may be what the biblical command for justice is all about: it’s about sharing astonishment. Only those who live in a just world, who are not suffering from hunger, fear, oppression, illness, warfare, or the myriad other brutalities of injustice can marvel at the grace and beauty of this world. If we are to share our astonishment with others, especially with those for whom worry about food, drink, clothing, or housing is daily a matter of survival, we must put an end to injustice. If Joel’s prophecy of threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil so that all “shall eat in plenty and be satisfied” is to be a reality, it is up to us to make it so.

The stole I’m wearing this morning is the one you all gave me when I was installed as Rector here at St. Paul’s Parish. It was made by vestment creator Lynn Ronkainen of Houston, Texas, a long-time friend of mine and is embroidered with a verse from the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Am 5:24)

I think that may be my third favorite verse from the Old Testament prophets. The first is from Isaiah and is inscribed on a wall at the United Nations Plaza in New York City: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa 2:4 KJV)

The second is from the end of book of 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?” (Mic 6:8)

When these prophets speak of peace and justice, I believe they are calling us to share our gratitude with others, to witness to that marvel and astonishment about which Ms. Martin wrote, and to what is necessary to make it possible for others to feel it as well.

This year that may seem more difficult that it usually is, and it’s often difficult enough. This year, with the killings in Paris and Beirut, the bombing of the Russian airliner, with the rise “ISIS” (or “Da’esh” as I am told we should call it) and its particular brand of Islamism of jihadism (whatever you want to call it – it’s not Islam but some terrible mutant creature that claims to be Muslim), with the Syrian civil war and the massive refugee crisis stemming from it, with rising sea levels and changing climate whatever its root cause may be, with economic disparity here at home even though unemployment has improved and many still struggling to meet their basic needs, with all of that . . . sharing gratitude and witnessing to astonishment just seems difficult.

Nonetheless, as we gather around our Thanksgiving Day tables, as we say our prayers of thanksgiving and enjoy our abundance, we need to ask ourselves: What can we do between this Thanksgiving Day and next to help those who are hungry, those who are homeless because of war, those who are oppressed and down-trodden by the brutalities of this world? What can we do to allow them to share our astonishment? What can we do so that they, too, can offer thanks?

That may seem to be a downer on this day of gratitude and celebration; it may seem an overwhelming task. But remember the words of a gloss on that verse from Micah. It is sometimes referenced to the Talmud, sometimes to the First Century sage Rabbi Tarfon; I don’t really know the source, but I think it filled with wisdom: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” As my friend Melania said, “If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better!” Share your astonishment! Work for justice! There is no better way to give thanks.

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.

Move Anyway – From the Daily Office – December 10, 2013

From the Book of the Prophet Amos:

Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Amos 7:14-15 (NRSV) – December 10, 2013.)

Sheep Blocking RoadwayIn truth, this is Amos objecting to Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, that he, Amos, is not an official prophet, not a member of one of the recognized or sanctioned schools of prophecy, but the first part of it has always sounded to me as if Amos is protesting his commission to prophesy, trying to get out of doing what God wants him to do. “Hey, that’s not what I do! I can’t be a prophet because I have these sheep and these figs to take care of!”

Last night I had a dream that I was unexpectedly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury by the Queen of England . . . apparently being an American rather than a Brit was no obstacle, being merely a priest never made a bishop was no obstacle, and there was no problem that the Crown Appointments Commission had no involvement. But I couldn’t accept because my cats and my dog couldn’t come to Britain with me. What a great excuse for getting out of something I wouldn’t want to do, huh? “Hey, that’s not what I do! I can’t be archbishop because I have these cats and this dog to take care of!”

Advent is a time for conquering obstacles: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain,” wrote the prophet Isaiah (Isa. 40:3-4). It is a time for overcoming objections, for setting aside whatever sheep, figs, dogs, or cats may be our excuses for not doing what we are called to do, for not going where we are called to go.

Sometimes the obstacle to our action is our own ignorance of what the things or the places to which we are called may be, our own failure of discernment. Today on the Episcopal Church’s sanctoral calendar is the day of remembrance of Thomas Merton, who wrote this prayer for just such circumstances:

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (Thoughts in Solitude)

It is Advent! Remove the obstacles in the path and, even if you are uncertain what the obstacles are, or if you are uncertain of the path, move forward anyway. God is with you.

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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.

Lions Eating – From the Daily Office – December 4, 2013

From the Prophet Amos:

Thus says the Lord: As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who live in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Amos 3:12 (NRSV) – December 4, 2013.)

Lion EatingI’m sitting here this morning knowing full well that I should be writing something about Advent and, truth be told, there are other parts of today’s daily readings that would lend themselves to an Advent reflection. But…. yesterday a federal court in Michigan decreed that the city of Detroit could carry on with a restructuring of its debt through bankruptcy and, more importantly and more destructively, that among the obligations that could be discharged are its pension responsibilities to former municipal employees. I was deeply troubled by that news when I heard it yesterday morning and I’ve been pondering it since.

It’s been more than thirty years since I graduated from law school (thirty years!) and at no time in those three decades have I practiced bankruptcy law, and I certainly haven’t kept up with the changes in statutory or judicial determination of what debts can and cannot be discharged. The only significant change that I know of personally is the legislative decision that student loans cannot be subjected to bankruptcy protection (about which I am keenly aware as the parent of a young adult with significant educational debt). Nonetheless, I recall from my law school studies that the basic concept of court-supervised bankruptcy is supposed to fairness and equity to both debtor and creditors. Sometimes fairness requires that an obligation cannot be set aside in bankruptcy; sometimes equity demands that the creditor be made whole to the greatest extent possible. There is something that seems to me grossly unfair about allowing an employer to simply walk away from a contractual promise to pay a pension, about putting pensioners into the same class of creditors with vendors and lenders.

So with that news of the day in my consciousness, I sat down to read the Daily Office and contemplate the Lectionary texts . . . and the image of the lion with two legs of a lamb or the ear of a goat hanging from its lips (which Amos has taken from the laws of Exodus) struck me as a visual metaphor for the plight of Detroit’s retirees (and possibly those of other employers, public and private, if this decision sets a precedent).

The law of Moses requires that someone entrusted with another’s livestock who has lost an animal to a predator, in order to prove that that is the case and that he has not taken it for his own use, salvage some part of the carcass (Exod. 22:13). Amos twists the legal requirement into a prophetic metaphor by using the verb “rescue” to refer to the salvage of the body parts and then uses the metaphor to describe the way in which God will “rescue” the Israelites of Samaria, driving the point home by saying that those few who will be “rescued” will also come away with only a fragment of their possessions, “the corner of a couch and part of a bed.”

I’m not really sure who’s the lion or who’s the rescuer in the Detroit bankruptcy, but I’m pretty certain who the sacrificial lambs are, who the people who are going to get to keep only a fragment (if that) of what ought to be legally theirs. At one point, Jesus warned his disciples about those whom he described as loving “to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces,” who want to have the “places of honor at banquets:” “They devour widows’ houses,” he said. (Luke 20:46-47) I can’t help but think of that warning, and see this image of the lion with legs dangling from its mouth, when I think of the pensioners who will be deprived of their retirement income by this court decision and the actions of the city managers of Detroit.

Perhaps the Advent message in the lesson from Amos today is found a few verses further on when the prophet addresses those “who oppress the poor, who crush the needy” and warns them, “The time is surely coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks . . . .” (Amos 4:1-2) That is the Advent theme, “The time is surely coming . . . the time is surely coming.”

The time is surely coming when the King will say to some, “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing . . .” And he will assure them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” (Matt. 25:42-43,45)

I wonder if he will add, “I was a retiree and you did not pay me my pension.” I wonder if he will mention the bankruptcy of Detroit.

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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.

Stuff Happens – From the Daily Office – December 3, 2013

From the Prophet Amos:

Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment?
Does a lion roar in the forest when it has no prey?
Does a young lion cry out from its den if it has caught nothing?
Does a bird fall into a snare on the earth when there is no trap for it?
Does a snare spring up from the ground when it has taken nothing?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Amos 3:3-5 (NRSV) – December 3, 2013.)

Shoe Stepping in StuffThis series of questions is asked by Amos just before he asks, “Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?” (v. 6b) He’s provoking his readers (originally, his listeners) to answer each preliminary question, “Of course not” so that their answer to his capper will also be “Of course not.”

Amos’ question: “Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?” Amos’ answer: “Of course not!”

What is Amos saying here? Is Amos promoting that sorry sort of pop theology that says, “Everything happens for a reason” and implies that the reason is the will of God? Is the prophet promoting that equally sorry sort of personal religion that, when some misfortune strikes, asks, “What did I do wrong?” and implies that personal unhappiness, too, is punishment from God for a failure of faith or a paucity of piety?

If so, I reject the notion. I think the prophet is just dead wrong! “Does disaster befall a city unless the Lord has done it?” Sure. Everything does happen for a reason, but not every reason is God’s doing. Sometimes, perhaps more often than not, the reasons have nothing to do with God, and everything to do with the nature of the physical and human reality within which we live.

I used to practice personal injury law litigating cases where misfortune befell people who then sued other people because everything has to be somebody’s fault . . . somebody else’s fault . . . and that somebody should be made to pay damages because of my inconvenience. I reject that notion, too. All too often the cause of injuries and misfortune is pure accident. Nobody did anything wrong. They couldn’t have done anything other than what they did. And yet … well … there’s a bumper sticker that (politely rephrased) reads, “Stuff Happens.”

That’s the nature of reality . . . that sometimes “stuff” just happens. Not because somebody willed it so, not because somebody made a mistake or acted negligently or did anything wrong, and certainly not because God decreed it. It just happens. The great British preacher Leslie Weatherhead once said, “Surely we cannot identify as the will of God something for which a man would be locked up in jail, or put in a criminal lunatic asylum.”

In fact, Weatherhead suggested that to blame catastrophes and other terrible events on “the will of God” is “a greater blasphemy than the denial of the Holy Trinity.” He went on to say, “One of the first things we must do is to dissociate from the phrase ‘the will of God’ all that is evil and unpleasant and unhappy.” Evil, he noted, is never creative of good; I think that was his polite British way to say “stuff happens.” But in every circumstance where calamity and misfortune befalls us, where “stuff happens,” there is opportunity for good to be revealed.

So what does a person of faith do with that? When “stuff” happens, what should a person of faith do? That’s a pretty good Advent question because one thing I know about Christmas celebrations is that, invariably, stuff happens. Things don’t go according to plan. Presents get lost or broken. Special dishes don’t get cooked properly (or at all). There are arguments. Feelings get hurt.

Be prepared for it! And when it happens look for the opportunity to redeem it, to sooth the hurt, to be an instrument of God’s good and creative will to redeem the “stuff.”

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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.

The One Thing Needful in a Market Economy – Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11C) – July 21, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 9 (Proper 11, Year C): Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; and Luke 10:38-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Fruit BasketIn last week’s sermon I talked about the first three prophetic visions God reveals to Amos: a plague of locusts devouring the crops of ancient Israel, a catastrophic fire destroying everything in the nation, and the plumb line set in the midst of the nation’s people demonstrating that they were not upright. This week Amos is shown a fourth prophetic vision.

The eighth chapter of this prophet opens with God showing Amos a basket of summer fruit, such things as peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, and figs. We aren’t told the condition of the fruit, but some commentators suggest that it may be fruit that is over-ripe, maybe on the verge of going bad. They suggest this because God tells Amos that this vision means that “the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” God’s explanation continues with visions of dead bodies in the street, wailing and lamentation in the temples, the nation destroyed, and the survivors wandering lost.

Well, it may be that the fruit is going bad, but in truth what God is doing is making a pun in Hebrew, a play on words that simply doesn’t translate into English. In Hebrew, the word for “summer fruits” is qayits; the word for “the end” is qets. The are spelled differently, but pronounced almost identically. Qayits . . . qets . . . God is making it clear that with respect to Israel, God is calling it quits! The finality of the passage is clear; Israel has no recourse.

And why has it come to this? Again, God is very clear, it’s because of economic injustice. God will punish the nation because its upper class, its wealthy merchants “trample on the needy.” They can’t wait Sabbaths and holy days to get over so they can resume their fraudulent business practices. They sell partial measures of wheat weighed on false scales that are overbalanced so that what is shown as a sheckel of wheat is far less. They measure ephahs of grain that are less than the regulation 35 liters. They “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” That they are described as “selling the sweepings of the wheats” suggests either that they are selling chaff as if it were good grain, or that they are selling even the gleanings which are required by the Law of Moses to be left for the homeless and the beggars. In short, God is more than a little unhappy about the disparity between the wealthy merchants and the poor who must buy from them.

In our world, as in ancient Israel, the overriding organizing principle of society is the market economy, profit at the bottom line: the measure for nearly everything is profit and how it can be increased. It is a principle which works on paper, yet it is not helpful when we encounter the most pressing issues in our society. By “society” I do not mean simply our nation, I mean our entire global society, but we do see this played out in our local and national communities.

We are concerned when our local superintendent of schools seems to abuse his financial privileges because we see our education system not keeping up in a world market. We complain about the cost of salaries and benefits for those who teach our children, and yet paradoxically use the superintendent’s apparent misuse of funds as an excuse to vote against school levies or otherwise reduce school budgets, as if cutting costs will improve our children’s education.

We have all witnessed the damage done to our environment by the continuing use of fossil fuels, and there is plenty of good scientific research indicating that it has resulted in man-made global climate change that is costing billions of dollars in storm damage, and disrupting (if not ending) the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. However, when solutions are proposed, the objection is always that it may impact the profitability of business.

The truth is that profitability is the wrong measure, that the market is unable to deal with these issues. The gap between rich and poor, between haves and have-not is huge when measured in dollars-and-cents; it is even more staggering when measured in education and quality of life, and it is continuing to grow.

Are we able to hear God’s word of justice spoken to Amos as applying to us? Do we even understand how clearly it applied to the ancient Israelites? Do we even remember that what was prophesied by Amos against them did, in fact, come to pass?

God’s word was given by Amos in approximately the year 750 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II of the Kingdom of Israel. This is not the united monarchy of Saul, David, and Solomon; this is the northern kingdom which rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam in about the year 930 BCE and set up Jeroboam I as a separate monarch in the region we now know as Samaria. These rebels included the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, and Manasseh, ten of the twelve tribes. Only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah remained loyal to the House of David.

Ten tribes. Ten tribes. That ought to ring some bells; that ought to tickle something in your memory. These ten tribes are legendary, known to history as “the ten lost tribes of Israel.” Lost because less than twenty years after Amos prophesied that “dead bodies shall be cast out in every place,” it came to pass. Less than twenty years after God told them through Amos that their end would be bitter and that any survivors would “wander from sea to sea and from north to east . . . seeking the word of the Lord” and never finding it, that is exactly what happened. The Assyrian Empire invaded the northern Kingdom of Israel in 732 BCE and wiped . . . it . . . out . . .

Are we able to hear God’s word of economic justice spoken through Amos as applying to us? Not us the nation, but us the global economic society which cannot seem to divorce itself from the organizing principle of profit no matter what the issue may be, even when that organizing principle cannot address the issue. If we believe the witness of Holy Scripture, the ten lost tribes were lost, utterly destroyed, wiped from human history because God will not tolerate economic injustice!

Let’s leave that question for a moment and turn our attention to the Gospel lesson which seems at first glance to have little if any relationship to our Old Testament lesson. It is the familiar story of Jesus visiting his friends Mary and Martha of Bethany. He arrived and, like good friends and hosts, they held a dinner party. Luke does not tell us that others were present, but it would have been very much out of the ordinary for Jesus to have been alone with these women, so we can assume that others, at least their brother Lazarus, were there for the meal.

Martha, anxious for the comfort of their guest, busied herself with all the details of hospitality — setting the table, cooking, filling the glasses, bustling about will all of that sort of thing. Her sister Mary, however, did not pitch in to help. Instead, she sat with the other guests at Jesus feet, a student attentive to her teacher, listening to his words.

Martha, seeing Mary seeming not to care, became annoyed and ungracious. A word to her sister would probably have been sufficient to secure her help, but rather than do that Martha impatiently complained to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” This text is commonly understood to contrast Mary’s attention to Jesus words — good — with Martha’s busy distraction — bad. But that’s overly simplistic and isn’t true to the spirit of Jesus teaching.

Martha has done the right thing; she has invited Jesus into her home and busied herself with the obligations of hospitality, something that Jesus values. The problem is that, as a hostess, she hasn’t been gracious; she hasn’t spent time with Jesus, her other guests, or even with her sister. She has let these tasks distract her. And worse, rather than speak with Mary directly and ask Mary directly for help, Martha did what we are all warned against; she dragged someone else into her tiff with her sister. It’s called “triangulation.” Like a school girl angry with a friend, she won’t talk directly to Mary, even when she’s in the same room: “Jesus, tell Mary (who was right there in the same room) to help me.” It’s a contentious move; it creates conflict.

It isn’t her busyness with hospitality and hosting, or her sister’s attention to his conversation, that Jesus referred to when he said, “There is need of only one thing.” Putting Mary to work at Martha’s task wasn’t what was required. It was something else. And to understand what it was, we have to step back from the gospel lesson and see this episode in context.

This visit with Mary and Martha happens immediately after Jesus has told the story we heard last week, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Remember that that story came in response to a question from a lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In answer to that question, Jesus asked the lawyer what the Law of Moses says, to which the lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ”

Jesus told the lawyer that his answer was correct and then said, “Do this, and you will live.” The lawyer had given a two-part answer: love God — love your neighbor. But to Jesus it was not two things, but one. He did not say, “Do these.” He did not say, “Do those two thing.” He said, “Do this” — singular — one thing. Love God, love your neighbor. To Jesus, it’s one thing, one needful thing. (And, please, remember! This is not sloppy, emotional romantic love! This is Biblical love – chessed in Hebrew; agape in Greek – love which respects the dignity of human being, which promotes peace, and fosters justice.)

For Jesus, love is above and beyond all else. It takes precedence over every other consideration, every other organizing principle, every other motive. He will live by, and die because of, this one needful thing. He will stay true to this one thing even though it will mean his sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. “Through him,” writes Paul to the Colossians, and through the fullness of God, which is Love, which dwelt in him, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Love is the one thing needful.

And that one thing is the answer to the economic injustice against which the prophet Amos railed. The answer does not and cannot lie within the context of the market economy itself. Just as taking Mary away from the conversation and putting her to work at Martha’s tasks would not really have answered Martha’s complaints and reconciled what had become the bitterness between them, simply taking money away from the rich and giving it to the poor will not correct economic injustice; it simply perpetuates it, giving the money a new owner, and making a new non-owner filled with resentment. Revolution, elevating the working proletariat above the rich merchant class, switching Mary for Martha, also is not the answer; it simply perpetuates the disparities by reversing the roles. The answer does not and cannot lie within the market economy; it must be found in a different context.

Reducing people to commodities — “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” — being eager to sell on the Sabbath, shorting measures, and cutting corners were commonplace, if not integral, to the economy of ancient Israel; they are commonplace, if not integral, to all market economies. But these practices and attitudes of markets, like Martha’s bustling busyness, lack one thing needful. They lack love — love which respects dignity, promotes peace, and fosters justice. And because they lacked love, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom became lost, utterly destroyed, wiped from the human history because God will not tolerate economic injustice!

We must come to the realization as a society, as a global economic society, that we are no different from the lost tribes of Israel. That for many aspects of our modern life — health, education, clean air and water, public safety — profitability is the wrong measure, just as it was for them. The market was and is unable to deal with these issues; it was and is the wrong context within which to solve these and many other of society’s ills. As the Psalm for today says, we must stop trusting in great wealth; we must stop relying upon wickedness; we must, instead, trust in the mercy of God. In these areas of our common life, we need to change society’s organizing principle from market economics to gospel values, from profit as the bottom line to biblical love – dignity, peace, justice – as the bottom line.

It is the one thing needful. 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.

Who Is My Neighbor? And Who Is the Good Samaritan? – Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C) – July 14, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 8 (Proper 10, Year C): Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; and Luke 10:25-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Good Samaritan, engraving by Julius Schnorr von CarolsfeldThe nation’s legal system is corrupt; justice is for sale to the highest bidder. The guilty go free while the innocent suffer and die. The rich are crushing the poor. The affluent, the 1%-ers, are living a lavish life, with their costly perfumes and cosmetics, and their vacation homes with expensive furnishings, pleasure palaces where they can throw extravagant parties with music in every room. They revel in sexual debauchery of all sorts, but try to enforce a puritanical moral code on the rest of society. The poor are at the mercy of predatory lenders who exploit vulnerable families. The rich have more than enough to eat and to waste, while the poorest in the society go hungry. And government and religious leaders not only allow this to happen, they help it happen.

Just a brief summary of Chapters 1 through 6 of the Prophet Amos.

Some of you probably thought, “There he goes again, spouting his liberal politics from the pulpit.” But I’m not; as I said, it’s simply a paraphrase the Prophet Amos’s critique, of God’s critique, of ancient Israel at the time of King Jeroboam II. We just heard most of chapter 7 beginning at verse 7, in which Amos tells of the third of three prophetic visions. In verses 1 through 6, Amos tells of God showing him locusts devouring all the crops of the land and then another vision of fire destroying everything in the nation. Amos pleads with God not to let that happen. Most scholars interpret those visions as omens of what God might do to the nation, but I think perhaps they might instead be striking visions of prophetic judgment against the wealthy of ancient Israel and the rulers and religious leaders of the time. These are not visions of what God might do; they are visions of what those in power will do if not stopped. And God’s judgment spoken twice to Amos is, “This will not happen!” (vv. 3, 6)

So God shows Amos a vision of a plumb line. Do you know what a plumb line is? There’s a picture of a plumb line on the cover of the bulletin this morning. A plumb line is a string with a metal weight, or “plumb bob,” at one end which, when suspended, points directly towards the earth’s center of gravity so that the string hangs perpendicular to the plane of the earth’s surface; it is used to test the verticality of structures, how true to straight up-and-down they are. It sets the standard for up-rightness. God tells Amos that God is setting a metaphorical plumb line in the midst of God’s People and if they don’t measure up to the standard, “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and [God] will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Well, you say, that’s ancient Israel. What’s that got to do with us?

Let me read you a news item from the past week. This is from the July 9, 2013, issue of the Florence, Alabama, Times-Daily:

Police Chief Lyndon McWhorter said Monday morning’s bank robbery [in Moulton, Alabama] was among the most unusual of his law enforcement career.

“I’ve been involved with several over the years, but none like this,” McWhorter said. “It’s one for the books.”

McWhorter said Rickie Lawrence Gardner, 49, of 7667 Alabama 33, Moulton, was arrested Monday morning while sitting on a bench outside the Bank Independent branch on Court Street in Moulton, minutes after he supposedly walked in and robbed the bank.

“When the officers got there, he was just sitting on the bench, waiting on them,” McWhorter said. “The money was locked up inside his truck, which was parked in the handicapped spot in front of the bank.

“He had a handicap sticker on his vehicle so he even parked legal.”

McWhorter said Gardner told authorities he robbed the bank because he had hurt his leg and wasn’t able to take care of himself.

“So, he decided to get arrested to have a place to live and someone to take care of him.”

Minutes before the arrest, McWhorter said, Gardner walked into the bank just off Alabama 157 and handed a teller a written note explaining that he had a gun and she was to give him money.

Authorities said no weapon, other than a pocketknife, was found when Gardner was taken into custody.

“The only thing he said to the teller was when he asked her to give him a bag to put the money in,” McWhorter said.

With the money in hand, McWhorter said Gardner walked out of the bank, laid the money inside his vehicle, locked the door and walked back to the bench. The chief said Gardner sat down on the wooden bench in front of the bank and waited on officers.

“When officers got there, he did not offer any kind of resistance. He was just waiting on them,” McWhorter said. “This is the first bank robbery I’ve ever worked where the robber was waiting outside the bank for the police to turn himself in.” (Times-Daily)

The Associated Press later reported that Gardner “mentioned the weapon in the note — even though he didn’t have one — because he thought it would get him a longer sentence;” he thought he’d get more time, which would mean more shelter, more food. (AP Story)

The reason you may have thought my opening paraphrase of Amos sounded like an indictment of our own society is simple. It does. The word of prophecy spoken by Amos to ancient Israel speaks directly to us.

You know the interesting thing about Amos’s prophecy is that we can’t even be sure it was heard by the rulers of the nation to which it was spoken. We know Amos wrote it down; we know that someone told the story of Amos delivering his prophecy to Amaziah (who was the high priest at Bethel the religious center of the northern kingdom), but we are told that Amaziah never delivered it to Jeroboam II, the reigning king.

Amaziah instead told the king that Amos was part of a conspiracy to kill him, and then Amaziah told Amos to return to his home which was in the southern kingdom. “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah,” he says, “earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” And this is where Amos speaks one of my favorite lines in Scripture, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

Amos’s answer was to indicate that he was not a prophet by profession; he was not a member of one of the official “prophecy schools.” Indeed, as part of the official religious establishment, Amos thought those full-time prophets were as much a part of the problem as the priests, the king, and the wealthy! Amaziah proved that he was part of the problem by failing to communicate Amos’s prophecy to King Jeroboam, so our reading today ends with Amos’s personal prophecy against him: “Your wife shall become a . . . and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword . . . and you shall die in an unclean land.” A pretty pointed prophecy, if ever there was one!

But we, who hear in Amos’s condemnation of ancient Israel at least a bit of a word of warning to our own society, what are we to make of this prophecy of the plumb line? The standard for the People of God in Israel was the ancient law of Moses, the religious, ethical, and social rules we find in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers (Deuteronomy was unknown at the time of Amos). What is it for us? How are we (as Paul wrote to the Colossians) to be “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding?” How are we to “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him?” How are we to bear fruit in every good work and . . . grow in the knowledge of God?”

Well, that standard is easily stated. A young lawyer does so in today’s Gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” It’s easily stated; it’s not so easily understood.

The young lawyer says as much when he asks his follow up question, “Who is my neighbor?” He wants to know what we want to know: are there limits? Is it sufficient to love only the people of my community — for him, Israel; for most of us, white descendants of Northern European immigrants? Does it include Mr. Gardner, the bank robber in Moulton, Alabama? Might it also include other undesirables, Samaritans and Gentiles, the Irish, descendants of African slaves, recently immigrated Asians, Hispanics? Does it include women, people with disabilities, lepers, and others frequently excluded from society? Do we get to define who is our neighbor, or does Someone else?

Ultimately, the answer to our question is the answer to another question: “Who does God love?” Jesus answers the question by telling a parable, the oh-so-familiar story of the “Good Samaritan.” In analyzing this story, Lutheran theologian Brian Stoffregen asks an important question: “Why does Jesus make the hero of this story a Samaritan?” In answering this question he writes:

The idea of being a “Good Samaritan” is so common in our culture, that most people today don’t realize that “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the “true” Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus — the “bad” Samaritans. I’m certain that in the minds of many Jews, the only “good” Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Note that the lawyer never says “Samaritan.” He can’t call him a “good Samaritan” (a phrase that doesn’t occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, “Why a Samaritan?”

If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch. Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.

If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that we Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ. I know that I saw much more love expressed towards each by the clients at an inpatient alcoholic/drug rehab hospital than I usually find in churches. Can we learn about “acting Christianly” from AA or the Hell’s Angels? (CrossMarks)

But Stoffregen proposes an alternative response: “Another answer to the question: ‘Why a Samaritan?’ is that we are not to identify with the Samaritan. A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn’t identify with that person. He wouldn’t want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch.” And that raises the further question, “Then who is the Samaritan?” to which there can only be one answer, “The Samaritan is God.”

If the Samaritan represents God, that means that God loves the penniless, the stripped naked, the beaten down, the ones left half dead, the ones passed-by by the leaders of society, by the rulers, by the punctiliously correct, and (I’m sorry to say) by the religious. It makes us realize that God is no respecter of position or wealth, God does not care about social class or religion. The man in the ditch had been stripped of everything that might have indicated his social standing, his religious faith, even his nationality; he was simply a person in need. That is who God loves, and that means that God loves everyone. In the human community, every person is potentially a person in need; truth be told, every person is a person in need.

Who is my neighbor? Who does God love? Everyone. No exceptions. No exclusions. That is the standard, the rule, the plumb line by which God judges society. This again and again is what the prophets of old told us; it is what Jesus told us; it is what our own modern prophets have said over and over. For example:

In the 18th Century, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell quoted him as saying, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” (Boswell, Life of Johnson)

In her book My Several Worlds (1954), Pearl S. Buck, wrote: “The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

In his last political speech, Sen. Hubert Humphrey said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

And Mahatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

Who is my neighbor? Who does God love? Everyone. No exceptions. No exclusions.

Every person is potentially a person in need, and every person is potentially a caregiver, a supplier of that which is needed. When we conclude our worship this morning, several young people and a few adults accompanying them will depart for Franklin, Pennsylvania, to be suppliers of that which is needed. At this point, they don’t know whose needs they are going to be supplying; they don’t know what those needs will be. All they know is that there are people in need and they are going to care for them, because they are our neighbors.

So at this point, let’s get on with the business of commissioning them for the ministry on which they are about the embark.

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

A Prophetic General Convention – Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 10B – July 15, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 15, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 10B: Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; and Mark 6:14-29)

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In our lessons today, we have two stories about silencing the prophetic voice. First, a snippet of the not-very-familiar story of the Prophet Amos which is, frankly, cut from its context so badly that some explanation really is necessary. Second, the almost-too-familiar story of the beheading of John the Baptizer.

Amos, as he is at pains to say to the priest Amaziah, is not a professional prophet: “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.” Nonetheless, Amos was commissioned by God in the middle of the 8th Century before Christ to leave his home in the southern kingdom of Judah, travel to the northern kingdom of Israel, and deliver there a condemnation of Israel, its monarch and its people. In this portion of his story, he tells of God showing him four quick visions, of which the plumb line is the third. First, he is shown a swarm of locusts, illustrating that God will wipe out Israel just as locusts wipe out a crop. Second, he is shown a shower of fire that would “eat up the land.” After each of these, Amos speaks up in defense of Isreal and God relents. Third is the vision we heard in the lesson, the plumb line; Amos, however, does not defend Israel after this vision. Instead, the series of visions is interrupted by the tale of the priest Amaziah and his attempt to silence this prophet.

Amos has delivered his message to Amaziah, a message to the whole of the country, but Amaziah, who is high priest at the king’s shrine at Bethel, has edited it before delivering it to the king. Instead of a message to the whole of society, he has made it sound like nothing more than a personal threat against the king and now, certain of the king’s reaction, he warns Amos to flee, to return to the south to make his living as a prophet there, but never to prophecy again in Israel. This is where Amos protests that he is not a professional prophet, but earns his living in agriculture; and this is where the lectionary reading ends. But it is not where the story ends.

Because of his attempt to silence the prophecy, Amos speaks a word from God for Amaziah, predicting that his family will fall in ruin and dishonor and that he himself will die “in an unclean land.” Amos then tells of the fourth of his visions, a bowl of fresh fruit which God explains illustrates that God’s patience with Israel is at an end. It’s a pun in Hebrew, the word for fruit being qay’its and that for end being qets. In English, I suppose, we would say that God is calling it quits with these people. The story ends with God’s final word to Amaziah, to the all of Israel, and to anyone who would muzzle his prophets: “Be silent!” Those who would interfere with God’s word to God’s people are themselves to shut up or face consequences like those promised Amaziah!

Which brings us to the gospel lesson and the beheading of John the Baptizer. It’s so familiar it hardly needs rehearsing, but let’s just refresh our memories, anyway.

Herod imprisoned John in an attempt to appease his wife Herodias because John had been raling against her and her marriage to Herod, who was her brother-in-law before he was her spouse and, therefore, John considered the marriage adulterous. (Some suggest that Herod did so to prevent Herodias from killing John herself.) At a birthday party he threw for himself, Herod witnessed a dance by his step-daughter and was so taken that he made a rash promise to give her anything she might ask for, up to half his kingdom. Consulting her mother, the girl asks for John’s head on a platter. Hoist on the petard of his public promise, Herod has no choice but to give her what she asks, even though he was quite fearful that John was, indeed, a prophet of God. Not recorded in the Bible is the fact that not too long after the events portrayed in the Gospels, Herod was deprived of his kingdom and all his property, and died in squalid poverty exiled to Gaul. Silencing God’s prophets, again, is obviously a really bad idea!

While I would be the last to suggest that the Episcopal Church or any of its leaders are equivalent to Amos or John the Baptist, I do believe that from time to the Church does speak with a prophetic voice. I believe that, in part, because of Christ’s promise that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matt. 18:20) and because it has been the tradition and belief of the church since the very first Ecumenical Counsel that (as some Lutheran bishops recently put it) “we trust that God’s Spirit will form the wisdom of God’s faithful people gathered in deliberative assembly.” (ELCA Conference of Bishops, March 10, 2009)

Over 1,000 Episcopalians on Thursday concluded the bicameral deliberative assembly known as The General Convention of the Episcopal Church: 165 bishops participated as voting members of the junior house; 844 lay and clergy deputies, as voting members of the senior house. They were presented with over 440 pieces of business ranging from courtesy resolutions commending the host hotel’s staff to the adoption of a budget for the next three years to the approval of new liturgies to the election of new leadership. Much of that was done quickly, with little fan-fare and hardly any notice. Much of it was done with the boring, long-drawn-out tedium that careful legislative work often seems to entail, but again with little notice. Some of it has received and will receive the attention of a secular press itching for scandal and sensationalism, eager to sell its advertising by selling the world a picture of a church gone (as Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina, in fact, urged it in his keynote sermon) crazy! (Of course, Bishop Curry was encouraging the church to go “crazy for Christ,” something the secular press will overlook.) Some of what the church did at the 77th General Convention will, I believe, be seen in years to come to be truly prophetic, in the best sense of that word, speaking God’s Truth to a world in need of hearing it, and I suspect that there will be those who try to silence the Convention’s message or stop its actions as Amaziah and Herodias did those of Amos and John the Baptist.

Of all the work done by the Convention, there were three areas in which I believe its actions are the most important. First, it acted in regard to marriage and the promises couples make to one another when forming life-long, loving, and committed relationships. Second, it affirmed the church’s traditional understanding of the dominical sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. Third, it committed the church to structural and organic reform.

With regard to life-long interpersonal commitments, the Convention called for an in-depth study and proclamation of the church’s contemporary theology of marriage. This, in my opinion, has been needed for many years. Holy Matrimony is one of the five sacramental rites of the church which our Articles of Religion tell us arise from “states of life allowed in the Scriptures” but which have neither “visible sign [n]or ceremony ordained of God.” (Art. XXV, BCP page 872) Marriage is one of those “Traditions and Ceremonies” that it “is not necessary . . . be in all places one, or utterly like.” (Art. XXXIV, BCP page 874) Since it was first identified as a sacrament in about the 10th Century, marriage practices “have been divers,” and the Articles of Religion assure us “may be changed according to the diversity of countries, times, and men’s manners.” (Ibid.) After a thousand years of monkeying about with marriage willy-nilly, and believe me we have done just that throughout the church’s history, taking a good, hard, methodical look at our theology and practice is a great idea!

In the same area, the Convention approved a provisional rite for the blessing of the committed, life-long relationships of same-sex couples. This is the one action that I am sure will be most discussed and most mischaracterized in the secular press. The Standing Liturgical Commission, which developed this rite, and the deputies and bishops who adopted it, have been quite clear that this is not marriage liturgy; it does not confer the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Furthermore, it is a provisional rite, which means it may only be used provided certain conditions are met. I confess that I have not read the enabling legislation, but it is my understanding that this liturgy may only be used in those States or foreign jurisdictions where the civil authorities have either made the legal state of marriage open to same-sex couples or have created some other form of legally recognized civil union for such couples. Furthermore, it may only be used with the permission of the local bishop.

The second area of important action was in regard to the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. There was a motion put forward by the Diocese of Eastern Oregon to change the canons of the church so as to permit, as a regular matter, those who are not yet baptized to receive the Sacrament of the Altar. This would have changed what has been the practice and tradition of the church since its very beginning; there has never been a time when it was not considered necessary that a person be baptized before being invited to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. While we do not check ID’s at the altar rail or communion station, and while we do now open our communion to all who are baptized in any Christian tradition (no longer restricting the Eucharist to those confirmed in the Episcopal Church), the General Convention was not willing to make that change. Instead, in a substitute resolution, the bishops and deputies affirmed that it is the normative practice and expectation of this church that Baptism precede reception of Holy Communion, and affirming that the Episcopal Church invites everyone to be baptized into the saving death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

The third and, I believe, most important of what I have called the prophetic actions of the General Convention is to take the first step toward reorganization and restructuring of the Episcopal Church. We have a national, provincial, and diocesan structure which is often top-heavy, unwieldy, and counter-productive. One of the buzz-words of recent Convention was “nimble” – that is not a word that in any way, shape, or form describes the Episcopal Church! It doesn’t even describe one of our parishes let alone the entire national organization! All too often we find ourselves standing in our own way, tripping over our own feet. In passing the resolution to re-imagine and restructure the church and calling for a task force made up of new and younger leaders to do so, the General Convention has said that we will get out of the way; we will get out of the Spirit’s way; we will get out of our own way!

There is much work to be done, but it seems to me that the hardest work will be the letting-go and stepping-aside . . . letting go of old ways of doing and being church, letting go of expectations of how things have always been done and how we think they ought to be done, letting go of office and power by those who have governed the church for generations, letting go of the hurt and pain of change . . . stepping aside to allow those newer, younger leaders to come forward, stepping aside to let the Holy Spirit come in, stepping aside to free the center so that it may be filled with something new and different. I hope that the hard work of letting-go and stepping-aside will get done, although I’m not convinced that it will.

Shortly after adopting that resolution, the House of Deputies was given an opportunity to elect newer and younger leadership. It chose instead to elect as its president someone who has been a General Convention deputy eight times and who has had a seat in the highest councils of the church for years. It elected as its vice-president someone who has been a deputy at every General Convention since 1973. I know both of these individuals and I know that they are faithful, dedicated, and capable, but I have to be honest – these folks are part of the well-entrenched, long-experienced cadre of church governors; this is leadership that is anything but new or young (and it pains me to say that since the new president and I are essentially the same age). Still, I live in hope that they can and will, in fact, facilitate and accomplish the change that is needed, because (as I said earlier) I trust that God’s Spirit forms the wisdom of God’s faithful people gathered in deliberative assembly.

So let me bring us back to our lessons for today. What might they be teaching us about how to respond to the actions of our recently-concluded General Convention?

Well . . . first, I suggest that the story of Amos and Amaziah, and the story of the Baptizer and Herodias, these stories in which someone sought to silence the prophetic word encourage us to be aware of the distortions we may hear from both the religious and the secular media. Just as Amaziah misrepresented and tried to silence Amos’s prophecy when relaying it to King Jeroboam, so too may we find the reports distorting the actual words and actions of the Convention in an attempt to undermine and stop them. Just as Herodias sought to behead John, so too we may find the detractors of our church trying to assassinate the character of our leaders.

Secondly, the defense of prophecy in the Book of Amos with its pronouncement of judgment against Amaziah or the end to which Herod and Herodias came might stand as cautionary tales against our own tendency to silence whatever it is that we find unpalatable in the prophetic voices of our church’s Spirit-led Convention, voices calling us to change in those areas in which we as a church and as individuals may be in the greatest need of reformation.

Finally, we might find encouragement that we, like Amos and John, despite the dangers in doing so, might heed God’s call to exercise our own prophetic voices in our communities, in our workplaces, or among our circles of friends speaking on behalf of our church which welcomes all and proclaims the Good News that God loves everyone, no exceptions.