That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Baruch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who bakes the other bread?

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

Plentiful, wholesome, daily.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Give us today our daily bread. Amen.

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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.

Like Jesus – From the Daily Office – December 24, 2013

From the Book of Baruch:

Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem,
and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.
Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God;
put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting;
for God will show your splendor everywhere under heaven.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Baruch 5:1-3 (NRSV) – December 24, 2013.)

Nativity SilhouetteIt’s Christmas Eve! Probably my busiest and longest workday of the year.

The earliest part of my day will be spent receiving a shipment of poinsettias and completing the decorating of our church for Christmas services. In our own small way, St. Paul’s Parish will “put on the beauty of the glory from God” with those flowers, with our finest altar hangings and vestments, with special altar linens that are used only in this season, and with all the other trappings of the “high church” tradition that we enjoy from time to time.

The last part of my day will be spent in presiding at a festal eucharist with choir, organ, special music, chanted prayers, clouds of incense, and a congregation full of people dressed in Christmas finery. I’m quite certain all the splendor of the church will be on display in our nave and sanctuary, if not “everywhere under heaven.”

All of this . . . to celebrate the birth of a homeless, refugee infant in a borrowed stable. There is a marvelous incongruity to it all.

Our parish offered a service of Advent Lessons and Carols a few weeks ago. Many other congregations will offer a similar service as their early evening worship today. In the Episcopal Church, early in that service comes the Bidding Prayer, written by a Victorian bishop for the first such service at King’s College, Oxford, which includes this admonition:

And because this of all things would rejoice his heart, let us at this time remember in his name the poor and the helpless, the hungry and the oppressed; the sick and those who mourn; the lonely and the unloved; the aged and the little children; and all those who know not the Lord Jesus, or who love him not, or who by sin have grieved his heart of love.

In the midst of all our “pomp and circumstance,” in all our decking out in robes and diadems and splendor, sometime during this busiest and longest work day of the year, I hope to find a few minutes to pause before the altar, in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament, to remember those who are much more like the baby in the manger than I am.

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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.

What Is the Crying? – Sermon for Advent 2, Year C – December 9, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 9, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Advent 2, Year C: Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16 (The Song of Zechariah, Benedictus Dominus Deus, Luke 1: 68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; and Luke 3:1-6. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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John the Baptist

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts
and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness,
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal, in darkness we lie down, blindhearted,
seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid all heaven
in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God comes as gift into our lives;
oh let salvation dawn!

(Words: Carol Christopher Drake)

What is the crying at Jordan? What is the crying in New York? What is the crying at Arlington? What is the crying in Southern California? What is the crying at Checkpoint 18 outside of Kabul? What is the crying in Medina? What is that crying?

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction,” wrote Baruch, “and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” This is a time and a season when we expect to leave behind our sorrows and our afflictions; we expect to feel happiness and joy, and if we don’t we feel guilty because that’s what your supposed to feel at Christmas, right? But the truth is that for many this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely. That crying is the voice of those feeling the cold hand of death and the emptiness of loss in this season of joy and celebration.

This is a time and a season when death and loss can and do really hit home. Nine days ago, a week ago Friday, we received word that Nancy Lawrence, a long-time, life-time member of this congregation had passed away. Even though her last several months of life were, frankly, awful and everyone who has known Nancy is relieved that she is no longer suffering, still any death is an occasion of sadness. For many this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

This past Friday, day before yesterday, I got word in the evening that Deborah Griffin Bly, a woman I’ve known and whose music I have enjoyed for seventeen years had died. She was one of the singing duet called “The Miserable Offenders” and it was she and her partner who introduced me to that exquisite piece of poetry and its musical setting, Hymn 69, in our hymnal. Deb and I were part of community of Anglicans online that extends around the world; through it we have had nearly a thousand mutual friends. For many this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

Thirteen years ago, on the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, December 21, my mother passed away. Losing a parent is one of life’s hardest lessons, and never a good prelude to Christmas, and every year after the joyous holiday is also a reminder of the most profound loss. For me, as for many, this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

And, yet, Baruch writes, “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”

In the current issue of the magazine The Christian Century, Lutheran pastor Peter Marty tells of preaching a Christmas Eve sermon in which he made “reference to a little boy in a rough section of Trenton, New Jersey, whose body was found stuffed in a bag under a fire escape.” At the conclusion of the service a woman “told [him] in the receiving line that mention of children being murdered had no place in a Christmas sermon. [She said,] ‘I will never set foot in this church again.'” (December 12, 2012, Vol. 129, No. 25, page 10) I don’t know if I would mention a murder in a Christmas sermon, but I think we all need to remember that for many this time of year is not a “holly, jolly” season.

As we get ready for whatever good times we anticipate, as we prepare to celebrate the Messiah’s birth, let’s remember that unless we see the shadow of the cross falling on the crib we are not seeing Christmas clearly. Jesus did not enter this world just to be a cute little baby; he grew up! He lived in a time of political turmoil in a land oppressed by the military might of the Roman Empire. He taught a subversive “good news” that offended both that Empire and the religious establishment of his own country which sought to appease it. His truth would lead to his arrest and he would suffer and die on a cross. That he did so and rose from the dead so that our sins might be forgiven and we might enter into the Kingdom of God is why Christmas is special. Christmas Eve might not be the time or place to make mention of the murder of children, but our time of preparing to appreciate Christmas is a time to appreciate the reality of death and suffering, the reality of sorrow and affliction.

Traditionally, on this Second Sunday of Advent (and again next week on the Third Sunday) we focus our attention on John the Baptist, the forerunner who was the voice crying in the wilderness. His was the voice crying at Jordan, “In the desert, make straight a pathway for our God.” We turned our attention toward John this morning by saying together the words of the song his father, the priest Zechariah, sang at his birth. It’s a great canticle, and I love its final words:

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

They are words that speak especially to those for whom this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

They are also words that speak to and for all of us, because we all dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. At one time or another, we all, as that marvelous poem says, lie down in darkness, blind-hearted, seeing no light. At one time or another, we all, as the Psalmist so eloquently put it, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But we need fear no evil for as John the Baptist, cried out at Jordan

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

It is for and through those for whom this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely that the real meaning of Advent comes through. Only a very shallow and superficial understanding of the story of the Savior’s birth would lead us to think that the Christmas for which we prepare is only about happiness. Christmas is about real life – yes, it is about joy, but it is also about sorrow; yes, it is about birth, but it is also about death; yes, it is about redemption, but it is also about affliction. It is about God coming to us incarnate in Jesus to give us life, real life, and that abundantly. It is about Christ crucified, risen, and ascended returning for us in glory. When we realize this and are enabled to give thanks for the birth of Christ and to look forward to his triumphant return even in the midst of death and loss, even as we live with profound sorrow and affliction, it is then that the dawn from on high breaks upon us brings us. It is then that we harvest the “righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ;” it is then that we see salvation; it is then that we put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Let us pray:

O God of grace and glory, as we continue to prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, as we await his return in glory, we remember before you our loved ones departed. We thank you for giving them to us, their families and friends, to know and to love as companions on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, comfort us when we are overcome by sorrow and affliction. Give us faith to know that the valley of the shadow of death shall be filled, that your dawn will break upon us to guide our feet into the way of peace, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we shall see your salvation and be reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.