That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Colossians (page 1 of 2)

Act Three (Pt 2): Monstrous Relief – Easter Day 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Festival Eucharist of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, April 16, 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: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24, and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

I love that poem, John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter from the collection Telephone Poles and Other Poems. I have read it here before and, doubtless, I will read it again.

Only a poet like Updike could use the word monstrous to describe the Resurrection of Christ and, in spite of its shock value, or perhaps because of it, it is the perfect word, an ambiguous word that captures the essence of the entire Triumphal Entry – Passover Supper – Crucifixion – Resurrection event, the three-act drama of redemption which we began to remember on Palm Sunday.

Monstrous can, and usually does, mean something like “frightful or hideous; extremely ugly; shocking or revolting; awful or horrible,” and those are certainly good words to describe the way the people of Jerusalem turned on Jesus, the way his disciple Judas betrayed him, the way his other followers denied and abandoned him, the way the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, abused and killed him, mocking, scourging, and finally crucifying him. It was all monstrous; there’s no doubt about that!

Monstrous, however, can also mean “extraordinarily great; huge; immense; outrageous; overwhelming.” And those are superlative ways to describe the fact of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead! It is a huge thing! It is immense, outrageous, overwhelming! Yes, the Resurrection is monstrous!

There are two people who are hardly ever thought of in all of this three-part drama, in all the majesty of Holy Week and Easter: one of them is mentioned briefly only by John in his story of Jesus’ Crucifixion; the other isn’t named at all. I refer to Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ mother and foster father.

Of course, we know nothing of Joseph during Jesus’ adult ministry; after that event in the Jerusalem Temple when Jesus was about 13, Joseph is never again mentioned in the Gospels. Some suppose this is because he had passed away, but I like to think that he was just back home in Nazareth working the family business, doing carpentry or carving stone, making tables and chairs or building homes, keeping the family provided for so that Jesus could go about his ministry and Mary could accompany him.

Mary is mentioned in John’s story of the Crucifixion as standing at the foot of the cross and being entrusted by Jesus to the disciple whom he loved. And the legend from which we get the 14th Station of the Cross and Michelangelo’s exquisitely beautiful Pieta is that when his body was removed from the cross she held him, dead, in her arms. But there is no mention of her or of Joseph at Jesus’ burial, nor are they mentioned in any of the accounts of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.

That omission, for I am sure that is what it is, an omission, disturbs me. Two weeks ago was the 59th anniversary of my father’s death at the age of 39. I am now about the age his mother and father, my grandparents, were when he died. One of my clearest memories of childhood is his funeral. I remember how, as we were leaving the graveside, my grandparents hung back, how they could not step away from nor turn their backs on the grave that held their child’s lifeless body. When, at last, they accepted my Uncle Scott’s physical encouragement to do so, my grandmother said to my mother, “A mother should not outlive her child.” She would know that feeling again just a few years later when my Uncle Scott died of cancer.

And own my mother would know it, as well, when in 1993 my only sibling, my older brother Rick, died of brain cancer. I vividly remember doing exactly what my uncle had done, physically moving my mother and stepfather away from the grave, the grave they could not leave on their own. Later that day, my mother said to me, “You’re grandmother was right. A parent should not outlive her child.”

Having seen my grandparents and my parents at the graves of their children, I cannot believe that Mary and Joseph were not there when the stone was rolled into place, when Jesus was buried in that borrowed tomb.

Updike’s portrayal of the Resurrection and his admonition to us, “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,” so aptly describe the entire event of Holy Week and Easter, because we cannot appreciate the overwhelming wonder of the Resurrection, this third act of the redemption drama, without taking into account the first two acts, all of the horror and ugliness they portrayed: Judas’ betrayal, the other disciples abandonment, Peter’s denial, the trial before Pilate, Christ’s scourging and humiliation, his bitter agony on the Cross, his final self-emptying in death, and his burial. It is all monstrous; painful and ugly and awful in the first sense of that wonderfully ambiguous adjective. And I cannot believe that his parents were not there, did not experience the whole monstrous lot of it!

And, just as I am puzzled by the absence of almost any mention of Mary and Joseph in the narrative of Christ’s death and burial, and I am astounded that there is no allusion to them in the Gospel accounts of that first Easter morning or any time after his Resurrection! The only word about either of them is in the first chapter of the Book of Acts and, again, it’s only Mary who gets mentioned. Luke, the author of Acts, says that following Christ’s Ascension forty days after his Resurrection the apostles “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) That’s it, that one mention! I find that astonishing!

Apparently so have many Christians throughout the ages, because there is an extra-biblical tradition that the Virgin Mary was the first person to witness our Lord’s Resurrection. The Golden Legend, a medieval collection of stories about the saints, says that the first appearance of the resurrected Christ on Easter Day was to the Virgin Mary:

It is believed to have taken place before all the others, although the evangelists say nothing about it.. . . . [I]f this is not to be believed, on the ground that no evangelist testifies to it . . . perish the thought that such a son would fail to honor such a mother by being so negligent! . . . Christ must first of all have made his mother happy over his resurrection, since she certainly grieved over his death more than the others. He would not have neglected his mother while he hastened to console others.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (1st C.) claimed it was so, as did St. Ambrose of Milan (4th C.), St. Paulinus of Nola (4th C.), the poet Sedulius (5th C.), St. Anselm of Canterbury (11th C.), St. Albertus Magnus (13th C.), St. Bernardino da Siena (15th C.), and the bible scholar Juan Maldonado (16th C.) More recently, the late Pope John Paul II, in 1997 expressed his opinion that Mary “was probably the first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared.” (Gen. Aud., Wednesday, 21 May 1997)

We live through this three-act drama every year in a set series of events: triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, last supper and then the prayers at Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, weeping at the tomb on Holy Saturday, and then – of course – our liturgy and our hymns encourage us to express joy on Easter morning. In Matthew’s Gospel we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary ran from the tomb “with fear and great joy,” but in our reading this morning from John a weeping Mary Magdalene, upon recognizing her risen teacher, literally clings to his feet in prostrate relieve; I wonder if that might have been the more common reaction of Jesus’ disciples and parents.

I believe that the legends and early fathers and the late pope are right, that the Risen Christ appeared to Mary and Joseph, as well as and probably before the eleven apostles and their friends, and that they would have been profoundly shaken, perhaps overwhelmingly frightened, and maybe eventually greatly reassured. But I’m not so sure that joy would be the best description of their initial reaction; perhaps the closest they might have come would have been relief.

We remember the three-act drama, as I said, in an orderly fashion. But if we know one thing about human beings, it is that we are not orderly creatures.

It may seem odd, but in just a few days, the Daily Office Lectionary will put us back to the beginning of Lent. At the end of the second week of Easter this year, the Daily Office gospel reading will be about Jesus’ temptations in the desert following his baptism.

That’s not odd, at all, really. Our spiritual life, like our emotional life, follows no particular schedule, no orderly progression. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and people often think they follow an orderly progression, just like our Holy Week and Easter celebrations. But clinical experience has shown that a grieving person does not move neatly through them as if they were rungs on a ladder. One may move from denial to anger to bargaining and then return to denial; one may skip a stage only to return to it later; one may spend a good deal of time in one stage and only a short while in another. There is no orderly progression and I can well imagine that Mary and Joseph and the apostles and the women at the tomb were all experiencing that sort of emotional bouncing about, an emotional roller coaster the like of which probably none of us have ever known.

Our spiritual lives are the same. As one works through the process of enlightenment, of salvation, of spiritual growth, of whatever-one-calls-it, one does not follow a schedule. We may move back to an earlier stage, revisit issues we thought we’d dealt with.

St. Paul urged his friends in the church at Caesarea Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philip. 2:12-13) Nowhere does Scripture promise that this work will be neat and tidy. If anything, the witness of Scripture is that spiritual and emotional growth is a messy affair.

That is why I suggest that the closest the first witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection might have come to joy would perhaps better be described as relief. The dictionary defines relief as “alleviation of pain, as the easing of anxiety, as deliverance from distress.” This is an appropriate experience and emotion for Easter Day, profound relief.

I think the joy comes later in the Easter Season and that it comes later in life as we live out our Easter faith. But in the immediate aftermath of the monstrous-ness of Holy Week, here in the third act of the drama of redemption, in the wake of the horrible ugliness of betrayal and death that occurred in the first two acts, one may simply not be ready to be jubilant and happy. In the face of our own sinfulness and spiritual dysfunction, in the reality of our own messy spiritual lives, we may not be ready for joy and gladness. But the fact of Christ’s Resurrection relieves us of grief and sorrow; it relieves us of sin and death.

The experience and impact of Easter Day is one of profound, overwhelming, (one might even say) monstrous relief.

Perhaps that is why Jesus stuck around for forty days, to continually reassure and sustain the disciples in their relief from fear and sorrow and grief, so that they could move into joy and gladness as time went on. Perhaps that is why in producing the third act of the drama of redemption the church offers not a single day, but a season of fifty days, so that as it progresses we can . . . like Mary and Joseph, like Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, like all the apostles . . . move from shock into relief, from relief into joy, so that it provides a pattern with which we can handle the inevitable losses in our lives.

As life goes on and as the victory of life over death sinks in, Easter relief will grow into Easter joy, something that propels us toward action and compels us to invite others into the Resurrected life of our Risen Lord. As Christians, we have access through the relief of Christ’s Resurrection into a joy that is unshakable – for joy is really not an emotion; it is a virtue. Easter joy does not mean being happy all the time or being fine when times are difficult; Easter joy means being sustained by the power of the Resurrection.

What Easter means is that in the depths of our being, despite the circumstances we may face, despite any fears we may have, despite whatever may be tearing up our souls, despite whatever sin or spiritual malaise we may be suffering, despite whatever disorderly messes our spiritual lives may be in, we are able to get through them, to let go of them, and to find relief and eternal life in the Resurrected Christ, a life into which we invite others.

John tells us that on that first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalen fell at her Risen Lord’s feet, he admonished her, “Do not hold on to me; I am ascending to my Father.” It doesn’t sound to me like this woman who had just been grieving at his tomb was expressing joy, nor that Jesus’ was encouraging it. What I hear is Jesus offering comfort and relief.

It has been said that joy comes from letting go – letting go of our attachments, letting go of any thoughts that the present moment should or even could be different than it is, letting go of our expectations. Joy is the virtue of celebrating the present, of living in the moment, something to which we come through a process of detachment and release, something that we like Mary Magdalene let go of the old Jesus, the Jesus who died on the cross, and follow the now-Risen and ascended Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2)

Resurrection Day is not the end of the process; it is the beginning. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Mary Magdalen. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells her not to hang on to him. In both gospels the message is, “Let go” – let go of me, let go of your fear.

Easter Day brings relief, overwhelming relief! Through that relief we are able to let go, to release our fears, our griefs, our worries, and our sorrows with absolute abandon, to be completely freed of our sinfulness! In letting go as the Easter Season and as our Easter faith progress, we are able to work out our salvation, for it is God who is at work in us, and ultimately find joy, unutterably ecstatic joy, huge, overwhelming, outrageous joy into which we are compelled to invite others!

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body . . .
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

(The illustration is The Resurrection Of Christ (Right Wing Of The Isenheim Altarpiece) by Matthias Grünewald, c.1512–16)

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

God Reigns: Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, 20 November 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for All Saints Day in Year C: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46 or Canticle 16 (Luke 1: 68-79); Colossians 1:11-20; and St. Luke 23:33-43 These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Christ the KingIt’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!” (Francis)

My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As we do so, I wish I could think in the terms of Malcolm’s beautiful poem, but I seldom do. This year, for example, we get the story of Jesus’ surprisingly calm conversation with the thief crucified next to him; these three men hanging in agony on crosses carry on a remarkably clear and lucid discussion. It’s probably my own sinful nature or my warped sense of humor or my attention deficit disorder or something, but I cannot read this gospel lesson with flashing to the crucifixion scene at the end of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” in which a chorus of two or three dozen crucified men, led by Eric Idle, address the lead character (who is also crucified) in song:

Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble. Give a whistle.
And this’ll help things turn out for the best.
And…
Always look on the bright side of life.

If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten,
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle. That’s the thing.
And…
Always look on the bright side of life.

A few stanzas later, the chorus sneaks in the line “Always look on the bright side of death.”

That scene, indeed the whole movie, is disrespectful, sacrilegious, and very funny . . . and in that particular scene it is theologically profound. Because that is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ words to the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That is precisely the meaning the Christian faith, that beyond the darkness of death, beyond the darkness of the tomb, there is a brighter side, there is paradise and resurrection. On the other side of human decisions that sometimes produce bad consequences or unacceptable results, whether intended or not, there is the reign of God.

Growing up, as most of us have, in a constitutional democracy without a monarch, our basic idea of kingship today is probably somewhere between Disney and Queen Elizabeth of England, somewhere between fairytale and figurehead. Today, we probably conceive of kingship as a life of luxury were everything goes well and people write books (or tabloid headlines) about you.

Well, Jesus, Christ the King, is not that sort of monarch (or ruler or president or whatever). Instead, he is something utterly different, a king who ushers in an entirely new order – a world characterized by new life, hope, grace, and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies pointing to and inviting beyond the darkness to the brighter side, to paradise and resurrection.

That seems to be a message a lot of people need to hear today; it’s the message that we as the church need to speak to our society loudly and clearly because many people are frightened by the outcome of our presidential election. And many other people are taking its result as permission to do some very unpleasant things.

On the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.

Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Disruptive responses are not limited to those on the so-called “alt-right” side of things, however. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.” And there have been reports of violence and destruction of property associated with some of these marches.

We, as the church of Christ the King, need to say to both sides, “Enough!” We need to remind everyone that, regardless of what side they may have been on in the election or what side they believe they are on now, on the other side of every human decision, every human decision, including elections, there is the bright side, the reign of God, paradise and resurrection. In 1930, Archbishop William Temple preached at the opening of the seventh Lambeth Conference, assuring his colleagues:

While we deliberate, God reigns;
When we decide wisely, God reigns;
When we decide foolishly, God reigns;
When we serve God in humble loyalty, God reigns;
When we serve God self-assertively, God reigns;
When we rebel and seek to withhold our service, God reigns –
the Alpha and the Omega, which is, and which was,
and which is to come, the Almighty.
We decide however we decide . . .
but Almighty God will always reign!

That is the meaning of this day and that must always be the message of the church: “Our God, the God who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ reigns!” Amen.

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

The Foolishness of Selfishness: Sermon for RCL Proper 13C (Pentecost 11, 31 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 31, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 13C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Ecclesiastes 1:2,12-14;2:18-23; Psalm 49:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; and St. Luke 12:13-21. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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188347-barnSome translations of the Bible like to add to it. They insert explanatory headings and titles into the teachings of the authors of scripture or before the parables or important elements in Jesus’ life and teachings. The New International Version, for example, adds the title “The Parable of the Rich Fool” to our gospel text for today. It breaks up our reading from Ecclesiastes with three such headings: “Everything Is Meaningless,” “Wisdom Is Meaningless,” and “Toil Is Meaningless.” If you have a bible like that, take those titles and subheadings with a very large grain of salt because they are simply not accurate!

Even though Ecclesiastes is famous for its many repetitions of “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” and its apparent judgment that nearly all human activity is a “chasing after wind,” meaninglessness is not, in the end, the message of Qoheleth the Preacher, as the author of this book is sometimes called.

Elizabeth Webb, an Episcopal theologian who teaches at William Jewell College in Missouri, writes that to find meaninglessness and hopelessness to be the message of Ecclesiastes is to give in to a “profound lack of faith in the God who delights in our very being, and in whom we are to find our delight.” Such an understanding, she asserts, is far from the message this book has for us. Instead, she suggests, the message of the Preacher is that

The cure for despair and hopelessness, and the desire of God for human beings, is to find joy precisely in this wearying life. Several times (2:24-25; 3:12-13; 5:18) Qoheleth asserts that, when confronted with the apparent meaninglessness of life, the best we can do is enjoy ourselves – take joy in eating, drinking, even in our work. A particular joy is to be found in companionship with one another; two are better than one, he writes, “For if they fall, one will lift up the other” (4:9-10). We are to see such enjoyment in play, in work, and in relationships as gifts from God; indeed, enjoyment comes “from the hand of God” (2:24). (Webb)

It looks like that is exactly what the rich farmer in Jesus’ parable is trying to do! He has had the good fortune to enjoy a bumper crop and has great plenty, so he builds larger barns in which to store it and says to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” That seems to be precisely the advise of Qoheleth, so why is this man called “a fool”? Indeed, it is God who so addresses him, so we ought to take this question seriously.

So let’s begin by acknowledging that this not a parable in which Jesus in anyway criticizes the accumulation of wealth. This parable does not, for example, have the moral overtones of lamenting the relative positions of rich and poor such as in the story of Lazarus and Dives (Lk 16:19–31), nor the outright spiritual condemnation of our Lord’s observation that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt 19:24) No, the rich man is not foolish nor immoral simply because he is wealthy. Something very different is at play here.

This gospel lesson is a short one and the parable itself is only a couple of sentences long, so bear with me as I read it again and listen carefully to how Jesus tells the story:

“The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, `What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, `I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, `Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'” (Lk 12:16-19)

It is at this point that God addresses the man as “You fool!” (v. 20)

So let’s have a short pop quiz. The man had a bumper crop and wondered what to do with it; with whom did he consult? Only himself. When he reached his decision to pull down his barns and build bigger ones, whose advice did he take? Only his own. And when he had stored his grain and his goods, with whom did he plan to enjoy them? Himself alone! “When the rich man talks in this parable, he talks only to himself, and the only person he refers to is himself.” (Johnson) He is, in the truest sense of the word, selfish. He has no thought of family or community; he has no thought of God. He’s all “I alone,” and it’s a fearful loneliness. Meda Stamper, a Presbyterian theologian in England, suggests that underlying this parable and many of Jesus’ other stories is a recognition that underlying excessive accumulation of goods and possessions is most often personal anxiety and fear.

It is said that the person who represents himself in court has a fool for a client; in the case of the man in this parable, the person who consults only himself on how to handle wealth has a fool for an advisee.

Elisabeth Johnson, a Lutheran who teaches theology in Cameroon, writes: “The rich farmer is a fool not because he is wealthy or because he saves for the future, but because he appears to live only for himself, and because he believes that he can secure his life with his abundant possessions.” Meda Stamper says the rich man, whom she calls “the barn guy,” is a fool because of his selfishness, because of his “earthbound, inward-looking way” of seeking happiness.

But “is ‘life’ to be equated with happiness?” Jesus’ First Century society exemplified by “the barn guy” certainly thought so, and so does our own. “Western society abounds with seductive invitations to happy lifestyle, usually promoting new products and promising that ‘good feeling’,” writes Australian theologian Bill Loader. “Markets manipulate the modes so that regular dissatisfactions can be exploited as people just must have the latest. For some the problem is blindly building bigger barns. For others it is building bigger wardrobes, possessing fancier gadgets, sporting flashier cars.” There is, says Loader, “a deep human anxiety about being worthwhile which reaches to the heart of the self.”

In his book Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Brazos Press: Grand Rapids, 2007), University of Scranton theologian Scott Bader-Saye, points out that the Christian faith has long understood this:

In this context [the 13th Century theologian Thomas] Aquinas uses the Greek term systole, from which we get our English term systolic (referring to the contracting of the heart muscle as it pumps blood into the arteries). Fear, for Aquinas, can cause a kind of contraction of the heart. By imagining some future evil, fear draws us in on ourselves so that we “extend” ourselves to “fewer things.” This, in turn, becomes a hindrance to Christian discipleship, which calls us not to contract but to expand, not to limit ourselves to a few things but to open ourselves charitably and generously to many things, not attack that which threatens us but to love even the enemy. (Page 28)

At the heart of the rich man’s foolishness is this selfish, “I alone” fear which asks the fearful question “Is my life worthwhile?”

The answer to that question, the courage which answers that fear, the wisdom which counters rich man’s foolishness is found in “a kind of Christian defiance which says: only in life towards God, a life participating in God’s life is peace. That will be a peace that weeps, knows anguish, sometimes does not know and does not have answers, but keeps believing in the worth God wants us to have and wants us to give and live towards others.” (Loader)

The rich man is foolish because, although he seems to follow Qoheleth’s advice in Ecclesiastes and prepares to “eat, drink, and be merry,” he stores up treasures for himself alone and not for his community or for God. The translators of scripture who insert titles and subheadings into scripture and suggest that Qoheleth’s message is one of meaninglessness are also foolish because nothing is further from the truth; yes, the Preacher decries wisdom, and toil, and accumulation of wealth as “vanities,” but in the end he says that the purpose of these things is to allow us, together in community, to eat, drink, and be merry, not as an act of selfishness, but as a communal act of faith toward God.

After telling them this parable, Jesus says to his listeners:

Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? If then you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you? (Lk 12:24-28)

It is the Father’s good pleasure to give the kingdom itself to us, his flock, in companionship with one another. So the way to collect treasure suitable for the kingdom isn’t, as Meda Stamper said, “the earthbound, inward-looking way of the barn guy but the soaring, beautiful way of the one who lives and loves generously, lavishly, and with joy.” Not foolishly, selfishly alone, but wisely, gratefully together. 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.

Hospitality Creates Covenant: Sermon for Pentecost 9, Proper 11C (17 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 11C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; and St. Luke 10:38-42. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Trinity-EHPSt. Paul’s Parish hosted the weekly “ice cream social” that accompanied the Community Band Concerts on Friday evening on the Town Square during summer. We’ve done this before although not for a few years (we tried for three years running to be host, but each Friday we were assigned during those years there was a thunderstorm and the event was rained out).

Whenever we do this, I always stress out about it! I’m just sure we won’t have enough pies, or enough ice cream, or enough volunteers . . . or that if we have all of those things, there won’t be enough people at the concert to buy all the pies and ice cream we have . . . or that it will be rained out. Although the latter has (as I said) proven to be the case more than once, none of the other worries has ever materialized. We always have more than enough pies baked by parishioners, more than sufficient ice cream, and enough volunteers that we trip over one another. And, when it doesn’t rain, the event is a great success, as it was on Friday. So why do I worry?

On Friday evening, Ray Sizemore and I worked the pay station, as we have done before, and during a lull in business he asked, “What are you preaching about on Sunday?” I borrowed a line from a good friend of whom I have often asked that question and gave a one-word answer, “Jesus.” But then I followed up that the theme is likely to be hospitality inasmuch as the Old Testament lesson is the tale we have just heard of Abraham entertaining the three angels of God at the “oaks of Mamre” and the Gospel lesson is the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany hosting Jesus at dinner.

And it has occurred to me that those pre-event worries I always experience are not unlike the pre-dinner-party jitters many hosts or hostesses may have (and that I certainly have) before receiving guests into our homes. We want to make a good show. And yet hospitality is not about us; it’s not about the host. Hospitality is about the other, the guest; it’s all about the guest.

The root of the word hospitality is the Latin word for “stranger,” which occurs in ancient literature in two forms: hospes or hostes. From hospes, we get our words “hospital,” “hospitable,” and “hospitality.” From hostes, we get our words “host,” “hostel,” or “hotel;” interestingly, we also get our words “hostile,” hostility,” and “host” meaning an army of enemies from the same root. Thus, two different ways to interact with “the stranger.” We can treat him or her as a guest or as an enemy, with hospitality or with hostility. The biblical value, as illustrated by our scripture readings today, is hospitality.

In the first story we have Abraham and Sarah, together with their servants (including Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and her son by Abraham Ishmael) camped out at what our text calls “the oaks of Mamre.” The Hebrew actually says that the trees in question are not oaks but terebinths, a relative of the pistachio which was grown for its berry; the family is camped in an orchard owned by a friend of Abraham, Mamre the Amorite.

It is the hottest part of the day, the family are reclining in the shade of the pistachio trees, Abraham at the opening of his tent. This seems a reasonable thing for a 99-year-old man to do, especially one who may be recovering from a recent circumcision! If we read the Book of Genesis as telling Abraham’s story in chronological order and with events relatively close together, as the rabbis tell us we should, it was just a few verses before this story that Abraham, together with Ishmael and all the men of his household, has just (as Prof. Samuel Giere of Wartburg Seminary puts it) “had his foreskin lopped-off,” probably with a stone knife. Thus, it is somewhat surprising and perhaps meant to be a funny story that, upon seeing travelers approach at this out-of-the-ordinary, extremely hot time of day, this post-circumcision 99-year-old man leaps up and runs to greet them. (Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a)

But this is no joke! The story underscores “the high value placed on hospitality in the Ancient Near East. * * * Suffice it to say, the physical mark of the covenant does not prevent Abraham from extending lavish hospitality: the washing of feet, rest, freshly baked cakes, a roasted calf, curds, and milk. Abraham assured that these guests were welcomed most properly.” (Ibid.)

Dennis Bratcher of the Christian Resource Institute reminds us:

Hospitality customs in the biblical world related to two distinct classes of people: the traveler and the resident alien. In most translations of the Bible, there is little attempt to try to separate the two. Even in the original Hebrew and Greek, different word are sometimes used interchangeably for the two groups. Either is called a stranger, one who does not belong to a particular community or group. Other terms applied to either or both are: foreigner, alien, sojourner, wayfarer, or gentile. In Israel, the law protected the resident alien, a foreigner who had settled permanently in the land. He could not own land, but he could participate in communal activities. The traveler, however, was extremely vulnerable. Only the force of the customs of hospitality protected him. (Travelers and Strangers: “Hospitality” in the Biblical World)

This particular story is part of a larger, novel-like narration about Abraham, toward the end of which in Chapter 21 of Genesis, we learn that Abraham “planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba.” (v. 33) The Hebrew word for the tree in question is aishel which is made up of three Hebrew letters – aleph, shin, and lamed. These letters, the rabbis tell us, form an acronym for the three major components of hospitality: eating (achilah), drinking (shtiyah), and escorting (leviyah). Abraham’s memorial tree, dedicated to God, underscores the importance of hospitality, of the proper treatment of the stranger, the traveler, and the resident alien. (See Daniel Lasar, Southern Hospitality, Torah from Dixie)

On the cover of your bulletin is a version of the 15th Century Russian monk Andrei Rublev’s beautifully composed icon of this story, sometimes referred to as “The Icon of the Holy Trinity.” The alternate title for the icon on is “The Hospitality of Abraham,” which highlights the effort Abraham puts into welcoming these strangers who turn out to be angels of God, or in Christian understanding, God’s own self in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Rublev’s point seems to be that hospitality is about the other, the guest, especially, it is about the guest who may be unknown to us. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb 13:2)

In our Gospel story, Mary and Martha entertain the One whom we know and believe to be not merely an angel, but God Incarnate. In Jesus’ time, “hospitality was a highly valued and presumably widely practiced custom among pagans, Jews, and Christians. Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, amenities, and protection to … traveling strangers, who [as the Letter to the Hebrews suggests] sometimes turned out to be gods incognito. In Greek culture, Zeus was celebrated as the god of hospitality, and the practice of hospitality (among other things) separated high Greek civilization from the ‘barbarians.’” (Mikeal C. Parsons, Commentary on Luke 10:38-42)

The story is a familiar one to us, rather simple in the telling: Martha extends hospitality to Jesus, bustling about doing all of the tasks of playing host. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus feet and listens to his teachings. Martha, attending to the details of hospitality, complains that Mary has neglected those duties and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus responds that Mary has chosen what our translation calls “the better thing.”

However, many if not most New Testament scholars urge us, as Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary does, to see this as a story not “about comparison but completion.” She says this story is not an invitation “to pit one expression of belief, of discipleship, of service, of vocation, against the other.” Rather, she argues that “this story has nothing to do with who is better and everything to do with who matters . . . this story is not preoccupied with proper acceptance and has everything to do with whom you accept.” “To favor Mary,” Lewis says, “is to say Jesus discounts service. Which, if you read the Gospel of Luke, makes no sense at all. And makes Jesus make no sense at all. To favor Martha would be to say service is all that matters. Clearly, both matter, if you read the Gospel of Luke carefully.” (Dear Working Preacher, “No Comparison”)

What both of our scriptural stories teach us is that hospitality is not about the things we do for the guest so much as it is about the gift of ourselves to the guest. Mikeal C. Parsons of Baylor University says of the Gospel story, and I would say the same is true of the Genesis reading, that its

social ethic provides a solid foundation for Christian habits and practices both within the community (we have unlimited responsibilities to fellow believers) and with the world (we are called to provide Christian hospitality to those unlike us in nationality, faith, or ethnicity and assistance to those in immediate crisis). Christians are called to extend hospitality both as hosts and guests, and to fellow believers and non-believers alike. Such hospitality calls for personal and intimate engagement in a way that an insipid value such as “tolerance” does not. We are not called simply to “tolerate” or “endure” those not like us; rather the ancient “Christian virtue” of hospitality demands that we engage and interact with the Other, whether we are guest or host. (Commentary on Luke 10:38-42)

The extension of hospitality in its three major component forms – eating, drinking, and escorting – is more than a token of friendship. Dr. Bratcher asserts that by extending hospitality we form “covenantal commitment” between ourselves and the other. ” One of the most despicable acts in the ancient world,” he reminds us, “was to eat with someone and then betray them” (Obadiah 7; Ps 41:9; John 13:18). This code of hospitality is the basis of that warning: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). You do not want to fail to form that covenant of hospitality with the angel of the Lord, with God’s own self.

It is that covenant relationship to which Paul refers when he writes in today’s epistle reading, “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” and “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” In Jesus, God has extended a gracious hospitality to us, and it is now our calling to extend the same reconciling hospitality to others. Remember last week’s summary of the Law: “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.”

I know it seems a small thing, no matter how much I may have worried and stressed out about it before hand, but that is what we did by hosting the ice cream social. We served about 300 pieces of pie and nine gallons of ice cream to the good people of Medina; we told them about our church and invited them to worship with us; we informed some teens about our youth group and we invited music lovers to attend one of our Brown Bag Concerts. If we brought a little light into just one person’s life, I think we did a good thing; I think we changed the world.

And that’s an important thing to remember this week as our region hosts one of the major political party conventions. There are going to be a lot of opportunities to disagree with people about politics; remember that they are also opportunities for hospitality. Remember, we are not called to argue or debate with people nor are we called to convince them of our view points; we are not called simply to “tolerate” those not like us nor are we called to “endure” them; rather, “the ancient ‘Christian virtue’ of hospitality demands that we engage and interact,” that we chose “the better thing,” that we enter into covenantal commitment. In the words of that simply stated summary, the code of hospitality bids us to love God, love our neighbor, and change the world.

Let us pray:

Gracious God, as we enter into the final months of the presidential election cycle, we pray in the spirit of St. Francis, that you would make us instruments of your peace, sowing seeds of merciful love and fierce hope; may we be servants of your holy, creative will, always and ever mindful that as you blessed Abraham, you bless us in order that we might be a blessing to the world; may we, like Abraham and Sarah, like Martha and Mary, offer gracious hospitality to those we welcome to our region as they assemble here this week at the Republican National Convention; guide their work and grant them and us wisdom, courage, a moral imagination, and the capacity for civility and grace to disagree without disrespect; in the name of Jesus who summarized your holy Law reminding us that the greatest commandments are to love you and to love all our neighbors as ourselves. 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.

Complexity Is Not An Excuse: Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 10C (10 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 10C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; and St. Luke 10:25-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Second Continental Congress voting for independenceLast Monday, we celebrated our country’s 240th birthday in a way that is quite different from other celebrations of what we might call “national identity days” around the world.

The French, for example, will have a similar celebration later this week on July 14, Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Paris prison by armed revolutionaries.

England celebrates a major holiday in November called “Guy Fawkes Day” –

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

The day commemorates the attempt, the failed attempt to blow up the Parliament.

The Soviet Union celebrated May Day as a great “international workers’ holiday;” it commemorated the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886 when police shot and killed four striking laborers.

Russia now celebrates a large national holiday on May 9 called “Victory Day” which commemorates the defeat of Germany in World War II.

Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, which commemorates the date on which a radical priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo led an armed assault on the jail in the small town of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato.

Each of these national days commemorates an act of violence: the storming of a jail, a war, a riot, an attempted bombing. Our “national identity day,” on the other hand, celebrates something different: July 4 is not the anniversary of “the shot heard around the world” when our war for self-government started, nor is it the anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown where we finally defeated the British and won our independence.

What we celebrated on Monday is simply the anniversary of a vote taken in the Second Continental Congress. That’s all that happened on July 4, 1776. The delegates to the Congress voted to accept the text of the Declaration of Independence. They didn’t even sign it on that day; they just voted to accept it. What we celebrated on Monday is the ability of people to work together democratically, to overcome division and disagreement, and to reach wise decisions through conversation, compromise, and consensus, securing freedom and liberty for all.

What we, as a nation, have endured during the rest of this week is something else . . . .

In our gospel lesson today, a lawyer approaches Jesus with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, in good rabbinic (or Socratic) form, responds with a question, “What do you read in the Law?” The lawyer answers, “Love God . . . and love your neighbor.” Jesus tells him he has answered correctly and seems to be ending the conversation, but the lawyer persists, as lawyers are wont to do, asking, “But who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus changes the nature of the conversation. It is no longer a law school question-and-answer session. Instead, Jesus tells a story . . . a story which we no longer hear with the jarring surprise and astonishment undoubtedly experienced by Jesus’ first audience. We no longer hear the word “Samaritan” as they did, and this parable is part of the reason why.

I have a friend who is the business manager for a charity in Kansas City called “Samaritan’s Purse.” It’s a great name. It calls this very story to mind, and it illustrates precisely what the word “Samaritan” means to us: it means someone who aids or assists another, particularly another who is in a crisis. But that is not what it would have meant to the lawyer who questioned Jesus or to those who overheard their conversation.

The Samaritans were and are (there still are Samaritans living in Palestine today) a group whose ethnic and religious roots are the same as the Jews. Both groups claim to be descendants of Abraham and Isaac; Jews claim descent through Judah; Samaritans claim descent through the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Samaritans claim to be the true preservers of the ancient Hebrew religion; Jews make that claim for themselves, and Samaritans as syncretists and heretics who are, moreover, racially impure.

That latter claim derives from the time of the Babylonian Exile during which the exiled Jews claimed to have maintained racial purity while they accused Samaritans, who remained in Palestine, of having intermarried with Assyrian immigrants producing a mixed-breed “race” inferior to the Jews. The Jews of Jesus’ time refused even to acknowledge Samaritans as a “tribe” or a “nation”; they called them a “herd”. Jews made fun of the name of a principal Samaritan city, Shechem, referring to it instead as “Sychar,” a word which may have meant either “drunkenness” or “falsehood.” (See Sychar in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, online) “A widely current proverb, which is recorded in the Talmud, said that ‘a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.’” (See Korb, Scott, Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, Riverhead Books:New York, 2011, pp 138-40)

This then is how Jesus’ first audience, the lawyer and the bystanders, and Luke’s first readers would have heard this parable: it is a story about someone receiving aid from a member of an inferior race characterized by drunkenness and lying, from whom receiving even the simplest gift makes one accursed and impure. This is a story about racial division and about love and neighborliness reaching across an almost unbridgeable ethnic and religious separation.

And it directly addresses the terrible things that have happened in our nation during this week after the Fourth of July, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, and the deaths of five police officers at the hands of a troubled sniper.

The Old Testament lesson today is from Moses’ farewell discourse to the Hebrews, the ancestors of both the Jews and the Samaritans, as they are ending their long journey out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land of liberation and freedom. Moses reminds them that “God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings” if you just obey the law (that’s a collective “you,” by the way; a promise to the community, not to any one individual). This is the same law that Jesus and the lawyer have agreed is summarized in two short admonitions: “love God” and “love your neighbor.” And then Moses pauses and asks the Hebrews a rhetorical question: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you . . . ?” It is not, he reminds them, far away: “The word is very near to you,” he says, “it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Mark Labberton, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, summarizes and paraphrases Moses’ words in this way: “Get on with doing with you already know to do. Stop with the excuses, already! Give up waiting for someone else from somewhere else to come and do what in fact you already know to do in your heart and mind.” And then Labberton comments: “We hate that. We say we just want to know what to do, but we don’t. We prefer a good excuse. Moses says that excuses, however, are not a viable, defensible option. He should know. We would rather whine about needing to wait for more insight. We would rather lose ourselves in alleged complexity.” (The Art of Deflection) But complexity is not an excuse! In any event, it’s not complex! As Jesus says, it’s as simple as “Love God. Love your neighbor.”

From the fall of 1966 through the spring of 1969, I was a cadet in the Army ROTC at St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kansas. Among the many things that we were taught in that program was how to use and take care of a variety of weapons, including the M-16, a rifle we are now more familiar with in its civilian variant, the AR-15. A couple of times each academic year we were required to demonstrate our proficiency with the weapon, which meant not only firing it at gradable targets, but also showing that we could disassemble it and put it back together within regulation time, blindfolded. The weapon is a complex piece of equipment; it has a lot of parts. But once you learn the rules, the steps of disassembly and reassembly, it’s simple to do. I haven’t touched that (or any) weapon in 47 years, but I’m pretty sure I could still take one apart and put it back together because I learned the rules by heart; they are etched in my mind even nearly a half-century later. I always qualified as a sharpshooter or better, and never failed the disassembly-reassembly test. Complexity is not an excuse.

The events of the past week, the week after the Fourth of July, scream “Complexity!” at us. There are so many parts that we must address. Like the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles of First Century Palestine, we live in a racially, ethnically, religiously, and economically divided society, and we are terrified by it . . . some more than others. My heart broke this week as I watched Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile the man who was shot dead in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, tell a reporter, “I always told him, ‘Whatever you do, when you get stopped by the police: comply. comply, comply, comply. Comply – that’s the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police.” (NY Daily News) This is what is known in the black community as “the talk.”

Reporter Jazmine Hughes in article entitled What Black Parents Tell Their Sons About the Police wrote:

Every black male I’ve ever met has had this talk, and it’s likely that I’ll have to give it one day too. There are so many things I need to tell my future son, already, before I’ve birthed him; so many innocuous, trite thoughts that may not make a single difference. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t try to break up a fight. Don’t talk back to cops. Don’t ask for help. But they’re all variations of a single theme: Don’t give them an excuse to kill you.

I wonder if Samaritan parents, whose sons were looked down upon by the surrounding Jewish community as drunks, liars, and animals as unclean and accursed as swine, felt similarly compelled to lecture their children; I wonder of the Good Samaritan had gotten “the talk.”

I cannot imagine what it must be like for parents to feel they have to say such things to their sons, and it is certainly not my place to tell those parents they are wrong the believe that. Frankly, I don’t believe they are wrong but, even if I did, the law written on our hearts does not call on us to argue with our neighbor; it calls us to love our neighbor. If we believe our neighbor misperceives us, we must answer what we think is a wrong perception not with corrective argument, but with corrective love.

The racial divide which separates neighbor from neighbor is not the only issue the events of the past week have illuminated, although it is the one most directly addressed by Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel. There are other issues highlighted by the terrible coincidence that in Dallas a troubled combat veteran of the Gulf wars shot and killed, among others, two other veterans of the same conflict. Micah Johnson, the sniper, had served in Afghanistan; Patrick Zamarippa, one of the dead officers, was a Navy veteran of the Iraq war, and Brent Thompson, another of those killed, was a police operations instructor who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These facts raise issues about the militarization of our police forces, the mental and emotional care (or lack of it) given our veterans, and the ease with which troubled persons (like vets possibly suffering from PTSD) can obtain weapons; these are all among the problems leading to last week’s events. The situation is complex but, Moses reminded the Hebrews, complexity is not an excuse.

My friend the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, who teaches theology at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, wrote on Facebook on Friday:

We need to address gun culture in this country. We need to address racism in this country. We need to change police culture and tactics in this country. We need to build bridges between police and the communities they police. And we need to mourn, lament, pray, prophesy, and preach. We need to do the work that needs doing for ourselves, our children, and our society. No matter who is against us and this work, though the forces of hell array against us, we must do this work or none of us shall survive. (Facebook status, July 8, 2016)

And our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, addressing the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada on Friday said:

Just in the last week, a child of God was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; just in the last week, a child of God was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota; and just last night, [in Dallas, Texas] children of God were killed. * * * Enough is enough. * * * Our culture, our society, our world, is begging us, “Show us another way.” (Anglican Journal)

In this week after the Fourth of July, that other way is what we celebrated on the Fourth of July . . . working together, overcoming division and disagreement, and reaching wise decisions through conversation, compromise, and consensus, securing freedom and liberty for all. That other way is the way described by the questioning lawyer and illustrated by Jesus’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “[L]ove 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.”

The issues we must tackle are many and complex but, as Moses reminded the Hebrews, complexity is not an excuse; we must do this work or none of us shall survive.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.

Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 1979, page 815)

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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.

Wrestling in Prayer – From the Daily Office – May 12, 2014

From the Letter to the Colossians:

Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you. He is always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf, so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 4:12 (NRSV) –May 12, 2014)

Hercules and Diomedes by Vincenzo de Rossi“Wrestling in his prayers” seems such an odd turn of phrase! Aren’t prayers supposed to be peaceful? The image of prayer as athletic competition (and vigorous, muscular, and very personal competition, at that) just seems contradictory. But the contradiction calls to mind two thoughts.

The first is that I remembered Jacob: “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” (Gen 32:24-25)

Doing early morning study of Koine Greek is probably a mistake . . . but I wondered, “Does Paul use the same word to describe Epaphras as the Septuagint uses to describe Jacob?” Short answer — no. Long answer — In Genesis, the wrestling contest is described using the word palaío; in Colossians, the word is agonizomai. The former is specific; the latter refers in general to athletic competition and may also mean “to struggle” or “to labor.”

Nonetheless, I wonder if Paul is calling Jacob’s late-night wrestling match with God to mind. If Jacob’s dream-time contest is a metaphor for prayer (and I think it is), then there is a striking contrast between first-party prayer (petition) which leaves the supplicant limping, and third-party prayer (intercession) which permits the subject to “stand mature and fully assured.” I don’t know what to make of this. Is there a suggestion that the prayers of others are more effective for our well-being than our own?

An Indian guru once said, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness.” Was Jacob’s hip put out of joint by his encounter with God? Or was it always out of joint and the encounter merely led to a recognition or an admission of that fact? Prayer for oneself always does, in my experience, bring one up face-to-face with one’s own inadequacies. And, I have to say, I rely much more upon the prayers and prayerful support of others than upon my own. So perhaps there is something in the contrast Paul may be making.

The second, unrelated thought, is how often I struggle to find the “right words” with which to pray, both in private meditation and in public worship. As a priest, I am often asked to pray in public and, when that happens, I am grateful that, as an Episcopalian, I have been steeped in the language and cadences of The Book of Common Prayer. When I cannot think of anything original to say, I can rely on the prayerful words of generations of Anglicans and, from memory of the prayer book’s beautiful phrases, cobble something quickly together.

It is not always so in my private devotions. But that same Indian guru said of prayer, “It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” So if my struggle to find the right words is unsuccessful, I just let it go and sit quietly, sure that God will understand me.

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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.

Pain – From the Daily Office – May 8, 2014

From the Letter to the Colossians:

I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 1:24 (NRSV) – May 8, 2014.)

Hip PainToday, the Feast of Dame Julian of Norwich, is the 24th anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate. I am spending it, at least the morning, in the company of several fellow presbyters and a few deacons at a clergy conference. I am also spending it in some discomfort because yesterday morning I slipped and fell in the hotel bath; I wrenched my back and it appears I did something (only soft-tissue-ish, I hope) to my right hip.

I am also discomfited by Paul who “rejoiced” in his suffering and claims in this verse to do something I really don’t think needed to be done nor was (nor is) possible to do: “complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.” In fact, I’m not even sure I understand what he is trying to say by that phrase and I find it so annoying I’m not even sure I can! Just who does Paul think he is? Who is he to suggest that something is “lacking” in the afflictions of the Lord? Who is he to think he can “complete” them?

It has been argued that this verse is more rhetorical than substantive. Paul, it is suggested, is not implying that Christ’s suffering and death failed in some way or fell short. Rather, he is simply submitting that Christ left work for us (Paul and all subsequent disciples through the ages) to do, and that whatever suffering Paul has been put through is a part of that work. OK . . . maybe so. I don’t have as much confidence in Paul’s humility as the commentator who made that argument seems to have had, but I’ll be charitable and give Paul the benefit of the doubt.

Does that mean I can claim my hip and back pain, the result of taking part in a clergy conference, are also contributing in some manner to the work of the church, to the world’s salvation? I certainly hope so, although I would never really make that claim. But perhaps my brother and sister clergy and I can make that claim about the deep-seated pain we often feel as we go about our ministry, the misery and turmoil we feel as we empathize with and enter into the pains of our parishioners, the doubt and conflict we feel about whether what we do and how we are doing it make any difference at all, the soul sickness we feel when we know that we have failed in some way to address the needs of those among whom we minister, the anger (and then the remorse and spiritual malaise) we feel when the expectations of the church are unwarranted and unreasonable. Perhaps some of that pain is salvific.

I love being a priest. There is great joy in ordained ministry. That was what I expected when I was made a transitional deacon 24 years ago and a priest a year later. I thought I knew there would be discomfort; I had no idea it would be as frequent or as painful as it has been. I wish there were a way to convey to ordinands that that is going to be the way it is, but I don’t think that can be done. You have to live through standing at a bedside with a family “pulling the plug” on a beloved parent or child, leaving the hospital convinced that everything you did and said was hopelessly inadequate. You have to live through watching an active parishioner abandon your congregation because of some stupid, silly thing you did or said. You have to live through being treated badly by people you thought were friends and being excluded from the social events and parties of parishioners who didn’t think you were. You have to live through shrinking budgets, declining attendance, and cold shoulders. You have to live through the pains of ordained ministry. Being told about them just isn’t enough.

After I’d been in parish ministry as a priest for about seven years, I started working with a spiritual director who was also a parish rector and had been in ministry for many years. When I would bemoan the pains of ministry (like making that list in previous paragraph), he’d ask, “And how did they treat Jesus?” and give me a look that fairly shouted, “And you expect them to treat you any better?” It was therapeutic. With his guidance, I came to believe that that pain is actually hope. It’s hopeful caring. I once broke down in tears telling my late mother about the difficulties I had experienced as a priest. Her response was, “If you didn’t care so much, it wouldn’t hurt so much.”

So I know who Paul was to make the statement he made in this verse; he was a fellow worker in ordained ministry and I suspect his suffering and pain was not just hip pain from falling in the shower; I think it was the soul-deep pain of hoping beyond hope that something you are doing is “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”

At clergy conferences we tell each other our stories; we share the pains we have lived through and we share the joys we have known. The science fiction author Spider Robinson once wrote, “Shared pain is lessened. Shared joy is increased. Thus we refute entropy.” Or, as Dame Julian might have said, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”

There are great benefits to clergy conferences. Shared joy is one of them. Shared pain is one of them. Hip pain from falling in the shower is not.

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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 Have Died (a Little)” – A Sermon for Easter Morning – April 20, 2014

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This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; and John 20:1-18. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Shrouded CorpseSeveral days ago, as I was reading again the Easter story and the sections of the Holy Scriptures appointed for this year, I had the radio on and tuned to my favorite oldies station.

I was prayerfully considering and trying to figure out what Paul was saying to the Colossians when he wrote these words that we heard in the Epistle lesson for today: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) I was trying to figure out what Paul meant by “hidden with Christ.” The Greek word is krypto and in addition to “hidden” it can also mean “secret” or “not noticed.” It is the origin of words like cryptogram and cryptography and also of crypt, a synonym for tomb. What does Paul mean? Is he saying our life is buried with Christ? Or that, somehow, the Christian life is a “secret” or that it goes “unnoticed”?

So I was pondering all of that and my oldies station played a very old and familiar song:

It hurts to be in love when the only one you love
Turns out to be someone who’s not in love with you
It hurts to love her so when deep down inside you know
She will never want you, no matter what you do

And so you cry a little bit
Oh, you die a little bit
Day and night, night and day
It hurts to be in love this way

Some of you are old enough to recognize the lyrics of It Hurts To Be In Love by Gene Pitney, a Top Ten hit from 1964.

And then, right after that song, the radio station played the one which has this as the refrain:

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

That was a Number One hit for Roberta Flack in 1973.

Those songs played just as I was prayerfully considering and trying to figure out what Paul was saying to the Colossians when he wrote: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) Now I don’t really think that God speaks to me through the radio or in the lyrics of popular songs, although it’s possible that God does. However, that coincidence of lyrics and Biblical text did take me down a path of revelation that I’d like to share with you this morning.

Those songs and songs like them – you can probably name several popular melodies going back to Cole Porter’s 1944 tune Every Time We Say Goodbye (“Every time we say goodbye, I die little”) or before – songs that mention this sense we have all had of “dying a little” because of a broken heart, because of the loss of a loved one, because of a disappointment in life. I think that’s why these songs become popular. We’ve all had that sense of “dying a little inside” for these and for many other reasons. And so Paul writes to the Colossians and to us:

“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

In his historical play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare has his title character observe that “a coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” (Act 2, Sc. 2) Ernest Hemingway took Shakespeare to task about that. In A Farewell to Arms he wrote:

‘The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one’…. (The man who first said that) was probably a coward…. He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave. The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he’s intelligent. He simply doesn’t mention them.

I think the truth is that everybody, valiant or cowardly, everybody dies many little deaths throughout our existence on this earth. Each and every one of us is “killed softly” in myriad ways by the circumstances of life. We have, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, died . . . many times over.

Sometimes those little deaths are the result of our own actions; sometimes they are the result of other’s actions; sometimes they happen because that’s just the way the world is. The world, though created by God to be good, is out of kilter; it is, we say theologically, fallen. The world and everything in it, including you and me, are not in the proper relationship with our Creator. We are not in proper relationship with one another. We call that “sin.” And sin, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, has weight, a weight that clings to us like dirt, and each time we experience one of those little deaths a little more weight, a little more dirt is tossed on until, as Paul wrote in this simple verse in the letter to the Colossians, we are buried.

“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Think about the weight of all that sin, all that dying, experienced in little ways every day by all the people who have ever lived . . . think of that weight crashing down
through the centuries,
through the millennia,
through all of time and all of space,
crashing down to a single hour,
a single moment,
a single instant,
on a hill outside of Jerusalem,
on a single man,
a man hanging on a cross
who cried out
“It is finished!”

“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

They took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb and on the day after the Sabbath the women came and found the tomb empty. We know that story so well. It is the foundational story of our faith. We know it so well and yet we have to be reminded of it again and again because those little deaths seem to keep happening and hiding it from us. “Our life is hidden;” it gets buried under that weight; it goes unnoticed.

Anastasis IconIn the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons of the Resurrection depict Christ rising from the tomb with a whole crowd of people. To one side of him crowned and haloed are King David and King Solomon; on the other, we see Abel the first martyr of creation carrying a shepherd’s crook and Moses the first prophet of the Old Covenant. Also present is John the Baptist, who is both the first prophet and the first martyr of the New Covenant. Beneath Christ’s feet, the gates of hell lie broken, often forming a cross. And from two tombs, Adam and Eve are rising, but not of their own accord; Jesus holds them by the wrists and is pulling them from their graves.

The mythological proto-parents of our race, the ancient kings, the prophets and martyrs . . . this little crowd represents all of humankind . . . you and me and all the people who have ever lived, all the people who have ever died any kind of death, whether physical death or the little daily kinds of dying we all have experienced . . .
we are all there,
all being pulled from death,
pulled from out of hiding,
pulled from where we are buried,
pulled from where the life God wants for us is unnoticed,
all rising with Christ to new life.

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, . . . ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” (1 Cor. 52,54-55) “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

We celebrate Easter, the historical fact of the Resurrection of Christ, not because it is something that happened 2,000 or so years ago, although it is certainly that. We celebrate the Resurrection because it is something that happens every day. “You have died . . .” Every day in myriad little ways, as those popular songs and our own experience reminds us, we die a little. Every day our life is obscured and hidden; every day our life is made secret even from us and the life God wants for us goes unnoticed.

But . . .
“It is finished!”
That seemingly endless round of sinful little deaths is over;
it crashed down through time and space
to that one instant
on that one cross
and it was done with,
conquered!
“It is finished!”

Every day Jesus, rising from the tomb, grabs us by the wrist and pulls us from the grave. “I came,” said Jesus, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Every day, he pulls us up out of the little deaths of sin into the resurrection of that abundant life. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “It is finished!”

“When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory,” wrote Paul. (Col. 3:4)
Christ has been revealed; we are revealed with him in glory.
Christ is risen.
We are risen!
Death is conquered!
“It is finished!”
We are free!
Alleluia!

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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.

Really? What? No! – From the Daily Office – March 20, 2014

From the First Letter to the Church in Corinth:

Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – I Corinthians 6:16 (NRSV) – March 20, 2014.)

Wedding rings and moneyThis is one of those times (there are, I admit, quite a few) when Paul loses me! I step back from his words and say, “Really? What?” Is Paul seriously equating sex with a prostitute with marriage? I know that Paul didn’t have too high an opinion of marriage. In the next chapter he will say that he thinks staying single is a much better idea: “I wish that all men were even as I myself am. . . . I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.” (1 Cor. 7:7,8) But does he really hold it in such low regard so as to equate it with prostitution?

Paul’s quotation is from the second chapter of Genesis, from the story of the creation of Eve at the conclusion of which the biblical author writes, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. ” (Gen. 2:24) The story of the creation of Eve is about God fashioning for Adam a helper, someone with whom he would spend his life tending, caring for, and protecting the Garden of Eden — it’s not the story of a “one night stand.”

The two are not the same, but in the midst of his argument about preserving the purity of the church Paul has let his guard down, blurted out an honest (if inappropriate) appraisal of marriage, and let us see what he really thinks of it. To my mind, this makes suspect everything else he writes about marriage (or that someone else has written in his name). If, for example, he believes that marriage is nothing more than a cheap sexual liaison, that stuff about wives being “subject” to their husbands (Eph. 5:22, Col. 3:18) takes on a different color! I don’t know, it might be reasonable to expect a paid call girl to be “subject” to the man who’s paying her (prostitution seems to be inherently a relationship of power and domination) . . . but that’s not what I understand the relationship between spouses to be.

I rather like what the introduction to the Episcopal Church’s rite of Holy Matrimony says about the mutuality of marriage:

The union of husband and wife in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord. Therefore marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God. (BCP 1979, page 423)

And I don’t think marriage was instituted by God to be equivalent to prostitution despite what the Apostle Paul may have thought. So when I read this verse, I step back and ask, “Really? What?” . . . and I answer, “No!”

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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.

WYSIWYG World – From the Daily Office – January 10, 2014

From the Letter to the Colossians:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 2:16-17 (NRSV) – January 10, 2014.)

Green-on-Black TextI sometimes wonder to what extent Paul, as an educated Jewish citizen of a Greek-speaking empire, was schooled in the classical Greek philosophers. Had he read Plato’s Republic? Was he aware of the conversation portrayed in Book VII between Socrates and Glaucon in which the allegory of the cave is laid out?

In the dialog, Socrates describes a prison cave in which the inmates have lived all of their lives chained in such a way that all they can see is a blank wall. The prisoners watch shadows formed on the wall by things passing between them and a fire behind them. They recognize the shadows, give them the names of the things which cast them, and believe them to actually be those things. The shadows, says Socrates, are as close as the inmates get to viewing reality. According to Socrates, a philosopher is like a prisoner who is loosed, sees the real forms casting the images, and comes to understand that the shadows are not reality at all. He is aware of the true form of reality, not the shadows seen by the chained inmates. The story illustrates Plato’s “Theory of Forms,” which holds that things in the material world perceivable through sensation are mere “shadows” of ideal “forms.” These “forms,” not the “shadows,” possess the highest and most fundamental reality.

When Paul writes things like “these are only a shadow . . . the substance belongs to Christ,” he seems to be buying into this Platonic idea. His famous line from the first letter to the church in Corinth seems to do so as well: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Take these sorts of Pauline statements and mix them with the Letter to the Hebrews (“They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one.” – Heb. 8:5) and even a bit of James (“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” – James 1:17), and one can see where the Neoplatonists and even the Gnostics get the notion that the material world is less than ideal, fallen, corrupt, or even evil. That’s a position that, unfortunately in my opinion, has made a significant impact on Christian theology.

It is also not a view to which the Hebrew Scriptures lend much support and one doubts very much that it was the opinion of Jesus of Nazareth! Oh sure, there are hints of it in Hebrew poetry and prayer. For example, King David prays with the assembly of the people: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” (1 Chron 29:15) And Bildad the Shuhite advises Job: “For we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow.” (Job 8:9) And from time to time the Psalms say things like the description of human beings as “like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” (Ps. 144:4) But on the whole, the Old Testament and (I suggest) the Christian faith declare a much different understanding of reality!

Just read the accounts of creation in Genesis! God is not shown to be casting shadows; God is creating hard, physical reality and, at each step along the way, declares it good. In the second account (which is probably the older of the two), God gets God’s hands dirty in all that good, hard, physical reality molding human beings out of the clay. I’m particularly fond of poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of that story (which I quoted in last Sunday’s sermon):

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life.

(“The Creation”, from God’s Trombones)

When I was a second-year student at law school I was a member of the law review where we used some very early word processing equipment and software in which one had to enter the codes for changes in typeface, indentation, and so forth (not too dissimilar from writing HTML code, frankly). What you looked at on the green-on-black computer screen bore no resemblance to what (you hoped) the printer would produce. The next year, when I became an editor, we purchased a new computer and were introduced to a new concept – “WYSIWYG” (pronounced “wissy-wig”) – What You See Is What You Get. What was on the screen looked like what the printer produced!

I believe that’s the kind of world we have been given, one in which what we perceive is real. Yes, I know that quantum mechanics and superstring theory bring that into some question, that at some super-micro-nano-reality level things are not quite what they seem; but that is a different issue than this philosophical nothing-is-really-real shadow-world construct of Plato’s, and a far cry from the fallen, corrupt, evil world of some Christian theologies. We live in a real, physical world, one in which God was pleased to take on flesh and dwell among us (John 1:1-14).

When I see beautiful winter hillside covered with glistening snow, when I taste a sweet-tart bite of homemade cherry pie, when I kiss my wife or hug my daughter, when I listen to a Vivaldi concerto, I am seeing/tasting/feeling/hearing what I get, not some shadow of an unseen and unknowable “ideal form.” Like that mammy bending over her baby, what I am experiencing is real and good; it is the ideal. We live in a WYSIWYG world!

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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.

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