That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Daniel

I Rise Today in the Gray Zone: Trinity Sunday Sermon, 11 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 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: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Song of the Three Young Men 29-34 (apocryphal verses found in some translations of Daniel 3); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and St. Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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This is “Trinity Sunday,” the only Sunday of the Christian year dedicated to a truly puzzling Christian doctrine, the peculiar Christian notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one. The late Jim Griffiss, the seminary professor with whom I studied systematic theology, once quipped that one could walk into any church on Trinity Sunday and hear heresy preached; that’s because there is no good or easy way to explain this doctrine. There’s also no way to really understand this doctrine as a matter of intellectual assent. But as a friend of mine said recently, “We [are called to] worship one God in Trinity, not understand one God in Trinity. Accept the Mystery, sing the Te Deum, and move on.” (Facebook discussion) I think he’s right. As a way of describing God, one must admit that the doctrine of the Trinity seems paradoxical, more than a little bit ambiguous, and frankly beyond explanation in a short (or even a long) sermon. So, we won’t be singing the Te Deum today, but I would like to use some poetry to explore how we can experience and worship the Triune God.

I was reintroduced during the past several months to the poetry of the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas and would like to begin our exploration of the Trinity with his poem The Bright Field (suggested to me for today by a seminary classmate).

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I’ll return to Thomas’s Bright Field, but first let me tell you about some other reading I’ve done recently.

A few weeks ago, I was reading in the news about conditions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world and learned that the Islamic State in Syria (“ISIS” or “Da’esh”) has coined a new term to describe Western civil society. An essay published by Da’esh leadership just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in 2015 called for the Extinction of the Grayzone, which is to say the secular West, which it described as the dwelling place of “hypocrites and deviant innovators.” (See Alternet) But the author of the news report I was reading offered a different take on the idea of a “gray zone” and suggested:

The gray zone is the zone of peaceful coexistence. Eliminating the gray zone and rendering a world as black & white as the flag of the Islamic state is the ultimate goal of fundamentalists on all sides. (Ahead of the News)

I filed that away as an interesting observation that might sometime be useful.

A few weeks later, this past week in fact, I was researching for this sermon, once again trying to find ways to explain the doctrine of the Trinity before deciding not to try to do so. In my researches I ran across a summary of an interview given several years ago by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in which he lamented that when we put something other than the authority of scripture, the ancient creeds, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the nature of Christ at the center of our religious life we end up in a “very sorry situation” of division. He went on to describe our Anglican tradition as one which tries, instead, to be comprehensive:

The Episcopal Church is a questioning community. … It’s confident that Christ is at its center, and that gives it the courage to look at things that are difficult. It also is a church which has lived with open-ended questions. It doesn’t need to reduce things to absolutes. We can deal with shades of gray, we can deal with paradox and ambiguity without feeling that we are being unfaithful. (Father Jake)

In a word, we and our church are that “gray zone” which fundamentalists (and fundamentalisms) on all sides seek to eliminate; we model and offer to the world that “zone of peaceful coexistence” because we place the Trinity – this peculiar and confusing notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one – squarely at the center of life. And into this “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity every so often comes that brightness, that flash of illumination of which poet Thomas wrote, that miracle of the lit bush, transitory as youth but holding the eternity that awaits us. We experience the Trinity even though we may not understand it.

God the Holy and Undivided Trinity is the eternal, archetypal Community, in whose image and likeness we, both as a species and as individuals, are created. Sinfulness, described in the Genesis story of the Fall, has seriously compromised human participation in that community; in terms of the theological metaphor of perichoresis, which envisions the life of the Trinity as a dance, we have taken a misstep. Through God’s grace, in Christ and in Christ’s Church, humanity is re-created in the Divine image and likeness, and invited once again into that Community, back into the dance with the Divine.

I chose the hymn called St. Patrick’s Breastplate (and stipulated all seven of its verses) as our opening hymn because it exemplifies how broad that Divine Community really is. The lyrics of the hymn are Cecil Frances Alexander’s rhythmic and rhyming paraphrase of an original found in the 9th Century Book of Armagh and titled in Latin St. Patrick’s Irish Canticle. In truth, the original is not a canticle or a poem of any sort; it is a protection charm or prayer of the form called a lorica.

The short first verse invokes God as Trinity, the three-in-one and one-in-three, but is more than in invocation. In the original it says, “I arise today” into the power of God; in Alexander’s translation, “I bind unto myself.” I lay claim to, I enter into, I become a part of the holy Community. C.S. Lewis described this Christian experience this way:

An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying – the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his [ordinary] prayers. (Mere Christianity, Fount Paperbacks, London:1997, p.135)

Extraordinary! The brightness breaking through, as transitory as youth and yet the eternity that awaits us.

The second verse binds the singer to Christ, but in a remarkably holistic and complete way, laying claim to every aspect of the Incarnation of God, his birth and baptism, his death and resurrection, his ascension, and his future return on the last day. The lorica thus evokes the comprehensiveness that theologians call “the Christ Event,” the fundamental act of God in and through the flesh to redeem not only the individual but the whole of the cosmos, the entire created order. The third and fourth verses attest to this by invoking our ties to the religious and human community through all of time – cherubim, angels, and archangels; patriarchs and prophets; the apostles, and all the saints and martyrs in verse 3 – and to the community of nature – the stars, the sun, and the moon; fire and lightning; wind and sea; rocks and earth – in verse 4.

The theologian Raimon Panikkar describes the Trinitarian nature of reality. The Trinity, he says, is reflected in all of creation: in human beings we see the harmonious interrelationship of body, soul, and spirit, and in the physical world there is the triadic reality of space, time, and matter. “All beings,” he writes, “share what they are by being one with him, with the Son. All that exists, that is to say, all of reality, is nothing but God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Panikkar) Perhaps this is why the lectionary for Trinity Sunday always includes the reading of the Creation Story from Genesis; a reminder of our connection to the whole created order, a community which reflects its Creator.

The fifth verse of the hymn calls upon God’s various powers and aspects as protections against evils, both natural and human-caused – God’s vision, God’s hearing, God’s wisdom, God’s hand and shield. It is said that St. Patrick was inspired by St. Paul’s Letter to Ephesians when he first sang his lorica, by St. Paul’s admonition to

take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17)

As we lay claim to faith in the Trinity by reciting or singing St. Patrick’s Breastplate, we do as Paul commanded, being thus assured that we are protected from all evils, many enumerated in two verses of the lorica not paraphrased by Alexander into her hymn: the snares of devils, temptations of nature, those who wish us ill, “the charms of false prophets, the black laws of paganism, the false laws of heretics, the deceptions of idolatry, [and] spells cast by [witches], smiths, and druids.”

The penultimate verse of the hymn both calls for and acknowledges Christ to be in all things, especially in all of the people we meet throughout any day. It is a reminder of Jesus’ promised words at the last judgment: “Just as you did it [or did not do it] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it [or did not do it] to me.” (Mt 25:40,45) It also calls to mind St. Theresa of Avila’s timeless reflection:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

And it should also be a reminder that there are times for all of us when our lives (in Ben Sledge‘s unforgettable image) can be “a train wreck in a dumpster fire” and that at such times it is through other people’s eyes that Christ looks at us with compassion, through their feet that he walks to do good for us, that is through their hands that we receive his blessing. “Christ in hearts of all that love me, . . . in mouth of friend and stranger” is the sun breaking through to illuminate the small field of my life.

The last verse repeats the Trinitarian invocation of the first and reminds us that salvation is found not in the black-and-white of fundamental religious doctrine, but the “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity, in the brightly lit “gray zone” of peaceful coexistence which is the dance of holy Community.

I want to end with another piece of poetry entitled Sonnet for Trinity Sunday by my friend, the English priest and poet Malcolm Guite:

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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

A Saintly Obligation: Sermon for All Saints Sunday – November 6, 2016 (RCL Year A)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 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: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; and St. Luke 6:20-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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un-rockwell-mos-largeTuesday was the Feast of All Saints (which we are commemorating today, as is permitted by tradition, by translating the feast to the following Sunday). Traditionally, All Saints Day (or All Saints Sunday) commemorates the departed members of the Christian church who are believed to have attained heaven (it is not limited to those officially canonized by a church hierarchy).

It recognizes the reality that:

Our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. *** Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors – the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night . . . and the visions of our [sages], and is written in the hearts of our people. (Chief Seattle, Native American)

It looks to and gives thanks for the example of those who knew that “it is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends but to befriend one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion.” (M.K. Gandhi, Hindu) And it is underscored by the Christian community’s certainty “that in the religion of Love there are no believers and unbelievers. Love embraces all.” (Rumi, Sufi Muslim)

It is a Christian holy day, but I have just described it in three quotes from notable sages none of whom were Christians. The description of our ancestors as sacred and of religion as written on the hearts of the people is from Chief Seattle, the 19th Century leader of Suquamish and Duwamish nations of the northwest, a man who followed the religion of his ancestors. The observation about befriending one’s enemies is from Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, a Hindu from India. And the statement about the religion of love is from Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, a 13th Century Muslim Sufi mystic and poet.

I quote from these three men because I’ve come to believe that in our commemoration of all the saints, we should include those who are recognized as “holy” or “saintly” in other religious traditions, as well. There is, I believe, nothing in what these saintly men said that could be disagreed with by anyone of any differing religious or philosophical background. Nonetheless, I am sure that there are some (perhaps many) who would reject their words entirely, with little or no thought, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction simply because they were not Christian, despite the wisdom, morality, and generosity of spirit which they displayed.

Such is the world and the nation in which we celebrate All Saints Day this year, two days before the voters of the United States will select a new chief executive for our country. We are a society divided, polarized, and given to knee-jerk reactions. It is in this context that our Lectionary today asks us to read a consider a portion of the Book of Daniel, the only piece of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Scriptures, a book which focuses the reader’s attention on “the relationship between earthly and heavenly rule, emphasizing that the sovereign authority of earthly [rulers] depends upon the will of God.” (Portier-Young)

In the vision shown to Daniel, God gave sovereignty to “one like a Son of Man,” one like a human being in response to the suffering of God’s people under the domination of the Persian, Median, Macedonian, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic empires. Professor Anathea Portier-Young of Duke Divinity School argues that in so doing, God sought to free the oppressed from political domination, state terror, and persecution, to empower them to exercise authority and participate willingly in the political systems in which they live, and to inaugurate just rule on earth as in heaven. (Ibid.)

The culmination of Daniel’s vision is the handing of the earthly over to “the holy ones of the Most High.” Historically, these “holy ones” may have been understood as divine beings, but from the perspective of the Christian Gospel, the “holy ones of God” are those good people who were deeply engagement in the power struggles of their day and time, those divided, polarized, and knee-jerk reactive struggles that threatened to change to course of history. (Davidson) The “holy ones of the Most High” are those who, in the midst of a highly troubled and dangerous world, know that God is present and that God is more powerful than all the unjust empires and political systems human beings can devise. The saints, of whatever religious tradition, know that God loves and nourishes us, and gives us hope and meaning, life and salvation, gives us “the kingdom [to] possess . . . for ever – for ever and ever.” (Gaiser)

In our context, we have been given not a kingdom, but a participative democracy in which we have the same obligation as the saints of old to be deeply engaged in the struggle for justice to which Jesus calls us in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, the blessings and woes from the Sermon on the Plain. We are to remember the poor and the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated, reviled, and excluded. We are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. We are to follow what has come to be called “the Golden Rule:” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” These are not merely good ideas to be followed sometimes; they are moral imperatives which are to inform every activity of our lives, including our participation – wisely, morally, and with generosity of spirit – in the democracy we have been given.

As I wrote in our parish newsletter this month, I believe that voting is more than a privilege, more than a right; it is, I believe, an ethical, moral obligation. It is, for me as a Christian, an exercise in stewardship. We have been given this country and its governance by our forebears – and even, if Daniel’s vision is true (and I believe it is), by God – and we have the obligation to participate in its democratic processes, preserve it, and pass it on to our children, grandchildren, and more distant descendants.

We have heard too much cynicism in this election season. We have been told again and again how the candidates nominated by our two major parties are both deeply disliked and deeply distrusted by the electorate. On November 1, All Saints Day itself, the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper reported that 60 per cent of likely voters view Mrs. Clinton negatively and a similar percentage dislike Mr. Trump. In a pastoral letter to his flock last weekend, the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Oklahoma, wrote, “Our major party candidates are both deeply flawed.” (Patheos)

Well, I have some news for the Archbishop: that is just the way people, all people, are. He might just as well have written, “Our major party candidates are both human beings.” When the Roman Catholic Church began the process to canonize Pope John Paul II as a Capital-S Saint, the popular Jesuit author James Martin wrote an article responding to those who objected because they felt the late pope was insufficiently perfect to warrant it. Martin wrote of the saints:

[E]ven after their decisions to amend their lives, the saints remained stubbornly imperfect. In other words: human. And the history of sinful saints begins right at the start of Christianity. St. Peter, traditionally described as the “first pope,” denied knowing Jesus three times before the Crucifixion.

After cataloguing the indiscretions of several well-known saints, Martin commented:

All these men and women were holy, striving to devote their lives to God. They were also human. And they knew it, too. Of all people, the saints were the most cognizant of their flawed humanity, which served as a reminder of their reliance on God. (Slate)

Yes, our candidates are deeply flawed human beings. But to slightly misquote Jesus, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first ballot.” (See John 8:7)

I believe Archbishop Coakley was correct in writing that “what we most need is a renewed commitment to the pursuit of virtue, to seek the good and adhere to the truth as inscribed in our hearts by our Creator” and that “[v]oting is a moral act. It ought to be guided by prayer and an evaluation not only of the political, but also the moral implications of our decisions.” (Patheos)

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle writes of the church and the Christian faith being “an inheritance” for which the saints are to praise God. As I have said, I believe this nation and our participative democracy are likewise an inheritance. As Paul prayed for the Ephesians, so I pray for all of us, especially this week, that God may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, and that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us. None of us, not our candidates, not our neighbors, not our fellow voters, and especially not ourselves . . . none of us is perfect; we are all deeply flawed human beings. But we are also saints like the saints of old whom we commemorate today and like them we have been given the kingdom, on earth as in heaven, to possess and to participate in for ever – for ever and ever.

It is a saintly obligation. May we exercise it wisely, morally, and will generosity of spirit.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP Page 822)

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

Take It From the Top – Sermon for Trinity Sunday, 31 May 2015

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A sermon offered on Trinity Sunday, May 31, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 6:1-8; Canticle 13 (Song of the Three Young Men, 29-34); Romans 8:12-17; and John 3:1-17. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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holy_trinity_symbol

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.

Priest and poet Malcolm Guite’s A Sonnet on the Trinity tries to express the rhythm of a dance as a way appreciating the essence of the Holy Trinity when, on this day of the Christian year, we especially celebrate. This day, the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost, we set aside to contemplate the mystery of God as one-in-three and three-in-one, this is the Feast of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.

You and I have all heard many Trinity Sunday sermons filled with similes, metaphors, and analogies. We are all familiar with St. Patrick and his shamrock, with St. Augustine with his talk of Lover, Beloved and Love, with modern gender-neutral liturgies and their nearly Modalist constructions of Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. We’ve all heard about candle flames and light and heat, about water which we know as liquid, solid and vapor, about preachers who are at one and the same time fathers, sons and husbands. Mention a trinitarian metaphor and we will all raise our hands and say, “Yep, been there, heard that one.”

And, yet . . . as familiar as we may be with all of that . . . we (as individuals) still struggle to grasp what we (as the church) mean when we (as a congregation) weekly profess our faith in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, insisting that there are not three gods, but one God. The reason we struggle is that this doctrine, this theological perception, this self-revelation of God is a mystery in the truest sense of that word.

What we say in our creeds and in our theologies is all “code language” for this mystery. It is all an attempt to render into human words what God’s Word seems to tell us. The Trinity is not a reality that we can claim to grab hold of and test and verify and know. It is a truth that we conceive in faith, that we perceive by revelation, that we receive through the Spirit as a gift from God. It’s not spelled out in the Bible; indeed, the words “trinity” or “three-in-one” or even anything like them do not appear in Scripture. The baptismal formula “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” is found at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 28:19), but nearly every bible scholar agrees that those words were added to Matthew’s story and that our risen and (at that point) ascending Lord never said any such thing. No, at best we find hints of the Trinity in Abraham and Sarah being visited at the oaks of Mamre by God in the guise of three angels, in Isaiah’s call to prophecy and his vision of the heavenly throne room with the seraphim repeatedly singing the three-fold sanctus of “Holy, Holy, Holy,” in Jesus’ words to Nicodemus (part of which we heard this morning) and in his words to Philip (also in John’s Gospel) “If you know me, you will know my Father also” and “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (Jn 14:7,9).

The Trinity is a mystery, as I said, in the truest sense of that word. Our word mystery is derived from the Greek word mysterion meaning “something hidden or secret.” Even before Christianity began, the term mysterion was used to describe an experience of divine activity in human affairs. In Christian theology, we use the word mystery to describe something that is inaccessible to the human mind through mere observation or study, something which is an object of faith because it is revealed. We cannot know that God is Trinity by any human faculty, by scientific study, or by human reason; we have faith that God is Trinity because that is revealed to us in our study of the Holy Scriptures and in our personal experiences of God.

In their conversation, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one must be “born from above.” In the Greek used by John to tell the story, Jesus uses the word anothen. An alternative meaning of this word is “again,” which is how Nicodemus understands it, that one must be “born again.” What Jesus is talking about is revelation; Nicodemus misunderstands because he is thinking about mere human existence. The word anothen is used only a few other times in the New Testament and one of those is later in John’s Gospel when Christ is crucified: the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ tunic not wanting to tear it because “the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece [ek ton anothen] from the top.” (Jn 19:23) This, I think, is a clue to Jesus’ meaning.

How many of you play (or, at least, took instruction on) a musical instrument? Remember when you were practicing, perhaps with your teacher or in a band or an orchestra, and the leader would say, “Let’s take it from the top”? So you’d play it again. And then you’d “take it from the top” and play it again . . . and again . . . and again . . . and eventually it would happen; you’d get it right. Why or how that would happen was a mystery. I remember playing the clarinet in a high school dance band and I would swear that on what seemed the seventy-eleventh time through a piece I wasn’t playing it any differently, but somehow it was different. It clicked! It sounded right! That’s what Jesus is talking about: being “born from above” is “taking if from the top” until it clicks.

Faith is a matter of practice. We practice our faith again and again; we take it “from the top;” we are “born from above;” something clicks; we get something right, not because of our human faculty or scientific study or human reason, but because of the gift of God. That’s revelation. That’s life in the Trinity, the community of God the Three-in-One and One-in-Three into which we are constantly invited.

“The Trinity is a community of divine love and mutual self-giving. Each member not only loves the other, but acts for the well-being of the other in an effective manner.” (Peter C. Phan, The Cambridge Companion to the Trinity, Cambridge University Press, 2011, page 384) If we would enter into this divine communion, we will find ourselves expected to engage in social and ethical practices reflecting God’s love and mutuality, both in the church and in the wider world. The mystery which we profess in our Creeds only means anything when it takes concrete expression in a Christian moral life of love and mutuality. The trinitarian connection between Christian worship and Christian life is particularly expressed by our being in the world as living representatives of God, acting in ways that befit the divine character. One cannot profess love of neighbor in church, then go into the world and cheat one’s neighbor in business; one cannot hear Jesus command us in church to feed the hungry or clothe the naked, then go into the world and shred the social safety net; one cannot pray “Thy will be done” in church, then go into the world and oppress those who come to our country from foreign lands for it is clearly the will of God that “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you.” (Lev 19:34) Few, if any of us, are capable of attaining the ethical fullness of our trinitarian confession of faith, yet the more closely we enter into the trinitarian life of communion with God through Christ in the Spirit, the more our lives can be (and will be) expected to reflect the divine attributes of love and mutuality.

That is, in all honesty, a disconcerting revelation! Life in and with the community of the Trinity remains an ethical reality that lies beyond full human realization. It is disconcerting and disorienting; it destabilizes our existence. We are most comfortable when our lives are centered upon ourselves, but the trinitarian faith revealed in Christ demands that we focus our lives in love on the well-being of others, and not simply of a single other, but of multiple others. Perhaps this is why God’s self-revelation is found in threeness.

Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, has pointed out that human beings are most comfortable with pairs, “easy dyads for conversation” she calls them, and with even numbers: even numbers, she says, secure a sense of order and predictability, of expectation and dependability. But, add another person “and it’s the odd man out.”

With three, she writes, we enter “a disquieting disequilibrium. A lack of control. When you have three, the dynamics change. You are forced to share a conversation, to be attentive to another besides the one right in front of you. You have to listen to more than one person. Perhaps at the same time. You have to adjudicate feelings and responses and reactions that have doubled. That’s the problem and promise of three.” Perhaps, she suggests, “God likes disequilibrium. Maybe God thinks that’s what relationships are all about. Maybe God embraces and invites imbalance. Maybe this is essential to God’s character.” (Working Preacher: The Necessity of Three)

I think that this is what Malcolm Guite means when, in his sonnet, he writes that

[God] calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone.

The trinitarian faith is not about how shamrocks or candles or ice cubes reflect the nature of God; the trinitarian faith is about how we reflect the nature of God! This faith which calls us to love and mutuality demands that we respond to the darkness of hunger, to the chaos of homelessness, to the disequilibrium of loneliness, to the imbalance of alienation; this faith which calls us to love and mutuality demands that we “take it from the top” again and again practicing and practicing over and over, improvising until (by the grace of God) we click, until (by the grace of God) we get it right, until (by the grace of God) we truly reflect the divine attributes and live as befits representatives of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

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

Playing to an Empty Theater – From the Daily Office – May 28, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
subjecting all things under their feet.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 2:5-8a – May 29, 2014 – Ascension Day)

Empty TheaterI cannot read these verses of Hebrews (nor the verses of Psalm 8 which the author quotes) without thinking of Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not me; no, nor woman neither . . . . (Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Act II. Scene II)

Hamlet may not have delighted in humankind, but the story of Jesus and the witness of Scripture (Old and New) assure us that God does. With all our flaws and foibles, God loves the human race. (There are days when I wonder what that says about God, but the Feast of the Ascension is not one of them.) On this feast, we are assured that God loves us so much that God “crowns us with glory and honor.” We read not only this assurance in the Letter to the Hebrews, but also in the vision recorded in the Book of Daniel:

As I watched in the night visions,
I saw one like a human being
coming with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
that shall not pass away,
and his kingship is one
that shall never be destroyed.
(Dan 7:13-14)

As I read today’s lessons I am saddened that this Feast is so ignored by the Church. It passes by and our members never even think about it, if they even know of it. In the Sunday rota it is noted only as the day after which the Seventh Sunday of Easter comes: that’s how next Sunday’s collect is titled in The Book of Common Prayer, “Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day.” Kind of sad, because the Ascension really is the last event, the last scene of the last act of the great drama which is “the Christ event.” Fortunately, this year (Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary) we will hear the story of the Ascension from the Book of Acts on Sunday morning; this is not the case in the other two years of the rotation.

If the Incarnation (meaning the whole of Jesus’ earthly being) were viewed as a stage play, the drama of salvation would be seen in this way: Act One — In the Nativity, God becomes a human being offering great promise to humankind. Act Two — In the life of Jesus, God fully enters human existence in all its aspects making clearer the meaning of the promise. Act Three — In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God defeats death and opens the way of eternal life to all human beings setting the scene for fulfillment of the promise. Act Four — In the Ascension, a human being becomes God bringing the promise of the Nativity revealed Act One to fruition. (Pentecost and all that follows it are the epilogue, just as the story of Israel and the words and works of the Prophets are the prologue.)

The Ascension is the denouement of the entire story but, unfortunately, most of the audience, thinking the play concluded, left after Act Three; some may even have left in the middle of that act. The climax of the drama plays out to a largely empty theater.

One of the Episcopal Church’s collects for today says: “We believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend.” (BCP 1979, page 226) I think this prayer gets it slightly wrong. Our ascension with Jesus, I believe, is not a future thing that we “may” later attain. Rather, in Jesus’ Ascension we all have already ascended. God has already seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus; our ascension is not so much an experience to be attained, but a reality to be experienced. As St. Athanasius famously put it, “God became man that man might become God.” In the Ascension of Jesus, this theosis (deification) has already happened.

What a piece of work is humankind! Crowned with glory and honor. Given dominion and glory and kingship that shall not pass away. It’s sad that on the feast day that acknowledges this the theater is largely empty; the climax of the drama of redemption passes by largely unnoticed.

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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.

Jesus the Lens – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year A – March 2, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, March 2, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; and Matthew 17:1-9. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Bible and Magnifying GlassDarmok and Jalad at Tanagra!
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra . . . .
[silence]
Shaka, when the walls fell.
[silence]

Obviously, there is no one here who was a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation! “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is a line from an episode of that show entitled Darmok in which Picard, the captain of the Enterprise, and the captain of an alien vessel are marooned on a planet called El-Adrel. The alien race are called the Tamarians and their way of communicating is by making metaphorical references to legends, myths, and incidents in their history.

“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is the alien captain’s way of trying to say that he and Picard, the Tamarians and the humans, though strangers can become friends and allies — the reference is to a story in which two strangers become allies against a common enemy. Picard, of course, does not understand and so the Tamarian captain in frustration says, “Shaka, when the walls fell,” a metaphor for failure.

That episode and the Tamarian way of communicating came to mind as I considered the story of the Transfiguration as told by Matthew in today’s Gospel lesson (and referred to in the epistle lesson, as well). The point of the episode is that we all communicate by way of analogy and metaphor; the fictional Tamarians were simply an extreme case. So is religion. All talk of God, all religious language, is metaphorical.

There are anti-religious writers who fail to understand that. I call them “anti-theists” or “evangelical atheists” — they are so sure of the truth of their Godless vision of the universe that they insist on trying to destroy religious faith, to spread the “truth” of their atheism. When they consider the story of the Transfiguration, they insist that it is a made-up story. They point to the fact that the story combines elements of earlier stories of the Hebrew people and say the Gospel writers were simply inventing something.

And, yes, they are right about the earlier stories. In the Book of Daniel, Daniel tells of seeing a vision of heaven in which one he calls “the Ancient One” is clothed in “clothing [which] was white as snow,” (Dan. 7:9) like Matthew (and Mark and Luke) describe Jesus’ clothing on the Holy Mountain. Daniel tells of seeing one “like a son of man” (a title claimed by Jesus, by the way, even in today’s reading) who he describes this way: “His face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze.” Matthew doesn’t go into such detail, but he describes Jesus’ face as shining like the sun.

Another earlier story is that of Moses receiving the law from God at Sinai, the story we heard this morning. On that mountain, Moses encountered the Shekinah, the glowing cloud of the Lord’s Presence, not unlike the cloud the Gospel describes on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

What happened on that mountain? I really don’t know. I take the Gospelers’ word for it that something important, something incredible happened. I believe they tried to describe it using stories familiar to their people. Like the fictional Tamarians of Star Trek:TNG, they were reaching back into their history to communicate, by metaphor and analogy, the meaning and importance of a present reality. They were not “making it up,” they were describing it in a way they hoped would make sense. They were trying to communicate that something important happened on that mountain, that in some way Jesus was changed and God spoke to them. I believe that what was of most importance is summarized in three small words: “Listen to him.”

Peter in his second letter — and I know there are scholars who doubt that Peter wrote the second letter attributed to him, but for the moment let’s just go with tradition — Peter in his letter relates his experience on the mountain, and I find it interesting that in doing so, he left out those three words: “[Jesus] received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” Peter set a pattern for the church which has continued for nearly 2,000 years. We fail to heed those three small words; we fail to even remember them — and we do not listen to Jesus.

We listen to Paul in his several letters! We listen to John in his three, and to James, and Jude, and Peter. We listen to John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation. We listen to those who came earlier, to Moses, to those who wrote or edited Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to the Prophets, to David in the Psalms. We listen to all of them . . . but we do not listen to Jesus.

All talk of God, all religious language is metaphorical . . . so let me suggest a couple of metaphors that might help us to do so.

I think it was Brian McClaren who said that the way we read the Bible can be likened to an hour glass, which all of the Old Testament being the sand in the top of the glass, and the writings of the New Testament being the sand pouring through the tiny middle, Jesus being that little hole in the center of the glass. We read all that sand in the top as pointing to Jesus, as prophesying Jesus, as explaining why Jesus was going to come. We read all that sand in the bottom of the glass as pointing back to Jesus, as explaining Jesus, as prophesying his return. We read Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament writers or through the lens of the Epistle authors. We listen to what they tell us about Jesus . . . but we do not listen to Jesus.

We should stop treating Jesus as the central stem of an hour glass to which all Old Testament sand points forward and to which all New Testament sand points back. We should think of Jesus as the lens of a microscope, or a telescope, or just as a magnifying glass. We should read Paul through the lens of Jesus, not vice versa. We should read Revelation through the lens of Jesus, not vice versa. We should read the prophets, the Psalms, Moses, the whole of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. When a biblical writer has something to say about a particular matter, we should hear what that writer has to say, but we should then critically question that writer’s words by asking, “Did Jesus say anything about that?” We should listen to Jesus.

There are many in our society who purport to speak for the church — truth be told, they purport to speak for Jesus — on a variety of topics. For example, we are told that Jesus is opposed to abortion. But when you question that, when you ask for the Biblical basis of their argument, they will cite Genesis: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27) and then tell you that “when it comes to human dignity, Christ erases distinctions. St. Paul declares, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). We can likewise say, ‘There is neither born nor unborn.'” This is an actual quotation from an antiabortion website. Notice what was done: Christ, we are told, erases distinctions, but it is Paul who is cited. This is reading Jesus through the lens of Paul; this is listening to Paul, not Jesus.

Did Jesus ever say anything about abortion? No. Never. What did Jesus say? “Love God; love your neighbor as yourself.” Sometimes our neighbor must make very hard, very painful decisions, but never did Jesus suggest we are to make her decisions for her, or to prevent her from making her own decisions, or to question the decision she may make. Quite to the contrary, he said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37) Listen to him.

We are told that Jesus condemns those who engaged in sexual immorality, but did Jesus do so? On one occasion, he encountered a crowd which was intent on executing (as the law demanded) a woman who had been exposed as an adulterer. What did he do and say? He convinced the crowd to abandon their plans. When the crowd left while he was looking away, Jesus said to the woman, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:10-11) Jesus had a lot to say about sexual immorality, but when dealing with some accused of it, he followed his own rule: Love your neighbor, and do not judge. Listen to him.

We are told that Jesus condemns homosexuality, that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons should be excluded from ministry, that they should be forbidden to marry the person they love. Did Jesus ever say anything about same-sex relationships? No, never. Leviticus has something to say about, though scholars are in conflict about whether that has any application to committed, loving adult relationships. St. Paul had something to say about, maybe. There is the same doubt about the application of his words to committed, loving adult relationships. There is even some doubt about whether Paul’s words are anything more than a cut-and-paste use of a Greek rhetorical form. But Jesus? Jesus never even said anything about which there could be doubt; about homosexual relationships, Jesus said nothing . . . nothing other than “Love your neighbor, and do not judge.” Listen to him.

We do this over and over again throughout history, whatever the issue of the day may be. Go back about a hundred years; go back to the temperance movement of the early 20th Century. Members of the Church campaigned against “demon rum” on the grounds that Jesus was against drinking. Did Jesus ever say anything about alcoholic beverages? Yes! He said to drink them! And, especially, he said to do so in his memory. Listen to him!

My systematic theology professor, Jim Griffis, was very good at dealing with students who wanted to read Jesus through the lens of other Scripture. He would listen to them cite the Old Testament or Paul or Revelation, and then ask, “What does Jesus say?” “The Gospel,” he would say, “trumps the Bible.” The Gospel of love: Love God; love your neighbor; do not judge. Understand everything else through that critical filter.

Something happened on the mount of the Transfiguration, something so important that those who later wrote about it and preserved it, analogized it to the important stories of their past. Like the Tamarian captain looking back to Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, they looked back to Moses receiving the law at Sinai, to Daniel seeing a vision of heaven.

There is one more similarity between those earlier bible stories and the tale of the Transfiguration. In Daniel’s vision, the one “like a son of man” says to Daniel, “Pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.” (Dan. 10:11) The three most important words spoken on the Holy Mountain are “Listen to him!” — Listen to Paul, listen to Moses, listen to John of Patmos, listen to the prophets, listen to David . . . but, most importantly, listen to Jesus and understand all the rest through that lens: “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not judge.”

“This is my son, the beloved; in him I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

====================

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

Cleaning the Windshield — Sermon for All Saints Sunday, RCL Year C – November 3, 2013

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This sermon was preached on All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, All Saints: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; and Luke 6:20-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

[Note: The Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament reading for All Saints in Year C is an edited pericope; I had the reader at Mass read the entire thing, verses 1 through 18.]

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Windshield with BugsToday is the first Sunday in November which means that instead of the normal sequence of lessons for Ordinary Time, we are given the option of reading the lessons for All Saints Day, which falls every year on November 1. So today we heard a very strange reading from the Book of Daniel, a to-my-ear very troubling gradual psalm (in which we sing of wreaking vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, of binding king in chains, and of inflicting judgment on the nobles bound in iron), a bit of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus extolling the riches of the inheritance of the saints, and to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in which Jesus not only blesses the poor, the hungry, and the weeping, he sighs woefully over the future plight people like ourselves – the comparatively wealthy, those whose bellies are full, and those in relatively good state of mind.

I asked our Old Testament reader this morning to read a somewhat longer lesson from Daniel than you find in your bulletin insert because the edited (or, more accurately, gutted) version there (which are the verses required for the day by the Revised Common Lectionary) includes only the introduction of a dream or vision experienced by Daniel and then skips immediately to the interpretation. We would have heard none of the apocalyptic imagery of the dream, but I think it important that we listen to and consider Daniel’s troubling vision of four strange beasts and the coming of one “like a son of man,” else how are we to understand the interpretation given by the “attendant.”

Early in my meditations and study for preaching today, I thought I would explore with you the meaning of the beasts and so on, but the more I thought about that, and especially as I began actually organizing my thoughts and writing out my sermon, I decided against doing so. It would I think be a distraction from the focus of the day. I was thinking that the reading as edited in the Lectionary presents us with a passage that makes little sense, but after reading and hearing again the full Daniel’s story of seeing a winged lion, a tusked bear, a four-headed leopard, and a ten-horned and iron-toothed monster, I guess that’s what we have in the longer reading, too! A lesson that distracts us, as so much in the Bible can do; so many people focus on these arcane details that they miss the bigger picture the Bible tries to show. As result, we get such non-Biblical nonsense as the various forms of “tribulationism” and the story of “the Rapture;” we get “one-issue Christians” who refuse to recognize as members of the same faith Christians who disagree with them. We get exactly the opposite of what the Feast of All the Saints is supposed to underscore.

So, instead of dealing with this troubling bit of the Bible right now, what I’d like you to do is come with me for a drive. Let’s just set the Bible aside and go get in our car and head off down the road. It’s a country road, a hard-pack dirt country road out in the farm country. We’re taking a country drive on a fine, beautiful spring day. It’s been raining, but it’s not raining now. Now the sun is shining and the birds are singing and insects of all sorts are buzzing and humming and chirping. In fact, there are loads of insects. It’s one of those days when the damsel flies are swarming, doing their brief romantic aerial ballets to attract mates and perpetuate their species. It’s one of those days when the grasshoppers are doing their best to eat everything in sight. It’s one of those days with yellow swallow-tails and monarchs and viceroys and white cabbage butterflies are flittering all over the place.

As we drive along, we’re traveling at a pretty good clip and, as you might expect with all those bugs around, the windshield is getting pretty messy. And since it just stopped raining and the dirt road is still a bit muddy, a lot of that has splashed up onto the windows and the windshield, as well. In fact, we can barely see through the windshield! We put the wipers on and twist the knob so the washer fluid sprays onto the glass, but the bug juice is sticky and there’s a lot of mud, so the washers only clear a little of the muck away, and the windshield is now not only covered with dead bugs and muck, it’s streaky, too!

Still, we peer through the streaks of bug blood and mud, and keep our eyes on the road ahead. Eventually we come to a filling station and we pull in. In a bygone era, a man in coveralls with a greasy rag tucked in his pocket would have run out and begun filling our tank with gas, and he would have checked under the hood, and he would have carried out a bucket of soapy water with a large sponge and a squee-gee, and he would have washed our bug-be-splattered, mud-streaked windshield and cleaned away all that distracting muck that was keeping us from seeing our way ahead.

A few days ago, I was reviewing a Vacation Bible School curriculum based on the story of Jonah and in the sales literature the publisher had written these words: “The Bible is a window that shows us God’s heart. In the stories, in the writings, and in the Gospels we see what God is like. The Bible reveals God to us, just like the windows in a car or in a building reveal what is going on outside.”

Isn’t that a great image for Holy Scripture: “The Bible is a window that shows us God’s heart.” Now I don’t know about you, but when I am driving in a car on a day like I described to you, a day when the windshield gets are splattered and messy with dead bugs and mud, I have a hard time looking beyond that cloudy window in front of me. I get distracted by the details on the window; I focus on them and not on the road out in front of me.

But so long as I focus on the window, the window is not serving its purpose. The window is not there to be the object of my attention; it is there to let me see what is happening on the other side. So it is with the Bible.

The Education for Ministry group that I have the privilege to mentor in this parish is made up of all first year students, so everyone in the group is working through study of the Old Testament. We are about six weeks into reading Genesis and Exodus now, and one of the things we’ve noticed is that the stories of the Patriarchs and the first Hebrews are not very pretty: Abraham is a liar; Jacob is a cheat; Joseph’s brothers are petulant bullies who nearly kill him; Moses whines a lot; and Aaron (Moses’ brother), although he is the first high priest, is the one who turns the people away from God and fashions the golden calf for them to worship! We are all, I think, finding it difficult to look past the peccadillos of the Patriarchs in order to see the God who is behind the stories; just like its difficult to look past the bugs and the mud on the windscreen!

And then today, along comes Daniel with his weird vision, the Palmist with his bloodthirsty delight in vengeance and revenge, and Jesus telling us that those of us who are fairly well off are destined to be hungry and in mourning! It’s hard to look past all of that understand where God is. As one commentator on Daniel noted, we who read this story in the Bible are “in the midst of bewildering events that affright and confuse.”

We find this all hard to accept and difficult to look through because we want the Bible to be clear! We want the Bible to be the answer book, to lay it all out for us in simple and easy-to-follow instructions; we want to be able to say, as our Sunday School children sang last week, “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” We just want it to be clear! But the Bible doesn’t exist to be the object of our devotion; the Bible doesn’t exist to be regarded on its own and for itself. The Bible is a window through which God is reveals Godself to us and, like any window, its got some distracting stuff we have to look past.

It does so because it is book (several books, actually) full of human stories, and human stories are messy. So we end up with stories of people who are sometimes liars and cheaters; people who can sometimes whine and be unfaithful. We end up with stories of weird hallucinations and frightful dreams. We end up with poetry by someone who’s been hurt so badly that vengeance and revenge can look like a gift of God. We end up with troubling warnings that we might, probably will, face hunger and grief. How do we look past that to see, as Paul encouraged the Ephesians, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, so that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us?

Well, when we were on our drive through the countryside with our windshield spatted with bug goo and mud, we pulled into a gas station, and a mechanic came out and washed all of that away. Remember? Today is the day that we remember those who help clean away all of the distractions, the filling station attendants of the faith. Today we remember the saints who help to clear our vision of God. Broadly speaking, of course, the saints are all those who are baptized, who follow Jesus Christ, and who live their lives according to his teaching, which would include all of us here today. Church tradition, however, also uses the term more narrowly to refer to especially holy women and holy men who are heroes of the faith, who through lives of extraordinary virtue reveal the Presence of God to us, who clean that window through which we all look.

Cleaning a WindshieldThe saints whom we celebrate on this day (and the many who are given special days of individual recognition) were people who tried to live according to the Bible as they understood its teachings. Like us, they read it and encountered those troubling visions, those petulant patriarchs, those bloodthirsty psalms, and somehow looked past them and through them to see the God of faith, the God who Incarnate in Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We extoll the virtues of those saint and we celebrate their lives and their witness because they help us to do the same. By their lives and their examples, they clean the windshield for us; they clean away the bug blood and the mud, so that we no longer focus on the window, but on the God the window shows us.

This is not to suggest that we should not study nor seek to understand the murkiness and cloudiness that we find on the window, the questionable and troublesome visions of Daniel, the lying and cheating of the Patriarchs, the bloodthirstiness of the Psalmist, or the petulant pettiness of the Prophets. Certainly, we should for we can learn thereby of the graciousness of the God who overlooked and overcame those faults, who regarded and redeemed those men and women! But following the example of the saints before us, we should not let ourselves be distracted by them so that we fail to see and appreciate that same God.

Today we give thanks for the saints, the filling station attendants of the faith, who help us clean our windshields.

O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 1979, Burial of the Dead, page 504)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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

The Better Angels – Sermon for St. Michael & All Angels Day – September 29, 2013

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This sermon was preached on St. Michael and All Angels Day, September 29, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Episcopal Lectionary, Michaelmas: Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; Psalm 103; and John 1:47-51. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Icon of the ArchangelsWe are stepping out of the “common of time,” away from the progression of lessons assigned for the Sundays of Ordinary Time, and instead celebrating the Feast of Michaelmas, known variously as the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel or as the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael, or as the Feast of the Archangels, or as the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels (the latter being the preferred Anglican name for this commemoration). The only reason we are doing so is a personal conceit of your rector; Michaelmas, the 29th of September, just happens to be my birthday. Today I am celebrating the 30th anniversary of my twenty-eleventh birthday. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first . . . a word about Michaelmas.

It shouldn’t surprise any of us that on, St. Michael and All Angels Day, we are treated to three very familiar stories of angels in Holy Scripture: first, the story of “Jacob’s ladder;” second, the story of the war in heaven in which Michael, leading the “good” angels, beats “the dragon” (named “the Devil or Satan”) and his “bad” angels; and finally, the gospel story of Jesus telling Nathanael that he will see something like Jacob’s ladder, “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

We know what angels are, or at least we think we do. They are a separate order of creation, beings of spiritual energy who interact with human beings as the servants and often as the messengers of God. The English word angel derives from the Latin angelus which in turn is the romanization of the ancient ángelos which means “messenger” or “envoy.” In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, we find the terms mal’ak elohim (“messenger of God”), mal’ak YHWH (“messenger of the Lord”), bene elohim (“sons of God”) and haqqodesim (“holy ones”) translated into English as angels. The first of these, mal’ak elohim, is what we find in today’s Genesis passage. In addition, there are specific kinds of angels identified in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are the Cherubim – one of whom is placed with a flaming sword to guard the gateway to the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 and who are said to flank or support God’s throne as, for example, in Hezekiah’s prayer in the book of the Prophet Isaiah (ch. 37); the Cherubs are apparently not cute, little, chubby baby angels! And there are the Seraphim – whom Isaiah describes as having “six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew,” and who sing God’s praises in the heavenly throne room.

We know the personal names of some of the angels, particularly the archangels – Gabriel, who is named in the Book of Daniel and identified in the Gospel of Luke as the angel of the Annunciation; Raphael, who is identified as a companion and advisor to Tobias in the apocryphal Book of Tobit; Uriel, who was sent to test the prophet Ezra according to the apocryphal Second Book of Esdras; and Michael, who is the leader of God’s angel army in the story of Revelation today.

We know that human beings, when they die, do not become angels . . . although lots of people say things like that in order to comfort the bereaved who have lost loved ones. Angels, as I said, are a separate order of creation, beings of immense spiritual energy. If the Book of Job is correct, they were created before the physical world: in questioning Job, God asks him if he was there when the foundations of the earth were put in place, “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (38:7; the term here is bene elohim, sons of God.)

So . . . we know a lot about angels, but why do we venerate them on this particular day? And what can we learn from them? The first question is easy to answer: the date commemorates the dedication of the Sanctuary of St. Michael Archangel built on Monte Gargano in Italy in 493 a.d. in honor of an apparition of the archangel a few years before. The second question is not so easy.

What I think we learn from angels is conscience. Whenever I hear the word “angels,” to be very honest, my first thought is not of their religious history or meaning, but of the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address given on March 4, 1861, just two weeks after Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as president of the Confederacy. Referring to that secession and the potential of war to preserve the Union, finished his speech saying:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

I love that turn of phrase, “the better angels of our nature.” I’m not the least bit sure what Mr. Lincoln meant by the phrase, but it has always appealed to me. A few years ago, a Harvard psychologist named Steven Pinker used it as the title of a book in which he named four of these “better angels:”

  • Empathy, which “prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own”
  • Self-control, which “allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses” and thus to regulate those impulses
  • Moral sense, which “sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people”
  • Reason, which “allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.”

These are all, to my way of thinking, gifts of God. In a sense, they are a modern rendition of what St. Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit,” although Paul listed nine attributes: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Or of those gifts of the Holy Spirit listed by Isaiah: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. It is through these fruits and gifts that human conscience is informed and moral judgment enlightened, and conscience, as Thomas Merton said, “is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.” (No Man Is an Island)

Some of you may be familiar with the Henry Fonda film from the 1940s entitled The Ox-Bow Incident. It’s based on a novel of the same name by the Nevada writer Walter Van Tilburg Clark. In the story, the narrator Art Croft is one of two men who drift into a Nevada ranching town and end up becoming part of a posse that turns into a lynch mob. They end up hanging, without a trial, three men who may or may not actually be guilty of the crimes they are accused of — cattle rustling and murder. Reflecting on what has happened, Art Croft asks, “If we can touch God at all, where do we touch him save in the conscience?” If the angels are the messengers of God, perhaps our conscience is the means through which the “better angels of our nature” communicate God’s will to us. As Theologian Peter Kreeft explains, the conscience as “the voice of God in the soul.”

Along those lines, in a Michaelmas sermon preached a few years ago, the Very Rev. John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey, said this:

We can and should then think of God speaking directly to us, out of his love and care for us as individuals. However we must understand God’s presence with us as a reality inseparable from that of God’s presence among us. Through our fellowship in the Church, Christ’s Body, God informs our conscience through his Word and feeds our soul through the sacraments, drawing us together as Christians into unity with each other and with himself. If we try to go it alone as Christians, we run great risks of going astray. The Church understands the work and role of the angels as assisting in mediating the presence of God with us and amongst us. (29 September 2010)

I don’t think I can learn much from angels as mighty beings standing guard at the entrance to Eden, or as warriors fighting Satan and casting him out of heaven, or as singers in the heavenly choir, or as the pillars and supports of God’s throne. But as the prompters and prickers of my conscience, as the “better angels” of empathy, moral sense, self-control, and reason, as the communicators of the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, as mediators of God’s presence in the Church, I can learn a great deal from them.

The Psalmist, in our gradual this morning, declared that God’s righteousness and merciful goodness endure forever “on those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments and do them.” It is these “better angels” who keep that memory alive in our consciences and to them, and to the God whose presence they mediate within us individually and among us corporately, we can turn for answers to life’s challenges.

So . . . as I said, it’s my birthday. Today, and for the next decade or so, when asked how old I am, I can answer, “Sixty-something.” (A graphic I posted today on my Facebook page says, “I’m not sixty-something. I’m $59.95 plus shipping and handling.”) In any event, a birthday is a time of taking stock, or considering one’s past, one’s actions, the answers one has developed in one’s life, and one’s future.

I mentioned in a conversation with some parishioners last week that when I’d been ten years at St. Francis Parish in Stilwell, Kansas, my congregation last before this one, Evelyn and I came to the conclusion that it was time to leave. One of the people I was talking with asked, “You’ve been here at St. Paul’s for ten years. Is it time to leave?” That’s a birthday sort of question. It’s what might be called “a big question.”

The past six decades, like everyone’s life, has been full of big questions of that sort, to be honest. Whether to study law? Whether to get married? Whether to leave the practice of law? Whether to become a priest? Move to Kansas? Leave Kansas? Accept nomination in an episcopal election? Those are big questions. But sometimes our replies to big questions are little answers, puny responses that put off meeting the real challenges.

A friend recently shared a poem with me, a poem by Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell. I wasn’t familiar with Sitwell so I did some research on her. She was the eldest child of the 4th Baronet of Renishaw Hall, born in 1887. In her twenties, she began publishing poems in the Daily Mirror newspaper. She was six feet tall and habitually wore brocade gowns, gold turbans, and (one biographer said) “a plethora of rings.” Apparently she was given to public feuds with other literary figures. One critic said of her that “wore other people’s bleeding hearts on her own safe sleeve,” and another called her “an eccentric matriarch with a slender grip on reality.” Just my sort of poet! No wonder I liked what she had to say about our responses to life’s questions in a short poem entitled Answers:

I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow.

And all the great conclusions coming near.

I believe the “great conclusions coming near,” the big answers clamoring, the huge abstractions shouting to be acknowledged, are the angels calling each of us to greater ministries, the messengers of God urging us to a more audacious Christian presence in the world.

In a couple of months’ time, our construction project will be done. We’ll have a great new gallery, an expanded parish hall, a great new face presented to the community. When we broke ground here in July, the Old Testament lesson was the same reading from Genesis we hear this morning. I suggested then that this place, this St. Paul’s Episcopal Church located at 317 East Liberty Street in Medina, Ohio, is like Jacob’s Bethel.

It is an awesome place. It is a house of God. It is a gate of heaven. But just like Jacob’s Bethel, it is a place we are bidden to leave; it is a place from which the angels of God bid us go. A church building is meant to be the base from which the people of God go into the world. A church building is meant to be a place of life, a center of ministry, a place of assembly, where God’s people gather to worship, to hear the message of the angels, to celebrate the meaning of life, and to be transformed, and then “burst forth,” back out into the world to share the Good News with, and transform the lives of, others. The angels of God call us individually and corporately to greater ministries, to a more audacious Christian presence in our world.

The answer to that “big question” I was asked is, “No, it’s not time for me to leave St. Paul’s.” But it is time for all of us as St. Paul’s to leave this place, to go out from this new building we are creating, to “burst forth” into the world like Jacob and his offspring, to be “angels,” messengers of God, telling the world the Good News of God in Christ.

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.

Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin – From the Daily Office – April 18, 2013

From the Book of Daniel:

Daniel answered in the presence of the king, “You have exalted yourself against the Lord of heaven! The vessels of his temple have been brought in before you, and you and your lords, your wives and your concubines have been drinking wine from them. You have praised the gods of silver and gold, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone, which do not see or hear or know; but the God in whose power is your very breath, and to whom belong all your ways, you have not honored. So from his presence the hand was sent and this writing was inscribed. And this is the writing that was inscribed: mene, mene, tekel, and parsin. This is the interpretation of the matter: mene, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; tekel, you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting; peres, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Daniel 5:17,23-28 (NRSV) – April 18, 2013.)

Brass ScalesMene, mene, tekel, upharsin. (KJV)

“Your days are numbered. You have been judged and found wanting. Your possessions will be divided among others.” The writing on the wall is a harsh judgment and a decree of the sentence. As it turns out, the judgment is swiftly executed: “That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed. And Darius the Mede received the kingdom, being about sixty-two years old.” (vv. 30-31)

I read these lessons a few days ahead of time so that they can rumble around my head and I can figure out what I want to write about them. I had thought I would be writing something else – indeed, I thought I would be writing about a different lesson . . . . but yesterday the United States Senate voted 54-46 in favor of a bill that would have expand the federal background check system on gun purchases to include sales made at gun shows or over the internet. A majority of senators voted in favor of this legislation, and yet it will not become law. An overwhelming majority of American citizens favor this legislation (by some reports 90%), and yet it will not become law. It would not impose any burden on gun sellers or gun purchasers that is not now required in most gun transactions, and yet it will not become law.

“You have been weighed on the sales and found wanting.” I keep imagining a set of scales like those carried by Lady Justice. On one side of the scales stand 54 senators; on the other, 46. And yet the scales tip toward the 46, toward what should be the lighter side. On one side of the scales stand 90% of the American people; on the other, 10%. And yet the scales tip toward the 10%, toward what should be the light side.

On one side of the scales are the lives of 21 children and six adults killed at Newtown, twelve killed at Aurora, seven killed at Oak Creek, six killed in Tucson, nearly 3,500 people killed by guns since the Newtown massacre; on the other . . . . the interests of the N.R.A. and the gun industry. We know to which side the scales have been tipped.

We have been weighed on the scales. Have we been found wanting? I, for one, believe we have. We have to do something to change this unbalance. We have to do it soon.

Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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

The Sin of Belshazzar – From the Daily Office – April 17, 2013

From the Book of Daniel:

Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace, next to the lampstand. The king was watching the hand as it wrote. Then the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together. The king cried aloud to bring in the enchanters, the Chaldeans, and the diviners; and the king said to the wise men of Babylon, “Whoever can read this writing and tell me its interpretation shall be clothed in purple, have a chain of gold around his neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” Then all the king’s wise men came in, but they could not read the writing or tell the king the interpretation. Then King Belshazzar became greatly terrified and his face turned pale, and his lords were perplexed.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Daniel 5:5-9 (NRSV) – April 17, 2013.)

King BelshazzarMany are familiar with the phrase “the writing on the wall,” but few know that it has a biblical origin. Here, today, is the beginning of the story from which it comes. Belshazaar, son of Nebuchadnezzar, has thrown a party. He orders booty from the Jerusalem Temple, sacred vessels of silver and gold, used as drinking vessels. While he and his friends are partying, the hand appears as related above and writes on the wall.

The Boston Marathon was run this week. On Monday, 23,000 people ran the marathon. When about 75% of them had passed the finish line, two bombs went off in the midst of the observing crowds. As of this writing, three people (including one child) are dead; over 170 people are suffering injuries, some of them severally disabling and possibly still fatal. No person or group has yet claimed responsibility.

On the same day a bomb went off in Baghdad, Iraq. In fact, several bombs went off across that country and more than 75 people are dead and many others wounded. A colleague of mine commented that Baghdad “doesn’t seem so far away now.”

The writing on the wall provides some perspective. What was Belshazzar’s sin that prompted this display of divine displeasure? Using the Temple vessels in revelry, the abuse of a conquered people’s culture and values, imperial oppression of faith and identity. Could this not help explain of the acts of violence and terror perpetrated against our country from 9/11 to the present bloody mess in Boston? It could, if they are the acts of Muslim extremists. I am not suggesting that they are, but there are many who doing so.

Commentators left and right are trying to put spin on the Boston bombings, but everyone is speaking in ignorance right now because (as noted above) no one has claimed responsibility; law enforcement has identified no suspects. Nonetheless, plenty of people seem ready to point the finger at Muslims, but none of these finger-pointers appreciates that if that is the case, there is background to be dealt with . . . we may need to face the sin of Belshazzar committed anew by our own country. One of the more insightful comments, I think, came from an Arab editorial: “Whatever the truth about this latest bombing, the continued refusal to acknowledge the widespread grievances against the US and its allies caused by the wars and US policies in the Middle East will lead to turmoil until political solutions are found.” (Al Bawaba News Group)

The writer of Daniel tells us that Belshazzar’s “face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him.” I think that pretty much describes the United States today . . . . The king could not understand the writing on the wall. At this point, we seem unable to understand what is written in blood on the sidewalks of Boston.

But if it turns out that this the act of Middle Easterners, we need to ask ourselves, “Are we guilty of the sin of Bleshazzar?” Many would answer that question, “Yes,” and call upon us to repent. We need to find not just political solutions, but spiritual solutions, as well.

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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.

A Thing of Power – From the Daily Office – April 15, 2013

From the Book of Daniel:

Daniel, who was called Belteshazzar, was severely distressed for a while.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Daniel 4:19a (NRSV) – April 15, 2013.)

Name TagsThis renaming of Daniel by King Nebuchadnezzar intrigues me. Earlier in chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar explains that Daniel “was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god” apparently because the king believed Daniel to be “endowed with a spirit of the holy gods.” (v. 8)

Daniel is not the only Jew in Babylon to be renamed by the king or on the king’s behalf. In a reading last week we learned that “the palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.” (1:7) Why, I wonder, do we remember Daniel by his Hebrew name, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by the names given them by their captors?

Naming is matter of power. The ancients knew this. Ancient myths of East and West tell of the power held in one’s name: it was believed that if one knew someone’s name one held power over that person. This may be why the Babylonians insisted on renaming these Jews.

In the Irish language the word for “name” is ainm – it is pronounced “AH-n’m”. The Irish word for “soul” is anam – it, too, is pronounced “AH-n’m”. It seems to me to be no coincidence that these words are homophones – one’s name is one’s identity; one’s soul is one’s identity. Certain schools of philosophy believe that the soul is the bearer of personal identity. In the language of the Inuit people there is the concept of the soul-name, atiq, which combines naming and identity, as well as family transmission. Names are definitive of who we are.

As children, we are taught to shrug off taunts and insults, “bad names” we called them; we are taught to recite a nursery rhyme – “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Of course, we know only too well that names do hurt and “bad names” hurt children very badly. Even as adults we may continue to be haunted by the taunts we endured as children. (I started wearing glasses even before going to kindergarten and I can still remember being called “Four-eyes” in the earliest grades of elementary school.) When we name someone or something, we do indeed exert power over that person or that thing.

We should treat all names with respect, especially our own, for a name, as the Babylonians knew, is a thing of power.

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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.