That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Deuteronomy (page 1 of 4)

Discerning Prophets – Sermon for Epiphany 4, RCL Year B, January 28, 2018

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”[1] So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.

And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”[2] The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.

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The ‘ahab Commandments – Sermon for Proper 25A, Pentecost 21 (October 29, 2017)

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”1

You’ve probably heard the old tale that “the Eskimo language has hundreds of words for snow.” If you research that, you’ll find it’s not true for the very basic reason that there is no single Eskimo language; there’s Inuit and Aleut and Yupik and Kalaallisut and Inuktitut and others and multiple dialects of all of them. In fact, there are eleven different languages spoken by the people grouped together under the title “Eskimos,” and most of them have up to thirty dialects. So, yeah, there are a lot of words for snow among the Eskimos in the same way there are a lot of words for snow among Europeans. (By the way, did you know that the native peoples of North America who live above the Arctic Circle don’t actually like to be called “Eskimos”? That is not a word in any of the languages; it’s an Algonquin word meaning “eaters of raw flesh” and they really don’t like it.)

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Life or Death; Lawfulness or Sinfulness: Sermon for 6 Epiphany, 12 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Sirach 15:15-20 (or, alternatively, Deuteronomy 30:15-20); Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and St. Matthew 5:21-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Moses_Pleading_with_IsraelThe Book of Deuteronomy tells us that when the long Exodus journey of the People of the Hebrews ended, just before they were to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses delivered a farewell address. He was not going to be going into the new land with them.

You may remember that God had been angered by the first generation of wandering Hebrews, what Jesus might have called an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mk 8:38), who had grumbled against God, had wanted to turn back, and who had eventually been so disobedient that they had fashioned an idol (the Golden Calf) and worshiped it instead of Yahweh, their deliverer.

Furthermore, even when they worshiped and followed God, they didn’t trust God. Not believing God’s promise of the land into which they were to come, they sent spies ahead of them. This angered God, so that God had decreed that none of those who had left Egypt would enter the Holy Land (Numbers, Ch. 14). The Psalmist quotes God:

They put me to the test,
though they had seen my works.
Forty years long I detested that generation and said,
“This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
So I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter into my rest.” (Ps 95:9-11)

So Moses was the last of these and, in addition, he himself had been told by God that he would not enter the Promised Land because he and his brother Aaron had doubted God at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. God had said to him and to Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Num 20:12)

So at the brink of their entry, probably near Moab in the valley of Beth-Peor where he would be buried in an unmarked tomb, Moses gathered the children and grandchildren of the original Hebrews and summarized all that God had done for them and all that God required of them saying, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”(Deut 30:15). Follow the laws of God, have life and prosperity; disobey the commandments, death and adversity.

Throughout the discourse, Moses does an interesting thing that we can’t follow in the English translation; he intermixes the use of the plural “you” and the singular “you.” By doing so, he seems to be saying that the obligation to do good, to follow the commandments is both a communal and an individual responsibility. As a whole, the People of God must do these things, but it isn’t sufficient that they do it only as a community. The individual member can’t rely on his or her neighbor to do it for them; he or she can’t rely on the community’s leadership to do it for them. Each member of the community must do it for themselves; the individual needs the support of the community to undertake and accomplish this individual responsibility, but the individual can’t let it slide and just rely on the community to take up his or her slack, so to speak.

Also throughout the course of his speech, Moses makes it clear that though God places this choice of good or bad, life or death, prosperity or adversity, obedience or waywardness before God’s people, God does not underwrite or endorse both equally. In fact, God endorses only one. So, at the end of his address, Moses offers his own advice: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Dt 30:19-20).

Choose life! I can imagine Moses raising a glass and giving this counsel in the form of the great Jewish toast “l’Chaim!” – “To life!” And given what was at stake, Moses adds, “Hold fast to God,” basically saying, “And don’t mess it up!”)

Several generations later, around 200-175 BC, Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem, a Jewish scribe, echoed Moses’ admonition as he wrote a text which is in the canon of writings called “the wisdom literature.” This body of literature constitutes basically a course of education for young men training for what we might call “the civil service.” The sons of the class equivalent to the “minor aristocracy” of England would be trained to function in the courts of kings throughout the ancient middle east using these writings. We heard this author’s advice to these young men in today’s reading from the Book of Sirach.

The author’s name is Simon, and he is identified as the son of Yeshua, who was the son of Eliezer, who was the son of Sirach, but some for reason we call the book by his grandfather’s, or rather his great-grandfather’s name. I suppose we do that because we think grandfathers are wiser than their sons or grandsons, although I don’t think I’ve convinced my son of that. This book is part of the Christian scriptures we call “the Apocrypha.” It is recognized as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. The Jews don’t recognize it as scripture because it is known only in a Greek translation discovered in Egypt; if there was a Hebrew language original (which one would assume since a scribe from Jerusalem wrote it), it has been lost to history. And since the Jews don’t accept it, the Protestants won’t recognize it, either.

Of course, we Anglicans take our usual middle way . . . we won’t based doctrine on it, but we will use it for the teaching of ethics and morality, which is pretty much the way this book has been used by the church through the ages. Another name for the text is “Liber Ecclesiasticus” or “Book of the Church” because it was used throughout the middle ages to teach clergy.

In any event, Simon the son of Yeshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Sirach, offers advice to the trainee courtiers not at all dissimilar to that offered by Moses to the Hebrews: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:15-17).

Simon the Scribe is a very canny fellow. He uses a metaphor for the choice of life or death, lawfulness or sinfulness; God, he says, “has placed before you fire and water.” At first glance that seems a pretty solid and clear metaphor, destructive fire versus life-giving water; but the metaphor is not all that clear. It’s really rather ambiguous. In some circumstances, yes, fire is destructive and death-dealing, but if you’re freezing to death in a winter storm, fire can be life-preserving; in some circumstances, yes, water is sustaining of life, but if you’re drowning in the sea the last thing you want is more water. Which, then, represents death and which life? One’s choices, Simon the Scribe seems to be saying, are not always clear cut and unambiguous.

And, like Moses, Simon reminds his readers that although the choices may be set before one by God, God does not underwrite or endorse both alternatives. God, he says, has a clear preference: “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin. ” (v. 20)

So Moses and Simon the Scribe offer their audiences, both their original audiences and us, this counsel that we have some big, important choices to made: life or death, prosperity or adversity, ethical conduct or sinful behavior. The choice may sometimes be ambiguous, but these are really big matters. And along comes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and complicates things by telling us that our choices aren’t just about the big stuff. “You’ve heard the commandment,” he says, “‘Thou shalt not murder.’ Well, you’re just as guilty if you think badly of another, if you insult a brother or sister, if you argue with another member of the community. You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Well, even if you just think about about it, you’re guilty!” Remember when Jimmy Carter got into public hot water by confessing in that quaint King James language that despite his long and faithful marriage to Rosalyn he had “lusted in his heart” after other women? (Oh, for the day’s when just that was sufficient to get a candidate or politician into trouble…. )

Jesus extended Moses’ admonition and Simon the Scribe’s advice even further. Yes, there are important choices to be made. Yes, they are sometimes ambiguous. And, guess what? They come at us every day, every hour, in everything we do. Not just in the big things, but in the little everyday minutiae of human existence.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not very often I have to decide not to kill someone (only about once a week), but every day I have to decide whether let a zinger of an insult fly or bite my tongue and hold it back, whether to vent my anger over some upset or just shrug it off and let go of it. It’s not very often that I have to decide whether or not to commit adultery; in fact, never (no one seems to think I’m that attractive). But all through the day I have to make . . . we all have to make . . . these ethical and moral decisions. We have to make our choices, daily, and then stick to them as best we can. As Jesus admonishes us, let our decisions to be “Yes, yes” or “no, no.”

Interestingly, in the koine Greek in which the author of our Gospel lesson wrote, he recorded Jesus doing what the Hebrews scripture recorded Moses doing: mixing plural “yous” with singular “yous” in his discourse. Like Moses, Jesus underscores what we all know to be the truth – that none of us can do this on our own, that we have to have the support of our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our fellow church members.

There is a story in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapters 27 & 28) about something that happened after the children of the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. Joshua the son of Nun, who was Moses’ assistant and took over leadership when Moses died, was directed to Moses to lead them into the valley of Shechem, the place where Jacob’s well is. Somehow I seem to recall that there were about 40,000 of them at the time, and Joshua divided them by tribes, sending half of them to the summit of Mount Gerizim and half of them to the summit of Mount Ebal on the other side of the valley. And those on Mt. Gerizim recited the blessings of keeping the Law, while those on Mt. Ebal recited the curses that came with disobedience.

I have this vision of Joshua reading the commandments, not just the “big ten” that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai on the stone tablets, but the other 603 mitzvoth (or “statutes”) that got added to them and as he would read each one, the folks on Mt. Gerizim would shout “Obey this law and you will be blessed” and those on Mt. Ebal would shout “Disobey and you will be cursed.” Can you imagine how 20,000 voices shouting on one side of valley and another 20,000 voices shouting in response on the other side would have echoed throughout the land? Those voices also would have echoed down through time as a reminder that obedience is a communal thing, but also a personal thing, an individual obligation in which one is support by the community.

But even that is not enough. We humans individually are unable to stay in the narrow way and we are also unable to do so as communities, as churches, as nations. As our opening collect says, “in our weakness we can do nothing good without you” (BCP 1979, pg 216) and as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). If we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice; but we can only stay the course if we are aided by our community and upheld by God.

Today and every day, the choice is before us, good or evil, obedience or sinfulness, life or death. Choose life! – l’Chaim – and rely on God (don’t mess it up)!

Amen!

(Illustration: Moses Pleading with Israel, an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company.)

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

Labor Sunday: Sermon for Pentecost 16, RCP Proper 18C (4 September 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 18C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; and St. Luke 14:25-33. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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labor-sabbath“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. * * * None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Jesus just doesn’t make it easy, does he? He doesn’t make it easy to preach this Gospel of his; he doesn’t make it easy to life this life of his! He just doesn’t.

And then there’s Paul! Sending a slave back to his owner, a slave who apparently ran away and owes his owner something. And Paul doesn’t even say to the slave owner, “Set him free.” He sort of hints at it, I guess, but he doesn’t come right out and say it! He doesn’t make this any easier.

And, of course, there’s Moses: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” One way or the other, black or white, yes or no, no grays, no (as my mother would have said) “ifs, ands, or buts,” no compromises, no negotiations. Take it or leave it. Decide.

They don’t make it easy.

So let’s just ignore them, OK. It’s Labor Day weekend, so let’s just not work that hard.

Labor Day, as you already know because you read the parish’s weekly email update on Friday, was created by Congress in 1894 as a “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday of September and has remained so for 122 years. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution calling on churches to observe “Labor Sunday” on the day before Labor Day, and nearly every denomination including our own did so. The prior year the Federal Council of Churches had adopted the “Social Creed of the Churches” which called for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life,” a living wage, abatement of poverty, and numerous worker protections, including arbitration, shortened workdays, safer conditions, the abolition of child labor, regulation of women’s labor, and assistance to elderly and incapacitated workers. “Labor Sunday” fit right in with those lofty social goals.

Observance of Labor Sunday waned in the 1960s; today (to the best of my knowledge) it is an official observance only in the United Church of Christ. We, however, have paid homage to this heritage when we sang the hymn Divine Companion as our Sequence a few moments ago. It was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1909 as a “Hymn of Labor” and set to the American folk hymn melody Pleading Savior which dates from before the Civil War. Let me read again Van Dyke’s lyrics:

Jesus, thou divine Companion,
by thy lowly human birth
thou hast come to join the workers,
burden-bearers of the earth.
Thou, the carpenter of Nazareth,
toiling for thy daily food,
by thy patience and thy courage,
thou hast taught us toil is good.

Where the many toil together,
there art thou among thine own;
where the solitary labor,
thou art there with them alone;
thou, the peace that passeth knowledge,
dwellest in the daily strife;
thou, the Bread of heaven, art broken
in the sacrament of life.

Every task, however simple,
sets the soul that does it free;
every deed of human kindness
done in love is done to thee.
Jesus, thou divine Companion,
help us all to work our best;
bless us in our daily labor,
lead us to our Sabbath rest.
(Episcopal Hymnal 1982, No. 586)

So, I guess if we really mean it – if St. Augustine is right that the one who sings his prayer prays twice – and we expect Jesus to lead us, then I guess we really are going to have to take up our cross. We are going to have to figure out what Jesus meant when he demanded that we hate our families and our possessions. We are going to have to wrestle with whatever it was Paul was up to with Philemon and Onesimus; and we are going to have to make that decision between “life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of the Law, the Torah. It is said to be Moses’ farewell discourse to the Hebrews whom he has led across the desert to the Holy Land, which they (but not he) are about to enter. He is here addressing the entire people of God. But he is not speaking to them collectively; he uses the second person singular “you” in this text. He is here speaking of a personal, not community, decision, one each person must make for him- or herself. In the words of Woodie Guthrie:

You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Nobody here can walk it for you,
You gotta walk it by yourself.

Moses’ advice to the Hebrews, to each individual Hebrew, is “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Lutheran bible scholar Terrence Fretheim says of this text:

Two possible futures are laid out in this text: life and death (Deuteronomy 30:15; 30:19). Note that the future is not laid out in absolute certainty — as if God knows that future in detail and could describe it to the people right now. The future is noted in terms of possibilities. What Israel says and does will give shape to that future, but what that shape will be is not determined in advance; that future remains open to what happens within the relationship, even for God. (Working Preaching Commentary)

Fretheim points out that it is worth noting that Deuteronomy does not say how the Hebrews responded to Moses. The story is open-ended. The book, and thus the Torah, ends with uncertainty regarding what Israel’s response is or will be. Thus, this personal decision is an open-ended question not only for the Hebrews but for us today; each and every reader, every person who hears Moses read, is called to provide an response.

And that is basically what Jesus is recalling to his listeners; he is reminding the large crowd of Israelites following him on the road and he is reminding us of the stark reality of the choice Moses had set out for them and for us centuries before. He has phrased it differently, using rabbinic hyperbole, but the choice is the same: life or death; following the way of God or the way of the world symbolized by “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” and all of one’s possessions.

We, and I’m sure Jesus’ first listeners, are shocked by this language of “hate.” We cannot help but think of the fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12; BCP 1979, Pg. 350) and this hardly seems consonant. We are naturally affectionate toward our parents, our siblings, and our children. But Greek scholar D. Mark Davis points out that in many instances in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, “hate” is used without the emotional content we habitually invest in it. Davis writes:

This use of “hate,” where there are two possibilities and one must choose decisively, seems to be the dynamic at work in our text. The full commitment to one possibility means the severance of commitment to another possibility. (Left Behind and Loving It: Holy Hating)

What is demanded by Jesus is not enmity and malice, but rather detachment. How is this to be acted out? Davis suggests:

[T]his call to discipleship is radical, implying that those who follow Jesus are not going to be making decisions based on “what’s best for me,” or even “what’s best for our marriage/family/children.” It may mean living in that “dangerous neighborhood” or attending a less achieving school, because a gracious presence is needed there. It may mean living more simply because one’s resources can be used better for others. It may mean making unpopular choices despite the protests of one’s family. This is real and critical engagement that Jesus is talking about, a stark contrast to the typical depiction of “the happy Christian home” where one’s faith is demonstrated by how committed on is to providing every possible advantage to one’s own. That kind of choosing, it seems to me, has to be cast in the strongest language possible, because we will domesticate the gospel and make it a matter of enhancing ourselves and our families until we hear this kind of extreme language and let it shake us. (Ibid.)

Using parallel structure, Jesus offers a second metaphor to explain his expectations: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Again, we must wrestle with what this means, especially because it is so often twisted by the popular expression, “It’s my cross to bear,” making it almost equivalent to another popular expression which twists Paul’s complaint of “a thorn in my flesh.” (2 Cor 12:7) But as seminary professor Karoline Lewis reminds us, carrying the cross “cannot only be located in suffering and sacrifice when the biblical witness suggests otherwise.” (Dear Working Preacher: Carrying the Cross) In terms echoing Mark Davis’ interpretation of what it means to “hate” our families, Lewis says:

[C]arrying your cross is a choice and ironically, it is a choice for life and not death. But here is the challenge. We tend toward saying the cross is a choice for life because it leads to resurrection. Yes. And no. Yes, this is what God has done – undone death for the sake of life forever. But no, if that reality has no bearing on your present. (Ibid.)

Thus, to “carry the cross”

. . . could mean to carry the burdens of those from whom Jesus releases burdens. It could mean to carry the ministry of Jesus forward by seeing those whom the world overlooks. It could mean favoring and regarding the marginalized, even when that action might lead to your own oppression. (Ibid.)

It might mean defending equal rights and complete justice for all people in all stations of life, a living wage, abatement of poverty, worker protections, arbitration, shortened workdays, safer working conditions, the abolition of child labor, protection of voting rights, and assistance to the elderly and incapacitated, even if that might lead to higher taxes.

And that is the reality that Paul lays before Philemon in his letter returning the slave Onesimus to his household. Paul addresses Philemon as a “dear friend and co-worker,” as a leader of a church group that meets in his home, as someone filled with “love for all the saints and . . . faith toward the Lord Jesus.” And then like Moses addressing each of the Hebrews individually, like Jesus addressing the Israelites following him on the road, Paul says to Philemon, “You have a choice to make.” In his case, of course, the choice is whether to free Onesimus.

The traditional understanding of the situation addressed in this letter is that Onesimus (whose name means “Useful,” by the way) had run away, had somehow come into Paul’s service during Paul’s imprisonment, and was now being sent back to his owner. The letter doesn’t actually describe the situation that way, but verse 18 (“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”) is taken to support that view. Another interpretation of the text, however, is that Philemon had sent Onesimus to Paul for a period of time and Paul, honoring that time limit, is returning him: “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” writes the apostle.

In any event, Onesimus is a slave who, like his master, has become “a beloved brother … in the Lord.” Onesimus in his conversion, in his “transformation is a vivid embodiment of the gospel. He is a walking reminder of the power of the good news.” (Eric Barreto, Commentary)

According to seminary professor Eric Barreto,

For Paul, what happens in these Christian communities [like the one that meet is Philemon’s home] is a matter of life and death. His letters are not just doctrinal. He’s not just concerned with ideas, with the right Christological or theological or eschatological perspective. Paul is a pastor, remember. He cares for these communities because these communities are seeds of the resurrection, sites where the resurrected life can already flourish, places of resistance to an empire that would place us in rank according to social status. (Ibid.)

And so he places before Philemon a choice, not unlike the decision Moses laid before the Hebrews, not unlike the choice Jesus gave those folks following him on the road. It no longer matters who Onesimus’ or Philemon’s father or mother may have been, who their children or their siblings are. It no longer matters what they possess; what matters is who possesses them. They have both been baptized into the Body of Christ; they are both belong to the Lord of life.

Professor Fretheim pointed out that we are not told what decision the Hebrews made and so their choice becomes an open-ended question. Likewise, we are not told what the people on the road with Jesus chose, nor do we know what Philemon decided to do. In each story, the choice is the same – life or death – and each story calls us to make the same choice.

For generations, the Jews have had a toast: “L’Chaim!” It simply means “To Life!” Every time I read this letter, I can almost see Paul putting down his pen as he finishes writing, reaching for his cup, lifting it up to the absent Philemon, and offering the toast unspoken in the letter itself: “L’Chaim! Choose life! Take up your cross! Set Onesimus free!”

Every task, however simple,
sets the soul that does it free;
every deed of human kindness
done in love is done to thee.
Jesus, thou divine Companion,
help us all to work our best;
bless us in our daily labor,
lead us to our Sabbath rest.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 1979, Pg. 261)

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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.

Adhesions in the Body Politic

Pelvic Cavity AdhesionsAs a human body moves, its tissues or organs normally move and shift, repositioning themselves in relation to one another within a normative range; nothing in the body is static. These tissues and organs have slippery surfaces and natural lubricants to allow this. Inflammation, infection, surgery, or injury can cause bands of scar-like tissue to form between the surfaces of these organs and tissues, causing them to stick together and prevent this natural movement.

Adhesions can occur almost anywhere in the body, including the joints, eyes, and nside the abdomen or pelvis. Adhesions grow and tighten over time, further restricting the natural repositioning of the organs. Adhesions cause organs and body parts to twist painfully and pull out of position; over time, the body becomes unable to move normally.

Adhesions form in the body of society, as well.

The American body politic has been wounded again. This time in a nightclub in Florida. An AR-15 in the hands of an angry man and fifty are dead; more than fifty seriously injured. The news media barrage us with reports: “The worst mass shooting in American history.” How does one gauge that? What is the measure of “worstness”? Is it (this is the metric used by the reporters) solely a matter of the number of dead and wounded? The number covers up the fact that each death is a singular and unique tragedy, each individual a particular loss to his or her friends or family; each one’s murder the worst thing that ever happened to that person, to the intimate groups to which she or he belonged.

Spiritual and political adhesions form every time this happens. Organs of society which ought to slide past one another in conversation, whose movement against one another should be lubricated by both civility and recognition of distinct, though perhaps occasionally common, interest, become unhealthily linked. A commentator recently took note that (on what is called the political “right”) there is, for example, a handful of notional associations, in many ways contradictory, that have been melded into an irrational identity: evangelical Christianity, neoliberal economic theory, Second Amendment idolatry, nativist anti-immigrant sentiment. On the “left” one can see a similar nonlinear grouping of (for example) pro-LGBT sentiment, socialist economics, anti-religious intellectualism, gun regulation enthusiasm, and support of reproductive rights.

There is no reason for a uterus to be connected to the woman’s abdominal wall, but when it is the result is discomfort, pain, and even infertility. There is no reason so-called Austrian school economics should be associated with gun ownership rights, but when they are the National Rifle Association becomes a spokesman for the arms industry not a promoter of gun safety. There is no reason anti-immigrant nativism should be linked to evangelical Christianity, but when it is the Bible’s words to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Dt 10:19) are quickly forgotten.

Adhesions . . . the scar tissue of trauma, the scar tissue of Columbine, of Sandy Hook, of Santa Barbara, of so many other times and places, and now of Orlando . . . and, as well, the scar tissue of 9/11, of Iraq, of Afghanistan, and (stretching back), the still-strong scar tissue of Vietnam . . . of Kent State, of Stonewall, of the Edmund Pettus Bridge, of the 16th Street Baptist Church . . . the list is endless, the scars old and strong, the adhesions tight and painful.

The only “cure” for adhesions is more pain; they must be surgically cut away, and there must be painful, therapeutic movement to prevent new adhesions from forming. The time is long since passed for the social surgery we so desperately need; we can wait no longer. We must sever the linkages and associations which distort and twist our social organs and render us incapable of movement. The first step in such separation is for individuals to examine their own consciences, to recognize the inconsistencies and unnecessary associations which bind them. Just as the number “50” obscures the individual tragedy of each death or traumatic injury in Orland, so do the labels “NRA,” “progressive,” “Christian,” “patriot,” “socialist” obscure the adhesions in our individual psyches, in our spirits.

Just because one may take a nativist stance on immigration reform, for example, does not necessarily require that one oppose the enactment of common sense gun safety regulation. Just because one believes that all people regardless of gender or sexuality should be allowed to marry the person they love does not preclude one from holding to the tenets of evangelical Christianity. You and I may disagree about one position, yet agree on a second. Our disagreement as to the first cannot be allowed to prevent us from working together on the second. It is only the painful, unnatural, and unhealthy adhesions of social scar tissue that do so, and we must cut those away!

“The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. The Catholic Church teaches that an examination of conscience is a “prayerful self-reflection on our words and deeds in the light of the Gospel to determine how we may have sinned against God.” Whatever one’s starting point, secular philosophy or religious belief, the terrible event at the Pulse nightclub must encourage each of us to examine our own minds, beliefs, allegiances, and positions, and begin the painful task of cutting away the adhesions that bind us, individually and societally, into inaction.

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Image of pelvic cavity adhesions from Pelvic Factor Tutorial.

Beloved Insecurity (Sermon for Lent I, RCL Year C) – 14 February 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; and St. Luke 4:1-13. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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417px-Temptation_of_Christ

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night.

But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

That is the poem Beloved Is Where We Begin by Jan Richardson from her collection of verse entitled Circle of Grace. It speaks to us of the gospel story we have just heard; it speaks to us as we begin our Lenten journey. We know the story – we know that this “whispered name” is what Jesus heard right before, “full of the Spirit,” he was led into the desert: “You are my Son, my Beloved. In you I am well pleased.”

Today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy was clearly chosen to make the connection between the Hebrews’ forty years of wandering and Jesus’ forty days in the desert, between their celebration by feasting and his time of fasting. In Year A of the Lectionary cycle, however, we are asked to consider Genesis 3 and the “fall” of Adam and Eve, their giving into the serpent’s temptation to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. I suspect that, when most of us think of temptation, it is that story we most often recall.

You may remember a few weeks ago, when we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, that I read you the genealogy which Luke places between that story and this tale of his time in the desert. That Luke closed the baptism story and introduces the temptations by tracing Jesus’ descent from Adam, suggests that Luke is thinking of the Garden of Eden story, as well. Perhaps Luke is making the point that, like the temptation of Adam and Eve, the temptations put before Jesus had very little to do with a power grab by Satan and almost everything to do with playing on human feelings of insecurity and mistrust.

This is also true, however, of the Hebrews’ forty-years journey through the wilderness of Sinai. They, too, faced desert insecurities during those four decades and those temptations were parallel to those offered Jesus. Like Adam and Eve, the first temptation offered Jesus is one of food, playing human insecurity around nourishment and food, both physical and spiritual. The wandering Hebrews, too, faced that anxiety. Remember that they complained of Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3)

The second temptation of Jesus, the offer of lordship over all the kingdoms of the earth, is less about being a ruler and more about simply being recognized; it is the insecurity of identity, of being known to one’s fellow human beings. In the wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites again railed against Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3) They were afraid that they would all parish and that no one would remember them, that their existence and their identity would be forgotten.

The third temptation addresses the human insecurity of support, the human need for reassurance that God cares. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple; surely God will command his angels will save you!” says Satan. The Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when Moses was delayed for 40 days and 40 nights, began to feel that same insecurity; they begged Aaron to make them a god. He did, a Golden Calf, before which they danced and felt reassured. (Ex 32)

Forty days and nights on the mountain, forty years on the desert journey, forty days in the desert . . . Why the forty days? I’ve read that whenever we see “forty” in the Holy Scriptures what it is really saying to us is “this lasts as long as it takes for us to figure this thing out.” It means “as long as it takes for you to hear that word, ‘Beloved,’” “as long as it takes for you to know that the one who loves you will not abandon you, will not leave you without nourishment, will not let you cease to be as if you had never existed, will not fail to care for you and support you.” As long as it takes.

The 17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal described human beings as having what he called a “God-shaped hole,” not a flaw, but rather a natural yearning, “the empty print and trace” of a true happiness that once was there, an “infinite abyss” that can only be filled by God. (Pensees, 10:148) Similarly, St. Augustine of Hippo, the 4th Century African bishop, in the first lines of his Confessions, wrote that “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” (1.1.1) Based on such insights, Lutheran theologian David Lose has suggested that before there was “original sin” there is “original insecurity.” He writes, “Adam and Eve are tempted to overcome that original insecurity not through their relationship with God but through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit that in that moment looks to be shaped just like their hole.” The Hebrews in the desert of Sinai thought that the soup kettles and stew pots of Egypt would fill the hole, or that water from a desert spring would fill the hole, or that a Golden Calf cast from their earrings and necklaces would fill the hole. Satan tried to convince Jesus that bread made from stones, or rulership of the world’s nations, or the ability to fly like Superman, held up by the angels, would fill that hole.

Over and over again in human life, the devil attempts to sow mistrust: you may go hungry; you may not be recognized and appreciated; you cannot trust God to sustain and care for you. In the wilderness, Jesus replies with Scripture, not because life’s challenges can be answered by remembering or quoting Bible verses but because Jesus finds in Scripture, as we can, the words to give voice to his trust in the Father. At the core of each reply is Jesus’ absolute trust in God for spiritual and physical nourishment, for identity and ministry, for support and care.

And where does Jesus find that? Just where the Hebrews ultimately found it. For them, the nourishment, identity, and support were not, ultimately, found in a homeland; they were found where God had put them, in their hearts. Looking for security outside themselves, they failed to see it inside. Over and over again the security they longed for was offered to them, well before they entered the Promised Land. Manna falling from the sky, miraculous springs of water opening to assuage their thirst, rules to live by offered on Mt. Sinai – these weren’t just sign-posts pointing to the promise. They were and are the promise! The Hebrews were looking for a home, a Promised Land which would sustain and support them. But they had that all along. God was their home, their sustenance, their support.

Unlike the Israelites, Jesus knew that all along. Luke drops this short phrase into the story – “full of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and, thus, able to respond with steadfast sureness and faith when tempted by the Devil. Every one of us knows how hard it is to resist temptation; the world (if not the Devil) plays on our insecurities all the time! Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit in the desert was not an isolated or special thing, a temporary truth for him alone; it is a promise for us. It is a promise that has been for all of God’s People since the beginning and will always be, for Adam and Eve, for Moses and the Israelites, for you, and for me.

That insecure, yearning hole in the middle of our existence is already filled, we just need to realize that! For the next forty days, or the next forty years, or as long as it takes, we need to come to the recognition that that “God-shaped hole” is already “filled with the Holy Spirit,” that the Lord has always been our refuge, to come to the knowledge that the Most High has always been our habitation, to understand that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and to know those

strange graces
that come to our aid . . . .
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:
Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

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.

Abundant Grace (Cana, Weddings & Primates) – Sermon for Epiphany 2, 17 January 2016

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; and St. John 2:1-11. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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As I begin this sermon today, I would like to call your attention to two verses of Psalm 36 which we all recited together just a few minutes ago:

6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O Lord.
***
8 They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.

God’s righteousness extends to all of humankind and beyond; it extends to all of created life, all the “beasts” whom God saves together with human beings. All humans, all of creation “feast upon the abundance of God’s house” and “drink from the river of God’s delights.” I want you to fix that notion, that fundamental Christian belief firmly in your minds.

I have to confess to you that sometimes when I am preparing a sermon I ignore one or sometimes two of the lessons set out in the Lectionary and which are read in church. This week I gave a lot of thought to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian church and to Paul’s partial list of the abundant varieties of gifts, but I pretty much ignored Isaiah’s prophecy. I read it, but actually forgot about, forgot even what it said, as I was researching for this homily. As a result, during the 8 a.m. service I actually started laughing as the Isaiah lesson was read:

You shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
(Isa 62:4-5)

I should have paid more attention to Isaiah and his metaphor of marriage, for “marriage” is the word of the week, at least in Anglican Communion circles.

I’ll come back to that, but first I want to explore briefly the gospel story from John today, the familiar story of Jesus’ first act of power in John’s gospel, the changing of water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is such a rich story with so much to explore. For example, we could spend hours discussing the relationship between Jesus and his mother, a principal player in the story who is never named: John never calls her “Mary,” just “the mother of Jesus.” The dynamic between Jesus and Mom is fascinating! One of my clergy colleagues in our discussion group remarked, “I could never have talked to my mother like that! If I had . . . I can’t imagine!” But we don’t have time for that exploration this morning, so let’s move on.

A commentator on this gospel did the calculations about the amount of wine involved here. John tells us there were six stone jars filled with clean water (it would have to be clean water if it was for the Jewish ritual of washing hands, face, and feet before eating, which is what John means when he says “the rites of purification”). Obviously some had been used, for Jesus has the servants refill the vessels to the brim. So there is about 180 gallons of water there which become 180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine! It turns out to be nearly 1,000 bottles. A bottle of really good wine these days can run over $100, maybe as high as $150. That’s $150,000 worth wine Jesus gave this couple for a wedding present. Talk about God’s abundance!

Now let’s think about Galilee and this village of Cana. From our perspective 2,000 years removed, we hear about Galilee or look at a map of “The Holy Land at the Time of Jesus” and we tend to think about the whole place as “Jewish territory.” But in Jesus time, that wasn’t so. Judea was Jewish territory (albeit Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire) but Galilee wasn’t. It was a much more culturally and ethnically mixed place. It was Gentile territory. It was where the Samaritans, whom the Jews didn’t particularly like, lived. It was where the land trade routes passed, where traders of all nations were constantly on the move and where some of them had settled. It was where brigands and thieves and highwaymen who preyed on the trade caravans hung out; Herod the Great twice sent his army into the Galilee to clear out that criminal element. And, of course, like Judea it was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, so there were Roman soldiers stationed there.

Cana was a small village in this (I suppose we could say) cosmopolitan, ethnically mixed region. We don’t really know where this village was located. Archaeologists and bible scholars think it could have been one of four different places. A couple of them are just ruins these days, but in Jesus’ time they were all functioning villages. None, however, was very large – all probably had populations of less than 1,500 people, certainly not more than 2,000, and their populations would have included all that mix of people, as well as the Jews who lived there. And the Jews themselves were not a monolithic group. They were divided into what we might call “denominations” or better “political parties.” There were the Sadducees and the Pharisees about whom we read in the New Testament; there might have been Essenes, although they tended to separate themselves out of the settled towns but there might have been Essene sympathizers; there might have been Zealots, radicalized Jews who wanted to cleans their lands of Gentiles; and there were probably just ordinary, everyday Jews not aligned with any of these groups, people just getting on with life. They and their Gentile neighbors lived together, traded together, socialized, and went about the business of getting on.

When there was a major event in the life of a village family, like a wedding, perhaps the religious part of it would involve only the family and their co-religionists, but the celebration after? What we would think of as the reception? That would involve everybody; that was a major village-wide social event. We tend to think of wedding banquets as starting after the ceremony and ending sometime late in the evening after the couple has departed for their wedding night and their honeymoon. Not so in First Century Palestine. Back then wedding feasts could last five, six, seven days!

John’s story of this wedding feast begins in our translation with the words, “On the third day there was a wedding . . . . ” and that has puzzled commentators for generations. On the third day of what? What is John talking about? Some Greek scholars suggest that what this really means is “On the third day of the wedding feast . . . .” Folks had been partying, eating, drinking, and by the third day, they’d consumed all the wine. So Jesus steps in and with abundant grace provides more than sufficient wine so that this mixed community of Sadduceic Jews and Pharisaic Jews, of Essene Jews and Zealot Jews, of Jews and Gentiles, and maybe even some Roman soldiers thrown in, this mixed bag of people could continue to celebrate and have a good time celebrating a wedding.

So . . . about that Anglican Communion news. It’s about weddings. Specifically, it’s about same-sex weddings. At last summer’s General Convention, the governing body of the Episcopal Church, after doing nearly 40 years of theological study and reflection, decided that the sacrament of Holy Wedlock could be offered to same-sex couples. And because of that, something was done by the assembled chief pastors, the Primates, of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion who met in Canterbury this past week.

Exactly what that “something” is is unclear. It’s especially unclear if one read the headlines in the secular press and that’s in large part because the secular news agencies have never really understood the vague, sort of ghostly nature of the Anglican Communion. It’s a there-but-not-there sort of thing. It exists, but it’s very hard to describe. As a result we saw a variety of headlines describing what happened.

The most outrageous of them was found on the website of Katehon.com (which describes itself as an international geopolitical think tank); their headline read, “Anglicans Excommunicate the Episcopalians.” Well, no. That’s not what happened; nobody excommunicated anybody. Other headlines used less sensational terms: “suspend,” “sanction,” “punish.” None of them accurate. The Archbishop of Canterbury got into a verbal sparring match with some reporters when he insisted that the appropriate word was “consequences” and a reporter insisted that what had happened was a “sanction.” Specifically what Archbishop Welby said is:

We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion. (Church Times)

So how did we arrive at this and what does it all mean? To answer that, I think it might be helpful to briefly summarize the vague thing that is the Anglican Communion. As I said, it’s an international family of 38 national or provincial churches, nearly all of whom trace their liturgical and structural heritage, their leadership models, and their theology to the English reformation and the Church of England. Most them were established either through the spread of the British Empire or through missionary activity from England or, in some cases, from the American Episcopal church. Each of them is independent and self-governing; none of them can dictate to any other of them how to organize itself, how to govern itself, or how to offer its worship, sacraments, and teaching within its own provincial boundaries. These 38 independent provincial churches are, we like to say, linked by bonds of affection and respect, and mutual and cooperative ministry. Over the years, however, it has been helpful to think in terms of, and to create, what have come to be known as “instruments of unity.”

Historically, the first of these is the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the present incumbent nor any individual occupant of that See, but the See itself. As the Primate of the first Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the primus inter pares, the first among equals of the 38 chief pastors of the provincial churches; it is he who convenes two other of the “instruments of unity.” In historical order the first of these is the Lambeth Conference, the first of which was convened in 1867.

This is a decennial (every ten year) conference of diocesan bishops who meet to discuss matters of mutual interest: theology, church order, social justice. (They also have tea with the queen.) After a couple of weeks of meetings, they issue reports about what they have discussed; they do not legislate and they have no power to do so. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference has no juridical or hierarchical authority over any member province; their reports are merely summaries of their talks, sometimes evincing agreement on particular matters.

The third “instrument of unity” is called the Anglican Consultative Council, created in 1971. The Council is made up of elected representatives of the provinces, both lay and ordained, and meets every three years. It’s steering committee meets more often. It’s self-defined role is

to facilitate the co-operative work of the churches of the Anglican Communion, exchange information between the Provinces and churches, and help to co-ordinate common action. It advises on the organisation and structures of the Communion, and seeks to develop common policies with respect to the world mission of the Church, including ecumenical matters. (Anglican Communion)

Like the other “instruments of unity,” the ACC has no legislative or executive authority over any member province.

The most recently created of the “instruments of unity” is the Primates’ Meeting. It was established in 1978 by Donald Coggan, the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” (Anglican Communion) The Primates have met every other year since then, and sometimes more often as invited by Canterbury.

We often hear our Communion compared to the Roman Catholic Church, but the comparison is inapt. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope. The Primates’ Meeting is not a college of cardinals. The Lambeth Conference is not a Vatican council. And the Anglican Consultative Council is not a curia. Again, I emphasize that none of these “instruments of unity,” including the Primates’ Meeting, have authority to dictate, legislate, or impose rulings upon any member province.

But that is what the Primates’ Meeting has attempted to do with these “consequences” for our action with regard to the full inclusion of our gay and lesbian members in the sacramental life of the church. What they have done is asked (they used the verb “require” but they really don’t have the authority to require) that for a period of three years no member of the Episcopal Church sit on any international ecumenical body representing the Anglican Communion in its relationship with other Christian bodies. We will still be active in such ecumenical endeavors in our own province, just not on the international stage. They have also asked that we, the Episcopal Church, during those three years, not participate in any inter-Anglican committees dealing with matters of theology or polity.

They’ve done so, as I said, because we have taken the steps of ordaining qualified LGBT members of the church and of sacramentally blessing the unions of same-sex couples. We did so not because of the pressures of secular society or culture. We did so because in 1978 and again in 1988, with rather prescient foresight, the Lambeth Conference adopted a resolution encouraging – remember that conference cannot legislate, it can only recommend – encouraging the member provinces of the Anglican Communion to reflect theologically on the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church. Specifically, it said:

This Conference: 1. Reaffirms the statement of the Lambeth Conference of 1978 on homosexuality, recognising the continuing need in the next decade for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” 2. Urges such study and reflection to take account of biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies, and the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our Communion. 3. Calls each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation. (Resolution 64 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference)

We did that work and we came first to the conclusion that we needed to honest and open and acknowledge that we (and, in fact, the whole of Christianity) has been ordaining gay men and (when permitted) lesbian women for a long time, but in a closed and closeted way; we needed to be up-front with the world about that. And we now are. As many of you recall, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of the first openly gay, partnered man as a bishop in 2003, the Rt Rev. Gene Robinson, now-retired Bishop of New Hampshire.

Then over the past decade we have studied the question of same-sex marriage and, at this summer’s General Convention, made the (admittedly) major decision to offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. It is for doing the work requested of us by one “instrument of unity,” that another “instrument of unity” has imposed “consequences.” And I’m OK with that. The rest of the Anglican Communion is still working on the assessment the 1978 Lambeth Conference encouraged us to undertake. Some provinces, such as the Canadian church, the churches in New Zealand, Australia, and Southern Africa, perhaps even the Church of England will, I believe, come to the same place we have come in the not-too-distant future. Other provinces may be further behind. But we are on the forefront, on the cutting edge of what is (I believe) a matter of both social justice and grace and, as I have elsewhere commented about this, when did justice, or the gospel, ever come without a price?

As I reflected on these consequences of our church’s decision in favor of inclusivity in light of today’s lessons, I kept coming back to two things . . . First, the Psalm and those verses which remind us that God’s salvation is boundless, encompassing “both man and beast,” and that all drink from the abundant river of God’s delights. The “consequences” imposed by the Primates’ Meeting, it seems to me, are at odds with that vision of God. Second, I remembered the mixed bag of guests likely to have been at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee and I remarked upon the fact that John gives us no information about how Jesus responded to his invitation. Did he ask, “Who else is invited?” Did he make sure that only people who lived up to some standard of purity would be amongst those with whom he would be dining and drinking? I kind of doubt it. Certainly, after converting 180 gallons of water into enough wine for everyone to continue partying for a few more days, he placed no restrictions on which of the guests might enjoy it.

God’s abundant blessings are given without restriction, overflowing and excessive, and available to everyone.

One additional thought . . . and I know this may seem to come from out of left field . . . but do you remember what the Episcopal Church teaches is the standard of giving for church members? Of course, you do! It’s the tithe, based on the practice required in the Law of Moses. Various verses in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus required the ancient Jews to deliver the first tenth of their produce, of their crops and of their newborn livestock, to the Temple. But what would happen if a faithful Jew lived too far from the Temple? Suppose he lived in Alexandria or Cairo, in Damascus or Tehran, in Oslo or Tokyo. What was he to do? Any ideas?

[Suggestions of store-housing or giving to the poor.]

Those are good suggestions, but they’re wrong. Here is what the 14th Chapter of Deuteronomy says:

If, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. (Deut. 14:24-26)

This is our God. A God who encourages us to enter into joyous fellowship, who shares abundant grace with all of creation, who invites – indeed, commands! – everyone to party. Everyone!

That is the theology we, the Episcopal Church, have arrived at: that everyone is invited to share the grace of God. For that, we have suffered consequences. But despite the sensationalist and grossly inaccurate headlines: we are still Anglicans. We are the most traditional of Anglicans!

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.

Dog Crap, the Temple, and Love – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Dog Crap, the Temple, and Love

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 24, Year 1 (Pentecost 21, 2015)

Ezra 3:10 ~ When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel . . . .

So I haven’t written one of these random meditations for a week . . . and instead of starting this one early in the morning as I usually do (so that they are sort of sleep befuddled first impressions of the Daily Office lessons more than anything else), I went out to do yard work.

I was reminded of another verse of scripture: “You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” (Dt 23:12-13) We have a “dog yard” on the west side of our house; it is our “designated area outside the camp” and it is my privilege to clean it up every Friday on my day off. After doing that, I mow the lawn.

The yard clean up is the foundation, if you will, of my day off. After that is accomplished, I can relax and enjoy the day; I can rejoice and praise the Lord. Foundations, it seems to me, are like that. The work of digging footings, laying foundation stones (or blocks of concrete, or pumping in concrete), making sure the work is level, providing for proper drainage, and so forth, is all very hard work. And then it gets covered up and no one ever sees or thinks about it again, unless something goes wrong. Picking up dog crap is like that. It’s gross and unpleasant work, and no one ever thinks about it . . . unless it doesn’t get done and the stuff piles up. Getting that unpleasant but necessary work done, the work that makes everything else possible, the very important and absolutely necessary work that no one notices when all is well, that is good reason to praise the Lord.

This was not, of course, my initial thought reading the lessons this morning; this only came to me after the dog yard was cleaned and the lawn was mowed. My initial thought was a question: Did St. Paul have this scene in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”? (1 Cor 13:1) Was he thinking of noisy temple rituals when he wrote of actions lacking the foundation of love?

For love is the true foundation of all good. On its website, a Canadian food ministry in which the Anglican Church of Canada is a part includes a prayer beginning with these words: “Creator God, we know that love is the foundation of creation and all life, your love and ours. We know that all things are possible with love – that the least becomes the most important, the last becomes the first.” Done with love even the grossest and most unpleasant of jobs, even most hidden and little recognized work, becomes the most important. Picking up dog shit, cleaning up the latrine, digging ditches, laying stones . . . done with love they are the foundation of the temple and worthy of praise and celebration.

General Convention and Common Sense – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Tuesday in the week of Proper 5 (Pentecost 2, 2015)
Deuteronomy 30
11 Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away.
12 It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”
13 Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?”
14 No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

Every time I read this paragraph from Deuteronomy I think, “He’s saying God’s law is just common sense.” And then I recall college philosophy courses in which I learned that “common sense” isn’t common, at all, and that exactly what common sense is is a matter of some debate and has been since way, way back. From Aristotle’s koine aisthesis through Cicero’s sensus communis to Descartes’ bon sens and even Thomas Paine’s political twist in the pamphlet Common Sense that played such an important role in this country’s founding, there is very little agreement on what “common sense” actually is. Which should come as no surprise; going back almost to the day Moses received the law on Sinai there’s been disagreement as to what God’s law is and what it means. ~ In two weeks, I’ll be with a thousand or so of my closest friends at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church and, at some point during the legislative hearings and floor debates about marriage equality or church structure or budget or whatever, I know I will hear someone say, “It’s just common sense” and some people will nod in agreement and others will shake their heads in negative wonderment, because for Episcopalians there just isn’t any such thing as a common “common sense”! There’s only common prayer.

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