That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ecclesiastes

Persistent Stewardship: Sermon for Pentecost 22, Proper 24C, Track 2 (16 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 24C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; and St. Luke 18:1-8. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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unjustjudge2The story of the “unjust judge” has to be one of the most confusing of Jesus’ parables related in any of the Gospels. In every bible study group I have ever been a part of someone will want to know how the “unjust judge” could possibly represent God . . . .

So let me begin my sermon with this assertion: The “unjust judge” is not God! This not a parable about God! God is not in this parable! This is a parable about justice and persistence; this is not a parable about God. God is the addressee of prayers for justice; God is sometimes the object of such prayer; God is sometimes the subject of such prayer. But God is not in this parable about justice and persistence. The “unjust judge” is not God!

I hope I’ve made that clear.

This parable is about persistence and in our lectionary today we are given, in addition, two other readings and a psalm about persistence:

  • The story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the man, who may have been an angel, who may have been God, is one of persistence, of struggling through the night against unknown odds and not giving up.
  • The admonition of Paul to the young bishop Timothy is to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” and to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
  • The psalm portrays a persistent God who “keeps watch over Israel [and] shall neither slumber nor sleep,” who “shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”

That this persistent caring God of the Psalms, the Father of Jesus, is not the “unjust judge” is made clear by a question Jesus asks of his hearers: If the “unjust judge” eventually listened to the poor widow, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” This is a prophetic question, which is why I did not say this is a parable about prayer.

The cry for justice is heard throughout the Old Testament in the cry, complaint, or appeal of the victims of injustice. It is heard in cry of Abel’s blood from ground in Genesis (4:10). It echoes in the cry of the poor and needy of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20; Ezek 16:49). It is the cry of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt (Ex 3:7,10), and the cry of Job against the Lord (Job 19:7). It is heard in the exasperated frustration of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastses (3:16-4:3). It is sung by David in many of the psalms, “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the poor and render justice to the needy.” (Ps 140:12)

The poor widow is not our representative; she is not a stand-in for us and our everyday personal petitions or intercessions. She represents the poverty and vulnerability of a people whose life has been shaped in the cruelty of exploitation and the arbitrary abuse of power. In telling this parable of persistence in this way, “Jesus is reading the signs in the wounds of the people. The contours of their devastation shape the structures of his thought, because this is where he belongs and these are the people whose cries he hears.” (William Loader)

So Jesus tells them and us a story which affirms that the God of persistence who watches over our going out and our coming in is a God who cares even though the solution does not come speedily. He tells them and us a story to encourage us to be a “people [who] can sustain the crying [for justice] day and night and not lose heart, [a people who] do not tune out, but live in hope and with a sense of trust that does not make us feel we have to carry the whole world on our shoulders.” (Loader)

This parable is a story in which we find “a glint of God in the gray of corruption [which affirms that] we do not have to be God; we are not alone; faith and hope are possible.” (Loader) And this is the gospel message from which Timothy is admonished to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

We are, all of us who are members of the church, to be readied for “the performance of gospel-infused good works unto the glory and magnification of God in Jesus Christ,” because the “gospel is not merely about the salvation which we receive through faith in Christ; it is about the [justice and] salvation which we bring to the world through our [persistent] faithfulness to Christ.” (John Frederick)

Like Jacob, we must each of us struggle with the angel as we determine how it is that we will do that, as God encourages and aids us (even by wrestling with us) in making that determination. On that desert night, God challenged and reshaped Jacob so that he would be able to live into his promised destiny as Israel; God challenges and reshapes us in the same way, to be his people, to be persistent in the work of justice and salvation.

This is a work of stewardship. The question with which we must wrestle is not only how will we do this work, but with what resources will we do it? How will we use the riches with which God has blessed us? Prof. Richard Hayes, New Testament scholar at Duke University, in a sermon on this Genesis text reminded his congregation that Jacob is “one who first receives and then finally gives blessings” and that “that is not a bad description of [Christian] ministry.” (Richard Hayes) It’s not a bad description of Christian stewardship, either.

The work of persistently pursuing justice and practicing good stewardship is the core of a life transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ; it is not peripheral to the gospel. Justice and stewardship are not mere evidences of the gospel. “Rather, gospel works are the necessary result of the gospel, the inseparable and authentic response to the gospel.” (John Frederick)

This week, you will receive your pledge card for 2017. As you consider your financial stewardship and support of St. Paul’s Parish, I encourage you to engage this work with the persistence of the woman confronting the “unjust judge.” I encourage you to wrestle with these questions with the persistence of Jacob who became Israel. I encourage you, as Paul encouraged Timothy, “to continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,” to persistently “carry out your ministry.” And I encourage you to do so without fear, remembering that the Lord “shall keep you safe” and “shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”

Today, parishioner D_______ F____ has offered to share some of his thoughts about financial stewardship with us.

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

(Note: The illustration is by the late Fr. Jim Hasse, SJ, of Claver Jesuit Ministry, Cincinnati, OH.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turn, Turn, Turn: Sermon for Pentecost 14 (Proper 17B) — 30 August 2015

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A sermon offered on Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 17B, Track 1, RCL), August 30, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Ecclesiastes 3:1-15; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; and Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. The Ecclesiastes lesson may be found in the Oremus Bible Browser; the others may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Clock face and calendar composite“This is neither the time nor the place . . . .”

Have you ever heard anyone say that? My mother and her mother were very fond of that saying. If you were doing something they didn’t approve of, that was the sure fire way to stop it. If you were asking something they didn’t want to answer, that was the answer you got. If you wanted to discuss something they didn’t want to talk about, that put an end to the conversation.

“This is neither the time nor the place . . . .” (I learned very early on that, in my mother’s and grandmother’s estimation, there were somethings that never had a time or a place!)

Three weeks ago, you may recall, we heard part of the story of the rebellion of King David’s son Absalom who had set himself up as a rival king leading to a civil war in ancient Israel. At the beginning of the Proper 14 reading from the Second Book of Samuel, David is sending out his army and giving instructions to his generals: “The king, David, ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, ‘Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.’” (2 Sam 18:5) But Joab fails to follow the king’s orders and Joab’s armor bearers kill Absalom. As the army is returning to Jerusalem, a Cushite messenger runs ahead and informs the king of his son’s death and, at the end of that reading, we are told:

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Sam 18:33)

What we did not read on that Sunday but were given to read this year in our Daily Office lessons is Joab’s rebuke of the king for his mourning. You see, when his soldiers returned they found their king weeping and so, says the writer of Second Samuel, “the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops.” (2 Sam 19:2) Joab tells the king “you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life . . . . You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you.” (vv. 5-6) He tells David to “go out at once and speak kindly to your servants; for I swear by the Lord, if you do not go, not a man will stay with you this night; and this will be worse for you than any disaster that has come upon you from your youth until now.” (v. 7)

In other words, what Joab says to David is, “This is neither the time nor the place . . . .”

So David did what Joab advised him and nowhere again do we read about him mourning the death of his son. But I have a feeling that David was left to wonder, “If that wasn’t the time, when is it? If that wasn’t the place, where is it? When is the time to mourn the death of one’s child?”

There must be one because elsewhere in Scripture, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we are told:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: . . . a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . . (Eccl. 3:1,4)

When is the time to weep and mourn the death of one’s child? When is the time to shake one’s fist at reality and exclaim, “It isn’t supposed to be this way! Parents are not supposed to outlive their children!?”

I don’t know the answer to a lot of questions I get asked as a priest, but I do know the answer to that one as I have lived with it most of my life. Both my father and his only brother died before their parents, my grandparents. My only brother died before our mother. I know that the answer to that question is, “All the time and any time.” Oh, one doesn’t cry and carry on every minute of every day, and though pain of loss is never gone it’s not always present, either. One gets on with life, like King David did because as Qoheleth the Preacher (as the author of Ecclesiastes is called) says, there is also a time to laugh and a time to dance and times for all those other things that make up our lives.

Today, we will formally accept and dedicate gifts from two of our parish families who, like my mother and my grandparents, have lived through the loss of their children in whose memory these gifts are given. Susan and Paul _________ have given us a new set of green vestments and hangings in memory of Susan’s son Paul who died of cancer; Nancy and Michael ____________ have given us our new piano in memory of their son Colin who was lost to an immune-deficiency disorder. We are grateful to them for their generosity and hope that, in some way, their ability to make these gifts in memory of their sons eases their weeping and pours some small amount of the oil of joy onto their mourning.

The reading from Ecclesiastes which we heard to as our Old Testament lesson this morning is not the reading prescribed by the Lectionary. I chose to deviate from the Lectionary and use this text for a couple of reasons. One of which will become clear in a bit, but mostly I chose it because several years ago, Evelyn and I had the great misfortune to attend the funeral of a 6th Grade boy who had accidentally killed himself with his father’s handgun. He was a school friend and fellow Boy Scout of our son. The preacher at the funeral used this text, or really I should say “misused this text,” to deliver the message that the boy’s death was “God’s will and we just have to accept it.” I cannot tell you how angry that sermon made me. Death of a child by whatever means, accident or disease or whatever, is never, ever God’s will! “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God,” in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 18:32). This first part of 8th Chapter of Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite parts of the Hebrew Scriptures, so I hated to see it misused that way; I want to set the record straight!

The great folksinger Pete Seeger set the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 to music in the late 1950s and in 1965 the British rock group The Byrds covered it and had a No. 1 hit. I’m told Turn, Turn, Turn is the No. 1 pop song with the oldest lyrics. I’ll bet most us who sang along with them during the rebellious 1960s had no idea we were singing words from the Bible. Anyway, it’s a great song with a great message . . . and that message is not that everything happens according to some mysterious and arbitrary plan of God that we just have to accept and it is not that “everything happens for a reason.”

Among those who believe that there is a God and that God created all that is, there is a spectrum of understanding about the involvement of God in the running of the universe. At one end of the spectrum is so-called “Deist” position; this is the belief that was held by many highly educated people in the 18th Century, among them most of the Founding Fathers of our nation. Deists held that God was less in the nature of a father-figure intimately involved with his children, and more like a clockmaker who had set the world running, wound up its spring and then let it function; this clockmaker God really takes little or no notice of what is happening in the lives of human beings. At the other extreme is the notion that “God has a plan for your life … for everyone’s lives” … and that everything that happens in anyone’s life is in accordance with that plan, everything is predetermined, and everything happens for a reason, which is God’s reason and we should just accept that.

The truth is, most likely, somewhere in between and that’s clearly where Qoheleth is. “Things and actions have their time,” he says, “then they pass and other things and actions have their time;” there is a natural cycle to things. (P. Tillich, The New Being, Scribner’s Sons, 1955) Qoheleth starts his enumeration of these things, these natural cycles, with birth and death. The natural cycles of time are beyond human control. We cannot control them and whatever control we may have of time is limited by them. They are the signposts which we cannot trespass.

Ecclesiastes is best known, perhaps, for its refrain, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity!” (Eccl 1:2) In this regard, Qoheleth is testifying that “any human attempt to change the rhythm of birth and death, of war and peace, of love and hate and all the other contrasts [which he lists] in the rhythm of life is” a vanity. (Tillich) Instead, Qoheleth encourages us to be aware of these cycles, to understand that within them there is a “right time” to do one thing and not to do another. He does not suggest, in any way, that God is the micro-manager of every human life. Rather, he counsels us to follow these cycles as we exercise responsibility for our lives, do our own planning, and exercise our limited control according to them.

Qoheleth’s assurance that there is a time for everything is part of what another preacher has called “the background operating system of [our] faith,” the core truth that there is a God who is good and that existence. But this “operating system, this core truth “doesn’t come with the assumption that all things, (including all the horrors we might encounter here), have a purpose,” that “everything happens for a reason” known only to God.

That other preacher, the Rev. John Pavlovitz (who writes for Relevant Magazine), suggests such a distortion paints a picture of a god who makes us suffer for sport, who throws out obstacles and injuries and adversities “just to see what we’ll do, just to toughen us up or break us down.” To me, statements that “everything happens for a reason” or that something “is just the will of God” describe an arbitrary god who decides that this child will die of cancer while that one will become a star football player, or that this person will die of an accidental gun shot in the 6th Grade while that one will live to be 91. That is not the God in whom I believe and it is not the God testified to in these verses from Ecclesiastes. Qoheleth’s God and ours does not arbitrarily micro-manage our lives. Rather, God wants to be “be happy and enjoy [our]selves as long as [we] live,” for “it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all” that we do (vv 12-13).

To believe otherwise leads to the religion of what James, in today’s epistle, calls “hearers” who “on going away, immediately forget,” rather than to the religion of “doers” who practice a holy generosity. To believe otherwise leads to the sort of religion that Jesus condemns in today’s Gospel, a religion of arbitrary rules, of “washing of cups, pots, and bronze kettles” as Mark puts it, a religion of vain worship “teaching human precepts as doctrines” as Jesus puts it quoting Isaiah. To believe otherwise leads to “wickedness, deceit . . . envy, slander, pride, folly” and all those other “evil things [that] come from within and . . . defile a person.”

Qoheleth’s list of contrasting times, as one commentator has put it, “provides structure rather than a calendar,” a structure within which “individual human moral decision making is possible.” Ecclesiastes challenges us “to be wise, to be ethical, to discern when [our] actions are in keeping with God’s time and then to act decisively.” (NIB, Vol. V, page 308) Then, in the words of the Psalmist, we “may dwell in [God’s] tabernacle,” we “may abide upon [God’s] holy hill.” (Ps 15:1)

“This is neither the time nor the place . . . .” My mother and my grandmother were probably right about that most of the time. But Ecclesiastes is also right, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven . . . .”

I don’t know why some children die before their parents, and some live to ripe, old age; I don’t know why some people get cancer, and some don’t; I don’t know why some people get shot, or have to deal with disability, or suffer with mental illness. I don’t know why there have to be hurricanes, and earthquakes, and parasitic worms that eat children’s eyeballs. But I do know that these things do not happen for some arbitrary God-determined reason, that these things are not the will of God.

What is the will of God is that there is a time to deal with such things and there is a time to live life in spite them. Remember what Qoheleth wrote: “[God] has made everything suitable for its time; moreover [God] has put a sense of past and future into [our] minds . . . . [Therefore,] there is nothing better for [us] than to be happy and enjoy [our]selves as long as [we] live.” The Indian poet and sage Kalidasa, about 400 years before the time of Christ, expressed the same thought:

Listen to the exhortation of the dawn!
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life.
In its brief course lie all the
verities and realities of your existence.
The bliss of growth,
the glory of action,
the splendor of beauty;
for yesterday is but a dream,
and tomorrow is only a vision;
but today well lived makes
every yesterday a dream of happiness,
and every tomorrow a vision of hope.
look well therefore to this day!
Such is the salutation of the dawn!

Now is the time and now is the place when we give thanks with and to Nancy and Michael, and Susan and Paul, as they remember their sons, not their deaths but their lives, not with mourning but with joy, not with weeping but with generous acts of giving. May we all look well to this and every day and never be overthrown. 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.

Reality of Death – From the Daily Office – June 13, 2014

From Ecclesiastes:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (NRSV) – June 13, 2014)

Old Irish VillageI was listening to the radio yesterday. A golf club president was being interviewed about a professional golfer who had been killed in an air craft incident. I don’t golf or follow the game, so I have no idea who was being profiled, and that’s not relevant here. What is relevant is that the person being interviewed used the euphemism “he passed” to reference the golfer’s death.

This is a usage of the verb “to pass” that has become very prevalent in recent years. I don’t recall hearing it before the 1990s. “Passed away,” yes. Simple “passed,” no. And I find it interesting, but also disturbing and objectionable. Using “he passed” in this way is symptomatic of the modern denial of the reality of death. People don’t “pass.” They die! Unless killed by disease, accident, or misfortune, they grow old and die. And although our faith teaches us that “for [God’s] faithful people . . . life is changed, not ended,” it also acknowledged that “our mortal bodies will lie in death.” (Preface for a Eucharist in Commemoration of the Dead, BCP 1979, page 381) Modern culture, however, seems not to want to admit this, the truth and physical reality of death: according to contemporary society, human beings don’t die – they “pass.”

The refusal to face death was parodied by Monty Python’s Flying Circus in what has come to be know as The Pet Shop Sketch or The Dead Parrot Sketch in which John Cleese tries to return a deceased bird to a pet store run by Michael Palin, who denies that the bird is dead. When Palin tries to argue that the parrot is “pining,” an exasperated Cleese runs through several euphemisms for death:

‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!!He’s f*ckin’ snuffed it!….. THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

Qoheleth demonstrates the difference between poetry and euphemism in this marvelous metaphoric description of old age and decline. This is a man who knows the decline of age, who has seen death up close. Rather than euphemize it and sanitize it and avoid it, he confronts it, describes it, embraces it, almost caresses it in the same way one would a spouse, a lover, an old friend. “The strong men are bent . . . the daughters of song are brought low . . . the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails . . . the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken.” No “passing” here; this language faces the reality of death.

When I read this passage, I see in my mind’s eye a village in decline; in truth, I see the village portrayed in the Irish television (RTE) movie version of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1947 Irish-language play Cré na Cille (“Graveyard Clay”). The village, like the people in it, is old and tired; once vibrant life is slowed and winding down. Eventually, it will die as many of its residents have died. Like them, it is honestly facing (perhaps even looking forward to) its demise. (The play is narrated by the conversations of the dead beneath the soil of the cemetery. It’s a very imaginative piece of stagecraft and I do wish someone with an excellent understanding of Irish would translate it into English!)

Contemporary society seems to have lost the willingness to honestly face decline and death, to look forward to old age, to anticipate without dread the time when “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Instead of caring for our elderly at home, we warehouse old folks in nursing homes. When they die, we probably aren’t even there. Their bodies are shrouded and taken out a side door so the other nursing home residents can’t see what is happening. We pay “funeral home” employees to handle the washing of dead bodies and their preparation for burial, a task that used to be done by family members. We have sanitized and euphemized death into invisibility.

And, having done so, I wonder if that is why it is so easy for us as a country to send young soldiers into war. I wonder if that is why we glorify guns and violent games, and do practically nothing to prevent the school, work place, and church shootings which plague us. By avoiding the reality of death, have we made death a more present part of our reality?

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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.

Bread on Water – From the Daily Office – June 12, 2014

From Ecclesiastes:

Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 11:1 (NRSV) – June 12, 2014)

A Mass of Feeding CarpI have to admit that on first reading this, I had no idea what Qoheleth is saying here! Not the slightest.

So I looked at a few commentaries and they all seem to agree (a) that “casting bread on the waters” was an ancient Israelite metaphor for wastefulness, something to be avoided and (b) that the preacher is using turning this metaphor on its head and encouraging generosity to the poor and unfortunate.

OK, so far — I’m enough of an aging hippie that “bread” as slang (“metaphoric language”) for wealth makes sense. “Waters” as a reference to the poor is new to me, but I suppose it works (although I’m rather more familiar with Edward Bulwer-Lyton’s opposite connotation phrase “the great unwashed”).

The “after many days you will get it back” is where I get caught up. This must be a spiritual return, not a monetary return, because there’s no way that that bread is every coming back. Not in this world!

Thinking about throwing bread onto water, I remember the Lake Mead Marina in Nevada. Throw a piece of bread in the water there and the surface becomes a roiling, boiling, thrashing mass of carp! And the bread . . . gone instantly, torn apart by gluttonous fish.

As a vision of what happens to one’s gifts of charity, it’s not very edifying. And pretty much kills any notion that “after many days you will get it back.”

But then . . . Jesus, contrary to Qoheleth, made it pretty clear that that’s not a valid consideration! It’s not a consideration at all. “Return on investment” is irrelevant. Yesterday was the feast of St. Barnabas the Apostle and, at the Eucharist, the Gospel lesson was from Matthew, the sending out of the Twelve in which Jesus instructs them, “You received without payment; give without payment.” (Mt 10:8b) Similarly, in the Sermon on Plain, he told the crowds, “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Lk 6:35) Now, Jesus did promise that those who were thus generous would be rewarded: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.” (Lk 6:38)

There will be a return. We’re just supposed to not expect it, which Qoheleth seems to encourage.

That’s the hard part for me. The “not expecting” part. How can I not expect what I am told will happen? How can I not anticipate that and take it into consideration?

And that’s where Qoheleth’s “bread on the waters” metaphor is helpful. I just think about those hungry carp . . . and, nope, no expectation of return. Not one!

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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.

Internal Polling – From the Daily Office – June 11, 2014

From Ecclesiastes:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls upon them.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 9:11-12 (NRSV) – June 11, 2014)

Meaningless Bar GraphWe got up this morning to the startling news that a major political figure had been defeated in his party’s primary by a candidate supported by what I would call an extremist fringe element of the party, a group which has gained more say and more influence in the party than it should have. I didn’t write a lectionary reflection until late in the day because, political news junkie that I am, I spent the morning listening to the radio pundits and perusing the on-line publications. Over and over I found the commentators using hyperbolic metaphors — earthquake, tornado, disaster, calamity — and asserting that the defeat was entirely unforeseen. “Wow!” I thought, “They sound like Qoheleth in today’s reading from Ecclesiastes!”

One of the reasons given for the failure of the losing politician and his handlers to have foreseen the potential (now actual) loss was that they relied (to quote one news source) “on their own internal polling.” When I heard those words I remembered the last presidential election. In that election, the losing candidate and his party also were supremely confident of victory based on their “own internal polling.” One of his operatives went so far as to argue with a supportive news organization when its analysts came to the (accurate) conclusion that the current president was the winner.

It occurs to me that reliance on one’s “own internal polling” is a dangerous thing. The words “own internal polling” might be code for “self-deluding fantasy.”

We have much better predictive abilities now than in the time of King Solomon of Israel (who is reputed to have been the preacher who authored Ecclesiastes). We have a reasonable ability to foretell the weather, although tornadoes still surprise us. Hurricanes and major weather fronts, storm surges of the sea, and dry hot winds that fan forest fires can all be tracked and prepared for. Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are beyond our prophetic capabilities, though scientists seem to be closing in on ways to prognosticate seismic activity.

We have a better ability to prepare for calamities and disasters — better means of food preservation, faster ways to evacuate potentially affected areas, swifter communication. We can prevent plagues and epidemics through vaccination, and we can treat them with antibiotics and other medications.

What we seem no better at doing is avoiding self-delusion. We still (all of us, not just politicians) rely a too much on our “own internal polling.” And when we do, we get overtaken by surprise, by events that seem to be (or, at least, are described as) disastrous and calamitous. Perhaps we should be listening to more than those internal polls?

It seems to me that those losing politicians might have been better served by taking a look at the polling numbers of independent opinion surveys and not relying so heavily on their “own internal polling.” They may not have been able to change the outcome, but at least they would have been better prepared for it; it would not have been such a surprise, such a “disaster” or “calamity.”

A few days ago, I was in conversation with a bible study group considering the question “How do you know you are responding to God’s call?” Nearly everyone’s initial response was, “Well, when it feels right,” but after discussion we came to the realization that our internal feelings, our “own internal polling,” aren’t often accurate. A better barometer of God’s call to us, of God’s will for us, is the discernment of the community. Checking one’s feelings with others turned out to be our consensus as to how to know whether we are answering that call, checking some independent rather than internal polling.

Qoheleth concludes today’s reverie with a couple of proverbs, one of which is political: “The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” (v. 17) Given today’s political news, we might say that the quiet words of others are more to be heeded than one’s “own internal polling.”

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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 Share in All that Happens – From the Daily Office – June 10, 2014

From Ecclesiastes:

There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 8:14-15 (NRSV) – June 10, 2014)

Cane Back Dining ChairMy stepfather was a good man with faults. That is probably a description that could apply to millions of people, probably most people — good with faults. Whether he would be classed by Qoheleth as “righteous” or as “wicked” — or perhaps somewhere in between — I have no idea. What I do know is that he enjoyed himself.

Most of my life as his stepson he worked as a tool-and-die man. In later life, he and a neighbor together invented an emergency chlorine gas shut-off system for municipal water chlorination systems. There was a market for this device and their company made a good deal of money, which they plowed right back into the business. My stepsister, my brother’s children, and I received a monthly stipend from the company for five years when, in accord with the stockholders’ agreement, we sold his interest to the other shareholders at his death.

He was always doing something. Gardening, restoring old furniture, “flipping” houses (I would swear my parents invented flipping!), making jewelry. If there was ever anybody in my life who followed the advice in Ecclesiastes to “eat, and drink, and enjoy [yourself],” it was my stepfather.

We now have some of the furniture he restored in our home, including a cane-back chair in our dining room. Several weeks ago I started writing a poem about that chair and, as it developed, it turned into a sonnet. However, I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t come up with the final couplet. Today, the lines wrote themselves as I was reading the Daily Office.

I don’t know what, if anything, it has to do with today’s lessons . . . but it’s where my thoughts are, so it’s what I’ll record here. I think I’ll title this Veils Unveil:

The caning on the chair is beginning to come undone,
the caning my stepfather did; yes, you know the one.
We put it in the dining room about a year ago
and no one ever uses it; it’s only there for show.

Truth be told, the dining room is seldom ever used.
It’s where we did our taxes, and often leave our shoes.
The cats sit on that old chair and watch the world go by;
they look out through the caning and I often wonder why.

Standing in the kitchen, and looking through the door,
I’m looking through that caning, like a cat, and seeing more
than grass and plants and rocks and things, and passing automobiles.
What unhindered vision blocks, the veil of caning clear reveals.

Imagination and remembrance, hidden meaning all around,
Veils unveil and shadows light; lost memories are found.

Qoheleth can be depressing! Later in today’s lesson he writes of the dead, “Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun.” But I don’t believe that’s so! My stepfather’s handiwork sits in my dining room and I remember him fondly when I see it, when I look through the caning on the back of that chair. Just as the preacher admonished, “whatever his hand found to do, he did with his might,” and through that restored old antique chair, he still has a “share in all that happens” in our family life. And in that, I think, is a reminder of the Christian hope and promise that (as The Book of Common Prayer asserts) we will be “reunited with those who have gone before.” (Burial of the Dead, Rite Two, page 493)

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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.

Let’s Dance! – From the Daily Office – June 6, 2012

Qoheleth the Preacher wrote:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to throw away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 – June 6, 2012)

I have already written one of these for today’s readings (see “Of” not “In”), but I couldn’t let the day go by without giving a nod to one of the most important pieces of Scripture in my life! The fabulous Pete Seeger set this to music 1959; he altered the words slightly and added a few of his own. Six years later the group The Byrds recorded it and it became an international hit. The song, “Turn! Turn! Turn!” is definitely in my personal Top Ten. ~ My wife and I have a game we play called “I want that played at my funeral”. Her list of songs to be played at her requiem currently numbers (I’m sure) somewhere around 5,000! Mine is much shorter, but “Turn! Turn! Turn!” is on it. ~ I’m sure the line “Turn! Turn! Turn!” is intended to refer to the “turning of the seasons”, it has always reminded me of the beautiful spinning dance of the Mevlevi Sufis, the “whirling dervishes” of mystical Islam, who seek through their turning dance to reach a state of religious ecstasy. The liturgy of the dance is called Sama and represents the mystical journey of the human spirit ascending through mind and love to perfection. ~ Just a few days ago, on Trinity Sunday, I preached about the Christian theological doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the Greek word perichoresis, which describes the “heavenly dance” of the Three Persons of the Godhead. With this passage, its reminder of Seeger’s great song, and the image of the dancing Sufis, I am once again invited to join in. Let’s dance!

Flexibility and a Good Night’s Rest – From the Daily Office – June 5, 2012

Qoheleth the Preacher wrote:

What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 2:22-23 – June 5, 2012)

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The frustration of the Preacher is something I believe we’ve all experienced at one time or another. “What is the point of it all?” is a question every adult probably has asked at least once, if not several times. ~ In the past few days I’ve been part of two committees trying to schedule meetings in the same few days; coordinating the calendars of about twenty different people, all with work schedules and personal lives, is next to impossible and leads to precisely the kind of frustration Ecclesiastes voices. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain? ~ As our world gets more and more complex, the abilities to be flexible, to think in terms of alternatives, to see different potential outcomes as equally good (stop looking for the one, best answer), to share differing visions nonjudgmentally, to let go of personal involvement and trust others to do a good job in their own way even if it is not your way, to clearly communicate and consult with others about ideas, all these will help avoid the sense of futility evinced in these verses. Perhaps the most important skill is the one specifically alluded to here, the ability to turn off one’s mind at night! ~ One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given about those restless night-time thoughts was to write them down. If a thought persists, write it down. Then when it comes back again, look at it with disinterest; you’ve written it down and you will deal with it in the morning. Can’t do anything about it late at night, anyway; it’s all vanity. ~ The world is a rapidly changing and the rate of change is accelerating. Flexibility and a good night’s rest are essential survival skills.

Sainted Father Usedtobehere – From the Daily Office – June 4, 2012

Paul wrote to the Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 1:6 – June 4, 2012)
I’m very tempted to ask, “O come on, Paul! You really didn’t expect them to remember you after you’d gone, did you?” But, of course, he did! It seems to me that Paul here is very much like modern clergy. I think we all expect to have lasting impact on the places we serve, but the truth is most of us will not. Clergy are transients; in the past half-decade I’ve seen studies variously reporting the average length of a pastorate across denominations as somewhere between three and five years. That’s not much time to make much of an impact. ~ Now, there are exceptions. Every parish seems to have its sainted Father Usedtobehere, that one priest or pastor whom everyone remembers with great affection. He (it’s usually “he” in my denomination because we haven’t had women in the presbyterate long enough yet) was the best at visiting, best at preaching, best at organizing, best at presiding at the altar, best at remembering parishioners’ birthdays, best at whatever. He is remembered as the paragon of ministry even by people who came to the parish after he departed! There’s really no competing with such ghosts. One just has to accept that they are here and will live on in memory long after one has gone . . . and that it is unlikely that most of us will ever enjoy such exalted canonization. ~ However, I’m not suggesting that we clergy adopt the attitude of the Preacher whose writing is also included in today’s lectionary readings: “I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Eccl. 2:11) As unlikely as it may be that any of us attain the celebrated status of parish patron saint, it is equally likely that we will have an impact (usually through something we think of as mundane or insignificant) on the lives of one or two people, maybe more. Most of us may not be remembered by the whole congregation as the cream of the clergy crop; the majority of the parish may (as Paul complained) quickly desert us. But those few will remember . . . and here’s the rub (as Hamlet might have said) – we don’t know who they will be, nor what action or word of ours may make the difference. We just have to try to do the best we can in any given pastoral situation, in most of which we may feel woefully inadequate, because we never know. ~ That’s what Paul should have remembered; that’s what the Preacher should have remembered; that’s what each clergyperson should remember!