That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ephesians (page 2 of 5)

More Than Much Fine Gold: Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 19B – 13 September 2015

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A sermon offered on Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B, Track 1, RCL), September 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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GoldSo here’s a thing that happened this week . . . . We prepared the bulletins for today; both the church secretary and I reviewed them and proof-read them and only after they’d been copied and folded that I saw something out of order with today’s Psalm (as printed in the bulletin). It’s Verse 10….

There’s nothing really wrong with it, but the verse number, you see, is larger than the numbers of all the other verses. We set the type size for the verse numbers at 10 pt, but that one verse number didn’t get set that way . . . it’s 14 pt; stands out like a sore thumb, calls attention to the verse: “More to be desired are they [the statutes and judgments of God] than gold, more than much fine gold . . . . ” I took that as a sign that I should talk about gold this morning, that I should talk about money, and that seemed like a good idea because next week you will be receiving the annual pledge campaign flier.

On the other hand, I’d rather talk about today’s gospel in which Jesus asks his closest companions, “Who do people say that I am?” to which they give a variety of answers, but then he really puts them on the spot with his follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, of course, comes up with a correct answer, but this is a question which is never completely answered, is it?

It’s funny, but when I read this particular story I can’t help thinking of The Logical Song by the rock group Supertramp. The refrain of the song goes:

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am.

Now I know that the pleading, lost, confused, and rebellious attitude of the singer of the song is not the attitude of Jesus in his conversation with the disciples, but the lyric is right that this is a question that runs deep, as absurd as it may sound. Jesus asks us this question on a regular basis: “Tell me what you’ve learned. Tell me who I am to you.”

Jesus first asks the twelve, “What have you learned? What’s public saying about me?” But he doesn’t stop with asking about public opinion. He asks them for a personal position: “Who do you say that I am?”

We live in a pluralistic society; we live in a time in which there are many religious choices, and we have much to learn from the many others, different sorts of Christians as well as those of other faiths and those of none, all the variety of persons among whom we live and with whom we interact. In this pluralistic milieu we also have much to share with these others and we need to be able to give an account of our own religious choice. We have chosen to follow Christ. We have chosen to follow Christ in a particular way. Why? Who is Jesus to us?

Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, insists that he is the model of our spiritual maturity, the gauge (if you will) of our spiritual development: it is our calling, Paul insists, to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Mark’s way of making this same point is to quote Jesus as saying to us, as he said to Peter and the other disciples, “Deny [your]selves and take up [your] cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus’ question is really not about his identity, at all. It’s really about ours. When each of us answers his question, what we respond says more about our self than it can ever say about Jesus. Who are we becoming as we follow him, as we come “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” as we live into his identity that resides within us? “Who do you say that I am?” is a question about our identities and our priorities.

It is often said if you want to know your real priorities, look at two things: your appointment book and your checkbook. These days you might look at your Google calendar and your online bank account statement, or the calendar app on your smartphone and your credit card statement. Whatever. The point is that your priorities are always going to be reflected in the way you spend your resources: your time, your talents and abilities, your money, your energy. Jesus said it plainly: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk 12:34). Where your gold is, there are your priorities.

Jesus says, “These are the priorities: Deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.”

A theology of the cross or a theology of self-denial does not mean a contrived humility or a self-sacrificing martyrdom; we do not follow Jesus, we do not take up our cross, we do not grow into the full stature of Christ by demeaning ourselves. A true theology of the cross, a true denial of self means that we are called to selflessness, to an unselfishness in which we do the very best we can with the treasure, the talents, the abilities, and the energy God gives us. To “deny oneself” and take up one’s cross means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” — love God and love your neighbor (Mk 12:28-31).

The commandment[s] of the Lord [are] clear
and give light to the eyes.
The judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold . . . .

So, I guess I ended up talking about money after all, and that probably is a good idea because this next week you will be receiving your annual pledge card for 2016.

Late at night, when all the world’s asleep,
And the questions run so deep
When you fill out next year’s card.
Won’t you please, please tell us what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Tell Jesus who he is; tell him who you are.

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.

The Armor of God: Sermon for Proper 16B (Pentecost 13, 23 August 2015)

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A sermon offered on Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16B, Track 1, RCL), August 23, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; and John 6:56-69. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Ancient ArmorIn the Education for Ministry program, the first year is spent reading the Old Testament, parts of which can be as dull as dirt! There are those long lists of genealogies, long catalogues of tribes and families, the lengthy and detailed instructions for making and erecting the tabernacle that the Hebrews carried along with them in the desert and, of course, a description of the Temple which Solomon built. In our EfM group, we sort of got into a habit of not reading those parts, of just acknowledging they were there but sort of skipping lightly over them. But it is there, earlier in the First Book of Kings from which our First Lesson is taken, a description of the building in which, in today’s lesson, Solomon places the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon’s Temple (the “First Temple”) was massive; it wasn’t really very big, but it was solid and substantial. It was built of huge blocks of solid stone; it had support beams made of whole cedar trees; it had immense fixtures and columns made of solid bronze and gold. In a word, it was a fortress!

But, as Solomon says in his public prayer in today’s Old Testament lesson, God doesn’t really need a fortress: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Earthly buildings cannot contain God and God certainly has no need of the protection massive stone walls can provide.

No, the Temple was not built for God; the Temple was built for human beings, for the Israelites. It is the place which serves as a focus for their devotion to the Almighty; it is the place where they will offer sacrifices and toward which they will face when they pray. So Solomon beseeches God, “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.” And Solomon goes even further and asks that God also hear the prayers of foreigners: “Likewise . . . when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.”

The Temple was an earthly reminder of God’s Law; it was the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, called the footstool of God by David. In the 28th Chapter of the First Book of Chronicles, David calls his court officers and his designated heir, Solomon, to an assembly and says to them, “I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building.” (v. 2, NRSV) He then gives his plans for the Temple to Solomon. In Psalm 132, the Psalmist (traditionally David) makes a similar reference when he says, “Let us go to God’s dwelling place; let us fall upon our knees before his footstool.” (v. 7, BCP)

The lexicons tell us that uses of this term footstool are metaphorical and symbolic of subjection to God as universal Lord. However, the term always reminds me of my grandmother Edna Funston who was a nurse. She and my grandfather lived only about four blocks from the hospital where she was employed, so she would walk to and from work everyday. After spending her days, like most nurses do, on her feet, she would walk those four blocks and then sit for a while with her feet up, resting them on a footstool that sat in front of her favorite chair. When I hear of God’s footstool, I picture God putting his feet up after a long walk. It reminds me of that passage from the Book of Genesis in which Adam and Eve, having violated God’s instructions by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” and hid themselves. (Gen 3:8) It reminds me also of that passage in the Prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)

The Temple was an earthly reminder of God’s Law which requires God’s people to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Several generations after the Temple was built, God’s people were doing anything but . . . and the Prophet Isaiah portrayed God as less than pleased by that. Isaiah prophesied:

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. (Isa 59:14-17)

Several centuries after Isaiah, the writer of the Book of Wisdom would offer an apocalyptic vision of the last judgment in similar terms:

The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes. (Wis 5:17-20

The Letter to the Ephesians (which claims to have been written by Paul but is generally believed to have been written by one of his disciples shortly after his death, perhaps from notes drafted or dictated by Paul) makes use of these ancient armor and weapon metaphors in a new and startling way.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the audience to whom this letter was initially addressed, the church at Ephesus, a small body of believers living as a minority in a hostile environment. Their commitment to Christ set them conspicuously at odds with their neighbors, perhaps even with some in their own families. They were regarded with suspicion, even considered troublemakers and atheists, by their neighbors because they refused to join in the municipal cult of the hunter goddess Artemis whose worship was an important commercial enterprise for the city. They were regarded as troublemakers and atheists by the Roman empire because they refused to burn incense and pay tribute at the altars to the emperor. It is likely that they had had more than one encounter with the police, who were not merely the police; they were the Roman army.

So when the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians borrows the armor imagery of Isaiah and the Book of Wisdom, although “the concrete details of the armor are biblical, not Roman, the audience probably envisaged the fully armed Roman soldier when they heard these words.” (NIB, Vol. XI, page 460) It is as if someone today were to write to a congregation in (for example) Ferguson, Missouri, and say: “Put on the bulletproof vest of righteousness and the night-vision goggles of truth. Take up the automatic rifle of the Spirit.” And that is how we need to hear these metaphors, too – as shocking and disturbing and counter-cultural. It violated their, and should violate our, expectations of what a comforting pastoral letter should say, and thus their eyes were opened, and our eyes should be, to the darkness of the present reality.

Of course, whether one uses the ancient weapons of the original or modernizes the imagery, the use is metaphorical. As the Letter reminds its initial readers and us, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the [world] powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” This is not a call to armed revolution; it is not a call to man the barricades and overthrow the government. Although this text has been used shamefully and wrongly to justify violence and oppression, it is not a call for the followers of Jesus to become some sort of Christian ISIS.

No! We are not called to actually take up arms. The armor we are to don is that which these metaphors represent: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, holiness, impartial judgment, and the word of God (which is not the Bible, the Word of God is Jesus!). We so by constantly preparing ourselves. Earlier in the Letter, the writer admonished the Ephesians to utilize their gifts as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to build up the church and equip one another for the work of ministry (4:11-12), to sing psalms and hymns together, to pray and give thanks (5:19-20). The same is true for us; “believers [today] must hear sermons, read scripture, talk with other Christians, engage in regular prayer, sing the praises of God, and so on.” (NIB, pg 403) Our formation as members of the Body of Christ, our preparation to withstand the “powers of this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil” must be continuous.

We may skip over the details of its construction because we know that God didn’t need the Temple, but the truth is that the Israelites did. We may choose not read the full description because we know that God doesn’t need a fortress, but the truth is that we do. The Stoic philosopher Seneca taught that the soul of a wise person is fortified by reason and secure virtue. He wrote, “The walls which guard the wise [person] are safe from both flame and assault, they provide no means of entrance, are lofty, impregnable, godlike.” (De Constantia Sapientis [On the Constancy of the Wise Man], 6.8) We need that spiritual fortress!

In the same way, God really has no need of the metaphorical armor and weapons described in Isaiah, the Book of Wisdom, and the Letter to the Ephesians, but we do. Clothed with “the whole armor of God,” we will “be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” and fed with “the bread that came down from heaven . . .[we] will live forever.”

Let us pray:

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, [protected by your armor] from all things that may hurt us [and nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son], that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect 2 [with addition], BCP 1979, pg. 228)

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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.

Overflowing Abundance: Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B, 26 July 2015)

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A sermon offered on Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B, Track 1, RCL), July 26, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; and John 6:1-21. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Tabgha Mosaic FloorSo this is a very familiar story, right? Actually, two very familiar stories. We all know about the feeding of the 5,000. All four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – tell it with slightly varying details. We all know about Jesus walking on the water. Three of the four gospels – Mark, Luke, and John – include that tale, again with slightly varying details. We sometimes mix up those variations, but basically the stories are the same so no big deal.

The problem is that we know the stories so well that we don’t know what we don’t know about them. We think we know the whole story, but we don’t! And one of the things we don’t know, as Evie and I discovered when we were in Palestine last summer, is the geography of the feeding of the multitude. So I thought start with a sort of geography lesson, if that’s OK with you? OK?

OK.

I want you, first, to think about what you know about Lake Erie. You know that it’s up there, north of us somewhere. You know that at one end (the western end) are Detroit and Toledo and at the other (the eastern end) is Buffalo. You know that the far shore is a foreign country called Canada, and you know pretty well where the cities and towns are located along the American shore.

So now I want you take Lake Erie and rotate it 90 degrees. Buffalo is now at the lower end; Toledo is at the top; the foreign country called Canada is still on the far shore. If we come down the near shore from Toledo, we’ll come to (among other places) Maumee, Sandusky, Lorain, Cleveland, Ashtabula, Erie.

By rotating Lake Erie, we’ve oriented it in the same way the Sea of Galilee is oriented and, by a strange coincidence, many of the places we know of along the shore of the Sea of Galilee are in relationship to one another in much the same way as places we know along the shore of Lake Erie! So … Bethsaida – you remember Bethsaida, it’s where Jesus healed a blind man and it was the hometown of Philip, Andrew, and Peter – Bethsaida would be about where Detroit is. Capernaum, which Jesus sort of made his home base and where Peter actually seems to have lived, would be about where Toledo is. A place called Tabgha, which is probably where the feeding of the 5,000 took place, would be about where Sandusky is. Gennesaret, which is where Mark says the apostles were headed when they saw Jesus walking on the water, would be about where Cleveland is. Tiberias, a resort city built by Herod Antipas (the king who beheaded John the Baptist), would about where Erie, Pennsylvania, is. Finally, go way away from the lake to Cincinnati, that would be about where Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown would be.

Except … shrink everything by at least a factor of ten, because that’s how much bigger Lake Erie is than the Sea of Galilee; that’s how much bigger Ohio is than the region of Galilee. So, now, Cincinnati/Nazareth, instead of 250 miles from the lake is 25 miles away, and Toledo/Capernaum, instead of being about 40 miles from Sandusky/Tabgha is less than 3 miles away. And the other distances are similarly reduced, but remember . . . they didn’t have cars and interstates; they would have been walking or riding a donkey on dirt paths, or maybe sailing or even rowing a fishing boat on the lake.

So let me tell you about Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, there was a village there and had been for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage. The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called “Mensa Domini” (the Lord’s Table) and also known as the Church of the Primacy of Peter.

A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today – a picture of it is on the front of your bulletin.

The reason I spend so much time on the geography of the place is this: we all know the story of the feeding of the 5,000, but sometimes we think to ourselves, “It probably wasn’t that big a crowd.” We think John and the other evangelists, or whoever first told the story, may have been exaggerating. But consider: it’s only about an hour’s walk from Capernaum to Tabhga, only an hour from Genessaret, only an hour and a half from Chorazin, maybe two hours from Bethsaida or Tiberias, perhaps several hours from Nazareth and more distant towns. But if one had a donkey or a horse, or if one could come over the water by boat, the time would be considerably less. If Jesus and his companions were there for several hours, word could easily have spread and people from all those places and more could have come to see this famous prophet and miraculous healer. Each of those places I’ve named was an important agricultural or fishing site, a residential center, a political center; each had a fairly large population for the time. It’s entirely possible that, hearing that this famous teacher was there, a crowd of thousands could have gathered there, a crowd of thousands who dropped what they were doing and headed out to see, not thinking about supplies or provisions, a crowd of thousands without enough to eat.

So there they are. Jesus has been teaching and healing, and it’s getting late, and people are getting hungry, and there’s nowhere to buy anything. Philip and Andrew are getting worried; they don’t know what a big crowd of hungry people might do, so they talk with Jesus about it. They want him to send the people away. After all, there’s nothing nearby, but (like I said) it would only take these people an hour or two to walk back home or to someplace where food could be found. But Jesus says, “No. They’re here because we’re here; we have to take responsibility for that and feed them.” Andrew says, “We’ve checked the supplies and all we have are these two fishes and five loaves (which, by the way, we didn’t bring; some boy brought them as his lunch, some boy with more smarts than a group of grown men).”

Jesus assures them it will be enough, tells everyone to sit down, blesses the food, and the picnic starts. Sure enough, there is enough. More than enough. Jesus, being environmentally aware, instructs the apostles to pick up after themselves and the crowd, and they gather the leftovers (all four of the gospels tell us) into twelve baskets. The Greek word used is kophinos, which the lexicon tells us is a wicker basket, probably a large one like a hamper. Twelve large hampers of leftovers! This isn’t simply a story about miraculously feeding a big bunch of people with a small amount of food…. this is a story about overfeeding a big bunch of people. This is a story about God’s abundance.

When Evie and I lived in Las Vegas, back before I was ordained, we used to go to a restaurant there called Keller’s. One of the things I liked about Keller’s (besides the really great food and their superb wine cellar) was that if you took home any leftovers, they made it an event. They were proud that you were taking home their food. Instead of a paper sack or styrofoam box, you got a work of art. Someone in the kitchen obviously knew the art of origami, so your bit of leftover chicken breast might come back to you packaged in a graceful silver swan; your second helping of trout, in a beautiful gold fish; your half-a-piece of cheesecake in a gorgeous multi-colored gift box.

I’ll bet that as people left the field at Tabgha that afternoon, they were sent home with leftovers, some more of the bread and fish to see them on their way. I’m pretty certain they didn’t get Keller’s origami packaging, but I like to visualize the scene that way with those thousands of people carrying silver foil swans, gold paper fish, and multi-colored paper gift boxes. Although I’m sure they didn’t have those pretty packages in their hands, they carried something even more precious as they made their way back to Bethsaida (up there about where Detroit would on Lake Erie) or Capernaum (sort of where Toledo is) or Genneserat (kind of where Cleveland is) or the longer journeys to Tiberias (about where Erie would be) or even distant Nazareth (far away like Cincinnati).

They carried the abundant, overflowing grace of God, what Paul called “the riches of [God’s] glory.” They carried the assurance in their hearts that they had been cared for with “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and that they had been “filled with all the fullness of God.” They knew, because they had seen the evidence with their own eyes, tasted it with their own tongues, and carried it away in their own hands, that the power of God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Today, we are going to baptize Tatum E________ K_________; today, we are going to welcome her into the household of God in which that promise of abundance is realized; today, we are going to assure her that, as Mark says of the crowd in his telling of this story, God in Christ Jesus has abundant compassion for her. Whatever may happen in her life, whatever stormy seas she may sail, she has only to look (as the apostles looked from their boat) to see that Jesus is there and he will calm the storm.

These are familiar stories; they are familiar because they are important; they are so important that all four of the gospels tell them. They are important because remind us, they assure us of God’s overflowing, abundant love and grace of which there is always more than enough.

Let us pray:

O God, your Son Jesus Christ fed the crowds out of his copious compassion; he stilled the stormy seas with his plentiful power; and he prepared his disciples for the coming of the Spirit through the abundant grace of his teaching: Make our hearts and minds, and especially Tatum’s heart and mind, ready to receive the overflowing blessings of your Holy Spirit, that we may be filled with your grace and strengthened by your Presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. 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.

If You’re Serious About This: Sermon for Proper 11B (Pentecost 8, 19 July 2015)

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A sermon offered on Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11B, Track 1, RCL), July 19, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; and Mark 6:30-34,53-56. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. Note: The Revised Common Lectionary provides that the first lesson is 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19.)

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I was ordained a deacon in May of 1990 and made a priest in June of 1991. For two years, I served as associate rector of a parish in Nevada and then accepted a call to be rector of a parish in the Kansas City metropolitan area in a small, exurban community called Stilwell. Sometime after we had moved to Stilwell, my family and I visited my parents in southern California.

Now I should tell you that my parents were not church-going people. After the death of my biological father in 1958, my mother pretty much stopped going to church. In 1962, she married by step-father, a non-practicing Roman Catholic, in a Methodist church ceremony, but that is the only time I remember my parents going to church on their own (that is to say, not dragged there for the holidays or some other special occasion by one of their children). My folks were not particularly happy campers the day I told them I would be leaving the practice of law and entering ordained ministry.

So we were visiting my parents about three years after my ordination as a priest and during the visit I happened to go into their bedroom and found, on my mother’s bedside table, a copy of The Book of Common Prayer and an Inquirer’s Class study folder from St. George’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills, California. I picked them up and went out to the living room where they were both watching television and said, “Hey, Mom? What’s this all about?”

“Well,” she said, “I guess you’re serious about this, so I thought I should check it out.”

“If you’re serious about this . . . .” Took her three years after my priesting, but she finally, reluctantly got there . . . . But that was my mom. Today would have been her 96th birthday, by the way.

Once she decided I was serious about this, she got serious about this. She and my step-dad completed their Inquirer’s Class, became members of St. George’s and then a few years later transferred their membership to St. Wilfrid of York in Huntington Beach, California. Both volunteered to work at the church in various ways; he did handiwork; she became the secretary of the ECW. Both are now buried in the memory garden at St. Wilfrid Parish. That was my mom: “If you’re serious about this, then be serious about this.”

In the Gospel lesson today, I can imagine Jesus saying something similar to the apostles.

Chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel is a bit hard to read because it’s all choppy and excited, like someone telling a story but who can’t get his words out fast enough to satisfy himself. Mark jams this chapter full of detail, but breaks the details up. Jesus goes to his home town and is rejected, so he and the apostles leave. He then sends the apostles out two-by-two with no provisions or equipment. They spread through the countryside, proclaiming the gospel of repentance, casting out demos, and anointing the sick. Mark tells us that King Herod hears about all this activity and becomes convinced that John the Baptizer has returned from the dead, at which point Mark goes off on a tangent and tells the story of Herod and Herodias, Salome’s dance and demand for the Baptizer’s head, and John’s execution. Now, in today’s bit, we return to the apostles and their missionary journey.

They are back, all excited by what they’ve done; Mark tells us (in Mark’s usual breathless style) that they told Jesus “all that they had done and taught.” So Jesus tells them to slow down; he can tell that they are excited by what they’ve done, but they are also exhausted and, because of all the coming and going of people who have heard about them, they can’t even take a break to eat. So he tells them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” I can almost hear him, in my mother’s voice, prefacing that with, “If you’re serious about this . . . .”

“If you’re serious about this, come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

What’s going to happen is that they are going to try to do as Jesus instructs, but people aren’t going to let that happen. They are going to get in their boat, head out to a deserted place a few miles away across the lake, the “Sea” of Galilee, a place now called “Tabgha,” but the people are going to follow; in fact, they are going to “hurry there on foot from all the towns and arrive ahead of them.” (v. 33) “If you’re serious about this, come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” But guess what, you’re not going to get the chance to do that today.

Do you notice the verse references on your insert? Once again, the Lectionary has us edit out some verses in our Sunday readings, nearly twenty of them from this gospel reading. Guess what happens in those twenty verses. Jesus feeds the 5,000 people who have “hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them,” and he sends the apostles back across the lake by themselves, and he walks on water, and he calms a strong adverse wind. All of that in this one short chapter . . . all of that, but no one actually gets away to deserted place by themselves. Instead, they are continually confronted by the demands of people who “rush about the whole region and bring the sick on mats to wherever they hear Jesus and the apostles may be.”

If you are serious about following Jesus, however, you have to find a way to get away to that deserted place by yourself. If you are serious about following Jesus, if you are going to love God, you have to find time for private time with God. If you are serious about following Jesus, if you are going to love your neighbor as yourself, you have to find time to take care of yourself.

We have another variation on this same theme in the story from the Second Book of Samuel. David has become king over Israel, supplanting Saul. He has taken over the city of the Jebusites, sometimes called Jebus, sometimes metsudat Zion, and made it his capital, renaming it “Jerusalem, the City of David.” He has built a fine house for himself (a “house of cedar,” as he calls it). He has reclaimed the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines and moved it to Jerusalem, where it is now housed in a tent. Now he wants to build a house for the Ark, a temple for God.

At first, the prophet Nathan, who is David’s trusted adviser, says, “Fine. Go ahead and do this thing.” But then Nathan has a dream in which he is given a message to David from God. He is to say to David, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day; I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” In other words, God doesn’t want a temple; God is happy with a moveable tent. And Nathan is to remind David, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel….” In other words, God has given you a job to do and, if you’re serious about this, you need to do it. If you are serious about being king over Israel, make sure the people may live in their own place and be disturbed no more. If you are serious about being king over Israel, make sure that evildoers shall afflict the people no more. If you are serious about being king over Israel, do the jobs I have given you and don’t take on tasks that don’t need to be done now (building the temple will be someone else’s job).

And that’s really Paul’s point in writing to the Ephesians, as well. “You [Gentiles],” he writes to them, “are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” He will, in a few pages, say to them, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1-3) He will remind them that every church member, baptized into the one faith, following the one Lord, is gifted, equipped for ministry, for the building up of the body. “If you’re serious about this,” he seems to be saying, “if you’re serious about being a Christian, then get serious. Do the job you have been given to do.”

And what is that job? The job given to each of us, though we may be given different gifts with which to accomplish it is, is the same. We who are “living stones … built into a spiritual house” (1 Pt 2:5) of which Christ is the cornerstone all have the same job: “You shall love 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.” (Lk 10:27)

If you’re serious about being a Christian, get serious about this:

Don’t take on jobs that you don’t need to do; building the temple is someone else’s job. If you’re serious about serving God, do the tasks God gives you.

Go away to a deserted place from time to time; spend time in prayer. If you’re serious about loving God, spend time with God. If you’re serious about loving your neighbor as yourself, take care of yourself.

If you’re serious about following Jesus . . . Love God. Love your neighbor. Use the gifts you have been given. Change the world.

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.

Neither Hot Nor Cold: A Sermon of Ecclesial Disappointment – 12 July 2015

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A sermon offered on Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10B, Track 1, RCL), July 12, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 6:1-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; and Mark 6:14-29. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. Note: The Revised Common Lectionary provides that the first lesson is 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19.)

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Israel-Palestine MapWhy do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters [New York: Harper & Row, 1982], pp. 40-41.)

I wonder if Ms. Dillard might not have had in mind the episode recounted today in our reading from the Second Book of Samuel. Confession: The Lectionary edited out the verse that describe the death of the priest Uzzah and the circumstances and causes thereof. I put them back in because they explain the sudden reluctance of David to take the Ark of the Covenant into his city, and his three-month delay in doing so. With Uzzah’s death David, as the writer of Second Samuel tells us, got a notion of “what sort of power we so blithely invoke,” of what sort of power he was bringing into Jerusalem, and it frightened him.

After all, what had Uzzah done. Nothing disrespectful of God, that’s for sure. If anything, he saved the Almighty the indignity of the Ark tumbling out of the ox cart and falling to the ground. All he had done was reach out to steady it when it was jostled by the oxen; he was doing only what comes naturally when one is moving a large, heavy object over rough terrain. And for this, for touching the Ark with the most innocent and benign of intentions, he was stricken dead. At first, David was angry with God about that; apparently he cursed up a storm because the place gets renamed “Perez-uzzah” which means “outburst about Uzzah” – could be God’s outburst that killed Uzzah, more likely it’s David’s outburst of anger after Uzzah is dead. Once he vents, however, David becomes frightened; we are told, “David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?'” So, he leaves the Ark right there in the care of a foreigner, Obed-edom the Gittite, for three months. David has realized that he may need a crash helmet when dealing with the power of the Almighty.

And then there’s John the Baptizer. John knew all too well the Power he’s been dealing with; he’d talked directly with God (“The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me,” he claimed – Jn 1:33) and John spoke to earthly power on God’s behalf. He said to the crowds that came out to him, to the scribes and the Pharisee, the priests and the Sadducees, to all who came to him at the River Jordan, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Lk 3:7-9) John knew there was danger, terrible danger when one becomes involved with Almighty God. It was the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews who said it, but John knew well, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:31) Because even if the power of God doesn’t kill you, the ministry demanded of you by God may well put you in harm’s way . . . and that, in the end, is what happened with John.

Speaking truth to power, John publicly denounced Herod Antipas for his sinful, adulterous relationship with his half-brother Philip’s wife Herodias, who also happened to be Antipas’s niece. For that public reproof, John was arrested and held for a time in prison; the Gospel lesson tells us that Herod protected John after his arrest because he feared him! – Even Herod Antipas felt the danger of involvement with the Almighty at second hand, the danger of dealing with God’s anointed prophet. But in the end, tricked by his own foolish behavior, Antipas must order John beheaded; for John the ax is laid not at the foot of the tree, but at the base of his neck. As Ms. Dillard might put it, “The waking god drew John out to where he could never return.”

We, the Episcopal Church, take this dangerous prophetic step out to where we might never return every time we make a statement or take an action and proclaim to the world, “We do this because we are called to do so by our Lord and our God.” I do it every time I step into this pulpit and dare to preach a sermon. You do it every time you take a stand on an issue or behave in a particular way and say, “I do this because I am a Christian, because I am an Episcopalian.” Our church does it when it meets in deliberative council, in vestry meetings, in diocesan conventions, or as we have just done in our triennial General Convention; we do it when we issue public statements on important issues of the day.

We feel like we have done it now in the aftermath of our 78th General Convention because, for example, we have taken the bold step of opening our marriage liturgies to same-sex couples. However, I would suggest to you that that was not a very prophetic step after all. We had already, several years ago, declared that gay and lesbian persons are beloved children of God entitled to the full ministry of and to full inclusion within the body of the faithful. We underscored that a dozen years ago when we approved the election and consecration of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. When we declared last week that same-sex couples could marry in the church, we were only continuing down a path we had already been walking, a path which (frankly) the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and the United States Supreme Court had just walked before us. It’s easy to be prophetic when others have already done so before you.

We feel like we have taken a prophetic stance because 1,500 bishops, deputies, and other Episcopalians marched the streets of Salt Lake City to protest against gun violence and to call for rational handgun licensing laws and for background checks on all gun sales including gun show and private transactions. We feel like we have done so because, a few days after that protest march, the General Convention passed a resolution making that same call; but in all honesty it’s a call we have made before. We have been on record as a church in support of reasonable regulation of gun manufacture, sale, and ownership for nearly 40 years; we have passed resolution after resolution urging registration, licensing, and insuring of handguns, as well as the banning of civilian sale and ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons since at least 1976. And we have not been alone among the churches in doing so. It’s not particularly original or prophetic to do and say again that which you and many others have done and said many, many times.

We feel like we have been prophetic in the House of Bishop’s election of Michael B. Curry of North Carolina to be our Presiding Bishop, our first black Presiding Bishop! But, folks, we have had black bishops in the Episcopal Church for over 140 years since the consecration of James Theodore Holly to be Bishop of Haiti in 1874. Neither God nor the world would be out of line in telling us that Bishop Curry’s election is not particularly prophetic and asking, “What took you so long?”

It’s not that these are not important and vital issues; they are. It’s not that our voice, added to so many others, is not worth raising about these issues; it is. It’s not that we should not be taking a stand on these matters; we should. We should and we have and we will continue to do so, but we are not being particularly prophetic when we do so. We are merely doing what comes naturally moving a large, heavy institution over the rough terrain of difficult issues. Like Uzzah steadying the Ark of the Covenant, it may be dangerous, but it’s not particularly prophetic.

We did have the opportunity to be prophetic, but we failed to take it. A resolution numbered D016 was offered for our consideration. It would have called upon our church and our leadership to

work earnestly and with haste to avoid profiting from the illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and [to] seek to align itself with, and learn from, the good work of our Ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, who have worked for decades in support of our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers and others oppressed by occupation. (Resolution D016 as originally proposed)

It did not call for divestment from Israeli investments. It did not call for the boycotting of products made in the occupied territories. It did not call for sanctions against Israel. It did not call upon us to join the “BDS” movement as it is called – Boycott, Divest, Sanction. It was opposed on the grounds that it did, but in truth it did not.

We could have taken such action; we could have joined BDS although the resolution did not call for it. Alternatively, we could have proclaimed that, instead of doing that, we would work through positive investment and constructive engagement with both Israelis and Palestinians to foster reconciliation and peace. Or, we could simply have done as the resolution sought and undertaken a time of intentional study and discernment as to what our ministry as a church with important ties to the Holy Land might be, how we might try to encourage healing in that broken, wounded, and bleeding place. We could have done any of those things, any of those prophetic things. But do you know what we did?

We ducked the issue. We played it safe. We closed off debate. We failed to act. The House of Bishops rejected Resolution D016 so the House of Deputies never had a chance to consider it and, thus, we did nothing. – We should know better! As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:8b-10)

We know that! We have declared as much in our catechism that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” and that “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” (BCP 1979, page 305) We are a church for whom the ministry of reconciliation should come as naturally as reaching out to steady the cargo on an ox cart came to Uzzah. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we did nothing…. We are a church who believes itself to speak like John the Baptizer prophetically to power on any number of subjects. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we said nothing….

As a church meeting in deliberative assembly and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we did nothing, we said nothing to promote justice, peace, love, and reconciliation in the Holy Land.

When John of Patmos had the vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, he was instructed to deliver a message from Jesus to the church in Laodicea. He was told to write these words to them: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16) With regard to those living in the land where Jesus was born, where he lived and taught and loved and died, where he rose from the dead for our salvation . . . with regard to our brothers and sisters living in that land, our General Convention action (or, really, lack of action) was lukewarm; it was tepid; neither hot nor cold, worthy only to be spit out.

I love my church. I love what we do in our synods and our conventions. I love that we take positions, sometimes unpopular positions. I love that we take risks with power, the kind of risks that Uzzah took, the kind of risks that John the Baptizer took, the kind of risks for which we should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers and holding signal flares. But we failed to do that with regard to the occupation of Palestine and the strife existing between our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters, and I am disappointed in the church I love. As the Rev. Winnie Varghese, a priest from New York who was one of the supporters of Resolution D016, wrote after its rejection: “I will never understand why we would not listen … to our brothers and sisters truly on the ground, the lay and ordained Palestinian Christians who have been displaced; who work for justice; and who ask for our help.” (Huffington Post, July 10, 2015) Nor will I. I will never understand.

Let us pray:

Lord our God, the earth is yours and all that is in it, so we lift up our heads, we open our gates, and we give you glory; the Psalmist asked who could stand in your holy places and answered his own question saying, “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart;” give us clean hands and pure hearts that we may follow through on the promises made at our baptism, promises to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” to “respect the dignity of every human being,” and to “work for justice and peace;” give us grace that we, as the Episcopal Church, may do so in solidarity with those who have dedicated their lives to justice for Palestinians and security for Israel, that we may be either hot or cold, never tepid or lukewarm; give us the strength to do what should come naturally and to speak prophetically in your name; all this we ask through your Son, our Savior, the King of Glory. 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.

Shoes for Your Feet – From the Daily Office – June 7, 2014

From the Letter to the Ephesians:

Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. * * * As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ephesians 6:11,15 (NRSV) – June 7, 2014)

Spit-Polished Military OxfordsPaul’s military armaments metaphor for facing the powers of sin and death is very well known; it’s quite popular with preachers and commentators. In the sixth chapter of the letter to the church in Ephesus we find him going on and on about the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of righteousness, and the sword of the spirit. You can tell he’s really getting into this image; he’s having fun with it. My favorite bit of the whole thing is our shoes are to be “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (v. 15)

However, even with that, I’ve never been a big fan of the military armaments metaphor. This is especially so today as we continue to remember the horrors of World War II and the heroic actions of the D-Day liberators of Normandy, as well as witness the public (and, in my opinion, extremely silly but deeply divisive) debate about the return of Afghan War prisoner Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl from Taliban captivity.

The major issue I have with the metaphor is the way it is commonly preached — from an individualist perspective. But Paul does not apply the metaphor to single persons. This is not a call to individual spiritual bravery, an exhortation to individual Christians to become “prayer warriors” (a term often used in sermons based on this passage). Paul very clearly and very pointedly (in the original Greek, anyway) uses the plural “you,” not the singular. The metaphor does not apply to individual believers; it applies to the church as a whole. This is not a description of a singular prayer warrior; it is a portrait of the community of the church, the church militant.

The individualist preaching of this passage, in addition to disregarding the plural “you,” also ignores the passage’s context. The letter to the Ephesians is a treatise on the nature of the church as community. The military armaments metaphor is simply one of several which treat the church as a corporate entity. This is the epistle in which we find three other prominent Pauline metaphors: the church as the body of Christ (1:22-23), the church as a spiritual building (2:19-21), and the church as the bride of Christ (5:25-32). Paul’s concern in the letter to the Ephesian church is the church, not the individual believer.

So all this talk of the armaments and armor of warfare is not for the singular Christian. It is for the entire community, the church envisioned as a cosmic warrior. To treat it in the usual individualistic way betrays both the text and, I believe, the service of real warriors, the soldiers who fought and sacrificed on Normandy’s beaches, in Europe’s fields, in Vietnam’s jungles, in Afghan’s rugged terrain, in Iraq’s deserts, and many, many other places. As important to our individual and corporate well-being as prayer is, it is not the same as risking life and limb in battle. Understanding this metaphor in an individualistic way draws that equation, and it’s wrong. Just wrong. Whatever a “prayer warrior” may be, he or she is not a soldier facing the grim reality of death, his or her own or that of the opposing soldier he or she may encounter.

And that’s the issue with many (if not all) metaphors. They can be misapplied and extended too far; to use another, a metaphor misused often falls off a cliff into an abyss of confusion and misunderstanding, betraying the very purpose of a metaphor which is to clarify and enlighten. In the individual understanding of Paul’s military armaments metaphor, his colorful and imaginative language is misapplied and taken to places Paul never intended. Let’s walk it back from that precipice.

Which brings me back to the shoes — “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (v. 15) I have a suggestion. Let the church put on scholarship and education for its shoes! More than Sunday School for children is an imperative for the church. We need real, in-depth, wide-spread, formal training in understanding the Scriptures, the theology, and the traditions of the church for all Christians. These will help our people avoid the peril of misused and overextended metaphors, strengthen church members reasoned faith, and make the church “ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”

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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.

We Are One . . . NOT! – From the Daily Office – June 4, 2014

From the Letter to the Ephesians:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ephesians 4:4-6 (NRSV) – June 4, 2014)

Fractured SocietyHere is another piece of Paul’s writing that the Episcopal Church has lifted out of the bible and plugged into The Book of Common Prayer. It is used as the opening dialog of the church’ baptismal service. After a seasonally appropriate greeting, the presider and people converse:

Celebrant — There is one Body and one Spirit;
People — There is one hope in God’s call to us;
Celebrant — One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
People — One God and Father of all.
(BCP 1979, page 301)

I must confess that every time I engage in this dialog I am reminded of, and (almost) have to stop myself from singing, a particularly bad example of the sort of music the church produced in the late 1960s, a song entitled We Are One in the Spirit:

We are One in The Spirit,
We are One in The Lord.
We are One in The Spirit,
We are One in The Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
[Chorus]
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our Love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
(©Peter Scholte 1966)

I don’t think that song is bad musically: the tune is catchy; the accompaniment is rather easy; congregations (even those who don’t read music) can pick it up quickly and sing it with gusto. What’s bad about the song is that it’s what I would call ecclesio-narcissistic: it’s all about us! There’s not a single word of praise for God, of thanksgiving, of intercession or petition. It’s all “we are” . . . “we will” . . . we we we: “aren’t we great?” As if we are capable of attaining unity on our own . . . . which is, thank heaven, not the overt message of the baptismal service (although it may be its implication).

Unity, however, is not something human beings seem capable of achieving unaided, especially not the unity-in-diversity which is supposed to be the hallmark of the Christian church. Remember, Paul again: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

This is also supposed to be the strength of the United States. We are supposed to be the great “melting pot” society, a nation of immigrants coming together not around ethnicity or some other ancient exclusive and divisive characteristic but around notions of freedom and justice. But just look at us! Torn apart by wing-nut ideologies on both Right and Left. We can’t even be united about the retrieval of an American soldier from enemy hands: I believe that every American, regardless of their politics, should be overjoyed that Bowe Bergdahl is out of Taliban captivity. But that ain’t so . . . and it isn’t so because, left to our own devices (and now we have so many of them) we not only can’t achieve unity, we revel in our fractured disunity. (A friend whose politics are on the Left published a Facebook link to what she call an “epic rant” on this subject, and it is something. Although politically I agree with its premise, as a Christian American I’m saddened by the witness it makes to our brokenness. I’m sure there are equally visceral rants from the Right; I just haven’t seen them. For any who want to read it, here is the link, Stonekettle Station. A word of warning: it’s heated, it’s vulgar, and it’s long.)

In a recent conversation with some members of my parish’s Altar Guild about attending funerals and weddings in other denominations, one of the ladies asked why some (particularly the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) exclude non-members from Holy Communion. As we explored the meaning of the Eucharist, I suggested that (among other reasons) it might be because in such churches Communion is seen as a sacrament of unity achieved while in the Episcopal Church it is considered a sacrament of unity hoped for. If it is the former, then someone not a part of that “unity” is not welcome; if it is the latter, then everyone who comes seeking Christ, whether member or not, is accepted at the Table.

This can be, should be the churches’ great witness to a fractured secular society, that unity is possible through the grace of God, “who is above all and through all and in all.” Alas, in our fracture ecclesial state, contrary to that ecclesio-narcissistic song, we are unable to make that witness. We are not one! Although we keep hoping . . . .

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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.

Boxes – From the Daily Office – June 3, 2014

From the Letter to the Ephesians:

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ephesians 3:20-21 (NRSV) – June 3, 2014)

Pile of BoxesSeveral days ago I was driving on the interstate highway when I encountered a man whose load of cardboard boxes had shifted and tumbled out of his truck. Traffic, of course, was slowed down and tangled up, and he was at his wit’s end trying to gather them up. I could tell that what he really wanted to do was just walk away from those boxes.

I thought of him reading these words.

These are the words with which we close the Daily Office. Well, not these words precisely. The Prayer Book uses a somewhat more poetic translation: “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen.” (BCP 1979, page 102) I wonder why we don’t take these verses seriously, especially that part about what God is able to do: “abundantly” or “infinitely” more than we can conceive. (The Greek word Paul uses is hyperekperrissou which means “beyond superabundance”.)

Now I’ll admit that Paul’s letter limits the application of this principle to God’s work “within us,” but that can hardly be understood as a limitation on God’s power. As Paul writes elsewhere, “Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (Rom 1:20) So back to my question: why do human beings not take seriously the idea that God is able to do more — abundantly, infinitely more — than we can conceive?

Whenever I witness — I almost wrote “get into,” but the truth is I’ve given up getting into — the creation-vs.-evolution debate, I am perplexed by the human need to wrestle God into a box (or, alternatively, to keep God out of a box) . . . and by the intellectual effort expended on trying to keep God small enough to understand. At least, that’s what I think those who call themselves “young earth creationists” are trying to do. The constant need to explain away contradictory evidence — the speed of light, the calculated age of the universe, the fossil record of dinosaurs, the demonstrable impossibility of fitting two of every living species of animal onto a vessel the size of Scripture’s ark (not to mention the varieties we’ve rendered extinct), and the list goes on — must be exhausting.

God was gentle with Jacob that night at Penuel, I think. Jacob had only to wrestle with “a man” for a limited number of hours. (Gen 32:24-32) The creationists, on the other hand, trying to wrestle God and all those inconsistent facts into the little box of their very limited imaginations must have to work at it constantly. That’s why I’ve given up getting into that debate; it exhausts me and I’ve better things to do with my energy. Unlike God, I don’t have a beyond-superabundant supply time or power.

The other side of the debate — the atheist evolutionists, let’s call them — have the same problem, I think. Their box is bigger and more flexible; they’re willing to open it up and let in new evidence, work with new theories to understand it, and let go of old or conflicting beliefs. Except, of course, God. Their box, as big and flexible as it is, apparently doesn’t have room for God. Like their debating opponents, they need God to be small enough to understand, but since God can’t be observed, measured, tested, and confirmed by repeated experimentation, there’s no room for God in their box. So, again, limited imagination.

The same problem. One side’s restricted imagination leads them try to wrestle God into their little box; the other’s makes them try to keep God out of their big box.

But God is not a God of boxes. God is not interested in our boxes. God, beyond our imaginings, would like to ignore our boxes, I think, if we would let God.

The man on the freeway couldn’t walk away from his boxes . . . but we can abandon ours! We really should. I believe God would be delighted not to have to deal with them anymore!

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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.

Praying for Leaders – From the Daily Office – May 27, 2014

From the First Letter to Timothy:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Timothy 2:1-2 (NRSV) – May 27, 2014)

Praying with the BibleThere was a meme circulating the conservative blogosphere and email circuit several months ago in which folks of a certain political persuasion asserted that they were “praying” for President Obama by reciting a verse from Psalm 109: “Let his days be few, and let another take his office.” The psalm continues in the next verse: “Let his children be fatherless, and his wife become a widow.” And the petition get even worse after that. This is not what Paul is admonishing the faithful to do in his letter to the young bishop Timothy. In fact, it is clearly the very opposite.

What would our country and our society be like if everyone did offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings … for … all who are in high positions”? One of the things I counsel folks who come to me with issues of unresolved anger toward another is to pray for that other. Not specific intercessions just simply to offer that person’s name before God with the simple request, “In this person’s life, Lord, may your will be done.” The nearly universal experience of my counselees is that over the course of time (the length of time varies from person to person) their anger dissipates; the typical observation is that is impossible to stay angry at someone for whom you are praying.

The purpose of prayer is not to inform God of anything of which we believe God may be unaware, to give God our good advice, or to conform God’s will to ours. Rather, it is to relinquish our own selfish desires in acquiescence to the one “whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,” as we remind ourselves as the end of the Daily Office (quoting Ephesians 3:20).

What would our society be like if everyone prayed for our leadership, even the leaders with whom we have political disagreements or personal dislikes? What would things be like if I prayed for that jackass in Congress, or that SOB in the state house? I cannot imagine, but Paul assures me that we would all “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Maybe we (that really means, I) should give it a try.

(The reflection above is a repeat of one written on this blog in May of 2012 when this lesson was last on the lectionary rotation.)

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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.

I Don’t Know – From the Daily Office – May 13, 2014

From the Book of Exodus:

Moses said to Aaron, “What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?” And Aaron said, “Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, ‘Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Whoever has gold, take it off ‘; so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 32:21-24 (NRSV) – May 13, 2014)

Golden Calf“I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

I chuckle every time I read this story and get to this point. In fact, when the story of the golden calf has been read in church and the reader gets to Aaron’s disclamation of responsibility, I’ve been known to laugh out loud.

Once, years ago, in a bible study group reading Exodus, I asked, “How old was Aaron?” No one knew, but we were all pretty certain that Moses and his brother were not young children at the time of this story. Nonetheless, a young child is exactly what Aaron sounds like: “I threw the gold in the fire, and out came this calf!” No mention of his forming the mold, pouring the molten the gold, breaking the mold, polishing the casting, and all the rest that goes into the making of a metal statue. The calf just “came out.”

There was a phantom in our house when my children were very young. We’d find that someone had opened the orange juice and not only taken some, but also spilled a good deal on the kitchen counter and floor. “Who did this?” we would ask. “I don’t know,” would be the answer. The contents of my wife’s purse were spilled there was lipstick smeared on things. “Who did this?” we demanded of the little girl with red all over her face. “I don’t know,” she told us. Someone once tried to make sand castles in the cat box. “Who did this?” we asked the little boy with sand fingers. With a straight face he replied, “I don’t know.”

We never caught I Don’t Know doing any of these things (or many others), but there was plenty of evidence of his (or was it “her”?) existence. I Don’t Know was a very active sprite! Apparently, I Don’t Know was much older than we thought. He or she appears to have been with the Hebrews in the desert. — “Who made this golden calf?” — “I don’t know. I threw the gold in the fire and out came this calf!”

In the modern adult world, I Don’t Know has gotten more adapt at hiding his or her identity. “Who made that decision?” we ask. The answer is often one of I Don’t Know‘s alter egos: a committee, the vestry, the (unnamed) higher-ups, the council, management, the administration. Could it be that I Don’t Know is being scapegoated?

Imaginary friends are a healthy part of maturing. Research shows that children with imaginary companions tend to be less fearful, laugh more, smile more, engage more with peers, and are better able to imagine how someone else might think. An imaginary friend can aid a child to handle fear, explore ideas, or gain a sense of competence, but children with imaginary friends will sometimes blame them for misbehavior in an attempt to dodge the displeasure of adult authority. I Don’t Know is not exactly an imaginary friend, but disclaiming responsibility and deflecting blame is certainly child-like (if not childish) behavior.

“When I was a child, I spoke like a child,” wrote St. Paul, “I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (1 Cor 13:11) Jesus once told a story about someone who decided to stop blaming I Don’t Know. The man in the story “put an end to childish ways” and said to himself, “I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.'” (Lk 15:18)

We human beings of all ages when challenged still seem invoke I Don’t Know to avoid personal responsibility on a pretty regular basis. Christian maturity, coming (as Paul said) “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” (Eph 4:13) no longer laying things at the feet of I Don’t Know is something for which we all need to strive. We need to give up being like Aaron; we need to put an end to childish ways.

Is that going to happen on a general basis any time soon?

I could answer, “I don’t know.” But the truth is, I think I do.

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

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

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