That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Exodus (page 1 of 5)

Whose Image Is This? – Sermon for Proper 24A, Pentecost 20 (October 22, 2017)

As I pondered our scriptures for today I was struck by how different, how utterly foreign, one might most accurately use the word “alien,” the social landscape of the bible is from our own. We, children of a post-Enlightenment Constitution which makes a clear delineation, almost a compartmentalization, between the civic and the religious, simply cannot quickly envision the extent to which those areas of human existence were entangled and intertwined for those who wrote and whose lives are described in both the Old and New Testaments. I tried to think of an easy metaphor to help illustrate the difference between our worldview and that of either the ancient wandering Hebrews represented by Moses in the lesson from Exodus or of the first Century Palestinians and Romans characterized by Jesus, the temple authorities, and Paul.

The best I could come up with was this. First, as a representation of our viewpoint, consider a mixture of water and vegetable oil which, as I’m sure you know, is no mixture at all. The oil will float on the water and no amount of mixing, shaking, or stirring will make them blend; the oil may disperse in small globules throughout the water, it may even emulsify temporarily, but eventually (without the aid of a stabilizer) the oil will separate from the water. In our constitutional society, religious institutions and political entities are supposed to be like that; just as there is a surface tension barrier between the two liquids, the Constitution (in Mr. Jefferson’s memorable phrase) erects a “wall of separation between church and state.”1

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May Be Compared – Sermon for Proper 23A (Pentecost 19), October 15, 2017

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king . . . .”

This is an ugly parable that Matthew reports in today’s gospel. It is similar to a parable that is related in Luke’s gospel, but Matthew adds details that challenge us deeply, even to the core of our faith, to the center of our being as Christians. When Luke tells the story the host inviting his neighbors to dinner is not a king; he’s just “someone.” (Lk 14:15) When Luke’s host sends his servant to tell the intended guests that all is ready, they offer only excuses; no one “makes light” of the occasion and no one seizes, mistreats, or kills the slaves. (Mt 22:5-6) Luke’s host gets angry, but only Matthew’s king sends an army “destroy the murderers and burn their city.” (Mt 22:7) Both hosts send the slaves back out to invite others from the streets and highways; Luke’s dinner host adds an instruction specifically to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (Lk 14:21) In both stories the banquet hall is filled, but only in Matthew’s story is there the judgment, not mentioned in Luke’s, that the substitute guests include “both good and bad.” (Mt 22:10) And, finally, Matthew’s Jesus adds the detail about the man present without the proper wedding garment who is thrown into the “outer darkness” (Mt 22:13) and that final warning, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt 22:14)

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The Ten Suggestions? – Sermon for Proper 22A (Pentecost 18), October 8, 2017

I’m wearing an orange stole today and a couple of you asked me on the way into church, “What season is orange?” Well, it’s not a seasonal stole … although I suppose we could say it commemorates the season of unregulated and out of control gun violence. A few years ago, a young woman named Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Chicago; her friends began wearing orange, like hunters wear for safety, in her honor on her birthday in June. A couple of years ago, Bishops Against Gun Violence, an Episcopal group, became a co-sponsor of Wear Orange Day and some of us clergy here in Ohio decided to make and wear orange stoles on the following Sunday. Our decision got press notice and spread to clergy of several denominations all over the country.

Today, after what happened last Sunday in my hometown, I decided to wear my orange stole as a witness to my belief in the need for sensible, strict, and enforceable regulations on gun manufacture and sale, on gun ownership and use. But I am not going to preach about that; I did so after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, after the Mother Emmanuel church schooting in Charlotte, SC, after the Pulse dance club shooting in Orlando, FL. We talk about it and pray about it and preach about it after each incident and nothing changes and there’s nothing left to say. If we didn’t change things after the murders of children, after the murders of a bible study group, or after murders of people out nightclubbing, we aren’t going to change anything after 58 people get murdered (and one commits suicide) in Las Vegas. We just aren’t, and nothing I might say in a sermon will change that.

So . . .

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Authority: To Bend the Knee – Sermon for Proper 21A (1 October 2017)

Authority. The authority of Jesus Christ is what Paul writes about in the letter to the Philippians, in which he quotes a liturgical hymn sung in the early Christian communities:

At the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil. 2:10-11)

Jesus’ authority is also the subject of today’s Gospel lesson.

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“Squirrel!” – Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2017

During my three days away taking the Education for Ministry training I needed to continue my certification as an EfM mentor this past week, I was reminded of an old story about children’s sermons:

A pastor was giving his children’s message at the beginning of a church service. For this part of the worship, he would gather all the children around him and give a brief lesson before dismissing them to Sunday school.

On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson on industry and preparation. He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees . . . (pause) . . . and eats nuts . . . (pause) . . . .”

No hands went up. “And it is gray . . . (pause) . . . and has a long bushy tail . . . (pause) . . .”

The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch . . . (pause) . . . and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited . . . (pause) . . . .”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

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Act Three (Pt 1): Fully Human – Easter Vigil 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday, April 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31,15:20-21; Proverbs 8:1-8,19-21,9:4b-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Two weeks ago, the Sunday lectionary treated us to the entire long Gospel lesson of the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and then last week the Daily Office lectionary repeated it in smaller bits over the course of several days. Last Sunday I suggested that Holy Week and Easter can be conceived as a three-act drama to which the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday is an overture.

The Lazarus story, like last Sunday’s Gospel, is part of that overture, the introduction to the three-act drama of celebration in which we have participated this week and in which we have come, this evening, to the third and final act. Lazarus has been much on my mind as we have prepared for this Easter celebration and for the baptisms we have just performed. I believe the story of Lazarus’ raising has much to teach us about what we have done here tonight in this third act, this Baptismal Vigil, this liturgy of welcoming and inclusion.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany; they are a family which figures prominently in the Gospels as friends of Jesus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. This family really seems to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. When word is sent to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Lazarus is described to him as “he whom you love.” (John 11:3) Lazarus and his sisters are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.

As the story of Lazarus raising is told, the family is described as accompanied by “Jews.” That has always struck me as a bit odd. After all, aren’t they all Jews? Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, the whole lot of them? Of course they are! So many scholars suggest that we should better understand John’s term Ioudaiou to mean “Judeans,” that is people native to the Jerusalem area; these scholars suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus, were Galileans who had moved to Judea and been accepted into this southern community. This strengthens the suggestion that they may have been members of Jesus’ extended family.

Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (John 11:21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”

We’re told that Jesus’ response to this is that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s a fine translation, but it’s also a bit misleading. The Greek word rendered “disturbed” very literally means he “snorted with anger”; and the word translated “deeply moved” means “stirred up” and implies a certain physicality, not simply an emotion. Jesus response to the sisters’ confrontations, to Lazarus’ death, to the whole situation is to become indignant and sick to his stomach.

The Lazarus story contains the shortest verse in the New Testament, famously rendered in the King James Version with only two words, “Jesus wept.” Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest that, since John describes Jesus as angry and physically sick, we might consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.

We have just baptized four children and, together with them, we have affirmed the Baptismal Covenant beginning with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in which we will claim that Jesus, the Son of God, was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (BCP 1979, p 304). In the Nicene Creed, which we recite most Sundays during the Holy Eucharist, we go further and declare that he “became incarnate . . . and was made man,” that is, that he became a flesh-and-blood human being. (BCP 1979, p 358). In the Definition of Chalcedon, which you can find on page 864 of the Prayer Book, the church goes even beyond that and asserts its conviction that Jesus is “truly [human] . . . like us in all respects, apart from sin.”

I believe that standing before that tomb where his beloved friend Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, feeling the anger and frustration of his close friends Mary and Martha, surrounded by Judeans muttering “couldn’t he have prevented this,” and perhaps physically exhausted from traveling from the other side of the Jordan valley where he was when he got the news, Jesus’ humanity hit him like a ton of bricks. In that moment, everything that it meant to be human came crashing in on him: the way human beings settle for easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships; the injustice, oppression, and exploitation we impose on one another; the pain, rejection, hunger, and war we endure . . . but, also, the love, friendship, community, family, support, and every other good thing about being a human being; it all come together in that moment standing at that grave.

Why do I think that? Because that’s what I feel every time I stand at a grave. The first time I did that, I was 5-1/2 years old. I remember standing between my mother and my paternal grandmother watching two members of the US Army fold the flag that had draped my father’s coffin, feeling loss, grief, anger, confusion, and emotions I couldn’t even name. But there was also the love of family, pride in my father’s military service, a sense of community with extended family and friends, all the comfort that comes from our common humanity. And every time I have stood beside a grave, I have felt that again, and I can surely imagine that our Lord experienced something very like that. No wonder Jesus – the sorrowful-but-also-angry and stirred-up Jesus, the knowing-he-too-might-soon-be-dead Jesus, the fully-human, like-us-in-all-respects Jesus – wept.

We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As St. Paul asks in his letter to the Romans which was read just a few minutes ago, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” The Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death.”

St. Paul’s assurance that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” is echoed by the Prayer Books bold promise that by baptism we share in Jesus’ resurrection, and that “through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 1979, p 306) As Jesus called for Lazarus to be unbound from his funeral wrappings, as Jesus himself rose and set aside his shroud, through Holy Baptism our Lord calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with those whom the Psalmist describes as having “clean clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)

The Creation story in Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn 1:27) The story of the Fall reminds us that somehow that divine likeness has been marred, that on our own we fail to live up to that image; we fail to fully live up to the potential God created in humankind. Through baptism, the divine image is restore; through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a process of transformation begins and God restores us to who and what we were meant to be – fully human.

When we baptized these children, we asked them and their baptismal sponsors (and we asked ourselves) some questions which are taken directly from the Apostle’s Creed, to which I referred earlier. These questions began with the words, “Do you believe . . . .”

A few years ago a colleague of mine said that he had once asked his congregation, when reciting the Nicene Creed, to say “We trust in” instead of “We believe in” since the original Greek could have been translated either way. He said he wondered if the church would be less fragmented if we had used “trust.” He suggested that there might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here.” When we ask those questions of baptismal candidates and their Godparents, when we say the creeds ourselves, are expressing a deep affirmation of community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe we don’t “believe” exactly the same things that others here believe, but we all trust in the same God.

In that same conversation, another priest objected to what he called the distinction between “faith as trust and faith with content.” “It’s always struck me as a strange distinction,” he said. “If, for example, faith as trust is about relationship [and not about content], it is like someone saying to a prospective marriage partner, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but I’m not certain who you are.’” I suggested to him, however, and I suggest to you now that this distinction really doesn’t exist, that faith as trust or as relationship necessarily implies and includes “faith with content.” One cannot place trust in another person, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named in the Creed, without assenting to that person’s existence and properties; to say, “I trust you” or “I love you” and not also agree that you exist makes very little sense.

This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with God the Holy Trinity, and through God with the full community of human beings whom God loves and whom God has redeemed in all that long salvation history that we have heard read from the Hebrew Scriptures this evening. When we baptized these children, when we baptize any new member of the Christian community, we recognize them as part of that fully human community whom God invites to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov 9:6), whom God promises to save, and gather, and bring home, and restore. (Zeph 3:19-20)

That full human community relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us, the full humanity which gathered with friends and family at the Last Supper in the first act of this drama of redemption, the full humanity which was arrested and brutalized and crucified in the second act, the full humanity whose Resurrection we celebrate in this, the third act, the feast of Easter. It is into that Easter promise that we have baptized Kadence, Bryce, Hadley, and Joseph this evening. And that is why the Lazarus story figures so prominently in the church’s preparations for Holy Week and Easter, part of the overture of this three-part drama of redemption!

In the words of a popular Franciscan blessing, let us pray that, as these children grow into the full humanity into which they are initiated today, God will bless them with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that they may live deep within their hearts; that God will bless them with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that they may work for justice, freedom, and peace; that God will bless them with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that they may reach out their hands to comfort others and turn their pain into joy; and that God bless them with enough foolishness to believe that they can make a difference in this world, so that they can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice, kindness, and love to all.

As they have been buried with Christ, they have begun to share in his Resurrection; may God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. Amen.

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

Act One: Use Your Towel – Maundy Thursday 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and St. John 13:1-17,31b-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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On Palm Sunday, I suggested that we think of Holy Week and Easter as a three-act drama beginning with an Overture on Palm Sunday. Today, we take part in the first act. The analogy of the Three Holy Days (or “Triduum”) to a play breaks down if we think of ourselves as the “audience.” We are not the audience.

The audience of worship is God. The one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is the audience. We, all of us, are the actors. We, all of us, are the cast.

So, here we are….

Act One, Scene One: The curtain rises. We see a group of people gathered in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

A meal is in progress… we wonder if it might be a seder, the ritual meal of remembrance of the Passover. We don’t really know; the playwrights have not made this clear and the theater critics, the scholars, debate the issue.

Three of the story-tellers suggest that it is. Luke and Matthew based their stories on Mark’s, so to be honest there aren’t three stories, there’s only one that would make us think that this supper is a seder.

However, the fourth, John, tells the tale very differently. John doesn’t even seem to care about the dinner – he spends no time at all describing the meal; for him, it’s not important. What’s important is what happened afterward.

So as we continue this three-act drama of redemption let’s just assume that that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are correct and what we see in this first scene of the first act is, indeed, a seder.

Those present are prepared to do all that is laid out in the instructions in the book of Exodus; they have worn their sandals; they carry their staffs; they expect to eat of roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They anticipate spending the night in remembrance of that which happened generations before in Egypt. If we can imagine that they celebrate as modern Jews celebrate, they are gathered in that upper room, those serving the meal coming and going, and a breeze blowing through the open windows. They are following along in their prayer books, the Haggadah; they expect the youngest among them to ask the questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” They know that the head of the household, their rabbi Jesus, will answer those questions in the prescribed way and tell the story of the Passover.

So, when the youngest asks “Why do we eat the broken matzah?” they expect Jesus to answer “This is the bread of our affliction; the unleavened bread of poverty, baked and eaten in haste,” but instead he takes the bread, brakes it and says, “This bread is my body, given for you.”

They look up startled, glancing at one another, murmuring to each other, “What is he talking about? That’s not here! That’s not the right answer. Where is he? What page is he on?” But the moment passes, the meal moves on.

At the end he takes up the fourth and final cup of wine, the kiddush cup, which recalls God’s promise, “I will acquire you as a nation; you will be my people and I will be your God.” As before, they expect Jesus to say the prescribed prayer, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine,” but instead they hear, “This cup is my blood!” “What?!” They look at one another in disbelief. “What is he saying???”

It is for Jesus and his disciples one of those fleeting opportunities when, because of the pupils’ confusion or frustration or grasping for understanding, the teacher can pass on to the students new information, new values, new moral understanding, a new behavior, a new skill, a new way of seeing and coping with reality; it is what we have come to call “the teachable moment” and so he teaches, yet again, “Remember! Remember,” he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The curtain falls as Jesus continues to teach; the disciples look mystified.

Act One, Scene Two: The curtain rises again. We see the same group of people gathered in the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

The meal is over, the dishes have been cleared. The disciples are arguing among themselves about who is the greater among them. Jesus looks frustrated and troubled; the teachable moment has passed and the disciples clearly have not understood! They just haven’t gotten it.

“Look,” he says, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Here, let me show you what I mean.” Getting up from the table, he takes off his robe, picks up a basin of water and a towel, and begins to wash and dry their feet.

As many of you know, I am a fan of science fiction, so when I hear about towels, one of the first things I think of is the late Douglas Adams’ hilariously funny novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book begins seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, when the protagonist Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who has been posing for the last 15 years as an out-of-work actor. The one thing Prefect makes sure that Dent brings with him is a towel. Quoting from the guidebook, he explains that a towel is the one, crucial, indispensable necessity that the intergalactic traveler must bring along on any journey:

A towel (says The Hitchhiker’s Guide) is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have . . . . you can wrap it around you for warmth . . . . you can lie on it on . . . brilliant marble-sanded beaches . . . . you can sleep under it beneath the stars . . . . use it to sail a mini-raft down a slow river . . . . wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes . . . . you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it sill seems to be clean enough.

Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

John tells us that Jesus made use of the towel to dry the disciples’ feet and then said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” It has occurred to me that The Hitchhiker’s Guide suggests many other ways in which we might use a towel in following Jesus’ lead.

When we baptize someone here at St. Paul’s Parish, the altar guild supplies towels for them to be dried with; I often joke about getting those towels back. But now it seems to me that we might better give them to the newly baptized with an admonition to follow Jesus’ example of loving service. The towel of service just might be the one, crucial, indispensible necessity that the Christian traveler should bring along on his or her journey through life. It just may be the most massively useful thing we can have as we serve others. We can wash and dry their feet; we can wrap them in warmth; we can provide a comfortable place to sleep; we can help them on a journey; we can protect them; we can signal to them and for them in emergencies; we can clothe the naked, swaddle a baby, comfort the sick. I’m sure you can come up with many more uses, small and large, for a towel and, by extension, for your heart, for your life, and for your willing hands.

That Jesus made use of the towel in the context of the Lords’ Supper is a really important point. There used to be what some thought of as a silly and useless bit of priestly vesture worn at Communion called a “maniple.” It looked sort of like a short stole and was made of the same material as the stole and chasuble. It was worn over the left forearm and looked like, and in fact was meant to symbolize, the sort of towel or table napkin often worn by the wait-staff in fancy restaurants, a symbol of service. Anglican clergy stopped wearing maniples long ago and Roman Catholic priests were allowed to discontinue them in 1967, one of the minor reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In abandoning that symbolic vestment, however, we may have lost a reminder that, in addition to being called to follow Jesus along the way of the cross, we are also called to follow him in his use of the towel! Just as Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he might also have said, “Take up your towel and follow me.” In fact, he did when he said, “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”

Perhaps we no longer use the maniple as a priestly vestment because the ministry of Christian servanthood which it represents is not limited to clergy; it is the ministry of all baptized people. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” we are asked in the liturgy of baptism, and every person present answers, “I will, with God’s help.” This servant ministry is one which we all share, just as this meal of Bread and Wine, of Christ’s Body and Blood, is one which we all share.

The disciples, however, don’t get the opportunity to serve one another, for this second scene ends with Jesus, visibly agitated, declaring, “One of you will betray me.” As the curtain goes down, the disciples are looking puzzled and Judas Iscariot is leaving.

Act One, Scene Three: The curtain rises again. We see a garden and an olive grove just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is there, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. “Stay here,” he tells them, “Stay awake while I go over there to pray.” As they settle themselves, he moves away from them, and collapses in a heap, sobbing: “O God … Father, let this pass!”

Three times he returns to find them asleep; three times they rise looking sheepish and embarrassed; twice he tells them again to try to stay awake as he goes away still pleading with God for a way out. “Enough,” he says the third time, “Enough! We’re leaving.”

When they look back on that night, how must they feel? When we look back, how should we feel? Poet Mary Oliver offers a glimpse in her poem Gethsemane:

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree,
and didn’t move, maybe the lake far away,
where once he walked as on a blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.

Yes, this too, our utterly human inability to fully keep company with our Lord, this too must be part of the story when it is told, part of the third scene of the first act of this drama that is retold again and again. This minor, little betrayal is as much a part of the story as Judas’ treachery which now plays out.

Scene Three ends as Jesus is arrested and taken away off-stage. In the wings, a trivial side-story plays out as Judas dies, either by hanging himself (as Matthew asserts) or by falling and suffering some sort of rupture (as Luke portrays in the Book of Acts). In any event, Judas dies and, in the church’s eyes, is condemned.

The Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan, in a very long elegy entitled The Ballad of Judas Iscariot, tells the tale of the soul of Judas carrying his body in search of a burial place, only to have it rejected by even the worst of places in all creation. Eventually, he comes to a banquet hall where a wedding feast is waiting to get started. The guests (that is, the church), recognizing Judas, demand that he be “scourged away,” but the Bridegroom has a different idea:

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

We sometimes use a Scottish invitation to Communion which comes from the ecumenical monastic community on the island of Iona:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready.
It is the table of company with Jesus,
And all who love him.
It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world,
With whom Jesus identified himself.
It is the table of communion with the earth,
In which Christ became incarnate.
So come to this table,
You who have much faith
And you who would like to have more;
You who have been here often
And you who have not been for a long time;
You who have tried to follow Jesus,
And you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.

All who have faith; all who would like to have more; all who have been to Communion often; all who have not been for a long time; all who have tried to follow Jesus (in the way of the cross or the way of the towel); all who have failed to do so. In other words, as John of Patmos witnessed in his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, everyone is called to the Supper of the Lamb; everyone is invited to the Wedding Feast! Even the disciples who fell asleep in the garden; even Judas Iscariot!

In this, the first act of the drama of redemption, Jesus has gathered his disciples. He has gathered us at the table that in the upper room. He has shared Bread and Wine. He washed and dried feet. He has given us the New Commandment: “Love one another.” He has said, “I have set you an example.” He might well have said, “Take up your towel and use it.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide says your towel can be used as a signal. So take up your towel; wave it so that all may see, and when you have their attention, invite them into this drama of redemption in which, tonight, we witness and take part in the first of three acts. Say to them, with Jesus, “Come! Come to this table! . . . . We have waited long for thee!”

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

Living Water: Sermon for Lent 3, RCL Year A (19 March 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; and St. John 4:5-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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overflowingwellToday the lectionary gives us two stories about water. The first set in the Sinai desert where the Hebrews found themselves exhausted, thirsty, and more than a little bit feisty and quarrelsome demanding water from Moses and from God; the second set at a well in a Samaritan village where Jesus, “tired out by his journey” (Jn 4:6, NRSV), encountered a lone woman and asked her for a drink.

I sometimes think that we take the biblical metaphor water way too lightly. We live in a world which is water-abundant. Here in NE Ohio we are surrounded by the stuff! There’s that big lake up to the north of us; there are rivers and streams running nearby; and I’ll bet most of us live in neighborhoods where some of our neighbors have ponds in their back yards. There’s water everywhere.

Even in the sorts of desert places I lived as a young adult along the Southern California coast there is an abundance of water. There’s all that salt water in the ocean, of course, but that won’t sustain human life. What there is is water brought in by aqueduct from the Sacramento River or piped in from the Colorado River; without that Los Angeles and Orange and San Diego Counties could not sustain the populations that presently live there.

Get out of those artificial oases, however, and life in southern California is pretty precarious. When I was in college in San Diego, my friends and I used to hike either the Anzo-Borrego Desert or the Agua Tibia Wilderness Area on over-night excursions pretty frequently. We would have to carry our water because there are no rivers or ponds or springs in either area; with desert back-packing, you have to figure on at least one gallon per day per person on the trail. Water weighs about 8-1/2 pounds per gallon, so that single item takes up a good deal of your backpack capacity and your weight limit for a hike! (Of course, as you use it, your pack gets lighter quite fast, so there is that to be thankful for.) You really learn to appreciate just how important and how precious water is doing desert back-packing.

These days, on my days away from the office, I don’t do any back-packing. On my typical day off, what I do is laundry. I usually do three and sometimes four loads of laundry …

We have an old-fashioned, fairly standard top loading clothes washer, the kind with a vertical-axis drum and a central agitator. I looked this up, so I know that design hasn’t changed much since General Electric introduced such washers in 1947. A typical vertical-axis washer consumes about 45 gallons of water per load, although newer models of the sort have reduced the water usage to less than 40 gallons per load. (See Home Water Works) That means that every day off, when I do my three or four loads of laundry, I use somewhere between 120 to 180 gallons of water. That might be enough water for one person to live in the desert on our back-packing ration for 17 to 26 weeks, between a third and a half of a year. But, in fact, it’s not enough! The World Health Organization estimates that the minimum basic water requirement for a human being is 20 liters (that’s about five gallons) of water every day to maintain basic health and hygiene. (See World Health Organization)

When I think about our Old Testament story this morning and Moses striking the rock at God’s command, providing water for the Hebrews. There must have been a lot of water . . . Earlier in the Book of Exodus we are told that the number of people who left Egypt was “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” (Ex 12:37, NIV) That must mean there were nearly 2,000,000 people wandering around the Sinai desert; they would have need 10,000,000 gallons of water just to let each of them have the minimum WHO amount of five gallons for one day! And I use 180 gallons in one day doing laundry. We take water so much for granted that, as a biblical metaphor for the loving grace of God, it becomes (pardon the pun) rather diluted!

We also treat water differently than did the people of the Bible. Jesus is out walking the countryside, traveling through Samaritan territory where, frankly, he is a foreigner. He comes to the community well at Shechem, a well given to following generations of both Jews and Samaritans by their claimed common ancestor Jacob, a well from which anyone may draw water. Water was necessary for life and when it was present it was available to all who needed it. That’s the way it was in the Nevada desert where I grew up.

Las Vegas in those days drew no water from the Colorado River; all of its water came from artesian springs in the Las Vegas valley. Everyone in town got their water piped into their homes from those springs, at almost no cost. You paid for the pipes, but water usage was unmetered; you used as much as you wanted. Until just two years ago that’s the way it was in Reno, Nevada, where water is drawn from the Tahoe-Truckee watershed. Pretty surprising that in the desert water would be unlimited and practically free of charge: “Use as much as you need!”

Unfortunately, that’s no longer our attitude. You may recall a few years ago when Peter Brabeck of Nestlé got into some political hot water (another pun, forgive me) for suggesting that there no human right to water, that water is simply another foodstuff to be commodified and monetized. His comments kicked off quite a debate, but let’s be honest: Mr. Brabeck was doing nothing more than giving voice to the attitudes of a society were millions, if not billions, of consumers purchase and consume water in little plastic bottles even when they have free-flowing water from the taps in their own homes (water which, frankly, they also pay for).

We simply do not have the same appreciation of and attitude toward water that the people of the Bible had. We wastefully regard it as something to be taken for granted, and yet we charge people for it. They recognized it as scarce but absolutely necessary for life, and so they made it freely available to any who needed it. If we are to understand its importance as a biblical metaphor for the grace of God, we must abandon our attitudes and adopt theirs. We need to relearn the lesson my back-packing buddies and I learned by carrying water with us on those hikes into the desert; we need to know what the biblical peoples knew, that water is precious!

Of course, we do know that! We know that we can’t survive without water . . . waste it as we may, sell it in supermarkets as we do . . . we know at some gut level that this plain, clear liquid is essential to life. So when Moses strikes the rock at Horeb and through the grace of God water gushes out to quench the thirst of those 600,000 men and their wives and their children, when Jesus quenches his thirst and then offers the woman living water that will assuage her thirst for eternity, we get it.

We get it when we sing that great old revival hymn and envision the water mingled with blood flowing from the side of the Rock of Ages, the double cure of sin, cleansing us from sins guilt and power. (Rock of Ages, Episcopal Church Hymnal 1980, #685) We get it when we sing that wonderful Welsh anthem beseeching great Jehovah to guide us through the barren land and “open . . . the crystal fountain from whence the healing stream doth flow.” (Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, Episcopal Church Hymnal 1980, #690) We get it; we know that that is precisely what Paul is talking about when he writes to the Romans about “God’s love . . . poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” so that we may “boast in our sufferings [whatever they may be], knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:4-5, NRSV). We get it!

So, let us pray for the courage and wherewithal to also share it. Even as we get it, let us pray that it will, indeed, “become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14, NRSV); let us pray that it will be for us as Jesus cried out in the streets of Jerusalem on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” (Jn 7:37-38, NRSV) We get it; let us pray for the endurance and character and hope to share it.

Let us pray:

Around the well of your grace, O God,
are those who thirst for friendship and love;
Help us to offer them
the living water of community and connectedness;
Around the well of your life, O God,
are those who thirst for joy and safety;
Help us to offer them
the living water of playfulness and protection;
Around the well of your mercy, O God,
are those who thirst for wholeness and peace;
Help us to offer them
the living water of comfort, healing and welcome;
Around the well of your presence, O God,
are those who thirst for meaning and connection;
Help us to offer them
the living water of service and worship;
May the life we have found in you,
be the gift we share
with all who hunger and thirst,
with all who are outcast and rejected,
with all who have too little or too much,
with all who are wounded or ashamed,
and, through us, may this corner of the world overflow
with your living water.
In Jesus’ Name,
Amen.
(From Sacerdise)

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

Listen to Him! – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, 26 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; St. Matthew 17:1-9. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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transfiguration_wLGHere we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.

Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:15; cf Mk 8:29; Lk 9:20) Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Then they had an argument. Jesus congratulated Peter for his astute answer and then tried to explain to him and the others what that would mean predicting his own death in Jerusalem. Peter, headstrong and outspoken, had contradicted Jesus and vowed that they would never let that happen. That’s when Jesus called him “Satan” and told Peter to stop obstructing him. “Get behind me,” he said. (Mt 16:23) Then he told the rest of them that to be his disciple would mean suffering and probably death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:25)

So nearly a week has passed now and here on the Holy Mountain (traditionally believed to be Mt. Tabor about six miles east of Nazareth) Peter, James, and John behold what John would later refer to as Jesus’ “glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Peter would report that they had been “eyewitnesses of [Christ’s] majesty” when “he received honor and glory from God the Father.” (2 Pet 1:16-17) In some way, Jesus was transfigured, a word that describes a change in outward form or appearance, usually implying exaltation or glorification. Whatever it was that happened, these disciples would come to understand that Peter’s answer a week before, that Jesus was “the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), meant much more than they had thought. In the Judaism of their time, it could refer to anyone of particularly noteworthy piety which the disciples believed their rabbi Jesus to be. (See Jewish Encyclopedia, “Son of God”)

Jesus instructed them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” and at sometime they must have told the story to someone, else we would not find it in the Gospels. And in the story they told not only of Jesus’ change in appearance, but of the voice from Heaven, a voice which spoke even as Peter was talking about building monuments to what was happening. As bible scholar David Lose describes the scene,

There is Peter, falling all over himself looking for something to do, when the voice from heaven literally interrupts him, saying (almost!), “Would you shut up already, and just listen to him!” (Dear Working Preacher, 2011)

I find it both amusing and disappointing that when Peter writes his second letter and describes the voice and what was said, he leaves off those last three words, “Listen to him.” It is so like Peter, and so like the church which he represents, to ignore and even forget those three words that Professor Warren Carter of Brite Divinity School has characterized as a “divine plea.” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) As the priest-blogger who calls himself “the Listening Hermit” says,

[This] is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus. (Listening Hermit, emphasis in original.)

I believe those three words spoken by God to Peter, James, and John, and through them to us, may be the most important divine admonition in the whole of the New Testament, perhaps in all of Holy Scripture. “Listen to him!”

It has occurred to me that there are two ways in which we don’t listen fully to Jesus. One way is that although we may know what it is that he said, we don’t hear it as coming from Jesus the Son of God. The other way is that although we may recognize Jesus as the Lord of creation, we don’t hear his words.

The first way to fail to listen to Jesus is represented by Thomas Jefferson. As you may know, Jefferson was an Episcopalian, a vestryman in his Virginia parish, and very well versed in Scripture. But he was also a free-thinker who really didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, so he edited the New Testament, apparently using a pen knife to cut out and rearrange the portions he liked best to produce a text more to his own taste.

Jefferson produced [an] 84-page volume . . . bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. * * * [He] elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread; he eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” (Smithsonian Magazine, January 2012)

Basically what he did was take out anything that suggested Jesus’ divinity, reducing the Son of God to nothing more than a philosopher. When the words of Jesus are not those of God but merely those of a man, no matter how morally upright and impressive he may be, we do not hear them with the same import; the words of a mere man, no matter how moral and inspiring he may be, simply do not carry the same weight as the words of God. If we take Jefferson’s approach, we do not “listen to him.”

That first way is also represented by someone rather less imposing than Mr. Jefferson, and that is the title character of the Will Farrell movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. If you saw the movie you will remember the Thanksgiving Dinner scene in which Ricky Bobby offers the table grace which he begins with these words, “Dear Lord baby Jesus . . . .” After he is interrupted by his friend Cal, he begins again, “Dear Lord baby Jesus . . . .” at which point his wife Carley interrupts him saying, “You know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him, ‘Baby.’ It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” And Ricky responds, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best.” At that point, the offering of prayer is abandoned and the family begins a discussion of what image of Jesus each prefers. When Ricky does finally get back to the prayer, he addresses our Lord as: “Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers . . . Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent . . . .” (MovieWavs.com)

Obviously that’s completely overblown and played for laughs, but it drives home the point that we cannot hear Jesus’ words, we cannot “listen to him,” when we conceive of him only through our own preferences and inclinations as embodying nothing more than our own likes and dislikes. This is no different from Jefferson hacking away at the New Testament; Jesus as “8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant . . . [although] still omnipotent” (or whatever our preferred, self-made image may be) is no more to be taken seriously than is Jesus the moral philosopher.

The other way we don’t listen to Jesus takes his divinity and authority seriously, but not his actual words. More often than not this sort of not listening takes the form of talking over Jesus or of putting words into his mouth. The “poster child” for this sort of not listening is Archie Bunker, the pater familias from the old television show All in the Family. If you recall the show, you will remember any number of scenes in which Archie respond to a situation by saying, “As the Good Book says . . . .” and then offer some mangled word of wisdom that was like nothing ever written in Scripture. Among my favorite religious Bunkerisms were “Let the one without sin become a rolling stone” and “Patience is a virgin.”

Screenshot 2017-02-25 21.02.08The world is full of Archie Bunkers who will say, “Jesus said this” or “Jesus said that” – who will tell you flat out that Jesus is firmly against abortion (about which he said nothing) or that Jesus doesn’t like gays or lesbians (homosexuality being something else he never mentioned). I recently purchased this t-shirt and, believe, me there are places where and people with whom I would dearly love to wear it. If you are unable to see it clearly or read what says, it bears a familiar portrait of Jesus under which are the words, “I never said that. (signed) Jesus”

We cannot listen to Jesus when we talk over him. We cannot listen to Jesus when we put words into his mouth. We cannot listen to Jesus when we presume to speak for him. “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do,” says writer Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, Anchor Books, New York:1995, page 22) I would suggest that one has also created God in one’s own image when it turns out that God thinks the same things one thinks or says the same things one would say. I read a comment on an internet blog recently in which the writer said he grew up in a church where “people would quote the Scriptures, ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ or ‘God helps those who help themselves.'” Neither of those shibboleths are actually from scripture. The first is from Alexander Pope, and the second from Benjamin Franklin. Again, like Archie Bunker, we cannot listen to Jesus when we put words into his mouth, when Jesus seems to say the things we would say.

The voice on the Holy Mountain addressed both the Thomas Jeffersons or Ricky Bobbies and the Archie Bunkers among us. God’s first words, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” address the former. This Jesus is not just a good philosopher; this Jesus is not just the little infant of Christmas. This Jesus is, as Peter said, the Son of the Living God, fully human and fully divine. Take him seriously. The “divine plea” with which the voice ends, “Listen to him,” addresses the latter, the Archie Bunkers. Take his words seriously.

How can we do that? By reading this, the Holy Bible, on a regular (and I would suggest daily) basis. By studying it. By knowing it. By knowing Jesus’ words contained in it. If we are to take the divine admonition at all seriously, studious reading of Scripture is the only way to do so.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the Bible; read it!

Let us pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect, Proper 28, for the Sunday closest to November 16, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 236)

(Note: The first illustration is Transfiguration by contemporary artist James B. Janknegt, whose work may be purchased at Brilliant Corners Art Farm. The second is from Headline T-Shirts.)

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

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.)

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