That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Exodus (page 2 of 5)

Restoring Wholeness: Sermon for Pentecost 17, RCP Proper 19C (11 September 2016)

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

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 19C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; and St. Luke 15:1-10. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

little-lost-lamb-59319I’d like you all to take your Prayer Books in hand and turn with me to page 855 which is way in the back of the book in the section called The Catechism or Outline of the Faith. At the top of the page are three questions about the mission of the church and the answers to those questions that we as Episcopalians teach. I’m going to read the questions; I’d like you to read the answers:

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

Following those questions are a few more about the specific ministry of the various orders (lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons); I invite you to read those on your own.

For now, just keep in mind that the church’s mission is to restore people to unity with God and one another; we have a word for that – it’s called reconciliation. Remember that the church carries out that mission in prayer, worship, and proclamation, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. And, finally, remember that the church does so not as an institution, but through the individual ministries of its members, not as a collective like the Borg of Star Trek but as individuals with distinctive skills, talents, and interests (as Capt. Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager often instructed the former Borg drone Seven-of-Nine).

As you keep all that in mind, let me tell you a story about myself as a younger man, about thirty years younger. Back then I was not ordained; I was a practicing attorney living in Las Vegas, Nevada, with Evelyn and our children. Patrick was three years of age and Caitlin was one. One day I decided to take my son to the circus; more accurately, I took him to Circus Circus Casino. Now normally one does not take a 3-year-old to a casino, but Circus Circus is (or at least was) a special sort of casino. Housed in a building made to look like a “big top”, it had a mezzanine circling the gaming floor and on this mezzanine was an arcade filled with all the circus and carnival attractions you can name. Over the gaming floor was a trapeze rig on which gymnasts swung and flew with reckless abandon, while on the mezzanine midway barkers sought to attract patrons to shooting galleries, ring-toss games, and the like. My toddler was in awe of the whole thing.

We stopped for a few minutes to watch the trapeze artists and at some point I looked down and discovered that my son was no longer at my side. He was right there – and then he wasn’t! I know that most, if not all parents, have experienced something similar. That moment when your child has gone missing and you begin to experience every emotion known to humankind . . . in spades! Adrenaline courses through not only your body but your soul; you are in a physical and spiritual panic! “Where is my child!?!?” Fear and worry, hope and hopelessness, confusion and sadness . . . it’s all there, all jumbled together. It’s almost impossible to function and yet function you must; you have to find your child!

As it turned out, Patrick was only about eight feet away. The trapeze wasn’t nearly as exciting as the ring-toss game where, if his father had a good eye and a steady hand he might throw a plastic ring around a jelly jar and Patrick would get the gold fish living therein. When, after an eternity of maybe two or three minutes, I finally found him, a whole new rush of mixed emotions set in – relief, anger, joy, love – and I found myself kneeling on the floor holding him by the shoulders and yelling at him, adding to the circus noise of the crowded casino.

A security guard about my age, probably a father himself, had seen my panicked search and started to come over, arriving about the same time that I’d found Patrick. As I was shouting my lecture about not leaving Dad’s side, the guard put his hand on my shoulder . . . and that’s all it took. It calmed me down; the anger fled and the relief, joy, and love flooded in. I hugged my son tightly to me and vowed never to lose him again.

If you’re a parent, perhaps you’ve had a similar experience; as I said, I imagine most if not all parents have done so. Or perhaps you’ve been through that situation where you’ve worked for days on a project at work or school only to have a co-worker or a fellow student do something that renders all your effort of no worth at all. You’ve just lost all that time and work, and the feeling of futility that washes over you is just mind-numbing and drains you of all sense of worth and well-being. If you could, you’d drop-kick that colleague right out the front door. But then, perhaps another workmate, perhaps a supervisor or a teacher, makes a gesture or says a word and you realize that you really have no reason for anger. This is just the way things go sometimes and whatever the other worker or student may have done probably wasn’t done to hurt you; that’s just life. You pick up and you move on.

If you’ve had experiences like these, you know how the shepherd or the woman in Jesus’ parables this morning felt. You know how Yahweh felt at Sinai in our story from the Book of Exodus.

In the latter, Moses has left the Hebrews encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai while he has climbed the mountain to converse with Yahweh; he will eventually be bringing down the Law, the Commandments etched on stone by God’s own self. Moses is on the mountain for forty days and forty nights during which the Hebrews begin to feel themselves abandoned. They probably go through that whole gamut of emotions that a lost child, or a parent looking for a lost child, feels . . . but this story really isn’t about them . . . . Anyway, they feel abandoned because of Moses’ long absence and so they turn to his brother, Aaron the Priest, and say, “Make us a god!”

Aaron complies; Aaron seems like the type who is always easy going and willing to compromise and so he does as they ask, taking their jewelry and gold money and fashioning a god for them, the Golden Calf. This comforts them and so they begin to celebrate with revelry, the Bible tells us; that’s singing and dancing and some things we don’t generally talk about in church.

Meanwhile, Yahweh distracted by his conversation with Moses doesn’t notice his children wandering off. When he looks down, however, he finds them gone and, worse, when he finds them they aren’t just distracted by a ring-toss game and some goldfish. They are worshiping an idol!

Shauna Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, says that we should stop referring to this text as the “golden calf” incident and begin calling it the “God changes God’s mind at the request of Moses” incident. (Hannan) One of the things that strikes me about this incident is how very much Yahweh acts like an angry parent in this episode.

Something I found myself doing early in parenthood was referring to our kids as “my son” or “my daughter” when they were behaving well, but when they misbehaved I would turn to Evelyn and say, “Do something about your son (daughter)!” Back in Chapter 20, Yahweh said to the Hebrews, “I am the Lord your God, [I’m the one] who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (v. 2) but now he says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (32:7) I can really relate to Yahweh’s doing that!

And not only does God sort of disown these folks! Prof. Hannan points out that

God calls them names: stiff-necked people. And worse, God wants to be left alone to wallow in anger and to “consume” the idolaters. If that is not enough, God seems to bribe Moses to leave him alone (32:10). If Moses does so, God will make of him a great nation. Anger, tirade, blame, name-calling, destruction, bribery; this is not God at God’s best. (Hannan)

But Moses steps in like that security guard at Circus Circus, or like the supervisor at work or the teacher at school, and says a calming word. “Turn from your fierce anger,” he says, “Calm down. Remember your promises to Abrahan, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses figuratively lays a hand on Yahweh’s shoulder. Callie Plunket-Brewton, who teaches at the University of North Alabama, says Moses here serves as a model for the Church, bearing witness to God’s faithful compassion and urging reconciliation between God and God’s people, although in this peculiar circumstance it is Yahweh himself to whom Moses is witnessing! (Plunket-Brewton)

Five years ago, on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the September 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, of which today is the 15th anniversary, I was invited to preach at St. Paul’s Church of Ireland Parish in the town of Banagher, County Offaly, Ireland. The lessons for that day were from the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, in which Lady Wisdom cries out to passersby, “How long will you love being naive?” (Prov. 1:22) and from the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel in which Peter tries to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mk 8:33)

I suggested to my Irish audience that there is a parallel between the way the British authorities responded to Ireland’s Easter Uprising of 1916 and the way we in America responded to the actions of Al-Qaeda on September 11. They and we were naive, and when they and we experienced the tragic loss of life and the overwhelming loss of control that those events represented, we did, indeed, set our minds on human things, on revenge and retribution, rather than on divine things, on restoring all people to unity with God and each other, on promoting justice, peace, and love. So Ireland found itself in nearly a century of sectarian strife and eventually the deadly and devastating Troubles of Northern Ireland. And we have found ourselves 15 years later still battling terrorists, still fighting in the Gulf States, still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq in the longest armed combat in our nation’s history, and trying not to get deeply involved in the directly consequent civil war in Syria.

If only someone had raised their voice, if only someone had laid their hands on our nations’ shoulders and said, “Turn from your fierce anger. Calm down. Remember your promises . . . .” Eventually the Irish and the British were able to end their bitter relationship and the Troubles which made Northern Ireland a hell-on-earth; we hope and pray that we will be able to do the same in and with the Gulf States and those who live there.

I said that the reading from Exodus is really not a story about the Hebrews. It is a story about God, about Yahweh, a god who understands those feelings of loss, who knows what it is to feel loss-engendered anger and to want retribution and revenge, and who turns away from those things to seek reconciliation instead.

The parables that Jesus tells in our selection from Luke’s Gospel are also stories about God, about God and loss, and not (as we often think) about us. Though they are often called the parables of the “lost sheep” and the “lost coin,” they ought to be called the parable of the shepherd who went in search of a sheep and of the woman who cleaned her house looking for a coin. That would take the focus off the thing that is loss and put it properly on the one who does the finding.

However, we do have to consider the things that are lost and what that means. Karoline Lewis, who writes a weekly internet column about the lectionary texts entitled Dear Working Preacher, noted this week that “the state of being lost is a rather ambiguous determination in life.” Being lost can mean being misplaced, or misdirected, or misguided, or wasted. “A definition of ‘lost’ seems as broad as its incidences: unable to be found; not knowing where you are or how to get to where you want to go; unable to find your way; no longer held, owned, or possessed.” (Lewis)

On Thursday afternoon I was driving to Brook Park and listening to Terry Gross’s NPR show Fresh Air as she interviewed an author named Steve Silberman about his book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. (Available online) As they talked about the autism spectrum, it occurred to me that there might be a similar continuum of “lostness” that could help us understand these bible lessons. It seems to me that at one end of such a lostness spectrum are the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They are lost by reason of their own decision; they are, as Yahweh said, stiff-necked people and their lostness is the consequence of their own actions, their own impatience, rejection, and alienation. In short, the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai are lost because of sin.

At the other end of the spectrum is the coin, about which we might ask, “How does a coin sin? How does a coin lose itself?” and the simple answer is that it can’t.

And somewhere in the middle of our lostness continuum is the sheep, who wandered away from the flock not out of rejection or alienation, but simply because sheep are rather dull-witted and naive. It has wandered off not through sinful intent, but through silly innocence.

The wonderful thing that these stories demonstrate is that the mechanism of lostness, the reason the Hebrews, the sheep, or the coin are lost, is irrelevant. What these stories show is that the one who feels their absence, the one who is concerned about their lostness, God, is going to find them. Influenced by the intervention of Moses, by his witness to God’s own ministry of reconciliation, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people,” and instead restored Godself to unity with them. The shepherd sought and found the lost sheep and rejoiced. The woman sought and found the lost coin and rejoiced. The emphasis in all these stories is on the finding and the restoration of relationship, on the one committed to that end.

Jennifer Copeland, a Methodist minister, wrote several years ago in The Christian Century magazine:

The lost sheep and the lost coin are more than the prized possessions of their owners; they are also parts of a whole. The sheep belongs to the flock and the coin to the purse; without them the whole is not complete. The search, then, is a quest for restoration and wholeness. In this sense, all of us who are part of God’s creation should be just as anxious as God until the lost are restored and we are made whole again by their presence. (Clean Sweep, The Christian Century, September 7, 2004, p. 20)

Prof. Hannan suggests that this emphasis on wholeness is also the “shocking and profoundly hopeful news” of the Exodus passage, the news “that God sticks with us; God continues to claim us as God’s own despite” everything. (Hannan)

On this 15th anniversary of those terrible events that are summed up in the simple numbers “9-11,” in this 13th year of armed conflict that has flowed from them, let us remember that our mission as a church, our mission as individual members of the church, has that same emphasis of reconciliation and wholeness:

The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

In today’s Daily Office gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus admonishes his hearers, “Be reconciled to your brother or sister.” (Matt 5:24b) I can think of no better way to memorialize all who died September 11, 2001, and in the conflict and violence that has followed.

To close, I would like to offer a prayer for this anniversary co-authored by my friends Deacon Scott Elliott of the Diocese of Chicago and Fr. Bob Winter, a retired priest of this diocese.

Let us pray:

O God of mercy, justice, and love, you have taught us to love even those with whom we are at enmity: As we gather in the Name of your Son to celebrate your goodness and grace, we remember the great evil done in your Name on this day. In your mercy, relieve our hearts of the burden of shock and horror and help us to remember that we, your children, are likewise called to be merciful; help us, as children of the Just One, to respond to your call to be people of justice; help us, as the beneficiaries of your love, to remember your command to love the whole world in your Name. All this we ask in the Name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t make it easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, to “carry the cross”

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

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

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

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

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

According to seminary professor Eric Barreto,

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

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

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

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

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

An Ordinary Olive Grove – Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 24 March 2016

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

A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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

====================
Gethsemane Olive TreesThey have had their dinner during which, predicting his death, Jesus has instructed them to share bread and wine again and again in his memory. Jesus has washed their feet. He has given them his New Commandment, “Love one another.” Now, dinner ended, it is time for a stroll in the garden.

In 2014, when Evelyn and I were privileged to visit Jerusalem and spend some time in the Garden of Gethsemane, what struck me most (and I admit that this entirely pedestrian and not the least bit spiritual) was how very similar the trees there were the olive trees she and I had in our front yard when we lived in Las Vegas! And as I have contemplated our experience with olive trees, it has struck me how appropriate that location was, how illustrative and instructive it is that Jesus prayed amongst olive trees.

The first thing that I can tell you from experience is that olive trees are messy! They are a broad-leafed evergreen, which means they are constantly shedding leaves. The olive leaf is only about an inch or two long and about a half-inch wide. They have a lovely glossy deep green color on top, and a pale silvery green underside. They are tough and very stiff, especially as they dry out. This makes them impossible to rake up! Our life with olive trees was a constant battle with cleaning up leaves that didn’t want to be cleaned up. Furthermore, at the beginning of the growing season, the olive blossoms produce huge amounts of yellow-tan pollen that blows all over everything, and then the blossoms themselves fall off. We had a large in-ground pool in Las Vegas; keeping it clear of olive leaves, olive pollen, and olive blossoms was simply impossible! And, finally, there is the fruit itself. Olives seem to have a hard time holding on to their fruit; it drops about as often as leaves. I guess in commercial groves enough must stay on the tree to make their cultivation financially viable, but our ornamental trees seemed to lose more fruit to the wind than there was left on the tree to harvest.

And isn’t that what life is like. It’s messy! Jesus praying amidst the messy olives of Gethsemane reminds us that Jesus meets us in the messiness of life, that he redeems messy human life. There is not a single person on this earth, and never has been, whose life is not in same way a mess. Every one of us has problems, some worse than others; we all struggle with issues and circumstances. Some of them we share with each other and we get one another’s help, but some of them scared us so badly that we keep them to ourselves. We put on a brave face and we smile through them and meanwhile the messiness eats us up inside . . .

So we go someplace by ourselves and throw ourselves on the ground and pray, “God, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” (Mt 26:39) The truth is that that is the very place where God meets us: in the messiness of life, in the brokenness of life, in the painful chaos that we cannot, on our own, make orderly, and neat, and fixed. If you read the Bible, if you really read the stories of the Old and New Testament, that’s when God shows up in people’s lives; at the worst possible time, when everything is breaking down and going to pot, that’s when God shows up.

That’s what was happening that night in Jesus’ closest companions’ lives. They had “hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21), but after they made that great entry into Jerusalem everything had changed and gone from bad to worse, and at dinner instead of talk of overthrowing the oppressors and taking the throne he had spoken of betrayal and death and sacrifice. Instead of proclaiming a “new world order,” he’d gotten down on his knees and washed away the dirt from their feet. Not in their political dreams of revolution, but in the messiness that they had walked through, in the messiness they had tracked into the Passover Feast, that was where Jesus met them.

The messiness of the olive grove in which Jesus prayed reminds us of that: that God meets us in the messiness of life.

Olives are also long-lived. They aren’t the longest lived of trees. Those are the bristlecone pines (pinus longaeva) of my native state, Nevada. In my college years, as I have mentioned a time or two before, a common pastime of my friend group was backpacking and wilderness camping. During the late spring and summer months, one of our favorite places to go was an area called the Mammoth Lakes region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On the inland side of the Sierras in that area is a subsidiary range on the California-Nevada border called the White Mountains. This is the location of the oldest living tree on earth. The US Forestry Service claims that in the White Mountain forest there is a bristlecone pine that is over 5,070 years of age. They will not identify the particular tree, but they do acknowledge that it is in the southern part of the White Mountain range. That is exactly the area where we used to hike and camp, so it’s possible that I have sat beside that elder-statesman tree. I always marvel at old trees and what they must have witnessed!

I felt that way amongst the old olive trees at Gethsemane. But while the domestic olive tree (olea europea) can live for hundreds of years, they do not live as long as bristlecone pines. None of the trees currently in the Garden of Gethsemane were there at the time of Jesus. The eight oldest olive trees in the grove (which, by the way, what it was and is, a grove not a garden) have been analyzed and the scientists who did so say they date from the early 12th Century. They are genetically identical; they share the same DNA. They appear to have been cultivated from a single parent tree which, in the 12th Century, was reputed to have witnessed events of Holy Thursday night. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, has suggested that that 12th Century cultivation of these eight trees was “a deliberate attempt to pass on a precious heritage for future generations.” (Reuters news article, October 19, 2012)
In any event, Jesus at prayer amongst the long-lived olive trees reminds us of the promise that he will make to his disciples after his Resurrection: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20) Indeed, it is true that God has been and always will be yearning to be with us. As one of our Eucharistic prayers puts, “Again and again, [God] called us to return. Through prophets and sages [God] revealed [God’s] righteous Law.” (Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p 370)

The longevity of the olive trees under whose branches Jesus prayed reminds us of that: that God has always been there, has always wanted to be in relationship with us, and in Jesus has promised to be with us always, longer than the life of the olive, longer than the life of the bristlecone pine, longer than we can imagine.

The third thing we know about olives is that they are nutritious. Dozens of health-protective nutrients have been identified in olives. The high monounsaturated fat content of olives has been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. They are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants. Studies show that they may protect against osteoporosis and cancer. Olives are good food.

Many years ago I read an interview with the abbess of a Zen Buddhist convent in Tokyo. The interview had to do with the convent’s reputation not only for spiritual nourishment, but for very good food as well. Abbess Koei Hoshino said in that interview, “We receive three graces from food. First, we become healthy in mind and body; second, we have the ability to be thankful for all things, and to maintain that state of mind; third, we are able to work for others with our mind and body. We will be able to give to others. Those are the virtues we receive.” (T. King, The Spiral Path, Yes International:1992, p 161) A Christian monastic, Brother Peter Reinhart makes a similar point: “Food is not only a basic human need, it is also a sacred symbol: God in a multitude of forms and bodies. It is a focal point of fellowship and celebration.” (Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe, Running Press:1994, p xxii)

When we end our Eucharist this evening, we will go into the Parish Hall for a short time of fellowship, a simple meal recalling the Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends. We share simple foods: bread, cheese, wine, fruit, olives. We do not presume to call our meal a Passover feast; we give it a different name: The Agape Meal. Agape is one of the Greek words translated into English as “love”, so the meal is sometimes called a “love feast.” Scholars tell us that in early Christian practice a similar meal was nearly always shared whenever the faith community gathered for the Eucharist; the two rituals when hand-in-hand. A core tradition in the early church, the Agape Meal explicitly recalls not only the Last Supper, but all the meals Jesus shared with his friends and disciples, including the post-resurrection meals recounted in the Gospels of Luke and John. “It is a focal point of fellowship and celebration.”

The fruit of the olive trees amongst which Jesus prayed reminds us of that, of the Christian sacramental view in which ordinary things – ordinary food shared with ordinary people – can be instruments of grace embracing us in God’s immediacy, God’s intimacy in our lives.

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus took ordinary food, the bread and wine of a meal, and instituted the Holy Eucharistic. He took an ordinary towel and a basin of water and commanded his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He prayed in an ordinary grove of trees and reminded us that God comes to us in all the messy ordinariness of life, always and forever, and with immediate and intimate grace.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra! Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (7 February 2016)

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

A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2016, to the people of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest preacher at the monthly Solemn Sung Eucharist.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, and St. Luke 9:28-36. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

StarTrekTNGDarmok8Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra!
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra . . . .
[silence]
Shaka, when the walls fell.
[silence]

If you are or were a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation, you know that “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is a line from an episode of that show entitled Darmok in which Jean Luc Picard, the captain of the Enterprise, and Dathon, the captain of an alien vessel, are marooned on a planet called El-Adrel. The alien race are called the Children of Tama or “Tamarians” and their way of communicating is by making metaphorical references to legends, myths, and incidents in their history.

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

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

Both religious fundamentalists and strident anti-religious writers fail to understand that. The latter, the “anti-theists” or “evangelical atheists” (as I call them), are so sure of the truth of their Godless vision of the universe that they seem compelled to try to destroy religious faith, to spread the “truth” of their atheism. When they consider the story of the Transfiguration, they insist that it is a made-up story. They point to the fact that the story combines elements of earlier stories of the Hebrew people and say the Gospel writers were simply inventing something.

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

Another earlier story is that of Moses conversing with God at Sinai, part of which we heard this morning. On that mountain, Moses encountered the Shekinah, the glowing cloud of the Lord’s Presence, not unlike the cloud the Gospel describes on the Mount of the Transfiguration, and Moses’ face also is changed by his experience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christian community has done this over and over again throughout history, whatever the issue of the day may be. Go back about a hundred years; go back to the temperance movement of the early 20th Century. Members of the Church campaigned against “demon rum” on the grounds that Jesus was against drinking. Did Jesus ever say or do anything about alcoholic beverages? Yes! He said to drink them! He turned 180 gallons of water into fine wine. And near the end of his earthly life, he told us the share a glass of wine in his memory. Listen to him!

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

Something happened on the mount of the Transfiguration, something so important that those who later wrote about it and preserved it, analogized it to the important stories of their past. Like the Tamarian captain looking back to Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, they looked back to Moses receiving the law at Sinai, to Daniel seeing a vision of heaven, and with metaphors familiar to their time and place described what Peter, James and John had experienced.

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

“This is my son, my Chosen. Listen to him.”

Amen.

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

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

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

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

Transfiguration and Conversation: Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (7 February 2016)

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

A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, and St. Luke 9:28-43a. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

mttaborchurchAs many of you know, Evie and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the holy places of Palestine summer before last and one of the sites we visited was Mt. Tabor, the traditional “Holy Mountain” on which the Transfiguration is believed to have taken place.

Mt. Tabor is quite tall and quite steep. It is what’s called an inselberg or isolated “island mountain” rising nearly 2,000 feet above the Kfar Tavor plain which it dominates. To get to the top, you have to get out of your large tour coach and board smaller (and quite dilapidated) eight-passenger mini-vans piloted by maniacal Bedouins who drive you at break-neck speeds up a road with several sharp switch-back turns to the Franciscan monastery and church at the summit. (Making that ascent “transfigured” Jesus in my mind’s eye from the rather scrawny figure we often see on crucifixes into a very fit, muscular mountaineer! He and his disciples must have been in really good shape to make that climb!)

The Church of the Transfiguration is one of several in the Holy Land built for the Franciscans by the early 20th Century architect Antonio Barluzzi, who accomplished there what Peter sought to do in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel. As one comes to the entrance of the church, before actually entering the main church, one finds to one’s left a separate chapel dedicated to Moses, and to one’s right, a chapel dedicated to Elijah. There is no direct communication between the chapels and the main church. As much as I admire the architecture of Barluzzi, and think some of his churches in Palestine are wonderful, I think he got this one wrong, because I have come to believe that communication is what the Transfiguration is all about. Before I get to that, however, I need to talk about time and eternity, for they form the backdrop of the communication in question.

I have, a few times in the past several months, shared with you the poetry of an English priest named Malcolm Guite, and want to do so again this morning. This is his sonnet entitled Transfiguration:

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
(Transfiguration: a glimpse of light before Lent)

I love Guite’s first two lines: “For that one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet . . . .”

In the ancient Greek language and in the Greek of the New Testament, there are two words both translated into English as “time.” The first is chronos; this is measurable time with, as one writer has put it, “the future passing through the present and so becoming the past.” This word is the root of such English words as chronic, chronicle, and chronology. Chronos is characterized by the itemized, studied measurement of time. The word is used 54 times in the New Testament. When Luke, for example, uses it, it is in the context of measurable time, as when he says a traveler went away for a “long time” (Lk 20:9). Interestingly, when Satan tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time,” it is this measurable form of time that Luke names (Lk 4:5).

Perhaps picking up on Luke’s implication, Fr. Patrick Reardon, an Orthodox pastor and theologian, has said of chronos:

Because it is made up of some things that don’t exist anymore [the past] and other things that don’t yet exist [the future], [chronos] is a true image of non-existence, a veritable icon of death. In fact, only dead time can be measured. Moreover, chronos is, in this respect, rather ghoulish. Even dead, it continues to feed on us. We may speak of “killing time,” but it invariably ends up killing us. Chronos is, therefore, an image of everlasting death, what the Bible calls the “bottomless pit,” or hell. What is hell but the reign of death in ongoing, unending sequence? (Orthodoxy Today)

The alternative to measurable time, chronos, is kairos, a word used 81 times in the New Testament, almost always to refer to “the proper time,” to signify a chosen moment as when, in Luke’s gospel, the angel of the annunciation tells Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, that events will be “fulfilled in their proper time.” (Lk 1:20) Kairos is “time as a moment, time as occasion, time as qualitative rather than quantitative, time as significant rather than dimensional.” (Reardon) Kairos is always a “now.” Says Fr. Reardon:

Kairos, because it is present, is an icon of eternal life. To experience the now, after all, one must be alive. The dead know nothing of now. Therefore, the now, the kairos, is an icon of the life of heaven. Indeed, eternal life is an everlasting now, in which there is no sequence, no before and after.

It is to kairos, to eternity, that Guite refers, I believe, when he describes the Transfiguration taking place in “one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet.”

In the Transfiguration, eternity irrupts into time. The Lutheran Greek scholar Rob Myallis reminds us that the Greek for “brilliant” “has tucked within it the word ‘astra’ [as in] ‘astronomy.’ Jesus is bright like the stars. Interestingly, the only other place this word appears in the whole Bible is [in the Greek Septuagint translations of] Ezekial and Daniel, perhaps a reminder that transfiguration has an eschatological bent – it is the future breaking in and not simply the past catching up!” (Lectionary Greek)

What Peter and James and John saw on that mountain top, what we are privileged to see with them through the evangelists’ reports, is a vision of the climax of history, of the end of chronos time, and in its place a vision of the eternal now of kairos. Eternity, longed for by prophets, seers, and visionaries, is realized in the Transfiguration of Jesus. Heaven and earth meet in the Transfiguration; past, present, and future meet without dissolving the distinction between them.

Baptist theologian Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible says, “The transfiguration is like a composite of the whole Gospel tradition. In one scene we hear echoes of the baptism of Jesus, Jesus’ passion predictions, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and prophets, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his ascension and future coming.” (Vol. IX, p 207) From his birth and baptism to his ascension and his expected return, Jesus’ Incarnation is summed up in the Transfiguration which allowed his disciples, and allows us, to see him clearly.

The pieces all fall into place in this remarkable moment of kairos when the past, present, and future meet. In that moment, eternity irrupts into time, kairos overwhelms chronos, and past, present, and future are crystal clear. Little wonder the disciples are bedazzled by star-bright brilliance!

And what happens in this moment of eternity is a conversation. Luke, adding to the stories of Matthew and Mark who also report the Transfiguration, is very careful to tell us that this event took place in the context of prayer. In the very first sentence of his tale he says, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Prayer, as we all know, is conversation with God. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, often used the Spanish word conversar to describe prayer. Conversar means “to converse,” “to talk with.” Its simplest meaning in English is sincere talk between persons, the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the other person. It is in this conversational context that the Transfiguration takes place.

It is exemplified by the appearance of Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus discusses his departure. It is often said that they represent the Law and the prophets and their fulfillment in Jesus. Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, however, suggests otherwise. In her footnotes to Luke in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, she says this is unlikely, that instead they probably represent the elect, all the righteous people of God. (p. 120) They are human beings in intimate conversation with God Incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

How often do we imagine prayer to be nothing more than us talking to God? We who are formed in the Anglican tradition of “common prayer,” of saying together words from a book, often fall into this trap. I know a lot of Episcopal clergy who freeze up when asked to pray in public without a Prayer Book close at hand: “I don’t know how to pray extemporaneously; I don’t know the words to say,” they will explain in moments of candor. But if our prayer is truly to be the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the one with whom we are conversing, then our prayer should be at least as much listening as it is speaking. If God were to say nine words to us, what would they be? I suspect they would be the same ones said to Peter and James and John, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

We cannot all have experiences like the Transfiguration in our prayer lives, nor should we expect to do so. But the Transfiguration challenges us to seek something higher in prayer than speaking mere words in the hope that God might possibly somehow listen to us. Our daily prayer should include not so much talking and more listening, more communicating in hopes of hearing, of sensing, of knowing the powerful presence of God in our lives.

And that is where Peter got it wrong when he blurted out, not knowing what he was saying, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That is where Antonio Barluzzi, brilliant architect that he was, got it wrong when he realized Peter’s ambition and built those chapels, separate and apart and not communicating with the nave of the Church of the Transfiguration. If the Transfiguration teaches anything, it is that dramatic experiences of Christ’s glory, glimpses of eternity, instances of kairos come in the dynamic reality of communication. Experiences of the glory of God are only possible if lived together, in community. Nobody, not even Jesus, could shine alone! The Transfiguration shows that it is only when we are together that God’s radiance can light ours and others lives. It is only in the intimacy of holy conversation with God and with one another that we find that “one moment, ‘in and out of time’,” that place “where all moments meet,” where we get “that glimpse of how things really are.”

Amen.

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

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

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

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

Washing Away RFRA: Sermon for Maundy Thursday – 2 April 2015

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

A sermon offered on Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17,31b-35 [all of Ch. 13 was read]. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

Foot WashingEvery year on Maundy Thursday in the Episcopal Church we do this thing: we gather for Eucharist and we hear these lessons – the story of the Passover from the Book of Exodus, St. Paul’s retelling of the institution narrative of the Eucharist, and St. John’s story of the Last Supper in which he focuses not on the meal but on Jesus’ act of humility and service during the meal (probably quite early in the evening) of washing the feet of the others present.

In many parishes the liturgy of this evening will include a formal washing of the feet of selected participants by the presiding priest and others. You may have seen pictures or video of the Pope doing so in the Vatican’s celebration of this feast. We’ve broadened that practice to allow any who wish to follow Jesus’ example to do so during the Agape Feast. There are foot washing stations in the Parish Hall for that purpose.

Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet? Tradition (as I just mentioned) tells us that it was to display and model humility and servanthood. In First Century Palestine, sandals were the most common form of footwear. Walking the dusty desert roads made one’s feet filthy; it was imperative that that be washed before a communal meal. In those days, people didn’t sit on chairs to eat at a table. Instead, they reclined at low tables; feet were very much in evidence. When Jesus rose from the table and began to wash the others’ feet, he was doing the work of the lowliest of servants. The disciples must have been stunned by this act of self-effacement and condescension. The humility expressed by this action with towel and basin foreshadowed Jesus’ ultimate act of humility on the cross.

Although the Lectionary only requires that we read certain verses of Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, I
chose to read the entire chapter because I think tonight we need to remember exactly whose feet Jesus washed. When we read only that he washed “the disciples’ feet” we can gloss over and forget that John makes it very plain that among that group were two who, to our modern minds, clearly did not deserve the honor: Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him. And John also makes it very clear that Jesus knew that both of them would do what they ultimately did.

I think it is important that we note that in particular this year, this Holy Week because for the past several days we have all heard a great deal about something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, something that was passed 25 years ago by the federal government and versions of which have been adopted in several states, most recently next door to us to the west in the State of Indiana. The law recently passed in Indiana, though it bears the same name as the federal act, is not the same as the federal law. During the past 25 years various state and federal courts have interpreted and to some extent limited the application of the federal or similar state laws, and so later-enacted versions have tried to answer and overcome those judicial limitations, Indiana’s (and now a nearly-identical act in Arkansas) being the broadest.

The impetus for these laws, of course, is the growing legal acceptance of marriage equality, the movement to allow same-sex couples to contract civil marriage in the same way as opposite-sex couples. Indeed, Professor Garrett Epps, who teaches Constitutional Law at the University of Baltimore, has said of the Indiana law that it is clear that its purpose is

. . . to be used as a means of excluding gays and same-sex couples from accessing employment, housing, and public accommodations on the same terms as other people. True, there is no actual language that says, All businesses wishing to discriminate in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, please check this “religious objection” box. But, as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” (What Makes Indiana’s Religious-Freedom Law Different?, The Atlantic, March 30, 2015)

And the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son and heir of the Dr. Billy Graham, specifically extolled the Indiana act as “a religious freedom bill that would protect [Christian] business owners who want to decline to provide services for same-sex marriages.” (Facebook posting, March 25, 2015, 10:39 am)

And that is why I think it important that we specifically name Judas and Peter as being among those before whom Jesus knelt in abject humility and washed their feet. Presumably those ‘Christians (about whom Mr. Graham spoke) [want] to live out their faith’ and follow Jesus Christ by refusing to serve those whose actions they find offensive. The problem with that is that Jesus didn’t refuse to serve those whose actions were not only offensive to him; their actions were downright fatal to him! He didn’t refuse to serve them; he knelt in humility and washed their feet!

In answer to Mr. Graham, another Baptist preacher, the Rev. Russ Dean, co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, wrote these words in Baptist News Global:

Mr. Graham opposes same-sex marriage. Maybe he also thinks women should stay home with their kids, and not work outside the home. Some Christians believe this, too. Maybe Indiana should also defend an employer’s right to decline employing young mothers? Whose religious views will we defend? Whose won’t we defend? And where will it stop?

Religious freedom is one of the principles that defines the genius of America – but only a secular state can actually defend that principle for all of its citizens. Otherwise, we might have Indiana defending conservative Christian views and another state defending liberal Christian views; one state defending Sharia law and another writing the codes of Leviticus into the law books in favor of a Jewish majority.

What this means, of course, is that some Christian business owners may have to break the law to defend their religious convictions. (Some Christian business owners did just that when Jim Crow was the law of the land.) But when Christians, or adherents of any religion, go into business, the secular law of the land rules. I have no doubt that in the coming months gay marriage will be the law of the entire land, so some Christian business owners will have a decision to make: uphold the law, or defend their understanding of one religious conviction — and suffer the consequence of breaking that law.

But let the government keep its hands out of religion. When the day comes that Christians have no other way to motivate religious conviction than through legislation, secular government will be the least of our worries. (Why do so many Christians think we need government to prop up Jesus?, Baptist News Global, April 1, 2015)

My purpose tonight is not to debate the merits or demerits of marriage equality; like the Rev. Mr. Dean, I believe that in the not-too-distant future same-sex marriages will be legal throughout the country, but whether that is or is not the case is irrelevant at the moment. What is relevant is how we as followers of Jesus Christ relate to and interact with those who are different from us in whatever way and for whatever reason, so different that, in fact, we find them or their actions offensive. What is relevant is this: do we respond to them with arrogance and condescension, enacting laws that some have gone so far as to call “a license to discriminate,” or do we embrace them in humility and love, kneeling down to wash their feet? Do we try to motivate religious conviction by enacting secular legislation or do we do so the way Jesus did, by example?

“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asked Judas and Peter. “If I . . . have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . . If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Judas failed utterly and committed suicide when he realized it; Peter failed, as well, but was forgiven and eventually taught the church “that God shows no partiality” and that “everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34,43)

We call this day “Maundy Thursday” from an old English word meaning “commandment” because, after demonstrating what it means by washing their feet, Jesus admonished the Twelve, and through them admonishes us: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

May the world know that we are his disciples because, in everything we do, we do not stand in arrogance and condescension, but rather we kneel in humility and love before others, even those who differ greatly from us, even those who offend us.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, United Methodist pastor and poet, recently published this poetic prayer with which I will close:

Lord, what was it like to wash Judas’ feet,
on your knees, with such tender kindness?
An act of love, not irony.

What is it like to so humbly serve me,
to kneel at the feet of my failure and betrayals,
to welcome and wash and soothe me
as if I am your master?
Pure love, without demand.

Give me this love, this gentle humility,
to wash the feet of those who oppose me,
to treat them with tender kindness,
to seek always to be closer to you,
on your knees below us all,
serving in perfect love.
(Found at the poet’s Unfolding Light blog)

Amen.

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

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

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

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

The Ten Predictions: Hear the Music & Dance – Sermon for Lent 3, 2015

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

A sermon offered on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; and John 2:13-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

Dancing FeetToday is the Third Sunday in Lent but, being March 8, it is also the day set aside on the calendar (both that of the Church of England and that of the Episcopal Church) for us to remember a hero of the Anglican tradition, a World War I chaplain named Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. In 1914 he became the vicar of St. Paul’s, Worcester, UK, but a short while later, on the outbreak of war, Kennedy volunteered as a chaplain to the armed forces. He gained the nickname “Woodbine Willie,” for his practice of giving out Woodbine brand cigarettes to soldiers. In 1917, he won the United Kingdom’s Military Cross for bravery at Messines Ridge.

He was, additionally, a poet and an author of Christian social critique. We will sing one of his poems as our offertory presentation hymn this morning. (Not Here for High and Holy Things, Hymn No. 9, in the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982.) Among his works of social criticism is one entitled Democracy and the Dog Collar published in 1921. It is an imagined conversation between a representative of “Organized Religion” and one from “Organized Labour” which was just then getting a strong foothold in Britain. In the introductory chapter, he wrote these words:

God is the great politician. He is out to build a City — the new Jerusalem — and He has to work through subordinates and trust them. We are all His subordinates, some of us knaves and some of us fools (perhaps most of us rum mixtures of the two), but we are all He has got to work with and we all must play our part, we must all be politicians. That’s the essence of Democracy, and with all my heart I believe that the City of God is to be a democracy. It would be tidier, more efficient, and less noisy if it were to be built as an autocracy or an oligarchy; but from what I can make out, God is not out for tidiness (if He is He has scored a failure so far, for this world is about the untidiest place I have ever been in — save us, what a muddle it all is!), or efficiency or silence, God is out for life. That is why He is a democrat, and would rather see a world of fat-headed, blundering, vicious fools that are free than a world of strong, silent super-men that are slaves. If you want to save your soul alive you have got to be a politician — a builder of the City of God — there is no other way. (pp 4-5)

I want neither to endorse nor to debate Studdert-Kennedy’s politics, but I do want to say that I think he is absolutely correct when he says that every Christian must be a politician and, a little later in the book, when he writes, “We cannot have any truck with this travesty of Christ’s truth which would bid His servants save their souls and leave their brothers to be damned. Christianity has to do with politics, in fact it is politics — the politics of God.” (p. 6) What I understand him to mean by that is that Christianity, indeed religion in general, is all relationship. The term “politics” at its most basic means “the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society.”

Today, we have had a reading from Exodus in which we heard that familiar list of ten items popularly and traditionally known to Christians as “The Ten Commandments.” To Jews, however, they are known as Aseret ha-Dibrot, a phrase more accurately translated as “the Ten Sayings,” or “the Ten Statements,” or “the Ten Declarations,” or “the Ten Words,” but not as “the Ten Commandments,” which would be Aseret ha-Mitzvot. These Ten Declarations form the very basic politics, the basic societal relationships of the Judaism from which our faith sprung and which our Lord famously summarized in this manner:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Mt 22:37-40, quoted in The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 319)

Now, traditionally these “Commandments” are considered to be what is called “apodictic law,” which means that which is “absolutely certain or necessary.” The Decalogue (another name for the Ten Commandments, a Greek word meaning Ten Laws) is seen to be the basic foundation upon which was built the more detailed instructions of the whole Mosaic Law that follows in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Those 613 detailed mandates, or mitzvot, are the Law Jesus referred to as “hanging” on the two Great Commandments.

Tom Long, a Presbyterian seminary professor, once wrote of the Decalogue:

In the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging “thou shalt not.” For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society. (Dancing the Decalogue)

But as I was studying the Scriptures for this sermon, I learned two things about these passage from Exodus: one that I had known and forgotten, and one I’d never known before.

The former is that the articles of the Decalogue are numbered differently among the religious traditions. Jews number the Ten Sayings differently from Christians and – among Christians – Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Lutherans number them differently than do Anglicans, the Reformed Churches, and other Protestants. That really is a minor matter inasmuch as we all eventually get to the same bottom line, except for this – Jews separately enumerate the first several words of what we historically call “the first commandment” and make it an introductory comment to the entire set.

Take a look at page 350 in The Book of Common Prayer 1979. This is the contemporary English version of the Decalogue (there is a Jacobean English version beginning on page 317). Notice the way it begins: “Hear the commandments of God to his people:” and then follows what we have always taken to be the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.” In the Jewish understanding, that first sentence is not part of the first commandment. And, truly, it is not a commandment at all; rather, it is the statement of a relationship out of which all that follows flows.

God first establishes God’s relationship with the People; what follows is a description of the behavior of a free people, people whom God has freed “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” As Tom Long puts it, “Understanding the Decalogue as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that they are prefaced not by an order – ‘Here are ten rules. Obey them!’ – but instead by a breathtaking announcement of freedom.” These people may be, as Studdert-Kennedy remarked, “fat-headed, blundering, vicious fools,” but they are free and in their freedom, if they are in this right relationship with God, this is how they will behave: they will worship God and no other; they will keep the Sabbath; they will honor their elders; they will not commit murder or adultery; and so forth.

The second thing I learned is that at least some, if not all, of the so-called commandments are stated in a Hebraic verb form called “the infinitive absolute.” There’s nothing quite like it in English grammar. It is a verb form that, while it can be used for mandates and instructions, is most often used for prophecies!

Putting these two learnings together, I have come to the conclusion that these “ten words” are better thought of, not as “ten commandments,” but as the “ten predictions.” It’s not a case of “because I am your God you will do this” but rather “because I am your God you will do this.” God does not give the law as a means to salvation; the “ten words” are not conditions precedent, which is what commandments are: “If you do these things, then God will be your God” (and if you don’t . . . well, then, watch out!) They are, rather, statements of what happens simply because God is our God; they are predictions of what naturally follows from that relationship. The relationship comes first and this manner of life is the outcome. Lutheran theologian James Arne Nestingen has said that the Ten Commandments are “gifts of redemption, a gracious bequeathal given in the course of release from bondage,” (Word & World) or as my friend and colleague Peggy Blanchard said, “The Decalogue is not a prescription but a description.”

If the ten articles of Exodus 20 are “laws,” they are more like the laws of nature than like statutes. They are statements of the uniformities and regularities in the world, descriptions of the way the world is, principles which govern the phenomena of existence. Add two to two and you get four. Drop an object from a tall building and it will accelerate toward the ground at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared.

Our saint-of-the-day, Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, in another of his books wrote:

A man cannot act right unless he believes right, because men always act according to their belief. A man may not act according to the belief he professes, but he will always act according to the belief he really holds — he cannot help it. * * * A man must always act upon his neighbour according to his master-passion — his real belief. He must always love his neighbour as he loves his God. That your love of your neighbour depends for its force on the love of your God is not a Christian dogma but a law of social life, as the law of gravity is of natural life, just as universal and just as inevitable. (Lies!, 1919, pp. 109, 111)

Love God, love your neighbor, “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Be in a right relationship with your God and you will behave as described in Exodus 20; it is “a law of social life, as the law of gravity is of natural life, just as universal and just as inevitable.”

To quote Tom Long one last time, “The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.” Remember what the Psalmist wrote:

The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent.
The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:7-8, BCP Version)

Be in that right relationship with God and you will be revived, you will be given wisdom, your heart will rejoice, you will catch the wind of God’s Spirit and soar; hear the music of the good news and you will dance. Amen.

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

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

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

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

We Do Not Have The Privilege – Sermon for Advent 1 – November 30, 2014

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

On the First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 1B, were Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; and Mark 13:24-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

Racism Is So YesterdayWhen Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah and that he was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael’s immediate response was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Obviously Nazareth had a reputation, and not a good one. I often wonder if, as Jesus was making his way through the Holy Land, especially early in his ministry when he wasn’t well-known, people would ask him, “What was it like growing up in Nazareth?”

All of my life, whenever I tell my story to folks, they have asked, “What was it like growing up in Las Vegas?” And I have always answered, “Like growing up anywhere else. Las Vegas, when you get off the Strip, was just like anywhere else. It was hometown America.” Las Vegas at the time was smaller than Medina is today; the population of Las Vegas in the early 1950s was only about 25,000 people.

Although there was an airport by then, visitors to Las Vegas usually either drove across the desert or rode the Union Pacific Railroad. The line from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles went through Las Vegas; the railroad ran through town north-to-south and the business and hotel district now know as “the Las Vegas Strip” grew up parallel to, and east of, the tracks.

That’s the side of the tracks I grew up on; on the other side, “the Westside,” was where black people lived. Whites didn’t go there, and Negroes (as black Americans were then politely called) didn’t come to the east side of the tracks except to work, mostly in low paying service jobs as janitors, maids, cooks, porters, and doormen. Yes, indeed, the Las Vegas of my childhood was hometown America. Just like any other town in this country was, and just like many still are. Need I mention the St. Louis metropolitan area and its suburb of Ferguson? Need I mention the Cleveland metroplex and the westside neighborhood near the Cuddell Recreation Center? Need I mention, even, Medina itself?

Yes, I think I need to. A few years ago, our nation elected a black man to be president and many proclaimed that we now lived in a “post-racial” world, that racism is “so yesterday.” Throughout the whole of Barack Obama’s presidency, however, the rhetoric and behavior of many have demonstrated just how wrong that judgment was. We do not live in a “post-racial” society. The shooting deaths of black men and boys, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, John Crawford in Beavercreek, OH, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH, all by white police officers, and the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, a black man in the custody of white officers of the New York Police Dept., together with the perceived failures of the justice system and the social unrest which have followed, have demonstrated just how wrong that judgment was. We do not live in a “post-racial” world.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Elsewhere, ISIS in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan murder those who differ from themselves, Jewish nationalists in Israel pass laws denying basic human rights to Palestinian Arabs, and Buddhist monks in Myanmar threaten to kill Muslim children, demonstrating just how wrong that judgment continues to be not only in our own country but throughout the world. We do not live in a “post-racial” world. Racism is not “yesterday;” it is today!

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Meanwhile, epidemics such as the ebola crisis in Africa have caused social upheaval, ethnic conflict, and calls for borders to be closed and walls to be raised between nations. Really quite silly notions about vaccines have led people to refuse them and diseases once thought nearly eradicated are being seen again, such as polio and bubonic plague.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Weather extremes are being felt throughout the world and sea levels are rising threatening populations in low-lying areas in the South Pacific Islands, southeast Asia, various parts of Africa and South America, and even in our own country, and these things seem to be the result of our poor stewardship of the earth’s environment. At least, that’s what the great majority of the world’s climate scientists tell us.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Jesus said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines . . . Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death . . . There will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation . . . [and] after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mk 13:8,12,19,24-25)) Therefore, “Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Are we seeing the end-times? Are these things that are happening – the racial and ethnic conflicts, the wars, the epidemics, the weather crises, the floods – are these those fig-tree signs that “when [we] see these things taking place, [we] know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates”? (Mk 8:29) I don’t think so, but who’s to say? As Jesus made quite clear, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (v. 32)

So I don’t know if these are the signs of the end, but I do know this, that these are the signs of things that displease God. And when God is displeased, watch out! When God is displeased, God “tear[s] open the heavens and . . . the mountains . . . quake at [God’s] presence.” (Is 64:1) It is when God is angry that stars fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens are shaken. We do not want to face an angry God!

And yet we cannot dismiss God’s indignation. We would like to. We would like to focus only on the loving God proclaimed by Jesus, not that angry God that Isaiah and the Psalmist remind us of. We would like to, but we can’t because when we blind ourselves to the potential of God’s anger, we blind ourselves to the things that provoke God’s anger. We fail to see (and thus to deal with) the racism which is endemic our society; we fail to see (and thus to deal with) our poor stewardship of creation; we fail to see (and thus to deal with) the illnesses and diseases which are pandemic among populations less fortunate than ourselves.

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want to talk about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, the shooting of John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, or the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City. I don’t want to talk about the response of the justice system to those deaths and whether or not it functioned properly in not punishing, in some way, the police officers responsible for those deaths. I don’t want to.

In the same way, I don’t want to remember that when my father’s client and friend Sammy Davis, Jr., came to Las Vegas to perform in the Strip casino showrooms he was not allowed to enter those casinos through the front door but had to come in through the service entrance. I don’t want to remember that when Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington played in Las Vegas they were not allowed to stay in the hotels that hired them but had to put up at boarding houses on the Westside. I don’t want to remember that when Cab Calloway played at a casino bar in Las Vegas in 1954 he was refused a drink at that same bar during a break in the performance.

I don’t want to talk about or remember these things and, I suspect, neither would most people in this church this morning. Frankly, a large fraction of the white society in which we live would, likewise, prefer that we not do so. We believe that we enjoy the privilege of not talking about, remembering, or doing anything about those things, that those things really don’t affect us, that they really aren’t any of our business. The families of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and the communities within which they lived, however, do not have that privilege. Black performers who succeeded Davis, Armstrong, Ellington, and Calloway, who now can enter the casino through the front door, stay in the hotel, and drink at the bar, who are the beneficiaries of the groundbreaking they did, do not have that privilege.

And, truth be told, neither do we. If we do not remember and talk about these things, we will have failed to see and deal with the racism, the conflict, the poor stewardship of humankind that is all around us; we will have failed to follow Jesus’ admonition in today’s Gospel to “keep alert” and to “keep awake.” We will have failed to follow the second great commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We will have failed to heed to word of God recorded in the law of Moses: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him” (Ex 22:21); “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34); “You shall not pervert the justice due to [anyone]” (Deut. 24:17). We simply are not allowed to think of or to treat any human being differently from ourselves. We do not have the privilege not to talk about, not to remember, not to do something about the injustices done to others, whatever their race or color, whatever their religion, whatever their sex or sexual orientation.

Nathanael asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The world today is asking, “Can anything good come out of Ferguson? Out of Beavercreek? Out of Cleveland? Can anything good come of the shooting deaths of young black men by white police officers?” I pray that it can: we have had enough of the bread of tears; we have had enough of the derision of neighbors; we have had enough of the laughter of scorn. Some good must come from these things and it must start with our realization that we do not have the privilege to stand by and think these things have nothing to do with us.

We do not have the privilege to think of or to treat anyone differently from ourselves. We do not have the privilege not to talk about, not to remember, not to do something about the injustices done to others. If we do that, we fail to keep alert and to keep awake, and we risk the anger of the God who tears open the heavens and makes the mountains quake.

Are the things we are seeing signs of the end-times? No, I don’t think so. Are they signs to which we need to pay attention? Things we need to do something about? Oh, yes! Very much so!

“O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember [our] iniquity forever.” (Is 64:8-9) “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80:18)

Amen.

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

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

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

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

The Dead Matter – From the Daily Office – July 25, 2014

From the Gospel according to Matthew:

After conferring together, [the chief priests used the silver Judas returned] to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 27:7-8 (NRSV) – July 25, 2014)

Shrouded CorpsesUntil our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary my wife had never traveled overseas. She’d been to Canada, but that was it for foreign travel for her. For our anniversary we went to Ireland, something we’d talked about doing for many years. In fact, it had been my plan for our honeymoon, but that (obviously) didn’t happen.

Since then, we’ve returned to Ireland and we’ve traveled in Israel and Palestine. Each time we’ve gone overseas (and I’ve made two other trips by myself), she has insisted that we up-date our wills, temporarily transfer assets to our children, and make other death preparations before leaving. My wife is afraid of dying in a foreign land and (I suppose) of being buried in a potter’s field.

I’m not. I don’t care where I die and I don’t care where I am buried.

I wonder if that difference between us is because there is a “family plot” where she knows her parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are buried, whereas my deceased family members are just about everywhere.

My father, the first of my nuclear family to die, is buried in Las Vegas. My brother, the next, is buried in his hometown of Winfield, Kansas (his wish and that of his second wife, another Winfield native). My mother and stepfather were cremated and their ashes deposited in a church memory garden in southern California. My mother’s only brother, the only extended family member whose grave I know of (because I handled the arrangements), is buried in Winfield like my brother, but in a different cemetery. I have no idea where my grandparents are buried; my father’s parents are somewhere in Denver, Colorado, and my mother’s somewhere in or near Long Beach, California, I think. Visiting family graves for Decoration Day would be an expensive road trip!

There’s none of these places special enough to me — except maybe my hometown, Las Vegas — that I would want to be buried there, and even Las Vegas is without significant meaning to anyone else in my family. (Our daughter was born there, but she considers Kansas her “home place.”) So I bury me anywhere, even in a foreign country; I don’t care.

In any event, I wonder about those foreigners in that field. Like the man whose betrayal money purchased their graves, their burials would be attended to by non-family. Perhaps, like his, their burials would be hastily arranged and the rituals only partially attended to. Like him, they would be buried in tombs not their own. But did they care? I think not.

Recently, a group of us clergy were talking about funerals and funeral planning. One of our group pointed us to a wonderful essay by undertaker and poet Thomas Lynch entitled Tract: I commend it to you, as well. Interviewed about that piece by Frontline, Lynch said:

[Q] Will you care after your death if they take care of you in death as you did your dad? Will that matter?

[A] Whether or not my family is involved with the care of my body, that’s their business. I’ll be the dead guy, and the dead say nothing. This is a sign to me that they don’t care, that heaven is not having to worry about these things, so I’m determined not to worry about them either.

But, you know, we used to say to my father, who directed a fair few funerals, “What do you want done with you when you’re dead?” and he’d say, “Well, you’ll know what to do.” I think mine will know what to do, too, not because I’ve said, “Do this or that,” but because they have seen life as I have seen it, and they sort of know me and I know them. And so they’ll know what to do.

[Q] And yet you write that beautiful essay Tract in your book, The Undertaking, which is in some way a map, is it?

[A] Well, read it closely, and what I’ve written is that as long as they deal with it, I don’t care what they do. I do not care but that they do it honorably. That they do it for themselves I think is very important. So yeah, I enjoyed writing that piece. And I do think that while the dead don’t care, the dead matter. The dead matter to the living. And at least so far as my experience is concerned, the living who bear those burdens honorably are better off for it.

(Frontline interview)

“The dead don’t care, the dead matter.” I don’t care and when I’m dead I’ll care even less. I really don’t think my scattered family members cared. Those foreigners buried in the potter’s field, once they were dead, didn’t care. But they did and do matter. They matter most to the One whom they were like, the one who had no hole, no next, no place to lay his head (Lk 9:58), not even a grave of his own, the One who like them (and like Moses before them) was “a stranger in a strange land.” (Ex 2:22, KJV)

“The dead don’t care, the dead matter.” And they matter to the One who has gone that way before.

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

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

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

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

One Is Never Too Old – From the Daily Office – June 24, 2014

From the Book of Numbers:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households — everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, “The earth will swallow us too!” And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 16:32-35 (NRSV) – June 24, 2014)

Chinese Hair QueueBelieve it or not, I’ve actually had the last of these selected verses quoted to me as part of an argument against the use of incense in the church. I was in a conversation with someone about our use of incense in “high church” liturgies, being told (among other things) that incense was fine when we were younger and acting like hippies but now that we are older and mature we should put aside such childish ways, when this chestnut was pulled out. Since I’ve studied the Old Testament (as most clergy have) I knew my critic was misusing the text.

Such a reading is hard to square with other parts of Scripture in which the use of incense as an honorable offering to God is approved. For example, speaking through the Prophet Malachi God says, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal 1:11)

It’s even harder to harmonize with those places were the burning of incense in religious ceremonies is not only approved, it is commanded. For instance, in the Book of Exodus Moses is commanded to make an altar for incense upon which Aaron is to burn incense two times every day: “Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations.” (Ex 30:7-8)

And more than that, that reading doesn’t accord with the verse’s own context, and that’s what I’m thinking about today. The story of Korah’s and his followers’ destruction at the hand of an angry God has nothing to do with incense. The burning of incense although it figures prominently in the story is really incidental to the story; Korah and his tribe were destroyed because of their pride, because they sought to usurp the priesthood of Aaron which was not and never would be theirs. In the story, Aaron also burns incense to the Lord and his offering is accepted; further, shortly after this incident Aaron stops a plague among the people through the burning of incense. Clearly, incense is perfectly acceptable to God.

So to say that “fire coming out from the Lord and consuming the two hundred and fifty men offering incense” is an indictment of the use of incense in worship is proof-texting of the worst type, inconsistent with other scriptural references and inconsistent with its own context.

I recall a joke (or maybe it’s a true story) about a preacher who abhorred the traditional Chinese men’s hairstyle holding forth in California in the late 1800s urging Chinese immigrants to abandon the queue or “topknot.” All Chinese men, but particularly those who had converted to Christianity, he argued, should cut off their queues because Christ himself had uttered the words, “Topknot go down!” And he was correct, sort of. What Jesus had said was, “Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house . . . .” (Mt. 24:17) Picking and choosing the Bible’s words out of context is not a new phenomenon.

The only way to combat proof-texting is knowing the Scriptures oneself. Jesus is our model in this regard. Tempted by the devil after his baptism, he was able to answer each of Satan’s references to Scripture with counter-references of his own. (Matt. 4) If we are to respond to misuses of Scripture, we must know it ourselves.

Now, I don’t agree with my incense critic about old age and maturity being a reason to give up incense, but I suppose there might be something to that. Perhaps given the respiratory problems some older folks have, one can be too old for incense. However, one is never too old for Christian education and Bible study!

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

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

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

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

Older posts Newer posts