That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ezekiel (page 1 of 3)

The Sheep & the Goats – Sermon for Christ the King, RCL Proper 29A

In Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s novel of post-colonial political intrigue in Africa, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), one of the characters (echoing Karl Marx’s famous aphorism about religion) opines:

Charity . . . is the opium of the privileged, from the good citizen who habitually drops ten kobo from his loose change and from a safe height above the bowl of the leper outside the supermarket; to the group of good citizens (like youselfs) who donate water so that some Lazarus in the slums can have a syringe boiled clean as a whistle for his jab and his sores dressed more hygienically than the rest of him; to the Band Aid stars that lit up so dramatically the dark Christmas skies of Ethiopia. While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.

For many years, nearly all of my life as a parish priest, every time the story of Christ the King separating the sheep and the goats, Matthew’s picture of the judgment at the end of time, rolls around, I have read it, understood it, and preached it as Jesus’ admonition to us to be charitable. I have read it as an instruction in favor of individual charity, and so novelist Achebe’s statement, his condemnation of charity as “the opium of the privileged,” pulls me up short and discomfits me.

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

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

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

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

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

I hope I’ve made that clear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standing on Holy Ground (Sermon for Lent 3, RCL Year C) – 28 February 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; and St. Luke 13:1-9. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Moses and the Burning Bush by Marc ChagallMoses is told to remove his sandals as he stands before the Burning Bush: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex 3:5)

Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling. (Anathea Portier-Young, Assoc Prof, Old Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC)

Those of us taking part in the Growing a Rule of Life Lenten study program were asked, in the second week, to consider the “soil” in which our spiritual life is rooted, to think about the people, institutions, situations, and circumstances that form the ground out which the person we are has grown. I didn’t think of it as I was working through that exercise, but perhaps we ought to have thought of metaphorically “removing our sandals” as Moses is instructed to do, of digging our toes into that rich, holy soil of our pasts in which we are planted and from which we draw much of what sustains us.

This is the metaphor that Jesus uses today when he is confronted by some of his followers about the problem known to theologians as “theodicy,” the problem so aptly put in the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s popular book of a few decades ago: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (When Bad Things Happen to Good People)

Let’s back up a few verses and situate ourselves with Jesus and his followers. He has been teaching them about God’s grace (reminding them of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field), about the need for realistic preparation (telling the parable of the foolish rich man who built barns to store his excess not realizing he would soon parish and lose everything, as well as the story of the unfaithful servant caught unawares by the unexpected return of his employer), and about the divisive nature of the gospel (admonishing them that his disciples are likely to find themselves at odds with members of their own families). He has finished this series of teachings with a pointed remark about his listeners’ lack of understanding: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Lk 12:56-57)

Apparently some of them, trying to assert their theological savvy, bring up an incident involving some Galileans who were killed while at worship in the Temple. We don’t actually have any history of this episode, but scholars surmise that these pilgrims were, perhaps, accused of some insurrection and that Pilate had sent troops into the Temple precincts who killed them as they were making their sacrifices thus “mingling” their blood with that of the animals they had offered. Such cruelty and desecration would not have been out of character for Pilate. In any event, these people bring this episode up with Jesus as if to demonstrate their understanding of sin and divine retribution.

Gary Larsen cartoonSome years ago the cartoonist Gary Larson published a cartoon of an old white-bearded judgmental God sitting at his computer terminal watching the live-streaming video of some feckless and unsuspecting sinner walk under a piano suspended from a crane while God’s finger is poised over a button on the keyboard labeled “Smite”. This seems to be the God these folk are describing to Jesus, a bookkeeper god who keeps a running tally of the good things and bad things we may do and then at some arbitrary point pushes the “Smite” button and puts paid to our cosmic account. This is the god of those who ask “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” when something bad happens to them. This is the god of those who say “Everything happens for a reason” when something bad happens to someone else. This is the picture of God that Jesus rejects utterly and completely.

Probably to his listeners’ surprise, Jesus does not congratulate them on their understanding. Instead, he challenges them. “What?” he asks, “Do you think those people cut down in the Temple were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And he ups the ante by mentioning another story that might have been running in the current edition of the local equivalent of the Medina County Gazette, the local tragedy of eighteen people killed with an old and poorly-constructed stone tower fell on them. “What about them?” he asks, “Were they any less righteous than all other Jerusalemites?”

And he answers his own questions, “No, they weren’t. They were no worse than anyone else and, guess what, you’re no better.” If there were bumper stickers in ancient Israel, Jesus might have quoted one that has been popular in our country for several years: in two words it says, sort of, “Stuff happens.” That is Jesus’ message to his listeners, the consoling news that when bad stuff happens, it is not punishment for our sins or for anyone else’s. Of course, that carries with it the corollary that when good stuff happens, it is not a reward for our righteousness. Stuff – good, bad, and indifferent stuff – just happens. And we need to be ready for it . . . that, I think, is the meaning of Jesus’ less-than-consoling follow-up comment: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Is Jesus threatening them or us with a suddenly collapsing roof or homicidal security forces? I don’t think so. Rather, he is encouraging us, as he had in the conversation which led up to this discussion, to prepare, to repent, to get ready, else like those who died in the Temple or under the falling tower, we will die (in the words of the Great Litany) “suddenly and unprepared.” We will die, not because of our sinfulness, but still mired in it, still not ready for whatever it is that will come after. “Stuff happens; be ready for it,” is Jesus’ message.

The consolation Jesus offers is in the parable of the fig tree which he then adds. It’s a parable we are all familiar with and one which, I’m sure, we’ve heard interpreted in the way in which Professor R. Alan Culpepper summarizes the teaching of many Christian interpreters who “have been quick to see allegorical meanings in the parable. The fig tree and the vineyard represent Israel, the owner is God, the gardener is Jesus, and the three years refer to the period of Jesus’ ministry.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon:Nashville, 1995, Vol. IX, p 271) In fact, I found just such an interpretation in the commentary of a Baptist theologian who wrote:

We can surmise that the barren fig tree represents the people of God, including Jesus’ listeners, who are not bearing the fruit of repentance. *** God is frustrated with the lack of repentance that characterizes his people, and he is losing patience with them. Jesus may take on the role of the gardener who urges forbearance and one more chance for change and growth. His presence among them, including his teachings and miraculous works, are like the extra attention the gardener gives to the tree by digging around its base and spreading manure to nourish the soil and the roots. However, even the gardener recognizes time is limited. (Dr. Angela Reed, Asst Prof, Practical Theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX)

That’s certainly the sort of understanding of this parable that I learned in Sunday school, and if we divorce it from its context, if we don’t take into account the conversation that preceded it, that interpretation sort of makes sense. But Jesus’ has just finished telling us that God doesn’t operate that way, that God doesn’t cut down fruitless trees, that God doesn’t crush unproductive vines, that God doesn’t keep accounts and pay back sinfulness or lack of righteousness with calamities as punishment. So, I don’t think that allegorical reading makes any sense.

So who might the owner, the gardener, and the tree be . . . ?

When Lent began, we were reminded of this claim of ownership: “And the devil said to [Jesus], ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.’” (Lk 4:6) Now, granted, the devil is “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44) and we can’t trust a thing he says, but the author of the Second Letter to the Corinthians seems to confirm Satan’s claim when he calls him “the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” (2 Cor 4:4)

There’s your vineyard owner: Satan. It’s Satan, not God, who is the bookkeeper. It was that wily old serpent in the Garden who suggested to Adam and Eve that it wasn’t fair that only God should have the knowledge of good and evil, that they should balance things out by eating the fruit and becoming like God. It was Satan, going to and fro in the world, who argued that Job would answer calamities with curses, balance books between him and God. It is Satan who convinces humankind that the universe should make sense, or . . . if you don’t need that personification of evil, it’s our own human desire for the cosmos to balance on scales of our own creation. We want the world to make sense on our terms. Cancer kills innocent children and we demand that there be a reason for that: it’s not comfortable to face the chaotic and unpredictable reality that “Stuff happens.” Religious fanatics bomb innocent civilians out of their homes and the world is awash in refugees and we want someone to pay the price. Playground bullies grow up to be successful real estate tycoons and powerful politicians, and we want that to make sense.

We long for a universe in which the cosmic spreadsheet tallies up the good and adds up the bad and somehow comes out at least balanced or, preferably, maybe a little bit to the good. It is our own sense of fairness, our own need for equilibrium that owns the garden. But a world of equilibrium, where everything balances according to our human sense of fairness or good bookkeeping would not be the natural world. At best, it would be a mechanistic cosmos, a machine churning out rewards and retributions, a universe fit for automata but not for flesh-and-blood human beings. I was reminded recently of a poem by D.H. Lawrence entitled The Healing:

I am not a mechanism; an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds deep to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
And patience, and a certain difficult repentance,
Long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
Which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

We are all ill from wounds to the soul and we have all sanctified that same mistake: the self-destructive mistake of yearning for and trying to create the balance-sheet world of “fairness.” To paraphrase cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo the possum, “We have met the bookkeeper, and he is us.”

We are the ones who would chop down the fruitless tree and uproot the unproductive vine. The tragedy is that we are also the tree! Standing there with our account books in hand, it is our own lives over which we stand in judgment: “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Everything happens for a reason!” So disappointed are we in the stuff that happens (or doesn’t happen) that we are so often ready to uproot everything, chop it all down, start over in hopes that next time the accounts will show a profit, or at least be in balance. That’s when God the gardener steps in and says to the garden owner in us, “Hold on! Give it another year.” That’s when God says to the tree in us, “Take off your sandals; you are standing on holy ground. Dig your toes into the soil of your life. I’ll add some things here to nourish you: people who love you, a church community that supports you, a natural environment to sustain you. Take root; be nurtured; bear fruit!”

That’s when we realize that, indeed, our souls thirst for God, our flesh faints for God, that we have been like trees in a barren and dry land where there is no water. (Ps 63:1) But, with our shoes removed, our toes digging into the soil of God’s holy place, finding our balance upon God’s holy mountain, we realize that, in the midst of all the stuff that happens, the great I AM, God who is who God is, the Lord, the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, will be with us, not just for a year or three years, but for all generations. (Ex 3:15) “God is faithful, and he will . . . provide the way [for us] to endure.” (1 Cor 10:13) In the midst of all the stuff that happens, God will dig into the soil of our lives, and put nutrients on our roots, and we will bear fruit.

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex 3:5) Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Must you…?” An ecological disappointment – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Friday in the week of Easter 7
Ezekiel 34
18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet?

Remember when your mother was really, really disappointed in something you had done (or were doing) and rather than get righteously angry all she did was shake her head, look sad, and say, “Do you have to . . . . ?” That’s how I picture God when I read this verse. To my mind, this is the strongest language in the whole of Scripture calling us to task for our ecological failures and supporting the church’s environmental ministry.

Fair? You want fair? – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Thursday in the week of Easter 7
Ezeiel 18
25 Yet you say, “The way of the Lord is unfair.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way unfair? Is it not your ways that are unfair?

I recall a law school class in which a fellow student complained of a case’s result, “But that’s not fair!” The professor’s reply was, “Fair? If you want fairness, go to divinity school.” A dozen years later, I was in seminary and a fellow student complained of a story in Scripture, “But that’s not fair!” The professor’s reply was, “Fair? If you want fairness, go to law school.” I laughed until I cried, but couldn’t get the others in the class (especially the professor) to appreciate the humor. ~ I suspect that my law school instructor was suggesting that fairness is justice ameliorated by mercy. In law school we are taught that human laws are like mathematical algorithms; you comb through the facts of your case, find the salient elements, plug them into the law like variables into an algorithm, and out pops your result. For example, common law burglary is legally defined as the breaking and entering of the dwelling place of another in the nighttime for the purposes of committing a crime therein. Was the door standing open so that the accused was able to simply walk in? No “breaking,” hence no burglary. Did the incident happen at high noon? Not “in the nighttime,” hence no burglary. What if you have all the elements but the motivation, for example if the crime anticipated was the taking of bread to feed a starving child, is laudable? Too bad, the elements being present the accused is guilty of burglary, laudable merciful goal notwithstanding. ~ I suspect my seminary instructor was suggesting that fairness is a human concept inapplicable to God. “God works in mysterious ways,” as my grandmother used to say. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord,” according to Isaiah. When our human sense of justice demands retribution and God’s mercy permits an offender to go off scot-free, we say “unfair.” Worse, when an offense seems rather minor but God’s law demands death, we say “unfair.” Our human sense of equity is offended. ~ I’ve been a member of the Bar for over 30 years now, and a priest (as of next month) for 24; I’m still not sure about fairness and justice, and how the concepts apply in both human and divine law. I am sure, though, that when all is said and done I hope to receive neither from the hand of God; I hope I will receive mercy instead.

Prophets on the Streets? – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Wednesday in the week of Easter 7
Ezekiel 11
22 Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.

Ezekiel’s ecstatic (delusional? hallucinatory?) vision of wheels within wheels, creatures with animal and human faces, flying thrones made of gems, and all the rest have always sounded to me like something out of the LSD-laced Sixties. I can remember cinematic and video attempts to portray the visions of “acid” users which the prophet’s descriptions call to mind. What would late 20th and 21st century folk make of someone who claimed the authority of God based on such visions? I suspect we would lock them away in some therapeutic facility or, more likely, let them roam the streets in shabby clothes, pushing a shopping cart filled with their possessions, and sleep in doorways covered in dirty blankets. How many prophets are wandering about (and wondering in) the streets of our modern cities ignored because they are misunderstood?

Gott [ist nicht] mit uns – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Tuesday in the week of Easter 7
Ezekiel 7
15 The sword is outside, pestilence and famine are inside; those in the field die by the sword; those in the city – famine and pestilence devour them.

Ezekiel’s prophecy of the day of doom and violence is disturbing. It should certainly have been disturbing for those to whom it was first spoken, and it should be disturbing for us. I find it personally disturbing because, I confess, I want it to apply to our present times. When he predicts disaster upon those who oppress the poor, upon a ruling class which hoards and squanders resources on their own pleasure to the detriment of others, upon sellers who for their iniquity are doomed . . . . when he predicts that their abundance and their wealth and their pre-eminence will vanish and never return . . . . I want that to apply to our present times! I understand the temptation of the armageddonists who want to read in Scripture a prophecy of retribution soon to be fulfilled – of course, they and I differ on exactly who should receive that retribution, but I can understand why they look at the Bible and read into it the troubles of our own times however wrongly they may perceive them. That’s what disturbs me, my own temptation to use Holy Writ for my own political agenda, to pull Ezeziel’s prophecy out of context and shout, “Look! My politics is God’s politics!” ‘Taint so . . . . My politics, I hope, is rationally and faithfully grounded in my faith, but I must always be careful to remind myself that “Gott [ist nicht] mit uns” when we misuse the Bible in that way.

Multi-Grain Cake – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Monday in the week of Easter 7
Ezekiel 4
9 … take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself.

Ezekiel is given detailed instructions for a prophetic action, an embodied metaphor involving a brick, lying on his side for hundreds of days, and eating a mult-grain “barley cake” baked over human dung. (When he objects to the latter, Yahweh relents and allows him to use cow dung.) It’s all very strange and meant to portray a judgment against both Israel and Judah. What interests me this morning is this mixture of grains. My suspicion is that it is intended to portray a lack of purity (especially since the resulting “barley cake” is to be baked over dung). Purity, especially racial purity, is a constant concern of the Old Testament Hebrews: one finds it in restrictions against intermarriage with other nations or even between the tribes of Israel, in the banning of cloths made of mixed fibers, in the laws regarding what can and cannot be eaten. The nation’s concern with purity is, of course, attributed to their god, but one doubts the validity of that ascription. This morning it occurs to me that the mixture grains and legumes is considerably more healthy than a cake made only of one type of grain. Many years ago (when I was in college) I read Frances Moore Lappe’s book “Diet for a Small Planet” and learned about the improved protein-profile of mixed grains. Purity has its place, I suppose, but so too does combination and diversity. I, for one, would be delighted to eat bread made of “wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt,” although I shouldn’t like to have it baked over dung!

Eat This Scroll ~ From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT Lesson for Friday in the week of Easter 6
Ezekiel 3
1 He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

One of my favorite collects in the Book of Common Prayer is that for Proper 28 which begins, “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them . . . .” I wonder if the idea of “inwardly digesting” the words of Holy Writ came from Ezekiel’s metaphor of eating the scroll. It’s such a great visualization of the way in which the spiritual and moral learnings of our religious tradition should become a part not merely of our intellectual baggage but of our very selves. It reminds one not only of the old shibboleth, “You are what you eat,” but of the wonderful words of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s eucharistic exhortation and prayer of humble access in the first prayer book of 1552, now preserved in the canon of Rite I of the current American prayer book, that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” (BCP 1979, page 336) The image is visceral and compelling, that the words of Scripture, and the very Word of God, should be digested and become “flesh of our flesh,” part of who we are, not simply part of what we believe.

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