That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First Corinthians (page 2 of 8)

Truth, Justice, and the American Way: A Sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A, 29 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; and St. Matthew 5:1-12. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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supermannationaloriginsHave you ever had the experience of a long-forgotten memory rushing back upon you and just knocking you for a loop? Something like an odor or a song or a picture brings it back and the details hit you like a sledge hammer. That happened to me on Monday evening.

We were watching a biography of Rachel Carson, author of the book Silent Spring, on PBS. It was very well done. The program opened a floodgate of memory of my childhood; what did it was a segment in the show in which film of atomic bomb explosions was shown. I remembered two occasions when my father and I, with others, went out into the Nevada desert to see the mushroom clouds. The first was in the summer of 1957 when I was 4-1/2 years old: my dad, my brother, and I went to the test site at the invitation of a physics professor colleague of my father (my dad was an accountant, but he also taught math and accountancy at what was then called Nevada Southern University). The second in December of that same year, after I had started kindergarten and my class, together with several others from John S. Park Elementary School in Las Vegas, went to the test site on field trip and my father, who was self-employed and could take time to do those things, went along as a chaperone.

All the details of those excursions into the Nevada desert, and seeing those glowing clouds rise miles and miles away to the northeast from where we were watching, and my father’s reaction to them, all came rushing back.

After both of those experiences, I can remember my dad for a few weeks being what my grandmother would have called “cranky.” Things around our house got chaotic. The person who was supposed to be the adult in charge got mean and spiteful, and did things that were erratic and made no sense. My dad, the person who was supposed to be the adult in charge, just seemed to be angry and crazy all the time.

I suspect that what he was was drunk, and I suspect he was drunk because he was scared to death of nuclear war. My dad was a decorated combat veteran of World War II who had been badly wounded in the Battle of the Bulge; he’d been awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for heroism. He was in constant pain during the short period of my life that he was a part of it. I know now, but didn’t know then, that he was an alcoholic who self-medicated his pain and his fear with booze. In March 1958, he drove away from our house after a drunken argument with my mother and never came back; he killed himself in a single-vehicle roll-over accident on the highway between Las Vegas and Kingman, Arizona. The family guesswork is that he was trying to drive back to my grandparents’ home, his childhood home, in Kansas.

Why do I share those memories with you this morning? I suppose it is because whenever I read the words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . . .” (Mt 5:1-2) what I envision is something very like the desert hillside from which we viewed those atomic bomb blasts. And when I read St. Paul writing to the Corinthians that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning [he] will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19) and that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25), it is those mushroom clouds that metaphorically come to mind.

But I have another childhood memory which is also excited by these lessons, and that is sitting down in front of our small, black-and-white television every week and hearing these words:

Yes, it’s Superman . . . strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman . . . who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!

I couldn’t help but remember that famous opening sequence each time I sat down this week to consider the words of the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Truth, justice, kindness, humility . . . Biblical values that all seem to be jumbled together with the American way in my Superman-TV-program-educated mind, or at least I feel like they should be . . . and I am too often confronted with the reality that they are not.

This week, one thing I noticed particularly about the Superman intro that I’d not considered before is that it isn’t in the Superman persona, that incredible being who could stand right next to an exploding atomic bomb without being injured, that the alien immigrant Kal-El “fights [the] never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” No, it is in the guise of “mild-mannered reporter” Clark Kent that the refugee from the destroyed planet Krypton does so! It is the journalist character, not the superhero, “who speaks the truth from his heart” and upon whose tongue there is no guile!

So I have these two memories that rush into my consciousness when I read and consider these lessons, images of nuclear explosions and memories of my angry, alcoholic father, mythic superheroes, and “mild-mannered reporters” fighting “never-ending battles.” They color my understanding of these Scriptures and, yet, I must admit that they also clash with them for there is nothing here about war, about anger, about fighting, about battles. If anything, they seem to be quite the opposite!

The beatitudes, these statements of blessedness which we find here in Matthew and in a rather different form in Luke’s gospel, for example, raise for us the question, “Are they a programmatic outline for the church’s social justice ministry or are they simply words of comfort and encouragement for Jesus’ down-trodden original audience?” In his essay on Luke’s gospel, Southern Baptist scholar Robert H. Stein argues for the second; he writes:

Are the beatitudes to be interpreted as requirements for entering God’s kingdom or as eschatological pronouncements of blessing upon believers? In other words, are the beatitudes an evangelistic exhortation for salvation or pastoral words of comfort and encouragement, a kind of congratulation, to those who already possess faith? For several reasons they should be understood as the latter. (Stein, Robert H., Luke, The New American Commentary, Vol 24, B&H Publishing: Nashville, 1991, page 199)

On the other hand, Lutheran seminary professor Karoline Lewis takes the opposite position. “The Beatitudes,” she writes, “are not just blessings but a call to action.”

[T]he Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is. Perhaps not the Jesus you want. Perhaps the Jesus who likely rubs you the wrong way. Perhaps the Jesus that tells you the truth about yourself. The Jesus who reminds you, at the most inconvenient times and places, what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about.
The Beatitudes are a call to action to be church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest when the world tries desperately to silence those who speak the truth . . . . (Lewis, Righteous Living)

I wonder if they might be neither . . . or, perhaps, both, in the same way that nuclear energy can be both destructive weapon in the form of an atomic bomb and source of constructive power as in an electrical power plant, or in the same way that Kal-El can be both the mighty indestructible “man of steel” and the mild-mannered journalistic champion of truth. Perhaps the beatitudes are nothing more nor less than Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to recognize blessedness. “Not how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but rather to recognize who is already blessed by God.” (Lose, Recognizing Blessing) Their blessings are spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and persecution.

Several years ago, a Disciples of Christ pastor and professor named Lance Pape wondered, “To which of these blessings do our national leaders refer when they insist that ‘God Bless[es] America!'” And he answered his own question:

To none of these, for our national creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God. And so we live by those other beatitudes:

  • Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
  • Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
  • Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.

If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves. (Pape, Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12)

In the world we have made for ourselves we see the bombs, the anger, the war, and we look for the “man of steel” to save us, to fly in singing “Here I come to save the day” (although I do know that’s a different superhero) and then taking us away to some kingdom of heaven in the sky. We know better, though, don’t we?

When Jesus teaches us to recognize blessedness in the Beatitudes, he teaches us to “recognize that God’s kingdom isn’t a place far away but is found whenever we honor each other as God’s children, bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and meet each other’s needs.” (Lose, Op. Cit.) He teaches us, as the Prophet Micah taught the ancient Israelites, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). He teaches us, as the Psalmist taught in the liturgy of the ancient Temple, to lead a blameless life, to do what is right, to speak the truth from his heart, to have no guile upon our tongues, to do no evil to our friend, to heap no contempt upon our neighbors, and to reject what is wicked when we see it (Ps 15). That is the Christian way. And child of the atomic 1950s and devotee of television’s Superman that I am, I still believe it is, or at least it should be, the American way.

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

Unity, Love, Prayer: Homily for a Celebration of New Ministry – November 18, 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Massillon, Ohio, at the Celebration of New Ministry (Installation) of the Rev. George Baum as their rector.

(The lessons for the service were Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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prayercircleGood evening! For those who don’t know me, I am Eric Funston, a priest of the Episcopal Church and rector of St. Paul’s Parish in Medina, Ohio. For those of you who don’t know why I’m preaching here tonight . . . I wish I could tell you! Usually these ordination or installation homily gigs go to someone with whom the new clergy person has had a, shall we say, formative relationship: a former pastor, a seminary professor or a ministry supervisor, an elder minister under whom the new pastor served a curacy, someone responsible for the priestly formation of the new rector. But that doesn’t describe me . . . I am not responsible for George Baum ~ and that is very probably a good thing!

Seriously, I’m here simply because George and I are friends and colleagues, and he asked me to preach, which I am honored and pleased to do.

An ecumenical friend of mine was asked to do the same, to preach at the installation of a new pastor of his denomination with whom he had not had a mentor relationship, so he sent the soon-to-be-plugged-in clergyman an email asking what sort of church he hoped he’d be joining. The answer was, “I would love to come into a church that was unified, where everyone loved each other, and they all prayed for the pastor.” When my friend shared that reply with our ministerial alliance, we all started laughing. Not because it’s funny, but because it’s so universally true. Every pastor would love to have a parish characterized by unity, love, and prayer.

I didn’t ask George what he might be looking for in a new pastoral call, nor what he might be hoping for from this installation sermon; frankly, I was sort of afraid to do so! Besides, when I even hinted at what I might say tonight he started to (and I quote from his Facebook page) “make a few phone calls for backup preachers.” Nonetheless, I suspect that if I had asked him, he might have said pretty much the same thing, that he would love to have St. Timothy’s Parish be a church that is unified, where everyone loves one another, and where the members pray for the rector.

So, about that first item, unity:

George selected a well-known passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus as our Epistle Lesson tonight. In the three verses which come before the opening sentence of our reading, St. Paul wrote these words which, I think, will also be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)

These verses summarize the primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians, which is the church’s call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) After making this appeal, Paul launches, as we heard, into a celebration of the church’s diversity: some members are apostles, some are prophets, some are evangelists, some are pastors, some are teachers, and so on. He has done this before, as when he reminded the Corinthians that

there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor 12:4-6)

Or when he wrote to the Galatians that though they might have been Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, those differences no longer mattered “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Whatever and whoever we are, we are all given gifts to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13). Paul’s call in this letter is for unity not uniformity, for a unity which embraces and celebrates diversity so that, in the words of our Lord’s prayer to his Father:

. . . [all] may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (Jn 17:22-23)

More than a half-century ago, when I was in junior high school, I saw a made-for-television movie which portrayed the most outrageous future you could imagine, a future in which every home had in it a computer terminal on which the family could talk to their friends and co-workers, could order their groceries, and could even cast their votes. In this impossible-to-imagine future, every citizen would enjoy instant coverage of world news, direct contact with political leaders, immediate access to all sorts of data, and be well-informed. This, of course, would lead to political unity and world peace. Oh … and everyone would have flying cars.

I’m still waiting for that future. We have the computers in our homes but not much else. Perhaps all the rest will come along when the flying cars get here. In the meantime, what our 24/7 instantaneous news cycle and our direct access to data (both true and false) have done is exacerbate our differences. Instead of drawing us closer together, the internet seems to have pushed us apart into competing “bubbles” and “echo chambers.” If the recently concluded election cycle, its outcome, and reactions to that result teach us anything, it is that the church’s witness to unity in diversity is needed now more than ever. And it is within this wider context of division and conflict that this community, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church of Massillon, Ohio, has called the Rev. George Baum to be its rector.

Now, let’s be honest, the church has not always been a paragon of unity, despite Jesus’ prayer and St. Paul’s admonitions. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. But on a recent episode of the NPR show On Being Muslim American social scholar Eboo Patel argued that religious communities must stand together and witness to what he called “diversities of justice.” In this, he echoes the call of Anglican theologian David F. Ford, who has called upon our churches, within themselves and in outreach to others, to form what he labels “improved partnerships of disagreement.” Only if we ourselves are in unity of faith measuring up to the full stature of Christ can we make that witness to the world.

You have called George to be your rector which means that, among other things, you have called him to be a prophet, to be your parish’s and the wider church’s and God’s spokesman to the community around you. In a few minutes, your wardens will present him a set of keys and encourage him to open the doors of this place to all people; shortly after that, George will kneel in the center of the nave and pray for God’s blessing that through his ministry and yours “all the world may be drawn into [God’s] blessed kingdom.” Regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of the economic, political, demographic, or social spectra of difference and disagreement which encourage us to division and conflict, he or she is called to represent your unity in and to the wider world.

Don’t get me wrong, disagreements are fine and leaders in the church should welcome lively discussion of issues because no one person has a monopoly on all wisdom. Disagreement and debate help church leaders to hear all sides of the issues and force them to think matters through. But when all is said and done, when all the disagreements have been aired, and all the points debated, the church community will still be here and it must be united in faith and growing into the full stature of Christ.

The only way we can do that is with the second element of the new pastor’s request, love:

“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

We all know that no matter what may be happening in the larger world, no matter what disagreements or conflicts we may get into in business, or politics, or the church, babies still get born, children still grow up, teens and young adults still go through the changes and passages of life, young men and women still get married . . . and older people do too! People still get sick and people still die . . . and, George, these fine people here have invited you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to share all of that with them. No matter where they or you may stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they are going to invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of our unity in Christ is made most clear. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra; a web of relationship comes into being and fosters and upholds the work to which we all are called. That web is elastic but tough; it is flexible and enduring; it is stronger than any of those one-dimensional spectra could ever be. We give that web the name of “love.”

Good people of St. Timothy’s Parish, please remember that George does not do this ministry alone! Tending to this web of relationship we call “love” is everyone’s job. As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Love is the glue that bonds the church in unity. Love for Christ and love for each other. In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes that he hopes his readers’ hearts will “be encouraged and united in love.” (Col 2:2) The Greek word translated as “united” is sumbibazo. It’s the same verb Paul uses in our Ephesians text this evening, translated here as “joined together,” the way the ligaments and tendons hold the joints of the body together and promote its growth, “building itself up in love.” (Eph 4:16) Remember that love is never an emotion; it is always an action. Love is not something we feel; love is something we do.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:4-8a)

So love each other and love your new rector. As our bishop is fond of saying, “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.”

One of my favorite hymns includes the repeated refrain, “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.” So, George, remember those words of God to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as St. Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:7)

Which brings us, finally, to the third request of the new pastor, to the discipline of prayer.

“You that stand by night in the house of the Lord, lift up your hands and bless the Lord.” (Cf. Ps 134) The Psalmist’s fancy way to say, “Pray!” What more can be said? What more needs to be said? Not much, really . . . but I’m a preacher so it’s my job say what shouldn’t need to be said. Tonight, let’s say it. “Pray!”

Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity. Let me say that again: Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

It’s easy, I’m sure you’ll all agree, to pray for those we like, for those with whom we agree. It’s also pretty easy to pray for people we don’t know; our formal in-church prayer often include prayers for foreign provinces of the Anglican Communion – this Sunday, for example, we are asked to pray for church members in the Falkland Islands and for their bishop William Nigel Stock. I don’t know Bishop Stock or anyone else in the Falklands so I’m perfectly happy to pray for them until the cows come home!

It should be easy to pray for members of our family and of our church, and for our friends, although sometimes we may not like them very much and often we may not agree with them, and that makes it a little harder. And then there are those other people, the ones we really don’t like or with whom on a scale of 1-to-10 we disagree at level 12; for me, I confess, it’s practically impossible to pray for them. But Someone once said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, [and] pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk 6:27-28)

In my counseling with people who are dealing with anger issues, I often suggest to them that they should pray by name for the one with whom they are angry. In every parish I have served, I have insisted that we pray for the president, by name, at every Sunday service: I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Bill Clinton; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for George Bush; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Barack Obama; and I know I will have parishioners who will refuse to pray for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, I will insist that we do so because, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim 2:1-2)

Note what Paul says there. He urges prayer for our leaders not so that they, the ones being prayed for, will be successful, but rather so that we, the ones who are praying, may have the blessings of quiet, peace, godliness, and dignity. Prayer works on the heart of the one who prays. One of the chief purposes of prayer is to transform the heart of the person praying so that it more closely resembles the heart of God. Prayer nourishes us and aligns our wills with God’s will. In this way, prayer heals and strengthens our relationships with the ones for whom we pray.

To be sure, we also believe that prayer benefits the subject of our prayers, as well. Prayer, as an offering of humble dependence, strengthens all within the community which finds its source and harmony in God. Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

In every epistle, Paul begs his churches to pray for him. It is the constant need of every pastor, to feel supported by the prayers of his or her people. So, please, pray for George (even when he disappoints – which he will, occasionally; even when you disagree with him – which you will, occasionally); pray for his family; pray for one another; and pray for the community and the world within which together you begin this new ministry.

So there you have it. The three things every priest wishes to find in his or her parish: unity, love, and prayer. With these as foundation, together with your new rector, you can faithfully respond to Jesus, who says to you, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last.”

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand . . . and every member of St. Timothy’s Parish, I invite you to stand, also . . . I can offer all of you no better charge than that given by the Patron Saint of my parish to the Patron Saint of your parish:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim 6:11-12,14,20)

Do so in unity, with love, holding each other in prayer. Because despite what I said in the jest at the beginning of this sermon, I am responsible for George Baum. We are all responsible to and for one another. So, again, live and minister in unity and with love, and pray for one another.

Amen.

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

Division Happens: Sermon for Pentecost 13, RCL Proper 14C (14 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 15C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; St. Luke 12:49-56. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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division-sign-clip-art-divide-clipart-t48bPp-clipartIn philosophy and theology there is an exercise named by the Greek word deiknumi. The word simply translated means “occurrence” or “evidence,” but in philosophy it refers to a “thought experiment,” a sort of meditation or exploration of a hypothesis about what might happen if certain facts are true or certain situations experienced. It’s particularly useful if those situations cannot be replicated in a laboratory or if the facts are in the past or future and cannot be presently experienced. St. Paul uses the word only once in his epistles: in the last verse of chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, he uses the verbal form when he admonishes his readers to “strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you [deiknuo, ‘I will give you evidence of’] a still more excellent way.” It is the introduction to his famous treatise on agape, divine love, a thought experiment (if you will) about the best expression, the “still more excellent” expression of the greatest of the virtues.

Today I would like to do a thought experiment with you, actually three short experiments, in which I will ask you to envision some interpersonal interactions to test the hypothesis of Jesus that his message, which he claimed was the message of God recorded in the Law and the Prophets, would bring division.

So make yourselves comfortable and, if it helps, close your eyes and envision yourself a 16-year-old high school student completing your secondary education at a church-affiliated institution which includes the study of religion in its curriculum. You have just completed a course in which you studied the creation myths of Genesis, the notion that all of humankind is descended from a single pair of proto-parents, Adam and Eve, or later from one family, that of Noah, after all other people were wiped out by a universal flood. Your class has explored what this means in a world divided by nations and cultures, into races and ethnic groups, and you have come to believe that all human beings are related one to another and to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Suppose also that you come from a family with some of its roots deep in the antebellum South and that your grandmother, a proud inheritor of those origins, employs an African-American maid whom she regularly refers to as her “house nigger.” Imagine that you start a conversation with Grammy about your new biblically based understanding of race relations . . . .

Now let’s have you imagine yourself a few years older, your early twenties. You are working your way through college or graduate school in the housekeeping department of a Southern California hospital and many of your coworkers are Mexican-American. So, too, is the pastor of your church which is culturally diverse and makes an effort to model its life and ministry on Jesus’ acceptance of the Syro-Phoenician woman who came seeking healing for her daughter, the Samaritan woman with whom he talked at Jacob’s well, the Roman centurion who asked that his servant be healed, Levi the outcast tax collector, and the woman sinner who anointed his feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee. At work, your supervisor who, like you, is of northern European ancestry, often talks with you about the other housekeepers and janitors calling them “wet backs” and “spics.” You confront her about that language and ask her not to use it when conversing with you . . . .

Finally, you are in your late thirties, a practicing attorney, a partner in a prestigious law firm. You are also a vestry member and a Sunday School teacher in your church. You’ve just spent several weeks studying the biblical concepts of debt and ownership in your adult Sunday School class. Coincidentally, your law firm is considering taking on a potentially very lucrative book of business from a pay-day lender. You attend a meeting with several of your partners and representatives of potential client. As you listen to the lender’s representative talk of interest rates and profit margins and enforcement of loan contracts, you remember the words of Deuteronomy: “You shall not charge interest on loans . . . , interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” (Dt 23:19) You hear, too, Jesus saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Mt 6:19) After the potential client leaves, you tell your partners that you can’t vote in favor of taking on the pay-day loan business . . . .

Well . . . I’m sure you can play out the rest of those scenarios for yourselves, that you can see that the “thought experiment” suggests that Jesus’ hypothesis that the message of biblical faith brings dissent is correct. But, indeed, Jesus was not stating a hypothesis; he was making a bald-faced assertion of fact.

Jesus said that he came to bring not peace, but division: “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” This makes us uncomfortable, I know; it’s not what we want to hear from Jesus, but division “is a part of the biblical tradition and [it] is not foreign to Christian tradition. . . . Sadly, religious divisions are . . . seen within the church today, which is divided along racial, political, class, and denominational lines. * * * [W]e might say that Christianity offers the prospect of unity, [but] this reality cannot be forced upon a free people. As a result there will inevitably be division in churches and even families.” (Richard A. Davis, The Politics of Unity, Division, and Discernment) It has ever been so.

The prophet Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping” prophet because of the way his message was rejected by the people and his many laments about that rejection, such as we hear in today’s lesson when, speaking for God, he cries, “How long?” The people of Israel, particularly the leaders of the people, during Jeremiah’s time did not want to hear messages that recalled them to the Law of Moses. They wanted to hear (as one commentator, Alphonetta Wines, put it) “feel good” sermons; they wanted to hear that they were the chosen race, the People of God, the one’s favored by the Almighty who would never let anything bad happen to them. Ms. Wines writes:

Much like people today who only want to hear “feel good” sermons, people of his day preferred false hopes presented by false prophets dreaming about a short road to peace. While even in the worst of circumstances God’s word includes a word of hope and restoration, the word spoken by these “dreamers” was no word from God. God does sometimes communicate through dreams, but this is not one of those times. No more than wishful thinking, these pipedreams gave people false hopes and an unrealistic view of what lay ahead. (Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher Commentary)

Jeremiah dissents! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” he asks on God’s behalf, “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” His question reminds the people that their relationship with God is not one-way; it’s not all just God doing for them. This is a covenant relationship with obligations on both sides; their faith in Yahweh should be a belief upon which they stake their lives and, thus, should determine how they live their lives. If that covenant obligation was not met, not only would God not extend God’s protection, God would instead exact punishment. Jeremiah’s dissent from these “feel good” pronouncements was not a welcome message; it caused division.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews follows on last week’s lesson in which the writer defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He has gone on to recount stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and his family, and Moses as examples of ancestors who held such faith; today he adds many others all of whom “were commended for their faith, [even though they] did not receive what was promised.” They all “trusted God even if they could not fully imagine what God’s promises would entail.” (Amy Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) For the author of Hebrews, as for Jeremiah, “faith comprises not only mental assent, but indicates that belief upon which you stake your life, this life and the next.” (Ibid.) In other words, faith and belief have behavioral consequences! The covenant is not one-way! There are obligations! And when you start practicing the faith, as did the heroes described by the author of Hebrews, there is division as promised by Jesus. It is inevitable.

John Wesley, the Anglican priest responsible for the birth of the Methodist movement and eventually the Methodist Church, insisted that inward holiness must lead to outward holiness, that a heart transformed by faith must be evidenced in a life transformed. Our discipleship is dependent on, formed by, and flows out of our Christian character. It is evidenced both by works of piety, that is to say corporate worship and private devotion, and works of mercy which embody our love for our neighbor. Such works of piety and mercy are the means through which the Holy Spirit empowers our growth; they are means of grace. And it is to the purifying fire of grace that Jesus calls us.

Jesus called his first hearers hypocrites because they could interpret the weather, but could not read the signs of the “present time,” the needs of the society around them for the works to which their covenant with God obligated them. “Jesus demands attention to one’s time and place. For this reason, there is something deeply incarnational and worldly about Jesus’ expectation of his listeners. This is not looking to the sky for God, but analyzing [and responding to] the here and now.” (Davis)

And when one does so, division happens:

The division of which Jesus speaks is a result of the purifying fire he bears. The kingdom of God he proclaims represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness (hence the import of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, 11:4), not by fear but by courage (“be not afraid” in 1:13, 30, 2:10, 5:11, 8:50, 12:4, 7, 32,), and not by power but by humility (see Mary’s song, 1:46-55). Yet those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family. (David Lose, Working Preacher Commentary)

Our expectation of the peace, harmony, and unity notwithstanding, we must understand that division will happen.

When it does, we must have faith to see that God is “at work in all realities, and that division is not the problem.” Instead of our own naive expectations, instead of our wishful thinking, our pipedreams, and our false hopes, we should hear Jesus’ talk about division which points “to a broken reality for Christianity no matter how hard we work toward unity. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point: that human togetherness is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.” (Erick J. Thompson, Working Preacher Commentary)

We must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” including our fear of and our concern about division, and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” remembering our covenant obligations, our works of piety and our works of mercy.

As you might have guessed, the three deiknumoi, the “thought experiments” with which we began are drawn from my own life experience. Each of them did, as you might also have guessed, cause some division and conflict. But in each of them, also, the division was eventually overcome. My grandmother and I reconciled and she came to (and was one of the oldest people to attend) Evelyn’s and my wedding. My supervisor and I continued to work together and became good friends, and she stopped calling Mexican-Americans by derogatory terms (at least at work). And, after some loud and heated discussion, my partners eventually agreed with me and we did not take on the pay-day lender’s work. Yes, trying to live according the principles of our faith, living up to the obligation to offer not only works of piety in the church but also works of mercy in the world, can (and Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson that it will) bring division. But division can be – and the gospel’s promise is that it will be – overcome by love. Remember what St. Paul wrote in his deiknumi in the First Letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor. 13:4-8a)

Amen.

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

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

Meeting the Author – Sermon for Easter Morning (RCL Year C), 27 March 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Resurrection Sunday, March 27, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; and St. Luke 24:1-12. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Anastasis IconLitigation attorneys and fishermen have something in common… We like to tell stories. Fishermen tell about “the one that got away.” Trial lawyers prefer to tell about the ones we got!

So … although it may not seem to have much to do with faith or religion or Easter … I’m going to tell you about the last medical malpractice claim I defended before retiring from active law practice.

Here’s what happened. A guy was out fishing at Lake Mead, the big reservoir on the Colorado River behind Boulder Dam in Southern Nevada, and stupidly scooped a rattlesnake out the lake (they swim … but you didn’t know that). Of course, it bit him on the forearm.

So he was taken to Boulder City Hospital where my client was an emergency physician.

Now you may not know this, but in most small proprietary hospitals, the emergency room doctors are not members of the hospital’s medical staff; they are contractors and they don’t have admitting privileges. So after he did what he thought was appropriate treatment (which was to stabilize the patient and administer ten vials of antivenom), he transferred the man’s care to the next available physician on the staff. That doctor, unfortunately, did not continue the antivenom therapy and the patient’s forearm muscle eventually necrotized and he lost much of the use of his arm. So, of course, he sued.

His attorney, who was an old friend of mine (we’d been associates together in the same law firm), named just about everyone you could think of as defendants in the law suit: the ambulance service, the hospital, my doctor, the second doctor, and a few other people. When I got the case from my client’s malpractice insurer, the first thing I did was call my colleague and do a little bit of what we call “informal discovery,” you know, just ask him about the case, about his evidence, his theory of liability, and so forth. I asked him if he was relying on any medical texts and he told me that he was using the third edition of the book Snake Venom Poisoning by Dr. Findlay E. Russell.

After our conversation, I went down to the University Medical Center, where I had library privileges, to see if they had the book; I discovered that there was a fourth edition which they had, so I checked it out. Back at my office reading the foreword, I learned that Dr. Russell was a faculty member at the University of Arizona Medical School in Tucson, so I called him on the phone. “Dr. Russell,” I said, “my name’s Eric Funston and I’m a lawyer in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m defending an emergency physician in a snake bite case. May I ask if anyone has contacted you on behalf any of these people?” and I list the plaintiff and all the defendants. “No,” was Dr. Russell’s answer. “In that case, sir, may I retain your services as a consultant and possibly as an expert witness?”

Long story short, Dr. Russell, who Wikipedia even today says “was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on snakes and the pharmacology of snake venoms,” reviewed my case and said that my client had done everything to the highest standard of care. My old friend, the plaintiff’s attorney, agreed to dismiss the claim against my client, hired Dr. Russell to testify on the plaintiff’s behalf, and got a big verdict against the hospital staff doctor whose care was, in Fin Russell’s opinion, abysmally bad.

Now, I’m sure, you’re really wondering what that has to do with Easter. Bear with me, we’ll get to that. But before we do, let’s take a look at the way Luke tells the story of Jesus’ Resurrection.

He tells us that “the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb;” these would be “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and” others. The find the tomb open and empty, and they are spoken to by “two men in dazzling clothes,” who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Terrified, the run to find the disciples and tell them what has happened. Luke doesn’t tell us about that conversation, but John tells us, that “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” Luke then says that “these words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe [the women].” Our translation is rather generous and understated, by the way; the original Greek implies that they thought what she and the other women said was delirious, lunatic insanity, stark raving madness. They thought it was like a fairy tale out of a story book!

And, for us, that’s pretty much what it is, isn’t it? It’s something we know about only because it’s in this book of stories. Frankly, it is a little unbelievable; it’s hard to accept because it challenges and undermines everything we expect of reality. As Professor Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, said in an interview a few years ago, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” No wonder the disciples did not believe the “idle tale” of Mary Magdalene and the other women. So, folks, if you have a hard time with this notion of resurrection, that’s OK! You’re in good company. In fact, you’re probably in better company than the people who point to the story book and say, “I believe it because it’s in the Bible,” and then “urge you to get acquainted with the Bible personally” because “God [will] speak to you through its pages.” (Answers by Billy Graham) That may well be, but I tend to agree with Dr. David Lose, the president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, who said, “If you don’t find resurrection at least a little hard to believe, you probably aren’t taking it very seriously!”

What John tells us Mary Magdalene said to the disciples that first Easter morning may well have been the best sermon ever preached. Five short words, “I have seen the Lord.” “It’s hard to imagine a better sermon than [this]. Short and memorable and to the point. Mary’s sermon is a homiletical gem – and maybe the truest sermon ever preached.” (Karoline Lewis) And this is where my snake bite case informs my understanding of Easter and Christ’s Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene said, “I have seen the Lord.” She did not say, “Some men told….” She did not say, “I am personally acquainted with the Bible.” She said, “I have seen the Lord. I have seen ‘the author of peace and lover of concord.’ I have seen ‘the one through whom all things were made.’ I have ‘the author of our salvation.’”

Like my fellow attorney, the apostles had the book; they knew their Scriptures well. But Mary Magdalen had the Person; she had seen the Lord. As Marcus Borg says, “It as a fact of history that Jesus was experienced after his death as a living figure of the present and not just as a dearly-remembered figure of the past.” We can read the story book over and over again, until we know everything there is to know about Jesus as “a dearly-remembered figure of the past,” but until his Resurrection becomes more than a third-person account, until it is a first-person experience, there will always be that lingering doubt. This is why Peter Lockhart, a theologian in the Uniting Church of Australia, insists that the Resurrection “should be an intensely personal thing; that each one of us should feel and know and celebrate the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.” Easter is the gift of encountering the resurrected Jesus in our own lives now, of entering into the eternal divine life now, of experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit now.

Like my colleague, we can read the book and be content, if a little doubtful, about what we read there. Or … we can search out the Author. From the very beginning, those who wish to be disciples of Jesus have had good reason to wonder about and even doubt the truth of the Resurrection, especially those who have only become “acquainted with the Bible.” But if we limit ourselves to that, to reading the stories of long ago, we ought to hear those two men in dazzling clothes asking us, as they asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Look into the future among the living, move into that future! We know there will be tragedy, and trauma, and tedium, and disappointment; there will also be joy, and wonder, and love, and laughter. And in all of them, there will be Jesus. The Risen Christ, the author of peace and lover of concord, the one through whom all things were made, the author of our salvation, will be present. He will prevail in our individual lives, in the church, and in the world. For those who have made the effort to meet the Author, there is no doubt at all.

Resurrection is more than a third-person account, more than a story in a book; it is … it can be … it should be … a first-person experience, a meeting with the Author.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

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

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

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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.)

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

Abundant Grace (Cana, Weddings & Primates) – Sermon for Epiphany 2, 17 January 2016

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; and St. John 2:1-11. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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As I begin this sermon today, I would like to call your attention to two verses of Psalm 36 which we all recited together just a few minutes ago:

6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O Lord.
***
8 They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.

God’s righteousness extends to all of humankind and beyond; it extends to all of created life, all the “beasts” whom God saves together with human beings. All humans, all of creation “feast upon the abundance of God’s house” and “drink from the river of God’s delights.” I want you to fix that notion, that fundamental Christian belief firmly in your minds.

I have to confess to you that sometimes when I am preparing a sermon I ignore one or sometimes two of the lessons set out in the Lectionary and which are read in church. This week I gave a lot of thought to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian church and to Paul’s partial list of the abundant varieties of gifts, but I pretty much ignored Isaiah’s prophecy. I read it, but actually forgot about, forgot even what it said, as I was researching for this homily. As a result, during the 8 a.m. service I actually started laughing as the Isaiah lesson was read:

You shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
(Isa 62:4-5)

I should have paid more attention to Isaiah and his metaphor of marriage, for “marriage” is the word of the week, at least in Anglican Communion circles.

I’ll come back to that, but first I want to explore briefly the gospel story from John today, the familiar story of Jesus’ first act of power in John’s gospel, the changing of water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is such a rich story with so much to explore. For example, we could spend hours discussing the relationship between Jesus and his mother, a principal player in the story who is never named: John never calls her “Mary,” just “the mother of Jesus.” The dynamic between Jesus and Mom is fascinating! One of my clergy colleagues in our discussion group remarked, “I could never have talked to my mother like that! If I had . . . I can’t imagine!” But we don’t have time for that exploration this morning, so let’s move on.

A commentator on this gospel did the calculations about the amount of wine involved here. John tells us there were six stone jars filled with clean water (it would have to be clean water if it was for the Jewish ritual of washing hands, face, and feet before eating, which is what John means when he says “the rites of purification”). Obviously some had been used, for Jesus has the servants refill the vessels to the brim. So there is about 180 gallons of water there which become 180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine! It turns out to be nearly 1,000 bottles. A bottle of really good wine these days can run over $100, maybe as high as $150. That’s $150,000 worth wine Jesus gave this couple for a wedding present. Talk about God’s abundance!

Now let’s think about Galilee and this village of Cana. From our perspective 2,000 years removed, we hear about Galilee or look at a map of “The Holy Land at the Time of Jesus” and we tend to think about the whole place as “Jewish territory.” But in Jesus time, that wasn’t so. Judea was Jewish territory (albeit Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire) but Galilee wasn’t. It was a much more culturally and ethnically mixed place. It was Gentile territory. It was where the Samaritans, whom the Jews didn’t particularly like, lived. It was where the land trade routes passed, where traders of all nations were constantly on the move and where some of them had settled. It was where brigands and thieves and highwaymen who preyed on the trade caravans hung out; Herod the Great twice sent his army into the Galilee to clear out that criminal element. And, of course, like Judea it was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, so there were Roman soldiers stationed there.

Cana was a small village in this (I suppose we could say) cosmopolitan, ethnically mixed region. We don’t really know where this village was located. Archaeologists and bible scholars think it could have been one of four different places. A couple of them are just ruins these days, but in Jesus’ time they were all functioning villages. None, however, was very large – all probably had populations of less than 1,500 people, certainly not more than 2,000, and their populations would have included all that mix of people, as well as the Jews who lived there. And the Jews themselves were not a monolithic group. They were divided into what we might call “denominations” or better “political parties.” There were the Sadducees and the Pharisees about whom we read in the New Testament; there might have been Essenes, although they tended to separate themselves out of the settled towns but there might have been Essene sympathizers; there might have been Zealots, radicalized Jews who wanted to cleans their lands of Gentiles; and there were probably just ordinary, everyday Jews not aligned with any of these groups, people just getting on with life. They and their Gentile neighbors lived together, traded together, socialized, and went about the business of getting on.

When there was a major event in the life of a village family, like a wedding, perhaps the religious part of it would involve only the family and their co-religionists, but the celebration after? What we would think of as the reception? That would involve everybody; that was a major village-wide social event. We tend to think of wedding banquets as starting after the ceremony and ending sometime late in the evening after the couple has departed for their wedding night and their honeymoon. Not so in First Century Palestine. Back then wedding feasts could last five, six, seven days!

John’s story of this wedding feast begins in our translation with the words, “On the third day there was a wedding . . . . ” and that has puzzled commentators for generations. On the third day of what? What is John talking about? Some Greek scholars suggest that what this really means is “On the third day of the wedding feast . . . .” Folks had been partying, eating, drinking, and by the third day, they’d consumed all the wine. So Jesus steps in and with abundant grace provides more than sufficient wine so that this mixed community of Sadduceic Jews and Pharisaic Jews, of Essene Jews and Zealot Jews, of Jews and Gentiles, and maybe even some Roman soldiers thrown in, this mixed bag of people could continue to celebrate and have a good time celebrating a wedding.

So . . . about that Anglican Communion news. It’s about weddings. Specifically, it’s about same-sex weddings. At last summer’s General Convention, the governing body of the Episcopal Church, after doing nearly 40 years of theological study and reflection, decided that the sacrament of Holy Wedlock could be offered to same-sex couples. And because of that, something was done by the assembled chief pastors, the Primates, of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion who met in Canterbury this past week.

Exactly what that “something” is is unclear. It’s especially unclear if one read the headlines in the secular press and that’s in large part because the secular news agencies have never really understood the vague, sort of ghostly nature of the Anglican Communion. It’s a there-but-not-there sort of thing. It exists, but it’s very hard to describe. As a result we saw a variety of headlines describing what happened.

The most outrageous of them was found on the website of Katehon.com (which describes itself as an international geopolitical think tank); their headline read, “Anglicans Excommunicate the Episcopalians.” Well, no. That’s not what happened; nobody excommunicated anybody. Other headlines used less sensational terms: “suspend,” “sanction,” “punish.” None of them accurate. The Archbishop of Canterbury got into a verbal sparring match with some reporters when he insisted that the appropriate word was “consequences” and a reporter insisted that what had happened was a “sanction.” Specifically what Archbishop Welby said is:

We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion. (Church Times)

So how did we arrive at this and what does it all mean? To answer that, I think it might be helpful to briefly summarize the vague thing that is the Anglican Communion. As I said, it’s an international family of 38 national or provincial churches, nearly all of whom trace their liturgical and structural heritage, their leadership models, and their theology to the English reformation and the Church of England. Most them were established either through the spread of the British Empire or through missionary activity from England or, in some cases, from the American Episcopal church. Each of them is independent and self-governing; none of them can dictate to any other of them how to organize itself, how to govern itself, or how to offer its worship, sacraments, and teaching within its own provincial boundaries. These 38 independent provincial churches are, we like to say, linked by bonds of affection and respect, and mutual and cooperative ministry. Over the years, however, it has been helpful to think in terms of, and to create, what have come to be known as “instruments of unity.”

Historically, the first of these is the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the present incumbent nor any individual occupant of that See, but the See itself. As the Primate of the first Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the primus inter pares, the first among equals of the 38 chief pastors of the provincial churches; it is he who convenes two other of the “instruments of unity.” In historical order the first of these is the Lambeth Conference, the first of which was convened in 1867.

This is a decennial (every ten year) conference of diocesan bishops who meet to discuss matters of mutual interest: theology, church order, social justice. (They also have tea with the queen.) After a couple of weeks of meetings, they issue reports about what they have discussed; they do not legislate and they have no power to do so. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference has no juridical or hierarchical authority over any member province; their reports are merely summaries of their talks, sometimes evincing agreement on particular matters.

The third “instrument of unity” is called the Anglican Consultative Council, created in 1971. The Council is made up of elected representatives of the provinces, both lay and ordained, and meets every three years. It’s steering committee meets more often. It’s self-defined role is

to facilitate the co-operative work of the churches of the Anglican Communion, exchange information between the Provinces and churches, and help to co-ordinate common action. It advises on the organisation and structures of the Communion, and seeks to develop common policies with respect to the world mission of the Church, including ecumenical matters. (Anglican Communion)

Like the other “instruments of unity,” the ACC has no legislative or executive authority over any member province.

The most recently created of the “instruments of unity” is the Primates’ Meeting. It was established in 1978 by Donald Coggan, the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” (Anglican Communion) The Primates have met every other year since then, and sometimes more often as invited by Canterbury.

We often hear our Communion compared to the Roman Catholic Church, but the comparison is inapt. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope. The Primates’ Meeting is not a college of cardinals. The Lambeth Conference is not a Vatican council. And the Anglican Consultative Council is not a curia. Again, I emphasize that none of these “instruments of unity,” including the Primates’ Meeting, have authority to dictate, legislate, or impose rulings upon any member province.

But that is what the Primates’ Meeting has attempted to do with these “consequences” for our action with regard to the full inclusion of our gay and lesbian members in the sacramental life of the church. What they have done is asked (they used the verb “require” but they really don’t have the authority to require) that for a period of three years no member of the Episcopal Church sit on any international ecumenical body representing the Anglican Communion in its relationship with other Christian bodies. We will still be active in such ecumenical endeavors in our own province, just not on the international stage. They have also asked that we, the Episcopal Church, during those three years, not participate in any inter-Anglican committees dealing with matters of theology or polity.

They’ve done so, as I said, because we have taken the steps of ordaining qualified LGBT members of the church and of sacramentally blessing the unions of same-sex couples. We did so not because of the pressures of secular society or culture. We did so because in 1978 and again in 1988, with rather prescient foresight, the Lambeth Conference adopted a resolution encouraging – remember that conference cannot legislate, it can only recommend – encouraging the member provinces of the Anglican Communion to reflect theologically on the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church. Specifically, it said:

This Conference: 1. Reaffirms the statement of the Lambeth Conference of 1978 on homosexuality, recognising the continuing need in the next decade for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” 2. Urges such study and reflection to take account of biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies, and the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our Communion. 3. Calls each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation. (Resolution 64 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference)

We did that work and we came first to the conclusion that we needed to honest and open and acknowledge that we (and, in fact, the whole of Christianity) has been ordaining gay men and (when permitted) lesbian women for a long time, but in a closed and closeted way; we needed to be up-front with the world about that. And we now are. As many of you recall, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of the first openly gay, partnered man as a bishop in 2003, the Rt Rev. Gene Robinson, now-retired Bishop of New Hampshire.

Then over the past decade we have studied the question of same-sex marriage and, at this summer’s General Convention, made the (admittedly) major decision to offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. It is for doing the work requested of us by one “instrument of unity,” that another “instrument of unity” has imposed “consequences.” And I’m OK with that. The rest of the Anglican Communion is still working on the assessment the 1978 Lambeth Conference encouraged us to undertake. Some provinces, such as the Canadian church, the churches in New Zealand, Australia, and Southern Africa, perhaps even the Church of England will, I believe, come to the same place we have come in the not-too-distant future. Other provinces may be further behind. But we are on the forefront, on the cutting edge of what is (I believe) a matter of both social justice and grace and, as I have elsewhere commented about this, when did justice, or the gospel, ever come without a price?

As I reflected on these consequences of our church’s decision in favor of inclusivity in light of today’s lessons, I kept coming back to two things . . . First, the Psalm and those verses which remind us that God’s salvation is boundless, encompassing “both man and beast,” and that all drink from the abundant river of God’s delights. The “consequences” imposed by the Primates’ Meeting, it seems to me, are at odds with that vision of God. Second, I remembered the mixed bag of guests likely to have been at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee and I remarked upon the fact that John gives us no information about how Jesus responded to his invitation. Did he ask, “Who else is invited?” Did he make sure that only people who lived up to some standard of purity would be amongst those with whom he would be dining and drinking? I kind of doubt it. Certainly, after converting 180 gallons of water into enough wine for everyone to continue partying for a few more days, he placed no restrictions on which of the guests might enjoy it.

God’s abundant blessings are given without restriction, overflowing and excessive, and available to everyone.

One additional thought . . . and I know this may seem to come from out of left field . . . but do you remember what the Episcopal Church teaches is the standard of giving for church members? Of course, you do! It’s the tithe, based on the practice required in the Law of Moses. Various verses in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus required the ancient Jews to deliver the first tenth of their produce, of their crops and of their newborn livestock, to the Temple. But what would happen if a faithful Jew lived too far from the Temple? Suppose he lived in Alexandria or Cairo, in Damascus or Tehran, in Oslo or Tokyo. What was he to do? Any ideas?

[Suggestions of store-housing or giving to the poor.]

Those are good suggestions, but they’re wrong. Here is what the 14th Chapter of Deuteronomy says:

If, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. (Deut. 14:24-26)

This is our God. A God who encourages us to enter into joyous fellowship, who shares abundant grace with all of creation, who invites – indeed, commands! – everyone to party. Everyone!

That is the theology we, the Episcopal Church, have arrived at: that everyone is invited to share the grace of God. For that, we have suffered consequences. But despite the sensationalist and grossly inaccurate headlines: we are still Anglicans. We are the most traditional of Anglicans!

Amen!

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

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

Your Kingdom Come: First of a Series – Sermon for Advent 1 (29 November 2015)

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A sermon offered on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; and Luke 21:25-36. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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sunandmoonPerhaps you’ve heard about the recent advertisement that the Church of England wants to run in cinemas in the United Kingdom. It’s part of a campaign which includes the Church’s new website called justpray.uk (not to be confused with justpray.org) and which was conceived to encourage the British simply to offer prayer everyday. The website includes instructions and suggested short prayers. The advertisement is a video of a several people saying the Lord’s Prayer, each person or group shown says or sings a word or phrase of the prayer beginning with his Grace, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and including people of different races and ages in a variety of settings.

It’s just 54 seconds of the Lord’s Prayer. The advertisement was to begin running this week. The trade organization for United Kingdom cinemas, however, has declared the Lord’s Prayer unsuitable for screening. They believe it carries the risk of upsetting or offending audiences. This, in a country which, unlike the United States, is officially Christian, a country which has an established church and whose head of state is also the temporal head of that established Christian church.

Now, let it be admitted that I’m a liberal when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of commerce, and part of my liberal-ness means that I believe it’s entirely within a cinema owner’s rights to decline to screen anything he or she determines not to screen, including advertisements, including religious advertisements, including religious advertisements by the established church. On the other hand, as a churchman, I believe it is the church’s duty, not merely its right, to teach about prayer, to teach the Lord’s Prayer, in every place possible. In this instance, these two sets of rights and obligations come into direct conflict and, as much I applaud the CofE’s effort, I have to side with the cinema owners. The have the right to decline to show the advert and, furthermore, they are correct: the Lord’s Prayer is offensive!

As one British commentator put it, “The Lord’s Prayer is not mild, inoffensive, vanilla, listless, nominal, wishy-washy or wallpapery. If you don’t worship the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, in fact, it is deeply subversive, upsetting and offensive, from the first phrase to the last.” (Wilson, Andrew, The Lord’s Prayer Advert Has Been Banned For Being Offensive – Which It Is)

I think it was Mae West who said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and Oscar Wilde once quipped, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” This kerfuffle over the justpray.uk advert is getting the Church of England and the Lord’s Prayer talked about in Britain, probably more so than if the ad had run without objection from the trade association! That can’t be anything other than a good thing.

Interestingly, I had decided, before the English advertising issue cropped up this week, to do a sermon series for this Advent season about the Lord’s Prayer, because I do believe we need to understand it better. It’s become, for many of us, such a matter of rote memory that we say the words without really engaging with them. So for Advent, we’ll be using the second translation of the prayer, the so-called “contemporary” version, which is actually truer to the text of the prayer as Matthew and Luke record it in their gospels. Using words that are other than . . . slightly different from . . . those our automatic brains and mouths are used to saying will call them to our attention.

So let’s begin with some history about the Lord’s Prayer. First, of all, it’s not really “the Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not a prayer that we have any record of Jesus saying; it is the prayer Jesus taught his followers to say – it might better be called “the Disciple’s Prayer.” In the oldest Anglican prayer books, the presiding priest introduced the prayer saying, “As our Saviour Christ hath commanded and taught us, we are bold to say . . . .” Bishop N.T. Wright points out that this introduction stresses that the prayer is “a command and its use [is] a daring, trembling, holy boldness,” but he notes that it is also “an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself.” (The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer, in Longenecker, R.L., ed., Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids:2001, p 132)

As I mentioned earlier, the Lord’s Prayer is found in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. However, their two versions are not identical, nor is either the same as the liturgical form familiar to us, either the one we are more used to or the newer form added in the 1979 Prayer Book. Here is Matthew’s version (as translated in the NRSV):

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
(Matt 6:9b-13a)

And this is Luke’s (from the same translation):

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
(Luke 11:2b-4)

As you can see, they are very different. Luke’s is shorter, having no mention of the doing of God’s will, nor any petition for rescue from “the evil one.” Matthew’s addresses God more familiarly as “our” Father, but distances God by specifically placing God “in heaven;” Matthew’s version thus witnesses to both the immanence and the transcendence of deity. There are differences in verb tenses and slight differences in emphases; for example, Matthew’s prayer petitions for bread “this day,” while Luke’s asks for bread “each day.” Most strikingly, perhaps, are the petitions for forgiveness: Matthew’s seeks forgiveness of “debts,” while Luke’s seeks absolution of “sins.” The differing English words reflect the use of two different Greek words for transgressions, which I will discuss in a later sermon. And, I suppose, most surprising to many Christians is that neither Matthew nor Luke include what is known as “the power-and-glory clause,” the concluding doxology that rolls so easily from our tongues; that doxology was added in a late First Century church text called The Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”

We know from archaeological evidence that the Lord’s Prayer was being said regularly by Jewish Christians in their synagogues as early as 70AD and from The Didache that the Lord’s Prayer was part of Gentile Christian practice, as well. In fact, The Didache enjoins the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (with the doxology which it adds) three times each day!

Two significant early church theologians, Origen and Tertullian, both taught “that the Lord’s prayer is a sketch or an outline for prayer. Origen, for example, says concerning this prayer: ‘And first of all we must note that Matthew and Luke might seem to most people to have recorded the same prayer, providing a pattern of how to pray.’ Origen summarizes what an outline on prayer should be: praise, thanksgiving, confession and petition. The prayer should be concluded with a doxology. Likewise, Tertullian indicates that the Lord’s prayer embraces ‘the characteristic functions of prayer, the honor of God and the petitions of man.’” (Kistemaker, S.J., The Lord’s Prayer in the First Century, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, V. 21, No. 4, Dec. 1978, 327-28, citations omitted.)

So, now, let’s take a look at this prayer, its opening words of praise and its first petition: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

Right off the bat, Jesus invites (or, as the old Prayer Book said, commands) us to enter into the same “intimate, familial approach to the Creator” which characterized his own spirituality. (Wright) It gives us a sense of identity; it tells us who we are in relationship to God. As the bishop who ordained me like to say, “It tells us not only who we are, but whose we are.” We are not disconnect bits of matter existing in time and space separated from all other bits of matter; it asserts that humanity is not fragmented, but related one to another in that same intimate and familial way that Jesus and the Father are related. “We are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers,” wrote Dr. Steven Croft in an essay answering the cinema owners. “Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.” (Seven Reasons to Ban the Lord’s Prayer)

But this isn’t any old father. This Father is “in heaven” and his name is “hallowed.” This is a typically Jewish affirmation of the holiness of God; in fact, to the most devout of Jews the Name of God is so holy that they will not even attempt to pronounce it. Whenever they encounter it in Scripture, they substitute the Hebrew word haShem, which means “the Name.” We Christians are not so reticent to name God, but in Jesus’ Jewish tradition we hallow God’s name. As the privilege to address God as “our Father” reminds us of God’s immanence, God’s intimate closeness with us, so the hallowing of God’s Name reminds us that God is transcendent: God is above, other than, and distinct from all that God has made.

The first petition of the prayer is “Your kingdom come.” This petition is the very heart of the season of Advent which we begin today; the longing desire and expectation for the final coming of the kingdom of God – “We await his coming in glory,” as we will affirm in our Eucharistic prayer this morning. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations . . .” (Lk 21:25) These will, he says, be signs that the kingdom of God is near. In Mark’s Gospel a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus’ warning, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” (Mk 13:7) These are signs that the kingdom is near, but they are not signs of its coming; they are, instead, the signs of endings – the ending of the kingdom of division, the ending of the kingdom of hatred, the ending of the kingdom where children go hungry, the ending of the kingdom where airliners are bombed out of the sky, the ending of the kingdom where restaurant patrons and concert goers are blown up, the ending of the kingdom where men with guns shoot up women’s health care clinics – “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Lk 21:10-11) But these are not the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray; we do not pray for the coming of a kingdom of distress, a kingdom of war, a kingdom of destruction or famine or plague.

The signs of the coming of the kingdom of God are those Jesus commended to messengers from John the Baptist who came asking “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Lk 7:19,22) These are the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray: light and healing and good news. The kingdom whose coming we await is characterized by the cardinal virtues: “Faith, hope, and love . . . these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13) We pray for the coming of a kingdom of faith, a kingdom of hope, a kingdom of love . . . most of all for a kingdom of love.

Which brings us to the next petition and last that we will consider today: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “The will of God, to which the law gives expression,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, New York:1995, p 147) Love is the will of God. Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment might be. His answer was, “Love” – “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:37-40)

Love is the will of God for which we pray; love is the will of God which we are commanded to do. “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness,” declared the Psalmist. The will of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer is that we be given the grace and power walk those paths.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.

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

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

Faith, Hope, and Charity – Sermon for Pentecost 22 (25 October 2015)

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25B, Track 1, RCL), October 25, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Job 42:1-6,10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, Hebrews 7:23-28; and Mark 10:46-52. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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Faith-Hope-CharityLast week, I gave away the ending of Job. I told you that everything turned out all right in the end, and so it has. Job has repented, not of any sin that warranted his suffering, but of the pride and arrogance (and ignorance) he displayed during his suffering by demanding to confront God. God has forgiven him and to make up for all his loss, his fortunes have been restored many times over. Happy ending! Except not quite . . .

I’ll come back to Job in a minute, but first I want to look at a petition in today’s opening collect and then at the gospel story. The petition is this: “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.” The gospel story is the restoration of sight to blind Bartimaeus to whom Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What is “faith,” the first of the theological virtues our prayer asks of God and the active agent in healing Bartimaeus? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) Faith is sometimes equated with belief, and in an ancient way that is true but in the modern sense of the word “belief,” that is a misleading equation.

In contemporary English, “belief” is understood to be an opinion or judgment of which the believer is fully persuaded, or alternatively it is considered intellectual assent to a factual assertion. By some it is derided as a false alternative to scientific certainty: one is said to believe that which cannot be proven, but to know that which is made evident by factual data. That’s a false dichotomy, but not one I want to debate this morning. For the moment, let’s accept the notion that belief is assent to an opinion, judgment, or assertion. This may be the first step of faith for, as Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Romans, “faith comes from what is heard,” (Rom 10:17a), through acceptance of assertions. However, faith must be more than that.

In the Epistle of James, we are reminded that such faith, faith which consists only of belief, “by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” (Jm 2:17) and Paul would seem to agree with that when, in his letter to the Galatians, he writes that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6b, emphasis added)

So, then, faith is not simply the same as belief (as belief is currently understood). Faith is belief plus action. This is in accord with the New Testament understanding of faith; remember that our New Testament was written in Greek and the word we translate as “faith” is pistis, a verb. From a New Testament perspective, faith is not a noun, an object or substance which one has; faith is a verb, an action which one does. But is it more? Is there another element of faith.

I suggest to you that there is and we find that element in the original meaning of the word “belief.” Our word “belief” derives from the same root as our word “beloved,” and in original meaning as more the sense of “confidence” or “trust” than of intellectual assent. It means to give one’s heart to the object of one’s belief.

Faith then is belief plus action plus confidence, and it was faith such as this which led blind Bartimaeus to throw off his cloak and cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even when those around him would silence him, this faith made him yell even more loudly. This is the faith which our opening prayer asks God to increase in us: not our assurance of the rectitude of some factual assertion made (for example) in the Nicene Creed, but that belief given shape in action and that action undertaken with confidence, and confidence (the Letter to the Hebrews tells us) belongs to hope (Heb 3:6), which is the second theological virtue in our petition to God this morning.

Did you know that we have iconic depictions of the theological virtues in our stained glass windows? Look to the back of the church over the entrance doors. Below the circular rose window are the figures of three women. One holds a cross; one, an anchor; and one, loaves of bread. The figure with the cross is the depiction of Faith. Next to her is the figure holding the anchor of Hope. Which brings us back to Job.

We are, as I mentioned earlier, at the end of the story and everything has turned out all right. Job confesses that he has been arrogant and prideful in demanding a hearing before God; he is healed of his loathsome sores, reconciled to God, and rewarded with an abundance of wealth and family and comfort.

Once again, however, the lectionary leaves something out. Between verse 6, the end of his confession, and verse 10, which begins the description of his reward, God addresses Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. God says, “My wrath is kindled against you . . . ; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (v. 7)

What is the difference between Job and these other three? The answer is, “Hope.” Throughout his ordeal, despite his pride, despite his arrogant demand that God present himself, despite his denials of any sin, Job has steadfastly maintained his hope in the justice of God. His friends have counseled him to admit to wrongdoing that even they are not sure he has done; they have advised him to just give up. They have given up hope, but Job has not.

What is “hope”? Well, that’s a good question. St. Paul wrote a lot about hope in his various letters, but he never really defines it. He comes closest to doing so in the Letter to Romans in which he writes: “[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Rm 5:3-5) And then later in the same letter he says, “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rm 8:24-25)

Theologically, hope is the “virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (C.C.C., 2nd Ed., 1997, Para. 1817)

Hope is not optimism. Optimism claims everything will be good despite all evidence of reality to the contrary; pessimism denies even the possibility of good because of present evidence. The nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.”

Optimism can be defeated by reality. Pessimism revels in reality but defeats itself. Hope, like optimism, expects the good. Hope, like pessimism, accepts reality. Hope does not deny the poverty of spirit that underlies fear, the sinfulness that underlies all tragedy, and the evil that causes systemic inertia. Hope, however, has a trump card – the capacity of the human heart. When reality grinds optimism down and reduces pessimism to a self-defeating smugness, hope will go toe-to-toe with reality because the heart’s capacity to love refuses to quit. This is why the letter to the Hebrews describes hope as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19) and why the iconic figure of Hope holds an anchor.

This is the steadfastness that our opening prayer seeks from God.

The last of the theological virtues for which we have prayed is Charity, who is depicted in our window as a woman distributing bread to hungry children. Theologically, Charity is the “virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (C.C.C., Para. 1822) Interestingly, though, we almost never read of charity in our English language bibles. In the New Revised Standard Version, the word “charity” appears only five times and four of those are in the Apocrypha; in the canonical scriptures, the word appears only in the book of Acts. In the Authorized or “King James” version it appears 24 times, more than a third of those in one book, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians from which you will (I’m sure) recognize these words:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth . . . . (1 Cor 13:108a)

In our modern translation we have changed the word “charity” to “love” and that bit of First Corinthians has become very popular at weddings, but it’s not about romantic love at all. It is about something much different. You know (you’ve heard it here before!) that the word in the original Greek is agape, which refers to selfless love. This is the love that one extends to all people, whether family members or distant strangers; it is the according of human dignity to everyone, simply because they are human. Agape was translated by St Jerome into the Latin word caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity.” C.S. Lewis referred to it as “gift love” and described it as the highest form of Christian love. But it is not solely a Christian concept; it appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of metta or “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism.

Charity, agape, is not simply love generated by an impulse emotion. Instead, charity, agape, is an exercise of the will, a deliberate choice. This is why Jesus can command us to love one another as he loves us, to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves. God is not commanding us to have a good feeling for these others, but to act in charity, in “gift love,” in self-giving agape toward them. Charity, agape, is matter of commitment and obedience, not of feeling or emotion. When Paul admonishes Christians in the Letter to the Ephesians to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” offering himself (as our reading from Hebrews says) “once for all,” it is precisely this kind of self-sacrificing love, Charity, agape, to which we are called.

When the Resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, the first two times the word is agape. “Peter,” Jesus is asking, “are you willing to do things for my sake that you do not want to do?” This is the sort of love, of Charity, that is depicted in our third iconic window, the woman giving bread to poor and hungry children, love which leads us to give sacrificially.

The contemporary hymn writer John Bell, a Scotsman affiliated with the Iona Community, has written a beautiful song entitled The Summons which I wish I had the voice to sing to you. I don’t, so you don’t want me to sing it, but please listen as I read the lyrics. I believe these words perfectly describe the sort of Charity our opening prayer asks God to increase in us:

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer pray’r
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of faith – faith like Bartimaeus’s, belief given shape by action undertaken in confidence which is sustained by hope. We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of hope – hope like Job’s, the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul not crushed by the suffering of the present sustained by the heart’s capacity to love and the assurance that in end all will make sense. And we have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of charity – the agape love commanded and demonstrated by Christ who gave himself once for all which leads us to give sacrificially.

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Cor 13:13) May Christ’s charity move and live and grow in us and we in him. Amen.

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

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

Dog Crap, the Temple, and Love – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Dog Crap, the Temple, and Love

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 24, Year 1 (Pentecost 21, 2015)

Ezra 3:10 ~ When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel . . . .

So I haven’t written one of these random meditations for a week . . . and instead of starting this one early in the morning as I usually do (so that they are sort of sleep befuddled first impressions of the Daily Office lessons more than anything else), I went out to do yard work.

I was reminded of another verse of scripture: “You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” (Dt 23:12-13) We have a “dog yard” on the west side of our house; it is our “designated area outside the camp” and it is my privilege to clean it up every Friday on my day off. After doing that, I mow the lawn.

The yard clean up is the foundation, if you will, of my day off. After that is accomplished, I can relax and enjoy the day; I can rejoice and praise the Lord. Foundations, it seems to me, are like that. The work of digging footings, laying foundation stones (or blocks of concrete, or pumping in concrete), making sure the work is level, providing for proper drainage, and so forth, is all very hard work. And then it gets covered up and no one ever sees or thinks about it again, unless something goes wrong. Picking up dog crap is like that. It’s gross and unpleasant work, and no one ever thinks about it . . . unless it doesn’t get done and the stuff piles up. Getting that unpleasant but necessary work done, the work that makes everything else possible, the very important and absolutely necessary work that no one notices when all is well, that is good reason to praise the Lord.

This was not, of course, my initial thought reading the lessons this morning; this only came to me after the dog yard was cleaned and the lawn was mowed. My initial thought was a question: Did St. Paul have this scene in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”? (1 Cor 13:1) Was he thinking of noisy temple rituals when he wrote of actions lacking the foundation of love?

For love is the true foundation of all good. On its website, a Canadian food ministry in which the Anglican Church of Canada is a part includes a prayer beginning with these words: “Creator God, we know that love is the foundation of creation and all life, your love and ours. We know that all things are possible with love – that the least becomes the most important, the last becomes the first.” Done with love even the grossest and most unpleasant of jobs, even most hidden and little recognized work, becomes the most important. Picking up dog shit, cleaning up the latrine, digging ditches, laying stones . . . done with love they are the foundation of the temple and worthy of praise and celebration.

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