That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First Corinthians (page 2 of 9)

Gloria! Homily for the Funeral of C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., 6 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston for the Requiem Mass for C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., June 6, 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible were Isaiah 61:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 5:24-27. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. The Gradual Psalm for the service was Psalm 121 from the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer; it can be read at The Online Book of Common Prayer.)

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As my parishioners know, I often find the images invoked by poets comforting and illuminating in times of grief.

Ronald Stuart Thomas, usually called simply RS Thomas, is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest English language and European poets of the 20th Century. He was an Anglican priest serving in the Church in Wales. No less a person than the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Primate of the Church in Wales, has said of Thomas that he

. . . articulate[d] through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith – the poet has been there before us. (BBC News, RS Thomas centenary celebrated by Bangor Cathedral service)

When Thomas’s wife of 51 years passed away in 1991, he published a multi-part poem entitled Mass for Hard Times. I would like to read for you the section entitled Gloria:

From the body at its meal’s end
and its messmate whose meal is beginning,
Gloria.
From the early and late cloud, beautiful and deadly
as the mushroom we are forbidden to eat,
Gloria.
From the stars that are but as dew
and the viruses outnumbering the star clusters,
Gloria.
From those waiting at the foot of the helix
for the rope-trick performer to come down,
Gloria.
Because you are not there
When I turn, but are in the turning,
Gloria.
Because it is not I who look
but I who am being looked through,
Gloria.
Because the captive has found the liberty
that eluded him while he was free,
Gloria.
Because from the belief that nothing is nothing
it follows that there must be something,
Gloria.
Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.
And because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

(Gloria from Mass for Hard Times by R.S. Thomas (1992), in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK:2013, page 135)

In Thomas’s first lines, I find an echo of the words of St. Paul in our epistle reading today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

Those of us who like Nevada have known cancer in ourselves, or like Roberta and their sons have known it in our loved ones, know all too well that “our outer nature is wasting away,” that (as Thomas put it) the body is at its meal’s end. There is no gentle or genteel way to put it: cancer is not an easy way to die. I don’t know that there is an easy way to end life, but if there is one, cancer isn’t it. That Nevada fought the disease as valiantly as he did and with his characteristic confidentiality, on might even say secrecy, is testament to both his strength of will and his private faith, to what St. Paul might have called his “inner nature . . . being renewed . . . for an eternal weight of glory.”

Our first reading was from the Prophet Isaiah; it is that portion of scripture with which Jesus began his public ministry, taking the scroll from the attendant and reading these same words in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and concluding with the declaration, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) In it we are told that the Messiah’s mission is to proclaim freedom to the captive. In Thomas’s poem he gives glory to God because the captive “has found the liberty that eluded him while he was free.” He must refer, I am sure, to the liberty from the pain and suffering of chronic disease that comes with physical death.

But physical death is not the end of life. As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, physical death, “the last enemy,” has itself been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) Christ “overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” (BCP, page 377) As the preface to the Eucharistic Canon which we will pray in a few minutes says, to God’s “faithful people … life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382) As Jesus promised in our reading from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

I am intrigued by the poet Thomas’s penultimate stanza:

Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.

When we think of all that passes between youth and age, when we (as we do at requiems like this) look back over the life of a friend and loved one and take stock of all that someone like Nevada Johnson was and did – student, law student, member of the Bar, captain in the Army and decorated hero, son and brother, lover and husband, father, fellow follower of Christ, volunteer in his community, hospital board and zoning commission member, historical society founder, and so much more – it is difficult to comprehend what Thomas means calling it a “moment” that “we do not count.”

But then I return to St. Paul and today’s epistle reading in which he refers to this earthly life as a “slight momentary affliction,” and I am reminded of the Psalmist’s declaration of how fleeting life is, that life is but “a few handbreadths” and “everyone stands as a mere breath.” (Ps 39:4-5)

In contrast are the promises of Isaiah that good men like Nevada (and, we believe, all of us through the grace of God) “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory,” and of Paul that this “weight of glory beyond all measure” will be eternal. As the Gradual Psalm which we recited together says: “The Lord shall preserve [us] from all evil; it is he who shall keep [us] safe. The Lord shall watch over [our] going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.” (Ps 121:7-8; BCP, page 779) It is as Jesus promised: we have passed from death to life eternal.

In his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul wrote, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Death has no victory; death has no sting. Death is nothing.

The Rev. Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached sermon entitled Death the King of Terrors while the body of the late King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster Abbey in 1910. His point in that sermon was that death is neither a king nor a terror. In it, he offered this meditation:.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

And so we understand Ronald Stuart Thomas’s final stanza in the Gloria of the Mass for Hard Times:

Because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good example of your servant, Carroll Nevada Johnson, Jr., who, having finished his course in faith, now finds rest and refreshment. May we, with him and all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 503, modified)

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

How To Be Good: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017

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

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit who empowered the disciples to proclaim the Good News to peoples from many lands speaking many tongues: we now pray for those in many lands speaking many languages who have been hurt or killed by terrorist violence in the past fortnight in: London (England), Kabul (Afghanistan), Mosel (Iraq), Minya (Egypt), Khost (Afghanistan), Mastung (Pakistan), Gao (Mali), Borno State (Nigeria), Raqqa (Syria), Mogadishu (Somalia), rural Colombia, Manila (Philippines), Baghdad (Iraq), Basra (Iraq), Portland (Oregon, USA) and Manchester (England). May God grant eternal rest to the departed, healing to the injured, and comfort to those in grief. And since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies, we pray also for those who have committed these violent acts, and for those who may be contemplating additional violence. May God change their hearts and shed abroad the gift of peace throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs (13:14). The word translated there as “teaching” is Torah, the Hebrew name for the Law of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The biblical tradition tells us that seven weeks after the Passover the Hebrews camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, met God, and returned with the Torah inscribed on stone tablets. Therefore, the Jews celebrate on the fiftieth day after Passover the feast called Shavuot, which literally means “the feast of weeks.” It is also called “the feast of the giving of the Law” and “the feast of first fruits” because it also became a celebration of the barley harvest and a time of prayer for the success of the wheat harvest; it was a time when the tithe of the barley harvest, the first ten percent of the grain was brought to the Levites in obedience to the Torah’s requirement: “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)

When worship became centered on the Jerusalem Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot became a pilgrimage feast, one of the three annual festivals on which every male Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, which explains why there were so many people “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) in the streets of Jerusalem when the disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went out to proclaim the Good News. They were the Jews of the Diaspora and for many of them, Greek rather than Hebrew was the language in which they read Scripture and worshiped, and they called this feast “Pentecost,” a word which means “fiftieth day.” They had returned to Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Passover to offer their tithes at the Temple in gratitude for the giving of the Law.

A rabbi of the time famously described the Torah as a “disciplinarian” or “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:22). Writing in Greek, the word he used was paidagogos, a word describing someone in Greek society, usually a family slave, who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of growing boys. In other words, the paidagogos’ obligation was to teach the boys to be good. This was the purpose of the Law given at Mt. Sinai. A modern rabbi writes that one should immerse oneself in the Torah

to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a Godly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within . . . you, [until God’s] thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are [God’s]. (Tzvi Freeman, What Is Torah?)

That is what we as Christians believe happened in the event described by Luke in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, a sharing of the Holy Spirit of God until God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts and they had no alternative but to speak them to the world around them.

That First Century rabbi of whom I spoke was none other than our own parish Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Galatians. He would continue to say that with the coming Christ we are freed from the discipline of the schoolmaster, and instead are led by the Holy Spirit to bear the “fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Another word that describes this fruit is “virtue,” which St. Augustine of Hippo defined as “a good habit consonant with our nature.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Virtue)

The “fruit of the Spirit” should not be confused with the gifts of the Spirit. In the epistle reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul details many of the gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in other tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, 1 Cor. 12:8-10), one of which seems to have been exhibited by the disciples, the ability to speak in other languages. While these gifts are important for a variety of reasons, what is most important about them is that they are, Paul says, “given . . . for the common good.” (v. 7)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his listeners to be good, to do good to all, to enemies as well as friends, saying:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:37-38)

To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, echoing the words the Book of Proverbs applied to the Torah, Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the water of life which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) And in today’s gospel lesson in a similar metaphor, he says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38) This is what Pentecost is all about; this is what happened that morning in Jerusalem; the disciples were given a share of the Holy Spirit of God until, as that contemporary rabbi said, God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts, until the Torah of the wise became a fountain of life and flowed out of them like living water to the world around them.

So the Law was given to teach us to be good and the Holy Spirit empowers us to be good, but how do we actually be good?

An author whose poetry has often graced the pages of The Christian Century, a magazine to which I have subscribed for many years, offered an answer to that question a few years ago. His name was Brian Doyle; he lived in Portland, Oregon, taught at the University of Portland, and edited Portland Magazine. He died a week ago from the same sort of brain cancer which killed my own brother several years ago, so I took particular note of his passing. At his requiem day before yesterday at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, mourners were given a copy of an essay he wrote and published in his 2013 book The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press, Chicago:2013). The essay is entitled How to Be Good. I would like to read part of it to you now:

First, pick up your wet towel and at least, for heavenssake, hang it up to dry. And wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn’t have to be shining and spotless, that would be fussy and false, but at least don’t leave little mounds of your neck hairs like dead insects for your partner and children to find. At least do that. It’s the little things; they aren’t little. You knew that. I am just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from the street, where it fell broken and almost unrecognizable, and she saw it as a holy being and she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn’t little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and was thus holy beyond our ken. Or in the morning, when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say thank you to the harried girl with the Geelong Cats logo tattooed on her forehead. At least look her in the eye and be gentle. Christ liveth in her, remember? Old Saint Paul said that, and who are we to gainsay the testy little gnarled genius? And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving, yes, you are peeved, and yes, he could be chasing down murderers, but be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault, you could have checked the scores later, and for another, Christ liveth in him. Also in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man under the clock at Flinders Street Station, and in the foulmouthed man at the footy, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation and have detested since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful vulgar elephantine couch to yet another of his shabby flats, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so and who could blame you? But Christ liveth in him. Speak hard words into your closet and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch, for the ninth blessed time, and do not credit yourself with good works, for you too are a package of small sins and cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta, but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the kids’ team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear and give them away. Sell the old machinery and turn it into food for those who starve. Express gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write the minister and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is care for the bruised among us, not pose on television. Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter but we know that they matter. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like sharp swords against the squirm of despair and violence. The Church is you. Christ liveth in you. Do not cloak Him but let Him be about His business, which is using the tools the Creator gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love given and granted; savor that and disburse that which is not important. Use less, slow down, write small notes. All the way to heaven is heaven, said old Catherine of Siena, and who are we to gainsay that slight smiling genius? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance. If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out in the open. Try to forgive even that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I do not know how that can be so but it is so. You and I know that. I am only reminding us. Be who only you are. Rise to what you dream. Do not cease with joy. That is the nature of the gift we were given. It is the most amazing and extraordinary and confusing and complicated gift that ever was. Never take it for granted, not for an instant, not for the seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness and generosity and kindness and mercy. Also humor. Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what He said could happen if we loved well. He did not mean loving only the people you know. He meant every idiot and liar and thief and blowhard and even your cousin. I do not know how that could be so, but I know it is so. So do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Ready? (Page 15)

On this fiftieth day, this feast of the first fruits, this day of bringing our tithes and offerings of thanksgiving before God, this celebration of the giving of the Torah and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the church, let us begin again to be good, and let goodness be in us like the Torah of the wise, a spring gushing up to eternal life, running over, and flowing out, a river into the world around us, so that “justice [may] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us begin again to be good, you and me, today! Ready?

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

Act One: Use Your Towel – Maundy Thursday 2017

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

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

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

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

So, here we are….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Holy, Be Perfect – Sermon for Epiphany 7, 19 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; and St. Matthew 5:38-48. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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pinkperfectionWhen the Prayers of the People are offered later in this service you will hear a name you’ve never heard before, and you will hear that the person named was buried in our memory garden this week, and you will wonder, “Who is Indra?” (“Indra” is not the child’s real name.)

Indra was born on February 1, 2017. And Indra died on February 1, 2017. Whether she was stillborn or expired a few minutes after her birth is unknown. Indra suffered Turner Syndrome and was born in her parents’ automobile as they were driving to the Emergency Room. In any event, she was not living when they got to the hospital.

Because of her father’s cultural traditions, the family was not involved in her burial and do not know the whereabouts of her ashes. Only the funeral director and I were present. It was the shortest, simplest funeral I’ve ever conducted, but in many ways it was perhaps the saddest and hardest burial I have done in 27 years of ordained ministry.

I was going to start this sermon with the declaration that being a priest is hard, but then I was asked to handle Indra’s burial and I thought perhaps that telling you about her and her funeral would illustrate that better than my simply whining to you about how hard it is to be priest.

It’s not this stuff, this Sunday stuff, that is hard. This is easy. Just follow the Prayer Book, follow the Lectionary, choose some hymns that fit the lessons, ask David to pick some other music, say a few words about Scripture, and share some Bread and some Wine. That’s easy.

And funerals and weddings are usually pretty much the same. Just follow the recipe; like cooking, it all pretty much takes care of itself.

But, sometimes, it’s not. Funerals usually aren’t hard, but Indrah’s fast, simple, no-family-to-deal-with burial was incredibly hard.

Sitting with someone in hospital who is facing their death is hard; sitting with a family whose loved one is facing death is even harder. Counseling two people getting married is hard; counseling two people getting divorced is harder. Getting over being angry with God is hard; helping someone else get over being angry with God is harder.

I don’t really know how handles those situations. I don’t really know how to do this stuff and I’m never sure I’ve done it right. If putting together a Sunday service is like cooking, this sort of stuff is more like baking. I was tempted to say there are no rule books for this sort of thing, but the truth is that there are lots books. There are lots of recipes. There are too many, in fact, and they seem to all give contradictory advice.

I say it’s like baking because I am always looking for the secret to flaky pie crusts or to a successful soufflé. One of my grandmothers swore by using lard in her crusts; the other used butter. My mother said to use vinegar in the dough, but my aunt insisted that ice water was the trick. And as hard as making a good pie crust is, baking a soufflé is even worse. Follow the recipe, but get the slightest thing just a wee bit “off” and what might have been a glorious dessert is a hopeless disaster, and more often than not, you have no idea what you did wrong.

Some of being a priest, a lot of being a priest actually, is like making pie crust or baking a souffle. Do it right – everything is great. Do the slightest thing wrong – it’s a complete mess. And constantly live in fear of that slight, wrong thing.

I think the priests in Solomon’s Temple had it easier. They had Leviticus. Most of us aren’t very familiar with Leviticus. It is, for the most part, a book of rules, of very detailed rules. So we don’t read it in church very much.

We Episcopalians are fond of saying that our worship is among the most biblical of all Christian denominations. We are often criticized for not taking the Bible more seriously and those not familiar with our liturgy accuse us of ignoring it. When that happens, we often fire back that our Prayer Book is about 80% scriptural and that we read through the Bible using a Lectionary so that (and I’ve heard clergy say this) “we read all of the Bible in three years.”

Except that’s not true. We don’t read all those genealogies. There are some of the Psalms that we don’t consider appropriate for Sunday worship, although we do read them in the Daily Offices. And there’s Leviticus from which we read, I think, only two short lessons in the whole three years of the Lectionary cycle. Today is one of those two times. Nonetheless, it is a book worth knowing and knowing about. I commend it to you; it is especially good for reading late at night when you can’t get to sleep . . . .

Very briefly, this is what you’ll find in Leviticus. First, there are six chapters on various kinds of offerings and sacrifices, then two chapters instructing priests how to handle all the different sorts of offerings and sacrifices. This is followed by four chapters on the history of the Aaronic priesthood.

Next are five chapters on uncleanness with which the Temple priests were expected to deal, unclean animals, the uncleanliness of women caused by childbirth, various unclean diseases (such as leprosy) and how the priests were to cleans them, if possible, and (my favorite) unclean bodily discharges. (Maybe the Temple priests didn’t have it easier, after all. I’m quite happy that you don’t come to me with your unclean diseases, your weeping ulcerous sores, and your other bodily discharges! That would be really hard . . . .)

After the uncleanness chapters, there is one chapter detailing the Day of Atonement.

Then comes something scholars call “the Holiness Code,” ten chapters for the not-priests, for the people of God. Ten chapters of practical rules for living a righteous life. One of them, from which we heard today, concerns neighborliness and begins with this admonition, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Do you know why I became a priest? Yes, I had that sense of call and went through the discernment “process” and all of that (twice, actually, but that’s another story). But . . . really . . . when I look back on it, I realize that I left my life as a trial lawyer and went into the ordained ministry because, as hard as it is, it’s easier than being a lay person. As hard as it sometimes is to be a priest, to be a “professional Christian” in the church, it’s harder still to be a lay Christian in the world.

There are no good rule books for priests, or too many contradictory rule books, but there are expectations and there are permissions. There is a stereotype and there are prescribed situations. There is “safety within the walls” of the church, within the set of circumstances in which a priest finds him- or herself.

That’s not true in the world. In the the wide open, free wheeling, anything-can-come-at-you-world where you not-priests have to do your ministry, you have the much harder job.

You can tell that just by look at the Book of Leviticus: there are five chapters of rules for priests, but there are ten for the not-priests! The people of God have twice as much to do as the priests of God.

And you can tell it just by reading the Catechism of the Episcopal Church (it’s in the Prayer Book back around page 845 or so, in that part of the book no one ever seems to open). It asks there who the ministers of the Church are and answers that it’s everyone: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. The ministry of priests, it says, is to “share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 856)

That’s a piece of cake when you compare it to the ministry of the laity. According to the Catechism, your job, oh People of God, is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [you] may be; and, according to the gifts given [you], to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take [your] place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” (BCP, page 855) Now that is hard work!

The Jewish bible scholar and rabbi Jacob Milgrom said that the point of the Book of Leviticus is that holiness is not the responsibility of priests alone. In this book, and especially in the Holiness Code, “the domain of the sacred expands, embracing the entire land, not just the sanctuary, and all of Israel, not just the priesthood.” Israel, he said, attains holiness and priests strive to sustain it. (Milgrom, J., Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, Fortress Press, Minneapolis:2004, pp 175, 178)

Although priests are not allowed by the rules in Leviticus to make any mistake, attaining holiness takes a lot more work than sustaining it. What we priests do in the sanctuary merely sustains holiness; what the People of God do in the world, that is how holiness is attained. That’s much, much harder!

It takes love … It takes loving even people we don’t really like, even people we can’t stand! Indeed, the word used in Hebrew text is not exactly “neighbor;” it is not limited to those who are geographically nearby. The Hebrew word is more akin to “fellow” and seems to be much more expansive. Thus, when a lawyer questions Jesus about the Law, Jesus is able to cite the rule from Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and then illustrate it with a story involving someone from another country, a hated foreigner, the Good Samaritan. (See Luke 10:25–37)

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus quotes (or, actually, misquotes) the same verse from Leviticus, adding words that aren’t in the original: “You have heard that it was said,” he says, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” (Mt 5:43)

Now to be fair to Jesus, he doesn’t actually say he’s quoting Leviticus, just “you have heard it said.” That last bit about hating enemies could just be a rabbinic gloss; it could just be folk wisdom. In any event, it was (and is) the way people act. Jesus acknowledges human nature by beginning this bit of the Sermon on the Mount (and that’s what this is, the end of the first chapter of that long sermon) with commentary on what’s called “the lex talionis,” that eye-for-an-eye rule. But the lex talionis isn’t about enemies; that’s a rule of justice not of war. “An eye for an eye” deals with retribution toward a neighbor who has violated social norms. Jesus dispenses with that (saying, basically, don’t follow the lex talionis, don’t seek retribution or revenge) and now moves beyond it; he leaves the neighborhood, so to speak.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Love those whom you fear, even those you think might kill you, even the hated foreigner.” He’s saying that “enemy” is not really a separate class, that the world isn’t divided into neighbors and enemies. Although some people would like to do that, although some people have always done that (it’s human nature, after all), the world isn’t carved up that way. Jesus is saying (I think) that “enemies” are simply a class of “neighbors;” that enemies and neighbors are all “fellows;” that the division – neighbors here, enemies there, those we’re unsure about in some holding pen over there – doesn’t hold water.

And then, echoing Leviticus’ “Holiness Code,” especially the first verses of the neighborliness rules of Chapter 19 – “Be Holy because God is holy” – Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)

That’s heavy stuff! And remember the Leviticus command and Jesus’ admonition are not directed to the priests; these are directives for the whole People of God, for the laity.

It’s hard work . . . but as Kathryn Schifferdecker, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says these verses are as much promise as command:

“You shall be holy.” It is both command and promise. And to believe that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living out in our day-to-day lives genuine love for God and for our neighbors. (Working Preacher)

You will be holy. You will be perfect. It’s a promise – so act on the promise; live as if you believe the promise. And keep this in mind, “holiness” is just another way to say “wholeness” and “perfection” is just another way to say “completion.” The promise of holiness is an instruction to strive for wholeness; the promise of perfection is a command to work toward completion.

What Leviticus and Jesus ask of us is that we be fully human, that we be as whole and complete a human being as each of us can be. And the way we do that is to love our neighbor, even the neighbor who seems to be our enemy, even the neighbor of whom we are afraid, even the neighbor we think may kill us.

When I was kid, I helped my stepdad restore old homes. I think my parents invented to the practice of “flipping,” buying old fixer-uppers, rehabbing them, and then selling them hopefully at a profit. From the time I was about 10 years old until I went away to college, we lived and fixed up in a different house every year. The last thing we would do was to paint the interiors. My stepdad encouraged me to do that very neatly and carefully because, he would say (and I had no idea that he was referencing scripture), “Paint covers a multitude of sins.”

He was parodying the First Letter of Peter, “Love covers a multitude of sins (4:8).” Peter goes on to say, “Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (v. 10).” Just be human, be yourself, be the best you you can be, loving your neighbor and using whatever gifts you have been given. I know that’s hard; it’s really hard. But with the help and grace of God, you can do it.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is a promise more than it is a command. With the help and grace of God you will be holy; you will be perfect.

And the glorious thing is – the Gospel truth is – that through the grace of God you already are!

Amen!

(Note: The illustration is Camelia Japonica, “Pink Perfection,” a camellia cutlivar dating from the late 18th Century; it was one of the most popular flowers of the Victorian Age.)

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

Life or Death; Lawfulness or Sinfulness: Sermon for 6 Epiphany, 12 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 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: Sirach 15:15-20 (or, alternatively, Deuteronomy 30:15-20); Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and St. Matthew 5:21-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Moses_Pleading_with_IsraelThe Book of Deuteronomy tells us that when the long Exodus journey of the People of the Hebrews ended, just before they were to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses delivered a farewell address. He was not going to be going into the new land with them.

You may remember that God had been angered by the first generation of wandering Hebrews, what Jesus might have called an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mk 8:38), who had grumbled against God, had wanted to turn back, and who had eventually been so disobedient that they had fashioned an idol (the Golden Calf) and worshiped it instead of Yahweh, their deliverer.

Furthermore, even when they worshiped and followed God, they didn’t trust God. Not believing God’s promise of the land into which they were to come, they sent spies ahead of them. This angered God, so that God had decreed that none of those who had left Egypt would enter the Holy Land (Numbers, Ch. 14). The Psalmist quotes God:

They put me to the test,
though they had seen my works.
Forty years long I detested that generation and said,
“This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
So I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter into my rest.” (Ps 95:9-11)

So Moses was the last of these and, in addition, he himself had been told by God that he would not enter the Promised Land because he and his brother Aaron had doubted God at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. God had said to him and to Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Num 20:12)

So at the brink of their entry, probably near Moab in the valley of Beth-Peor where he would be buried in an unmarked tomb, Moses gathered the children and grandchildren of the original Hebrews and summarized all that God had done for them and all that God required of them saying, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”(Deut 30:15). Follow the laws of God, have life and prosperity; disobey the commandments, death and adversity.

Throughout the discourse, Moses does an interesting thing that we can’t follow in the English translation; he intermixes the use of the plural “you” and the singular “you.” By doing so, he seems to be saying that the obligation to do good, to follow the commandments is both a communal and an individual responsibility. As a whole, the People of God must do these things, but it isn’t sufficient that they do it only as a community. The individual member can’t rely on his or her neighbor to do it for them; he or she can’t rely on the community’s leadership to do it for them. Each member of the community must do it for themselves; the individual needs the support of the community to undertake and accomplish this individual responsibility, but the individual can’t let it slide and just rely on the community to take up his or her slack, so to speak.

Also throughout the course of his speech, Moses makes it clear that though God places this choice of good or bad, life or death, prosperity or adversity, obedience or waywardness before God’s people, God does not underwrite or endorse both equally. In fact, God endorses only one. So, at the end of his address, Moses offers his own advice: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Dt 30:19-20).

Choose life! I can imagine Moses raising a glass and giving this counsel in the form of the great Jewish toast “l’Chaim!” – “To life!” And given what was at stake, Moses adds, “Hold fast to God,” basically saying, “And don’t mess it up!”)

Several generations later, around 200-175 BC, Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem, a Jewish scribe, echoed Moses’ admonition as he wrote a text which is in the canon of writings called “the wisdom literature.” This body of literature constitutes basically a course of education for young men training for what we might call “the civil service.” The sons of the class equivalent to the “minor aristocracy” of England would be trained to function in the courts of kings throughout the ancient middle east using these writings. We heard this author’s advice to these young men in today’s reading from the Book of Sirach.

The author’s name is Simon, and he is identified as the son of Yeshua, who was the son of Eliezer, who was the son of Sirach, but some for reason we call the book by his grandfather’s, or rather his great-grandfather’s name. I suppose we do that because we think grandfathers are wiser than their sons or grandsons, although I don’t think I’ve convinced my son of that. This book is part of the Christian scriptures we call “the Apocrypha.” It is recognized as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. The Jews don’t recognize it as scripture because it is known only in a Greek translation discovered in Egypt; if there was a Hebrew language original (which one would assume since a scribe from Jerusalem wrote it), it has been lost to history. And since the Jews don’t accept it, the Protestants won’t recognize it, either.

Of course, we Anglicans take our usual middle way . . . we won’t based doctrine on it, but we will use it for the teaching of ethics and morality, which is pretty much the way this book has been used by the church through the ages. Another name for the text is “Liber Ecclesiasticus” or “Book of the Church” because it was used throughout the middle ages to teach clergy.

In any event, Simon the son of Yeshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Sirach, offers advice to the trainee courtiers not at all dissimilar to that offered by Moses to the Hebrews: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:15-17).

Simon the Scribe is a very canny fellow. He uses a metaphor for the choice of life or death, lawfulness or sinfulness; God, he says, “has placed before you fire and water.” At first glance that seems a pretty solid and clear metaphor, destructive fire versus life-giving water; but the metaphor is not all that clear. It’s really rather ambiguous. In some circumstances, yes, fire is destructive and death-dealing, but if you’re freezing to death in a winter storm, fire can be life-preserving; in some circumstances, yes, water is sustaining of life, but if you’re drowning in the sea the last thing you want is more water. Which, then, represents death and which life? One’s choices, Simon the Scribe seems to be saying, are not always clear cut and unambiguous.

And, like Moses, Simon reminds his readers that although the choices may be set before one by God, God does not underwrite or endorse both alternatives. God, he says, has a clear preference: “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin. ” (v. 20)

So Moses and Simon the Scribe offer their audiences, both their original audiences and us, this counsel that we have some big, important choices to made: life or death, prosperity or adversity, ethical conduct or sinful behavior. The choice may sometimes be ambiguous, but these are really big matters. And along comes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and complicates things by telling us that our choices aren’t just about the big stuff. “You’ve heard the commandment,” he says, “‘Thou shalt not murder.’ Well, you’re just as guilty if you think badly of another, if you insult a brother or sister, if you argue with another member of the community. You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Well, even if you just think about about it, you’re guilty!” Remember when Jimmy Carter got into public hot water by confessing in that quaint King James language that despite his long and faithful marriage to Rosalyn he had “lusted in his heart” after other women? (Oh, for the day’s when just that was sufficient to get a candidate or politician into trouble…. )

Jesus extended Moses’ admonition and Simon the Scribe’s advice even further. Yes, there are important choices to be made. Yes, they are sometimes ambiguous. And, guess what? They come at us every day, every hour, in everything we do. Not just in the big things, but in the little everyday minutiae of human existence.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not very often I have to decide not to kill someone (only about once a week), but every day I have to decide whether let a zinger of an insult fly or bite my tongue and hold it back, whether to vent my anger over some upset or just shrug it off and let go of it. It’s not very often that I have to decide whether or not to commit adultery; in fact, never (no one seems to think I’m that attractive). But all through the day I have to make . . . we all have to make . . . these ethical and moral decisions. We have to make our choices, daily, and then stick to them as best we can. As Jesus admonishes us, let our decisions to be “Yes, yes” or “no, no.”

Interestingly, in the koine Greek in which the author of our Gospel lesson wrote, he recorded Jesus doing what the Hebrews scripture recorded Moses doing: mixing plural “yous” with singular “yous” in his discourse. Like Moses, Jesus underscores what we all know to be the truth – that none of us can do this on our own, that we have to have the support of our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our fellow church members.

There is a story in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapters 27 & 28) about something that happened after the children of the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. Joshua the son of Nun, who was Moses’ assistant and took over leadership when Moses died, was directed to Moses to lead them into the valley of Shechem, the place where Jacob’s well is. Somehow I seem to recall that there were about 40,000 of them at the time, and Joshua divided them by tribes, sending half of them to the summit of Mount Gerizim and half of them to the summit of Mount Ebal on the other side of the valley. And those on Mt. Gerizim recited the blessings of keeping the Law, while those on Mt. Ebal recited the curses that came with disobedience.

I have this vision of Joshua reading the commandments, not just the “big ten” that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai on the stone tablets, but the other 603 mitzvoth (or “statutes”) that got added to them and as he would read each one, the folks on Mt. Gerizim would shout “Obey this law and you will be blessed” and those on Mt. Ebal would shout “Disobey and you will be cursed.” Can you imagine how 20,000 voices shouting on one side of valley and another 20,000 voices shouting in response on the other side would have echoed throughout the land? Those voices also would have echoed down through time as a reminder that obedience is a communal thing, but also a personal thing, an individual obligation in which one is support by the community.

But even that is not enough. We humans individually are unable to stay in the narrow way and we are also unable to do so as communities, as churches, as nations. As our opening collect says, “in our weakness we can do nothing good without you” (BCP 1979, pg 216) and as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). If we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice; but we can only stay the course if we are aided by our community and upheld by God.

Today and every day, the choice is before us, good or evil, obedience or sinfulness, life or death. Choose life! – l’Chaim – and rely on God (don’t mess it up)!

Amen!

(Illustration: Moses Pleading with Israel, an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company.)

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

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!

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

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