That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First John (page 1 of 3)

The Work of Christ – Sermon at the Requiem for Elizabeth Scott Bres, January 28, 2018

You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.”[1] Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”

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God the Embroiderer – Sermon at the Requiem for Susan H. Potterton, January 13, 2018

Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?

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An Anthropology of Heaven – Sermon for All Saints Sunday, RCL Year A

I think it’s no secret that I am a news junkie. I read several articles and opinion pieces in three major newspapers (the N.Y. Times, the Washington Post, and the Manchester Guardian) everyday. I watch the cable news commentaries on all of the news channels (yes, even Fox) and I read a couple of major international journals on a regular basis (the Economist and Foreign Policy).

I’ve been a news junkie since I was a kid. It was not uncommon for my parents and I (and my older brother when he was still living with us) to watch the CBS Evening News during dinner. I will always remember Walter Cronkite’s sign off: “And that’s the way it is . . . . ” and then he would say the date. “And that’s the way it is November 5, 2017.” Over on NBC, which my grandparents preferred to watch, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley shared the anchorman job, one in Washington, DC, the other in New York City, and they would sign off by wishing each other and the nation “Good Night!” There was something reassuring about those sign-offs, something solid and final. If Uncle Walter said, “That’s the way it is . . . .” If Chet and David said, “Good night!” we could rest easy knowing that the world was right, that the facts were nailed down.

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Our Chronic Illness, Our Besetting Sin (Eve of St. Alban, 21 June 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Eve of the Feast of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain, June 21, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 31:1-5; 1 John 3:13-16; and Matthew 10:34-42.)

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Heavenly Father,
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Amen.

We are moving away from the Lectionary this morning and are using the propers for the commemoration of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain, whose feast is tomorrow. I hope you’ll forgive me this personal conceit: we are doing so because twenty-four years ago today, on the Eve of St. Alban’s Day 1991, the Right Rev. Stewart Zabriskie, bishop of the Diocese of Nevada and about 30 presbyters of that diocese laid their hands upon me and ordained me a priest in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus promises that one result of following him will be conflict with one’s family: “I have come to set a man against his father,” he said. Those are hard words to hear spoken on Father’s Day (which today also happens to be), but they are words that speak to me because of my family history. I have spoken to you often of my father, York Funston, and of my grandfather, Charles Edgar Funston (known to everyone as “CE”), but you may not have notice that I have never involving both of them. That is because during the time they were both alive during my lifetime they never spoke to one another; I can recall no time when they were ever together.

When my father came home from the Second World War and finished his degree at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, my father and mother moved to southern Nevada. That was in 1947. From that point until he died in 1958, my father never again saw nor did he ever speak to his father. The reason was a very simple one, but one which is deeply imbedded in the culture of this country and is the besetting sin of our society; I believe it may be a chronic disease that is killing country.

My father had been an enlisted man in the US Army artillery. While serving in the European theater, he had become friends with several black service men. That was, I believe, a transformative experience for him. I don’t know what may have happened between my father and grandfather to sever their relationship, but I do know this . . . my grandfather was a racist: until he died in 1977, I never heard my grandfather ever refer to an African American by any term other than “n***er.” That was an attitude and a word my father simply could not and would not tolerate.

When my grandfather died in 1977 it was because he had suffered a stroke. My grandfather suffered that stroke because he, like every other member of our family (myself included) had a chronic disease, high blood pressure. Being a stubborn man, he did nothing about it and eventually that stubbornness caught up with him. He suffered a stroke, became bed ridden, and eventually contracted pneumonia which killed him. His chronic disease weakened him; the opportunistic, acute illness killed him.

The accurate medical term for high blood pressure is “hypertension,” a word which was originally coined in the mid-19th Century to mean, “excessive or extreme emotional tenseness.” That’s what racism is, a hypertension, a chronic disease which is killing American society.

Cartoon from "The New Yorker Magazine" by Christopher Weyant

Cartoon from “The New Yorker Magazine” by Christopher Weyant

On Wednesday night, America witnessed what happens when that chronic illness is augmented by the acute and opportunistic disease of easy unfettered unregulated unrestricted access to firearms. A 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof with a history of racism planned and carried out the murders of nine black men and women worshiping in their church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; four of those who died were pastors of the church, including the senior pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator.

Researcher Timothy Tyson of Duke University has written recently about the killer . . .

[A photograph of Roof shows] a young man wear[ing] Rhodesian and apartheid-era [South African] flags on his jacket. Both countries never existed during his lifetime. Both flags are commonly worn as in-group insignia among politically organized white supremacists.

Dylann Roof told his victims that he came to kill black people because they are “raping our women and taking over our country.” Both claims date back to the white supremacy campaigns of the 1890s . . . . These ideas did not just percolate up inside of his mind; this is not ordinary “bias” or suspicion of people different from him; someone had to teach him these elaborated historical traditions. * * * He gunned down nine people at a historic black church, historic enough that he might well have selected it intentionally; Emanuel AME has been at the center of the civil rights struggle since the early 19th century. * * *

Roof said he wanted to start a race war; this is a common theme among white supremacists and depicted in their favorite book, The Turner Diaries, which also helped inspire Timothy McVeigh to commit the Oklahoma City bombings. He is part of something, . . . something dangerous. America in general and South Carolina in particular are generously sprinkled with white supremacist groups. (From a Facebook Note)

Wednesday’s tragedy, unfortunately, is only one of several recent incidents throughout the nation which have made it clear that racism is a chronic disease that is killing us. It may even be a part of our nation’s DNA. The evil institution of white Europeans owning black African slaves was allowed by our Founders to continue here when our nation was created. Some recognized the iniquity of doing so. Abigail Adams, wife of the first Vice President, once wrote in a letter to her husband, “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”

Many people do not realize that the U.S. Constitution as originally adopted provide that, in determining the proportional representation in House of Representatives, blacks were to be counted as lesser than whites. Specifically, it provided that the number of representatives to which a state was entitled would be “determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” (Art. I, Sec. 2, Cl. 3)

Interestingly, it was not the southern slave owners who inserted that provision, it was northerners. Elbridge Gerry, a deputy from Massachusetts who later became the fifth Vice President of the United States, objected to counting blacks at all arguing, “Why should the blacks, who were property in the South, be in the rule of representation more than the cattle and horses of the North?” I think we can all agree that valuing African Americans as nothing more than cattle or horses, or even as 3/5 of a free white person, is simply wrong; there is no other word for it – it’s wrong! Racism is a chronic disease from which America seems always to have suffered; it is our nation’s original and besetting sin.

Although it is historically wrong to assert that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation,” it is not inaccurate to recognize that most of the Founders were members of the Christian church; many, in fact, were Episcopalians. That Christians should have valued other human beings, black human beings, many of whom were themselves converts to the Christian faith, as of lesser value, as of no more value “than cattle and horses” boggles the mind. It flies in the face of, it is a direct violation of Christ’s new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) As the portion of the First Letter of John read this morning reminds us, “Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.” (1 Jn 3:14b-15) Racism, the hatred of a brother or sister human being simply because their skin color differs from one’s own, is deadly; it is the chronic hypertension that is weakening and killing our country.

When a chronic illness weakens the body, an acute opportunistic infection can bring death. My grandfather’s weakened condition, bedridden from a hypertension-induced stroke, made him a prime target for deadly pneumonia. Weakened by the hypertension of racism, our country is a prime target for the deadly destruction that the acute problem of easy unfettered unregulated unrestricted access to guns can wreak. Now, I know, some will answer me that the right to bear arms is a constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment and I really do not want to get into that argument today; let me just leave the issue with one thought – if the Constitution could be wrong today about the 3/5 valuation of black Americans, could it not also be wrong today about firearm access and ownership?

May I shift gears here and tell you how I spent my day on Friday?

I started the day earlier than usual getting to the office at 7:30 a.m. because I had a 9 o’clock doctor’s appointment and I wanted to be sure the rooms where, later, bicycles would be stowed overnight were ready for that. So I got here, and moved tables and chairs out of the way. Then I worked on the Prayers of the People for today’s services until I had to go my physician’s office. That didn’t take very long, so on the way back to the church I made a pastoral call. When I got back here, I met with a parishioner about pre-planning her and her spouse’s funerals, then I put together some materials for the clergy who will be substituting here while I am at General Convention. By then it was about 1 p.m. so I took the dog home (she’d been with me through all that I just outlined), grabbed a quick bite to eat, and got back here by 2 p.m. to begin receiving the 28 bicycle riders we would be hosting. From then until we sat down to dinner with them I ran several errands getting riders to their lodgings and picking up a few things for the kitchen crew, then I helped set the tables for dinner. After welcoming our guests to supper, I sat down at a table with the bishop expecting to enjoy dinner, only to be informed that a toilet in the ladies’ room was overflowing. I am grateful to my lady-wife, who got a plunger and went to work, but unfortunately things only went from bad to worse. Eventually, I found myself standing in a puddle of rather unsavory water on the phone with our plumber and then with Roto-Rooter arranging a late night service call. So after we broke down the tables and set up the chairs for Free Farmers’ Market, I sat here while the Roto-Rooter man did his job. Eventually he cleared what turned out to be a 75-ft long plug of God-knows-what, and he and I left at around 10:30 pm.

Days like that are not typical for clergy, but they are not uncommon, either. Usually after such a day, I go home tired but feeling pretty good about the life to which I’ve been called and which I’ve lived for 24 years of ordained ministry. The priesthood is a privilege and, no matter how tiring a day may be, it is usually a joyful mystery.

Friday, however, on the way home, I started crying. I got to thinking about Clementa Pinckney who, though very much younger than I, had been a pastor for just about the same amount of time, 23 years in his case. And I got to thinking about his fellow pastors DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Daniel Simmons Sr., and Sharonda Singleton, all of them gunned-down with five of their parishioners at Emanuel AME Church by a hate-filled, 21-year-old, white supremacist. I got to thinking about how I’m sure they had had similar days of ministry, and about how terrible it is that they are not still alive to do those things for their congregation, to visit their parishioners, to help plan funerals and weddings, to bear the frustrations of coordinating activities with bishops, to be burdened by the annoyance of clogged sewer pipes, and to endure the exhaustion of 16-hour days. And the only reason they are not . . . is racism. I believe that, as the Book of Wisdom reminds us, they “are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” and that their witness “will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble” (3:1,7), but we would all so much prefer that Wednesday had never happened.

On the anniversary of my ordination, I would so much prefer to preach about anything else, but the reality of racism cannot be denied, the sin of racism must be confronted. I don’t know if my father ever confronted my grandfather about his racism. I know that I never did and by failing to do so I am as guilty as him. Racism is our nation’s besetting sin and we must repent; it our society’s chronic illness and we must cure it, because it is killing our country.

Let us pray:

Good and gracious God, you created every human being in your image and likeness; we are weary, we are tired, we are sick of the besetting sin of racism that infects our country: we repent of the ways we have participated in or benefited from racial injustice; we ask forgiveness for the ways our nation continues to foster an environment of separation; break through the strongholds of superiority, destroy the dividing lines of racial separation, cure us of the toxic disease of prejudice, forgive us; make your church a model of unity, a beacon of reconciliation, and keep us on the path that leads to your light; through your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. 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.

May We Be One: Sermon for Sunday after the Ascension (Easter 7) – 17 May 2015

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A sermon offered on the Sunday after the Ascension, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 17, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 1:15-17,21-26; Psalm 1; 1 John 5:9-13; and John 17:6-19. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Unity in the Community“That they may be one, as we are one.” (Jn 17:11)

Obviously, there is quite a bit more to the “Farewell Discourse” or “High Priestly Prayer” of which today’s gospel lesson is a part, but in the end (I believe) the central petition of Jesus’ last prayer is one for the unity of the church and for God the Father’s protection of that unity.

Perhaps 60 or 70 years had passed since Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension when the author or authors of the Fourth Gospel put the finishing touches on this manuscript. Bible historians believe this gospel was written in Roman Asia (what is now Turkey), perhaps in the city of Ephesus, almost 1,100 miles from Jerusalem by land (over 600 miles by sea), sometime between 90 and 100 A.D.

They wrote not from personal experience and witness, but from oral tradition crossing decades of theological development and a great distance of cultural difference. There were many things that they had heard that Jesus had said, and a great deal that they needed Jesus to have said, and when they reached almost the end of their story, they had him say a lot of it in this Farewell Discourse.

Guided (we believe) by the Holy Spirit, the authors of this gospel portray Jesus offering this lengthy prayer to the Father, a prayer which might also be thought of as his last theological instruction to his inner circle, those who came to be called “The Apostles.” At its core is his wish that they stick together, “that they may be one, as we are one,” and that they continue his ministry by teaching the Truth he had sought to teach them.

The Episcopal Church takes this call to unity and ministry seriously, understanding it as a call not to uniformity but to harmony. In 2009, the 76th General Convention of the Episcopal Church declared that a “Biblically-based respect for the diversity of understandings that authentic, truth-seeking human beings have is essential for communal reasoning and faithful living. The revelation of God in Christ calls us therefore to participate in our relationship with God and one another in a manner that is at once faithful, loving, lively, and reasonable. This understanding continues to call Episcopalians to find our way as one body through various conflicts. It is not a unity of opinion or a sameness of vision that holds us together. Rather, it is the belief that we are called to walk together in Jesus’ path of reconciliation not only through our love for the other, but also through our respect for the legitimacy of the reasoning of the other. Respect for reason empowers us to meet God’s unfolding world as active participants in the building of the Kingdom and to greet God’s diverse people with appropriate welcome and gracious hospitality.” (Interreligious Relation Statement – Final Text)

Last Sunday, fifteen members of our congregation, joined by two others from St. Patrick in Brunswick, knelt before Bishop William Persell and, in some manner, reaffirmed the covenant made at their baptism. One was already a confirmed Episcopalian; two were teenagers who’d grown up in this parish. The others came to us from a variety of backgrounds, some actively Christian in other traditions, some not. Whatever their background, however, those fifteen persons apparently found here at St. Paul’s Parish that “appropriate welcome and gracious hospitality,” that unity in ministry to which the High Priestly Prayer compels us.

In his prayer, Jesus refers to his disciples (all of them, not just the Apostles) as “those whom [the Father] gave me from the world.” (v. 6) Earlier during their dinner conversation, he had reminded his followers, “You did not choose me but I chose you.” (Jn 15:16a) We tend to think otherwise of our membership in this or any church; we like to believe that we are autonomous, that we are here by our own decision, and our confirmation service certainly encourages our thinking in that direction.

In that liturgy, the Bishop asks the candidates, “Do you renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?” and they answer, “I do, and with God’s grace I will follow him as my Savior and Lord.” (BCP 1979, page 415) We tend to focus on only the first two words of that response, “I do.” But Jesus’ words at the Last Supper compel us to surrender our autonomy and hear clearly the rest of the answer: “I do … with God’s grace ….”

“I do … with God’s grace ….”

Let’s consider the case of Matthias chosen as replacement Apostle in our reading from the Book of Acts. Peter, having heard Christ’s prayer that the unity of the church might be preserved, knew that Jesus’ plan of a leadership group of twelve followers had to be reconstituted; the unity for which Jesus had prayed had been broken and needed to be restored. “One of these [who have been with us from the beginning] must become a witness with us to [the Lord’s] resurrection.” (Acts 1:21) Peter was well aware that Jesus’ mission had been to restore Israel and that this inner circle was key to that mission; he probably recalled that Jesus had told them that they would “sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt 19:28), something that could not happen if there were only eleven of them. To restore the embryonic church to its original unity, a replacement apostle was needed.

Two candidates meeting the community’s qualifications are put forward, Matthias and another named Justus, and Matthias is chosen through the casting of lots. It might seem that this is all just a game of chance, but that is not so. Consider what has happened here: the action is taken by the apostles as a group; before casting the lots, the group has studied the Scriptures, prayed together, and discussed what they were about to do. The decision was not that of the leadership only; it clearly was one concurred in by the entire congregation present (about one-hundred and twenty we are told). And one scholar has suggested that there may have been some sort of group affirmation after the lots were cast, as is implied by the words, “and he was added to the eleven apostles.” (v. 26)

The election of Matthias to serve as replacement for Judas gives us a paradigm for our own decision making. The first step, obviously, is the recognition that we are at a decision point: Judas is gone, something must be done. The second is recourse to Scripture. The early followers of Jesus had only the Hebrew Scriptures to which to turn; we have, in addition, the New Testament in which we are taught that there are two great commandments ~ Love God: Love your neighbor.

Every decision we make must honor these; there may be lesser rules within Holy Writ which provide guidance, but in the end, in making our decisions, we must follow these commandments above all else.

Once we have considered the guidance of Scripture, we must pray. My grandfather, the Methodist Sunday school teacher, taught me that the purpose of prayer is not to get what we want, but to make us into instruments for God to do what God wants: he was fond of saying that the Lord taught us to pray, “Thy will be done,” not “Thy will be changed.” The followers of Jesus in that upper room, faced with the monumental task of appointing a new apostle, prayed. So should we. This has been the church’s tradition from the very beginning.

Now, let’s be honest ~ the answer to prayer is often vague and often confusing. I know very few people who have ever received specific directions for their lives and, to be truthful, I view those who claim to have done so with great suspicion. Most of us will never know for certain which is the right choice; I suspect that even those in the upper room that day wondered, when all was said and done, whether Matthias was a better choice than Justus. But they chose, and we choose.

We do not do so blindly, however. As the confirmation response says, we choose “with God’s grace.” We read Scripture; we pray in accordance with church tradition; and we seek the guidance of others, reasoning together, testing our thoughts and our beliefs about prayer’s answers against those of trusted companions. Then we decide. Perhaps the choice to be made is clear; perhaps it is not so clear, but at least one choice seems better or wiser than others; or perhaps, like that first congregation, we come to a point where there are two or more choices that seem equally good and the best we can do is flip a coin and trust God. However we make the decision, we say, “I do … with the grace of God” and trust that that grace will sustain us in the decisions we make.

Sometimes, perhaps most times, our decisions will be wrong; they will be sinful. But Martin Luther once advised his friend Philipp Melanchthon, “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.” (Letter 99, Paragraph 13) Having studied Scripture, having prayed, having sought the counsel of others, we make our decisions boldly, trusting in the grace of God.

In our individual choices, we may not (indeed, we will not) reach the same decisions, but valuing this process of decision-making we are able to respect our differences of opinion, belief, practice, and action. In our corporate decision-making, by this process, we are able to reach consensus all can accept, as the disciples did in numbering Matthias one of the Twelve. In the end, “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28), even our wrong choices and bad decisions.

Every ten years or so the bishops of the Anglican Communion, including the bishops of the Episcopal Church, gather with the Archbishop of Canterbury in what is called “The Lambeth Conference.” In 1930, Archbishop William Temple preached at the opening of the seventh Lambeth Conference, assuring his colleagues:

While we deliberate, God reigns;
When we decide wisely, God reigns;
When we decide foolishly, God reigns;
When we serve God in humble loyalty, God reigns;
When we serve God self-assertively, God reigns;
When we rebel and seek to withhold our service, God reigns —
the Alpha and the Omega, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

We decide however we decide . . . but Almighty God will always reign!

I do not know why each of those seventeen people last week knelt before the bishop and affirmed their commitment to Christ in the context of the Anglican tradition and in the community of the Episcopal Church. I know why I did (lo, those many years ago): because I found in the Episcopal Church not a uniformity of belief and practice, not a church which claims to know (and thus to dictate) how all of life’s choices and decisions are to be made, but rather a unity of mission, a community of harmony, a church which offers “appropriate welcome and gracious hospitality,” where Christians are encouraged to explore and make life’s decisions in the same way the embryonic Christian community elected Matthias: through reliance on Scripture, prayerful tradition, and reasoned reflection. Perhaps that is also why our newest confirmed members have chosen to join us.

Or, rather, why Jesus chose them, why the Father has given them to Jesus in the context of this community, why we welcome them and join with Christ praying for them and for ourselves as he prayed for his first followers: “May we be one, as he and the Father are one.” 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.

Thomas the Realist: Sermon for Easter 2 – 12 April 2015

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 4:32-35; Psalm 133; 1 John 1:1-2:2; and John 20:19-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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I assume that you are all familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural of The Last Supper in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. Nearly all of us have seen reproductions of it; it is said to be one of the most reproduced (and most parodied or satirized) paintings in human history. I have been privileged to see it in person twice in my life: once when I was a 16-year-old student studying in Florence and again in the summer of 2000 when I chaperoned the Kansas City Youth Symphony on a concert tour of northern Italy.

Each time I have looked at that painting, either the original or reproductions, I have found myself drawn more to da Vinci’s depiction of the disciples than to his Jesus. We know from Leonardo’s notebooks who each of the figures is meant to be. Thomas, who figures prominently in today’s Gospel lesson, figures prominently in the painting, as well. He is the first figure on Jesus’ left, right next to Jesus, looking intently at Jesus (we see him only in profile) with his right index finger pointing in Jesus’ face!

Has anyone ever done that to you? Gotten in your face making a point, raising their finger in emphasis? [Gesturing with index finger pointed upward] You know that this is a serious person. They know the way the world is; they have a very definite view of reality; and they are intent and making sure you see and understand their viewpoint. In The Last Supper, Thomas is only the first person on Jesus’ left because he leaning over St. James the Greater to make his point. He is a serious person with a definite view of reality.

That’s why I never call St. Thomas “Doubting Thomas.” This was not, in the upper room, and never in any other Gospel story, a man filled with doubt. This man is serious, sure of himself, and sure of his world. He is, in a word, a realist, a pragmatist, not a doubter.

Although Thomas is listed among the Twelve in all of the Gospels, we only encounter him as a speaker in John’s Gospel, and our first view of him is in the discussion leading up to the raising of Lazarus. We are told that the disciples (perhaps it was even Thomas) tried to dissuade Jesus from returning to Bethany in Judea, where Lazarus and his sisters lived, because they believed his life would be in danger: they remind Jesus that the Judeans “were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” (Jn 11:8) Jesus, however, will not be turned away, so Thomas says to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (Jn 11:16) This man is a serious realist.

He is so realistic, so down-to-earth, that he doesn’t understand metaphor. When, in his farewell discourse, Jesus says . . .

In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.

. . . Thomas’s very pragmatic reply is, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (Jn 14:2-5)

So we should not be surprised, and we should not call Thomas a “doubter” when he demands proof of Jesus’ resurrection. Would any of us have been any different? And, let’s be honest, none of the other disciples were themselves any different. None of them believed it either. In his Gospel, Luke is very clear about that: “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them who told . . . the apostles. But [their] words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” (Lk 24:10-11; emphasis added)

I’m fairly certain that when Thomas said, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” (Jn 20:25) he never really expected to have the chance. Such a thing simply wouldn’t fit into the real world he understood. He wasn’t a doubter; he was a realist.

So, I think, Thomas has gotten a bad rap because of this story and the story has gotten a resultingly bad interpretation. This is not a story about changing someone’s mind; it’s a story about changing someone’s life!

Confronted by the reality of the risen Jesus, Thomas the realist is confounded by what reality really is; his perception of reality and thus his life is what is changed. When Jesus rises to his challenge and invites him to “put your finger here and see my hands; reach out your hand and put it in my side,” (Jn 20:27) he is not belittling Thomas, but he is positing the possibility that Thomas’s reality was too little. Thomas’s vision of reality is too small, too limited; his life is too circumscribed. His worldview is defined too much by evidence and too little by trust. When Jesus calls him to believe, he is calling on him to accept the evidence of an intellectual proposition; he is inviting him to live into a whole new world of trust. This is not a story about changing someone’s mind; it’s a story about changing someone’s life!

In 1961, an English priest named J.B. Phillips published a short book entitled Your God Is Too Small. In it he challenged many prevailing notions of God, many of which we still have with us today. He called these the “unreal gods” and gave them names such as “the Resident Policeman,” the “Parental Hangover,” and the “Grand Old Man.” These unreal gods, he said, were the gods of what he called “the modern outlook, which regards the whole of life as a closed system.” That “modern outlook” is precisely the point of view that Thomas had before meeting the risen Jesus! It is a too-small vision of reality in which it is unthinkable that anything could happen outside of what Phillips called “the whole huge cause-and-effect process,” that view of the world supported by physical evidence of the sort Thomas initially wanted.

But Thomas’s life and point of view, and that of all the apostles, were radically altered by their experience of Christ’s resurrection. Phillips wrote:

We may . . . point out the great difference that has come to exist between the Christianity of the early days and that of today. To us it has become a performance, a keeping of rules, while to the men of those days it was, plainly, an invasion of their lives by a new quality of life altogether. The difference is due surely to the fact that we are so very slow (even though we realize our impotence) to discard the closed-system idea. *** With the closed-system sooner or later you have to say: “You can’t change human nature.” Ideals fail for very spiritual poverty, and cynicism and despair take their place. But the fact of Christ’s coming is itself a shattering denial of the closed-system idea which dominates our thinking. And what else is His continual advice to “have faith in God” but a call to refuse, despite all appearances, to be taken in by the closed-system type of thinking? “Ask and ye shall receive, seek and ye shall find, knock and it shall be opened unto you”—what are these famous words but an invitation to reach out for the Permanent and the [truly] Real? (Your God Is Too Small, online PDF, The Common Life, pp. 88-89)

The story of Thomas is a story for all of us because we too easily fall into that closed-system worldview with its rules and its limitations. The story of Thomas reminds us of a grander vision. A vision defined not by limitation but by possibility, governed not by scarcity but by abundance, ruled not by remembered offenses but set free by forgiveness and reconciliation.

This is the vision shared by “the men of those days” (as Phillips called them), the members of the earliest Christian community described by Luke in the Book of Acts, that community of believers “who . . . were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” They had this shared vision because “the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.” In other words, Mary Magdalene and the other women told their story of the empty tomb and of meeting Jesus in the garden; Cleopas and his companion told their story of meeting Jesus along the road to Emmaus; Thomas and the others told their story of meeting Jesus in the upper room.

The result was that peoples’ lives were changed. They lived in a way radically different than they had before, radically different from those around them: “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

“From each according to his ability; to each according to his need” is not an economic model developed by Karl Marx; it is a religious model lived by the followers of Jesus Christ whose lives have been radically altered by their encounter with the Risen Lord. “Oh, how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity!” (Ps 133:1)

We live in different times. The total sharing of resources practice by Christ’s first followers no longer seems practical to us. We say to ourselves, “It just won’t work in our circumstances.” And we call ourselves realists and pragmatists. We hang onto that closed-system model and say [gesturing with index finger pointed upward]: “You can’t change human nature.”

But Jesus appeared to Thomas and said, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (Jn 20:27) And proved that he can change human nature. Are we willing to let him change ours?

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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.

Destructive Distractions – From the Daily Office – February 27, 2014

From the First Letter of John:

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 5:21 (NRSV) – February 27, 2014.)

Sumerian IdolsLast evening while driving home from the midweek Eucharist, I listened to a program on the local NPR station in which the host and a guest were discussing the internet coverage of news. One of the things mentioned was that the analytics on a British tabloid’s website had demonstrated that a story about Taylor Swift’s legs had garnered more “clicks” and more viewing time than a simultaneously run story about the world-wide affects of global climate change – something on the order of 400% more! The discussion continued with similar examples of stories about Kim Kardashian and her “rear end,” Justin Bieber’s legal problems, and more.

In the course of their conversation, the guest said, “Our idols are a distraction.” Encountering John’s final admonition in his first letter this morning, it occurs to me how “spot on” that comment is theologically. Although some may regard idols as evil, following the thought attributed to Solomon that “the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (Wisd. 14:27), a more accurate description of an idol is that given by the Prophet Jeremiah: “Idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.” (Jer. 10:5) What they can do, however, is distract us and that distraction can be harmful.

This is the point made by Paul in the eighth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth in which he discusses the eating of food which has been offered to idols. He starts with the premise that idols are powerless: “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists'” (v. 4) so there is no real harm in eating such food. But, he says, there are “weak” members of the community who “have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (v. 7) If these less mature members see others eating food sacrificed to an idol and join in, they might because of their “weak consciences” be destroyed. (v. 11) The distraction of idols can be destructive.

And we have many idols to distract us. Taylor Swift and her legs, Kim Kardashian and her derriere, and Justin Bieber and his immature behavior might be obvious entertainment “idols,” but there are other less apparent distractions — sex, money, political power, career, sports, video games, pornography — we could compile a list of hundreds if not thousands of modern idols. “The human heart,” as John Calvin observed, “is a factory of idols.” These idols are distracting and deceptive. They deceive us so that we become preoccupied with them, our attention diverted away from more important pursuits.

From what do they distract us? From the two great commandments: Love of God and love of neighbor. They divert our attention and our energies away from the relationships that truly sustain us. Idols are not evil, but they are distracting. The distraction, as Paul warned, can be destructive. Following the two great commandments, we can gain uncommon blessings. We can find true happiness and achieve inner peace, but we have to be willing to avoid distractions, to keep ourselves from idols.

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

Testing Spirits, Drawing Lots – From the Daily Office – February 24, 2014

From the First Letter of John:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 4:1 (NRSV) – February 24, 2014.)

Coptic Pope Selection by LotHow does one “test the spirits”? How does one divine the promptings of the spirit or determine the will of God? That’s always the question we must face. In the ancient tabernacle, the high priest’s vestments included a breastplate in which he kept a couple of stones called the urim and the thummim (Exodus 28:30). What those were is a subject of much speculation, but one theory is that they were sort of like dice. The belief is that the high priest cast these dice to determine God’s guidance, to “test the spirit” when faced with a difficult decision.

Today is the feast of St. Matthias, who was selected by the eleven remaining apostles to replace Judas and restore their number to 12. Why they believed this was necessary would be an interesting subject of speculation, but what’s on my mind this morning is the method of selection. To “test the spirit,” to gain God’s guidance, they drew lots, much like casting dice:

They proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:23-26)

In the Episcopal Church, we use a rather lengthier process to select the successors of the apostles. Our method of choosing bishops includes appointment of nominating or screening committees, reception of nominations and applications, interviews, “meet-and-greet” tours (some refer to these as “dog-and-pony shows”), electing conventions, and finally approvals by other dioceses’ Standing Committees and bishops.

I’m told that in some Oriental Orthodox churches the method is more like that used by the eleven in today’s story from acts. The names of all clergy eligible to be bishop are written on slips of paper and placed in a chalice. A young child (sometimes blindfolded) is then asked to draw out a slip, and the named clergy person becomes the bishop. This is the manner in which the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church is selected.

Does our lengthy (some might suggest inordinately long) process produce better apostles, better bishops than the drawing of lots? Does it “test the spirits” any more accurately than the casting of dice? One cannot say, but it’s a question to ponder on this feast of Matthias.

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

The Issue – From the Daily Office – February 22, 2014

From the First Letter of John:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 3:17 (NRSV) – February 22, 2014.)

Feet of the PoorThis, for me, is the issue of our day. It is the religious issue. It is the economic issue. It is the political issue. It is the moral issue. I think the answer to John’s question is, “It doesn’t.”

And anyone who claims to be Christian and yet supports policies that do not help those in need is not, in fact, a Christian.

Nor is such a person a moral or ethical person.

I cannot say anything more than that.

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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.

Wrestling – From the Daily Office – February 21, 2014

From the First Letter of John:

Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 3:2a (NRSV) – February 21, 2014.)

Jacob wrestling with the angel of God by Jack BaumgartnerThe author of this letter could simply have said, “We are God’s children,” but he didn’t. He emphasizes the present tense of the statement by adding the word “now.” In fact, in the original Greek text, the word nûn comes first; it means “at this time” or “at the present.” It emphasizes the present tense of the verb – “Now we are God’s children.”

This is so hard, it seems, for some — probably for most — people to grapple with and understand. Somehow it seems appropriate that today’s Old Testament lesson is the story of Jacob wrestling with an unnamed man (understood to be the angel of God) through the night and being renamed Israel, “the one who wrestles with God.” (Gen. 32:22-33:17) We all seem to wrestle with the idea that we are God’s children now, that we are forgiven now, that we don’t need to do anything to earn God’s favor, that grace is freely given.

Human beings, it would appear, are hardwired to expect the world always and everywhere, even when God irrupts into it, to work on the basis of reward and punishment: behave this way, receive a reward; behave that way, suffer a punishment. God turning everything on its head, so that the “reward” comes first and the behavior is a thankful response to it, is so surprising, so uncharacteristic of the way humans act and think, that we just can’t grasp it.

So John writes, “NOW we are God’s children.” We don’t have to do anything — and, in truth, we can’t do anything — to earn that status. We don’t have to wait for it, either. It’s now; it’s present; it’s what we are. And we find ourselves troubled by that; we wrestle with that!

There is a strain of midrashic theology which treats the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel at Peniel as a metaphor for his dealing with his own “shadow side.” It sees the nighttime struggle as Jacob grappling with the repressed and negative aspects of his character. His shadow side is made manifest and acknowledged in the person of the unnamed man, and then conquered and integrated into a healthier, more holistic personality. Jacob faces his own treachery, deceit, and dishonesty, and conquers it to become whole. Of course, Jacob represents all of us; he is “Everyman” in this scenario.

I think there is more than a grain of truth in that treatment of the Peniel story; we are unable simply to accept the truth of God’s unmerited favor and so we wrestle not with God but with our own nature, with our inability to receive God’s blessing, God’s adoption of us as God’s children. But there it is, a very real present truth: “We are God’s children now.” Accept that, even if it requires some wrestling with yourself.

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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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