That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First Thessalonians

Mad-Libs with John the Baptist – Sermon for Advent 3, RCL Year B

One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:

  1. He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
  2. He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
  3. He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).

She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):

“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”

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The Parable of the Talents – Sermon for Pentecost 24, RCL Proper 28A

Give us open minds, O God, minds ready to receive and to welcome such new light of knowledge as it is your will to reveal to us. Let not the past ever be so dear to us as to set a limit to the future. Give us courage to change our minds when that is needed. Let us be tolerant to the thoughts of others and hospitable to such light as may come to us through them. Amen.

That prayer was given to me a few years ago by a member of this congregation. She said she’d found it in going through some of her old papers. It is a prayer attributed to John Baillie, who was a Church of Scotland minister in the mid-20th Century; in fact, he was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland during the 1940s. I think the three most important words in this prayer are “Give us courage” because they directly address the lesson of today’s reading from the Holy Gospel.

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The ‘ahab Commandments – Sermon for Proper 25A, Pentecost 21 (October 29, 2017)

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”1

You’ve probably heard the old tale that “the Eskimo language has hundreds of words for snow.” If you research that, you’ll find it’s not true for the very basic reason that there is no single Eskimo language; there’s Inuit and Aleut and Yupik and Kalaallisut and Inuktitut and others and multiple dialects of all of them. In fact, there are eleven different languages spoken by the people grouped together under the title “Eskimos,” and most of them have up to thirty dialects. So, yeah, there are a lot of words for snow among the Eskimos in the same way there are a lot of words for snow among Europeans. (By the way, did you know that the native peoples of North America who live above the Arctic Circle don’t actually like to be called “Eskimos”? That is not a word in any of the languages; it’s an Algonquin word meaning “eaters of raw flesh” and they really don’t like it.)

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Whose Image Is This? – Sermon for Proper 24A, Pentecost 20 (October 22, 2017)

As I pondered our scriptures for today I was struck by how different, how utterly foreign, one might most accurately use the word “alien,” the social landscape of the bible is from our own. We, children of a post-Enlightenment Constitution which makes a clear delineation, almost a compartmentalization, between the civic and the religious, simply cannot quickly envision the extent to which those areas of human existence were entangled and intertwined for those who wrote and whose lives are described in both the Old and New Testaments. I tried to think of an easy metaphor to help illustrate the difference between our worldview and that of either the ancient wandering Hebrews represented by Moses in the lesson from Exodus or of the first Century Palestinians and Romans characterized by Jesus, the temple authorities, and Paul.

The best I could come up with was this. First, as a representation of our viewpoint, consider a mixture of water and vegetable oil which, as I’m sure you know, is no mixture at all. The oil will float on the water and no amount of mixing, shaking, or stirring will make them blend; the oil may disperse in small globules throughout the water, it may even emulsify temporarily, but eventually (without the aid of a stabilizer) the oil will separate from the water. In our constitutional society, religious institutions and political entities are supposed to be like that; just as there is a surface tension barrier between the two liquids, the Constitution (in Mr. Jefferson’s memorable phrase) erects a “wall of separation between church and state.”1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Organic Connection: Sermon for Advent 3B – December 14, 2014

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A sermon offered, on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 14, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 3B, were Isaiah 66:1-4,8-11; Psalm 8126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; and John 1:6-8,19-28. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Bible and Newspaper “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light. . . .” (Jn 1:6) The baptism of Jesus is never mentioned in the Gospel of John, so John the forerunner is never called “the Baptist” in this Gospel. He is, instead, the one who testifies, the witness who tells the truth.

Truth telling is risky business, as we all know and as John the witness would find out. He told the truth about Herod Antipas and his adulterous relationship with Herodias, and he lost his head over it. Telling the truth is risky business.

John told the Truth to Power. Dressed like a wild man (according to Mark’s Gospel which we heard last week), he stood in the midst of the People of Israel and interpreted for them the signs of the time in light of the words of the Prophets who had preceded him.

The mid-20th Century theologian Karl Barth is reputed to have advised preachers that they should work the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. Whether he ever actually said that is a matter of some debate, but in a letter to his friend Eduard Thurneysen in November of 1918, he described himself as “brood[ing] alternately over the newspaper and the New Testament” seeking to discern “the organic connection between the two worlds concerning which one should … be able to give a clear and powerful witness.” (Barth to Thurneysen, 11-11-1918) John the testifier of Truth to Power was doing that very thing, making the organic connection between the world of his day and the world of his Scriptures, and giving a clear and powerful witness.

And that is the very thing which you and I and every follower of Jesus Christ are also called to do; it is the ministry not only of the professional theologian, not only of the parish priest and preacher, not only of the prophet; it is the ministry of each and every baptized person to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” (BCP 1979, page 305) That is the ministry which we promise to undertake when we are baptized, a promise we repeat at every baptism in which we take part.

Today is the second anniversary of the killing of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. On the Sunday following that awful massacre I stood in this pulpit and told you that I had spent the previous “48 hours following the news reports, weeping, screaming at the television, reading the statements of bishops and other clergy, enraged at the injustice of it, angry because as a society we seem unwilling (not incapable, unwilling) to do anything about the epidemic of gun violence that seems to sweep unchecked across our country.” (2012 Sermon)

I was later advised by a well-meaning member of the congregation suggested that I should turn off the TV, put down the newspaper, disconnect my internet news-feeds, and “just tell the nice parts of the Jesus story.” But I can’t do that, you see, because that wouldn’t be making the organic connection between the world of our day and the world of our Scriptures. That wouldn’t be testifying to the light; that would be lying about the darkness. Psalmist didn’t simply sing about shouldering the sheaves with joy; the Psalmist also paid heed to the fact that that joy follows carrying out the seed with weeping; the harvest of rejoicing comes after the seed is sowed with tears. (Ps 126:6-7)

Rejoicing in the midst of difficulty is the theme of this Third Sunday of Advent! In the tradition of the church, today is known as Gaudete Sunday or “Rejoicing Sunday” because in the medieval church the introit, entrance chant which began the Mass, was Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice,” from Paul’s letter to the Philippians (Phns 4:4), the same message he writes to the Thessalonian church in today’s epistle lesson: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.” (1 Th 5:16)

This year, as two years ago, it is difficult to focus on that theme of thanks and rejoicing. Although we hold in one hand the Gospel of light, in the other we hold the newspaper coverage of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s executive summary of a report detailing the unspeakable acts of “enhanced interrogation techniques” undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency as part of the so-called “war on terror.” (See, e.g., Mother Jones) It is difficult to focus on thanksgiving and joy when we read about the things done on our behalf . . . and let’s be honest and not try to distance ourselves from that fact, these things were done on our behalf to gain information to ferret out and punish those who had accomplished, and to protect us from other potential, acts of terrorism.

Let’s also be honest and put to rest the euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and admit that it is more accurate and truthful to describe the CIA’s actions as torture, as Senator John McCain did in his statement on the Senate floor: “I have long believed some of these practices amounted to torture, as a reasonable person would define it.” (McCain Floor Statement) Unfortunately, the public debate about the CIA’s actions has, in the words of my friend and colleague Tobias Haller, gotten “lost in the utilitarian thicket of ‘did it produce results’ rather than sticking with the basic truth that ‘torture is wrong’.” (Facebook status)

Although it is clear that we, as Americans, can differ on the question of whether torture produces useful information – personally, I agree with Senator McCain “that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence . . . that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it . . . [and that] they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering” – although we can differ on that issue, we need to set aside the “utility” question, this red herring about whether torture produces useable intelligence. “Utility” underlies an ends-justifies-means morality which is contrary to, among other things, the Christian faith we claim to hold.

“Utility” is not and never should have been the basis of discussion or consideration of or decision to use torture to gather intelligence. As Christians we believe that God spoke to and through the prophet and commissioned not only him, commissioned not only Jesus who used his words to begin his public ministry, but commissioned all of God’s People

to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
* * *
to comfort all who mourn. (Isa. 61:1-2)

As Christians who have accepted this as our own ministry in our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, page 305) we must insist that morality, not utility, is and should have been the touchstone for that decision, and that that decision should have been other than it was.

We must speak that Truth to Power. Some of us may feel called to hold signs in marches and protests, though not all of us need do so; some of may feel called to telephone or write our senators and congressmen, though not all of us need do so; some of may feel called to author letters to the editors of national or local publications, though not all of us need do so. What we must all do, however, is witness to the Truth as we know it in our everyday lives: Jesus said to his disciples and says to us today, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)

We are to witness to and rejoice in the moral truth of the simple command, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” (Lk 6:31) This, as Jesus made clear, is the heart of the Law and the central message of the Prophets. (Mt 7:12) We witness to this truth when we “love [our] enemies, do good, and [give], expecting nothing in return,” when we are “merciful, just as [our] Father is merciful,” when we refuse to judge, when we forswear condemnation, when we extend forgiveness. (Lk 6:35-37)

There was another story in the news this week, one which initially made me quite sad but in which, in retrospect, I find cause to rejoice.

Last Wednesday there was a funeral in Los Angeles, California. People of faith, from several religious traditions, came together to assist the County of Los Angeles in burying the ashes of nearly 1500 people who had been cremated in 2011 and whose ashes, for a variety of reasons, had been unclaimed by family members for three years. They included over 900 men, over 400 women, and nearly 140 infants and children. They were buried together in one grave with a simple stone bearing only the year, 2011.

According to the report in the L.A. Times, those present decorated the grave with teddy bears and flowers; a cellist played a simple, somber tune. Clergy offer Christian and Jewish prayers; a Hindu chant was intoned. The Lord’s Prayer was said in English, Spanish, Korean and a language from the Fiji Islands. Religious leaders read poems by the late Maya Angelou.

I rejoice that people of faith joined together to pray for the repose of those who had been abandoned, that people of faith took the place of the families who had forgotten them, that people of faith provided for these forsaken dead a human community to mourn their passing.

And this is the relationship between these two otherwise unrelated news stories of the past week. Studies of the survivors of torture demonstrate that they are left with intense feelings of abandonment, with a sense of estrangement from their families and communities, with an inability to form or reform human relationships of dependency and attachments, and with muted and inexpressible rage and grief. Those who are tortured are made to feel like those dead and abandoned ashes.

In concluding his statement on the Senate floor, Senator McCain agreed with me that torture’s immorality, not any concern about its utility, is the reason it should not be used. “In the end,” he said, “torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be.”

We Christians stand with our Bible in one hand, with the newspaper in our other, making the organic connection between the world of our day and the world of our Scriptures. Making that connection we must face the question, who do we aspire to be? Who are we called to be? Are we called to be those who, themselves or by delegation to others, make the living feel like dead ashes? Or are we rather called to be those who “comfort [and] provide for those who mourn, [who] give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit?” (Isa 61:2-3)

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Th 4:4) that we aspire to the latter calling, the great calling to be Christ’s witnesses, tellers of Truth to Power, to the ends of the earth! 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.

Jesus As Superman? – From the Daily Office – December 8, 2012

From First Thessalonians:

The Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Thess. 4:16-17 (NRSV) – December 8, 2012.)
 
SupermanDuring this season of Advent, we are confronted with many visions of the end of time as we prepare for the Messiah’s return, and today we read a very popular one, a vision of the faithful flying through the sky in defiance of gravity to meet Jesus who is apparently swooping down like Superman! A vision of “the Rapture”!

OK. I have to admit . . . without a little study and background, I would have not the vaguest idea what Paul is talking about. Verse 16 makes perfect sense; it’s a description of the general resurrection. It’s fine. But verse 17? What is that all about? “We . . . will be caught up in the clouds . . . to meet the Lord in the air.” Say what? Is he really predicting Jesus as Superman?

Well, I let me assure you that I’m pretty sure that he’s not. I don’t believe he’s talking about “the Rapture” at all . . . in fact, I think Paul would have been appalled at the whole nonsensical, made-of-whole-cloth silliness that has become a mainstay of modern American conservative evangelical Christianity. That theology (if it can be called that) was cobbled together by an Irish clergyman named John Derby in the 19th Century from disparate and unrelated passages of Holy Scripture ripped from their contexts and stitched together with nothing. Paul would reject it out of hand.

What I think Paul’s use of “clouds” here is all about has to do with the glory of God. The Greek word is nephele. It is the same word used in the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures dating from the 3rd Century BCE) to describe the cloud into which Moses entered when he met with God; it is the same word used to describe the Shekinah, the pillar of cloud which led the Hebrews through the desert. In the New Testament, it is used in all of the Synoptic Gospels to describe the cloud which overshadowed Peter, James, and John when they witnessed Christ’s Transfiguration. So when Paul says that we will be “caught up in the clouds,” I believe he meant that we would be caught up into God’s Presence in the Shekinah, as were Moses, James, John, and Peter. What had been an experience of the Glory of God exclusive to them will be shared by all of us.

Which brings me to the end of the sentence where Paul avers that we shall “meet the Lord in the air.” Here the Greek is aer. As common a word as “air” is, it is suprising to find that aer appears only seven times in the New Testament, and while it is usually used simply to mean the atmosphere, one wonders if here Paul might have meant something else. In the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume (Eerdemans: 2003), one learns that in Greek philosophy the terms pneuma (“breath” or “spirit”), aer (“air”), and psyche (“soul” or “breath”) were “equated as the comprehensive life-principle that integrates all things.” (pg. 878) Because Paul does use pneuma much more frequently to mean “spirit” (either the spirit of a human or the Holy Spirit of God), it is an admitted stretch to suggest that he is here using aer as a synonym, but it’s at least something to think about. It certainly makes more sense to hear Paul predicting that we will enter into God’s glory and meet the Lord in spirit than to think he expected us all to fly up into the sky to meet Jesus swooping down like Superman over Metropolis!

During this season of Advent, we are confronted with many visions of the end of time as we prepare for the Messiah’s return, but I don’t really think that Paul intended us to believe that Jesus is going to return swooping through the sky like Superman! Really. I don’t.

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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.

The Audience of One – From the Daily Office – December 4, 2012

From First Thessalonians:

We have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Thess. 2:4-6 (NRSV) – December 4, 2012.)

Audience of OneI would like to have a word with the clergy, music directors, musicians, choir directors, altar guild mistresses, sacristans, choristers, Sunday School superintendents, lay readers, acolytes, and a score of others about all the things many of us are doing to get ready for Christmas.

I’m sure that you, like my colleagues and me, are planning liturgies, choosing music, decorating sanctuaries, casting church school pageants, rehearsing anthems, laundering vestments, practicing readings, learning how to swing thuribles, and doing dozens of other preparatory tasks as the special events of the holiday loom every closer. Your looking forward to your Sunday School Pageant, to the Christmas Cantata, the Christmas Eve Family Service, the Midnight Mass, or whatever the “big event” may be in your congregation. You’re hoping, expecting that there will be a large turnout of appreciative people, probably many who only show up at Christmas (or maybe also at Easter), but you’re really hoping that a big crowd of parishioners will be there.

Last Sunday evening my parish’s choir did a wonderful job of offering a service of Lessons and Carols. It was the shorter version of that model of worship: six lessons each followed by a hymn or choral offering. Other music included a prelude, a couple of additional hymns at the beginning and end, an offertory anthem, and a postlude. A chanted vesper responsory and a few chanted collects were thrown in for good measure. The music was beautifully performed. The six readers of the lessons had obviously practiced and all read very well. Members of the choir had provided, and some non-choir volunteers had laid out, finger food and snacks for a reception in the parish hall following the service.

Barely 40 people attended. Not even a quarter of the Nave was filled. Those who attended all praised the choir’s, the officiant’s, and the readers’ efforts; they said it was a lovely experience. A couple of people said something to this effect, “It’s too bad more people weren’t here.” The spouse of a chorister was rather more critical and wondered why everyone had even bothered with all the planning, all the rehearsals, or the offering of the service when so few parishioners turned out.

Why? Paul directly answers that question in this bit from his first letter to the church in Thessalonika: “We [do it], not to please mortals, but to please God.” We do it for an audience of One.

A service of worship has many of the elements of a dramatic presentation or a musical concert, and much of the preparation we do for worship is the same as is done for those sorts of events. In many ways, worship is a drama . . . but in one important way it is very different. There is no difference between performer and audience; there is, in fact, no human audience. Every man, woman, and child who participates is an actor, not an observer.

For generations the church has acted as if these were roles of worship: The worship leaders (clergy and liturgical assistants, choir, liturgical musicians) are the performers of worship; the congregation is the audience; and God is the prompter of worship, i.e., God tells the worship leaders what to do. My favorite theologian-philosopher Soren Kierkegaard in the 19th Century wrote that that was all wrong. In corporate worship, he suggested, the people should be the performers, the worship leaders are to be the prompters, and God is the audience.

It doesn’t matter that only a few people turned out for the service of lessons and carols, or for any service. If we do all these things we are doing, all the liturgical design, all the musical rehearsal, all the polishing of silver and decorating of the church, and no one shows up on Christmas Eve but ourselves, it will not be for nothing. We do what we do, not to please mortals, but to please God.

So clergy, music directors, musicians, choir directors, altar guild mistresses, sacristans, choristers, Sunday School superintendents, lay readers, acolytes, and the scores of others doing all the things we are all doing to get ready for Christmas . . . do them to the best of your ability. We are doing them for the audience of One.
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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.

Shotgun Admonitions (and a bit of politics) – From the Daily Office – May 9, 2012

Paul wrote:

See that none of you repays evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to all. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise the words of prophets, but test everything; hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Thessalonians 5:15-22 – May 9, 2012)

There’s a church camp song based on the sentiment of this bit of scripture: “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, Rejoice!” (The lyric is actually a quotation from Philippians 4:4, but Paul repeats the sentiment here.) A group of campers (or, where I learned it, a bunch of Cursillo candidates or a Sunday morning congregation) can really get going just singing “Rejoice! Rejoice!” over and over again. Praise choruses like that can get the Spirit moving among a group of singers. I always have to remember the admonition Paul adds here, “Do not quench the Spirit” because (truth be told) I don’t really like praise choruses. A friend of mine refers to them as “7/11 songs” – the same seven words sung eleven times. . . . Praise choruses are formulaic; both musically and theologically they are generally mediocre, run-of-the-mill, and unremarkable. ~ This ending of the First Letter to the Thessalonians is also formulaic. Paul ends with his standard “Good-bye” filled with admonitions to do good. Compare this to the end of the Letter to the Romans, for example: in Romans 12:9-18 we find Paul saying very much the same thing in very nearly identical words. Several years ago a biblical scholar referred to these endings as Paul’s “shotgun paraenesis” (that fancy Greek word means “moral admonition”): he writes a letter, begins with a formulaic greeting (usually “We give thanks for you. . .”, deals with the issue at hand, then ends by pulling out his musket and blasting the reader with a lot of “do goods”. ~ I once served under a bishop whose standard blessing included a pared-down version of the end of the Letter to the Romans. The first few times I heard it, I thought it was great. But after a while, I stopped paying attention. That’s the thing with formulaic praise choruses, formulaic novels, formulaic blessings, and formulaic admonitions. After a while, we stop paying attention. The Spirit may be moving, but we’re not really in tune with why that is. ~ But here’s another thing with formulas. . . They are formulas because they work! There’s a reason we use the word to describe medicines, baby’s food, and the established forms used in religious ceremonies and legal proceedings; they work! We just need to pay attention to them. ~ So . . . advice for the day: Let down your guard and let Paul’s shotgun formula hit you right between the eyes! Rejoice always! Do not quench the Spirit! Hold fast to what is good! Abstain from evil!

(Parenthetical Political Note: I try to refrain from politics in these meditations, and the reader may choose to ignore this if she or he wishes. However, today as I ponder these admonitions, I cannot but wish that the voters of North Carolina had listened to them. The affirmative vote to adopt Amendment One to that State’s Constitution is, in my judgment, evil. It enshrines discrimination and bigotry. It matters not how one may feel about same-sex relationships. What matters is that Constitutions should not be amended to permanently preserve prejudice or to deny rights or privileges to a class of citizens: that the voters of North Carolina have done so quenches the Spirit of Liberty and is not a cause for rejoicing. It is, in my opinion, an embarrassment for the whole country.)

Meeting Jesus in the Air – From the Daily Office – May 7, 2012

St. Paul wrote:

For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 – May 7, 2012)

To be honest, I am not “encouraged” by these words; I’m confused as hell! What is Paul talking about? What was he smoking? I mean, c’mon! Archangels descending, God playing a trumpet, the dead rising, the living floating in the clouds, everyone meeting the Lord in the air! What is this? Is this the “Rapture”? ~ Well, no . . . what this is is Paul’s apocalytic vision of something called a “Hellenistic parousia“. What Paul is talking about here is comfort, comfort for relatively new Christians in the city of Thessalonika who expected Jesus to return almost immediately but who, instead, had experienced the death of loved ones and now were worried whether their loved ones would share in the expected victory of Christ over the world. They and Paul would have experienced the arrival of, if not kings or heads of state, at least very high and important government figures to their town or another. Their arrival was a “parousia” (and word meaning “presence”). In the First Century Greek-speaking or “Hellenistic” world, when such personages arrived it was the tradition that the people would go out to greet them and escort them into the city. In this vision that Paul describes, the members of the church, both the dead and the living, will great Christ on his return and escort him into their reality. Since Jesus had been observed “ascending” into the heavens (Luke 24:51), it must be that he will return from the sky and, therefore, his followers will “meet the Lord in the air.” This isn’t about Christians being snatched away from some “tribulation” which will then follow; it’s about Christians meeting Jesus as he returns to comfort them and begin his long reign. As a comfort to those who had lost loved ones, Paul assures them that their beloved departed will be among the first to welcome the Lord’s return. ~ It’s still pretty fantastic, though, isn’t it? Blaring trumpets, angels, rising dead, and a descending god . . . that’s pretty amazing stuff! And that’s the nature of apocalyptic. It speaks to its reader in the here-and-now with fantastic visions of an imagined future, but it’s purpose is to address the present. The Rapture nonsense, which treats it as some sort of oracle or “prophecy” laying out a timetable for the end of the world, is just that – nonsense. The message for us in the 21st Century is the same as it was to the Thessalonians in the First Century, not a message predicting the end of the world, but a message of comfort and hope. Comfort that our departed loved ones have not “lost out” on the coming fulfillment of God’s reign, and a very present hope that we will be (as the Book of Common Prayer puts) “reunited with those who have gone before.” So I guess, after all, I am encouraged by these words!