That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Galatians (page 1 of 4)

Never-Changing & Ever-Changing: Sermon & Report for the Annual Meeting, January 21, 2018

A couple of months ago, I was part of a conversation among several parishioners about the set-up for our celebrations of the Nativity. We looking at our plans for Christmas services, and a member of our altar guild exclaimed, “That’s the problem! Things are always changing around here!”

A few days later at the November vestry meeting, as we were discussing our preliminary work on the 2018 budget and looking over the church’s calendar for the coming year, one of our vestry persons expressed some frustration saying, “That’s the problem! Nothing ever changes around here!”

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In the Beginning Was Poetry – Sermon for Christmas 1, RCL Year B

“In the beginning was the Word . . . .” The Prologue of John’s Gospel echoes the opening words of the Bibe, “In the beginning God said . . . .” Our God is a god who communicates, who speaks, whose Word creates.

The collect for blessing the Christmas Créche begins, “O God our Creator, to restore our fallen race you spoke the effectual word, and the Eternal Word became flesh . . . .” (Book of Occasional Services 2003, page 37) I’ve always like that turn of phrase, “the effectual word” . . . the word that accomplishes something, the word that has power.

In his magisterial work on the poetry of the Indian sage Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. S.K. Paul wrote of powerful words:

If we think of poetry as the use of especially powerful words, then there may reason to suppose that poetry was more important in the prehistoric, preliterate past than it is today – in song, in ritual, in myth – with the structure and choice of words compensating for the impossibility of any written record. Some have even suggested that in the beginning was poetry – in the evolution of language each new word was a poem, the outward expression of a new inward perception. (The Complete Poems of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali: Texts and Critical Evaluation, Sarup & Sons: New Dheli, 2006, page 318)

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Get Up! Get Dressed! Go to Work! – Annual Meeting Sermon, January 22, 2017

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A homily offered on January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the 200th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are those for the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle: Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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the-conversion-of-st-paul-1528May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. (Ps. 67:1) Amen.

Have you ever been knocked off a horse? I have. Twice. Once when I was 11 and again when I was 24. Different circumstances and if you promise not to laugh, I’ll tell you about them when we have our luncheon after the business meeting. In both instances, however, one element was the same: landing flat on my back, having the wind knocked out of me, and being stunned not quite to unconsciousness. Both times it was a startling and uncomfortable experience.

The story of Paul’s conversion is told not once but four times in the pages of the New Testament; three times in the Book of Acts and once in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Although not mentioned in any of those descriptions, artists often depict Paul falling from a horse or donkey. When I read or hear the story, therefore, I have some sympathy for Paul. In addition to being knocked flat on his back, having the wind knocked out of him, and being mentally stunned, his incident included a blinding light, an encounter with a living rabbi he was convinced was dead, and the voice of God, and it was followed by three days of blindness. Now that’s an experience!

Now this is homily is supposed to be both a sermon and the rector’s report for the 200th Annual Meeting of the parish. Were I to focus on the second purpose, I could give you a lot of history – but I did that at our Bicentennial Choral Evensong on the Feast of the Epiphany, so I won’t do that. I could give you a summary of all the good things and some of the not-so-good things that have happened in the last year – but you can read the various ministry reports and the financial statements in the Annual Journal for yourselves. I could tell you about all the wonderful things planned for the coming year – but, again, you have the Annual Journal in your hands with the bicentennial event calendar and the 2017 Budget, so there you have it.

A rector’s report would merely repeat things you already know or have available to you in that Journal. So this will be more of a homily and less of a report, more (I hope) of a proclamation of a theology for the future and much less a review of the past. I am convinced that God is merciful to us, does bless us, illumines the way with the light of his countenance, and comes to us every day. Perhaps God does not come to us as dramatically as the Risen Lord came to Paul . . . or perhaps he does and we just don’t recognize it. We may be getting knocked off our horses regularly and we may simply be too oblivious to notice.

A canon of Durham Cathedral a few years ago preaching on these same texts said:

The experience of a light, of falling, an involuntary act of submission doubtless sending him into great fear and shock, was further heightened by a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s reply uses the divine title “Lord”, “Who are you, Lord?” He recognizes that this is something from heaven, while being unsure of exactly who it is that is speaking. The response was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Of course, those words are moving words; Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his disciples; in persecuting them, Saul was persecuting him. It is a narrative illustration of the kind of mystical theology that Paul was later to develop in his letters; through faith and baptism we are mystically joined to Christ, incorporated in him – we become his body; he indwells us and we indwell him. (St Paul’s Conversion, the Rev. Canon David Kennedy, Durham Cathedral, Church of England)

This is an everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over, just like being knocked from a horse. I am reminded of the observation of Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row 1982), makes this point in an oft-quote observation:

Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Dillard, Annie, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Harper & Row, New York:1982, pp 40-41.)

Every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, after the presider has said Jesus’ words over the bread and wine – “This is my Body” – “This is my Blood” – we are invited to affirm the powerful everyday-ness and everyday power of Jesus’ presence, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:”

Christ has died.
Christ is risen
Christ will come again (BCP 1979, p 363)

These words remind us that Jesus is here with us now:

The person Jesus and his story are now.
The forgiveness and hope he offers are now.
The invitation and the expectation for us to change and to grow through his love and presence are with us are now.
The renewal, vision and hope that transformed Paul from bigotry and narrow-mindedness are open to us now.
But, only if we have the faith and the courage to respond: to get up and follow Jesus. (Sermon at All Saints, the Rev. Alan Wynne, Parish of Poplar, Church of England)

You know . . . the getting up part is really important! Getting knocked of the horse isn’t the whole of Paul’s conversion; it was just the beginning. In Paul’s own description of his conversion in our reading from Galatians we can see that it took some time; including going into retreat in the Arabian desert and then a three-year delay before he went to Jerusalem to meet the original apostles. In the early church, entry into the worshiping community replicated Paul’s experience. The training for baptism, called “catechesis,” often took years, typically three, before someone was “exposed to the very real risks and challenges of full membership of the Christian faith” and admitted to full participation in the mysteries of the Holy Communion and full responsibility for the mission and ministry of the church. As English priest David Rowett says,

Conversion isn’t some once-and-for-all process, over in a blinding flash, not even for the Pharisee from Tarsus. It is a life-long process of deepening and learning which may begin in one moment – with or without a donkey – but then requires working out throughout the rest of our lives, and in the company of other pilgrims. (Conversion of St Paul, the Rev. David Rowett, St Mary’s Church, Barton-on-Humber, Church of England)

Our conversion is an on-going and everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over. Like Paul, however, we couldn’t just lie there stunned. Jesus would say to us as he said to Paul . . . indeed, Jesus does say to us, “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus promised his first twelve followers that they would be handed over to councils, flogged in religious institutions, and dragged before secular rulers, but he told them not to worry about making a defense because, in words similar to those he would say to Paul on the Damascus Road, “What you are to say will be given to you at that time.”

I think it helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to in both stories. Talking to the Twelve he is not talking to the stained-glass saints they have become; he is talking to hide-bound, conservative, Law-abiding Jews. He is talking to Peter who, even after spending all that time with Jesus and going through the events of Jesus’ trial, execution, burial, and resurrection, would say, “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” and would refuse to eat with Gentile Christians. He is talking to Thomas who is portrayed as a skeptic, a doubter, and something of a pessimist. He is talking to Simon the Zealot, who may have been a member of that Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to Rome and pagan practices. And on the road to Damascus, he is addressing Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee set upon the path of persecuting and, indeed, destroying the fledgling Christian church.

Jesus in both the Gospel lesson and in the story from Acts is speaking to men who exhibit an attitude we still see in the church and in our society today – it is nothing new – an attitude characterized by bigotry, zeal, closed-mindedness, tunnel vision, intolerance, and exclusivity. “In varying degrees it may be present in each one of us:

our lack of openness to new ideas;
our total certainty that in all matters of faith, morality or ritual we are right and others are wrong;
the ease with which we judge or condemn those who see things differently;
the way we cling uncritically to the traditions and practices of the past;
our failure to see God’s continuing presence and work in creation;
our desire to contain God in our pockets and limit him to our shrines where he can be controlled and we can be cosy and unchallenged;
the way we call Jesus “Lord” and ignore the most basic of his teachings about love and respect for others.” (Alan Wynne, op. cit.)

When we discussed this Gospel passage during our bible study time at Monday’s last meeting of the 2016 Vestry, someone suggested that Jesus seems to be foreshadowing what would happen later to himself. While that is true, he is also, by forecasting this experience, demonstrating his authority and intimacy with God. His words assure the Twelve and us that:

Opposition is not a sign of failure or that Jesus was not trustworthy as a leader. And
Paradoxically, getting arrested is the only way you will have a chance to speak to the elites, so use it to testify. And [again]
Don’t worry about what you will say – God’s Spirit will speak through you. (Holy Textures, the Rev. David Ewart, United Church of Canada)

Quite a while after the event in today’s Gospel lesson, “the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt 18:1-4)

In the last sermon he ever preached, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of this story:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness . . . . It means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant. (Drum Major Instinct, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached February 4, 1968)

You can be that servant. You are that servant. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you.”

Two hundred years ago a few men and women living in Weymouth, Ohio, heard God speaking to them and founded this parish. In Annie Dillard’s words, the waking god drew them out to where they could never return. They got up because they heard the call of Jesus telling them what they had to do, and here we are as a result. I firmly believe that everyday Jesus is still speaking to his Church – to you and to me – still knocking us off of our horses and then saying “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

On Friday morning, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President. You may feel that’s a good thing; you may feel that’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is a fact; it is reality. He and his party colleagues in the congress will change the spending priorities of our government; this is the way our democratic system works. Already his administration has announced plans to cut funding to and to cancel a variety of government programs including some which support the arts and humanities, some which fund educational endeavors, some which fund housing projects, some which fund health care, some which fund food assistance programs. You may feel that this budget-cutting is a good thing; you may feel that it’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is reality.

We can all agree on reality – that there are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. And this reality means that if there are fewer government-funded programs to do these things, charities and charitable institutions, such as churches, church-run schools, nonprofit hospitals and clinics, volunteer food banks, and the like, are very likely to be called upon to take up new ministries to replace what is no longer being done by government-funded agencies. Whether we think this a good thing or a bad thing, it is reality. It is as real as being knocked off a horse, and like Paul we – the church – can’t just lay there. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” There are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. “And the king will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:40)

During this last week, two lessons in the Lectionary have stood out for me: one is the Old Testament lesson for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (that’s next Sunday and, yes, clergy do read ahead) and the other is yesterday’s Epistle lesson for the Daily Office. They speak to me, and I hope to you, about what it is we have to get up and do. The first is this from the Prophet Micah:

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

The other is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Stand . . . and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:14-17)

Two hundred years ago, that small band of Episcopalians in Weymouth got up because there was work to be done. Now it is our turn. Every day it is our turn. Get up! Get dressed! There is work to be done. And we have been told what we have to do.

We stand at the beginning of a new century for our parish, at the beginning of a new administration for our country. We pray for the new President and we pray for ourselves. May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is The Conversion Of St Paul by Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, a/k/a Parmigianino, (1527-1528). It hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, about that first item, unity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Receiving Hospitality: Sermon for Pentecost 7, RCL Proper 9C (3 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 9C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-16; and St. Luke 10:1-11,16-20. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Cajun Stir Fried Liver and Okra (Dirty Rice)Take just a quick look at me and you will know that I like to eat, probably too much. I like to cook; I like to entertain and have dinner parties; I like to go to dinner parties; I like to enjoy good restaurants; I like to go to not very good restaurants, too. I like to eat. So when I read a story in which Jesus tells his followers, not once but twice, to eat, it makes me happy. Except for the part where he tells us to not be picky. “Eat and drink whatever they provide . . . eat what is set before you.” (Lk 10:7,8) Yeah . . . but, Jesus, what if it’s, like, okra or liver or raw oysters?

I have a friend who is a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He grew up in the cattle country of Alberta, studied and was ordained in Ontario, and took his first solo assignment on the coast of Labrador, where he served three small seaside parishes. On his arrival, he was quickly invited to dinner by nearly every family in the three congregations and scheduled several of these in rapid succession. Unlike me, my friend loves seafood and was looking forward to feasting on the fresh catch from off the maritime coast. But instead of fresh seafood, his first hosts fed him canned beef. So did the next . . . and the next . . . and at the end of his first week in Labrador, a place known for its fishing industry, he’d had four canned beef dinners.

He also got a call from the bishop at the end of that first week and, when asked how things were going, expressed his disappointment in these dinner offerings. The bishop laughed out loud and then explained to my friend that his parishioners were fisher folk. Seafood was cheap and abundant for them, so that’s what they had every day at nearly every meal. For them, a special occasion, like dinner with the vicar, required a special meal and “special” to them meant beef; most of them couldn’t afford fresh meat from the butcher, so next best was a canned beef roast. The priest might be disappointed, but his parishioners were paying him the highest compliment of hospitality, serving what for them was the most festive of meals. “Eat whatever they provide; eat what is set before you.” Receive hospitality graciously for you do not know the circumstances from whence it is extended.

Paul K. Palumbo, a Lutheran missionary, has written of his similar experience among the poorest of the poor in Latin America:

[E]very time we sat to eat rice and beans, we received . . . a steady diet of honor and humility. To be served rice and beans prepared over a stone oven fueled by wood in dirt-floor houses on the only little table in the house was an honor. To be told the stories of our host families’ lives over the meal was an honor. To have the tiny house in which we were guests rearranged so that we might have a bedroom to ourselves was an honor. The tendency, of course, was to raise one objection or another, that what was set before us was not to our taste or, more typically among our group, that it was too much for a poor family to spend on rich North Americans. These objections were both true, perhaps, but for the sake of the gift and for the sake of learning to receive, it was important to eat what was set before us. (Texts in Context: Eating What Is Set before You)

And that, I think, is the point of this admonition that Jesus gives the 70 (or the 72) not once but twice, to eat what they are provided; they are to learn to receive. They had a lot to give, teaching and admonition, the good news of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, healing of infirmities both physical and spiritual, but they also had to learn, learn to receive.

That’s a very hard lesson to learn. As some of you know, my wife was hospitalized for several days week before last and being with her in the hospital reminded me of my own experiences being a patient, and how difficult that is! You’re lying in bed (a strange electrical bed all sorts of controls that, even if you can reach them, you can’t figure out). Usually you’re tethered by a needle in your arm to a bag of something hanging out of reach behind your head; you may be wired up to some sort of monitor or connected by a plastic tube to an oxygen valve in the wall. You can’t even get out of bed without assistance, let alone do anything else. You can’t just go to the kitchen and make yourself a meal or a late-night TV snack. You can’t wander down the hall to find something to read in the next room. You can’t do anything for yourself. You must receive the ministrations, the ministry of others. And some of us are just not very good at that because we’ve never learned how to do it. We hear Paul tell the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens,” and what we understand is that we must be the burden-bearers; we seldom, if ever, understand that sometimes we must receive the gift of others bearing our burdens.

This is why, instead of sending his messengers out fully equipped and prepared, Jesus sends them with “no purse, no bag, [not even] sandals,” (Lk 10:4) and instructs them to “eat whatever is put before you.” In order to learn to receive, we have to eat whatever we are served, even if it is our own sense of self-sufficiency; we have to swallow our pride and in doing so we receive a precious gift.

Melissa Bane Sevier is a Presbyterian pastor who writes of her experience traveling abroad as an illustration of this gospel passage:

Jesus tells the seventy to receive whatever hospitality is offered. That’s odd. We expect to be told to share hospitality, not to receive it. How happy we are when someone thanks us for a nice meal or is grateful to have a place to stay. When the worshiping community extends hospitality to the stranger, the person on the margins, the immigrant, that community finds itself warmed and renewed by the act of giving.

And yet, receiving is also a gift to oneself and to the giver. Some of the most memorable travel moments I’ve ever experienced happened in some of the poorest places, when my friends and I were offered a simple meal of homemade tortillas, bananas and papayas picked from village trees, and ice cold Coke bought from the local tienda.

Thousands of miles from home, we were served a meal that transcended language and culture with its hospitality and welcome. It was more than we could have asked or expected, and it made us feel at home.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he sent out the seventy in twos. We don’t have to go to a foreign country to be on the journey together. We share memories and adventures. Sometimes we remember the wolves, and can laugh together at the ones who were mean but not really dangerous. We encourage each other to watch out for the truly alarming. But mostly, we talk about those lovely situations where we were given incredible hospitality, where we were welcomed. Sometimes it is hard for us to accept those gifts of hospitality, for we have been trained to give rather than to receive. But Jesus wanted the seventy to know the joy of receiving. (Melissa Bane Sevier, Two-Way Blessing)

And why do we have to learn this joy, this lesson of receiving from others?

Do you remember the old television show All In The Family. The main character, Archie Bunker, was fond of saying, “As the Good Book says . . . .” and then he would quote Poor Richard’s Almanac, or an Aesop’s Fable, or Ann Landers, or any number of other sources, but never anything that actually came out of Scripture. How many of us grew up believing that “God helps those who help themselves” was straight out of the Bible? Well . . . it isn’t! And, in fact, it’s diametrically opposed to the lessons of Scripture! “There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; a strong man is not delivered by his great strength,” says the Psalmist (33:16; BCP version). In Proverbs we read, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” (3:5, NRS) And again the Psalmist says, “It is better to rely on the Lord than to put any trust in flesh,” (118:8, BCP version) even – or perhaps especially – our own!

We have to give up our sense of self-sufficiency; we have to learn to receive the ministry of others so that we can receive the ministry of God, so that we can trust in the Lord with all our heart. “For thus says the Lord:

I will extend prosperity to [Jerusalem] like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass . . . .
(Is 66:12-13)

Theologian Elizabeth Webb (an Episcopalian, by the way) writes about this passage from the Book of Isaiah, echoing Pastor Sevier’s observation that the joy of receiving hospitality “makes us feel at home:”

The comfort that Mother God provides for her people is the comfort of home; restoring the people to the place they belong, rebuilding their ruins, and washing them in riches and security (see also 49:13, 51:13, 52:9, and 54:11). Under God’s nurturing care, the very bodies and spirits of God’s people receive restoration (verse 14).

The word translated “bodies” in the NRSV should more properly be translated “bones,” which speaks to the sense that despair can settle in and take over our very essence, and which emphasizes that God can reach in and restore that essence to joy. The home in this world that God provides for us is within the circle of God’s own arms, and in that place the tired old bones of humanity flourish again. Deep within our bones we are weary and broken, and deep within our bones God’s nurturing love reaches in and restores.

Joy and comfort. Milk and water. Weary bones refreshed and restored. In the midst of the thundering of condemnation and retribution, it is this quiet passage of maternal care and human delight that gestures more particularly to the presence of God with God’s people that their bone-tired bodies and spirits might flourish again, like the grass. (Elizabeth Webb, Commentary on Isaiah 66:10-14)

It is precisely that sort of internal transformation that Paul writes about in today’s passage from the Letter to the Galatians when he says that, by “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” In their book The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary (HarperCollins:New York, 2010), Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, argue that what Paul means is that he has left behind “the world of imperial normalcy,” the world characterized by “‘domination systems,’ societies ruled by a few who used their power, wealth, and ‘wisdom’ to shape the social system in their own self-interest.” (Pg 136)

In its place, transformed by God’s maternal hospitality in Jesus, Paul embarks on what Prof. Sarah Henrich calls the “crazy project” of imagining a world where human beings “eschew the measurements of value used in the everyday world,” where people “devote themselves to one another’s well being, confident that there would be others who would care for them.” In other words, Paul urges the Galatians and us to imagine (and create!) a world where we have learned the lesson of receiving hospitality, where we know how to accept the ministration and the ministry of others, and thus can receive the maternal hospitality of God.

Henrich writes:

Perhaps the best way to fire our imaginations and live in accord with [Paul’s vision] requires us to do the burden bearing more graciously. That is, we are privileged to hear one another’s dreams and desires, to continuously extend the tables at which we sit, the suppers we call Holy, to make room for folk who will see gifts and challenges that surprise us. In listening, in surprise, in hospitality for a moment we catch a richer glimpse of God’s reality and find the energy of the Spirit, lest we grow weary. (Sarah Henrich, Commentary on Galatians 6:[1-6]7-16)

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” When you enter a house, say first “Peace to this house!” “Eat and drink what is provided; eat what is set before you.” It may be okra or oysters or canned beef, but whatever it is it will be more than you could have asked or expected, and it will make you feel at home. Receive from others the gift of their bearing your burdens, and you will know the comfort that Mother God provides for her people. “As a mother comforts her child, so [God] will comfort you;” your bone-tired body and spirit will flourish again; and your name will be written in heaven. Amen.

(Note: The accompanying illustration is a plate of Cajun “Dirty, Dirty Rice” which includes sautéed pork liver and okra. This is definitely not something I would ever want to eat, but my readers may be interested. The recipe can be found here.)

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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.

Nostalgia Is a Lie: Brexit & Plowing (Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 8C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; and St. Luke 9:51-62. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Brexit-flagsAs many of you know, this past week was a harrowing one for my wife and for me; specifically, Wednesday was one of those days you would rather not have to live through. In the afternoon, I was told by a urologist that I probably have prostate cancer, and later that night Evelyn nearly died from pulmonary embolism. She is OK now – I will be leaving right after this service to bring her home from the hospital – and my diagnosis will be either confirmed or proven wrong by a biopsy in about a month.

So all is well . . . but, really, I’d rather go back to Tuesday!

And I’m not the only one who’d like to start the week over!

No doubt, you have heard about this week’s “Brexit” referendum in Great Britain which decided whether the United Kingdom would continue to be part of the European Union. There were the Remainers or the “Ins” on the side of doing so, and the Leavers or the “Outs” on the side of exiting the Union. The “Outs” won to the shock and horror of nearly everyone else around the world.

The pound sterling lost more than 30% of its value in a matter of hours. Stock markets tumbled; the FTSE 100 index (the British equivalent of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average), which had closed the previous day at £6,388 opened the next morning at £5,789, a drop of more than 8.5%, inching back up during the day to a final loss of 3.15% The Dow itself closed down 610 points, its eighth-largest point loss ever.

In my humble opinion, the entire exercise of the referendum, from the decision by the Conservative government of David Cameron to hold it, to the very poor campaign run by the Remainers who simply didn’t believe they could lose, to the patently dishonest campaign waged by the Leavers, to the eventual outcome has been and is an exercise in monumental stupidity!

That the Outs’ victory was predicated on falsehood is the worst part of the whole mess. As Nick Cohen wrote in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian, the “politicians who [led the Vote Leave effort] knowingly made a straight, shameless, incontrovertible lie the first plank of their campaign. Vote Leave assured the electorate it would reclaim a supposed £350m Brussels takes from us each week. They knew it was a lie.” (EU referendum Opinion) Nigel Farage, one of those politicians, after the votes were counted and Leave had won, admitted that the assertion was (as he put it) “a mistake.” (USUncut)

The Brexit Leave campaign was a lie in another much more subtle way, as well, a way to which we on this side of the Pond are equally vulnerable. The campaign played upon the people’s nostalgia for a Great Britain that they believe used to exist: “We want our country back” was the campaign slogan of Mr. Farage’s UK Independent Party, and other Outs resurrected Margaret Thatcher’s early campaign slogan from the 1960s “Let’s Make Britain Great Again.” The day after the election, London’s Daily Star newspaper ran a picture of a bulldog (remember that Winston Churchill’s mascot was the British bulldog) with the headline “Now Let’s Make Britain Great Again.”

Nostalgia has been defined as the “yearning to return home to the past – more than this, it is a yearning for an idealized past – a longing for a sanitized impression of the past . . . – not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, [with] all negative emotions filtered out.” (Hirsch, Alan R., Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding)

And that brings us to today’s lessons, to Elijah’s call to Elisha to be his servant and apprentice prophet, to Jesus’ encounter with three potential disciples who wish to follow him but have other business to attend to before hitting the road. Elisha had such business as well – he wished to say good-bye to his parents – and Elijah allowed it (although the Hebrew is unclear; we cannot tell if he did so supportively or grudgingly).

Jesus was not so understanding. He told the first potential follower that to come with him would be hard and uncomfortable and, by not telling us that the man came along after that, Luke implies that this dissuaded the would-be disciple. When the second asked for a delay to bury his father, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead;” not the most pastoral response! And to the third who, like Elisha wished simply to say farewell to family, Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

“Here, Jesus makes reference to the story of Elisha out plowing in the field that we encountered in the first reading. And so it seems that Elijah’s [enigmatic reply] was indeed scolding Elisha – or at least, Jesus is suggesting Elisha should have been scolded for his request to kiss his parents goodbye.” (Soltis, Kathryn Getek, The Tensions of Discipleship)

The text from the First Book of Kings doesn’t tell us whether Elisha did, in fact, kiss his parents. What it tells us is that he slaughtered the oxen with which he was plowing, cooked them over a fire made by burning his farming equipment, and fed them as a farewell feast to his co-workers. We sometimes speak of burning our bridges behind us; Elisha prophetically acted out such a burning – the destruction of the return path in this feast of boiled oxen. Nostalgia was no longer an option for the young prophet-to-be.

Elisha, a farmer who had plowed a field, seems to have known that you have to watch carefully in front of you to keep the furrows straight, that you have to look forward not behind. “Look backward and you will swerve one way or another.” (Rogness, Michael, Commentary on Luke 9:51-62) And so, to avoid doing so, he destroys that which might lure him to look backward.

Elisha knew this and so, too, did the people of Jesus’ time. Luke “attributes to Jesus a saying that would have been rather well-known in the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, in Hesiod’s Works and Days [a didactic poem written around 700 BCE], a plowman is described as one ‘who attends to his work and drives a straight furrow and no longer gapes after his comrades, but keeps his mind on his work.’ In other words, to look back from the plow (whether to family living or dead) was to risk cutting a crooked or shallow furrow and thus ruining the work altogether! There is no place for looking back or even trying to look in two directions at once (being ‘two-faced’); rather, would-be disciples must be single-minded in purpose, setting their faces like Jesus on the task at hand.” (Parsons, Mikeal C., Commentary on Luke 9:51-62)

Nostalgia, that bittersweet yearning for a past that never was, encourages us to be “two-faced,” because nostalgia is a lie. Nostalgia is never true. “Nostalgia is a dirty liar that insists things were better than they seemed,” writes the poet Michelle K. Another poet, Alessandro Baricco, writes, “It’s a strange grief… to die of nostalgia for something you never lived.” He continues:

What is nostalgia?
What is it for you?
Is it the other half of a whole…
a fraction of a whole,
which takes up more space than the rest…
Is it a perfect day…
the sun was shining even if it was stormy,
even if it was the darkest of night…
there was sun in your heart
and it lit everything up in a glow
which you will never forget…
which still shines…
but do you remember it as it was or as…
it felt in that blissful moment
when all was right in the world, in your world…
it feels now seen from a distance
which has changed what it was
because of where you are now…
you wish you’d enjoyed that moment
rather than wasting it…
you wasted it…
why…
because it wasn’t as good as…
but now it is…
better than…
so you make amends in retrospect…
Is it a perfect memory…
one which isn’t anything like
what actually happened,
but you like this version better…
time heals wounds
sometimes by blurring the truth
with pretty lies…

Have you ever been accused of lying
when you told the truth…
it was not what others wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever accused someone of lying
because they told the truth…
but it was not one you wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever wondered how much
of what you remember is true…
and how much is a lie.
So much gets clouded…
sometimes by very beautiful clouds…
in a cerulean sky…

Like all untruth, nostalgia is a trap! It is a trap, says author C.G. Blake in his advice to new writers, because “by living in the past, we cheat the present.” He continues:

I’m a big believer in living in the present. Learn from the past, yes. Revere loved ones who have passed on. Keep the past in our hearts, but keep our eyes looking forward. Don’t dwell on the past because no matter how hard you wish it, you’re never going to change it. You can only change your present and your future. (The Nostalgia Trap)

We’re never going to change the past. And we are never, ever going to go back to it, especially not to that sanitized impression of the past with no negative emotions that nostalgia offers us!

If we dwell on it, we are trapped. The Brexit Outs wanted to make their country “great again.” What they got was a monumentally stupid mess of unknown proportions that no one knows how to handle, a country in turmoil where the Prime Minister had no choice but to resign, a nation now fracturing as politicians in Scotland call for a second independence vote and politicians in Northern Ireland seek a poll on whether to leave the United Kingdom and become part of the Republic of Ireland. The Brexit Leavers wanted to “take back their country.” What they got was a free falling economy, a nearly 10% reduction in the value of their investments and pensions, and a very uncertain future. They were trapped by the false promises of nostalgia.

Don’t get me wrong! I understand the lure of nostalgia, the desire to go back to some simpler and emotionally better time, even one that never existed. As I said, I’d like to go back to Tuesday! But we are never, ever going to go back to – nor recreate – the past!

What sets us free from the nostalgia trap, what sets us free from any lie, from any untruth, is truth. “You will know the truth,” Jesus told his followers, “and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) And the Truth tells us to get started on the important the work before us and to fix our gaze straight ahead, because “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

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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.

A Priest (And My Demons) – Homily for Proper 7, RCL Year C (19 June 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 19, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 7C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 65:1-9; Psalm 22:18-27; Galatians 3:23-29; and St. Luke 8:26-39. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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EricOrangeStoleTwenty-four years and 363 days ago I was made a priest; some what more than a year more than that, I have been a deacon. I have been in parish ministry for more than 26 years and on Tuesday I will celebrate the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the Sacred Prebyterate.

I am good at what I do. I know well how to craft liturgy; I take care in what I do and the choices I make in creating the outline of a worship service, and I do a good job. I run a tight ship when it comes to parish administration and management of the church’s resources.

I have been a Diocesan Chancellor, and served on Diocesan Councils, Standing Committees, Commissions on Ministry, Constitution and Canons Committees, and other interim bodies of the church. I have been a deputy to General Convention, an alternate Deputy, and a participant in the church’s deliberative and legislative processes.

I have shepherded aspirants through the church’s ordination process and mentored the newly ordained and the newly assigned; one of my apprentices is now the rector of a major parish in this diocese; another is now bishop in an important and historical diocese; my own son is rector of an important congregation in his diocese.

People tell me I preach a pretty good sermon, though sometimes I don’t recognize the homilies they tell me I have delivered. They tell me I’m good with death, that they want me to officiate at their funerals when the time comes. Others compliment me on the beauty of weddings at which I preside.

I’m a good priest.

And yet I have my demons. Visiting someone in the hospital, or sitting with a family planning a funeral, or counseling a couple prepare for marriage (or a couple in the midst of a marriage possibly coming to an end) … I’m never sure that I have said the right thing. In fact, I’m often positive that I’ve been a complete failure, that nothing I’ve said has made any difference, except perhaps to have made things worse.

Sometimes I get cards, or letters, or emails thanking me for my ministry. I treasure those; I keep them in a special drawer in my desk. More often, I get letters and emails telling me how I have failed, how someone is disappointed in what I have said or done or failed to say or haven’t done, or (worse) I am forwarded a note or email telling someone else like a church warden or a vestry member what a disappointment the rector is.

I don’t keep those – I don’t have to; every single one of them is etched into my consciousness, engraved on my heart; every single one of them hurts as much today as when first read however recent or long ago it may have been. Every one of them is a constant reminder of how I have failed to live up to my ordination vows.

But I’m a good priest; I know I’m a good priest.

I love the people of my parish – you. Sometimes, I don’t like some of you very much, but I love you. I pray for you every morning; I lay awake at night worrying about you; I cry myself to sleep when I feel that I have failed you.

I love you, but I don’t do what I do for you. And when I fail you, when I don’t live up to you expectations, when I preach a word that discomfits you and you push back … it isn’t you to whom I answer. It is the one who sets me free from my demons.

Jesus says to me, as he said Gerasene demoniac, “What is your name?” And demons begin to name themselves, “Parishioner complaint. Parishioner disappointment. Self-criticism.” And then, of course, there’s “Disappointing son. Inadequate father. Second-rate spouse. Poor excuse for an attorney.” The demons are legion. And Jesus gives me permission to let go of them, and gives them permission to leave. Because what I do, I do for him. I do what I do for God. I don’t know where those names, those demons go … maybe into a herd of swine; I don’t know. They go away … sometimes they seem to come back, but mostly they go away.

And sometimes I just want to go away, too; I want to go away with Jesus. I beg that I might just go away and be with him; but Jesus won’t let me. He says to me, “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” So I preach. I preach about gun violence; I preach about mental health; I preach about community, and fellowship, and love; and I preach about what I read in the newspaper and what I read in the Scriptures. But always, no matter what the subject may seem to be, I preach about how much Jesus has done for me. For 25 years.

For 25 years. And I’m grateful to Jesus who called me to this ministry, who has sustains me in this vocation, and who frees me from my demons. Because of him, I’m a good priest.

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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.

No Grief So Profound: Sermon for Pentecost 3, Proper 5C (5 June 2016)

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 5C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Luke 7:11-17. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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raisingthewidowssonI am convinced that there is no grief quite so profound as that of a mother whose child has died. I know that fathers in the same situation feel a nearly as intense sorrow at the death of their sons or daughters, but having spent time with grieving parents, I am convinced that the grief of a mother faced with the loss of her child is the deepest sadness in human experience.

About nine hundred years before the time of Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet Elijah spoke the word of God during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Jezebel was a foreigner who worshipped the god Ba’al and this was an abomination in Elijah’s eyes, and he was not remiss in letting the queen and everyone else know what he thought of that. He challenged Ahab about his wife and her religion, something the king did not appreciate. So Elijah fled the country; the First Book of Kings tells us that he did so at the command of God, who apparently wished to preserve the life of his prophet.

God sent Elijah during a time of famine to a widow in the Phoenician town of Zarephath. The woman was surprised by Elijah’s demand, pointing out that she had just enough flour and oil to make a last meal for her and her son, after which they expected to die of starvation. Elijah (as we heard) told her not to worry, that if she would feed Elijah, her canister of flour and her flask of oil would never run out until the famine ended. Sure enough that proved to be true. But not long after that meal, her son died.

In anger, out of the depths of that profound sorrow, she lashed out at Elijah: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Elijah, faced with his hostess’s grief and anger, was also angered by the boy’s death. “He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’”

Nearly a millennium later, Luke tells us that Jesus also encountered another grieving mother. Entering the town of Nain, he encountered a funeral procession for a young man and was confronted by the deep maternal sorrow of his widowed mother. In our English translation, Luke says that Jesus felt compassion for the woman. The Greek word is a little earthier: splagchnizomai. It is derived from the word splagchna, which means “entrails” or “intestines”. It means, literally, to have one’s gut wrenched; it says that one has a feeling deep in one’s gut, the deepest of all human emotions, the kind of feeling that is physical as much as emotive. The best definition I’ve ever heard of splagchnizomai is that it is a lurching feeling deep in your gut that compels you to do something. That is a great description for both Jesus’ compassion for the widow of Nain and Elijah’s anger at the death of the son of the widow of Zarephath.

Today, in follow up to our Ninth Annual Gentlemen’s Cake Auction, we welcome and honor Michelle Powell, a single mother of two, who in the summer of 2000, had that sort of feeling deep in her gut that compelled her to do something. With limited resources, offering nothing more than a simple meal and a game of kickball at the local park, she started Let’s Make a Difference and began a journey that would ultimately change her life and positively impact the lives of many at-risk children in need in the Medina community. The mission of Let’s Make a Difference is “to provide positive social growth in the lives of children in need through educational, spiritual and creative experiences, promoting the fact that each person can make a difference.” This summer Let’s Make a Difference will offer character development activities, field trips, academic enrichment, arts and crafts, games and lots of fun, and make a huge difference in the lives of many of Medina’s underprivileged children.

We also welcome and pay tribute to retired educator Carol Andregg. In 2007, as an outgrowth of Let’s Make a Difference, Michelle and Carol started an after-school program for students at Claggett Middle School. Called Achieving Connections through Education (or “ACE”), the program assists students on four days of a typical five-day school week with daily homework assignments, longer term projects, behavioral issues, and developing respect for self and others. ACE has made a significant impact in the lives of their students, many of whom have successfully completed high school and gone on to college. Today, we honor and support Michelle, Carol, Let’s Make a Difference, and Achieving Connections through Education with a grant of $2,635, the total amount raised through this year’s cake auction. (See the Let’s Make a Difference Website)

Writing about the gospel story we have heard this morning, the Rev. Lia Scholl, pastor at Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia, has offered what she calls a four-lesson, do-it-yourself guide to healing like Jesus.

#1: Pay Attention

The first lesson? We have to be paying attention. Jesus is walking along, sees a funeral procession and notices the mother of the deceased boy or man. He notices her.

#2: Give a Crap

The second lesson? Give a crap. How easy it would have been for Jesus to just walk on by. No one expected him to heal every sick or dead person who crossed his path. Jesus gave a crap.

#3: Be Willing to Feel

The third lesson? We have to be willing to feel. The NIV translates this passage as “his heart went out to her.” We have to be willing to hurt. That’s what compassion is. To share in someone’s pain.

#4: Healing Can Happen

The fourth lesson? We just walk up to someone who is dead and we command that they get better. It works! It really works. No, it doesn’t.

The fourth lesson is that healing can happen if the other things are in place. It may not be supernatural, immediate healing. But healing can happen . . . .

(How to Heal Like Jesus: Luke’s DIY Guide to Healing People)

I think Pastor Scholl has pretty well encapsulated everything we need to learn from these stories of mothers whose children died and from the ministry done in each case by Elijah and Jesus: pay attention, care so much you do something, be willing to be hurt, and trust that healing can happen. That’s what Michelle and Carol have done and why Let’s Make a Difference is making a difference. That’s what good people throughout time have done.

polio-deaths2The year that I was born was the worst of the mid-20th Century polio epidemic; about 55,000 Americans contracted the disease that year and more than 3,100 died, mostly children. As a society, we decided that that much illness and death was simply unacceptable, and an all-out effort was underway to put an end to it. Within just a few years, Jonas Salk and his team developed the vaccine which ended the epidemic; a few years later, the Sabin oral vaccine was developed and polio has been just about eradicated throughout the world. (Graphic from Polio Cases, Deaths, and Vaccination Rates.)

We are now in the midst of an even more deadly epidemic in this country, an epidemic of gun violence, and that is the point of the odd-colored stole I am wearing today.

Wear_Orange_InstagramOn January 21, 2013, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school student from the south side of Chicago, marched with her school’s band in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. One week later, Hadiya was shot and killed. She was shot in the back while standing with friends inside Harsh Park in Kenwood, Chicago, after taking her final exams. She was not the intended victim; the perpetrator, a gang member, had mistaken her group of friends for a rival gang.

On Hadiya’s birthday, June 2, her friends chose to wear orange, the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves, to remember her life. What started in a south side high school to celebrate Hadiya has turned into a nationwide movement to honor all lives cut short by gun violence. Now, June 2 each year is National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and those who participate wear orange to celebrate of life, to raise awareness of the scourge of gun violence, and to call for action to help save other lives from gunfire. (See Wear Orange)

This year, beginning here in Ohio, Episcopal clergy and clergy of many other denominations, including many of our bishops, have decided to wear out-of-the-ordinary orange vestments for the same purpose. (See Episcopal News Service) Too many of us have sat with and held the hands of too many mothers, too many fathers whose children have died, too many widows of Zarephath, too many widows of Nain. We have felt the rage of Elijah and the gut-wrenching compassion of Jesus but, unlike them, we are unable to change the circumstances. If we could have prevented those deaths, we would; if we could raise those dead children, we would. We can’t. But what we can do is raise awareness.

Here are just a few of the realities of the gun violence epidemic in this country:

  • On an average day in America, 91 people die from gun shots. If you compute that out, you’ll find that the number of deaths per year is more than 33,000; that is ten times the number of deaths from polio in the worst year of that epidemic. (See Everytown for Gun Safety)
  • Sometimes we hear people claim that the risk of gun death, especially the risk to children and teens, is higher in urban areas than in the suburbs or in rural communities. The fact is that the risk of gun death is the same in all areas, although the underlying reason for the death may be different: “Youth (ages 0 to 19) in the most rural U.S. counties are as likely to die from a gunshot as those living in the most urban counties. Rural children die of more gun suicides and unintentional shooting deaths. Urban children die more often of gun homicides.” (See Brady Campaign: About Gun Violence)
  • 64% of all gun deaths are suicides. (See Everytown for Gun Safety) “Someone with access to firearms is three times more likely to commit suicide” than someone living in a home where there are no guns. (See Access to Guns Increases Risk of Suicide)
  • Last week there was an enormous amount of news coverage about the shooting and killing of the silver-back ape Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo. While that was a tragedy, I suggest to you that even more tragic were the three shootings of human beings in Ohio which were statistically likely to have happened the same day. Did you know that? That, statistically, an Ohio resident is shot to death every eight hours? In 2011 in this state “an average of one aggravated assault with a firearm [occurred] every two and a half hours.” (See Fact Sheet: Ohio Gun Violence)
  • Did you know that during the current year alone there have been 121 mass shootings (in which four or more persons were injured or killed) in the United States? That’s more than five per week, and more than half of those were the result of a family or domestic dispute; very many of the victims of those shootings were children. (See Gun Violence Archive)
  • Did you know that since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, there has been at least one on-campus shooting in a school or college nearly every week? More than 160 incidents in which 59 people were killed and 124 were injured. (See Analysis of School Shootings)
  • Did you know that seven children and teens (age 19 or under) are killed with guns in the U.S. on an average day? (See Brady Campaign: About Gun Violence)

Seven mothers every day suffer the profound, gut-wrenching, soul-deep sorrow of the widows of Zarephath and Nain because of the preventable deaths of their children.

Gun violence is an epidemic far worse than the polio epidemic. Unlike the polio epidemic, however, it is one about which we need do no research to stem! We know the cause and we know how to stop it. If guns were a disease that killed 30,000 or more, this epidemic would have ended long ago. And yet we take no action to put an end to it.

Scholars often debate the historical accuracy of stories from the Bible; these two stories today get a lot of attention in that regard. But whether they are historically accurate or not is really not the point. These stories have a lesson to teach. As theologian Bill Loader says,

Whether or not one wants to defend the historicity of such accounts or is happy to see them as legendary expressions of faith, they still have a role within a broader perspective. [The story of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain], in particular, deserves to be allowed its symbolic potential. The ministry of Jesus and ours is about addressing real human need and it is about compassion. This is indeed his mission, God’s mission.

Such compassion and caring in action has few short-cuts to success, if any. A cross stands in the road, which unveils reality for both the carers and the world in need of care. In the midst of the complexity of human need is hope and the possibility of renewal and life. It is built on the foundation that all people are of value and none is to be dismissed or despised. Our world still needs that kind of good news and our challenge is to become it and help others become it. (First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary)

Our gift to the good people of Let’s Make a Difference and the marvelous work they do with at-risk children in Medina is a significant step in God’s mission of compassion, but it is only one step. These children, our children, our grandchildren are at risk every day from dangers, some of which we cannot know or imagine, but one of which we know all too well, the epidemic of preventable gun violence.

About the story of Elijah and the dead boy in Zarephath, Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana, author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, writes:

As a minister of the gospel, I cannot bring ailing boys back to life – how I wish I could. But this story convicts me that while I am called to offer presence and a message of grace to people hungering for wholeness and justice, presence and eloquent words are not enough. This widow would surely offer an “Amen” to James when he wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Elijah is not off the hook simply because the jars of meal and oil have not run out. He must do all he can for the continued well-being of her son. (Political Theology Today)

We are not let off the hook by our grant to Let’s Make a Difference; we must do all we can for the continued well-being of the children they serve and of all the children of our community and our nation. That means being aware of and working for the end of the epidemic of gun violence which threatens them.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is another Presbyterian elder who writes hymns. Her hymn God of Mercy, You Have Shown Us was written at the request of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program for an International Peace Day in September, 2009. I will close with her lyrics as a prayer:

God of mercy, you have shown us ways of living that are good:
Work for justice, treasure kindness, humbly journey with the Lord.
Yet your people here are grieving, hurt by weapons that destroy.
Help us turn to you, believing in your way that brings us joy.

On a street where neighbors gather, shots are heard; a young girl dies.
On a campus, students scatter as the violence claims more lives.
In a family filled with anger, tempers flare and shots resound.
God of love, we weep and wonder at the violence all around.

God, we pray for those who suffer when this world seems so unfair;
May your church be quick to offer loving comfort, gentle care.
And we pray: Amid the violence, may we speak your truth, O Lord!
Give us strength to break the silence, saying, “This can be no more!”

God, renew our faith and vision, make us those who boldly lead!
May we work for just decisions that bring true security.
Help us change this violent culture based on idols, built on fear.
Help us build a peaceful future with your world of people here.

(Gun Violence Prevention: Worship Resources)

There is no grief so profound as that of the widows of Zarephath and Nain, the grief a mother whose child has died. Let us do all in our power to prevent that grief whenever we can. Let us learn from Jesus: pay attention to what is happening, care so much we do something, be willing to be hurt, and trust that this epidemic can be healed. And let us make a difference! 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.

Sermon for the 199th Annual Meeting: Conversion of Paul (24 January 2016)

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A sermon offered on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 24, 2016, to the 199th Annual Meeting of the members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.
(Apostle by poet and priest Malcolm Guite)

A lovely sonnet getting at the contradictions and paradoxes of Saul the Pharisee, dedicated persecutor of the church, who became Paul the Apostle, greatest promoter of the church’s gospel. In lyrically detailing those polarities, Malcolm Guite gives us a hint at what is meant by “conversion.”

If we look up “conversion” on the internet, we find (in Wikipedia, for example) that there are definitions pertaining to its use in law, in finance and economics, in linguistic and computing, in sports and entertainment, and (of course) in religion. However, I think the Wikipedia article on religious conversion gets it sadly wrong.

We read there that religious conversion is “the adoption of a set of beliefs identified with one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. Thus ‘religious conversion’ would describe the abandoning of adherence to one denomination and affiliating with another.” (Wikipedia) That’s wrong. Conversion has nothing to do with “sets of beliefs;” adopting one of those in place of another is simply changing one’s mind. And it isn’t about abandoning one denomination for another; that’s simply changing clubs.

Conversion has to do with something much, much more. And I would suggest to you that it is something over which the person converting has really very little control. We do not convert; we are converted.

Certainly that is the case with Saul. His conversion as he describes it here to King Agrippa (and as Luke, the author of Acts, describes it earlier in Chapter 9), this is not conversion over which Saul has any control at all! I’m sure, though, that he was open to it. I’m sure that, as a faithful Jew, Saul prayed the daily Amidah (or “Standing Prayer”) which includes this petition: “You graciously bestow knowledge upon man and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from you, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are you Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.” (chabad.org) I rather doubt, however, that he expected it to be answered in quite so dramatic a fashion.

Religious conversion is a matter of being; it implies a new reference point for the convert’s self-identity, a complete change of direction. Whatever had been the pole star of the convert’s moral compass, another utterly replaces it. While there is a moment of conversion, an experience of being turned toward the new reference point, conversion is not complete unless it is appropriated, adopted, lived into by the convert; it is after the moment of conversion that “the adoption of a set of beliefs” or the affiliating with a new religious community takes place. Thus, conversion is never a one-and-done. Conversion does not end in the moment; it continues for a lifetime.

Saul became Paul, his baptismal name taken as token of that change in his being, that reorientation toward a new pole star, Jesus the Christ. We can see his living into all that that entails as he works out his new theology in his letters to the churches.

His example is for us. Each of us is, like Paul, living into a conversion. We may have come to our Christian faith by our upbringing rather than through a distinct moment of conversion. We may have been baptized as infants never to have known a moment when the direction of our life was changed. We may have come to faith slowly, perhaps we are not even sure we are there yet! Nonetheless, as members of the Christian community, like Paul, we are called to grow into the implications of conversion.

As the great Presbyterian story teller Frederick Buechner has written in his book Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, Scripture is filled with many examples unlike the great conversions such as Paul’s:

There are a number of conversions described in the New Testament. You think of Paul seeing the light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), or the Ethiopian eunuch getting Philip to baptize him on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:28-40). There is also the apostle Thomas saying, “My Lord and my God!” when he is finally convinced that Jesus is alive and whole again (John 20:26-29), not to mention the Roman centurion who witnessed the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Luke 23:47). All these scenes took place suddenly, dramatically, when they were least expected. They all involved pretty much of an about-face, which is what the word conversion means. We can only imagine that they all were accompanied by a good deal of emotion.

But in this same general connection there are other scenes that we should also remember. There is the young man who, when Jesus told him he should give everything he had to the poor if he really wanted to be perfect as he said he did, walked sorrowfully away because he was a very rich man. There is Nicodemus, who was sufficiently impressed with Jesus to go talk to him under cover of darkness and later to help prepare his body for burial, but who never seems to have actually joined forces with him. There is King Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s impassioned defense of his faith, said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28, KJV). There is even Pontius Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) under such circumstances as might lead you to suspect that just possibly, half without knowing it, he really hoped Jesus would be able to give him the answer, maybe even become for him the answer.

Like the conversions, there was a certain amount of drama about these other episodes too and perhaps even a certain amount of emotion, though for the most part unexpressed. But of course in the case of none of them was there any about-face. Presumably all these people kept on facing more or less the same way they had been right along. King Agrippa, for instance, kept on being King Agrippa just as he always had. And yet you can’t help wondering if somewhere inside himself, as somewhere also inside the rest of them, the “almost” continued to live on as at least a sidelong glance down a new road, the faintest itching of the feet for a new direction.

We don’t know much about what happened to any of them after their brief appearance in the pages of Scripture, let alone what happened inside them. We can only pray for them, not to mention also for ourselves, that in the absence of a sudden shattering event, there was a slow underground process that got them to the same place in the end.

There is another conversion in the story of Paul’s conversion. It is not in our reading today but in Luke’s version in Chapter 9; he tells us of Ananias, to whom the Lord appeared commissioning him to teach Paul. Ananias objects at first; “No way,” he says. The Lord’s words, however, convince him to do as he is bidden and he becomes Paul’s teacher. Paul, after receiving Ananias’s instruction, preaches in the synagogues that Jesus is Lord. These two men, Paul and Ananias, represent two different communities, the new community of the disciples and the old community of the synagogue, both of which are transformed by gospel of Jesus, the risen Lord. The two conversions are a vision, a sign, of how the name of the risen Lord takes shape and unfolds in the lives of believers and communities of believers.

These stories of Paul, of Ananias, of the rich young man, of Nicodemus, and the others, invite us to consider how we look at our own world, who we respond when God takes our “no way,” and our “we’ve never done that before” and transforms them into “yes.” God gives us new vision, God rearranges our ways of seeing, being, and acting. God changes our world.

We know this to be true in our community, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, a constituent congregation of the Diocese of Ohio, of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and (still, despite the demands of some foreign primates) of the Anglican Communion. We have seen this community, this parish grow, change, change directions, build, renew, and adapt, all in response to God’s “yes” even when many of us might have said “no way” and even when many of us did say “we’ve never done it that way before.”

And look where God’s “yes” has brought us. Fourteen youths and adults were confirmed or received this year; five persons were baptized. They represent a 3% growth in the registered membership of the parish. Our weekly attendance in 2015 increased 5% over 2014’s average attendance. There were twice as many marriages last year compared to the year before, 20% more home communion visits, and nearly 70% more weekly prayer services.

Free Farmers’ Market, our largest outreach ministry, fed over 4,000 people, distributing almost 50,000 pounds of food during the year. We helped sustain the Summit-Medina Battered Women’s Shelter with numerous gifts-in-kind including bathroom and kitchen supplies, personal hygiene and laundry items, and new clothing for women and children. We contributed over $1,200 to the United Thank Offering and made a grant (through the Gentlemen’s Cake Auction) to a local elementary school (Garfield) to create a college vision experience for their Fourth Graders. 2015’s 9th Annual Cake Auction, by the way, increased the total for that program to over $18,000 in monies raised for ministries outside the parish.

Our youth group, the Episcopal Youth Community of St. Paul’s Parish, has grown to over twenty young people who have traveled on mission trips, attended diocesan and national youth events, taken part in Happening and other youth retreats, and hosted the annual Homelessness Awareness Sleep-Out and raising hundreds of dollars for the homeless shelter program in our community. St. Paul’s youth program is recognized as one of the premier ministries to, for, and by teens in this diocese.

Financially, this has been a banner year. We began the year thinking we were going to spend over $18,000 more than we would have available through donations and other income. Well, we did end with a deficit, but not nearly so large as we thought: as the Treasurer’s Report will show, it ended up being only $6,000. We made up two-thirds of the anticipated deficit. For the coming year, based on the outstanding charitable generosity of our members and the good financial stewardship of the vestry and the staff, we have seen an increase in anticipated income, a decrease in anticipated expenses, with a deficit of only $8,000 anticipated. If we do as well in the coming year as we have done in the past year, we will overcome that budgetary deficit and end with the year with an operating surplus. Despite this year’s operating surplus, we nonetheless have seen an increase in the parish’s overall financial health. We are almost $55,000 wealthier at year’s end than we were at the beginning; about half of that is a decrease in our indebtedness, the other half is an increase in our savings.

We have seen where God’s “yes” can bring us. Looking to the future, what can we foresee? What do we imagine what God is going to do with St. Paul’s Parish? Where is God leading us? What will be our response when God says to us, as he said to our Patron Saint, “Get up and Go, because I have chosen you and am commissioning you for the life of my community?” What will be our response when Jesus says to us, as he said to the first apostles, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves?”

I know what our response will be, because we have already given it many times. It will be the same as St. Paul’s, the same as Ananias’s: “Yes, Lord!” And “God, our own God, [will] give us his blessing, [and] all the ends of the earth [shall] stand in awe of him.” Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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