That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Genesis (page 2 of 7)

Act Three (Pt 1): Fully Human – Easter Vigil 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday, April 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31,15:20-21; Proverbs 8:1-8,19-21,9:4b-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Two weeks ago, the Sunday lectionary treated us to the entire long Gospel lesson of the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and then last week the Daily Office lectionary repeated it in smaller bits over the course of several days. Last Sunday I suggested that Holy Week and Easter can be conceived as a three-act drama to which the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday is an overture.

The Lazarus story, like last Sunday’s Gospel, is part of that overture, the introduction to the three-act drama of celebration in which we have participated this week and in which we have come, this evening, to the third and final act. Lazarus has been much on my mind as we have prepared for this Easter celebration and for the baptisms we have just performed. I believe the story of Lazarus’ raising has much to teach us about what we have done here tonight in this third act, this Baptismal Vigil, this liturgy of welcoming and inclusion.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany; they are a family which figures prominently in the Gospels as friends of Jesus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. This family really seems to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. When word is sent to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Lazarus is described to him as “he whom you love.” (John 11:3) Lazarus and his sisters are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.

As the story of Lazarus raising is told, the family is described as accompanied by “Jews.” That has always struck me as a bit odd. After all, aren’t they all Jews? Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, the whole lot of them? Of course they are! So many scholars suggest that we should better understand John’s term Ioudaiou to mean “Judeans,” that is people native to the Jerusalem area; these scholars suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus, were Galileans who had moved to Judea and been accepted into this southern community. This strengthens the suggestion that they may have been members of Jesus’ extended family.

Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (John 11:21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”

We’re told that Jesus’ response to this is that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s a fine translation, but it’s also a bit misleading. The Greek word rendered “disturbed” very literally means he “snorted with anger”; and the word translated “deeply moved” means “stirred up” and implies a certain physicality, not simply an emotion. Jesus response to the sisters’ confrontations, to Lazarus’ death, to the whole situation is to become indignant and sick to his stomach.

The Lazarus story contains the shortest verse in the New Testament, famously rendered in the King James Version with only two words, “Jesus wept.” Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest that, since John describes Jesus as angry and physically sick, we might consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.

We have just baptized four children and, together with them, we have affirmed the Baptismal Covenant beginning with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in which we will claim that Jesus, the Son of God, was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (BCP 1979, p 304). In the Nicene Creed, which we recite most Sundays during the Holy Eucharist, we go further and declare that he “became incarnate . . . and was made man,” that is, that he became a flesh-and-blood human being. (BCP 1979, p 358). In the Definition of Chalcedon, which you can find on page 864 of the Prayer Book, the church goes even beyond that and asserts its conviction that Jesus is “truly [human] . . . like us in all respects, apart from sin.”

I believe that standing before that tomb where his beloved friend Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, feeling the anger and frustration of his close friends Mary and Martha, surrounded by Judeans muttering “couldn’t he have prevented this,” and perhaps physically exhausted from traveling from the other side of the Jordan valley where he was when he got the news, Jesus’ humanity hit him like a ton of bricks. In that moment, everything that it meant to be human came crashing in on him: the way human beings settle for easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships; the injustice, oppression, and exploitation we impose on one another; the pain, rejection, hunger, and war we endure . . . but, also, the love, friendship, community, family, support, and every other good thing about being a human being; it all come together in that moment standing at that grave.

Why do I think that? Because that’s what I feel every time I stand at a grave. The first time I did that, I was 5-1/2 years old. I remember standing between my mother and my paternal grandmother watching two members of the US Army fold the flag that had draped my father’s coffin, feeling loss, grief, anger, confusion, and emotions I couldn’t even name. But there was also the love of family, pride in my father’s military service, a sense of community with extended family and friends, all the comfort that comes from our common humanity. And every time I have stood beside a grave, I have felt that again, and I can surely imagine that our Lord experienced something very like that. No wonder Jesus – the sorrowful-but-also-angry and stirred-up Jesus, the knowing-he-too-might-soon-be-dead Jesus, the fully-human, like-us-in-all-respects Jesus – wept.

We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As St. Paul asks in his letter to the Romans which was read just a few minutes ago, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” The Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death.”

St. Paul’s assurance that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” is echoed by the Prayer Books bold promise that by baptism we share in Jesus’ resurrection, and that “through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 1979, p 306) As Jesus called for Lazarus to be unbound from his funeral wrappings, as Jesus himself rose and set aside his shroud, through Holy Baptism our Lord calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with those whom the Psalmist describes as having “clean clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)

The Creation story in Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn 1:27) The story of the Fall reminds us that somehow that divine likeness has been marred, that on our own we fail to live up to that image; we fail to fully live up to the potential God created in humankind. Through baptism, the divine image is restore; through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a process of transformation begins and God restores us to who and what we were meant to be – fully human.

When we baptized these children, we asked them and their baptismal sponsors (and we asked ourselves) some questions which are taken directly from the Apostle’s Creed, to which I referred earlier. These questions began with the words, “Do you believe . . . .”

A few years ago a colleague of mine said that he had once asked his congregation, when reciting the Nicene Creed, to say “We trust in” instead of “We believe in” since the original Greek could have been translated either way. He said he wondered if the church would be less fragmented if we had used “trust.” He suggested that there might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here.” When we ask those questions of baptismal candidates and their Godparents, when we say the creeds ourselves, are expressing a deep affirmation of community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe we don’t “believe” exactly the same things that others here believe, but we all trust in the same God.

In that same conversation, another priest objected to what he called the distinction between “faith as trust and faith with content.” “It’s always struck me as a strange distinction,” he said. “If, for example, faith as trust is about relationship [and not about content], it is like someone saying to a prospective marriage partner, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but I’m not certain who you are.’” I suggested to him, however, and I suggest to you now that this distinction really doesn’t exist, that faith as trust or as relationship necessarily implies and includes “faith with content.” One cannot place trust in another person, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named in the Creed, without assenting to that person’s existence and properties; to say, “I trust you” or “I love you” and not also agree that you exist makes very little sense.

This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with God the Holy Trinity, and through God with the full community of human beings whom God loves and whom God has redeemed in all that long salvation history that we have heard read from the Hebrew Scriptures this evening. When we baptized these children, when we baptize any new member of the Christian community, we recognize them as part of that fully human community whom God invites to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov 9:6), whom God promises to save, and gather, and bring home, and restore. (Zeph 3:19-20)

That full human community relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us, the full humanity which gathered with friends and family at the Last Supper in the first act of this drama of redemption, the full humanity which was arrested and brutalized and crucified in the second act, the full humanity whose Resurrection we celebrate in this, the third act, the feast of Easter. It is into that Easter promise that we have baptized Kadence, Bryce, Hadley, and Joseph this evening. And that is why the Lazarus story figures so prominently in the church’s preparations for Holy Week and Easter, part of the overture of this three-part drama of redemption!

In the words of a popular Franciscan blessing, let us pray that, as these children grow into the full humanity into which they are initiated today, God will bless them with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that they may live deep within their hearts; that God will bless them with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that they may work for justice, freedom, and peace; that God will bless them with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that they may reach out their hands to comfort others and turn their pain into joy; and that God bless them with enough foolishness to believe that they can make a difference in this world, so that they can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice, kindness, and love to all.

As they have been buried with Christ, they have begun to share in his Resurrection; may God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. Amen.

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

We Were There: Sermon for Lent 2 (RCL Year A) – 12 March 2017

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A homily offered by Mr. Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation, on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio. Mr. Romnanik led a Vestry Retreat for the Parish the previous two days and graciously agreed to preach the sermon for our congregation on Sunday morning.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; and St. John 3:1-17. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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We-Were-There-at-Pearl-HarborWhen I was child in my tween years, I spent a lot of time at the Public Library checking out stacks of books, with that wonderful musty library smell, to read under the big oak tree in our back yard on hot summer days. As I was a U.S. history buff both then and now, I gravitated toward a series of children’s books whose titles began with the phrase – “we were there”. For example, We Were There at Lexington and Concord, We Were There at Battle of Gettysburg and my favorite – We Were There at Pearl Harbor. The books had the same two characters – a boy and a girl around my age at the time, who happened to be living right in the middle of these key historic events. They often performed semi-heroic acts and were usually honored or congratulated by some famous person at the end of the book.

In addition to making these historic events come more alive, I was intrigued by the idea of actually being present during important times in human history and trying to imagine what I would see, say or do had I been there. I also engaged in this same exercise with bible stories, especially those involving Jesus. What would it be like to be living in first century Palestine and experience Jesus first hand? Which characters in the New Testament did I most identify with? And it was not just about being present during the most significant events in the life of Christ – his birth, death or resurrection. Sometimes I would just want to follow him along the way and watch him preach, teach and heal. And unlike the two protagonists in the “We were there” series, I didn’t even have to do or say anything – just be an innocent bystander or a proverbial fly on the wall.

Today’s Gospel passage would be a good time for me to be a fly on the wall in order to overhear the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Like much of the Gospel of John, this passage is not about the action, it’s about the dialogue and Jesus has the principal speaking part. Furthermore, there isn’t a lot to see because it’s dark since Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. So let’s set the scene and try to think about what we would hear and experience had we been there.

So far in John’s narrative, after being heralded by John the Baptist, Jesus does two main things – turning water into wine at the wedding feast and driving the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem right before the Passover. Both of these events illustrate how God was acting out God’s purpose in the world in the person of Jesus – the wine as a symbol of God’s abundance and grace and the temple event suggesting that animal sacrifices were no longer necessary because human salvation was now assured through the cross and resurrection. It is with this background and in this context that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus.

In addition to dialogue, John is a master of dramatic setting and vivid imagery. Note that Nicodemus arrives at night with all of its connotations of darkness and secrecy. Nicodemus begins his encounter with a bold affirmation that clearly Jesus must have been sent by God as evidenced by his God-like actions and signs. In a somewhat typical John-like non-sequitur, Jesus responds with a pronouncement that no person can see or experience the kingdom unless being born from above, or, in some translations, born again. This is followed by back and forth interactions, confusion on part of Nicodemus on the difference between spirit and flesh, and Jesus’ somewhat glib comment that a Jewish leader and a learned scholar should be much more knowledgeable and astute. But Nicodemus’s apparent ignorance or naiveté provides Jesus with the perfect opportunity to proclaim the bold reality that the Son of Man has come from heaven to be lifted up as a sign that God loves the world and that whoever believes will have eternal life. Jesus invokes the image of Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert and portends his own lifting up on the cross at Calvary. We then hear one of the most famous and beloved passages in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

All we know of Nicodemus in the Bible is contained in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee, that group of Jews who were fastidious in keeping the letter of the law and often opposed Jesus throughout his ministry, especially when they felt he did not share their legalistic and ideological purity. Jesus criticized Pharisees on several occasions especially for their blatant hypocrisy. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem which was the final court of appeals for matters relating to Jewish law and tradition. It was the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death but ultimately needed the approval of Pilate since the death penalty was beyond their jurisdiction under Roman law.

John reports that Nicodemus came to speak to Jesus at night. Some scholars speculate that since he was a Jewish leader and official, Nicodemus was afraid, or at least embarrassed, to be seen with Jesus in broad daylight. But given his position on the Sanhedrin, wasn’t it perfectly appropriate for Nicodemus to question Jesus in order to assess his theological credentials? No one should have been able to question Nicodemus’ authority or motivation for being there although his opening comment that Jesus must have been sent from God could have raised a few eyebrows back at the temple. Clearly, Nicodemus was as least curious about Jesus if not somewhat intrigued by and attracted to his ministry. Interestingly, after this incredible explanation by Jesus of his role as the Son of Man who came to reveal and demonstrate God’s love and the promise of new life, Nicodemus has no response. In fact, he simply disappears from the scene and presumably goes back to his former role as a member of the establishment – not yet ready to accept Jesus or to make a commitment to follow him and embrace his message of love. Perhaps after this encounter Nicodemus decided that he just wasn’t as curious or interested in Jesus as he thought he would be. As innocent bystanders and flies on the wall, all we are left with at the end of this passage is Jesus’ incredibly profound words.

Nicodemus reappears at two later points in John’s Gospel. In Chapter 7 he is sitting as a member of the Sanhedrin – that official body that condemns Jesus to die and offers a somewhat half-hearted defense that Jesus should at least have the right to defend himself and respond to the charges against him. In Chapter 20, however, Nicodemus accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, another secret follower of Jesus, and contributes an exorbitant quantity of spices for Jesus’ ritual burial. Can we assume that by the time of the crucifixion Nicodemus finally gets it and accepts Jesus as his Lord? Does Nicodemus finally have the conversion experience of being born from above and now able to experience God’s kingdom of love?

This passage from John’s Gospel is often used by fundamentalist, evangelical Christians to support their belief in the necessity of an actual and affirmative conversion experience – being born again – in order to be a true follower of Christ. But I think this approach sells these words of Jesus short and oversimplifies the concept of conversion. I’m sure there may be some people who truly have a dramatic experience of being born again into a new life in Christ. For most of us, including our friend Nicodemus, the process of discipleship moves much more slowly, and, may take an entire lifetime in order to be truly realized.

Let’s look at these famous words of Jesus once again – “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Jesus did not say that God was responding to the pleas of anguish from humankind or was acting from a sense of justice, power or expectation. God does not ask the world whether it wants to be loved. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves, but gives his only beloved Son over to death. God’s sending Jesus to our broken world was an act of unconditional love – plain and simple. God loves us whether we like it or not. In light of this love, however, we are called to accept it, embrace it and share it with others or, in the alternative, run away screaming. For it is virtually impossible to remain neutral or ambiguous in light of such Godly extravagance and abundance.

Notwithstanding a vivid imagination and my “we were there” reading memories from childhood, I was not present at Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Gettysburg or at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But, while I was not present with Nicodemus when he had his conversation with Jesus at night, attempted to defend him at his trial and helped prepare him for burial after his brutal passion and death, I feel that I and all of us have a lot in common with this famous Pharisee.

Ultimately, like Nicodemus, we have to choose to be followers of Christ fully mindful that the process is not easy, predictable, linear or quick. And that’s why we have Lent. Lent provides us with an incredible opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, appreciate God’s unconditional love and contemplate God’s ultimate act of redemption. What we learn from Nicodemus this morning is that being born from above takes time. And what we learn from Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus is that God is infinitely patient, does not expect us to be perfect, loves us unconditionally and is waiting for us with open arms – dramatically symbolized by the open arms of Jesus on the cross. Amen.

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Donald Romanik is the President of the Episcopal Church Foundation.

Shortcut: Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (5 March 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; and St. Matthew 4:1-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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shortcutsThe First Sunday in Lent … that’s today. That means we get the story of Jesus being chased into the desert by the Holy Spirit after his baptism by John in the River Jordan, the story of Jesus being accosted in the desert by the Tempter (whom Matthew in our Gospel text today also names “the devil” – in Greek the word is diabolos meaning “accuser”), the story of Jesus refusing to give into the three temptations. We always get some version of this story on the First Sunday in Lent. And this year the Lectionary gives us a double-whammy of temptation by linking that familiar gospel tale with the equally family story of Eve and the serpent and the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the so-called “apple.”

Temptation writ large . . . and in reading these stories again and again over the week, I kept coming back to a single question, “What exactly is temptation?”

My colleague David Henson, in the on-going online dialog we clergy seem to have about preaching and the lessons given us to preach about, was addressing the dualistic nature of the gospel lesson, how it can be wrongly understood to suggest that God and the Tempter are equals. He rightly observed that the story of Christ’s temptations can encourage us to think that there

. . . are two powerful deities – God and Satan, good and evil – commanding from the two opposing fronts of heaven and hell and warring against each other for the territory of earth and for the soul of humankind. (The Rev. David Henson, Facebook posting, March 4, 2017)

And he correctly pointed out that that would be a gross distortion of the Christian understanding of God and creation. The Tempter, the Accuser, Satan, the Devil, the wily old serpent, is not God’s equal! In the course of that discussion, David said that one reason this story can encourage that incorrect dualistic thinking is that

. . . ultimately it makes folks profoundly uncomfortable to consider Jesus being tempted — really, really, really — wanting these things, really feeling the seductive call of comfort, power, and security.

We don’t want to think of the Savior of the world, the Incarnate Son of God, as temptable.

David’s comments, however, really stirred up for me this question about what temptation really is.

Another clergy friend, Nurya Love Parish, is an Episcopal priest who like me was born and raised in Las Vegas and who, also like me, was wasn’t raised in the church. She wrote in an article in a recent issue of The Christian Century that the three temptations offered to Jesus “stand for pride, power, and possession.” She said that when she first realized that, having read it in another essay during her pre-Christian life,

I didn’t know much about Jesus, the devil, or that desert, but I knew pride. I knew the desire for power; I knew the wish for possessions. I was familiar with all of them, from painful experience.

All of a sudden the story wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about me, too. And not just me: it was about all humanity. I knew from the history books and the newspapers that we all struggle with pride, power, and possession. People and nations fight, kill, and die over who is worthy of respect, who gets control, and who owns what. The more I thought about it, the more these three simple words seemed to be at the heart of the human experience. (Living by the Word)

When I read what Nurya wrote, I thought it was spot on, and I still do, but it occurred to me that pride, power, and possession don’t really help us, or at least they don’t help me, to understand today’s other temptation story, the tale of Eve (and Adam) and the serpent and the so-called “apple.” If the temptations of Christ represent pride, power, and possession, what does the temptation of the proto-parents in Eden represent?

Well, in the midst of contemplating that, I was also doing my reading for the Education for Ministry seminar group that I participate in each week at the Cathedral, and in this week’s readings I was reminded of the theological focus of our study this year, the idea of “deification” or (to give it its technical Greek name) theosis.

Way back in the Second Century, the Bishop of Lyons in what is now France, a man named Irenaeus, wrote a book entitled Against All Heresies (Adversus omnes Haereses) in which he said, “The sure and true Teacher, the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, on account of his immense love was made what we are, so that we might become what he is.” A later bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, about 150 years later wrote, “God became human that humans might become God.” (De Incarnatione) What these ancient writers are saying is that the ultimate end of human beings is union with the divine. This is what is meant by “deification” or theosis.

You will remember, I’m sure, the words of Genesis in which the creation of humankind is described, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Gen 1:27) The Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov says that our creation in the image of God predestines us to theosis. Our creation in God’s image gives us a built-in longing to be united with our Creator, an innate desire for deification.

The the late-17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about this longing in this way:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. (Pensées VII[425])

Pascal’s formulation has been summarized by the often-heard comment that we human beings have a “God-shaped hole” in us.

So it seems to me that the temptation of Eve (and Adam) is the attempt to take a shortcut to the human destiny of deification. This is what the wily serpent promises her, “You will not die; . . . when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Gen 3:4-5) You will have taken a shortcut to theosis!

Shortcuts are also what the Tempter offers to Jesus.

Have you ever baked bread? I used to bake bread every week. Back in my college days, I lived in a house with six other guys, nine dogs, and a cat. We shared the cooking responsibilities (well, the guys did – the dogs and the cat, not so much). I took on the task of making our breads. I loved to bake bread; there is something intensely satisfying about it. It’s a process: the measuring, the mixing, letting the dough rise, punching it down to rise again, forming and proofing the loaves, and then the oven . . . and what comes out! It’s heaven! I love it. I wish I had the time to do it now. The Accuser’s suggestion that Jesus turn stones into bread is a shortcut temptation; forget the process, skip the work and the effort, go straight to that wonderful stuff that comes out of the oven.

The proposal that he throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in a show of religious power is another temptation to shortcut. Do that, make a big splashy show of being divine, and you won’t have to go through the laborious, frustrating, and frankly painful process of calling, teaching, and leading disciples. The idea that Jesus might accept political domination of the world is nothing more than the temptation to shortcut the process of being and setting a moral example, of being and showing the love and life of God in human form.

Just as, for Eve (and Adam) the temptation to eat the fruit was a temptation to shortcut the long process of learning and growing into unity and community with their God, into theosis or deification, for the Son of God the Devil’s offerings of power, pride, and possession were temptations to shortcut the process of being incarnate, of taking part in those things which my friend Nurya correctly tagged as being “at the heart of the human experience.”

So it occurred to me that that is what temptation is. That there is really only one temptation – the shortcut. That every temptation boils down to what we in the modern world have come to call “instant gratification.”

I don’t spend all my reading time on the Bible, on Education for Ministry, or on theology. I actually do take time to read for fun and currently my leisure reading is a collection of novellas by the famous science fiction writer Ursula Leguin. They have been gathered into a single volume entitled The Found and the Lost. One of the stories is a first-person narrative called A Woman’s Liberation and tells the tale of woman raised in slavery who gains freedom and becomes a scholar. At one point, describing her education, she writes,

What I loved to learn was history. I had grown up without any history. There was nothing [where I lived] but the way things were. Nobody knew anything about any time when things had been different. Nobody knew there was any place where things might be different. We were enslaved by the present time. (Ursula Leguin, The Found and the Lost, Saga Press, New York:2016, page 389)

This is what the temptations of Eve (and Adam) and of Jesus represent: entrapment in a dead-end present where the process of growth, like the yeast in the bread, like the gathering of a community of disciples, like human development into theosis, is cut short.

To be sure, Jesus told us to live in the present. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he said, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Mat 6:34) But the reason he gave that instruction was clear: he said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or What will we wear?’ For . . . your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mat 6:31-33) Do not be enslaved by the present time; do not live in a dead-end present where you have filled your “God-shaped hole” with instant gratification because of worry over pride, power, and possession.

Live in an open-ended present where things might be different, an open-ended present that leads to the kingdom of God and his righteousness, an open-ended present that leads to deification.

So . . . I think that’s the answer to my question, “What is temptation?” Temptation is a shortcut that leads to entrapment in a dead-end present. This is why Lent is a season, a process that begins with the story of Jesus’ temptation. It reminds us to live in the open-ended present where the yeast can rise, where the community can form, where becoming is as important as being.

God became human . . . and refused the temptation to shortcut that process . . . that humans might become gods . . . despite Eve’s (and Adam’s) giving into the temptation to shortcut that process. Live into that process; live in the open-ended present, the open-ended Presence of God. Amen.

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

Praying for Presidents: Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year A – 15 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and St. John 1:29-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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prayer-in-church“The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” (Isa. 49:1b) What a powerful statement that is that the prophet makes in today’s reading. We name this prophet Isaiah; scholars name him Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. We don’t really know his name . . . but God did! God named him before he was born. Gave him personhood and human identity.

In many ancient and pre-scientific cultures names hold a very special significance; this was so in the near-Eastern cultures from which our Bible comes at the time of Second Isaiah and right down to and after the time of Jesus. Far from merely identifying a person, names in ancient Jewish culture revealed a person’s essential character and, it was believed, their destiny. So it is that this same Second Isaiah prophesies the name of the messiah, Immanuel – “God with us” (Isa 7:14), and the angel of the Annunciation instructs Joseph to name Mary’s child Jesus – “God saves” (Matt 1:21). Jesus does this with Simon in today’s Gospel lesson when he tells him: “You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” (Jn 1:42) This name, Cephas or Peter, means “rock” and Simon Peter did, indeed, become a rock anchoring the fledgling Christian church after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

Furthermore, it was believed that to know a person’s name was to have a certain power over that person. This is why the name of God is never spoken by devout Jews; indeed, it is never read even when written in Scripture. We Anglicans have continued that tradition even into our Prayer Book and our service bulletins; if you look at today’s Gradual, Psalm 67, in the Book of Common Prayer, and as we have reprinted it in today’s bulletin, you will see that the word “LORD” is printed in all upper-case letters.

The reason for this is that Jews developed the idea that God’s name was so holy that it could not be uttered. When Jews read from the Hebrew Scriptures and get to the name of God, written only with four consonants and no vowels, “YHWH,” they will not try to pronounce it as “Yahweh;” instead, they will say “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” The Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer continues this tradition.

When the Old Testament was translated into English, the translators continued to signify the holiness of God’s name: when they came to “YHWH” in the Hebrew text, they wrote “LORD” instead. If you look through the Authorized Version of the Old Testament you will see this done many times – over 6000 times in fact. In every case, the original Hebrew says “YHWH,” but it is translated “LORD.”

In the Gospel lesson today, John the Baptizer names Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) If ever there was a naming which revealed a destiny, that was it. Names have power. To know and to use someone’s name, or to refuse to use someone’s name, is always an act of power: sometimes an act of domination; sometimes an act of submission; sometimes an act of collaboration; and sometimes an act of dismissal.

Rabbi Andrew Davids, head of the Beit Rabban Jewish School in New York, commenting on the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, writes:

God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, [the biblical creation story] affirms that humans – created in the image of God – may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming. The power to name can be experienced in our everyday lives; for example, nothing grabs the attention of a misbehaving child more effectively than a parent – the bestower of the child’s names – calling him [or her] by . . . first, middle, and last names.

The rabbis caution us, however, to use the power of our voices and our words wisely. We must make certain that we use the divine gift of naming in a moral, appropriate, and thoughtful manner. (The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming)

In a commentary on that event recorded in Genesis when Jacob wrestles with the Angel of God and gets his named changed to Israel (“one who wrestles with God and prevails”), David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, challenged preachers to challenge their congregations about names. He wrote:

The task before us . . . Working Preacher, is to invite our people to confess their names. Whether silently or by writing them down on a paper, ask them first to answer this one question: Who are you? Really. What is your name? What is it that others call you? More importantly, what is it that you call yourself? What is that name you can scarce speak for fear or shame? Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal? (Working Preacher Commentary, October 14, 2013)

And he continues, “Names, as we know, can limit us, hurt us, even kill. But so also can they heal and make alive. And so a part of what [the church does each week], is to invite people to come and be reminded once again of our true name and new identity so that we may go out into the world as new persons, as God’s own beloved child.”

One of the things that happens when human beings are angry with one another is that we stop using names; by doing so, we deprive the other of personhood. One of the greatest offenses you can give a person is to not use their name. It’s dehumanizing. It takes away that precious gift that God gave to Second Isaiah even before he was born! So, in my pastoral counseling with persons dealing with anger issues, one of the first things I suggest to them is to pray for the person with whom they are angry by name. Nothing elaborate, just a simple prayer; something as simple as, “Lord, I pray for [fill in the blank].” Doing so does not endorse the person’s behavior or validate what it is about them that has angered you, but it does create an intimacy which can defuse the anger. Praying for the person by name, naming the person, brings them into your sphere of being.

One of the saints of our church, Dr. James DeKoven, a priest who taught Church history at Nashotah House seminary in Wisconsin in the 19th Century, wrote that prayer brings the one for whom we pray present to us “in the deep, hidden bonds” that link persons together. (From a letter written just before his death, March 1879.) Although he was writing of prayer for deceased loved ones, I believe his observation is true of prayers for the living, as well.

I bring this up because an event is about to happen which has caused some consternation and debate in our denomination and in others. It is something that we have already addressed in this congregation and which we will not change so long as I am the rector and the one charged by tradition and canon with making liturgical decisions.

When I came to St. Paul’s Parish in the summer of 2003, although the President of the United States was being prayed for in the generic manner set out in the standard forms of the Prayer Book, George W. Bush (who was then the president) was not being named. I began to name him and to instruct prayer leaders to do so. Some people not of Mr. Bush’s political persuasion objected. When he left office and Barack Obama was elected, we began praying for him by name. Some people not of Mr. Obama’s political persuasion objected. When we started distributing the sheets with the additional petitions to be read by members of the congregation, some people refused to read the petition including Mr. Obama’s name. Now that Donald Trump has been elected and we have added his name as president-elect, some people have refused to read that petition.

On Friday, Mr. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Some of us are pleased as punch about that. Some of us are appalled. Most of us are somewhere in between. And many are debating about whether or not to pray for him by name. What an incredibly silly thing to argue about! And what a terrible thing to do, to refuse to pray for someone by name.

In St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, he writes:

First of all, then, 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. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus . . . . (1 Tim. 2:1-5)

In this parish on Sunday morning, as a congregation, will pray for the president and “all who are in high positions” by name. To do otherwise is to deprive them personhood, to dehumanize them, and in doing that we dehumanize ourselves.

In our Gospel lesson today, when the Baptizer named Jesus the Lamb of God, two of John’s disciples took off following Jesus. They asked him what to us sounds like an impertinent, but really quite inessential, question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (Jn 1:38)

[T]he English obscures the significance of the phrase. The Greek verb is meno: abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains (meno) upon him (John 1:32). After Jesus provides bread enough to satisfy a crowd, with plenty left over, he cautions the people to work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (John 6:27). He promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10). Wherever Jesus stays (meno), people have the opportunity to believe (John 4:40; 10:40). (Audrey West, Working Preacher Commentary, January 15, 2017)

The Lord abides; the Lord endures: earthly rulers do not. The Psalms remind us:

It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in flesh.
It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in rulers. (Ps 118:8-9)

and again

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them. (Ps 146:2)

Presidents come and presidents go; Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” endures. (The dude abides!) “He will . . . strengthen [us] to the end.” (1 Cor 1:8) So we rely on the Lord . . . and we pray for presidents.

By name.

Amen.

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

Persistent Stewardship: Sermon for Pentecost 22, Proper 24C, Track 2 (16 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 24C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; and St. Luke 18:1-8. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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unjustjudge2The story of the “unjust judge” has to be one of the most confusing of Jesus’ parables related in any of the Gospels. In every bible study group I have ever been a part of someone will want to know how the “unjust judge” could possibly represent God . . . .

So let me begin my sermon with this assertion: The “unjust judge” is not God! This not a parable about God! God is not in this parable! This is a parable about justice and persistence; this is not a parable about God. God is the addressee of prayers for justice; God is sometimes the object of such prayer; God is sometimes the subject of such prayer. But God is not in this parable about justice and persistence. The “unjust judge” is not God!

I hope I’ve made that clear.

This parable is about persistence and in our lectionary today we are given, in addition, two other readings and a psalm about persistence:

  • The story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the man, who may have been an angel, who may have been God, is one of persistence, of struggling through the night against unknown odds and not giving up.
  • The admonition of Paul to the young bishop Timothy is to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” and to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
  • The psalm portrays a persistent God who “keeps watch over Israel [and] shall neither slumber nor sleep,” who “shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”

That this persistent caring God of the Psalms, the Father of Jesus, is not the “unjust judge” is made clear by a question Jesus asks of his hearers: If the “unjust judge” eventually listened to the poor widow, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” This is a prophetic question, which is why I did not say this is a parable about prayer.

The cry for justice is heard throughout the Old Testament in the cry, complaint, or appeal of the victims of injustice. It is heard in cry of Abel’s blood from ground in Genesis (4:10). It echoes in the cry of the poor and needy of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20; Ezek 16:49). It is the cry of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt (Ex 3:7,10), and the cry of Job against the Lord (Job 19:7). It is heard in the exasperated frustration of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastses (3:16-4:3). It is sung by David in many of the psalms, “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the poor and render justice to the needy.” (Ps 140:12)

The poor widow is not our representative; she is not a stand-in for us and our everyday personal petitions or intercessions. She represents the poverty and vulnerability of a people whose life has been shaped in the cruelty of exploitation and the arbitrary abuse of power. In telling this parable of persistence in this way, “Jesus is reading the signs in the wounds of the people. The contours of their devastation shape the structures of his thought, because this is where he belongs and these are the people whose cries he hears.” (William Loader)

So Jesus tells them and us a story which affirms that the God of persistence who watches over our going out and our coming in is a God who cares even though the solution does not come speedily. He tells them and us a story to encourage us to be a “people [who] can sustain the crying [for justice] day and night and not lose heart, [a people who] do not tune out, but live in hope and with a sense of trust that does not make us feel we have to carry the whole world on our shoulders.” (Loader)

This parable is a story in which we find “a glint of God in the gray of corruption [which affirms that] we do not have to be God; we are not alone; faith and hope are possible.” (Loader) And this is the gospel message from which Timothy is admonished to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

We are, all of us who are members of the church, to be readied for “the performance of gospel-infused good works unto the glory and magnification of God in Jesus Christ,” because the “gospel is not merely about the salvation which we receive through faith in Christ; it is about the [justice and] salvation which we bring to the world through our [persistent] faithfulness to Christ.” (John Frederick)

Like Jacob, we must each of us struggle with the angel as we determine how it is that we will do that, as God encourages and aids us (even by wrestling with us) in making that determination. On that desert night, God challenged and reshaped Jacob so that he would be able to live into his promised destiny as Israel; God challenges and reshapes us in the same way, to be his people, to be persistent in the work of justice and salvation.

This is a work of stewardship. The question with which we must wrestle is not only how will we do this work, but with what resources will we do it? How will we use the riches with which God has blessed us? Prof. Richard Hayes, New Testament scholar at Duke University, in a sermon on this Genesis text reminded his congregation that Jacob is “one who first receives and then finally gives blessings” and that “that is not a bad description of [Christian] ministry.” (Richard Hayes) It’s not a bad description of Christian stewardship, either.

The work of persistently pursuing justice and practicing good stewardship is the core of a life transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ; it is not peripheral to the gospel. Justice and stewardship are not mere evidences of the gospel. “Rather, gospel works are the necessary result of the gospel, the inseparable and authentic response to the gospel.” (John Frederick)

This week, you will receive your pledge card for 2017. As you consider your financial stewardship and support of St. Paul’s Parish, I encourage you to engage this work with the persistence of the woman confronting the “unjust judge.” I encourage you to wrestle with these questions with the persistence of Jacob who became Israel. I encourage you, as Paul encouraged Timothy, “to continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,” to persistently “carry out your ministry.” And I encourage you to do so without fear, remembering that the Lord “shall keep you safe” and “shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”

Today, parishioner D_______ F____ has offered to share some of his thoughts about financial stewardship with us.

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

(Note: The illustration is by the late Fr. Jim Hasse, SJ, of Claver Jesuit Ministry, Cincinnati, OH.)

A Pope, a Dog, and a Venn Diagram: Sermon for Pentecost 12, RCL Proper 14C (7 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 14C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; and St. Luke 12:32-40. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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In your bulletins this week, I have added three pictures to illustrate this sermon. These pictures kept coming back to mind as I read and re-read the lessons. The pictures are as follows:

  1. A photograph of Pope John Paul II’s arrival in Managua, Nicaragua, on July 5, 1983. Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, who served in the Nicaraguan government as Minister of Culture, kneels before the Pope who is wagging his finger at him.
  2. One of my favorite cartoons, a four-panel Peanuts offering first published on August 9, 1976, in which the beagle Snoopy is writing a book of theology with the planned title “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”
  3. A generic Venn diagram

I will refer to these pictures later in the sermon.

Most exegeses of today’s Genesis text focus on the last sentence, “And [Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” and treat this story as one of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abraham questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.

We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. I was at a continuing education event this week in which one of the exercises explored the issue of economic segregation in our society; the facilitator asked each of us to describe the home in which we live and the neighborhood and community within which it is situated. One of the uniform characteristics was that no matter what our race or ethnic type might have been, our home neighborhoods were made up of people for the most part similar to ourselves. We in modern 21st Century America may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we take time to look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do: like attracts like. As individuals we initially, we situate ourselves within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, nation . . . .

This has been so from the beginning of time. Those of us who accept the notion of natural selection and evolution can look at our nearest genetically similar relatives, the apes and chimpanzees, and see this family and clan predilection. Those of us who accept the notion of divine handiwork can look to our traditional religious literature and see it in the stories of creation and God’s interactions with this chosen people. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.

God has chosen Abram, an elderly, childless man in the city of Ur to be “God’s guy,” so to speak. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of nations; in fact, God changes Abram’s name to “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.” It is not, however, clear to Abraham how this will happen . . . and at the time of our reading, it hasn’t happened and Abraham is getting anxious. He challenges God with this very tribal sort of concern: “Who will inherit my estate? Will it be this slave, Eliezer of Damascus?”

Although our New Revised Standard version translates the ambiguous Hebrew to describe Eliezer as “a slave born in my house,” there is considerable scholarly debate over whether that is the meaning of the Hebrew text. Why would Eliezer be described as “of Damascus” if he had been born in Abraham’s home? The New International Version renders the description as “a servant in my household,” which is probably the better reading. Eliezer, rather than being a native of Abraham’s domestic unit, is from another city, Damascus, from another clan, another tribe, perhaps even a different ethnic group . . . yet according to the custom of the time, he would inherit his master’s fortune were Abraham to die childless. This is rank tribalism.

Snoopy-might-wrongGod’s response to Abraham’s challenge is to take Abraham outside and show him the stars and ask him, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” Well, God doesn’t, actually . . . but that’s what it boils down to. God’s response to Abraham is, “Thank again!”

Many social scientists today use the word “tribalism” to describe the fracturing of our society. The economist Robert Reich, for example, wrote an essay two and a half years ago entitled Tribalism Is Tearing America Apart. In it, Dr. Reich wrote:

America’s new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe . . . hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other . . . .

Each tribe has contrasting ideas about rights and freedoms . . . Each has its own totems . . . and taboos . . . . Each, its own demons . . . ; its own version of truth . . . ; and its own media that confirm its beliefs.

Five years ago, writer Wade Shepherd asserted, “The new tribal lines of America are not based on skin color, creed, geographic origin, or ethnicity, but on opinion, political position, and world view.” In other words, where Abraham’s tribalist concern (and subsequently that of the Old Testament Law) was about bloodline and ethnic purity, in the modern world our tribalist tendency centers on ideology and philosophical purity. As Shepherd put it, people “are selecting a singular point of view and isolating themselves within its barricade.” (The New American Tribalism) And although Reich and Shepherd were looking specifically at the situation in the U.S., their observations are valid around the world and have been for some time.

JP2-CardenalWhen Pope John Paul II scolded Fr. Cardenal upon the his arrival in Nicaragua, it was because Cardenal had collaborated with the Marxist Sandinistas and, after the Sandinista victory in 1979, he became their government’s Minister of Culture. His brother, Fr. Fernando Cardenal S.J. also worked with the Sandinista government in the Ministry of Education, directing a successful literacy campaign. There were a handful of other priests working in the government, as well.

They were all influenced by a school of thought called “liberation theology” which taught, among other things, that Christians could work alongside of non-Christians, even atheists, on the shared the goal of improving the lives of the poor. As Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, theologians from Brazil, put it, “The Church has the duty to act as agent of liberation.” (Salvation and Liberation, Robert R. Barr, trans., Orbis Books:New York: 1984)

The pope, however, with his personal background in Communist Poland, was intolerant of liberation theology and forbade Cardenal and the others to be involved in the Sandinista government. Ernesto Cardenal ignored this order, and thus the finger-wagging rebuke. Eventually, in February 1984 John Paul defrocked Cardenal because of his liberation theology, but that decision was overturned 30 years later in August 2114 by the current Pope Francis.

The picture thus illustrates for me the kind of tribalist insistence on ideological purity that is our modern equivalent of Abraham’s challenge to God. God’s response to Abraham’s tribalism was essentially, “Think again!” And God’s response to our tribalism, to our insistence on our own ideas, our own totems, our own demons, our own versions of the truth, is the same; it’s Snoopy’s question, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”

Which brings me to the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and, especially, its first sentence which defines what faith is: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The rest of the lesson betrays why it was chosen in the lectionary; it exegetes the story of Abraham’s faith – the faith which came after the challenge of his doubt, after God had answered his tribalist concern about bloodlines and ethnicity and inheritance. But it’s that first sentence, the definition of faith that I think is the important part for us to consider.

The first part of the definition says faith is “the assurance of things hoped for.” The word translated as “assurance” is the Greek word hypostasis, a compound word – hypo meaning “under” and stasis meaning “to stand” – thus an “under standing.” But not in the sense of intellectual comprehension, rather in the literal, physical sense of something that “stands under,” that is foundational or bedrock. Thus, hypostasis “is something basic, something solid, something firm;” it “provides a place to stand from which one can hope.” (Amy L.B. Peeler, Wheaton College)

In one of the exercises at the continuing education seminar I was at this week we were given a large sheet of drawing paper and asked to draw a map or picture of our personal spiritual growth with a focus on that which provides stability in our lives, and then to describe our artwork to the group. Of course, nearly all of us attempted to depict God as the stable center, or unchanging goal or beginning, the whatever of our spiritual journeys, but one participant didn’t do that. In fact, he didn’t draw anything at all on his paper before standing in front of the group. He drew some squiggles and boxes and whatever on the sheet as he described his spiritual autobiography, but then said, “What is stable in all of this is the paper!” Brilliant! The paper represented the hypostasis, the bedrock standing under his life, the foundation of faith on which the details played out and changed and developed over time, and that is really true for all of us.

The second part of the definition is that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” We hear that word “conviction” as synonymous with “belief” or “firm opinion,” but the Greek original, elegchos, carries the sense of “proof” or “evidence” such as would be presented in a court of law, such as would be used to convict a defendant in the dock. Faith is the evidence which establishes the existence of that which cannot be seen, the proof that there is an invisible foundation for one’s life, one’s beliefs and opinions, one’s actions. “What is stable in all of this is the paper!”

Our modern ideological tribalism insists that everyone in the tribe have the same life, the same beliefs, the same opinions, and undertake the same actions, but more than that it insists that anyone who differs to any significant degree in any of those things is outside the tribe. If we were to draw the tribes as circles on that sheet of paper, ideological tribalism insists that each tribe is a circle that does not even touch another, and yet we all know that that’s simply not true.

VennDiagramWe know that if there are tribal circles on that foundational paper, they are more like the circles on a Venn diagram, not only touching but overlapping. That was true of the ancient Hebrews; their tribalism might demand ethnic purity, but they never achieved it; the Old Testament demonstrates that, again and again! Modern ideological tribalism is no different. Ideologies, religious beliefs, political opinions differ in many ways, but in many others they share much in common; they overlap. People’s lives and opinions overlap, but ideological tribalism encourages us to hear only the differing opinions and blinds us to our similar lives.

During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland a man named Benjamin Mathes sat outside the convention center with a sign reading “Free Listening.” His goal was to engage convention goers on a personal level, to hear without judgment what they had to say about controversial topics. He was mostly disappointed, but on the Urban Confessional website he related listening to a woman who had a strong opinion on topic about which he disagreed vehemently.

He was asked, “How do you listen to someone with whom you disagree?” His answer is instructive: “It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these principles, but let’s start with the one thing that makes forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage possible. We must work to hear the person not just the opinion.” He then quoted the Christian rapper David Sherer who performs under the stage name Agape. In one of his pieces Agape sings, “Hear the biography, not the ideology.”

Mathes continues, “When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view. Get their story, their biography, and you’ll open up the real possibility of an understanding that transcends disagreement.”

Which brings me to today’s gospel lesson in which Jesus admonishes us to be like servants who keep their lamps lit for their master on his wedding night. I suspect that most people who hear this admonition are reminded of the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids, but this week what I remembered was Jesus command in Matthew’s Gospel, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)

The purpose of the lit lamps is not simply to have lit lamps! It is to have light by which something can be done, something can be seen. The purpose of the servants’ lamps is to light the way for the bride and bridegroom, to illuminate the pathway and allow them to see the door. The purpose of keeping our lamps lit is so that people may see our “good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” It is our works, our lives and actions, which matter, not our ideologies, or religious beliefs, or political opinions.

That was the point of Fr. Cardenal’s theology and belief that as a Christian he could work with Marxists, with atheists to improve the lives of the poor in Nicaragua. He saw the overlap of their circles on the political Venn diagram. Their ideologies differed, but their goals, their actions and works in regard to the poor, the point where their circles overlapped, did not. Underlying it all was the foundational bedrock of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen. The pope apparently could not see that overlap; his disciplining of Fr. Cardenal and other Latin American priests came out of modern ideological tribalism, an insistence on purity of belief which made it impossible to work toward a common goal with someone of a differing opinion. Our modern American ideological tribalism is doing the same thing to us.

I look at that picture and just wish that someone, God or Snoopy or anyone, might have stepped in and just whispered in his Holiness’s ear, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” My prayer is that God might whisper that in everyone’s ears from time to time. It might shine some light on our ever changing Venn diagrams of ideological tribalism; it might remind us that the diagrams, the circles on the paper, move all the time and that “what is stable in all this is the paper,” the foundational bedrock, the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” 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.

Hospitality Creates Covenant: Sermon for Pentecost 9, Proper 11C (17 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 11C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-10a; Psalm 15; Colossians 1:15-28; and St. Luke 10:38-42. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Trinity-EHPSt. Paul’s Parish hosted the weekly “ice cream social” that accompanied the Community Band Concerts on Friday evening on the Town Square during summer. We’ve done this before although not for a few years (we tried for three years running to be host, but each Friday we were assigned during those years there was a thunderstorm and the event was rained out).

Whenever we do this, I always stress out about it! I’m just sure we won’t have enough pies, or enough ice cream, or enough volunteers . . . or that if we have all of those things, there won’t be enough people at the concert to buy all the pies and ice cream we have . . . or that it will be rained out. Although the latter has (as I said) proven to be the case more than once, none of the other worries has ever materialized. We always have more than enough pies baked by parishioners, more than sufficient ice cream, and enough volunteers that we trip over one another. And, when it doesn’t rain, the event is a great success, as it was on Friday. So why do I worry?

On Friday evening, Ray Sizemore and I worked the pay station, as we have done before, and during a lull in business he asked, “What are you preaching about on Sunday?” I borrowed a line from a good friend of whom I have often asked that question and gave a one-word answer, “Jesus.” But then I followed up that the theme is likely to be hospitality inasmuch as the Old Testament lesson is the tale we have just heard of Abraham entertaining the three angels of God at the “oaks of Mamre” and the Gospel lesson is the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany hosting Jesus at dinner.

And it has occurred to me that those pre-event worries I always experience are not unlike the pre-dinner-party jitters many hosts or hostesses may have (and that I certainly have) before receiving guests into our homes. We want to make a good show. And yet hospitality is not about us; it’s not about the host. Hospitality is about the other, the guest; it’s all about the guest.

The root of the word hospitality is the Latin word for “stranger,” which occurs in ancient literature in two forms: hospes or hostes. From hospes, we get our words “hospital,” “hospitable,” and “hospitality.” From hostes, we get our words “host,” “hostel,” or “hotel;” interestingly, we also get our words “hostile,” hostility,” and “host” meaning an army of enemies from the same root. Thus, two different ways to interact with “the stranger.” We can treat him or her as a guest or as an enemy, with hospitality or with hostility. The biblical value, as illustrated by our scripture readings today, is hospitality.

In the first story we have Abraham and Sarah, together with their servants (including Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar and her son by Abraham Ishmael) camped out at what our text calls “the oaks of Mamre.” The Hebrew actually says that the trees in question are not oaks but terebinths, a relative of the pistachio which was grown for its berry; the family is camped in an orchard owned by a friend of Abraham, Mamre the Amorite.

It is the hottest part of the day, the family are reclining in the shade of the pistachio trees, Abraham at the opening of his tent. This seems a reasonable thing for a 99-year-old man to do, especially one who may be recovering from a recent circumcision! If we read the Book of Genesis as telling Abraham’s story in chronological order and with events relatively close together, as the rabbis tell us we should, it was just a few verses before this story that Abraham, together with Ishmael and all the men of his household, has just (as Prof. Samuel Giere of Wartburg Seminary puts it) “had his foreskin lopped-off,” probably with a stone knife. Thus, it is somewhat surprising and perhaps meant to be a funny story that, upon seeing travelers approach at this out-of-the-ordinary, extremely hot time of day, this post-circumcision 99-year-old man leaps up and runs to greet them. (Commentary on Genesis 18:1-10a)

But this is no joke! The story underscores “the high value placed on hospitality in the Ancient Near East. * * * Suffice it to say, the physical mark of the covenant does not prevent Abraham from extending lavish hospitality: the washing of feet, rest, freshly baked cakes, a roasted calf, curds, and milk. Abraham assured that these guests were welcomed most properly.” (Ibid.)

Dennis Bratcher of the Christian Resource Institute reminds us:

Hospitality customs in the biblical world related to two distinct classes of people: the traveler and the resident alien. In most translations of the Bible, there is little attempt to try to separate the two. Even in the original Hebrew and Greek, different word are sometimes used interchangeably for the two groups. Either is called a stranger, one who does not belong to a particular community or group. Other terms applied to either or both are: foreigner, alien, sojourner, wayfarer, or gentile. In Israel, the law protected the resident alien, a foreigner who had settled permanently in the land. He could not own land, but he could participate in communal activities. The traveler, however, was extremely vulnerable. Only the force of the customs of hospitality protected him. (Travelers and Strangers: “Hospitality” in the Biblical World)

This particular story is part of a larger, novel-like narration about Abraham, toward the end of which in Chapter 21 of Genesis, we learn that Abraham “planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba.” (v. 33) The Hebrew word for the tree in question is aishel which is made up of three Hebrew letters – aleph, shin, and lamed. These letters, the rabbis tell us, form an acronym for the three major components of hospitality: eating (achilah), drinking (shtiyah), and escorting (leviyah). Abraham’s memorial tree, dedicated to God, underscores the importance of hospitality, of the proper treatment of the stranger, the traveler, and the resident alien. (See Daniel Lasar, Southern Hospitality, Torah from Dixie)

On the cover of your bulletin is a version of the 15th Century Russian monk Andrei Rublev’s beautifully composed icon of this story, sometimes referred to as “The Icon of the Holy Trinity.” The alternate title for the icon on is “The Hospitality of Abraham,” which highlights the effort Abraham puts into welcoming these strangers who turn out to be angels of God, or in Christian understanding, God’s own self in the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Rublev’s point seems to be that hospitality is about the other, the guest, especially, it is about the guest who may be unknown to us. The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Heb 13:2)

In our Gospel story, Mary and Martha entertain the One whom we know and believe to be not merely an angel, but God Incarnate. In Jesus’ time, “hospitality was a highly valued and presumably widely practiced custom among pagans, Jews, and Christians. Hosts were expected to provide food, shelter, amenities, and protection to … traveling strangers, who [as the Letter to the Hebrews suggests] sometimes turned out to be gods incognito. In Greek culture, Zeus was celebrated as the god of hospitality, and the practice of hospitality (among other things) separated high Greek civilization from the ‘barbarians.’” (Mikeal C. Parsons, Commentary on Luke 10:38-42)

The story is a familiar one to us, rather simple in the telling: Martha extends hospitality to Jesus, bustling about doing all of the tasks of playing host. Mary, on the other hand, sits at Jesus feet and listens to his teachings. Martha, attending to the details of hospitality, complains that Mary has neglected those duties and asks Jesus to tell Mary to help her. Jesus responds that Mary has chosen what our translation calls “the better thing.”

However, many if not most New Testament scholars urge us, as Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary does, to see this as a story not “about comparison but completion.” She says this story is not an invitation “to pit one expression of belief, of discipleship, of service, of vocation, against the other.” Rather, she argues that “this story has nothing to do with who is better and everything to do with who matters . . . this story is not preoccupied with proper acceptance and has everything to do with whom you accept.” “To favor Mary,” Lewis says, “is to say Jesus discounts service. Which, if you read the Gospel of Luke, makes no sense at all. And makes Jesus make no sense at all. To favor Martha would be to say service is all that matters. Clearly, both matter, if you read the Gospel of Luke carefully.” (Dear Working Preacher, “No Comparison”)

What both of our scriptural stories teach us is that hospitality is not about the things we do for the guest so much as it is about the gift of ourselves to the guest. Mikeal C. Parsons of Baylor University says of the Gospel story, and I would say the same is true of the Genesis reading, that its

social ethic provides a solid foundation for Christian habits and practices both within the community (we have unlimited responsibilities to fellow believers) and with the world (we are called to provide Christian hospitality to those unlike us in nationality, faith, or ethnicity and assistance to those in immediate crisis). Christians are called to extend hospitality both as hosts and guests, and to fellow believers and non-believers alike. Such hospitality calls for personal and intimate engagement in a way that an insipid value such as “tolerance” does not. We are not called simply to “tolerate” or “endure” those not like us; rather the ancient “Christian virtue” of hospitality demands that we engage and interact with the Other, whether we are guest or host. (Commentary on Luke 10:38-42)

The extension of hospitality in its three major component forms – eating, drinking, and escorting – is more than a token of friendship. Dr. Bratcher asserts that by extending hospitality we form “covenantal commitment” between ourselves and the other. ” One of the most despicable acts in the ancient world,” he reminds us, “was to eat with someone and then betray them” (Obadiah 7; Ps 41:9; John 13:18). This code of hospitality is the basis of that warning: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2). You do not want to fail to form that covenant of hospitality with the angel of the Lord, with God’s own self.

It is that covenant relationship to which Paul refers when he writes in today’s epistle reading, “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation,” and “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” In Jesus, God has extended a gracious hospitality to us, and it is now our calling to extend the same reconciling hospitality to others. Remember last week’s summary of the Law: “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.”

I know it seems a small thing, no matter how much I may have worried and stressed out about it before hand, but that is what we did by hosting the ice cream social. We served about 300 pieces of pie and nine gallons of ice cream to the good people of Medina; we told them about our church and invited them to worship with us; we informed some teens about our youth group and we invited music lovers to attend one of our Brown Bag Concerts. If we brought a little light into just one person’s life, I think we did a good thing; I think we changed the world.

And that’s an important thing to remember this week as our region hosts one of the major political party conventions. There are going to be a lot of opportunities to disagree with people about politics; remember that they are also opportunities for hospitality. Remember, we are not called to argue or debate with people nor are we called to convince them of our view points; we are not called simply to “tolerate” those not like us nor are we called to “endure” them; rather, “the ancient ‘Christian virtue’ of hospitality demands that we engage and interact,” that we chose “the better thing,” that we enter into covenantal commitment. In the words of that simply stated summary, the code of hospitality bids us to love God, love our neighbor, and change the world.

Let us pray:

Gracious God, as we enter into the final months of the presidential election cycle, we pray in the spirit of St. Francis, that you would make us instruments of your peace, sowing seeds of merciful love and fierce hope; may we be servants of your holy, creative will, always and ever mindful that as you blessed Abraham, you bless us in order that we might be a blessing to the world; may we, like Abraham and Sarah, like Martha and Mary, offer gracious hospitality to those we welcome to our region as they assemble here this week at the Republican National Convention; guide their work and grant them and us wisdom, courage, a moral imagination, and the capacity for civility and grace to disagree without disrespect; in the name of Jesus who summarized your holy Law reminding us that the greatest commandments are to love you and to love all our neighbors as ourselves. 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.

Pragmatic vs Visionary – From the Daily Office Lectionary (22 January 2016)

Pragmatic vs Visionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Epiphany 2, Year 2 (22 January 2016)

Genesis 12:1 ~ Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”

I haven’t written one of these Daily Office Meditations for over a month – the last was in early Advent. There’s been no good reason for not doing so other than . . . well, there’s been no good reason.

Today, however, I have a lot of work to do. Sunday will be the 199th Annual Parish Meeting of the Episcopal Church congregation in which I serve and, as we approach our bicentennial there is a lot which I should say in my annual “state of the parish” remarks. Whenever I sit down to prepare this annual address I am torn between the need to simply report the state of the parish – the improvements in all the metrics of money and membership, number of services and outreach clients served, the financial stewardship and “average Sunday attendance – and the need to cast the vision, to “write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.” (Hab 2:2)

And as I struggle with that today I am noticing that, on Facebook (yes, I have wasted time following Facebook postings and debating American party politics and Anglican Communion politics with friends and colleagues), in regard to the Democratic primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, there is a great deal more heat as the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary loom large on the horizon. The heat is showing up in vehement assertions of the positive quality of one candidate as contrasted to what is cast as the negative quality of the other.

In truth, neither is necessarily a positive nor a negative. Clinton’s pragmatism is contrasted with Bernie’s vision. Some argue that a pragmatic president is what we need; others, that we need a visionary leader. We are told that Bernie’s single-payer health plan, for instance, can’t be done; it’s not pragmatic. We are told that Hillary’s comfortable (pragmatic) working relationship with Wall Street bankers hampers her ability to regulate them; she’s not visionary enough.

In this debate, I see the same contrast, the same conflict I have writing the annual parish report: pragmatism (the numbers and statistics and what can be done given the budget) vs vision (what ought to be done budget-be-damned).

Cards on the Table: I prefer visionary leadership. If I vote in the Democratic primary in my state, it will be for Sanders (at this point I am registered as an independent, although I do have a Bernie bumpersticker on my car). Here’s why . . . visionary leadership is what leads to radical change. Pragmatism produces incremental change, if it produces any change at all.

Abraham (Abram at the time of today’s reading) was a visionary. Had he been a pragmatist, he and Sarai would have stayed put in Ur. Only a visionary would take off across the desert in search of an unknown future in some “promised land.” It occurred to me earlier today that if Jesus had been a pragmatist, there would be no Christian church; much better to stay in Nazareth, earn a good living as a carpenter and just make things better in the local synagogue. If Buddha had been a pragmatist, he would have lived and ruled as prince and made incremental improvements in his local kingdom. If Mohammed had been a pragmatist, he’d never have gone to that cave on Jabal al-Nour where he encountered Gabriel.

There’s nothing wrong with pragmatism. We need pragmatists; they make great managers. But they don’t make very effective leaders of change. For that, we need visionaries.

In politics, visionaries from “one side of the aisle” challenge the pragmatists from the other side (as well as from their own side); they encourage (or sometimes force) the pragmatists to change. Pragmatists, on the other hand, have the important role of holding the visionaries back; that’s a good and necessary thing! Unchecked visionaries can cause more than change; they can do real damage! Fortunately, in national government, we have two huge bodies of pragmatists (one with 100 members; one with 438) which put a brake on visionary leadership at the top. In church governance, a few pragmatists on the vestry (or session or parish council or whatever) are a good thing; pragmatists make super parish treasurers!

Sometimes (though not very often) there is no need for major changes; in those times, pragmatic leadership at the top is fine. But when there is need for radical re-direction, pragmatic leadership becomes no leadership. Pragmatists of on one side of the political divide attempt to negotiate with pragmatists on the other side trading tit for tat, pushing here while holding back there, agreeing to incremental changes in one direction here in exchange for incremental changes in another direction there. The net result is very little change at all; the net result is very pragmatic stalemate. Sometimes we elect leadership we believe to be visionary and find we have a pragmatist on our hands . . . .

Clergy, I think, are called to be visionaries. I struggle with the pragmatism thing; probably most clergy do . . . . we know that when Habbakuk, speaking for God, tells religious leaders to “write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it,” he’s talking directly to us. On the Meyers-Briggs, I am an INTJ, which means I tend to see the “big picture” and ignore details, so I may be a bit prejudiced in arguing that “big picture” visionary leadership is the clergy’s business. Nonetheless, I do think that’s our job and that’s probably why I am attracted to that sort of political leadership, as well.

There is nothing wrong with pragmatism; it is not a negative characteristic and it has its place in national politics and church governance. There is nothing wrong with vision; it is not a negative characteristic and it has its place in national politics and church governance. The question that we face in both church and politics is whether this is the time and place for one or the other. Is it time to get up and hit the road to the “promised land,” or is time to stay the course, remain in Ur, and maybe just make things a little bit better there?

One thing I do know . . . it’s time to get that annual “state of the parish” thing written!

Caring vs Rules: A Sermon for Proper 27B, Pentecost 24 (8 Nov 2015)

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B, Track 1, RCL), November 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Ruth 3:1-5;4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44 . 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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The Widow's Mite by RembrandtI get letters. Sometimes they’re really nice letters. And sometimes they’re not. Today, I want to tell you about a letter and how it caused me to rethink the two stories of women in today’s lectionary readings: First, the end of the story of Ruth from the biblical book named for her, and second, the story of Jesus watching and commenting upon the sacrificial giving of a widow in the Jerusalem temple.

The Book of Ruth is a very simple story. As Dr. Alphonetta Wines, a Methodist theologian, has said:

The genius of the book of Ruth begins with its literary simplicity. In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself. Both are abundantly blessed in the process. In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. In chapter four, the birth of Ruth’s child Obed brings Naomi joy that she thought would never be hers again. What began in misfortune has turned out to be a blessing for generations to come. (Working Preacher Commentary)

It’s simplicity, however, obscures for us its very radical messages: one of hope for women in a patriarchal society where the rules are all stacked against them, and another for inclusion of the stranger and the alien for it tells us this foreign woman, Ruth the Moabite, was the great grandmother of Israel’s King David and, thus, an ancestor of his descendent whom we believe to be the Son of God.

The story of the widow in the temple is another study in simplicity. Jesus is in the temple teaching, very clearly teaching against the scribes whom he criticizes for their opulent and self-serving ways. Having just criticized the scribes for “devouring widows’ houses,” he watches this particular widow turn over to those same scribes everything she possesses. Jesus seems to praise her for giving “out of her poverty . . . everything she had,” while criticizing wealthier donors who merely “contribute out of their abundance.”

This story has been used countless times a “stewardship sermon” text to encourage sacrificial giving by modern Christians. However, while I certainly want to encourage your generosity to the church, I think that’s a misuse of the text. Elsewhere, Jesus has encouraged such giving (as when he tells the wealthy young man to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor”) but I don’t believe that that is his intent here. Rather, in this story he is (I believe) teaching a lesson about two approaches to religion, a lesson also taught by the whole story of Ruth.

I came to this conclusion on Friday. Two things happened on Friday. The first was my practice of reading every morning from Daily Office lectionary; the second was the letter I just mentioned, which was delivered to the church office by our mailman on Friday afternoon.

The Daily Office Old Testament readings for the past couple of weeks have been from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah telling the story of the return of Jerusalem’s exiles from Babylonia and their rebuilding of the Temple; the Gospel readings have been from Matthew’s Gospel. On Friday, the latter was the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread, while the lesson from Ezra told of the sacrifice made in thanksgiving for the completion and dedication of the restored temple:

At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord. (Ezra 8:35)

In my Daily Office meditation on Friday, I wrote that the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story from Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is a striking illustration of two very different understandings of religion: on the one hand, religion as rules; on the other, religion as caring.

In our contemporary society and for the past several years, it’s been fashionable amongst some people to make a distinction between being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Those who study modern religion, such as the Pew Institute, even have a classification, “SBNR,” as one of their demographic categories, the “spiritual but not religious.” That distinction, I think, is what is addressed by our bible stories today; I don’t think Ruth or Naomi or Jesus or the widow in the temple would ever make that distinction, however. They would never divorce spirituality from religion. They might, however, make a distinction between these two kinds of religious practice: religion as rules versus religion as caring.

You know that I love looking into word origins, what is technically called “etymology”. Usually when I do this in a sermon I ask you to consider the original Greek of the New Testament, or the Hebrew of the Old Testament, but today I want to look at the English word religion, its root and derivation, and what we mean by it. If we look in the dictionary we will find that it is defined as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, offers this definition: “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, as part of their web presence, has a really good subsection for reporting religious news from all over the world. On the homepage of that religious news section, the BBC includes this statement:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (BBC.co.uk)

Notice what is common to all these definitions: beliefs about gods (or at least the supernatural), regulations of conduct, and ritual ceremonies. In other words, they are all about religion as rules. Only at the end, and only as a optional element, does the BBC definition include anything about morality or social behavior or anything that could be called “religion as caring”.

These definitions apply fully to the conduct of the scribes Jesus talks about in the Gospel lesson: they “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and . . . for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” They also apply to the Israelite society into which Naomi and Ruth come from Moab, a patriarchal society dominated by religious regulations, the Law of Moses, which denied independent livelihood to women. Beliefs, regulations, rituals: religion as rules.

The first recorded use of the word religion in the English language was in the 12th Century to describe the state of life of those bound by monastic vows and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, but in both uses the emphasis is on religion as rules. Our word religion derives from the Latin word religionem which Roman philosophers, such as Cicero and Lactantius, used to connote a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods; St. Jerome used it in the Latin vulgate translation of the Bible to render a Greek word meaning “religious ceremonies” (threskeia, Acts 26:5 & James 1:26-27).

The root of the Latin word religionem, however, was a matter of some dispute amongst those same Roman writers. Some believed it came from the verb religare which means “to bind up,” which is what rules do. Others, however, argued that it derived from relegere meaning “to read again” or “to read carefully,” that it is related to the word religiens meaning “careful”, the opposite of negligens, or negligent. This second derivation suggests that religion is less about rules than it is about caring.

The beliefs-rules-and-rituals understanding of religion is the way a lot of people, like the temple scribes and like early Israelite patriarchal society, understand religion. When this is our understanding, we end up following rules that lead the grossly over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock described in Friday’s Old Testament reading, we end up following rules that leave widowed women unable to provide for themselves, and we end up with religious leaders who make a show of their piety but who “devour widows’ houses.” Religion, understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies, produces such results . . . and it produces that second thing that happened on Friday, this letter delivered to the church office by our mailman that afternoon. [Note: the letter may be viewed here as a PDF file; the highlighting is in the original as delivered.]

In the November issue of our parish newsletter, we published an article about applauding during worship services which my colleague, the Rev. Peter Faass of Christ Church, Shaker Heights, had written. In it Fr. Faass commented that he invites applause when introducing married couples and, in that, made oblique reference to the fact that following this summer’s General Convention the Episcopal Church now offers marriage to same-sex couples. He recommended, however, that most of the time applause should not be offered during worship because what we do in the liturgy is not done as a performance for the congregation, but rather as an offering to God. What Peter suggested was that

instead of applause it would be best to offer a moment of silence after a pleasing offering; a moment when we may reflect on the gifts God has given to the person who is offering them up in the liturgy. In that silence let’s offer thanks. In that stillness let’s hear God’s applauding approval. [Note: Fr. Faass’s entire article can be read in PDF format in the parish newsletter here.]

Apparently we have a neighbor who reads our newsletter and who often drives by our building because that’s who this letter is from. In it, our neighbor takes us to task not only for Fr. Faass’s points, but also for our sign on which we have, from time to time, put the statement which has become a sort of unofficial motto of our diocese: “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

The letter begins, “It seems that Episcopalians are proud of being Episcopalians, but ashamed to be Christian. That explains why they find it so easy to stray from Scriptures, and hold so tightly to ‘tradition.'” The writer condemns us as “heavily influenced by popular culture” and then goes on to proof-text from Scripture why, in our correspondent’s opinion, same-sex marriage is contrary to his understanding of religion citing particularly the story of Adam and Eve. He then suggests that Fr. Faass is incorrect about God’s applause saying, “It may very well be that God is not only not applauding, but is sickened by ‘the liturgy,'” and he cites the prophets Amos and Isaiah who condemned the festivals, sacrifices, and assemblies of unfaithful Israel.

With respect to our sign, our neighbor informs us that “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions” is simply not true, that there are, in fact, human beings whom God not only doesn’t love but whom God positively abhors. He cites one of the Psalms for this proposition.

This [the letter] is religion understood as that which binds, religion as rules; this is Scripture understood as a set of binding regulations proscribing behavior, prescribing some rituals and prohibiting others, and denying not only basic dignity but even the love of God to many of God’s children. This is the religion of the temple scribes.

To this sort of religion, Jesus contrasted the religion of the widow in the temple. No law, no rule required her make her offering of “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” This is not her tithe (that would have been paid at a different time and in a different way). This is not a sin offering or a burnt offering (that would have entailed the sacrifice of some animal). This is nothing more nor less than a gift of thanks, given “out of her poverty” because she cared for the God on whose blessings she depended, because she cared for the faith that was in her. Because she cared, she gave; “out of her poverty [she] put in everything she had.” This is religion as caring.

I could answer this letter. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes that when Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16) he didn’t put any qualifications or restrictions on that statement. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes with our parish patron, St. Paul, that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39) I could do that. I could answer this letter, but I think the better response is for us as a church community to continue doing what we are called to do, to continue living a religion that emphasizes caring rather than rules.

Our correspondent admonished us that it is incumbent upon every Christian “to set the good example of following after Christ,” and he referenced the Letter of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jm 1:27 NRSV) What James is saying is that religion is caring, and the Episcopal Church could not agree more strongly!

Imagine how different this world might be if the caring, rather than the binding rules aspect, were the general understanding of religion! If we understood religion to mean “caring,” rather than “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” I really don’t think there would be any people who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” When the story of Ruth is understood not as a story about the rules of ancient Israelite society but, as Dr. Wines suggested, as the story of “a blessing for [all] generations to come” . . . when the story of the widow in the temple is understood not as a story about following the rules of stewardship, but as a story of giving as an act of caring . . . when the whole Bible is understood not as a book of rules and regulations, but as a collection of stories about God’s love . . . then it is clear that, contrary to our neighbor’s letter, Episcopalians do not “stray from Scripture.”

Our calling as “Episcopalians [who] are proud of being Episcopalians, [and who are positively delighted] to be Christian” is to demonstrate, to live out, and to invite others into what our new Presiding Bishop likes to call “the Jesus Movement,” a religion of caring, not a religion of rules. Like the widow in the temple, we are called to give out of our poverty all that we have and all that we are, and to invite into our self-giving not only those who are like ourselves, but also and especially those are different, the stranger, the alien, the one who is not like us, without regard to his or her social status, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, or anything else because nothing “in all creation, [is] able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” because “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

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.

Fully Human: A Baptismal Sermon for All Saints Day, November 1, 2015

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A sermon offered on All Saints Day, Sunday, November 1, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; and John 11:32-44. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Raising of Lazarus, Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 6th centuryFor some reason, although I know that the Lectionary is a three-year cycle and thus that the lessons are not the same every year, when All Saints Sunday rolls around I’m surprised when the lessons do not include John the Divine’s vision of the multitude in white robes standing before the Lamb’s Throne in heaven (Rev 7:9-17) or Jesus preaching the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12). Those were the lessons, the only lessons provided for this feast in prior editions of the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve preached the “new” Lectionary for thirty years, so you’d think I’d be used to it . . . but each time the raising of Lazarus pops up as the Gospel lesson I think, “Well, what’s up with that?” You may have had that thought this morning, as well: “It’s All Saints Day. We’re doing a baptism. What’s up with this Lazarus story?”

So I want to delve briefly into a couple details of the story.

First of all, let’s remember who this family is, Mary, Martha, and their deceased brother Lazarus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. These people seem to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. Earlier in this story, Lazarus is described to Jesus as “he whom you love” when Jesus is told of his illness. (John 11:3) These people are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.

Secondly, we’re told that the family is accompanied by “Jews.” That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t they all Jews? Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, the whole lot of them? Of course they are! So many scholars suggest that we should better understand John’s term Ioudaiou to mean “Judeans,” that is people native to the Jerusalem area; these scholars suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus, were Galileans who had moved to Judea and been accepted into this southern community. This strengthens the suggestion that they may have been members of Jesus’ extended family.

Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (vv. 21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”

In the portion we read, we’re told that Jesus’ response to this is that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s a fine translation, but it’s also a bit misleading. The word rendered “disturbed” – embrimesato – very literally means he “snorted with anger”; and the word translated “deeply moved” – etaradzen – means “stirred up” and implies a certain physicality, not simply an emotionalism. Jesus response to the sisters’ confrontations, to Lazarus’ death, to the whole situation is to become indignant and sick to his stomach.

Angry and physically ill, Jesus wept. Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest we consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.

In a few moments, we will baptize two young men, Aiden and his brother Carson, and together with them we will affirm the Baptismal Covenant beginning with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in which we will claim that Jesus, the Son of God, was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (BCP 1979, p 304). In the Nicene Creed, which we recite most Sundays during the Holy Eucharist, we go further and declare that he “became incarnate . . . and was made man,” that is, that he became a flesh-and-blood human being. (BCP 1979, p 358). In the Definition of Chalcedon, which you can find on page 864 of the Prayer Book, the church goes even beyond that and asserts its conviction that Jesus is “truly [human] . . . like us in all respects, apart from sin.”

I believe that standing before that tomb where his beloved friend Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, feeling the anger and frustration of his close friends Mary and Martha, surrounded by Judeans muttering “couldn’t he have prevented this,” and perhaps physically exhausted from traveling from the other side of the Jordan valley where he was when he got the news, Jesus’ humanity hit him like a ton of bricks. In that moment, everything that it meant to be human came crashing in on him: the way human beings settle for easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships; the injustice, oppression, and exploitation we impose on one another; the pain, rejection, hunger, and war we endure . . . but, also, the love, friendship, community, family, support, and every other good thing about being a human being; it all come together in that moment standing at that grave.

Why do I think that? Because that’s what I feel every time I stand at a grave. The first time I did that, I was 5-1/2 years old. I remember standing between my mother and my paternal grandmother watching two members of the US Army fold the flag that had draped my father’s coffin, feeling loss, grief, anger, confusion, and emotions I couldn’t even name. But there was also the love of family, pride in my father’s military service, a sense of community with extended family and friends, all the comfort that comes from our common humanity. And every time I have stood beside a grave, I have felt that again, and I can surely imagine our Lord experience something very like that. No wonder Jesus – the fully-human, like-us-in-all-respects Jesus – wept.

We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As the Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP 1979, p 306). As he called Lazarus from to rise from his funeral wrappings, through Holy Baptism Jesus calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with “those who have clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)

The Creation story in Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn 1:27) The story of the Fall reminds us that somehow that divine likeness has been marred, that on our own we fail to live up to that image; we fail to fully live up to the potential God created in humankind. Through baptism, the divine image is restore; through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a process of transformation begins and God restores us to who and what we were meant to be – fully human.

When John the Divine witnessed his Revelation, he saw that multitude of human beings in white robes standing before the Lamb’s Throne in heaven. He was told who they were – those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14) – and why they were there, and nowhere in that description did the Elder who spoke to him say anything about the saints having agreed to a doctrine. When the voice spoke from the throne and said, “See, the home of God is among [human beings]. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21:3), not a word was said about assent to a creedal formula. Nonetheless, when we baptized someone, we ask them (and ourselves) some questions that sound a lot like doctrine; we ask questions which are taken directly from the creedal formulation we call “the Apostle’s Creed,” to which I referred earlier.

Recently, a commission of Anglican theologians representing you and me and all Anglicans everywhere agreed with a similar group of theologians representing Orthodox Christians that three words could be removed from the Nicene Creed, three words that theologians and liturgists call “the filioque clause.” Filioque is a Latin word meaning “and the Son.” It refers to that place in the Creed where we say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Those three words (or that single Latin word) were added to the Nicene Creed by the Third Council of Toledo in 589 CE, a council in which no Eastern bishops took part; that additional phrase, which the East rejected, was one of the causes of the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. The theologians’ agreement is part of the on-going work to heal the rift between Eastern and Western Christianity.

As you might imagine, that agreement has excited no little amount of discussion amongst us clergy. In one of our conversations, another priest said this about the Creed which I think applies equally these doctrinal statements we require of baptismal candidates:

For the past couple of years, I have introduced the creed with, “Using the words of the Nicene Creed, we proclaim our faith and trust in the God . . . .” Last Sunday . . . I asked people to substitute “We trust in” for each “We believe in” as we said the Creed, since the original Greek word . . . could have been translated either way. I wonder if the Body of Christ would be far less chopped up, if we had used “trust”. There might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here”, and another denomination is created. Also, there is that “in” . . . we are doing a whole lot more than expressing belief. We are expressing a deep community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe you don’t believe exactly the same things I believe, but we both believe/trust in the same God.

In that same discussion, another of our colleagues objected to what he called the distinction between “faith as trust and faith with content.” “It’s always struck me as a strange distinction,” he said. “If, for example, faith as trust is about relationship [and not about content], it is like someone saying to a prospective marriage partner, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but I’m not certain who you are.'” I suggested to him, however, and I suggest to you now that this distinction really doesn’t exist, that faith as trust or as relationship necessarily implies and includes “faith with content.” One cannot place trust in another person, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named in the Creed, without assenting to that person’s existence and properties; to say, “I trust you” or “I love you” and not also agree that you exist makes very little sense.

This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with them, and through them with the full community of human beings whom God loves, with whom God will live, from whose eyes God will wipe every tear, and for whom God will spread that glorious and eternal feast described by the Prophet Isaiah.

That relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us. It is into that promise that we baptize Carson and Aiden today. And that is what’s up with the Lazarus story!

In the words of a popular Franciscan blessing, let us pray that, as these boys grow into the full humanity into which they are initiated today, God will bless them with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that they may live deep within their hearts; that God will bless them with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that they may work for justice, freedom, and peace; that God will bless them with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that they may reach out their hands to comfort others and turn their pain into joy; and that God bless them with enough foolishness to believe that they can make a difference in this world, so that they can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice, kindness, and love to all.

May God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. Amen.

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

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

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