That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Habakkuk

Swords into Ploughshares, But No Rapture: Sermon for Advent 1, 27 November 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016, 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 for Advent 1 in Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; and St. Matthew 24:36-44. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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swordsploughsharesrockefeller“Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt 24:40-42) You probably have friends who have told you these verses from Matthew’s Gospel describe something called “the Rapture.” You may have read the Left Behind books or seen the movies. So you may think you have a handle on what these verses mean and why they are offered to us as we begin our Advent preparation to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s Incarnation and to look forward to his return, his “Second Coming.”

Well… just hold that thought for a moment and let’s explore the first reading before we get back to it.

This is such a great passage from the Prophet Isaiah that we have this morning. It’s got those wonderful verses that are carved into the wall of the broad plaza across the street from the United Nations building in New York City:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4, NRSV)

It’s got all that wonderful imagery of the nations of the world streaming toward the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, at peace with one another. It’s a wonderful, wonderful vision.

We keep waiting for it, don’t we?

Isaiah saw this vision during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah about 750 years before Jesus’ time. Isaiah promulgated what is known as “Zion theology,” a religious understanding of Jerusalem as the center of the world and the Temple as the center of Jerusalem. The Lord will come to it and its mount, Holy Zion, will be the most prominent mountain. The nations will all come to Jerusalem to learn divine teaching. Yahweh, enthroned in the Temple, will mediate and end all international conflict. The waging of war will cease.

Of course, none of that has ever happened, but for nearly eight centuries after Isaiah the son of Amoz this was the belief and hope of Israel, of all Jews. The realities of this text exist in the realms of promise, hope, and faith.

Or at least they did until about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here’s a little First Century history lesson:

Jesus was born sometime around the year we might think of as “Zero” – in truth, we think he was born about the year now designated 4 B.C. (The calendar designations we use were developed by a man named Dionysus Exiguus – Dennis the Short – around the year 525 A.D. Dennis made a couple of miscalculations and so our calendar is just a bit off; it really doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus.) He lived to about his mid-thirties; the most popular dating of the crucifixion is April 3 of the year 33 A.D.

The Gospels were written several years after Jesus’ Ascension. Folks apparently thought it would be a good idea to get things written down because the original followers of Jesus were dying off. So Mark’s gospel was compiled a few years before 70 A.D., perhaps in the mid-60s. Matthew’s gospel is believed to have come next, about 80 A.D., perhaps as late as 90 A.D. Luke wrote his gospel and the Book of Acts at about the same time. John’s gospel comes along about the year 100 A.D.

These dates are important because of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Around the year 64 A.D. the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled against the then-ruling Roman Procurator, a man named Gessius Florius, who had tried to take the Temple treasury for his own use. They succeeded in expelling Florius from the city, but only after nearly 4,000 Jews had been killed. Then they got into a battle amongst themselves. There was essentially a civil war between the forces of Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, who claimed to be king, and Eliezer ben-Hananiah, who was the high priest.

This division between the Jews allowed the Roman Procurator of Syria Cestius Gallius to lay siege to the city for four years between 66 and 70 A.D. and basically starve the Jews. In the late summer of 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus Flavius successfully breached the city walls and destroyed the city and the Temple. The contemporary Jewish historian Joseph ben Matityahu reported that more than a million Jews were killed.

That is when the Zion theology of Isaiah took a nearly fatal blow. There was no longer a Temple to which (as the Psalmist put it)

the tribes [could] go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord. (Ps 122:4, BCP 1979 Version)

This was also the background, the context within which Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels were written. When the authors set about to record the story of Jesus, they look back to view him through the smoke of burning Jerusalem, across the rubble of the destroyed Temple.

Thus, they remembered things that Jesus had said about the Temple’s destruction. They remembered things that Jesus had said about his own probable death. They remembered and interpreted and wrote about many things in light of what was happening and had happened in the world around them. Of course they did! They were just as human as you and me, and the way they saw things and understood things and reported things was influenced by their experiences.

“The impact of this catastrophe cannot be overestimated. The loss of the war was itself devastating. The loss of the city of Jerusalem, the symbolic unifier of the Jewish people and the physical link to the memories that make Jews distinctively Jewish, tying them together all the way back to David, who ruled from this city, this loss shook the people deeply.” (Prof. Richard W. Swanson) Including the followers of Jesus, who at that time still thought of themselves as Jews.

Which brings us back to those verses from today’s gospel reading . . . that much cited and much misinterpreted text! When they remembered Jesus saying, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matt 24:40-41), the evangelists didn’t think he was talking about something that would happen in some future when he would return. They believed, probably correctly, that he was talking about something that had already happened to them and to their families and to their country. They had lived through a devastating and now inescapable loss. As a result of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which they had 800 years of regarding as the center of the universe, “every extended family [had] lost many members.” (Swanson)

In Luke’s version of this story, by the way, the disciples ask a follow-up question: Jesus says, “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” (Lk 17:34-35) Then his followers ask, “Where, Lord?” and Jesus them to look for the ones taken “Where the corpse is,” where “the vultures will gather.” The authors of the gospels were not looking forward to this happening; they had already been through it. (See Benjamin Corey)

It wasn’t until a crazy Irish Anglican priest named John Darby took these verses out of context and mashed it together with something Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about being “caught up in the clouds together with [the risen dead] to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4:17), and stirred it all together with some crazy imagery from the Book of Revelation, that we get the notion of a “rapture.” That “pointless [and] weird theology has . . . produced some strange bumper stickers (In case of Rapture this car will be driverless, etc.), and bad movies (you know which ones), [but] it is not what these words are about.” (Swanson)

These words are about hope even in the worst possible of circumstances. As Professor Arland Hultgren of Luther Seminary says:

The message of Christ’s return is not meant to frighten us. It is to give us hope. ~ The Christ who is to come is the Christ who once lived among us on earth, and who is known in the gospel story as the friend and healer of those in need. Moreover, living in hope, expecting Christ’s return, is integral to the Christian faith, for by it we insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already. (Hultgren)

There is another prophet whose words convey this message, the Prophet Habakkuk who shouted his intent to praise the Lord even when everything had gone bad. He wrote:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Hab 3:17-19a)

This is the hope of Advent, the hope that lets us believe, indeed lets us know with certainty that although Jerusalem may be destroyed, although the Temple may be in ruins, although war may rage around us, still there will be a time when

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4)

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man [who will usher in that time of peace] is coming at an unexpected hour.” Amen.

Note: The illustration is “Swords into Plowshares” by Lee Oscar Lawrie at the International Building, Rockefeller Center, NYC, NY.

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

What is Jesus up to? – Sermon for Palm Sunday (Yr C) – 20 March 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are as follows:
At the Blessing and Distribution of the Palms: Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 118:1-2,19-29
At the Eucharist: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Psalm 31:9-16; and St. Luke 19:28-40
At the Reading of the Passion Narrative following Communion: St. Luke 22:14-23:56
Most of these lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Jesus Triumphal EntryWhat is Jesus up to? Why is he doing this?

Many of us are old enough to remember when the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar made their first appearances. I wasn’t that big a fan of Godspell, but I really liked Superstar … and one of my favorite songs from it is Hosanna sung as Jesus enters Jerusalem, the scene which today specifically commemorates.

In Superstar, as in the Bible, as Jesus makes his way into the city, the crowds sing “Hosanna”. Unlike the biblical text, the hosannas sung in Superstar are a refrain for a duet, a musical conversation between Caiaphas, the high priest, and Jesus. In each iteration of the refrain, one line is changed. The first time, the crowd sings “Hey, JC, JC, won’t you smile at me.” The second time, “Hey JC, JC you’re alright by me.” The third, “Hey JC, JC won’t you fight for me?” And finally, “Hey JC, JC won’t you die for me?” These one-line changes in the hosanna refrain foreshadow the progress of Holy Week and the events leading to Good Friday and the cross. There’s a sermon in that, but not the one I want to offer you today.

Today, I want to focus not on what the crowd is singing but on what Jesus is saying by what he does and what he says. Listen to the words Caiaphas says to Jesus in the Superstar song:

Tell the rabble to be quiet,
we anticipate a riot.
This common crowd,
is much too loud.
Tell the mob who sing your song
that they are fools and they are wrong.
They are a curse.
They should disperse.

Tim Rice, the lyricist of Superstar, is elaborating here on the Lukan text: “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.'” (Luke does not identify the speaker as the high priest Caiaphas; that is artistic license on the playwrights’ part.) Jesus’ reply, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out,” is rendered by lyricist Rice in this way:

Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue were stilled
The noise would still continue.
The rocks and stone themselves would start to sing.

This conversation gives us a clue as to Jesus’ intent, his motive for doing what he did on that day riding into Jerusalem.

Way back in Jewish history, Joshua the son of Nun, the successor of Moses, when he led the people of Israel into the promised land swore them to their covenant with God and he had his men set up a stone monument as a testimony to the covenant. He said to the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” (Josh. 24:27) Later, the prophet Habakkuk condemned the ruling classes, the conquerors of nations who, in his colorful and disturbing words, “build towns by bloodshed.” (Hab 2:12) In his prophecy, Habakkuk proclaimed: “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” (Hab 2:13)

Jesus was recalling these ancient words, the covenant promise of Joshua and the justice prophecy of Habakkuk, when he said to the complaining Pharisees, “The stones would shout out.” They claimed to be the guardians of the covenant and they were the ruling class of their day, trained in the Law of Moses and the history of their people, and they knew what Jesus was saying.

They knew, too, what Jesus had done riding into the city on a donkey’s colt. He was acting out the prophecy of Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus was making a bold statement of his identity, a claim that could not be ignored. He was staking his claim on the kingship of Israel, on the role of the one who sits in judgment of the injustice against which the stones cry out and the plaster on the walls responds. He was telling them in no uncertain terms that they, the ruling class of his day, had built their empire by bloodshed.

That is what Jesus was up to then . . . and it is what Jesus is up to now! When the church re-enacts this drama each year, when we read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, when we wave our palms and sing our hosannas, we who “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” are making the same prophetic claim. We are saying to the ruling elites of our day that the rules by which they profit and benefit are unjust, that the society over which they preside is an empire built by bloodshed, that the stones are crying out from the wall, and the plaster is responding from the woodwork, that God’s creation is bearing witness against them.

And in one of those twists of meaning that God frequently pulls on us, we recognize that even as we “are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” even as we are both Jesus riding into Jerusalem and the crowds, the stones, crying out for justice . . . we are also the ruling elites against whom we cry. It is our own unjust acts, our own oppression of others, our own sinful exploitations that we are prophetically protesting.

If we do not understand that, if we do not appreciate that that is what we are saying and doing, then our Palm Sunday liturgy is hollow and meaningless. If what we are doing is not a reiteration of Jesus’ message, not a repetition of the prophecy he enacted and proclaimed, then what we are doing is a mockery of his life, his ministry, and his self-sacrifice. If in our waving of palms and singing of hosannas we are not proclaiming his gospel, if we are not announcing “good news to the poor . . . release to the captives . . . recovery of sight to the blind [and freedom to] the oppressed” (Lk 4:18), then all that we do today and during this Holy Week is nothing more than a burlesque, a charade, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)

But . . . but . . . I do not believe that it is. I believe that what we do bears witness to the truth of the gospel story, that what we do makes a difference in the world in which we live. I believe that what we do proclaims to the powers of this world the almighty power of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that when we wave our palms and sing our hosannas we are, like the prophet Isaiah, standing up and saying, “Who will contend with [us]? Let us stand up together. Who are [our] adversaries? Let them confront [us]. It is the Lord God who helps [us]; who will declare [us] guilty?” (Is 50:9)

We are proclaiming to the powers of this world, even (or even especially) those that reside within us, that they are defeated, that “in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17) We are saying, “Our God reigns!” and that “in Christ God [has] reconcile[ed] the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:18)

That’s what Jesus is up to! That’s what we are up to!

At the end of the Hosanna! song in Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus sings to the crowd:

Sing me your songs,
But not for me alone.
Sing out for yourselves,
For you are bless-ed.
There is not one of you
Who cannot win the kingdom.
The slow, the suffering,
The quick, the dead.

So wave your palms! Sing your hosannas! Be the stones who cry out judgment against the ruling elites! Be the plaster that answers from the woodwork! Be ambassadors for Christ! Be the voices of God’s ministry of reconciliation! Be the righteousness of God! (2 Cor 5) For there is not one of you who cannot win the kingdom! 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!

March Forth – From the Daily Office – June 6, 2014

From the Prophet Jeremiah:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord”, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jeremiah 31:33b-34 (NRSV) – June 6, 2014)

Troops marching at Omaha BeachCan the finite ever truly know the infinite? Can the human mind ever fully grasp the knowledge of God? We have the assurance of Jeremiah’s prophecy, the consolation of God spoken through “the weeping prophet” that it can. And Jeremiah is not alone.

Whenever I read a verse of scripture that speaks of the knowledge of God, I remember a favorite hymn of the rector under whom I served as curate, God Is Working His Purpose Out, sung to the tune Purpose. A repeating text in the hymn, not quite a chorus, is “the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” It is based on a verse from the prophet Habakkuk: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.” (Hab 2:14)

Like Jeremiah, Habakkuk assures us that the time will come when finite human beings will know the infinite Lord. Habakkuk focuses on the overwhelming universality of this knowledge, “as the waters cover the sea,” while Jeremiah focuses on its intimacy, “I will write it on their hearts.” It is Jeremiah’s intimacy that is echoed by Paul in his famous essay on love in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the Church in Corinth where we find yet another assurance that despite our limitations we will come to full knowledge of God:

For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. (1 Cor 13:9-13)

Paul links knowledge of God to love using the Greek word agape, that word so poorly translated by our English word “love.” Agape is unconditional, non-judging love which places demands not on the beloved, but on the lover; it requires the lover (as Nazarene theologian Thomas Oord has noted) to act intentionally to promote well-being even, or perhaps especially, when responding to that which creates ill-being. Linking universal but intimate knowledge of God to agape, Paul places a burden on every follower of Christ.

The prophets’ assurance that all will know God, that the universal but intimate knowledge of the Almighty will cover the earth and also be written on individual hearts begs the question of how. Paul’s linkage answers that question: through the ministry of the members of the church. As the Episcopal Catechism says, “The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” through the ministry of God’s people. My old boss’s favorite hymn says it more poetically:

What can we do to work God’s work,
to prosper and increase
the brotherhood of all mankind —
the reign of the Prince of Peace?
What can we do to hasten the time —
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

March we forth in the strength of God,
with the banner of Christ unfurled,
that the light of the glorious gospel of truth
may shine throughout the world:
fight we the fight with sorrow and sin
to set their captives free,
that earth may filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

On this 70th anniversary of D-Day, marching forth under the banner of Christ fighting sorrow and sin and setting captives free seems an appropriate metaphor for our ministry. God’s instrument for flooding the world with knowledge, for writing it on the hearts of human beings, is the Church, whose members are called “to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” (BCP 1979, page 855) March forth, Church, march forth!

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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.

Lenten Rejoicing – From the Daily Office – March 6, 2014

From the Prophet Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation..

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NRSV) – March 6, 2014.)

Dry Farm FieldsLent began yesterday and I heard the question at least 50 times: What are you giving up for Lent? It’s a legitimate question given that the church through the centuries has (in the words of the American Book of Common Prayer) invited her members “to the observance of a holy Lent . . . by prayer, fasting, and self-denial.” (BCP 1979, pg 264) We humans just tend to look on the negative side of things and focus on the sense of deprivation this tradition inspires.

Every year for longer than I have been ordained, I have tried to encourage my fellow Christians to see in the “giving up” a making room for something else. Giving up your favorite television program? You now have that hour each week for some other activity, reading the Bible maybe, or taking a walk and enjoying God’s creation. Not eating chocolates? What are you doing with the money saved? If the giving up creates space for something healthier or more productive, is it really privation? Oughtn’t we to give thanks for the opportunities, rather than bemoan the lost pleasures?

So, I’m glad to see my favorite bit of Habakkuk this morning. In a time of forced, not voluntary, privation, he could nonetheless give thanks, rejoice in the Lord, exult in God. That’s the example we should be following during Lent. The proper question is not, “What are you giving up?” The proper question is, “What are you rejoicing about?”

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

A Community of Fishers – From the Daily Office – March 11, 2013

From the Prophet Jeremiah:

I am now sending for many fishermen, says the Lord, and they shall catch them; and afterwards I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight. And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jeremiah 16:16-18 (NRSV) – March 11, 2013.)

Still from A River Runs Through ItI wonder if Jesus had this prophecy in mind when he called Andrew and Peter and said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” (Matt. 4:19)

When we modern, urban Americans read biblical references to fishermen, I suspect that a majority of us picture someone sitting lazily on the banks of a river with a pole stuck in the soil next to them, a line trailing off to a bobbing float; or perhaps we imagine Tom Skerrit standing in the Blackfoot River casting hand-tied flies trying to snag a large trout. Although hook-and-line fishing was not unknown in the ancient world, it was then, as now, a recreational sort of fishing. When God says through Jeremiah that he is sending fishermen to catch the wayward people of Israel, when Jesus tells his new disciples that they will become fishers of people, the reference is a very different sort of fishing.

The image we should have is of net fishing, probably using either a dragnet or a cast net. The dragnet is one of the oldest of fishing dating from the third millennium B.C. in Egypt. The dragnet, perhaps 250 to 300 yards long, and varing in height from 3 to 8 yards, would be taken out from the shore by boat which would proceed straight out for a distance, then turn parallel to the shore for a bit, and then turn back to the shore. The bottom of the net would be weighted with sinkers, and the top would have cork floats attached. Tow lines attached to each end of the net were hauled in by a teams of sixteen men for large nets, fewer for for smaller nets. This method of fishing is described in the books of Habakkuk, Ezekiel, and Matthew.

A cast net was, as the name suggests, thrown or cast onto the waters by one man either from shore or from a boat. After it had sunk to the bottom, trapping fish within it, the caster and others would dive down to it and either retrieve the fish individually placing them into pouches, or they would gather the footrope of the net, gathering the fish into a sort of purse formed by the net and bring them up together.

In either event, the picture we get is of teamwork. Biblical fishing was a community activity, something that required cooperation to be effective. So, although God promised to send a single shepherd, the Messiah, God in this prophecy of Jeremiah also promised to send a working party.

And, one wonders, who might that be? The church? All the baptized? No doubt. God’s team is made up of the spiritual descendants of the ones to whom Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Midway through Lent as we are, this might be a good time to turn from individual self-examination and consider how well we are doing as a community of fishers.

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

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

Faith in the Face of Nothing – From the Daily Office – November 20, 2012

From the Prophet Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
will exult in the God of my salvation.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Habakkuk 3:17-18 (NRSV) – November 20, 2012)
 
"Faith" Inscribed on a Granite BlockGiving thanks at a time privation, that’s what these two verses from Habakkuk’s prophecy are about. Habakkuk describes a situation in which he (and all the people of Jerusalem) have lost everything. Just look at what he lists in verse 17: figs, grapes, and olives, the year-round fruit crops of the area; the fields, which is to say the annual crops, the grains and staple foods; flock and herd, which means sheep and cows. All their their produce is gone, all their livestock are dead.

This is a society utterly destroyed. Habakkuk’s situation is worse than anything we can imagine in our time and place. In Habakkuk’s time, there was no “safety net”, no social service agencies, no homeless shelters, no food stamps, no church food pantries, no well-off relatives (everyone is suffering the loss of the crops and livestock). For Habakkuk and his kindred, this all means starvation. It means death. None of us, I’m sure, has ever been in quite the situation Habakkuk experiences, though I do know that many have, for example, faced death their own possible in the form of cancer or of battlefield danger, and others have handled the death of loved ones.

Nonetheless, in face of the virtual certainty of destruction, Habakkuk can say, “I will rejoice in God; I will give thanks to my Lord.” It is easy to give thanks and rejoice when we have things; Habakkuk does so when he has nothing. I think we sometimes confuse thankfulness for the things we receive from God for faith in God God’s-self. Habakkuk has no things to be thankful for; it is in God’s self that Habakkuk rejoices. It is in God, not God’s gifts that Habakkuk trusts. This is more than gratitude for stuff. This is more than optimism and positive thinking. This is faith.
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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.

Vision and Salt – From the Daily Office – November 19, 2012

From the Prophet Habakkuk:

The Lord answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time;
it speaks of the end, and does not lie.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Habakkuk 2:2-3a (NRSV) – November 19, 2012)
 
Vision Road SignThere are two passages of Scripture that I always think of when vestries or other church governing boards begin to discuss a vision for the church’s mission and ministry. One is the King James version of Proverbs 29:18a – “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” – the other is this passage from Habakkuk. I really like the image of the vision being written so large that someone running by can read it and make sense of it; the church’s vision needs to be as big, expansive, and attention-getting as a billboard.

To catch a fish, one must cast one’s line into the water in a manner that will attract the fish. To lead and perform an effective ministry, the church and its leadership must cast a vision of the future far and wide – write it large – in such a way as to attract and retain members and co-ministers who will see that vision through, buy into it, act upon it, make it a reality. Vision casting in the church means discerning God’s purpose for the church or program and then making it known. Vision, as Habakkuk makes clear, must be presented in a way that motivates, inspires, and encourages; the people rushing by, running to and fro attending to the demands of daily life, need to catch the vision and really believe in it.

The process is not easy, but it is necessary. In the absence of vision, as the verse from Proverbs says, the people perish. The parish perishes. I’m reading a book about church administration in which the author makes the point that a congregation needs direction, a vibrant energetic center of action and service to give the congregation its particular and peculiar identity. Without that God’s people are, as God’s Son said, like salt that has lost its savor.

Write God’s vision as big as a billboard! Without it, the church will founder and die; without it, the church is good for nothing but trampling under foot like unusable salt.

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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.