That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: James (page 1 of 4)

About “Thoughts and Prayers” – 15 February 2018

(Note: This essay began as a Facebook post, but I thought I would put it here, too.)

Let’s get something straight. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t solve; they salve. “Thoughts and prayers” are not salutary; they are palliative. “Thoughts and prayers” don’t provide a cure; they provide comfort.

“Thoughts and prayers” are all well and good, but they are not an end in themselves. “Thoughts and prayers” must lead to actions or they are simply meaningless futility. “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder. . . .[F]aith apart from works is barren . . . [F]aith without works is also dead.” (James 2:18-20,26)

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Giving Up & Taking Up – Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018

So we once again find ourselves at the beginning of Lent, this Day of Ashes on which we are marked with a sign of death, grief, and penance, and encouraged to enter into a time of fasting, a time of “giving up.” What are you giving up for Lent? We have all heard that question; we have probably asked it of others.

Noting the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day (something that apparently hasn’t happened for more than 70 years), Episcopal priest and cartoonist Jay Sidebotham recently offered some combined greeting cards for the day. Making light of the “giving up” aspect of Lent, one of Sidebotham’s mock cards reads:

Roses are red;
Violets are blue;
Lent is beginning;
No chocolate for you![1]

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Superbloom: Sermon for Advent 3 – 11 December 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 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 3 in Year A: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; and St. Matthew 11:2-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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01-death-valley-super-bloomMost of the time when we hear this story of John’s disciples coming to Jesus we focus on John’s question – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11:3) – and on Jesus’ answer to it which is neither a “yes” nor a “no” but a pointing to the evidence – “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5).

But the lesson adds a second conversation, one that happens after John’s followers leave. Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them a question, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” (Mt 11:7)

Whenever I read this gospel and encounter that question (especially when I read it in one of the translations that renders it as “What did you go out into the desert to see?”) I remember my childhood and early adult life in southern Nevada, where we would often “go out into the desert to see” something. Today’s prophecy from the Book of Isaiah – “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa 35:1-2) – reminds of those times when we would go out to see the wild flowers in bloom.

There is a phenomenon that occurs only rarely in the desert when there is sufficient rain, a blossoming of the wild flowers called a “superbloom.” You may have seen the news of a superbloom in Death Valley last year, in the fall of 2015. It’s an amazing sight to see! The desert bursts with color as thousands of plants come to life; coaxed to blossom by the rains, the flowers create intricate tapestries, the blues and purples of desert lavender, sand verbena, and Arizona lupine, the red of the California poppies, the brilliant orange of the Mariposa lily, and the yellow explosion of a stand of Palo Verde trees in full bloom. It is truly a vision worthy of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom!” It is what we would go out into the wilderness to see.

Most of the time, though, we go out into the desert and we see . . . wilderness, a “reed shaken in the wind,” as Jesus says (Mat 11:7). We go out into the wilderness with our expectations of wild flowers in blossom, of superblooms carpeting the desert with color, and we are disappointed. We miss the truly remarkable splendor of the “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains” that “repeat the sounding joy” of God’s creation. (I. Watts, Joy to the World) We dismiss the gray-greens of cactus and sage, failing to see that there’s “not a plant or flower below but makes [God’s] glories known.” (I. Watts, I Sing the Mighty Power) We fail to see the stark native beauty of the wilderness for what it is because it doesn’t meet our superbloom expectations.

That was the problem for John, and it was the problem for the religious authorities whom John opposed. They looked at Jesus but did not see; this Galilean peasant messiah was not what they expected and so John sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” If we are honest – and the point of the season of Advent is to call us to that sort of honesty – there are times we have seen and heard the work of God but called it something else, not recognizing it for what is. Like the Romans, like the religious authorities, like John the Baptize sitting weary in prison, we mistake what we see. Somehow, it just doesn’t match what we had in mind.

There is a danger during Advent – while we are preparing for the annual celebration of the winter solstice that we call “Christmas”, while we are hosting teas and attending office parties and going to school Christmas plays – there is a danger that we will create the Jesus we want, and miss the Jesus who really is. As Methodist campus minister Deborah Lewis at the University of Virginia notes, we can be confused by and miss “God’s willful, wily, wonderful ways of showing up in the world.” She advises us:

Don’t get carried away in your waiting, in your anticipation. Keep alert and keep paying attention. We’re called not to create and conjure the Prince of Peace but to recognize and welcome him when he arrives, when we see and hear what he’s doing. In the remaining weeks of Advent and when you go home to family and friends and a Christmas you’ve been expecting for a while now, remember what it was you came to see. Remember that wilderness vision and pay attention to how it might look and sound as it is revealed in new places and people. (Deborah Lewis)

Advent, as I said, calls us to be honest. It calls us, as Jesus called his first followers, to “keep awake, for [we] do not know on what day [our] Lord is coming.” (Mat 24:42) It calls us to “beware [and] keep alert, for [we] do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:33) We must be alert to the many cultural messages which obscure the Truth of Jesus Christ, cultural messages which lead us to expect something other than the Truth that Jesus offers. “Advent calls us to be honest about the values and beliefs that we hold because of cultural convenience, rather than the values and beliefs [of] our faith.” (Roman Catholic Bishop Paul D. Etienne)

So for the next couple of weeks, keep awake, be alert, be honest. Look to the wilderness beyond the teas, the office parties, and the Christmas plays. Look to the wilderness beyond the decorated trees, the colorful lights, and the blow-up displays in the neighbors’ yards. Look to the wilderness.

Look for God in works of mercy, healing, hope . . . .
Look for God in those who strive for justice and peace . . . .
Look for God in those who mourn and suffer . . . .
Look for God in your own heart. Go there. Into the wilderness. Follow the leading star of your longing for a closer relationship with God, a closer walk with Christ. There is where you hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. There you begin to see.
Three times Jesus asks the gathered crown: What then did you go out to see? Ask yourself the same question this week, and not only at church, but at any time or place: what did I come here to see?
Ask yourself the same question . . . .
(The Rev. Dr. Matthew Calkins)

Answer honestly and you will see the superbloom of God’s Presence!

Note: The illustration is from the article Marveling at the Super Bloom in the March 2016 issue of Vogue Magazine.

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

Community Choice: Sermon for Pentecost 14, RCL Proper 16C (21 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 16C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; and St. Luke 13:10-17. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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borderwallOur reading from the Book of Isaiah today is the second half of chapter 58, a chapter which begins with God ordering the prophet to “Shout out,” to “do not hold back,” to “lift up [his] voice like a trumpet” with God’s answer to a question asked by the people of Jerusalem: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:1,3a)

God’s answer is simple: “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. [Y]ou fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (vv. 3b-4)

The rest of the chapter, including the portion we heard today, is simply an expansion on that answer including (in this reading) God’s promise that a change of civic behavior, a change in the ruling elite’s treatment of the poor will be answered with prosperity for all. They had to choose what kind of community they were going to be. That was an important lesson for the ruling class to learn; it is an important lesson for us to learn. To fully understand the importance of this lesson, however, requires some placement of this prophecy in historical context.

The Book of Isaiah is not the work of a single prophet. Based on internal evidence and other historical data, scholars believe that in contains the oracles of at least three prophets or schools of prophets. The first, sometimes called “Proto-Isaiah,” comprises chapters 1 through 39. This writer lived and worked in Jerusalem before the Babylonian Exile. Chapters 40 through 54 are believed to have been written during the Exile recording the prophecies of the second or “Deutero-Isaiah.” The last of the book, chapters 55-66, contains short oracles of several post-Exilic prophets who are collectively known as third or “Trito-Isaiah.”

These “Third Isaiah” prophets were at work during the rebuilding of the Temple under the direction of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor, whose names we know as the titles of the history books which tell that story. Professor Brian Jones of Wartburg college describes the social milieu of the time in this was:

Rebuilding the temple and the city was moving slowly, perhaps stalled completely. Leadership within the community was contested. Divisions and violent quarreling hindered progress in both physical and social restoration. Drought and food shortages exacerbated the social strife and made rebuilding difficult. Economic and social inequity – homelessness, hunger, lack of clothing – threatened the stability and identity of the returned community. (Jones, Working Preacher Commentary)

In addition, there was conflict between the returnees and those who had never left. The returnees disagreed about how welcoming their community should be to the locals who had remained; the leaders (particularly Ezra) were not welcoming at all.

Ezra and Nehemiah took an exclusivist position, regarding those who had remained and intermarried with other peoples to be less than Jewish. For example, “one of the first measures Ezra took was to make an ultimatum forcing all Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives or at least have the women convert. Whoever refused would be excluded from the community.” (Jewish History, Ezra and Nehemiah) Ezra focused the people’s attention on rebuilding the Temple; Nehemiah focused on building a wall around Jerusalem. These, they believed, would bind the people as a nation and strengthen them to stand against their neighbors, friend and foe alike.

Others, however, promoted an inclusive viewpoint. For example, the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of a non-Jewish Moabite woman who married into Israel and became an ancestor of King David, was written during this period. The “Third Isaiah” prophets were of this viewpoint; they argued, as our reading makes clear, that welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, and meeting the needs of the afflicted were more important than building walls and, in the long run, would lay a foundation of prosperity for many generations.

Of course, Ezra and Nehemiah were in charge so the Temple and the wall were built, but the prophets turned out to be correct. The Temple and the wall did bind the people together, but Israel as a nation was never restored to the glory of the Davidic kingdom and for most of the next three hundred years was under the control of foreign empires ending, in Jesus’ time, with the Romans.

What Ezra and Nehemiah and their successors did accomplish was the creation of a relatively united and ritually pure Judaic religion, a faith which bound the people one to another and to their God. They might have minor disagreements about the relative importance of the festivals and sacrifices of the Temple as opposed to the rules and rituals of daily life, the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, but in the end they were all Jews sharing one religion.

This was the religion into which Jesus was born, about which he taught, and the reform of which he sought. Our lesson from Luke’s Gospel today is a story of his effort to accomplish that reform.

As was his Sabbath custom, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, the local religious meeting hall; Luke doesn’t tell us what village or town he was in, but somewhere in the region of Galilee. As he was teaching, a woman who was (the Greek tells us) “bent over double,” apparently with considerable curvature of her spine, entered. He called her to him and said, “You are freed,” not cured, freed, and laid his hand on her; she then stood up straight. Actually, was the Greek says is that “she was straightened.” It doesn’t say that Jesus straightened her, or that she straightened herself, simply that “she was straightened.” By what? By freedom and into freedom.

Of course, this astonishing event raises a commotion. The “leader of the synagogue,” a direct spiritual descendant of Ezra and Nehemiah, objects. Jesus, he argues, has violated the rules; he has done work (assuming that healing someone is work) on the Sabbath. Jesus answers in true rabbinic fashion employing what is known as arguing from the lesser to the greater. He reminds the leader and those around them that it is not a violation of the law to free a farm animal on the Sabbath so that it may drink; if this, the lesser thing, is permitted, then it must also be true that to free a Jewish woman, a “daughter of Abraham,” from her ailment, the greater thing, is also permitted.

Many commentaries make not of the fact that this woman, by reason of her spinal curvature, her being bent over double could never have looked anyone in the eye, could not have seen the horizon, could only look at her feet and the few feet of ground that lay before her. She was cut off from the world around her. The leader of the synagogue and other spiritual descendants of Ezra and Nehemiah were similar blinded by their rules and traditions.

The rules of the Sabbath on which the synagogue ruler bases his objection are not to be found in the Law of Moses; they are not in the Torah. Instead, these are the mitzvoth d’rabbanan, the man-made laws intended by the rabbis to be a fence or wall around the Torah, lesser (but just as strenuously enforced) ritual rules that insured one did not break a commandment of the Scriptures.

Although this gospel story is often presented as just one more of Jesus’ healing miracles, I suggest to you that it is much, much more. It is a story of liberation, not only of the woman herself, but of all those who were present and all those, like ourselves, who have heard it through the ages. In this story, Jesus frees them and us from the bondage of inflexible rules, from the walls we have built around our hearts and our spirits.

The leader of the synagogue and generations of tradition had made the ritual observance of the Sabbath more important than the people for whom the Sabbath was meant. Sabbath (the Hebrew word literally means “rest”) was intended to give the people of God freedom from the demands of everyday life; it was to be a time of rest, relaxation, and refreshment. But in trying to guard that time of liberation, the rabbis had built their wall of rules, their “fence around the Torah,” rituals which were more restrictive, more demanding than the strictures of daily life. It is not in this text but in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), but that is certainly the message of this story. The Sabbath is no reason to refuse healing and liberation to a “daughter of Abraham.” As St. James would later write to the church, “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.” (James 1:26)

We often focus too much on the “keeping unstained” and too little on the care of the poor. That was the problem the Third Isaiah oracles sought to address, the focus on the wall of security around the city and on the purity of the temple. A Quaker preacher in North Carolina has written about our Isaiah lesson as follows:

If ever there was an unambiguous prophetic signpost for the people of Israel that would show them the way to a restored relationship with Yahweh, Isaiah’s message in Chapter 58:10 was it: “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…”

While so many of the Old Testament prophets’ messages are filled with jeremiads of doom and gloom, this positive passage is exceptional in that it holds out the conditional promise of personal and community restoration and reconciliation, expressed poetically as a “watered garden” (v.11). The condition was clear: first the Israelites had to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and treat their neighbors as they would themselves like to be treated. The power of this poetic passage speaks volumes for the spirit of love, compassion, and neighborliness which God expects God’s people to demonstrate as they go about feeding the hungry in their communities. The hungry were not to be subject to a “means” test, speak only one official language, or show documents to prove they were not “illegal” before they were to be fed. They were to be fed simply because they were hungry.

God does not say here, “The poor you have with you always, so relax, take your time, pay your bills, balance your budget, play the lottery, fill up the SUV, take a vacation, and, if there are any crumbs left on the table, offer pennies to the hungry.” Rather, God clearly gives feeding the hungry top priority on the daily agenda of God’s people rather than fighting terrorism and protecting one’s job security, life insurance, college savings program, or retirement investment.

The bottom line in this text from Isaiah is not maximization of profits, but feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. (Ed King, Member, Chapel Hill Friends Meeting)

As for the Third Isaiah prophets, so too for Jesus. “God’s time,” writes Lutheran pastor Amy Lindeman Allen about the gospel story, “is a time that, no matter when it is observed (and, for Jesus and the synagogue leader, this would have been a Saturday) and no matter how it is observed in the particulars, it is always and only about life.” This story demonstrates that for Jesus, Sabbath is “always about God’s people and their well-being, and not simply about the ‘rules’ and the way we wish things ought to be.” (Political Theology)

These stories today are coupled with a frankly strange bit of prose cut out of the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer of the letter contrasts two mountains, Sinai where the Law was given and Zion to which those finding freedom in Christ are invited. The first place is “ominous for the eye and the ear with burning fire, darkness, gloom, windstorm, [and the] noise of trumpets.” (Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) The second is a place of life and light, of festivity, of angels, and of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” The author of Hebrews encourages us to accept the invitation, “See that you do not refuse!” We are being offered a kingdom, a community that cannot be shaken, a community where the finger is not pointed, where evil is not spoken, where the hungry are fed, the afflicted cared for, the stranger welcomed, where bones are made strong, where backs are straightened and youth is renewed.

These lessons today are about our communities, religious and secular, local and national, and the role and function of our laws, our rules, and our traditions; they test our claims about what could and should be practiced within our communities, and about who is allowed within our walls. They ask us, and demand that we answer. What kind of community – what kind of church, what kind of city, what kind of state, what kind of nation – do we want to be? An exclusive community encircled by walls and bound by restrictive rules, or an unshakeable inclusive community of life and light and freedom. The choice is ours. Amen.

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

Action and Fruit – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Action and Fruit

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (5 December 2015)

Matthew 22:16 ~ “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.”

People say a lot of things; people often say a lot of things they believe and, pretty much just as often, they say a lot of things they don’t believe. The Pharisees and the Herodians who said this to Jesus pretty obviously didn’t believe what they said to him. If they had truly believed that Jesus taught “the way of God in accordance with the truth,” they would not have been trying to trap him with a trick question about taxes.

Our nation is still coming to grips with the latest mass shooting, the 355th of the calendar year to date. The killing of 14 people at the San Bernardino Inland Regional Center and the wounding of many more is the worst mass murder since the Sandy Hook school shooting. We can all, I’m sure, remember the statements of our political leaders at that time: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families.” We remember them well because they have said them again after this week’s event, as they have said them after every mass murder between Sandy Hook and San Bernardino.

I don’t believe them anymore, and I don’t believe that they believe them. I have come to believe that a politician standing before a microphone saying “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and their families” is no more sincere than were the Herodians and Pharisees talking to Jesus in the Temple. Their words are lies and they know it.

Saying “our thoughts and prayers are with you” is a lie. The politicians who say it aren’t thinking at all … if they thought the least little bit, they would think of ways to regulate gun ownership. They also aren’t praying … real prayer leads to action. “Never pray for anything you aren’t willing to work for,” my grandfather taught me.

He also was fond of the old saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” Jesus said something similar, “You will know them by their fruits.” (Mat 7:16) The silence of our political leaders’ inaction is deafening. The bitter fruit of their inaction is inedible.

The Bible most of them claim to follow says very clearly: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

If a nation is riddled by daily gun death, and one of you says, “I’m praying for you,” and yet you do nothing to end the gun violence, what is the good of that? So prayers, by themselves, if they have no attendant action, are a lie.

These politicians who “think and pray” but do not follow up with action, who do not bear fruit, cheapen both thought and prayer into meaninglessness. I don’t believe their words anymore, and I don’t believe they believe them.

Appearing with the Bishop of Los Angeles shortly after the San Bernardino shooting, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry said, “We must combine our prayers with work.”

This is what it means to believe: to combine prayer with work, to follow thought with action, to offer prayer and produce fruit.

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.

Religion Is Caring – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Religion Is Caring

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 26, Year 1 (Pentecost 23, 2015)

Ezra 8:35 ~ 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.

Matthew 14:19b-20 ~ Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

I don’t usually quote from two of the Daily Office lessons in these little private meditations of mine (they “feel” private, anyway; I seldom get any replies or comments). Today, however, the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story of Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is so striking, I had to mention it. It seems to me that what these two contrasting lessons do is illustrate two different understandings of religion.

“Religion” as a concept seems to be pretty universally understood as a set of beliefs, to which may be attached ceremonies, rituals, and moral codes. Just take a look at a few of the definitions or comments one finds on major websites:

“A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” (Wikipedia)

“An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster)

“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)

“For good or for evil, faith factors into our everyday functioning: We’ve evolved to believe. Religion can help us make sense of our world, provide motivation, and bind us together.” (Psychology Today)

The Psychology Today comment ends with an oblique reference to the commonly understood origin of the English word “religion” which is, I think, instructive in considering the different pictures or religion in today’s lessons.

If one delves into the etymology of the word, one finds its earliest use in Anglo-French, first, to describe the state of life bound by monastic vows, and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, indicating a belief in a divine power, and still later to describe the institutions which foster and encourage such pious behavior.

It is derived from the Latin “religionem” which connotes a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods. Roman philosophers and other writers used it, also, to refer to conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation, modes of worship, and the ritual observances of cults. However, they seem in disagreement about its origins.

The Roman grammarian Servius (“ad Virgil”) and the Christian philosopher Lactantius (“De Rerum Natura”) both believed it came from “religare” which means “to bind up.”

Cicero (De Natura Deorum), however, argues that it comes from “relegere” meaning “to read again” or “to go over again in reading, speech, or thought.”

Another source of the English word, perhaps another stream flowing into its meaning, comes from a Germanic root, “rak” through the Old English “reck” meaning “to have a care for.” The Latin word, “religiens” meaning “careful” (as the opposite of “negligens,” negligent) would support this understanding, and give credence Cicero’s derivation which implies careful consideration.

Which brings us back to the two stories in today’s lectionary readings. It seems to me that they illustrate these two alternative approaches to religion. Ezra’s over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock results from religion understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies. Jesus’ feeding of the multitude with a few fish and loaves of brad illustrates religion understood as caring.

Obviously, the general understanding of “religion” in English-speaking countries comes from the “bind up” perspective. The dictionary definition, “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” makes that abundantly clear.

How different might all those definitional quotations above might be if the “caring”, rather than the “binding” aspect, were the general understanding of religion. And how sad that it is not. One is reminded of James’s admonition: “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)

Next time I am asked “What is religion?” my answer will be “Religion is caring.”

More Than Much Fine Gold: Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 19B – 13 September 2015

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A sermon offered on Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B, Track 1, RCL), September 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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GoldSo here’s a thing that happened this week . . . . We prepared the bulletins for today; both the church secretary and I reviewed them and proof-read them and only after they’d been copied and folded that I saw something out of order with today’s Psalm (as printed in the bulletin). It’s Verse 10….

There’s nothing really wrong with it, but the verse number, you see, is larger than the numbers of all the other verses. We set the type size for the verse numbers at 10 pt, but that one verse number didn’t get set that way . . . it’s 14 pt; stands out like a sore thumb, calls attention to the verse: “More to be desired are they [the statutes and judgments of God] than gold, more than much fine gold . . . . ” I took that as a sign that I should talk about gold this morning, that I should talk about money, and that seemed like a good idea because next week you will be receiving the annual pledge campaign flier.

On the other hand, I’d rather talk about today’s gospel in which Jesus asks his closest companions, “Who do people say that I am?” to which they give a variety of answers, but then he really puts them on the spot with his follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, of course, comes up with a correct answer, but this is a question which is never completely answered, is it?

It’s funny, but when I read this particular story I can’t help thinking of The Logical Song by the rock group Supertramp. The refrain of the song goes:

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am.

Now I know that the pleading, lost, confused, and rebellious attitude of the singer of the song is not the attitude of Jesus in his conversation with the disciples, but the lyric is right that this is a question that runs deep, as absurd as it may sound. Jesus asks us this question on a regular basis: “Tell me what you’ve learned. Tell me who I am to you.”

Jesus first asks the twelve, “What have you learned? What’s public saying about me?” But he doesn’t stop with asking about public opinion. He asks them for a personal position: “Who do you say that I am?”

We live in a pluralistic society; we live in a time in which there are many religious choices, and we have much to learn from the many others, different sorts of Christians as well as those of other faiths and those of none, all the variety of persons among whom we live and with whom we interact. In this pluralistic milieu we also have much to share with these others and we need to be able to give an account of our own religious choice. We have chosen to follow Christ. We have chosen to follow Christ in a particular way. Why? Who is Jesus to us?

Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, insists that he is the model of our spiritual maturity, the gauge (if you will) of our spiritual development: it is our calling, Paul insists, to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Mark’s way of making this same point is to quote Jesus as saying to us, as he said to Peter and the other disciples, “Deny [your]selves and take up [your] cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus’ question is really not about his identity, at all. It’s really about ours. When each of us answers his question, what we respond says more about our self than it can ever say about Jesus. Who are we becoming as we follow him, as we come “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” as we live into his identity that resides within us? “Who do you say that I am?” is a question about our identities and our priorities.

It is often said if you want to know your real priorities, look at two things: your appointment book and your checkbook. These days you might look at your Google calendar and your online bank account statement, or the calendar app on your smartphone and your credit card statement. Whatever. The point is that your priorities are always going to be reflected in the way you spend your resources: your time, your talents and abilities, your money, your energy. Jesus said it plainly: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk 12:34). Where your gold is, there are your priorities.

Jesus says, “These are the priorities: Deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.”

A theology of the cross or a theology of self-denial does not mean a contrived humility or a self-sacrificing martyrdom; we do not follow Jesus, we do not take up our cross, we do not grow into the full stature of Christ by demeaning ourselves. A true theology of the cross, a true denial of self means that we are called to selflessness, to an unselfishness in which we do the very best we can with the treasure, the talents, the abilities, and the energy God gives us. To “deny oneself” and take up one’s cross means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” — love God and love your neighbor (Mk 12:28-31).

The commandment[s] of the Lord [are] clear
and give light to the eyes.
The judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold . . . .

So, I guess I ended up talking about money after all, and that probably is a good idea because this next week you will be receiving your annual pledge card for 2016.

Late at night, when all the world’s asleep,
And the questions run so deep
When you fill out next year’s card.
Won’t you please, please tell us what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Tell Jesus who he is; tell him who you are.

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.

Of Dogs and Lives that Matter: Sermon for Pentecost 15 (Proper 18B) – 6 September 2015

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A sermon offered on Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B, Track 1, RCL), September 6, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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syrophenician woman icon“Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Mark’s Gospel can be infuriating at times. This introduction to the story of the Syrophoenician woman is definitely one of those times, two short sentences which leave us wanting to know so much more. We can, I think, understand why Jesus might not want anyone to know he was in the place; we frequently observe him throughout the Gospels trying to find some “down-time,” some privacy, some solitude to be with God. But why did he set out and go “to the region of Tyre?”

Tyre was a Greek commercial center in southern Lebanon. For the Jews of First Century Palestine it was just beyond the northernmost extent of their province; “the region of Tyre” was where Jews and Gentiles frequently interacted, a frankly uncomfortable situation for Jews whose religion and law forbade that, whose racial and religious prejudices informed them that they were God’s chosen and that all other persons were unclean, whose sense of self and national importance required that they separate themselves from Gentiles. It was not the sort of place one would have expected the Jewish Messiah to go. So why is he there?

“He entered a house . . . “ Whose?!? Why!?! There are just all sorts of questions that erupt from those four short words.

Mark leaves us wanting so much more information! It’s infuriating.

Of course, Mark leaves out those details that he doesn’t think important. What’s crucial for Mark is the story of the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, probably the most uncomfortable, the most disturbing story about Jesus in all of the Gospel literature.

The story is simple and brief. A non-Jewish woman who has heard of Jesus’ power as a healer comes seeking aid for her daughter. Mark specifically identifies her as a Syrophoenician, a Greek-speaking resident of what we now call Syria. She has, perhaps, come from Syria to the Mediterranean with her child seeking a better life and now she needs help. Jesus dismisses her; to be honest, he blows her off. “I’m here for the Jewish children,” he says, “not you Gentile dogs.” He’s not just dismissive; he’s rude. He’s not just rude; he’s insulting! “But even the dogs,” she replies in the face of his insult, “even the dogs get the children’s scraps.”

My friend David Henson, an Episcopal priest and journalist, writes of this story:

Jesus uttered an ethnic slur.

To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child.

In this week’s gospel text, in the Black Lives Matter era, I think we have to start with that disturbing and disorienting fact.

Our immediate response likely is, “Of course not! Jesus couldn’t possibly have uttered a slur!” But Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems to tell a different story. No matter what theological tap dance can avoid it: Jesus calls the unnamed woman a dog, an ethnic slur common at the time.

To be clear, while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism. (In Patheos “Edges of Faith” Blog.)

I believe David is right to link this story to the refrain “Black Lives Matter” which we have begun to hear with increasing fervor and increasing frequency, because that is exactly what this woman says to Jesus: “Syrophoenician Lives Matter” . . . . and Jesus responds out of his religion which forbade interaction with non-Jews, out of the racial and religious prejudices which informed his society that Jews were God’s chosen and that all other persons were unclean, out of that sense of self and national importance that required that he and all Jews separate themselves from Gentiles. When we hear “Black Lives Matter,” we are likely to do very much the same thing.

More than once I have heard members of my race and economic class respond with the comeback “All lives matter” and at first that made sense to me. Then I read an editorial in which was written:

If I say, “Black lives matter,” and you think I mean, “Black lives matter more than others,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If I say, “White privilege is real and it means white people have some unearned social advantages just because they’re white,” and you think I mean, “White privilege is real and it means white people should be ashamed of themselves just because they’re white,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If I say, “We have a problem with institutionalized racism in our legal system,” and you think I mean, “We have a problem with everyone being racist in our legal system,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If we are having these misunderstandings, where are they coming from and what can we do about them?

(Note: The source is an internet meme seen on Facebook and Pinterest; the origin of the text is unknown.)

“Sir,” said the Syrophoenician woman, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. [We are having a misunderstanding, where is it coming from and what can we do about it?]”

I came to realize “All lives matter” is a retort that dilutes and even negates the assertion that “black lives matter.”

We generally do not respond in that way when others make claim to particularity. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” we don’t rise up and insist “No, Jesus, blessed is everybody in every economic class.” When the Buddha says, “The enlightened one must delight in the forest,” we don’t dismiss him with “No, Siddhartha, one should delight in the desert and the meadow, as well” We don’t because we realize that their specificity has a point; the specific does not negate the general or the other, but it does highlight the particular. “Blessed are the poor” highlights the plight of those who lack; “Delight in the forest” draws attention to the interconnections of all life.

“Black lives matter” underscores the sad fact that, for many, black lives do NOT matter, and offering “All lives matter” as a response invalidates that specific and particular realization. Of course, all lives matter, but in our contemporary social circumstance specifically noting that black lives matter has particular currency and validity.

To respond “All lives matter” drowns the specificity of the assertion in an undifferentiated sea of sameness and unrecognizability which we know darn good and well really does not exist! The claim of the particular cannot be overwhelmed by the flood of the undefined, and we are wrong to respond in that way, just as wrong as Jesus came to know himself to have been in calling the woman a dog!

Early last week the news media and social media were flooded with pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurbi, and later with photos of his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rehan. Like the woman in our Gospel story today, a mother and her children come from Syria to the Mediterranean seeking a better life, three refugees fleeing their own war-torn and atrocity-ravaged country, trying to get to Europe and from there to Canada where Aylan’s aunt and uncle live and were preparing a new life for them. They didn’t make it. Whatever vessel they were in capsized and they drowned, Aylan’s little body washing up onto the beach of a Turkish resort.

Aylan KurbiAs photos of his lifeless body laying face down in the sand made their way instantaneously around the world, an international hew and cry was heard; in a phrase, the world said, “Refugees’ lives matter! Syrian lives matter!” In response to the death of that one, specific little boy, no one was heard to say, “All lives matter” . . . .

It is easy for us to look across the wide ocean to the Middle East and Europe, and diagnose the social ills, the evil spirits, and the political injustices that led to Aylan’s death; it is less easy for us to acknowledge and diagnose in our own country what Presiding Bishop Katharine and President Jennings called the “structures that bear witness to unjust centuries of the evils of white privilege, systemic racism, and oppression that are not yet consigned to history.” (A Letter to the Episcopal Church. Note: The letter was read in full to the congregation prior to the service.) As Jesus noted, it is much easier to see our neighbors’ problems than our own, but he advises us: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Lk 6:41-42, cf Mt 7:4-5)

Mark’s Gospel can be infuriating at times, his ending to the story of the Syrophoenician woman no less so than its introduction. Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, heard the truth of her Gentile reality, and realized the brokenness of his own Jewish milieu: “For saying that,” he tells her, “you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Going home she finds that to be so and that’s where Mark ends the tale; he gives us not a single additional detail. In the next paragraph, Jesus is forty miles away somewhere east of the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis, another place with that troublesome intermixture of Jews and Gentiles.

While he is there, another soul in need of help is brought to him, a deaf man with a speech impediment. Mark, having been so careful in the last story to make sure that his readers understand that the woman seeking help for her daughter was a Gentile, completely ignores this man’s ethnicity; but Mark leaves out details that he considers unimportant. Although this story takes place in exactly the same sort of social situation as the last – Jews and Gentiles living side-by-side in that uneasy mix, the Jews here no less bound by those laws of separation, no less steeped in those racial and religious prejudices of chosenness and uncleanness – those differences no longer matter. Jesus’ eyes and ears and heart having been opened by the Syrophoenician woman’s plea; he ministers to the deaf man without regard to whether he is Jew or Gentile. He “put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” I wonder if he thought about how his own understanding of his messianic ministry had been opened up by the woman in Tyre.

“Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking,” our leaders quoted AME Bishop Jackson. It will require that our ears be opened, that we remove the logs from our eyes, and that we confess and repent of the sin of racism, including those times when we have simply ignored it, tolerated it, accepted it, or even unknowingly benefited from it. And lest any of us think that we have nothing in this way to confess, just ponder briefly the words we heard from James’ epistle this morning:

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

[Silence]

“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor[, Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, women and men, Syrians and Europeans, Christians and Muslims] have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”

Yes, all lives matter.

All lives matter because . . . .

Black lives matter.

Syrian lives matter.

Refugees’ lives matter.

Aylan Kurbi’s life mattered.

The Syrophoenician woman’s daughter’s life mattered.

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”

Let us understand and affirm that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation, to pray and act for an end to racism in our world and in our country, is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant. “[We] do well if [we] really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Let us pray:

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Prayer for Social Justice, BCP 1979, page 823)

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

Neither Island nor Mist – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Neither Island nor Mist

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 17, Year 1 (Pentecost 14, 2015)

James 4:14 ~ Yet you do not even know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.

I’m going to have to disagree with James. People are not mere “mists” (atmis is the Greek, also translated as “vapor”) which appear briefly then disappear. Our lives are more substantial than that and when we die we leave much more behind than does the fog.

In the past six days I have received notices of the deaths of four old friends: two clergy colleagues, one former law partner, and a former long-time parishioner. Although none of us had been in close contact for years (although the clergy had recently been my Facebook friends), they impacted my life and many others much more than a mist. My former partner and I did not separate on good terms and if you’d asked us if we were friends, despite our 15 year association in the law, I am certain the answer from either would have been “No.” Nonetheless, his death diminishes me as much as do the others. Their lives have touched mine much more substantially than would have a vapor.

Another Anglican priest expressed this much more eloquently than I can:

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
(John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions)

Neither island nor mist, but rather human beings of whom God is mindful and whom God seeks out, whom God has made “but little lower than the angels . . . with glory and honor,” and to whom God has given “mastery over the works of [God’s] hands.” (Ps 8:5-7)

You are neither island nor mist, and when you “vanish” the loss will be palpable. Be aware, therefore, of the lives you touch.

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