That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Jeremiah (page 1 of 4)

Act Three (Pt 2): Monstrous Relief – Easter Day 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Festival Eucharist of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24, and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

I love that poem, John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter from the collection Telephone Poles and Other Poems. I have read it here before and, doubtless, I will read it again.

Only a poet like Updike could use the word monstrous to describe the Resurrection of Christ and, in spite of its shock value, or perhaps because of it, it is the perfect word, an ambiguous word that captures the essence of the entire Triumphal Entry – Passover Supper – Crucifixion – Resurrection event, the three-act drama of redemption which we began to remember on Palm Sunday.

Monstrous can, and usually does, mean something like “frightful or hideous; extremely ugly; shocking or revolting; awful or horrible,” and those are certainly good words to describe the way the people of Jerusalem turned on Jesus, the way his disciple Judas betrayed him, the way his other followers denied and abandoned him, the way the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, abused and killed him, mocking, scourging, and finally crucifying him. It was all monstrous; there’s no doubt about that!

Monstrous, however, can also mean “extraordinarily great; huge; immense; outrageous; overwhelming.” And those are superlative ways to describe the fact of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead! It is a huge thing! It is immense, outrageous, overwhelming! Yes, the Resurrection is monstrous!

There are two people who are hardly ever thought of in all of this three-part drama, in all the majesty of Holy Week and Easter: one of them is mentioned briefly only by John in his story of Jesus’ Crucifixion; the other isn’t named at all. I refer to Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ mother and foster father.

Of course, we know nothing of Joseph during Jesus’ adult ministry; after that event in the Jerusalem Temple when Jesus was about 13, Joseph is never again mentioned in the Gospels. Some suppose this is because he had passed away, but I like to think that he was just back home in Nazareth working the family business, doing carpentry or carving stone, making tables and chairs or building homes, keeping the family provided for so that Jesus could go about his ministry and Mary could accompany him.

Mary is mentioned in John’s story of the Crucifixion as standing at the foot of the cross and being entrusted by Jesus to the disciple whom he loved. And the legend from which we get the 14th Station of the Cross and Michelangelo’s exquisitely beautiful Pieta is that when his body was removed from the cross she held him, dead, in her arms. But there is no mention of her or of Joseph at Jesus’ burial, nor are they mentioned in any of the accounts of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.

That omission, for I am sure that is what it is, an omission, disturbs me. Two weeks ago was the 59th anniversary of my father’s death at the age of 39. I am now about the age his mother and father, my grandparents, were when he died. One of my clearest memories of childhood is his funeral. I remember how, as we were leaving the graveside, my grandparents hung back, how they could not step away from nor turn their backs on the grave that held their child’s lifeless body. When, at last, they accepted my Uncle Scott’s physical encouragement to do so, my grandmother said to my mother, “A mother should not outlive her child.” She would know that feeling again just a few years later when my Uncle Scott died of cancer.

And own my mother would know it, as well, when in 1993 my only sibling, my older brother Rick, died of brain cancer. I vividly remember doing exactly what my uncle had done, physically moving my mother and stepfather away from the grave, the grave they could not leave on their own. Later that day, my mother said to me, “You’re grandmother was right. A parent should not outlive her child.”

Having seen my grandparents and my parents at the graves of their children, I cannot believe that Mary and Joseph were not there when the stone was rolled into place, when Jesus was buried in that borrowed tomb.

Updike’s portrayal of the Resurrection and his admonition to us, “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,” so aptly describe the entire event of Holy Week and Easter, because we cannot appreciate the overwhelming wonder of the Resurrection, this third act of the redemption drama, without taking into account the first two acts, all of the horror and ugliness they portrayed: Judas’ betrayal, the other disciples abandonment, Peter’s denial, the trial before Pilate, Christ’s scourging and humiliation, his bitter agony on the Cross, his final self-emptying in death, and his burial. It is all monstrous; painful and ugly and awful in the first sense of that wonderfully ambiguous adjective. And I cannot believe that his parents were not there, did not experience the whole monstrous lot of it!

And, just as I am puzzled by the absence of almost any mention of Mary and Joseph in the narrative of Christ’s death and burial, and I am astounded that there is no allusion to them in the Gospel accounts of that first Easter morning or any time after his Resurrection! The only word about either of them is in the first chapter of the Book of Acts and, again, it’s only Mary who gets mentioned. Luke, the author of Acts, says that following Christ’s Ascension forty days after his Resurrection the apostles “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) That’s it, that one mention! I find that astonishing!

Apparently so have many Christians throughout the ages, because there is an extra-biblical tradition that the Virgin Mary was the first person to witness our Lord’s Resurrection. The Golden Legend, a medieval collection of stories about the saints, says that the first appearance of the resurrected Christ on Easter Day was to the Virgin Mary:

It is believed to have taken place before all the others, although the evangelists say nothing about it.. . . . [I]f this is not to be believed, on the ground that no evangelist testifies to it . . . perish the thought that such a son would fail to honor such a mother by being so negligent! . . . Christ must first of all have made his mother happy over his resurrection, since she certainly grieved over his death more than the others. He would not have neglected his mother while he hastened to console others.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (1st C.) claimed it was so, as did St. Ambrose of Milan (4th C.), St. Paulinus of Nola (4th C.), the poet Sedulius (5th C.), St. Anselm of Canterbury (11th C.), St. Albertus Magnus (13th C.), St. Bernardino da Siena (15th C.), and the bible scholar Juan Maldonado (16th C.) More recently, the late Pope John Paul II, in 1997 expressed his opinion that Mary “was probably the first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared.” (Gen. Aud., Wednesday, 21 May 1997)

We live through this three-act drama every year in a set series of events: triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, last supper and then the prayers at Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, weeping at the tomb on Holy Saturday, and then – of course – our liturgy and our hymns encourage us to express joy on Easter morning. In Matthew’s Gospel we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary ran from the tomb “with fear and great joy,” but in our reading this morning from John a weeping Mary Magdalene, upon recognizing her risen teacher, literally clings to his feet in prostrate relieve; I wonder if that might have been the more common reaction of Jesus’ disciples and parents.

I believe that the legends and early fathers and the late pope are right, that the Risen Christ appeared to Mary and Joseph, as well as and probably before the eleven apostles and their friends, and that they would have been profoundly shaken, perhaps overwhelmingly frightened, and maybe eventually greatly reassured. But I’m not so sure that joy would be the best description of their initial reaction; perhaps the closest they might have come would have been relief.

We remember the three-act drama, as I said, in an orderly fashion. But if we know one thing about human beings, it is that we are not orderly creatures.

It may seem odd, but in just a few days, the Daily Office Lectionary will put us back to the beginning of Lent. At the end of the second week of Easter this year, the Daily Office gospel reading will be about Jesus’ temptations in the desert following his baptism.

That’s not odd, at all, really. Our spiritual life, like our emotional life, follows no particular schedule, no orderly progression. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and people often think they follow an orderly progression, just like our Holy Week and Easter celebrations. But clinical experience has shown that a grieving person does not move neatly through them as if they were rungs on a ladder. One may move from denial to anger to bargaining and then return to denial; one may skip a stage only to return to it later; one may spend a good deal of time in one stage and only a short while in another. There is no orderly progression and I can well imagine that Mary and Joseph and the apostles and the women at the tomb were all experiencing that sort of emotional bouncing about, an emotional roller coaster the like of which probably none of us have ever known.

Our spiritual lives are the same. As one works through the process of enlightenment, of salvation, of spiritual growth, of whatever-one-calls-it, one does not follow a schedule. We may move back to an earlier stage, revisit issues we thought we’d dealt with.

St. Paul urged his friends in the church at Caesarea Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philip. 2:12-13) Nowhere does Scripture promise that this work will be neat and tidy. If anything, the witness of Scripture is that spiritual and emotional growth is a messy affair.

That is why I suggest that the closest the first witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection might have come to joy would perhaps better be described as relief. The dictionary defines relief as “alleviation of pain, as the easing of anxiety, as deliverance from distress.” This is an appropriate experience and emotion for Easter Day, profound relief.

I think the joy comes later in the Easter Season and that it comes later in life as we live out our Easter faith. But in the immediate aftermath of the monstrous-ness of Holy Week, here in the third act of the drama of redemption, in the wake of the horrible ugliness of betrayal and death that occurred in the first two acts, one may simply not be ready to be jubilant and happy. In the face of our own sinfulness and spiritual dysfunction, in the reality of our own messy spiritual lives, we may not be ready for joy and gladness. But the fact of Christ’s Resurrection relieves us of grief and sorrow; it relieves us of sin and death.

The experience and impact of Easter Day is one of profound, overwhelming, (one might even say) monstrous relief.

Perhaps that is why Jesus stuck around for forty days, to continually reassure and sustain the disciples in their relief from fear and sorrow and grief, so that they could move into joy and gladness as time went on. Perhaps that is why in producing the third act of the drama of redemption the church offers not a single day, but a season of fifty days, so that as it progresses we can . . . like Mary and Joseph, like Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, like all the apostles . . . move from shock into relief, from relief into joy, so that it provides a pattern with which we can handle the inevitable losses in our lives.

As life goes on and as the victory of life over death sinks in, Easter relief will grow into Easter joy, something that propels us toward action and compels us to invite others into the Resurrected life of our Risen Lord. As Christians, we have access through the relief of Christ’s Resurrection into a joy that is unshakable – for joy is really not an emotion; it is a virtue. Easter joy does not mean being happy all the time or being fine when times are difficult; Easter joy means being sustained by the power of the Resurrection.

What Easter means is that in the depths of our being, despite the circumstances we may face, despite any fears we may have, despite whatever may be tearing up our souls, despite whatever sin or spiritual malaise we may be suffering, despite whatever disorderly messes our spiritual lives may be in, we are able to get through them, to let go of them, and to find relief and eternal life in the Resurrected Christ, a life into which we invite others.

John tells us that on that first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalen fell at her Risen Lord’s feet, he admonished her, “Do not hold on to me; I am ascending to my Father.” It doesn’t sound to me like this woman who had just been grieving at his tomb was expressing joy, nor that Jesus’ was encouraging it. What I hear is Jesus offering comfort and relief.

It has been said that joy comes from letting go – letting go of our attachments, letting go of any thoughts that the present moment should or even could be different than it is, letting go of our expectations. Joy is the virtue of celebrating the present, of living in the moment, something to which we come through a process of detachment and release, something that we like Mary Magdalene let go of the old Jesus, the Jesus who died on the cross, and follow the now-Risen and ascended Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2)

Resurrection Day is not the end of the process; it is the beginning. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Mary Magdalen. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells her not to hang on to him. In both gospels the message is, “Let go” – let go of me, let go of your fear.

Easter Day brings relief, overwhelming relief! Through that relief we are able to let go, to release our fears, our griefs, our worries, and our sorrows with absolute abandon, to be completely freed of our sinfulness! In letting go as the Easter Season and as our Easter faith progress, we are able to work out our salvation, for it is God who is at work in us, and ultimately find joy, unutterably ecstatic joy, huge, overwhelming, outrageous joy into which we are compelled to invite others!

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body . . .
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

(The illustration is The Resurrection Of Christ (Right Wing Of The Isenheim Altarpiece) by Matthias Grünewald, c.1512–16)

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

God Reigns: Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, 20 November 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christ the King Sunday, November 20, 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 All Saints Day in Year C: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46 or Canticle 16 (Luke 1: 68-79); Colossians 1:11-20; and St. Luke 23:33-43 These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Christ the KingIt’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!” (Francis)

My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As we do so, I wish I could think in the terms of Malcolm’s beautiful poem, but I seldom do. This year, for example, we get the story of Jesus’ surprisingly calm conversation with the thief crucified next to him; these three men hanging in agony on crosses carry on a remarkably clear and lucid discussion. It’s probably my own sinful nature or my warped sense of humor or my attention deficit disorder or something, but I cannot read this gospel lesson with flashing to the crucifixion scene at the end of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” in which a chorus of two or three dozen crucified men, led by Eric Idle, address the lead character (who is also crucified) in song:

Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble. Give a whistle.
And this’ll help things turn out for the best.
And…
Always look on the bright side of life.

If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten,
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle. That’s the thing.
And…
Always look on the bright side of life.

A few stanzas later, the chorus sneaks in the line “Always look on the bright side of death.”

That scene, indeed the whole movie, is disrespectful, sacrilegious, and very funny . . . and in that particular scene it is theologically profound. Because that is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ words to the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That is precisely the meaning the Christian faith, that beyond the darkness of death, beyond the darkness of the tomb, there is a brighter side, there is paradise and resurrection. On the other side of human decisions that sometimes produce bad consequences or unacceptable results, whether intended or not, there is the reign of God.

Growing up, as most of us have, in a constitutional democracy without a monarch, our basic idea of kingship today is probably somewhere between Disney and Queen Elizabeth of England, somewhere between fairytale and figurehead. Today, we probably conceive of kingship as a life of luxury were everything goes well and people write books (or tabloid headlines) about you.

Well, Jesus, Christ the King, is not that sort of monarch (or ruler or president or whatever). Instead, he is something utterly different, a king who ushers in an entirely new order – a world characterized by new life, hope, grace, and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies pointing to and inviting beyond the darkness to the brighter side, to paradise and resurrection.

That seems to be a message a lot of people need to hear today; it’s the message that we as the church need to speak to our society loudly and clearly because many people are frightened by the outcome of our presidential election. And many other people are taking its result as permission to do some very unpleasant things.

On the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.

Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Disruptive responses are not limited to those on the so-called “alt-right” side of things, however. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.” And there have been reports of violence and destruction of property associated with some of these marches.

We, as the church of Christ the King, need to say to both sides, “Enough!” We need to remind everyone that, regardless of what side they may have been on in the election or what side they believe they are on now, on the other side of every human decision, every human decision, including elections, there is the bright side, the reign of God, paradise and resurrection. In 1930, Archbishop William Temple preached at the opening of the seventh Lambeth Conference, assuring his colleagues:

While we deliberate, God reigns;
When we decide wisely, God reigns;
When we decide foolishly, God reigns;
When we serve God in humble loyalty, God reigns;
When we serve God self-assertively, God reigns;
When we rebel and seek to withhold our service, God reigns –
the Alpha and the Omega, which is, and which was,
and which is to come, the Almighty.
We decide however we decide . . .
but Almighty God will always reign!

That is the meaning of this day and that must always be the message of the church: “Our God, the God who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ reigns!” Amen.

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

Division Happens: Sermon for Pentecost 13, RCL Proper 14C (14 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 15C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; St. Luke 12:49-56. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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division-sign-clip-art-divide-clipart-t48bPp-clipartIn philosophy and theology there is an exercise named by the Greek word deiknumi. The word simply translated means “occurrence” or “evidence,” but in philosophy it refers to a “thought experiment,” a sort of meditation or exploration of a hypothesis about what might happen if certain facts are true or certain situations experienced. It’s particularly useful if those situations cannot be replicated in a laboratory or if the facts are in the past or future and cannot be presently experienced. St. Paul uses the word only once in his epistles: in the last verse of chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, he uses the verbal form when he admonishes his readers to “strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you [deiknuo, ‘I will give you evidence of’] a still more excellent way.” It is the introduction to his famous treatise on agape, divine love, a thought experiment (if you will) about the best expression, the “still more excellent” expression of the greatest of the virtues.

Today I would like to do a thought experiment with you, actually three short experiments, in which I will ask you to envision some interpersonal interactions to test the hypothesis of Jesus that his message, which he claimed was the message of God recorded in the Law and the Prophets, would bring division.

So make yourselves comfortable and, if it helps, close your eyes and envision yourself a 16-year-old high school student completing your secondary education at a church-affiliated institution which includes the study of religion in its curriculum. You have just completed a course in which you studied the creation myths of Genesis, the notion that all of humankind is descended from a single pair of proto-parents, Adam and Eve, or later from one family, that of Noah, after all other people were wiped out by a universal flood. Your class has explored what this means in a world divided by nations and cultures, into races and ethnic groups, and you have come to believe that all human beings are related one to another and to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Suppose also that you come from a family with some of its roots deep in the antebellum South and that your grandmother, a proud inheritor of those origins, employs an African-American maid whom she regularly refers to as her “house nigger.” Imagine that you start a conversation with Grammy about your new biblically based understanding of race relations . . . .

Now let’s have you imagine yourself a few years older, your early twenties. You are working your way through college or graduate school in the housekeeping department of a Southern California hospital and many of your coworkers are Mexican-American. So, too, is the pastor of your church which is culturally diverse and makes an effort to model its life and ministry on Jesus’ acceptance of the Syro-Phoenician woman who came seeking healing for her daughter, the Samaritan woman with whom he talked at Jacob’s well, the Roman centurion who asked that his servant be healed, Levi the outcast tax collector, and the woman sinner who anointed his feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee. At work, your supervisor who, like you, is of northern European ancestry, often talks with you about the other housekeepers and janitors calling them “wet backs” and “spics.” You confront her about that language and ask her not to use it when conversing with you . . . .

Finally, you are in your late thirties, a practicing attorney, a partner in a prestigious law firm. You are also a vestry member and a Sunday School teacher in your church. You’ve just spent several weeks studying the biblical concepts of debt and ownership in your adult Sunday School class. Coincidentally, your law firm is considering taking on a potentially very lucrative book of business from a pay-day lender. You attend a meeting with several of your partners and representatives of potential client. As you listen to the lender’s representative talk of interest rates and profit margins and enforcement of loan contracts, you remember the words of Deuteronomy: “You shall not charge interest on loans . . . , interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” (Dt 23:19) You hear, too, Jesus saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Mt 6:19) After the potential client leaves, you tell your partners that you can’t vote in favor of taking on the pay-day loan business . . . .

Well . . . I’m sure you can play out the rest of those scenarios for yourselves, that you can see that the “thought experiment” suggests that Jesus’ hypothesis that the message of biblical faith brings dissent is correct. But, indeed, Jesus was not stating a hypothesis; he was making a bald-faced assertion of fact.

Jesus said that he came to bring not peace, but division: “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” This makes us uncomfortable, I know; it’s not what we want to hear from Jesus, but division “is a part of the biblical tradition and [it] is not foreign to Christian tradition. . . . Sadly, religious divisions are . . . seen within the church today, which is divided along racial, political, class, and denominational lines. * * * [W]e might say that Christianity offers the prospect of unity, [but] this reality cannot be forced upon a free people. As a result there will inevitably be division in churches and even families.” (Richard A. Davis, The Politics of Unity, Division, and Discernment) It has ever been so.

The prophet Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping” prophet because of the way his message was rejected by the people and his many laments about that rejection, such as we hear in today’s lesson when, speaking for God, he cries, “How long?” The people of Israel, particularly the leaders of the people, during Jeremiah’s time did not want to hear messages that recalled them to the Law of Moses. They wanted to hear (as one commentator, Alphonetta Wines, put it) “feel good” sermons; they wanted to hear that they were the chosen race, the People of God, the one’s favored by the Almighty who would never let anything bad happen to them. Ms. Wines writes:

Much like people today who only want to hear “feel good” sermons, people of his day preferred false hopes presented by false prophets dreaming about a short road to peace. While even in the worst of circumstances God’s word includes a word of hope and restoration, the word spoken by these “dreamers” was no word from God. God does sometimes communicate through dreams, but this is not one of those times. No more than wishful thinking, these pipedreams gave people false hopes and an unrealistic view of what lay ahead. (Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher Commentary)

Jeremiah dissents! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” he asks on God’s behalf, “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” His question reminds the people that their relationship with God is not one-way; it’s not all just God doing for them. This is a covenant relationship with obligations on both sides; their faith in Yahweh should be a belief upon which they stake their lives and, thus, should determine how they live their lives. If that covenant obligation was not met, not only would God not extend God’s protection, God would instead exact punishment. Jeremiah’s dissent from these “feel good” pronouncements was not a welcome message; it caused division.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews follows on last week’s lesson in which the writer defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He has gone on to recount stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and his family, and Moses as examples of ancestors who held such faith; today he adds many others all of whom “were commended for their faith, [even though they] did not receive what was promised.” They all “trusted God even if they could not fully imagine what God’s promises would entail.” (Amy Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) For the author of Hebrews, as for Jeremiah, “faith comprises not only mental assent, but indicates that belief upon which you stake your life, this life and the next.” (Ibid.) In other words, faith and belief have behavioral consequences! The covenant is not one-way! There are obligations! And when you start practicing the faith, as did the heroes described by the author of Hebrews, there is division as promised by Jesus. It is inevitable.

John Wesley, the Anglican priest responsible for the birth of the Methodist movement and eventually the Methodist Church, insisted that inward holiness must lead to outward holiness, that a heart transformed by faith must be evidenced in a life transformed. Our discipleship is dependent on, formed by, and flows out of our Christian character. It is evidenced both by works of piety, that is to say corporate worship and private devotion, and works of mercy which embody our love for our neighbor. Such works of piety and mercy are the means through which the Holy Spirit empowers our growth; they are means of grace. And it is to the purifying fire of grace that Jesus calls us.

Jesus called his first hearers hypocrites because they could interpret the weather, but could not read the signs of the “present time,” the needs of the society around them for the works to which their covenant with God obligated them. “Jesus demands attention to one’s time and place. For this reason, there is something deeply incarnational and worldly about Jesus’ expectation of his listeners. This is not looking to the sky for God, but analyzing [and responding to] the here and now.” (Davis)

And when one does so, division happens:

The division of which Jesus speaks is a result of the purifying fire he bears. The kingdom of God he proclaims represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness (hence the import of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, 11:4), not by fear but by courage (“be not afraid” in 1:13, 30, 2:10, 5:11, 8:50, 12:4, 7, 32,), and not by power but by humility (see Mary’s song, 1:46-55). Yet those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family. (David Lose, Working Preacher Commentary)

Our expectation of the peace, harmony, and unity notwithstanding, we must understand that division will happen.

When it does, we must have faith to see that God is “at work in all realities, and that division is not the problem.” Instead of our own naive expectations, instead of our wishful thinking, our pipedreams, and our false hopes, we should hear Jesus’ talk about division which points “to a broken reality for Christianity no matter how hard we work toward unity. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point: that human togetherness is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.” (Erick J. Thompson, Working Preacher Commentary)

We must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” including our fear of and our concern about division, and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” remembering our covenant obligations, our works of piety and our works of mercy.

As you might have guessed, the three deiknumoi, the “thought experiments” with which we began are drawn from my own life experience. Each of them did, as you might also have guessed, cause some division and conflict. But in each of them, also, the division was eventually overcome. My grandmother and I reconciled and she came to (and was one of the oldest people to attend) Evelyn’s and my wedding. My supervisor and I continued to work together and became good friends, and she stopped calling Mexican-Americans by derogatory terms (at least at work). And, after some loud and heated discussion, my partners eventually agreed with me and we did not take on the pay-day lender’s work. Yes, trying to live according the principles of our faith, living up to the obligation to offer not only works of piety in the church but also works of mercy in the world, can (and Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson that it will) bring division. But division can be – and the gospel’s promise is that it will be – overcome by love. Remember what St. Paul wrote in his deiknumi in the First Letter to the Corinthians:

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old Rags & Worn Clothes ~ From the Daily Office Lectionary

Old Rags & Worn Clothes

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 23, Year 1 (Pentecost 20, 2015)

Jeremiah 38:11-13 ~ Ebed-melech took the men with him and went to the house of the king, to a wardrobe of the storehouse, and took from there old rags and worn-out clothes, which he let down to Jeremiah in the cistern by ropes. Then Ebed-melech the Ethiopian said to Jeremiah, “Just put the rags and clothes between your armpits and the ropes.” Jeremiah did so. Then they drew Jeremiah up by the ropes and pulled him out of the cistern.

About a half-century ago, I dropped out of college and went to work as a janitor in a small Southern California hospital. Not too long after being hired, I found myself invited to become an orderly in the facility, an invitation I accepted and went to work primarily in the radiology and emergency departments. In that position, I had opportunity observe situations in which rescues had resulted in injuries that the patient would otherwise not have suffered.

I remember one instance in which a surfer had been knocked out by his own surfboard. Because of inept handling by the rescue crew, he suffered a broken leg and a broken arm while unconscious. That surfer came to mind as I read today’s story of the rescue of Jeremiah the prophet from the cistern of Malchiah.

I’m sure there are greater lessons to learn from the tale of Jeremiah’s cistern imprisonment and rescue, but what impresses me today is the care taken by the eunuch Ebed-melech to insure that Jeremiah is not injured by the ropes during the rescue. There’s a lesson there about ministry, especially our “rescue ministries,” our food pantries, soup kitchens, clothing cabinets, and other “handout” programs. We must ask ourselves whether we are doing more harm than good; are the ropes of these programs chafing those we rescue?

The surfer suffered those fractures because his rescuers, getting him out of the water and off the rocks of the beach, weren’t sufficiently careful; they failed to make use of “old rags and worn clothes” to protect the subject of their beneficence. How often do we do the same? How often do we foster dependence or cause greater injury by our handouts and our rescue ministries?

We’ve all heard the old saw about giving a hand-up, not a handout. Usually, we hear this from those who want curtail both hand-ups and handouts, to cut off all social services and so-called “entitlements” from government funding. However, there is some validity to the notion that our rescue missions should encourage self-determination and independence rather than foster dependence; whether a hand-up or a handout, our actions should not further harm those rescued. Again, we must ask whether the ropes of our programs are chafing those we rescue and, if so, make use of the “old rags and worn clothes” to prevent that.

Inevitability – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Inevitability

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 23, Year 1 (Pentecost 20, 2015)

Jeremiah 37:10 ~ Even if you defeated the whole army of Chaldeans who are fighting against you, and there remained of them only wounded men in their tents, they would rise up and burn this city with fire.

As I read the Scriptures and pray the Daily Office this morning, I am in the fourth day of an ear infection which awakened me with sharp stabbing pain in the middle of Sunday night. Monday morning my physician prescribed an antibiotic and some decongestant nasal spray.

“How long?” I asked. “As long as it takes,” he answered. The antibiotic prescription is for a two-week course, and he gave me three refills on the nasal spray, so that might be a hint.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah is prophesying the inevitability of Jerusalem’s destruction. This is a no-matter-what-you-do sort of message. Many things are like that: no matter what you do they will happen. I remember an old saw about the common cold: left untreated a cold will last seven days; with aggressive treatment it will be over in a week. Nothing you do will change that.

At this point in my ear infection, the pain has been reduced to discomfort. Instead of feeling like a hot poker shoved into my ear, it has more the feeling of a hot, wet lump of oatmeal sitting there. I feel as if I could sniff in the right way and dislodge it, or blow my nose just so and get rid of it, or swallow in the proper manner and move it out. But, of course, none of that will happen.

There’s an inevitability that cannot be changed; it will take as long as it takes. No matter what you do, Jerusalem will be burnt. No matter what you do, a cold takes so long to run its course. No matter what you do, an ear infection will take as long as it takes. Sometimes one just needs to accept that.

Still . . . if I could just position my head in the proper way, maybe . . .

Second Draft – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Second Draft

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Tuesday in the week of Proper 23, Year 1 (Pentecost 20, 2015)

Jeremiah 36:32 ~ Then Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the secretary Baruch son of Neriah, who wrote on it at Jeremiah’s dictation all the words of the scroll that King Jehoiakim of Judah had burned in the fire; and many similar words were added to them.

A second draft. That’s what this story is about . . . not a willingly done second draft, but one necessitated by the reader’s destruction of the first. Jeremiah had written (or, rather, dictated) his words of prophecy and delivered them to the king, who tore the scroll into pieces and burnt them. So Jeremiah does it again, and then some! “Many similar words were added!”

I would guess that prophets didn’t write second drafts very often. They got their words from God, wrote them down (or dictated them to hapless secretaries like Baruch), delivered the product to the intended audience, and that was that. The rest of us are not so fortunate, at least I’m not. I write plenty of second drafts, and third, and fourth.

Seldom do I write something down and call it done. There is always room for improvement, even if there isn’t always time to make the improvements. I often find myself editing sermons on the fly – jotting something in the margin just before the worship service, scratching through a line and adding another, ad-libbing an additional thought. I also find myself looking back a few days after preaching, thinking “I could have, should have, ought to have, might have . . .” That’s not second drafting, however; that’s second guessing.

Second guessing looks back and tries to improve on something that has already had an effect, and that’s what has happened between Jeremiah and the king. The prophet wrote, the king reacted (by burning the scroll), now the prophet is writing again. How many of those “many similar words [which] were added” got added because Jeremiah had had more to say to begin with and how many were added because Jeremiah is now hoping for a different result? We’ll never know.

This is why second (and other later) drafts are necessary. Most writers and preachers don’t get a chance to second guess ourselves, so all we can do is second draft, and third draft, and fourth draft, and . . . until the final product is presented and then it’s done. That’s best, too. Better to second draft than to second guess.

At That Time: A Sermon Offered on St. Francis Day, 4 October 2015

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A sermon offered on Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 2015, to the people of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

(The lessons for the day are Jeremiah 22:13-16, Psalm 148:7-14, Galatians 6:14-18, and Matthew 11:25-30.)

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Detail, Francis in Ecstasy, CaravaggioWhen I was learning the art of preaching, my instructor was a fan of the old Barthian aphorism that a homilist should enter the pulpit with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. So here I am, newspaper and Bible at the ready, and opening the first I find glaring at me the headline you all have also seen: another mass shooting in America – the 294th multiple gun homicide of the year. Like many, if not most, of the clergy here this evening I have preached too many sermons about mass murder and gun control: after Columbine, after the Aurora theater, after the Milwaukee gurdwara, after Sandy Hook Elementary School, after Mother Emanuel Church, after so many others . . . . I’m sorry; my heart is broken and my prayers arise for the Umpqua College victims, their families, and their community. But, even as we gather to remember the Little Poor Man of Assisi, in whose name we often pray, “make me a servant of your peace,” I just don’t have another mass-murder-gun-control sermon to offer.

So I want to tell you about the other headline that grabbed my attention earlier in the week. The hairstyle commonly known as the “man-bun,” which described as “typically worn with hair shaved on the sides of the head with a top-knot worn in the middle,” has been banned at Brigham Young University’s Rexford, Idaho, campus. According to the school’s “Student Honor Administration,” the man-bun is not consistent with the school’s dress code; it is no considered “an extreme hairstyle . . . just something that deviates from the norm.” (BYU-Idaho Scroll)

The BYU action reminded me of a story the late Senator Sam Ervin used to tell about a rather puritanical North Carolina preacher whose ministry bridged a time when women’s hairstyles were changing and women were beginning to wear their hair up in buns and this preacher found that most objectionable. It was, he thought, wanton and sinful for women to tempt men by exposing the curve of their shapely and attractive necks, and so he preached against this “modern” hairstyle. He chose as his text the famous admonition of the Savior Himself: “Top knot, come down!”

“At the conclusion of his sermon an irate woman, wearing a very pronounced topknot, told the preacher that no such text could be found in the Bible. The preacher thereupon opened the Scriptures to the seventeenth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew and pointed to the words: ‘Let him which is upon the house top not come down to take anything out of his house.’” (Schutz, C., Political Humor: From Aristophanes to Sam Ervin, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Pr, 1976, p. 42)

That story has nothing to do with St. Francis, but it does illustrate the quandary I felt when considering the lessons assigned to this feast. I don’t want to accuse those who selected these lessons of decontextualizing Scripture quite so badly as Sen. Ervin’s preacher . . . but let’s be honest: these traditional lessons have been selected less because they convey a gospel message than for their superficial reminders of Francis. Clearly, this is true of the epistle in which Paul claims “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body,” a reminder that late in his life Francis bore the Stigmata. Similarly, the Psalm reminds us of Francis’s Canticle of Brother Sun; the reading from Jeremiah, of his service to the needy.

One supposes the gospel lesson was similarly chosen because Jesus’s dismissal of the “wise and intelligent” reminds us that Francis, who came from a wealthy family and could have lived among the educated elite, chose instead a life in solidarity with the voiceless, uneducated poor.

But, when the first words I read in a gospel lesson are “At that time” my curiosity is immediately piqued! “What time?” I want to know. Our evangelist contextualized these words of Jesus, and I want to know what that context is. I hope you do, as well, because I’m about to tell you; we are going to untie this “top knot”.

Chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel, the end of which constitutes our lesson, is a discrete literary unit which opens with messengers from John the Baptist asking Jesus if he is the anticipated messiah. Jesus’s reply is, “Tell John what’s happening: the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak, the dead are raised.” He then turns to those who are with him and says, “By the way, when you went out to the Jordan to see John, what were you expecting?”

He answers his own question, “You expected to see a prophet, and that’s what you got and more.” But, he reminds them that they rejected John because of his asceticism: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.'” (v. 18) But when Jesus came, “eating and drinking, … they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!'” (v. 19) They didn’t want the tough asceticism of John, nor did they did want the lighter touch of Jesus.

Why? Because both challenged the status quo; to follow either would have meant changing the rules! John’s way would have required them to renounce worldly pleasure; Jesus’s would have meant welcoming everyone including (heaven forbid!) sinners. They didn’t want to change the rules. They didn’t want to deviate from the status quo. They just wanted someone to bless them the way they were.

Jesus compares them to children who can’t make up their minds, “children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'” (v. 16-17) They are like children who cannot decide whether they want to hold a pretend funeral or a make-believe wedding and end up doing nothing. Australian theologian Bill Loader calls them “the religious wise who seriously go about trying to protect God,” to maintain the status quo. They are the rule-makers and the rule-keepers who miss the point.

In their book The Unblocked Manager (Gower:Brookfield, VT, 1996), Dave Francis and Mike Woodcock make the argument that in business an overly-serious obsession with rules, with established norms, is not compatible with playful creativity and receptivity, that such an attitude inhibits communication and saps new ideas of their excitement, vitality, and strength. St. Francis said much the same thing according to his first biographer, Thomaso da Celano: “It is the devil’s greatest triumph when he can deprive us of the joy of the Spirit. He carries fine dust with him in little boxes and scatters it through the cracks in our conscience in order to dim the soul’s pure impulses and its luster.” (Quoted in Dorothee Solle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance; see also, Celano, Second Life, Ch. LXXXVIII.125) That’s what had happened to Jesus’s audience in Matthew 11; they were the rule-makers and the rule-keepers who had been sprinkled with Satan’s powder of unmitigated seriousness.

So Jesus gets really personal and really pointed with them! He condemns three particular communities, pronouncing woes upon Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum, saying of the first two that “if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (v. 21) Tyre and Sidon were Philistine centers of pagan religion, business and commerce, and (apparently) prostitution; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets foretold their doom and destruction as a result. Of Capernaum, Jesus says that because of its rejection of those same deeds of power “on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you!” (v. 24) In that condemnation we get a hint of what has so angered Jesus for we know that Sodom’s sin was not about sexuality, despite centuries of misinformation on that score; Sodom’s sin was a failure of compassion, generosity, and hospitality. And those words clearly describe the “deeds of power” witnessed and dismissed by Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Actually, we don’t really know what may have happened in Chorazin; it is not otherwise mentioned in the gospels. But we do know that in Bethsaida Jesus gave sight to a blind man and we believe that it was a few miles south of town at Tel Hadar that he fed the Four Thousand. We know that in Capernaum Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and that a few miles south of there at Tabgha he fed the Five Thousand. Works of compassion, acts of generosity, instances of hospitality, these are the “deeds of power” scorned by the religiously “wise and intelligent,” the overly serious who go about enforcing rules, trying to protect the status quo, missing the point, and sapping Jesus’s gospel of its excitement, vitality, and strength.

We don’t know what the “wise and intelligent” of those towns may have said, what criticism they may have leveled, but on the basis of other conversations reported by the evangelists we can surely speculate. Were the healings done on the Sabbath so that they might constitute “work” in violation of the Law of Moses? Did the crowds at Tel Hadar and Tabgha wash their hands or did they eat in a defiled condition? Especially at Tel Hadar, might there have been Gentiles present? I’m sure we can with some accuracy suggest the concerns and critiques of the rule-keepers.

It is Jesus’s deeds of mercy and compassion that are the evidence of God’s gracious will, not rules! That is why Jesus told John’s messengers, “Look at what’s been done.” “Wisdom,” said Jesus, “is vindicated by her deeds.” (v. 19)

So this is the context of our gospel reading: “At that time, Jesus [angry and frustrated] said, ‘I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from’” these people, these overly-serious rule-keepers who cannot see that there is something more important than rules, who stifle compassion, and generosity, and hospitality, and mercy, and grace. (He’d run into this before. Remember when he visited his home synagogue at Nazareth? Mark tells us that “he could do no deed of power there. . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.” [Mk 6:5-6]) At that time, he was offended that Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin had refused to respond. At that time their overly serious attitude and unbelief sapped his good news of its excitement, its vitality, and its strength.

Those overly-serious rule-keepers, the defenders of the status quo are with us today; at this time there are lots of Chorazins, Bethsaidas, and Capernaums. We read about them in the newspaper at this time.

Woe to you, Ft. Lauderdale and Philadelphia and Salt Lake City (and 20 other cities), who deny compassion and make it illegal to feed the homeless and the hungry just to protect your rules about public order!

Woe to you, House of Representatives, you deny health care to hundreds of thousands of poor women who need cancer screenings and perinatal care because of your rules about abortion funding (rules that weren’t being violated in any event)!

Woe to you, Rowan County, KY, you would deny two people who love each other the possibility of marriage because of your rule about homosexuality (a rule that isn’t the law of the land any longer)!

Woe to you, Rexburg, ID, you would deny self-expression to your students because of your petty dress code about hair!
Woe to you, America, you sacrifice the students in your colleges, the children in your schools, the movie-goers in theaters, the worshipers in your temples and churches just to protect a rule you call “the Second Amendment.”

At this time, this is the context within which we hear Jesus say, “I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from [the rule-makers, the rule-keepers, and the overly serious] and have revealed them to infants.” (v. 25)

Here’s an interesting thing . . . the Greek word translated as “infant,” the word nepioi, is unlike much of the koiné Greek of the New Testament; it is a word one also finds in classical Greek literature. In the Septuagint, it is used in the Psalms to translate the Hebrew words for the naive, the innocent, and the uneducated. In the Illiad and the Odyssey, it describes those who are socially and spiritually disenfranchised, who have no say not only in public affairs but in their own lives, as well. In all these contexts, it carries the connotation of voicelessness, of being not a rule-maker or a rule-keeper, but one burdened without one’s say by the rules of others.

Our saint today was born in late medieval Italy and christened Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. “Francis” was a derogatory nickname meaning “little Frenchman,” which apparently had been given him by his father because of his habit of dressing in the French style. He tried to live up to the conventions of his place and time first as merchant with his wealthy father, then as a soldier in the service of his city. Eventually, experiencing a mystical call and a religious conversion, he gave that all up. When his father hauled him before the Bishop of Assisi in legal proceedings, Giovanni renounced his inheritance and stripped naked in public, returning to his father the garments he had paid for. According to his second biographer, St. Bonaventure, “the servant of the most high King was left stripped of all that belonged to him, that he might follow the Lord whom he loved, who hung naked on the cross.” (Major Life, Ch. II.4) He left behind a life among the rule-makers and the rule-keepers, and began a life among the voiceless and the disenfranchised; he laid down the heavy burden of social convention to take up the yoke of Christ.

The life to which Jesus invited Francis, and to which he invites us, is not found in the rules; it is not found in the newspaper. It is found in the examples, in the “deeds of power” we encounter in the Bible. For Francis, it was a life full of risks and challenges, and Jesus has made it abundantly clear that it will be for us. He calls us to a life of humble service, a life of generosity, compassion, and hospitality, a life of mercy and grace.

To live, as Francis did, yoked to Jesus is to live free from the burden of sin, resting freely, deeply, and securely in God’s grace. To live yoked to Jesus is to be free from the need to prove oneself under some set of rules whether they be the mitzvoth of Moses, the social conventions of medieval Italy, the dress codes of a university, or the amendments of the Constitution. To live yoked to Jesus is to be the voice to the voiceless who always face the oppression and the opposition of the rule-makers and the rule-keepers.

It is to live the life described in the prayer attributed to St. Francis, which though not actually written by him, “admirably expresses the thought and spirit of Francis, ‘the Man of Peace.'” (Marion Habig, OFM, Francis of Assisi: Writer, in Omnibus of Sources, Franciscan Herald:Chicago, 1983, p 1930)

Will you join me in offering that prayer now?

Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
(BCP 1979, Prayer No. 62, p 833)

It’s a beautiful prayer, but it’s essential to recognize that praying isn’t enough. Like Francis, we must live yoked to Jesus and be the voice of the voiceless in answer to the rule-keepers. 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.

Leaving Us with a Question: Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20A — September 21, 2014

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On the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 21, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Proper 20A, Track 2, were Jonah 3:10-4:11, Psalm 145:1-8, Philippians 1:21-30, and Matthew 20:1-16. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Jonah and the Gord VineLet’s talk about Jonah. When I say something like “Let’s talk about Jonah,” I have to be more specific. I have to tell you whether I mean “Let’s talk about the Book of Jonah” or “Let’s talk about the character of Jonah portrayed in the book” or “Let’s talk about the Prophet Jonah.” In this case, I mean all three: let’s talk about the book, character, and the prophet — although, to be honest, the prophet’s name really isn’t Jonah; we don’t know the prophet’s name — and that, I hope, will be clearer in a moment.

So, first, the book. The Book of Jonah tells a story from about the end of the 8th Century BCE, but it was written 300 or so years later in the late-5th or early-4th Century BCE. It is addressed to the people who have just returned from the Babylonian exile, who have come back to Jerusalem under the leadership of the priest Ezra and the governor Nehemia. Under Ezra’s and Nehemia’s oversight they are rebuilding the Temple, reestablishing Jewish worship, and (very likely) canonizing the Torah (the five books of Moses).

This is the social milieu within which the book is written. The story in the book, however, is set about 350 years before, around the year 700 BCE. Back then, Judea and its capital had been a vassal state under the Assyrian empire. It was under Assyrian rule that the “ten lost tribes of Israel” were lost. Under a particularly ruthless and brutal king named Sennacherib, the Assyrians became rather unhappy with the Judeans, and laid siege to and sacked Jerusalem in 701 BCE.

We know a lot about the Assyrians because they kept really good records. In the 1800s archeologists discovered the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh (that name should ring a bell!) consisting of more than 30,000 cuneiform tablets recording Assyrian history. In addition, the Assyrians were fond of illustrating their history, particularly their military victories, with sculpted and brightly painted bas relief murals. In one of the royal dining rooms of Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, for instance, there still exists such a sculpture depicting the siege of Lachish, another Judean city captured and destroyed at the same time as the siege of Jerusalem. We know from this mural and from other records that Lachish fared much worse than Jerusalem; its leaders were tortured to death and the town was leveled. That mural in Sennacherib’s dining room shows (in rather graphic detail) the Jewish leadership of Lachish being flayed alive by Assyrian soldiers.

So that is the setting of the story: it was written shortly after the end of the Babylonian exile and set at the time of the brutal Assyrian siege of Jerusalem and Lachish. However, the story of Jonah is not history. It is set in historically verifiable places — Israel, the Mediterranean Sea, and the city of Nineveh — at an historically verifiable time — about the high point of what is called the “Neo-Assyrian Empire,” but it is not itself history. It is, in fact, a work of fiction.

How do we know that? Well, there are several indicators, but let’s just look at a few glaring examples. First, not in the part we read today but in the first chapter, Jonah tries to escape his commission from God by fleeing to Tarshish (about which more in a moment). Instead of traveling northeast to Nineveh, he books passage on a ship heading west, and what happens? You know the story: a big storm kicks up, the sailors become frightened and convinced that some god is trying to kill them, they determine that it’s Jonah’s God, and they throw him overboard. The storm comes to an end and Jonah is swallowed by a “big fish” in whose belly he survives for three days. That ought to be the first clue that we are dealing with a fanciful tale: there are no fish (or other animals) native to the Mediterranean Sea big enough to swallow a human being and, if there were, it would be physically impossible to live three days inside one. (Certainly, I’m not suggesting that God could not have provided a miraculously big fish equipped as a mini-sub; I am suggesting that it’s unlikely.)

The second hint is the description of Nineveh. We read in Chapter 3 that “Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across.” (v. 3) But we know from archeology that that’s just not the case! The city of Nineveh was not quite 1900 acres, which is a little less than 3 square miles. It was, maybe, 1-3/4 miles across. You can walk that in under 40 minutes.

The third clue to the fictionality of this story is in the meat of the story itself. Just before the portion we heard today, the king of Nineveh, ruthless and brutal Sennacherib, in response to Jonah’s prophetic proclamation that the city would be destroyed in forty days, rises from his throne and issues this decree:

By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish. (3:7-9)

If there had ever been such a decree or such a nationwide fast in Assyria, it would have been mentioned somewhere in those 30,000-plus tablets in the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal. But it’s not. There’s not the slightest bit of evidence that such a thing ever happened.

So, there you have it, a little bit of fiction, a short, satirical story (and it is short — only four brief chapters) plunked down in the middle of the Bible’s records of prophecy. But that’s OK; through the medium of this short satire a theological truth, a prophetic message is nonetheless conveyed. The prophetic import of the Book of Jonah, however, is not to be found in the words of its principal character, as is the case in most of the prophetic record. The prophetic message of the Book of Jonah is in its principal character himself, not in what he says, but in what he does and in what he represents. The Book of Jonah is prophecy the same way that Hosea’s marrying a prostitute was prophecy, the same way Micah’s wandering the streets of Jerusalem naked was prophecy, the same way Jeremiah’s failure to mourn his wife was prophecy. The people of Israel and Judea saw their one unfaithfulness reflected in Hosea’s spouse, their own shame in Micah’s nakedness, their own bereavement in Jeremiah’s loss. And the people of 4th Century Jerusalem recently returned from the Babylonian exile, would have recognized themselves in the character of Jonah.

In his book And God Created Laughter (Westminster John Knox: 1988), Presbyterian pastor and Professor of Religion Conrad Hyers, wrote this about this character:

Certain details of the comic caricature of Jonah, for instance, are more apparent in the Hebrew. No doubt these allusions were clearer to the people who first heard or read the story.

The opening words of the book of Jonah are a case in point. “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai.” Innocent as these words may seem, in Hebrew they contain two important allusions that are central to the comedy that is to follow. Jonah means “dove,” a metaphor sometimes used for the people of Israel, as in Psalm 74:19. Now the image of the dove brings with it a trail of associations that — as the story indicates — are the opposite of what Jonah (Israel) really is.

The dove is associated with hope, as in Noah’s sending out a dove to find land after the flood. Yet this dove (Jonah) behaves in a most contrary manner: sent out to warn of impending destruction, he refuses lest the judgment be averted. The dove is also associated with the theme of escape from troubles and evils, as in Psalm 55:6, “O that I had wings like a dove.” Yet this dove (Jonah) tries to escape from his mission in the hope that Nineveh cannot possibly escape from doom. The dove is further associated with love, as in the Song of Solomon, in which the beloved is dovelike: “My love, my fair one . . . my dove” (2:13,14). Yet this dove (Jonah) has not only no love for the Ninevites but not a penny’s worth of sympathy or pity. Jonah is no dove at all; he is a hawk. Perhaps the only Hebraic association that is directly applicable to Jonah is that he is “like a dove, silly and without sense” (Hos. 7:11). Certainly, flightiness and silliness aptly describe Jonah’s behavior throughout the story.

The other ironic allusion in the opening words is contained in the phrase “son of Amittai.” Amittai means “faithfulness.” A second contradiction with which the story is to deal is announced at the start. This “son of faithfulness” is completely disobedient. His response to the divine command is totally contrary to it. “Dove son of Faithfulness” flies off in the opposite direction lest he become the bearer of the least olive leaf of hope, love, and salvation. (pp. 99-100)

Prof. Hyers mentions Psalm 74 as one instance in which the dove is a symbol for Israel; others are found in the Prophets Hosea (7:11) and Jeremiah (48:28). Surely, this short story’s first readers would have recognized this.

They would also have recognized Israel in Jonah’s tendency to do the opposite of what God had commanded and would have seen allusions to their own worship and liturgy. Prof. Hyers mentions two examples from the sacred poetry of the Psalms and the Song of Solomon. Another is found in Psalm 139:

Where can I go then from your Spirit? *
where can I flee from your presence?
If I climb up to heaven, you are there; *
if I make the grave my bed, you are there also.
If I take the wings of the morning *
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there your hand will lead me *
and your right hand hold me fast. (vv 6-9, BCP Translation)

In the story, as I mentioned earlier, Jonah is told to travel to the northeast to Nineveh. Nineveh still exists: today it is called Mosul, a city in Iraq with which we have all become familiar because of current events and recent news coverage. To get there from Jerusalem, Jonah should have traveled north to Damascus, then east to Baghdad, then north again to Nineveh, a journey of about 865 miles. Instead, Jonah tried to go west about 3,000 miles to Tarshish. Tarshish is the Hebrew variant of the Greek city name Tartessos, a city in Spain. Today, it is called Cadiz. Located on the Atlantic coast of Spain, to the west of the strait of Gibraltar, it was as far to the west as someone in the ancient Middle East could imagine going! Once one sailed past the Pillars of Hercules, there was nowhere to go, except to drop off the edge of the world. It was truly, in the words of the Psalm, “the uttermost parts of the sea.” And yet, even by going there Jonah could not flee from the presence of the Lord, even there God’s “right hand held him fast.”

So . . . we know now that the Book of Jonah is a short story, perhaps a satirical or humorous one, relaying through the medium of fiction a theological truth. We know that the people of post-Exile Jerusalem would have recognized themselves in its principal character, Jonah. Jonah is called a prophet but, in truth, he’s more like a missionary. Prophets were usually commissioned to speak to God’s own people, whereas Jonah was commissioned to convey the message of God’s justice to a foreign people. When prophets were commanded to speak to foreigners, it was usually to those living in the territory of Israel or Judeah; Jonah is commanded to travel almost 900 miles to the foreigners’ own country to convey God’s message. Try as he might not to do so, he ends up having no choice and eventually preaches to the Ninevites as God requires. And, unlike most prophets, he is actually listened to! The Ninevite king issues that decree that all the people and animals will fast, and they do so.

And what happens? God relents. Instead of destroying the city as the wicked and sinful Ninevites deserve, God pardons them and Jonah gets righteously angry, and this is where we entered the story in today’s lesson, at the very end. Jonah says to God, “See? I knew this would happen!” In the words of the text, “Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

Jonah is so angry that he just wants to die. “Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” This is when God does the thing with the bush which grows up overnight, provides Jonah with shade the next day, then dies leaving Jonah on the following day to withstand the desert sun and heat. This just makes Jonah madder, so he repeats his death wish, “It is better for me to die than to live.” God, using the plant as a teaching tool, replies, “You are concerned about the bush . . . should I not be concerned about Nineveh . . . ?”

And, guess what? That’s the end of the story! God, in good rabbinic fashion using what we call “the Socratic method,” teaches Jonah — who is really the people of Israel — by leaving him — and them and us — with a question.

Jonah and the Israelites want God to be fair. These Ninevites, these Assyrians, are terrible, brutal, despicable people; they attacked and conquered God’s Chosen People; they flayed human beings alive; they decorated their dining rooms with color pictures of this being done. If God were fair, God would wipe them out; that’s what Jonah (and Israel) want. Instead God says, “Shouldn’t I rather be compassionate and merciful?” And leaves them — and us — to contemplate that question.

Whoever the nameless prophet who wrote this little story was, he was brilliant, because there is only one answer to that question just as there is only one answer to the question Jesus poses in gospel parable of the laborers in the vineyard. Hired at different times of the day, some at first light, others throughout the day, and the last just an hour before quitting time, they are all nonetheless paid the same wage. When those who worked all day complain, when they want the owner of the vineyard to be fair, the owner (God!) replies, “Shouldn’t I rather be generous?” And Jesus leaves his disciples — us — to contemplate the question.

Of course, we don’t want God to be fair! If God is going to be fair to “them” (the Assyrians, the later workers, whomever), God is going to be fair to us, too. Is that what we want? Wouldn’t we rather that God be compassionate and merciful and generous?

The good news is that that is what God is. 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.

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.

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