That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Job (page 1 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

At the End, There Is God – From the Daily Office – July 22, 2014

From the Letter to the Romans:

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 14:7-8 (NRSV) – July 22, 2014)

Coffin in GraveThe Book of Common Prayer (1979) lifts these verses and, together with others, uses them in the anthem with which the Burial Office (Rite Two) begins:

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

The first paragraph is from Jesus’ conversation with Martha of Bethany when she met him on the road when he came following her brother Lazarus’s death. (John 11:25-26) The second is from Job; it is part of Job’s reply to Bildad the Shuhite. (Job 19:25-27) The conclusion is from Revelation; John of Patmos is told to write this after seeing the “one hundred forty-four thousand” elect and as the angels of God harvest what Julia Ward Howe called “the grapes of wrath.” (Rev. 14:13)

The 1928 Prayer Book had a similar but rather more resigned opening anthem compiled from Scripture, the first two paragraphs being the same, but a third concluding paragraph was taken from 1 Timothy 6:7 and Job 1:21. Where the newer anthem presents the hope of eternal rest, the older feels like a shrug of the shoulders and a sigh of “Oh well, it’s over – it was fun while it lasted.” I’m sure that’s not the original intent of the drafters, but that’s my reaction to it:

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Although the newer anthem is more positive and comforting in my opinion, the theological import of the two is the same; life ends and at its end, there is God.

Both represent a liturgical model of what I find most attractive about the Anglican approach to Scripture. They are theological statements constructed from a holistic understanding of the Bible. They draw from multiple sources within the holy text, from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, to fashion a statement which succinctly, but memorably summarizes the Christian hope.

Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. At the end, there is God.

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

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

New Worlds – From the Daily Office – March 3, 2014

From the Psalter:

The Lord is a friend to those who fear him
and will show them his covenant.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 24:13 (BCP Version) – March 3, 2014.)

Face to Face Silhouettes“Each friend,” wrote Anais Nin, “represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” If a new world is born of merely human friendships, it is certainly true of a friendship with God! When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” he was describing the friendship of God, that friendship which births a new world in us. (2 Cor. 5:17)

In the Episcopal Church, one of the options for the beginning of a funeral is the anthem set out at pages 491-92 of The Book of Common Prayer, which includes these lines adapted from the Book of Job:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

The promise of today’s psalm is that God’s friendship is for the present, not something for which we must wait until “the last,” until God raises us up in the general resurrection.

The literature of friendship is vast and I’m not going to add much to it in a few lines of morning meditation. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the most important aspect of a true friendship is intimacy. I recall reading somewhere about the difference between “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships (which make up the majority of friendships enjoyed by adult men) and “face-to-face” friendships (which are the sort most people say they want more of). The difference is found in responding to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?”

Shoulder-to-shoulder friends don’t expect — and cannot really handle — any answer other than “Fine!” Face-to-face friends expect an honest answer. God is a face-to-face friend. When God asks “How are you?” (which, by the way, God asks every morning) God expects a real response, an honest answer, the truth. When the psalmist wrote that God is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” he was describing the friendship of God, and when (in the same psalm) he quoted God, “Be still, then, and know that I am God,” he was describing that intimacy which is the heart of face-to-face friendship. (Ps. 46:1 and 11)

Out of that intimacy, out of that friendship with God new worlds are born, everything becomes new. Today.

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

WYSIWYG World – From the Daily Office – January 10, 2014

From the Letter to the Colossians:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 2:16-17 (NRSV) – January 10, 2014.)

Green-on-Black TextI sometimes wonder to what extent Paul, as an educated Jewish citizen of a Greek-speaking empire, was schooled in the classical Greek philosophers. Had he read Plato’s Republic? Was he aware of the conversation portrayed in Book VII between Socrates and Glaucon in which the allegory of the cave is laid out?

In the dialog, Socrates describes a prison cave in which the inmates have lived all of their lives chained in such a way that all they can see is a blank wall. The prisoners watch shadows formed on the wall by things passing between them and a fire behind them. They recognize the shadows, give them the names of the things which cast them, and believe them to actually be those things. The shadows, says Socrates, are as close as the inmates get to viewing reality. According to Socrates, a philosopher is like a prisoner who is loosed, sees the real forms casting the images, and comes to understand that the shadows are not reality at all. He is aware of the true form of reality, not the shadows seen by the chained inmates. The story illustrates Plato’s “Theory of Forms,” which holds that things in the material world perceivable through sensation are mere “shadows” of ideal “forms.” These “forms,” not the “shadows,” possess the highest and most fundamental reality.

When Paul writes things like “these are only a shadow . . . the substance belongs to Christ,” he seems to be buying into this Platonic idea. His famous line from the first letter to the church in Corinth seems to do so as well: “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.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Take these sorts of Pauline statements and mix them with the Letter to the Hebrews (“They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one.” – Heb. 8:5) and even a bit of James (“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” – James 1:17), and one can see where the Neoplatonists and even the Gnostics get the notion that the material world is less than ideal, fallen, corrupt, or even evil. That’s a position that, unfortunately in my opinion, has made a significant impact on Christian theology.

It is also not a view to which the Hebrew Scriptures lend much support and one doubts very much that it was the opinion of Jesus of Nazareth! Oh sure, there are hints of it in Hebrew poetry and prayer. For example, King David prays with the assembly of the people: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” (1 Chron 29:15) And Bildad the Shuhite advises Job: “For we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow.” (Job 8:9) And from time to time the Psalms say things like the description of human beings as “like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” (Ps. 144:4) But on the whole, the Old Testament and (I suggest) the Christian faith declare a much different understanding of reality!

Just read the accounts of creation in Genesis! God is not shown to be casting shadows; God is creating hard, physical reality and, at each step along the way, declares it good. In the second account (which is probably the older of the two), God gets God’s hands dirty in all that good, hard, physical reality molding human beings out of the clay. I’m particularly fond of poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of that story (which I quoted in last Sunday’s sermon):

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life.

(“The Creation”, from God’s Trombones)

When I was a second-year student at law school I was a member of the law review where we used some very early word processing equipment and software in which one had to enter the codes for changes in typeface, indentation, and so forth (not too dissimilar from writing HTML code, frankly). What you looked at on the green-on-black computer screen bore no resemblance to what (you hoped) the printer would produce. The next year, when I became an editor, we purchased a new computer and were introduced to a new concept – “WYSIWYG” (pronounced “wissy-wig”) – What You See Is What You Get. What was on the screen looked like what the printer produced!

I believe that’s the kind of world we have been given, one in which what we perceive is real. Yes, I know that quantum mechanics and superstring theory bring that into some question, that at some super-micro-nano-reality level things are not quite what they seem; but that is a different issue than this philosophical nothing-is-really-real shadow-world construct of Plato’s, and a far cry from the fallen, corrupt, evil world of some Christian theologies. We live in a real, physical world, one in which God was pleased to take on flesh and dwell among us (John 1:1-14).

When I see beautiful winter hillside covered with glistening snow, when I taste a sweet-tart bite of homemade cherry pie, when I kiss my wife or hug my daughter, when I listen to a Vivaldi concerto, I am seeing/tasting/feeling/hearing what I get, not some shadow of an unseen and unknowable “ideal form.” Like that mammy bending over her baby, what I am experiencing is real and good; it is the ideal. We live in a WYSIWYG world!

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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.

The Better Angels – Sermon for St. Michael & All Angels Day – September 29, 2013

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This sermon was preached on St. Michael and All Angels Day, September 29, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Episcopal Lectionary, Michaelmas: Genesis 28:10-17; Revelation 12:7-12; Psalm 103; and John 1:47-51. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Icon of the ArchangelsWe are stepping out of the “common of time,” away from the progression of lessons assigned for the Sundays of Ordinary Time, and instead celebrating the Feast of Michaelmas, known variously as the Feast of Saint Michael the Archangel or as the Feast of Saints Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael, or as the Feast of the Archangels, or as the Feast of Saint Michael and All Angels (the latter being the preferred Anglican name for this commemoration). The only reason we are doing so is a personal conceit of your rector; Michaelmas, the 29th of September, just happens to be my birthday. Today I am celebrating the 30th anniversary of my twenty-eleventh birthday. I’ll get back to that in a moment, but first . . . a word about Michaelmas.

It shouldn’t surprise any of us that on, St. Michael and All Angels Day, we are treated to three very familiar stories of angels in Holy Scripture: first, the story of “Jacob’s ladder;” second, the story of the war in heaven in which Michael, leading the “good” angels, beats “the dragon” (named “the Devil or Satan”) and his “bad” angels; and finally, the gospel story of Jesus telling Nathanael that he will see something like Jacob’s ladder, “ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”

We know what angels are, or at least we think we do. They are a separate order of creation, beings of spiritual energy who interact with human beings as the servants and often as the messengers of God. The English word angel derives from the Latin angelus which in turn is the romanization of the ancient ángelos which means “messenger” or “envoy.” In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, we find the terms mal’ak elohim (“messenger of God”), mal’ak YHWH (“messenger of the Lord”), bene elohim (“sons of God”) and haqqodesim (“holy ones”) translated into English as angels. The first of these, mal’ak elohim, is what we find in today’s Genesis passage. In addition, there are specific kinds of angels identified in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are the Cherubim – one of whom is placed with a flaming sword to guard the gateway to the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 and who are said to flank or support God’s throne as, for example, in Hezekiah’s prayer in the book of the Prophet Isaiah (ch. 37); the Cherubs are apparently not cute, little, chubby baby angels! And there are the Seraphim – whom Isaiah describes as having “six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew,” and who sing God’s praises in the heavenly throne room.

We know the personal names of some of the angels, particularly the archangels – Gabriel, who is named in the Book of Daniel and identified in the Gospel of Luke as the angel of the Annunciation; Raphael, who is identified as a companion and advisor to Tobias in the apocryphal Book of Tobit; Uriel, who was sent to test the prophet Ezra according to the apocryphal Second Book of Esdras; and Michael, who is the leader of God’s angel army in the story of Revelation today.

We know that human beings, when they die, do not become angels . . . although lots of people say things like that in order to comfort the bereaved who have lost loved ones. Angels, as I said, are a separate order of creation, beings of immense spiritual energy. If the Book of Job is correct, they were created before the physical world: in questioning Job, God asks him if he was there when the foundations of the earth were put in place, “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (38:7; the term here is bene elohim, sons of God.)

So . . . we know a lot about angels, but why do we venerate them on this particular day? And what can we learn from them? The first question is easy to answer: the date commemorates the dedication of the Sanctuary of St. Michael Archangel built on Monte Gargano in Italy in 493 a.d. in honor of an apparition of the archangel a few years before. The second question is not so easy.

What I think we learn from angels is conscience. Whenever I hear the word “angels,” to be very honest, my first thought is not of their religious history or meaning, but of the conclusion of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address given on March 4, 1861, just two weeks after Jefferson Davis had been inaugurated as president of the Confederacy. Referring to that secession and the potential of war to preserve the Union, finished his speech saying:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

I love that turn of phrase, “the better angels of our nature.” I’m not the least bit sure what Mr. Lincoln meant by the phrase, but it has always appealed to me. A few years ago, a Harvard psychologist named Steven Pinker used it as the title of a book in which he named four of these “better angels:”

  • Empathy, which “prompts us to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own”
  • Self-control, which “allows us to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses” and thus to regulate those impulses
  • Moral sense, which “sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people”
  • Reason, which “allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.”

These are all, to my way of thinking, gifts of God. In a sense, they are a modern rendition of what St. Paul called the “fruit of the Spirit,” although Paul listed nine attributes: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Or of those gifts of the Holy Spirit listed by Isaiah: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. It is through these fruits and gifts that human conscience is informed and moral judgment enlightened, and conscience, as Thomas Merton said, “is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.” (No Man Is an Island)

Some of you may be familiar with the Henry Fonda film from the 1940s entitled The Ox-Bow Incident. It’s based on a novel of the same name by the Nevada writer Walter Van Tilburg Clark. In the story, the narrator Art Croft is one of two men who drift into a Nevada ranching town and end up becoming part of a posse that turns into a lynch mob. They end up hanging, without a trial, three men who may or may not actually be guilty of the crimes they are accused of — cattle rustling and murder. Reflecting on what has happened, Art Croft asks, “If we can touch God at all, where do we touch him save in the conscience?” If the angels are the messengers of God, perhaps our conscience is the means through which the “better angels of our nature” communicate God’s will to us. As Theologian Peter Kreeft explains, the conscience as “the voice of God in the soul.”

Along those lines, in a Michaelmas sermon preached a few years ago, the Very Rev. John Hall, Dean of Westminster Abbey, said this:

We can and should then think of God speaking directly to us, out of his love and care for us as individuals. However we must understand God’s presence with us as a reality inseparable from that of God’s presence among us. Through our fellowship in the Church, Christ’s Body, God informs our conscience through his Word and feeds our soul through the sacraments, drawing us together as Christians into unity with each other and with himself. If we try to go it alone as Christians, we run great risks of going astray. The Church understands the work and role of the angels as assisting in mediating the presence of God with us and amongst us. (29 September 2010)

I don’t think I can learn much from angels as mighty beings standing guard at the entrance to Eden, or as warriors fighting Satan and casting him out of heaven, or as singers in the heavenly choir, or as the pillars and supports of God’s throne. But as the prompters and prickers of my conscience, as the “better angels” of empathy, moral sense, self-control, and reason, as the communicators of the gifts and fruits of the Spirit, as mediators of God’s presence in the Church, I can learn a great deal from them.

The Psalmist, in our gradual this morning, declared that God’s righteousness and merciful goodness endure forever “on those who keep his covenant and remember his commandments and do them.” It is these “better angels” who keep that memory alive in our consciences and to them, and to the God whose presence they mediate within us individually and among us corporately, we can turn for answers to life’s challenges.

So . . . as I said, it’s my birthday. Today, and for the next decade or so, when asked how old I am, I can answer, “Sixty-something.” (A graphic I posted today on my Facebook page says, “I’m not sixty-something. I’m $59.95 plus shipping and handling.”) In any event, a birthday is a time of taking stock, or considering one’s past, one’s actions, the answers one has developed in one’s life, and one’s future.

I mentioned in a conversation with some parishioners last week that when I’d been ten years at St. Francis Parish in Stilwell, Kansas, my congregation last before this one, Evelyn and I came to the conclusion that it was time to leave. One of the people I was talking with asked, “You’ve been here at St. Paul’s for ten years. Is it time to leave?” That’s a birthday sort of question. It’s what might be called “a big question.”

The past six decades, like everyone’s life, has been full of big questions of that sort, to be honest. Whether to study law? Whether to get married? Whether to leave the practice of law? Whether to become a priest? Move to Kansas? Leave Kansas? Accept nomination in an episcopal election? Those are big questions. But sometimes our replies to big questions are little answers, puny responses that put off meeting the real challenges.

A friend recently shared a poem with me, a poem by Dame Edith Louisa Sitwell. I wasn’t familiar with Sitwell so I did some research on her. She was the eldest child of the 4th Baronet of Renishaw Hall, born in 1887. In her twenties, she began publishing poems in the Daily Mirror newspaper. She was six feet tall and habitually wore brocade gowns, gold turbans, and (one biographer said) “a plethora of rings.” Apparently she was given to public feuds with other literary figures. One critic said of her that “wore other people’s bleeding hearts on her own safe sleeve,” and another called her “an eccentric matriarch with a slender grip on reality.” Just my sort of poet! No wonder I liked what she had to say about our responses to life’s questions in a short poem entitled Answers:

I kept my answers small and kept them near;
Big questions bruised my mind but still I let
Small answers be a bulwark to my fear.

The huge abstractions I kept from the light;
Small things I handled and caressed and loved.
I let the stars assume the whole of night.

But the big answers clamoured to be moved
Into my life. Their great audacity
Shouted to be acknowledged and believed.

Even when all small answers build up to
Protection of my spirit, still I hear
Big answers striving for their overthrow.

And all the great conclusions coming near.

I believe the “great conclusions coming near,” the big answers clamoring, the huge abstractions shouting to be acknowledged, are the angels calling each of us to greater ministries, the messengers of God urging us to a more audacious Christian presence in the world.

In a couple of months’ time, our construction project will be done. We’ll have a great new gallery, an expanded parish hall, a great new face presented to the community. When we broke ground here in July, the Old Testament lesson was the same reading from Genesis we hear this morning. I suggested then that this place, this St. Paul’s Episcopal Church located at 317 East Liberty Street in Medina, Ohio, is like Jacob’s Bethel.

It is an awesome place. It is a house of God. It is a gate of heaven. But just like Jacob’s Bethel, it is a place we are bidden to leave; it is a place from which the angels of God bid us go. A church building is meant to be the base from which the people of God go into the world. A church building is meant to be a place of life, a center of ministry, a place of assembly, where God’s people gather to worship, to hear the message of the angels, to celebrate the meaning of life, and to be transformed, and then “burst forth,” back out into the world to share the Good News with, and transform the lives of, others. The angels of God call us individually and corporately to greater ministries, to a more audacious Christian presence in our world.

The answer to that “big question” I was asked is, “No, it’s not time for me to leave St. Paul’s.” But it is time for all of us as St. Paul’s to leave this place, to go out from this new building we are creating, to “burst forth” into the world like Jacob and his offspring, to be “angels,” messengers of God, telling the world the Good News of God in Christ.

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.

Writing Sermons – From the Daily Office – June 8, 2013

From the Psalter:

Lord, you have searched me out and known me.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 139:1 (BCP Version) – June 8, 2013.)

to consider something deeply and thoroughlyToday, it is the evening psalm that I ponder.

The NRSV translation of the first verse of Psalm 139 is similar to that in The Book of Common Prayer: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me.” One renders the Hebrew verb chaqar as “search out;” the other as “search.” And both have always caused me to stop short and wonder, “What? The omniscient, omnipresent God has to look for me?”

Good thing chaqar has some other understandings:

  • In the First Book of Samuel, David is afraid that Saul has decided to kill him and so his friend, Saul’s son Jonathan, tells David that he will “sound out” his father. Chaqar is the verb translated as “sound out.” (1 Samuel 20:12 NRSV)
  • In the First Book of Kings, chaqar is rendered as “determined” when it is used in the story of Solomon making the bronze vessels for the Temple. They could not be weighed “because there were so many of them; the weight of the bronze was not determined.” (1 Kings 7:47 NRSV) – The New American Standard version of this verse uses “ascertained” to translate the Hebrew.
  • In the story of Job, the New American Standard translation uses “ponder” to translate chaqar when Elihu says to Job: “I waited for your words, I listened to your reasonings, while you pondered what to say.” (Job 32:11 NAS)

So “searching” or “searching out” as used in the Psalm doesn’t mean “looking for.” It means giving careful consideration, as in the weighing of precious metal vessels in the First Book of Kings. Even more, it means the give-and-take between two persons, the “sounding out” of ideas, the coming to mutual understanding as two people share their thoughts. And it means to contemplate and meditate upon what the other has revealed, to ponder what he or she has communicated.

Ponder is not a word we use much anymore in modern American English. Say the word to most people and probably the first thing that will come to their minds is the opening stanza of a famous American poem:

“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.”
(Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven)

Ponder, the dictionary tells us, means “to consider something deeply and thoroughly.” That is an image of God that resonates with me. I know full well that God is not an entity, not a being in the sense that God sits in heaven’s library late at night pondering over ancient tomes, leafing through the Book of Life or the Book of the Dead or the whichever book it is in which our “names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20) Nonetheless, I am intrigued and even comforted by that image.

Because that is precisely what I do! Especially on a Saturday when I do the final polishing of my sermon for the next day (and, if truth be told, more often than not “final polishing” actually means “start from scratch!”) Surrounded by bibles and books, my computer humming away, a cup of coffee (or other libation) nearby, I ponder God. That God might be simultaneously pondering me delights me. Together we ponder one another, we sound each other out, we ascertain our thoughts; perhaps (one hopes) we become “united in the same mind and the same purpose,” and perhaps within my mind forms “the same mind . . . that was in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor. 1:10; Philip. 2:5) Hopefully, that gets onto the paper and into the sermon. That is, after all, the goal of writing and preaching homilies!

Lord, you have pondered me and known me; I ponder you and seek to know you . . . . and to preach your truth.

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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.

The Patients of Job: Part Four – “Can You Love What You Can’t Control?” – Sermon for Pentecost 22, Proper 25B – October 28, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 28, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 25B: Job 42:1-6,10-17; Psalm 34:1-8; Hebrews 7:23-28; and Mark 10:46-52. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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"So the Lord blessed the latter end of Job more than the beginning" by William BlakeSo here we are at the end of the Book of Job and the last of our sermons in this series entitled The Patients of Job. Let’s review the lessons we have learned, the spiritual remedies we have found in the medicine chest of this book.

First, in the introductory scenes in which the character God gave Satan leave to torment Job in ways he did not deserve, we learned that stuff sometimes happens in a person’s life, as it does in the story of Job, that he or she does not merit and for which he or she is not to blame! Stuff sometimes happens in your life that you do not deserve, and you are not to blame for it! The first bit of medicine we found in the Book of Job was the lesson to give up the “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” ways of thinking, and stop beating ourselves up over things we can’t control! We also learned from the first part of Job’s story that life is a set of questions and that if there is truth to be found in this book, or in any of the books of the Bible, it is to be found in the process of struggling with those questions.

You’ll remember that, in the second reading we heard from this book, Job had decided to take God to court but had a problem: he didn’t know where to find God. In contemplating Job’s quandary, we recalled that our Christian faith assures us that in our times of pain and suffering, God comes to us in the loving acts of others. In illness, for example, God comes to us in the ministrations of the medical professionals who treat us. In emotional distress, God comes to us through those who offer us encouragement. In moments of deep need, God is there in a mysterious way through those who care for us. This gives us hope and courage. We need not cry out as Job did, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him;” (23:3) God knows where to find us. This is the balm for our souls, the spiritual medicine that we found in our second lesson from the Book of Job, that in our times of need, God knows were to find us and that, indeed, God does come to us.

In our third reading, last week, God spoke to Job but did not directly answer Job’s legal complaints. Instead, God’s response to Job was an invitation to us to participate in creation, to get creative. God let Job and us know that the answer to life’s problems is to get creative, to do something unexpected, to think outside the box. That is spiritual medicine for us because neither our problems, nor our world, nor our God will fit neatly into our preconceived boxes.

So those are the Book of Job’s spiritual medicines so far: stuff happens – don’t let it get you down; life is a bunch of questions, not a set of answers; God knows where to find us; and think outside the box.

Between last week’s lesson and this week’s reading, God continues to speak to Job about creation, describing its wildness, its beauty, and its uncontrollable nature; in Chapters 40 and 41, God specifically mentions the great bests Behemoth and Leviathan which cannot be captured and which overwhelm any who see them. The descriptions of nature in these ending chapters are suffused with the love that God has for God’s creation. This overwhelming and uncontrollable world which God created and which God loves is the answer God gives to Job’s self-pitying “Why me?” a question which clearly makes no sense in such a world.

Which brings us to the end and the epilogue but, frankly, these don’t make much sense. They seem to contradict everything we’ve learned so far. The whole book up to this point has seemed to be an argument against the old “wisdom religion” with its system of retributive justice, its idea that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, that whatever happens to you, good or bad, is because you deserve it, so just accept it. But here at the end of the book that seems to be exactly what is happening: Job is rewarded for his righteousness by being reimbursed for his losses. “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job . . . the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.” Furthermore, God replaces Job’s ten dead children with ten new children, as if children are fungible commodities. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar seem to have been right all along.

But if that’s what this Book of Job is all about, then it offers no spiritual medicines to us at all, for we know that the world simply doesn’t work that way! The righteous aren’t always rewarded; the wicked aren’t always punished; in fact, it’s all too often the other way around. If we read the end of the story in that way, we must be missing something. And indeed we are.

The lesson to be learned here requires that we compare the Job who is “restored” with the Job who existed before all of his losses. That earlier Job was a man who sought to control his world. We are told that that Job “would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number [of his children]; for Job said, ‘It may be that my children have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.’ This is what Job always did.” (1:5) The restored Job, having been shown how uncontrollable the world is, turns loose of control; even before his death would require him to, he gives an inheritance to his children, his daughters as well as his sons. (42:15)

Ellen F. Davis, Professor of Bible and Practical Theology at Duke University Divinity School, in her book Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cowley:Cambridge, MA, 2001), characterizes God’s speeches to Job, just the opening part of which we heard in last week’s reading, as posing for Job and us this question: “Can you love what you do not control?” (pg. 140)

You may be familiar with a popular saying that goes something like this: “If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it’s yours. If it doesn’t, it never was yours.” God’s admonitions to Job and his restoration of Job’s fortunes affirm the first part of that, but call into the question the bits about return. The point here seems to be that even if it does return, it was never yours, at least it was never yours to control. In God’s descriptions of nature, of the unruliness of the weather, of the harshness of the wilderness, of the violence of the seas, of the wildness of the beasts, God made it clear that God made Creation wild and free, but God nonetheless loves Creation. This new, restored Job has learned to love his family in the same way, respecting their dignity and freedom, not seeking to control their world.

So the lesson for us to learn, the spiritual medicine for us at the end of the book, like the first lesson at its beginning, has to do with our lack of control. From the early scenes, we learned to accept that we cannot control the world; at the end, we learn to love it anyway. Love it even its most out-of-control, darkest times, because the lesson at the end of this Book of Job tells us that when the dark, uncontrollable night is over, the sun always rises. There is always the promise of hope. That is not only the balm at the end of Job’s story, it is the recurring message of the story of God and God’s People told again and again.

In the time of Noah, it rained for forty days and forty nights; water covered the earth for nearly a year. There was nothing Noah and his family could do about it; they were not in control. But, eventually, the dry land appeared again and God hung a rainbow in the sky.

For generations, the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt. There was nothing they could do about; they were not in control. But then God sent Moses and they were freed.

For forty years they wandered the desert because they were not in control, but eventually Moses led them to, and Joshua led them into, the Promised Land.

The Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and carried away the leaders and a goodly portion of God’s People to Babylon. They were exiled for seventy years; there was nothing they could do about it; they were not in control. But, eventually, God raised up Cyrus the Persian who defeated the Babylonians and set the Israelites free to return and rebuild.

Bartimaeus was blind. There was nothing he could do about it; he was not in control. But, eventually, the Son of God happened by and his sight was restored.

The Son of God himself was beaten, mocked, crucified and killed, laid in a tomb that was not his own. There was nothing he could do about it; he had given up control. But, eventually, there was Easter!

The last verse of the Book of Job as we have received it is, “And Job died, old and full of days.” But in some Greek-language texts there is one more verse added, “And it is written that he will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.” The end of the Book of Job is a reminder to love what we cannot control, to love what is wild and free, because as bad as things may get, as dark and out-of-control as they may be, eventually there will be something very much like resurrection. And that is balm for our souls, that we like Job “will rise again with those whom the Lord raises up.” 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.

The Patients of Job: Part Three – “What Is Half of 11?” – Sermon for Pentecost 21, Proper 24B – October 21, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 21, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 24B: Job 38:1-7,34-41; Psalm 104:1-9,25,37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. At St. Paul’s Parish, the whole of Job 38 was read as the Old Testament lesson.)

The illustrations which follow in this sermon were presented as PowerPoint slides during the homily.

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This is our third installment in the sermon series The Patients of Job and we begin with a diagnostic question: What is half of 11?

Job 38:1-7, (34-41) Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b  or  Isaiah 53:4-12 Psalm 91:9-16  Hebrews 5:1-10 Mark 10:35-45

Think about that for a while and we will return to this question in a moment. First, however, we need to catch ourselves up-to-date on the story of Job.

When we left Job last week, he and his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had had a long conversation about Job’s condition, his various misfortunes, and his own purity or blameworthiness; they then waxed philosophical about a hypothetical and stereotypical wicked man, being rather unclear whether that man was, in fact, Job. We were left with Job determined to take God to court where he would plead his innocence, but in something of a quandary because he was unsure where to find God.

Despite his confusion and bewilderment about the whereabouts of the Almighty, Job then spends the next nine chapters laying out his case. Bildad interrupts him briefly, but other than that the three friends do not speak further. There is a brief excursus in Chapter 28 about creation and wisdom, and scholars are unsure if Job is actually the speaker of that portion; it may be that this is one of the friends or even the narrator of the story speaking, but the text is unclear. When Job finishes, a newcomer begins to speak, Elihu the son of Barachel the Buzite. He comes on the scene unannounced, expresses his anger at Job and his friends because of their lack of understanding about God, and picks holes in some of their arguments. Most scholars think this a later addition to the book because Elihu’s speeches really add nothing and interrupt the flow between Job’s final speech and the appearance of the character God whose first speech in response to Job we heard today as our Old Testament reading. (I asked our lector to read the whole of Chapter 38, not simply the selected verses required by the Lectionary.)

My friend and colleague Steve _________, who is now the priest-in-charge of St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Mayfield Village, recently characterized the Book of Job, and this chapter of it in particular as “Job asking, ‘Why am I, a righteous man, suffering so?’ and God’s answer is ‘I am God and you are not.'” As Steve noted, that is not an entirely satisfying answer! I’ve often thought of the book and God’s answer in even less positive terms; it has frequently seemed to me that God’s response is (pardon the expression!), “Who the hell are you?”

But as I re-read the whole of the story in preparation for these sermons, and again as I have written each homily, I think that Steve and I have been wrong about this story. I don’t think God’s answer is either “I’m God and you’re not” or “Who the hell are you?” I think God’s answer is “What is half of 11?” And, again, I’ll come back to that.

I mentioned Chapter 28 earlier; that chapter really sets the background for God’s response to Job in this chapter. Chapter 28 has been called “one of the most exquisite poetic compositions of the entire Bible” (New Interpreters Bible, Vol. IV, Abingdon Press:1996, p. 528); I encourage you to read it! In Chapter 28, the speaker (whether Job or someone else) addresses the paradox of wisdom which cannot be found because it is everywhere. “Surely there is a mine for silver, and a place for gold to be refined,” it begins. (v. 1) “But where shall wisdom be found?” it asks, “And where is the place of understanding?” (v. 12) In what is really a hymn to wisdom and creation, the speaker sings of precious metals and prized gemstones, of the animals of nature, of the phenomena of weather, and of God who understands the way of wisdom because God “looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens.” (v. 24) Human beings, says the speaker, find wisdom through participation in creation in two particular ways. First, by what the speaker calls “the fear of the Lord,” a biblical term for piety or prayerful mindfulness; second, through “departure from evil,” which is to say moral action and uprightness. In these ways, human beings participate in the integrity of creation and understand the interrelatedness of all things; in a word, human beings find wisdom through creation and in creativity. This, then, is the background for what God says to Job in Chapter 38.

Job has laid out his legal case and made his arguments. God appears on the scene and rather than answer the lawsuit, he turns the tables on Job and starts asking him a lot of questions about nature. He asks about the seas, about wild animals, about storms and clouds and thunder, but says not a word about any of the points Job has laid out so carefully in his legal case . . . not a word. Instead, God’s address to Job is characterized by an “unrelenting use of rhetorical questions: ‘Who?’ ‘Where?’ ‘How?’ ‘What . . . can you . . . have you . . . do you know?'” (N.I.B., p. 598)

“What,” says God, “is half of 11?” Well, not actually. “What is half of 11?” is a question asked by my friend John O’Keefe. And, of course, we all know the answer, don’t we? Half of 11 is 5.5. You take 11; you divide it by 2; you get 5-and-a-half. Done.

5.5

But are we? In John’s book, The Church Creative (CreateSpace:2012), he suggests we ought to open ourselves to considering the question “What is half of 11?” from different and unexpected perspectives. (See also John’s website, The Church Creative.)

What if we visualize or understand this question not as “What is half of the number 11?” but “What is half of a character made up of two 1s, two vertical strokes?” Then half of 11 is . . .

1

. . . and the second half is . . .

1 & 1

Or what if we think not in Arabic numerals but in the Roman numerals?

What Is Half of XI?

Then the first half of XI is an X . . .

X

. . . and the second half is an I.

X & I

Or, we could just slice the figure horizontally so that there’s a top half . . .

Top of XI

. . . and a bottom half.

Top & Bottom of XI

Here’s another thought. Think in terms of words, not numbers. “What is half of e-l-e-v-e-n?”

What is half of eleven?

Obviously, the first half is “e-l-e” . . .

ele

. . . and the second, “v-e-n”.

ele & ven

Or, half of the word “eleven” is made up of the vowel “e” . . .

eee

. . . and the other half is made up of consonants.

eee & lvn

I suggest to you that God’s numerous rhetorical questions are meant to get Job to look at himself, his situation, his losses, and his current condition, from a different perspective, to understand God in a different way. God’s response to Job is like asking “What is half of 11?”

Just like us, when we read that question as being only and solely a math problem, Job has a particular way of seeing the world, a particular way of understanding reality, a particular way of understanding God. His frame of reference, if you will, was the social structure of his world, the village, clan, and family structure within which his life was lived. Job’s theological imagination was framed by that structure; the metaphors through which he sought to understand God came from that structure. Just as Job, acting as a person of honor, would hear and respond to a complaint from one of his employees or one of his children, so he believed God would hear and respond to his case. “Job’s image of God is developed out the highest and best values of his society, values that Job has always tried to embody.” (N.I.B., p. 556) This is fully in keeping with the Biblical tradition of “thinking about God by means of metaphors drawn largely from the realm of human relations.” (Ibid.) The problem, of course, is that such metaphors are limited and inadequate. God is not simply an ideal human person; God is “wholly other”, and God will not fit completely into the neat and tidy lines of our metaphors. Job is only partially correct about God. God will (and does) deal with Job as a loving Parent might deal with a child, but not in the way Job anticipates.

My daughter Caitlin recently shared with me an essay she wrote for one of her college courses. In it she related a story about my uncle, who was a very talented professional artist, teaching her to draw. This is her story:

My great uncle Richard was the first person to let me loose with a tool and tell me that I had the power to create “Art”. Sitting under an orange tree in my Grammy’s backyard, he handed me some colored pencils and told me to draw my favorite thing; at the time it was flowers. My geometric and organic patterns turned into a kid’s rendition of paisley. Once I got that flower thing down I wanted to move on to something more awesome. I couldn’t think of what to draw, so Uncle Richard decided to teach me a Surrealist technique to ease the imagination process. He told me to take a black pen, and without thinking about it too much, draw one continuous line all over the paper, “Just scribble it all up.”

After I scribbled the most extreme mess on the page, he told me to “make the ends meet.” I found the point at which I began my crazy doodle, connected the dots and then colored in the shapes between the lines with a myriad of color as he suggested. The great American painter Jasper Johns said the way to make art is to “Do something, then do something to that, then do something to that.”

My uncle had my daughter do something like this . . .

Squiggle

. . . and then do something like this to it.

Squiggle Colored-in

In this way, Uncle Richard taught Caitlin that she had (as she put it) “the power to create.” It must have worked; last year Caitlin painted this watercolor . . .

Red Snapper, copyright 2012, Caitlin Funston

and, with it, won a scholarship at the University of Missouri.

God’s response to Job, all those rhetorical questions – “Who?” “Where?” “How?” “What . . . can you . . . have you . . . do you know?” – were God’s way of getting Job to “just scribble it all up,” of getting Job to stop being confined within the lines and limits and inadequacies of his metaphors, of getting Job to think creatively, of helping Job to find wisdom by participating in the integrity of creation and through understanding of the interrelatedness of all things. God’s response was not asking Job “Who the hell are you?” and God wasn’t answering his complaint with “I’m God and you’re not.” God was, however, saying, “I’m God but not in anyway you’ve ever considered, understood, or even imagined.” God was saying, “Neither I nor the world I created will fit within the neat lines of your metaphorical box.”

God’s response to Job is an invitation, and therein is the balm for us as “Patients of Job”, the prescription for whatever sickens our souls, for remedy for whatever ails our realities. God’s response is an invitation to Job and to us to participate in creation, to “scribble it all up,” to do something, then do something to that, then do something to that, to answer “What is half of 11?” in unexpected ways, to be creative in our problem solving. The answer to Job’s problem is not to sit on his pile of ashes moaning and complaining, disputing legalisms and “did I deserve it?”s with his friends; the answer to Job’s problem is not to sit on his pile of ashes framing legal arguments and preparing to sue God! The answer to Job’s problem is to get creative, to do something unexpected, to think outside the box. And that is spiritual medicine for us because, just like Job’s, neither our problems, nor our world, nor our God . . .

"Come on God, Get In There!!"

. . . will fit in our neat metaphorical boxes. Amen.

God Is A Nag! – From the Daily Office – October 16, 2012

From the Book of Jonah:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Jonah 1:1-3 – October 16, 2012)

Jonah Going the Other WayJonah’s a fool! Trying to flee “from the presence of the Lord.” As if! This lesson today is an interesting contrast to Sunday’s Eucharistic Lectionary reading from Book of Job (Job 23:1-9,16-17) in which Job was bewildered and confused because he felt unable to find God: “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!” (Job 23:2) Jonah, on the other hand, would be perfectly happy never to find, or be found by, God.

If one is trying to avoid God, one might take C.S. Lewis’s advice:

Avoid silence, avoid solitude, avoid any train of thought that leads off the beaten track. Concentrate on money, sex, status, health and (above all) on your own grievances. Keep the radio on. Live in a crowd. Use plenty of sedation. If you must read books, select them very carefully. But you’d be safer to stick to the papers. You’ll find the advertisements helpful; especially those with a sexy or a snobbish appeal. (Christian Reflections, Eerdmans: 1967, pp. 167)

None of this will work, of course. As Job and Jonah both found out, God finds us. We don’t have to worry about where God is and we can’t avoid God; God knows where we are.

For a long time I avoided the call to ordained ministry: “No, I’m happy as an active lay man,” I would tell my bishop when he asked (yet again!) about entering the priesthood. But God, as the Book of Jonah makes perfectly clear, does not take “No” for an answer. I finally gave in. God pursues you! God wears you down! God won’t let you get away!

There are often times when I wonder why God was so insistent, when I think I’m really, really bad at this parish ministry stuff, when I am sure that God, the church, and I made a horrible mistake. But even at those times I know that I could not be doing anything else, that if I tried to leave the ministry and do something else God would chase after me again as God chased after Jonah.

I’m pretty sure that God chases after everyone. Everyone has a calling to some job, some task, some ministry in this life, and this Book of Jonah witnesses that God will pursue us until we do it. Jonah was a fool to think he could flee God! God simply won’t let go. I’ve always thought this book could be summarized in one short sentence: God is a nag!

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

The Patients of Job: Part Two – “I Don’t Know Where to Find God!” – Sermon for Pentecost 20, Proper 23B – October 14, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 14, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 23B: Job 23:1-9,16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; and Mark 10:17-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Lost and Confused SignpostIn last week’s reading from the Old Testament, you will remember, God gave Satan permission to test the righteousness of a man of integrity named Job. First all of Job’s possessions and his family are taken from him: his oxen and donkeys are carried off by Sabeans; his sheep are burned up in a fire; his camels are stolen by the invading Chaldeans; and the collapse of a house kills all of Job’s ten children. But Job, being a righteous man, does not curse God; instead, he shaves his head, tears his clothes, and says, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job does not sin or curse God. (1:21-22)

Therefore, Satan returns to God and seeks permission to cause Job bodily, suffering as well. God agrees saying, “He is in your power; only spare his life.” (2:6) Satan, therefore, afflicts him with a loathsome skin disease. Job’s response is to scratch his skin with broken pottery and sit down in a pile of ashes. Job’s wife prompts him to “curse God, and die” but Job answers that she is speaking foolishly, and she departs the scene and will not be heard from again. As Chapter Two closes, Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite, having heard of his calamity, come to comfort him. When they arrive, they join him in mourning, tearing their own clothes, weeping loudly, throwing dust on their heads, and sitting with him in silence for a week.

After that week of silence, a dialog ensues between the friends and Job. Each speaks in turn in three cycles of addresses, and Job answers them. In the first cycle – and I admit that this is a very simplistic summary – Job curses the day he was born, but essentially holds that he is blameless and does not deserve what has befallen him; this indeed, will be his position throughout the rest of the book.

Eliphaz is the first of his friends to speak; basically, he asserts his agreement with Job that Job is blameless. “Is not your fear of God your confidence,” says Eliphaz, “and the integrity of your ways your hope?” (4:6) So Eliphaz advises him to “seek God, and to God . . . commit [your] cause.” (5:8) Eliphaz is sure that if he does so, Job will live to a ripe old age. But Job, in his misery is not able to hear what his friend says; he continues to complain of “the anguish of [his] spirit” and “the bitterness of [his] soul.” (7:11) “I loathe my life,” says Job, “I would choose death.” (7:15-16)

The next to speak is his friend Bildad. Bildad also speaks of Job’s innocence and integrity, but in a somewhat more conditional way. He’s not quite as sure as Eliphaz: “If you are pure and upright,” he says, “surely then [God] will rouse himself for you and restore to you your rightful place.” (8:6) Job is more responsive to Bildad. He acknowledges that what his friend says is true, but then rejects his advice asking, “How can a mortal be just before God? If one wished to contend with [God], one could not answer him once in a thousand.” (9:2-3) Although he rejects Bildad’s advice, this is an important turning point in the story, I think, because it is here that the seed of the idea of contending with God in a lawsuit is planted in Job’s mind. Nonetheless, he still complains of the bitterness in his soul and says he’d rather die.

The last of his friends to speak is Zophar. Zophar isn’t buying the blamelessness argument. He believes that punishments and rewards in life follow directly from our actions; if Job has suffered these calamities, Job must have committed some great sin. He simply assumes that Job is guilty: he condemns Job for babbling and for mocking the Almighty. “Shall no one shame you?” he asks Job. “Know this, Job! God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves.” (11:3,6) But Job will have none of Zophar’s condemnation: “I am a just and blameless man,” he asserts. (12:4) “I may be a laughingstock, but I am a just and blameless man.”

Now the idea of taking God to court has rooted firmly in Job’s imagination: “I would speak to the Almighty,” he declares, “and I desire to argue my case with God.” (13:3) As the first cycle ends, in fact, Job is starting to formulate his arguments.

In the second cycle of speeches, the characters leave behind the specific issue of whether Job is blameless or guilty, righteous or sinful. In fact, the second cycle of speeches seems to have little or nothing to do with Job himself. Instead, the characters debate the issue of whether, in fact, the retribution that sometimes falls upon the wicked is a result of their own blameworthiness, and all of the friends seem to be in agreement that it is. Whether this debate has anything to do with Job’s situation is somewhat ambiguous; none of the friends identifies Job as the wicked person they describe in their speeches. In answer to each of them, Job complains that their words are not a comfort to him. At the end of the second cycle, he tells them, “You comfort me with empty nothings” and “there is nothing left of your answers but falsehood.” (21:34) Apparently in reply to Job – it’s not really all that clear that it is a response, however – Eliphaz tells him that he should follow the advice of the righteous who say, “Agree with God, and be at peace; in this way good will come to you.” (22:21)

This is where the lectionary has brought us today, to Chapter 23, most of which is today’s Old Testament lesson. We are more than halfway through the Book of Job; the first two cycles of speeches have been made; and Job’s mind seems to have been made up. He is determined to take God to court and argue his case. “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” (23:4) In the verses the lectionary has left out, Job continues to argue his innocence, asserting that

[God] knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold. My foot has held fast to his steps; I have kept his way and have not turned aside. I have not departed from the commandment of his lips; I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth. (23:10-12)

Job’s problem now, he believes, is that he doesn’t know where to find God! “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.” (23:8-9) This uncertainty seems to shake Job’s confidence in his case: “God has made my heart faint,” he says, “the Almighty has terrified me.” But faint and terrified though he may be, Job does present his case. None of the friends speak again, except Bildad who interrupts to ask Job’s own question, “How can a mortal be can righteous before God?” (25:1-6) Job pleads his case with eloquence and at the conclusion of the third cycle, his three friends have “ceased to answer Job, because he was righteous in his own eyes.” (32:1)

So what are we to make of today’s lesson from Job, this brief chapter in which we find Job wondering where to find God? What balm for our souls, what spiritual medicine for the “Patients of Job” does it offer?

Job’s confusion and anxiety at the elusiveness of God are echoed in today’s Psalm whose first verse is familiar to us from the story of Christ’s Crucifixion:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
and are so far from my cry
and from the words of my distress? (Ps. 22:1)

God seems to be so far away that God cannot be found: “He is not there . . . I cannot perceive him . . . I cannot behold him . . . I cannot see him.” Job feels that he has been abandoned by God. But wait! Job knows that God has tested him; Job has known God’s terrifying presence. Job finds this reassuring; although Job cannot see God, God can perceive Job! God’s knowledge of Job is his comfort; it will assure his vindication. Although Job does not know where to find God, God knows where to find Job and this convinces Job that he can, in the words of today’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, “approach the throne of grace with boldness.” In fact, he shall do so, and so can we!

Not knowing where or how to find God is the existential problem of modern life. Baptist theologian Brooks Ramsey sums up the problem nicely in this question: “It is easy to sense God’s presence when things are going right. But where is God when things fall apart?” While the Book of Job offers no easy answers to this question, it does assure us that God is there even though we, like the character Job, may be unable to perceive God’s presence. The French Reformed theologian Jacques Ellul wrote in his book Hope in Time of Abandonment that it is in those times when we share Job’s frustration that hope is truly born:

Hope comes alive only in the dreary silence of God, in our loneliness before a closed heaven, in our abandonment . . . Hope is a protest before this God, who is leaving us without miracles and without conversions, that he is not keeping his Word.

Now, I don’t believe that God is ever truly silent, nor that God does not keep God’s promises; but I do know that there are times in our lives when we are all like Job – we cannot seem to find God; we do not sense God’s presence; and we do not know where to look for God.

Hope, as Ellul said, is humanity’s answer to God’s apparent silence, to God’s elusiveness, and it is through hopeful prayer that we demand the fulfillment of God’s promises; it is through prayer that we, like Job, approach the throne of grace and plead our case. We do not need to know where to find God in order to pray; we do not need to know where to find God in order to have hope.

Our Christian faith that assures us that in our times of pain and suffering God comes to us. God finds us and comes to us in the loving acts of others. In illness, God finds us and comes to us in the ministrations of the medical professionals who treat us. In emotional distress, God finds us and comes to us through friends, family members, and others who offer us encouragement. In moments of deep need, God finds us and comes to us in a mysterious way through those who care. This gives us hope and courage. We need not cry out like the character Job, “Oh, that I knew where I might find [God];” (23:3) God knows where to find us.

This is the balm for our souls, the spiritual medicine that we, the “Patients of Job,” find in today’s lesson from the Book of Job, that in our times of need, God knows where to find us and that God does, indeed, come to us. Amen.

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