That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Joshua

Unity, Love, Prayer: Homily for a Celebration of New Ministry – November 18, 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Massillon, Ohio, at the Celebration of New Ministry (Installation) of the Rev. George Baum as their rector.

(The lessons for the service were Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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prayercircleGood evening! For those who don’t know me, I am Eric Funston, a priest of the Episcopal Church and rector of St. Paul’s Parish in Medina, Ohio. For those of you who don’t know why I’m preaching here tonight . . . I wish I could tell you! Usually these ordination or installation homily gigs go to someone with whom the new clergy person has had a, shall we say, formative relationship: a former pastor, a seminary professor or a ministry supervisor, an elder minister under whom the new pastor served a curacy, someone responsible for the priestly formation of the new rector. But that doesn’t describe me . . . I am not responsible for George Baum ~ and that is very probably a good thing!

Seriously, I’m here simply because George and I are friends and colleagues, and he asked me to preach, which I am honored and pleased to do.

An ecumenical friend of mine was asked to do the same, to preach at the installation of a new pastor of his denomination with whom he had not had a mentor relationship, so he sent the soon-to-be-plugged-in clergyman an email asking what sort of church he hoped he’d be joining. The answer was, “I would love to come into a church that was unified, where everyone loved each other, and they all prayed for the pastor.” When my friend shared that reply with our ministerial alliance, we all started laughing. Not because it’s funny, but because it’s so universally true. Every pastor would love to have a parish characterized by unity, love, and prayer.

I didn’t ask George what he might be looking for in a new pastoral call, nor what he might be hoping for from this installation sermon; frankly, I was sort of afraid to do so! Besides, when I even hinted at what I might say tonight he started to (and I quote from his Facebook page) “make a few phone calls for backup preachers.” Nonetheless, I suspect that if I had asked him, he might have said pretty much the same thing, that he would love to have St. Timothy’s Parish be a church that is unified, where everyone loves one another, and where the members pray for the rector.

So, about that first item, unity:

George selected a well-known passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus as our Epistle Lesson tonight. In the three verses which come before the opening sentence of our reading, St. Paul wrote these words which, I think, will also be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)

These verses summarize the primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians, which is the church’s call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) After making this appeal, Paul launches, as we heard, into a celebration of the church’s diversity: some members are apostles, some are prophets, some are evangelists, some are pastors, some are teachers, and so on. He has done this before, as when he reminded the Corinthians that

there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor 12:4-6)

Or when he wrote to the Galatians that though they might have been Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, those differences no longer mattered “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Whatever and whoever we are, we are all given gifts to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13). Paul’s call in this letter is for unity not uniformity, for a unity which embraces and celebrates diversity so that, in the words of our Lord’s prayer to his Father:

. . . [all] may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (Jn 17:22-23)

More than a half-century ago, when I was in junior high school, I saw a made-for-television movie which portrayed the most outrageous future you could imagine, a future in which every home had in it a computer terminal on which the family could talk to their friends and co-workers, could order their groceries, and could even cast their votes. In this impossible-to-imagine future, every citizen would enjoy instant coverage of world news, direct contact with political leaders, immediate access to all sorts of data, and be well-informed. This, of course, would lead to political unity and world peace. Oh … and everyone would have flying cars.

I’m still waiting for that future. We have the computers in our homes but not much else. Perhaps all the rest will come along when the flying cars get here. In the meantime, what our 24/7 instantaneous news cycle and our direct access to data (both true and false) have done is exacerbate our differences. Instead of drawing us closer together, the internet seems to have pushed us apart into competing “bubbles” and “echo chambers.” If the recently concluded election cycle, its outcome, and reactions to that result teach us anything, it is that the church’s witness to unity in diversity is needed now more than ever. And it is within this wider context of division and conflict that this community, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church of Massillon, Ohio, has called the Rev. George Baum to be its rector.

Now, let’s be honest, the church has not always been a paragon of unity, despite Jesus’ prayer and St. Paul’s admonitions. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. But on a recent episode of the NPR show On Being Muslim American social scholar Eboo Patel argued that religious communities must stand together and witness to what he called “diversities of justice.” In this, he echoes the call of Anglican theologian David F. Ford, who has called upon our churches, within themselves and in outreach to others, to form what he labels “improved partnerships of disagreement.” Only if we ourselves are in unity of faith measuring up to the full stature of Christ can we make that witness to the world.

You have called George to be your rector which means that, among other things, you have called him to be a prophet, to be your parish’s and the wider church’s and God’s spokesman to the community around you. In a few minutes, your wardens will present him a set of keys and encourage him to open the doors of this place to all people; shortly after that, George will kneel in the center of the nave and pray for God’s blessing that through his ministry and yours “all the world may be drawn into [God’s] blessed kingdom.” Regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of the economic, political, demographic, or social spectra of difference and disagreement which encourage us to division and conflict, he or she is called to represent your unity in and to the wider world.

Don’t get me wrong, disagreements are fine and leaders in the church should welcome lively discussion of issues because no one person has a monopoly on all wisdom. Disagreement and debate help church leaders to hear all sides of the issues and force them to think matters through. But when all is said and done, when all the disagreements have been aired, and all the points debated, the church community will still be here and it must be united in faith and growing into the full stature of Christ.

The only way we can do that is with the second element of the new pastor’s request, love:

“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

We all know that no matter what may be happening in the larger world, no matter what disagreements or conflicts we may get into in business, or politics, or the church, babies still get born, children still grow up, teens and young adults still go through the changes and passages of life, young men and women still get married . . . and older people do too! People still get sick and people still die . . . and, George, these fine people here have invited you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to share all of that with them. No matter where they or you may stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they are going to invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of our unity in Christ is made most clear. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra; a web of relationship comes into being and fosters and upholds the work to which we all are called. That web is elastic but tough; it is flexible and enduring; it is stronger than any of those one-dimensional spectra could ever be. We give that web the name of “love.”

Good people of St. Timothy’s Parish, please remember that George does not do this ministry alone! Tending to this web of relationship we call “love” is everyone’s job. As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Love is the glue that bonds the church in unity. Love for Christ and love for each other. In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes that he hopes his readers’ hearts will “be encouraged and united in love.” (Col 2:2) The Greek word translated as “united” is sumbibazo. It’s the same verb Paul uses in our Ephesians text this evening, translated here as “joined together,” the way the ligaments and tendons hold the joints of the body together and promote its growth, “building itself up in love.” (Eph 4:16) Remember that love is never an emotion; it is always an action. Love is not something we feel; love is something we do.

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)

So love each other and love your new rector. As our bishop is fond of saying, “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.”

One of my favorite hymns includes the repeated refrain, “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.” So, George, remember those words of God to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as St. Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:7)

Which brings us, finally, to the third request of the new pastor, to the discipline of prayer.

“You that stand by night in the house of the Lord, lift up your hands and bless the Lord.” (Cf. Ps 134) The Psalmist’s fancy way to say, “Pray!” What more can be said? What more needs to be said? Not much, really . . . but I’m a preacher so it’s my job say what shouldn’t need to be said. Tonight, let’s say it. “Pray!”

Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity. Let me say that again: Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

It’s easy, I’m sure you’ll all agree, to pray for those we like, for those with whom we agree. It’s also pretty easy to pray for people we don’t know; our formal in-church prayer often include prayers for foreign provinces of the Anglican Communion – this Sunday, for example, we are asked to pray for church members in the Falkland Islands and for their bishop William Nigel Stock. I don’t know Bishop Stock or anyone else in the Falklands so I’m perfectly happy to pray for them until the cows come home!

It should be easy to pray for members of our family and of our church, and for our friends, although sometimes we may not like them very much and often we may not agree with them, and that makes it a little harder. And then there are those other people, the ones we really don’t like or with whom on a scale of 1-to-10 we disagree at level 12; for me, I confess, it’s practically impossible to pray for them. But Someone once said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, [and] pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk 6:27-28)

In my counseling with people who are dealing with anger issues, I often suggest to them that they should pray by name for the one with whom they are angry. In every parish I have served, I have insisted that we pray for the president, by name, at every Sunday service: I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Bill Clinton; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for George Bush; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Barack Obama; and I know I will have parishioners who will refuse to pray for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, I will insist that we do so because, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim 2:1-2)

Note what Paul says there. He urges prayer for our leaders not so that they, the ones being prayed for, will be successful, but rather so that we, the ones who are praying, may have the blessings of quiet, peace, godliness, and dignity. Prayer works on the heart of the one who prays. One of the chief purposes of prayer is to transform the heart of the person praying so that it more closely resembles the heart of God. Prayer nourishes us and aligns our wills with God’s will. In this way, prayer heals and strengthens our relationships with the ones for whom we pray.

To be sure, we also believe that prayer benefits the subject of our prayers, as well. Prayer, as an offering of humble dependence, strengthens all within the community which finds its source and harmony in God. Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

In every epistle, Paul begs his churches to pray for him. It is the constant need of every pastor, to feel supported by the prayers of his or her people. So, please, pray for George (even when he disappoints – which he will, occasionally; even when you disagree with him – which you will, occasionally); pray for his family; pray for one another; and pray for the community and the world within which together you begin this new ministry.

So there you have it. The three things every priest wishes to find in his or her parish: unity, love, and prayer. With these as foundation, together with your new rector, you can faithfully respond to Jesus, who says to you, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last.”

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand . . . and every member of St. Timothy’s Parish, I invite you to stand, also . . . I can offer all of you no better charge than that given by the Patron Saint of my parish to the Patron Saint of your parish:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim 6:11-12,14,20)

Do so in unity, with love, holding each other in prayer. Because despite what I said in the jest at the beginning of this sermon, I am responsible for George Baum. We are all responsible to and for one another. So, again, live and minister in unity and with love, and pray for one another.

Amen.

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

An Unpreached Clergy Installation Sermon in the Time of Donald Trump

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A homily which will NOT be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of a neighboring parish in Ohio, at the celebration of the new ministry of the Rev. George ___________ as rector. (I have not disclosed names or locations as they are, frankly, irrelevant to this soon-to-be-unpreached sermon.)

(The lessons on which this sermon is based are Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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Note: When first asked to preach at George’s celebration of new ministry, I penned this sermon. After a few days, I decided to go in a different direction and, using only a few bits and pieces of what I had written here, cobbled together with other material, I crafted another sermon which I will preach. Nonetheless, I believe this homily to have merit and, therefore, publish it here. (I will publish the actual sermon once it has been delivered.)

donald-trump-prune-faceOn 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.”

Meanwhile, 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.”

“Now, wait,” you’re probably thinking, “none of that has happened here (where we are celebrating), nor in Medina (where my church is), so why are you bringing it up?”

Well, in the three verses which precede the opening sentence of our Epistle Lesson this evening, St. Paul wrote these words which will, I think, be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6)

The primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians is the church’s ministry of reconciliation and our call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) We are all given gifts, as we heard in the portion read tonight, to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (4:13)

And we are to do that in the context of a nation in which threatening notes are left on minister’s cars, public recreation facilities are defaced with messages of racial hatred, students are made to feel unsafe on their college campuses, and churches are tagged with anti-gay or anti-immigrant graffiti, a nation where thousands protest because they cannot accept the outcome of a national election. We are called to be a community of unity (not of uniformity, but of unity), a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict.

It is within this wider context that the community of St. [Swithun’s], has called the Rev. George __________ to be its rector.

In those three verses, which form a sort of explanatory preamble to the first verse we heard read (verse 7), the word “one” is used seven times! It is the drum-beat of a hymn to the church’s unity which crescendos with the oneness of God, the “Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” In the first three chapters of the letter, Paul has identified God as the source of the church’s identity; here, he identifies the oneness of God as the source, foundation, and ultimate goal of the church’s unity and our ministry of reconciliation.

In the Greek, verse 7 (the first verse we heard from the letter) also begins with the word “one.” It’s not possible to translate that parallelism into English, but to fully appreciate Paul’s thrust we might add a couple of words to our translation. We might underscore Paul’s point by rendering it not simply as “each of us was given” but more emphatically as “each one of us was given” a gift of grace for this work. Paul is bringing his notion of oneness back to our individual experience – each one of us experiences God’s grace in the larger context of the church’s ministry and goal of unity and reconciliation.

In an opinion piece published Monday in the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, the provisional bishop of Bethlehem and Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, wrote:

[T]he news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. *** [B]ut before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. (Rowe)

I believe that what Bishop Rowe is saying is an echo of God’s words to Joshua as he took over leadership of the Hebrews from Moses: “Be strong, be courageous, be careful; do not to the right or to the left.” (Josh 1:7) That’s hard work, but God’s message to Joshua is God’s message to us: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)

While no one, at least so far as I am aware, has tagged any churches in this community with anti-gay or anti-immigrant or pro-Trump graffiti, and while no one, at least so far as I am aware, has marched through the streets of this town in protest of the election’s results, I would be willing to bet that this community, and even this parish, has within it both those who voted for Trump and are rejoicing, and those who voted for Clinton and are in grief. This is the reality of human community and of the church; as I said a moment, we are a community of unity not of uniformity, called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of such division and conflict.

I don’t know and don’t really care how any of you voted; I don’t know and don’t really care how Father George voted. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. And regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of those spectra, he or she is called into the midst of them to be pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to the whole of the community.

Because no matter what may be happening in the larger world, babies are still being born, children are still growing up, teens and young adults are still going through the changes and passages of life, young men and women are still getting married, older people are, too! And people are still getting sick and dying . . . and, George, they are counting on you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor through it all. No matter where they or you stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they will invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of reconciliation occurs. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra of opinion; a web of relationship comes into being which fosters and upholds the work of reconciliation to which all are called.

So, George, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as the apostle Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

But, good people of St. [Swithun’s], George does not do this alone! As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

“Who are the ministers of the Church?” asks our Catechism. “The ministers of the Church,” it answers, “are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” The ministry of the laity, it continues

is to represent Christ and his Church; 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; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP 1979, page 855)

“To carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world . . .” and we are right back where we began: we are called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict. In a world where so many are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming,” we, all of us, are call to “speak[] the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:14-15) George will do that; so must you.

George, as you may know, is named for the Patron Saint of England whose red cross emblazons our Episcopal Church flag and shield. What you may not know is that St. George is also the patron saint of Palestine. A few years ago, my wife and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among the places we visited was the village of Burkin which sits on the boundary between Samaria and Galilee.

There, we visited the tiny Church of St. George, which commemorates the spot on which Jesus healed ten lepers. (Luke 17:12-19) It is the fourth oldest continuously in use worship space in the world! There has been a church on that spot since the early Fourth Century! It is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Our host was Usama, a member of the Greek Orthodox congregation. One could tell that he and the other members of St. George’s Church are very proud of their heritage. Their worship space is immaculate. The silver is polished; the cloth hangings and altar vestments are clean and bright; the icons are dusted. Pride of place is patent in every corner.

The worship space is tiny – our group of eighteen people more than half filled it. It is probably very crowded on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy and at other times of Orthodox worship. This congregation has a membership of 65 people. They are the only Christians in a town of over 7,000 population. Their witness is astounding!

Usama and his wife Neda hosted us to lunch in their home. The tables were filled with tomato and cucumber salad, yoghurt, pita, and chicken and lamb shwarma served on heaping platters of seasoned rice. There was enough to feed a group five times our size.

Several of us had two or three helpings of the delicious food when Usama’s wife, Neda, came around and piled one more serving on everyone’s plate: “Eat,” she said, “how do I know you liked it if you leave some behind?” It was all in good fun, and the graciousness and vibrancy of their hospitality was overwhelming.

We talked with them about the dwindling of their congregation, what it is like to be a Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. Someone in our group asked if they had ever considered leaving Burkin. “No,” Neda replied quickly, “If we left, who would be the church?”

It was a brilliant response, “Who would be the church?” Not ”Who would take care of the church?” Not “Who would polish the silver?” Not “Who would do whatever ….” but “Who would be the church?” Who would be the community of reconciliation in that context of division and conflict?

Usama and Neda and their brothers and sisters in Burkin are called to be that community there; you and George are called to be that community here. So I want to be very clear what it means to be a community of reconciliation in a world of division and conflict. It does not mean to simply make nice and live in an uneasy peace with those with whom we disagree; it does not mean to accept what cannot be accepted; it does not mean to approve what cannot be approved.

Reconciliation does not take place in a vacuum, nor in a fog of niceness; reconciliation can only take place within a context of, and when it incorporates the elements of, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and the healing of relationships.

In the sacramental rite of reconciliation, “evidence of due contrition” must be shown and the Confessor may require that “something to be done as a sign of penitence and [an] act of thanksgiving.” (BCP 1979 page 446) In the invitation to the general confession in our older prayer books and in Rite One of the current Prayer Book, the presider calls on those

. . . who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways. (BCP 1979 page 330).

This is the prophet’s call to change. Standing in the web of reconciliation, addressing one another and those outside our community who stand at different points on the various spectra of politics, economics, and demography, our work of reconciliation is the work of a prophet.

For example, the Old Testament law commands, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) As ministers of reconciliation we are obligated by our baptismal promises to treat resident aliens in this way, to call others to do so, and to resist those who would treat immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities in any other way.

The prophet Micah told us that what is required of us is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) As Christian ministers of reconciliation it is incumbent upon us to do so, to encourage others to do so, and to seek to change systems and practices that do not promote justice and loving kindness.

Jesus was once asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he replied “‘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.’” (Matthew 22:36-39) In fulfillment of these commandments, our ministry of reconciliation requires that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, Page 305) call others to do so, and oppose those who would thwart those goals.

Jesus suggested that the Father blesses those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison, and turns away those who fail to do such things. (See Matt. 25:32-46) Our ministry of reconciliation demands that, like Jesus, we say to those who refuse to do these things “Depart from me, I do not know you,” until they change and do what they can for the least of his brothers and sisters.

When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples drew a sword and cut off someone’s ear, but Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52). Our ministry of reconciliation must include a prophetic echo of Isaiah and Micah calling on the manufacturers, purveyors, and wielders of weapons to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)

You, good people of St. [Swithun’s], have called George to join you in this prophetic ministry of reconciliation; with him you are called to be the church in this place at this time, a community of unity and reconciliation in the larger conflicted and divisive context of this age. To you, Jesus says, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last,” the fruit of the prophetic ministry of reconciliation.

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the clergy person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand, and as friend to friend, presbyter to presbyter, long-winded preacher to long-winded preacher, I can offer no better advice than that given by St. Paul in his first letter to a new pastor, Timothy:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim. 6:11-12,14,20)

Amen.

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

The photograph of President-elect Donald J. Trump is from the Library Grape website.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compositional Amenities – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Compositional Amenities

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

1 Kings 11:1-2 ~ King Solomon loved many foreign women along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the Israelites, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you; for they will surely incline your heart to follow their gods;” Solomon clung to these in love.

Today in a New York Times editorial I learned about “compositional amenities,” which the editorialist defined as “the comfort of a common religion and language, mutually shared traditions, and the minimization of cultural conflict.” Bingo! This pegs the concern of the Deuteronomic historians over Solomon’s many wives, as well as the comment made earlier in the First Book of Commons about his offering sacrifice and incense “at the high places,” that is at the places of worship dedicated to Canaanite (and other) gods. (1 Kings 3:3)

In fact, a good deal of the Law’s concern with marriage outside of tribal and clan boundaries, with dietary restrictions, and with other matters can be understood as concern with “compositional amenities.” So, too, can the histories of conquest with ascribe to God the command to thoroughly cleanse the Land of its former inhabitants, including not only all human beings but also all livestock. For example, in the story of Joshua’s victory over the city of Jericho, we are told that the Israelites “devoted to destruction by the edge of the sword all in the city, both men and women, young and old, oxen, sheep, and donkeys.” (Josh 6:21) Saul is ordered by Samuel (speaking on God’s behalf), “go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Sam 15:3)

Compositional amenities. It is a concept that explains much in the Hebrew Scriptures, as it explains much in modern social and political behavior. The editorialist used it to understand the supporters of certain American political candidates; the scholars he cited applied it to analysis of European attitudes toward immigration.

Jesus had something to say about “compositional amenities.” He told a story about a traveler who was mugged, left at the side of the road, and eventually aided by someone who overlooked “compositional amenities.” That one, said Jesus, was the victim’s neighbor. In other words, we are to abandon “compositional amenities.” Solomon obviously did! Yet more evidence of his wisdom.

“Joshua” Is Not a Plan for Government – From the Daily Office – July 26, 2014

From the Book of Joshua:

Joshua summoned all Israel, their elders and heads, their judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years; and you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you. Therefore be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left, so that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow yourselves down to them, but hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have done to this day. For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations; and as for you, no one has been able to withstand you to this day. One of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, as he promised you. Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joshua 23:2-11 (NRSV) – July 26, 2014)

Map of Palestine 2007For the past several days, the Daily Office Lectionary has required us to read sections of the Book of Joshua detailing the conquest of the land “from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west.” I have dutifully read those lessons every day. I have been deeply troubled by them and by the suggestion (which I have seen some make on Facebook and other online sources) that the “history” set out in the Book of Joshua demonstrates God’s approval of the conquest of “biblical Israel” by the modern state of Israel. I have avoided writing anything about these lessons in these daily reflections on this blog.

I’ve decided I cannot be silent any further. I must protest such a gross misunderstanding these stories and at least two distortions on which it is based.

First, the modern state of Israel is not the ancient nation of Israel. One cannot say that strongly enough. The modern state of Israel is NOT the ancient nation of Israel. That ancient nation ceased to exist centuries ago; its people were dispersed through several other nations — this is what the term “the diaspora” refers to — its government collapsed — its territory was absorbed into a series of empires.

The modern state of Israel was created in 1948 following the campaign by modern Zionists, themselves mostly secular rather than religious Jews, for a Jewish homeland. That campaign pre-dated the Nazi holocaust, but the holocaust gave the Zionist program added urgency. In November 1947, bowing to intense lobbying by Zionist organizations and after years of terrorist activities by the Jewish Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi organizations in Palestine, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The final vote was 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions and 1 absent. European Zionists welcomed the plan; the Arabs of Palestine rejected the vote immediately, but their objections were ignored.

In a civil war extending from 1947 into 1949, the modern state of Israel was born. Nearly one million Arabs lost their homes and become refugees in other parts of Palestine or elsewhere in the Arab world. The new government of Israel shortly passed two laws: the Law of Return (1950), which grants citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world who immigrates to Israel, and the Entry into Israel Law (1952), which prevents the return of Palestinian refugees.

This is the modern state of Israel. It is NOT the ancient nation of Israel. There is no biblical mandate for the modern country’s existence, nor for its laws and actions. It is a modern political reality which the world, including the Arab world, must accept and with which it must deal, but it is not a God-endorsed, biblically-mandated reality.

The second distortion is the idea that the Book of Joshua is history. It is not. Technically, it is what is known in literary scholarship as an etiological myth. These are stories which provide a mythological explanation for certain events and customs (or natural phenomena) the origin of which has long been forgotten or is not understood. Other stories of this type are the Greek Illiad and Odyssey, the Irish stories of Cúchulainn, or even the American folk tales of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. Joshua is the ancient Hebrew equivalent of Achilles, Odysseus, Cúchulainn, or Paul Bunyan.

The Book of Joshua tells us something about human beings, something about human understandings of God, something about how humans behave in community (and in war); it tells us something of what some of the ancient Hebrews believed about their origins (which is partially contradicted by what others of them believed and is recorded in the Books of Chronicles). It tells us nothing, however, about actual historical events, nor about God’s endorsement or condemnation of them or of any of their enemies.

To suggest that modern governance of territory in the Middle East should be based on (or understood through the lens of) the Book of Joshua makes as much sense as suggesting that the modern governance of Greece should be based on Homer’s poems, that Irish foreign policy should be evaluated through the Cúchulainn stories, or that American environmental policy should derive from the tales of Paul Bunyan.

These are spiritual stories, not political ones. These are myths, not histories. These stories reveal truths, not facts. They should trouble us, perhaps inspire us, not direct us nor determine modern national governance.

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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.

Bless [All] the People of Israel – From the Daily Office – July 23, 2014

From the Book of Joshua:

All Israel, alien as well as citizen, with their elders and officers and their judges, stood on opposite sides of the ark in front of the levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, half of them in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded at the first, that they should bless the people of Israel.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joshua 8:33 (NRSV) – July 23, 2014)

Soldier at Mt GerizimTwo weeks ago, I stood on Mt. Gerizim with 17 friends looking over to Mt. Ebal. We read this text; we read Deuteronomy 27 in which the explicit curses to be read from Mt. Ebal are set forth. We pondered what it means for a people to live in a land divided by blessings and curses. Lost in our thoughts, we were startled when we turned around and found a young Israeli soldier standing behind us in full battle gear, an Uzi loaded and held at the ready.

Some of us found him threatening, but we were told that he was there for our protection. The lookout is a spot where Jewish pilgrims also like to come and remember their heritage; it is in full view of the Arab city of Nablus and a sniper on the city’s outskirts with a high-powered rifle could pick off someone standing at the lookout. I don’t know if that has ever happened, but the young soldier was there to make sure it didn’t or that, if it did, the gunfire would be answered.

I’m sure there might be some radical lunatic who might try such a thing, but in the three days we spent in Nablus, walking its streets, eating in its restaurants, greeting its people, I certainly never met or encountered anyone whom I thought to be such a threat.

In any event, I wonder about that young soldier now. Has he been transferred the fifty or so miles from his outpost on the ancient mountain to the modern battleground on the border with the Gaza Strip? Is he safe? Has he been wounded or killed? Is he preparing for a ground battle in Gaza? I’ll never know, of course, but I wonder.

There was a report recently that in Sderot, an Israeli community less than three miles from the Gaza community of Beit Hanoun, the Jewish residents sat in their lawn chairs watching the bombing of their Palestinian neighbors, laughing and cheering as the bombs exploded. An Australian CNN reporter filmed them doing so.

I couldn’t help but think about that when I read today’s story of Joshua. I couldn’t help but remember standing on Mt. Gerizim and wondering what it must have been like to hear from the mountain across the valley the voices of Joshua and others yelling out the curses. Ancient Jews on a hillside pronouncing curses on the land a couple of miles away; modern Jews on a hillside laughing derision and cheering destruction on the land a couple of miles away. Ancient history come to life in modern Palestine; an ancient ritual now played out as if in some obscene parody with modern weapons of terrible vengeance. Would the residents of Sderot have laughed and cheered if they knew that young soldier might be in danger where those bombs were exploding? Did it matter to them that other young soldiers, not to mention women, children, elderly people, disabled people, and other civilians, were dying where those bombs were exploding?

I don’t ask to imply or suggest any condemnation of them. God knows Americans have no high moral ground to stand on in this regard! It’s a well-known fact of American history that the residents of Washington DC took picnic baskets out to the hillside overlooking Bull Run to watch what became the first Civil War battle at that site. And, more recently, many of us cheered and partied in the streets when we learned of the death of Osama bin Laden. Laughing derision and cheering the destruction of those we consider our enemies is a universal human behavior. We just don’t consider them to be quite like us.

But they are like us. They have lives like ours. As Shakespeare’s Shylock pointed out when contemplating the differences (or lack of differences) between Jew and Gentile:

I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me I will execute — and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction. (Merchant of Venice, Act 3, Scene 1)

Is that what is happening now? In unknowingly acting out that bizarre caricature of the curses from Mt. Ebal, in carrying out their “containment” of the Palestinians behind a “security barricade,” in bombing the herded-together densely-packed residents of Gaza (1.8 million people on a piece of land only 139 square miles in size; 13,000 people per square mile) is that what Israel is doing? Bettering the instruction that Gentile society, Christian Europe specifically, has taught the Jews? Is that what is happening? The abused become the abuser and doing it “better”? The accursed become the curser and doing it “better”?

I am commended by Scripture to “bless the people of Israel.” I am commended by Scripture to pray for the peace of Jerusalem. I can only do so if I include in my blessing all the people of Israel, Jew and Arab, Muslim and Christian, secular Jew and Orthodox, Amenians and Greeks, all the people of the land. I can only do so if my prayer is for a peace which is just to all and in which all are secure, “alien as well as citizen.”

Bless the people of Israel and pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

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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.

Strong and Courageous – From the Daily Office – June 2, 2014

From the Book of Joshua:

I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joshua 1:9 (NRSV) – June 2, 2014)

Suffragettes MarchingThese are among the words spoken by Yahweh to Joshua son of Nun, the assistant to Moses, as he is commissioned to succeed Moses as leader of the Hebrews and lead them into Canaan.

It occurred to me as I thought about them that they can mean very different things depending on the audience to whom they are spoken, or at least they can seem to. It also occurred to me that although there are similar admonitions given to various people throughout Scripture, none of those people are women. There are women who are lauded for their strength and courage, Deborah the judge and Yael who killed the general Sisera, for example, but they are exceptions to the rule (the Scriptural rule seeming to be that women are to be meek and compliant). But I can think of no instance in which a woman is directly instructed to be “strong and courageous” (or anything similar).

I suppose my thoughts run in that channel this morning because of something I heard during an NPR discussion of the recent mass killing in Isla Vista, California, the motivations of the killer, and the public conversation in the aftermath. Two news analysts were talking about the Twitter hashtag #yesallwomen and one of them quoted novelist Margaret Atwood, “Men’s greatest fear is that women will laugh at them, while women’s greatest fear is that men will kill them.” I’d not heard that comment before, but a look at that Twitter hashtag feed made me appreciate the truth that underlies it.

Reading the various Tweets from women under that hashtag is a real eye-opener! Here are a few (edited to remove Twitter identifiers and vulgarities):

Because I thought I was safe walking 2 blocks home in my town ’til rape reports started piling up last year. I wasn’t safe; I was lucky.

Because this is “humor”: Never trust anything that can bleed for seven days straight and doesn’t die.

Because I was recently told by a man that I was “forcing him to have impure thoughts” by the way I was dressed.

Because I’m made out to be a slut for being a single mother.

Because when I’m walking home at night, instead of self-reflection or self-improvement I think about self-defense.

Because when I walk through a parking lot and get catcalled I’m told to ignore it rather than standup for myself.

Because when my intellect stuns someone, attacking my weight is an obvious second choice.

Because when women share stories of being scared or hurt, some people say “Yeah? Prove it.”

Because when you hit on me, my curves are sexy, and when I reject you, I’m a fat bitch you’d only ____ with a paper bag on.

Because I was advised by a male supervisor to flirt with men to get them to sign a petition.

Because when a guy posts a post-workout pic he’s “confident” but when a girl does the same thing she’s “attention-seeking”.

The other eye-openers on that hashtag thread were the Tweets by men. I simply can’t repeat many of them here! To call them misogynistic would be an understatement; to call them vile would be closer to the truth.

As the child of a single mother and the parent of a single woman living on her own, I thought I appreciated the difficulties of women in our society. I was wrong. I didn’t and I probably still don’t, but what I took away from reading through those Tweets is a more visceral (if still partial) understanding of patriarchy. Those Tweets flesh-out and give substance to what, for most men (I think), can be nothing more than an intellectual concept. I suggest my brethren do as I have done and spend some time reading through those Tweets. You’ll be amazed by the comments of the women and appalled by those of the men. You’ll have to be strong and courageous to read them, but in the end you’ll be better for having done so.

So God told Joshua, “Be strong and courageous,” but I can think of no instance when God gave similar instruction to a woman. It occurs to me that perhaps the reason those words aren’t spoken to women in the Scriptures is that they don’t need to be. Women don’t need to be told to be strong and courageous; they already are. Women growing up and living in patriarchy simply have to be.

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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.

Bible Study – From the Daily Office – December 19, 2013

From the Gospel according to Matthew:

[Jesus said:] “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 25:1-2 (NRSV) – December 19, 2013.)

Open Bible with EyeglassesThe parable of the bridesmaids has always bothered me. Whenever I have to preach from it I have to get passed my first reaction, which is, “Really? People will be kept out of heaven for being stupid?” Of course, that is a misreading, or perhaps I should say “over-reading,” of the metaphor.

The message of this parable is once again the Advent message of preparation: it is an admonition to be ready for the unexpected return of the Lord, for the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven. It has nothing to do with “getting into heaven;” it says nothing of the judgment of God, much less of the mercy of God. It is simply about being alert and prepared. The metaphor goes no further.

Extending metaphors beyond their point is often a danger with the things Jesus says! It is, truth be told, the danger with the whole of Scripture. Stories of God have to be read in the context of the whole of the Bible and understood to be limited in themselves; they tell only a part of the much-larger story.

I meet once a week with a group of people studying the Old Testament. The past couple of weeks we’ve been reading and discussing the books of Joshua and Judges. If one were to understand God solely on the basis of the stories of the conquest and settlement of Canaan, one’s picture of God would be that of a petty tyrant interested only in ritual, the acquisition of territory, and racial purity. You would read how God gave victory to the Israelite army and helped them annexed Canaanite territory simply because, with no military preparation at all, they marched around behind priests blowing trumpets. You would read how God then ordered them to slaughter all the men, women, children, and even livestock in some of the towns they captured simply to prevent them from intermarrying with the conquered Canaanites. You would read how God rewarded the Israelites for the behavior of Jael who lied, violated the laws of hospitality, and murdered a guest in her tent. You would read how God empowered Samson to be a judge over Israel, Samson who was, at best, a womanizer and a dolt! Not a pretty picture of God . . . although God’s granting power to Samson goes a long way toward countering the bridesmaids metaphor’s suggestion that God does not reward the stupid.

No. One cannot read selected bits of Scripture, whether they be the ritualized (and largely legendary) military history of the occupation of Canaan or the parabolic words of God Incarnate, out of the larger context of the entire witness of the Bible.

Perhaps that is part of “being prepared,” reading and appreciating the testimony of the entire Scriptures, being biblically literate, knowing the story in its grander dimensions. Advent is nearly over, but it is never too late to begin. Even a foolish bridesmaid or a stupid judge should understand that!

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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.

Mean Spiritedness and Holy Scripture – From the Daily Office – March 1, 2013

From the Gospel of John:

Jesus said: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life. I do not accept glory from human beings. But I know that you do not have the love of God in you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not accept me; if another comes in his own name, you will accept him. How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God? Do not think that I will accuse you before the Father; your accuser is Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 5:39-47 (NRSV) – March 1, 2013.)

Bible Title PageIt’s called bibliolatry and it’s been around a long, long time. The dictionary definition of bibliolatry is “excessive reverence for the Bible as literally interpreted.” What I most enjoy about modern bibliolatry is that it denies that it is bibliolatry in the most circular and bibliolatrous of ways.

For instance, this is from a website that claims its stance on Holy Scripture is not bibliolatry because of what Scripture says about itself:

It is important to understand what the Bible says about itself. Second Timothy 3:16-17 declares, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” So, if the Bible is “God-breathed,” and “God does not lie” (Titus 1:2), then every word in the Bible must be true. Believing in an inerrant, infallible, and authoritative Bible is not bibliolatry. Rather, it is simply believing what the Bible says about itself. Further, believing what the Bible says about itself is in fact worshipping the God who breathed out His Word. Only a perfect, infallible, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God could create written revelation that is itself perfect and infallible.

In so many words what this says is, “The Bible is inerrant and infallible because it says it is.” It doesn’t actually (that is not a valid interpretation of Second Timothy or Titus), but is anything else (other than, perhaps, the holy books of other religions) given that kind of reverence? Is any other source of information permitted that sort of self-validation without question?

The Jews of Jesus’ day did not (and to this day do not) view Scripture as inerrant, but those to whom Jesus was speaking did rely on the Torah quite heavily; they gave it, perhaps, excessive reverence. The Pharisees did search the scriptures for rules of behavior and piety because they thought that in them they would find eternal life. In this regard, I believe, the evangelical literalists resemble them with their approach to the Bible as inerrant and infallible.

At a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Professor J.P. Moreland of Biola University said:

In the actual practices of the Evangelical community in North America, there is an over-commitment to Scripture in a way that is false, irrational, and harmful to the cause of Christ. And it has produced a mean-spiritedness among the over-committed that is a grotesque and often ignorant distortion of discipleship unto the Lord Jesus.

It’s that mean spiritedness that concerns me. It has spread throughout the Christian community, not simply among Evangelicals. It seems to me that we are all, to one extent or another, bibliolatrists. We may not consider the Bible inerrant and infallible, but we have our favorite bits of Scripture that we emphasize and hold in “excessive reverence” . . . and when our particular position on some issue is challenged, we can all be mean-spirited and often are. When that happens, the Scriptures are our accuser. Just as Jesus said to the Jews about the Torah, so we should think of the New Testament:

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12 NRSV)

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (Philippians 2:2 NRSV)

“You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (James 2:8 NRSV)

“Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” (1 Peter 3:8 NRSV)

“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:18 NRSV)

“May mercy, peace, and love be yours in abundance.” (Jude 1:2 NRSV)

In our several liberal denominations, we may not take the Bible literally; we may not consider it completely authoritative in all spheres of life. I, for one, do not. The Bible is not a scientific text; it is not a history book. When poetry in the Bible says that mountains skipped like rams or hills like lambs (Ps. 114), I do not take that as a literal fact. When the creation stories of Genesis say that God created everything in six days or made humans out of mud, I do not take that as scientific fact. When the Bible says the sun stood still and the moon stopped for a day, I don’t take that to be a historical reality. (Joshua 10:13) I take these tales seriously. I believe that they reveal truth, but I do not believe they are factual. In the same way, I take John, Paul, James, Peter, and Jude seriously.

If we give into mean spiritedness, it is they who will accuse us. And we will be convicted.

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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.

A Prostitute & An Unscrupulous God – From the Daily Office – July 16, 2012

From the Book of Joshua:

Joshua son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joshua 2:1 – July 16, 2012)

This is one of the things that I find so captivating about the Old Testament: its heroes and heroines are not supermen and superwomen. They aren’t even regular, run-of-the-mill folks. They are often, as here, the outcasts and sinners, the morally flawed, the ethically ambiguous, the folks who were looking out for themselves as much as they were trying to do something good (sometimes a lot more the former than the latter). “A prostitute whose name was Rahab” was as capable of doing God’s work as was a Levite, a priest, or a great military leader.

Furthermore, the manner in which she did the Lord’s work is, to be brutally honest, a bit suspect; at best her motives and her methods were morally questionable. Not only did she allegedly practice an immoral profession, she was disloyal to her city, lying to the civil authorities and striking a bargain with the enemy for favorable treatment for her self and her family. Nonetheless, she holds a place of honor in the story of God’s People. According to tradition, she became a true and sincere convert to the religion of Yahweh, married Joshua, and became the ancestress of several priests and prophets, including Jeremiah.

Recently, a friend quoted a familiar aphorism sometimes attributed to Abigail Van Buren (the “Dear Abby” pen name of Pauline Phillips): “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum of saints.” The story of Rahab is a case in point. To be one of God’s people doesn’t require perfection. One need not be morally pristine or ethically pure; one’s motives need to be immaculate. What is required is faithfulness, not spotlessness. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews made note, “By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish . . . .” (Heb. 11:31)

Human beings are rarely pure in any way and in most things our motives are mixed. God is more than willing for us to come into God’s company as sullied as we may be. In fact, God is not above using our imperfections! C.S. Lewis hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.” (Surprised by Joy) The story of Rahab just proves his point.

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