That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Luke (page 2 of 20)

Good Soil? – Sermon for RCL Proper 10A – July 16, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 10A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; and St. Matthew 13:1-9,18-23. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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This is an old and familiar story, a comfortable story if you will … the parable of the sower. We’ve all heard it before and we know what it means; we know the four types of soil and we know where we fit into the picture the story paints. It helps that Jesus takes the time to explain it to his disciples (there are some verses edited out of our lectionary version of the Gospel lesson so as we heard it this morning this isn’t clear, but the situation is that Jesus tells the parable in public to the crowds on the beach near Capernaum, then later offers the explanation in private to the Twelve).

The parable, Jesus says, represents the variety of responses to the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Although we call it the parable of the sower, Jesus focuses his explanation on the types of soil into which the sower’s seed is cast. That “soil,” Jesus explains, is the human heart. In ancient Israel, the heart was thought to be the seat of personality; in one’s heart was where a person knew things, thought, decided, exercised one’s will, and acted; it was the center of human commitment; it directed one’s way of life.

The seed that falls on the path, said Jesus, represents those who hear the good news but do not understand it. Because of the hardness or dullness of their hearts, the evil one, who resists God’s purposes snatches it away. It is not clear, in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation, why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than is God’s word, but then that is not the point of the parable. That, perhaps, is a teaching Jesus meant to leave for another day.

The second response to the word of God is that of the person who readily receives it but does not endure as a disciple. This sort is represented by the seed that falls on the rocky ground and sprouts quickly but dies under harsh conditions. The presence of “trouble or persecution [that] arises on account of the word,” which Jesus has promised as the inevitable result of discipleship, causes the person to fall away. Because the values of God’s kingdom threaten and are at odds with dominant culture’s values and structures, the world “strikes back” and this sort of person cannot resist or survive the onslaught.

The seed that fall among the thorns and is choked by the weeds represents the third sort of response. This person, says Jesus, is the who hears but “the cares of the world and lure of wealth choke the word” so that it cannot flourish and bear fruit. Concerns of daily life or the lure of material gain and worldly success prevent God’s rule from breaking through and nourishing new life. As a result, the good news yields nothing.

And then there is the seed sown on good soil, those who hear and understand the word. We know who these good people are, don’t we? These are those like ourselves, whose hearts are pure and who embrace the good news, who fight off the devil, who endure difficulty and persecution, who do not define themselves in terms of worldly success and wealth. Right? These are the good people who are the good soil where the seed of God’s grace sprouts and grows and bears fruit.

Well, not really. For the past few weeks we have been reading the stories of the first family to hear the word of God’s reign, the first family to be invited into a kingdom covenant with God: Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and now today we hear about their sons Esau and Jacob. This family represents the soil in which the good news of God’s love was first planted eventually bore the fruit of the People of Israel.

Yes, eventually Abraham trusted in the Lord and it was accounted to him as righteousness, but initially Abraham and Sarah did not trust the Lord, so they used and then discarded Hagar the handmaiden, nearly killing her and Ishmael her son after Sarah finally birthed a son of her own, and that son, Isaac, Abraham also came close to killing. As for Isaac, about the only active things he is seen doing in the whole story of the family other than tending sheep, weeping when his mother dies, and then eventually burying his father, is move the family to Gerar during a time of famine and, in doing so, lie to King Abimilech about who Rebekah is. Otherwise, Isaac is portrayed as excessively passive. He allowed himself to be nearly sacrificed with no word of complaint; he accepted a wife selected for him by his father’s slave; and late in life he is cheated and hoodwinked by his wife and her favored son. And that son, Jacob, is a trickster and a cheat.

We learn in our Old Testament lesson today that Jacob and his brother Esau were twins who wrestled in their mother Rebekah’s womb, causing her great distress. Esau is born hairy and red, characteristics that link him to the people of Edom, whom tradition claims to be his descendants.

Esau turns out to be strong, comfortable in the wilderness, and skillful at hunting. Jacob is the second-born of the twins, but he is destined to be the ancestor of the 12 Israelite tribes. He is smooth-skinned and fair. When the twins are born, Jacob comes out with his hand around his brother’s foot. This detail foreshadows that Jacob will upset Esau’s status as the firstborn son and subvert the social customs and expectations that would favor the elder son.

His name, Jacob or “Ya’aqov” in Hebrew, is believed to be derived from the word ‘aqav, meaning “heel,” or from the similar word ‘aqov meaning “to trick” or “to cheat.” If the latter, today’s story of his bargaining for the firstborn’s birthright certainly illustrates its appropriateness. If the former, it is a pun which “works in English as well as in Hebrew. Jacob is indeed something of a ‘heel.’ He is a trickster, a man who schemes and plots, always looking for the advantage; in these chapters [of the Abrahamic family story], the advantage particularly over his twin brother Esau.” (Schifferdecker, Working Preacher, 2017)

Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is only half of the story of the cheating of Esau. On the cover of our bulletins this morning is a painting by an unknown artist of the 17th Century. It’s interesting to me that it purports to illustrate the story we heard this morning, but includes in it not only Esau and Jacob, but also Rebekah. Rebekah is not described in the text as being present, but in the painting she is artistically the most significant figure; she is the one on whom most of the light falls. This is because the artist is conflating this part of the story, in which Jacob firstborn’s birthright, with its conclusion, in which Rebekah (who scripture says favored Jacob) aids her younger son in tricking Isaac into giving him also the firstborn’s blessing. Jacob is not the only trickster and cheat in the family.

My point is that this family, from Abraham and Sarah through Isaac and Rebekah to Jacob, are not really people we would describe as pure in heart, or as those who endure difficulty and hardship with forbearance and fortitude, or as those we would expect to fight off the devil. But, nonetheless, they are the “good soil” in which the kingdom of heaven took root, eventually flourished, and produced the People of God.

So who are those folks whom Jesus, generations later, would call “the good soil”? “Who are those ‘who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit’ and yield an abundant harvest? In Matthew’s story it seems they are the least likely ones. Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’ (21:31-32). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous bear fruit by serving the ‘least of these,’ and even they are surprised to find that they have been serving Jesus (25:34-40).” (Johnson, Working Preacher, 2011)

Here’s the thing about soil – it isn’t good on its own. The soil that is beaten down under foot along the path can’t, by its own effort, become good soil. The soil that is rocky and shallow cannot make itself deep and rich. The soil that is thorny and choked with weeds can’t clear itself of those unwanted plants. And the soil that is good can’t claim that it is good by its own virtue.

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs, the first step is to admit that one is powerless over ones addiction, over the thing or things that have made a mess of one’s life. The second step is to accept the reality of a Higher Power, and the third is to turn one’s will and life over to God. I often think that in the New Testament there are three people whom Jesus either talks about or encounters who exemplify these steps. One is the tax collector who went to the temple to pray a simple prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13) The second is the widow who also went to the temple and who “out of her poverty [contributed] everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:44) The third is the woman denounced as a sinner who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. (Lk 7:38)

These people are the powerless soil, the “good soil,” in which the word of God, the good news of the kingdom of heaven, takes root and grows. The soil is not good by any worldly definition of “good”. These are not people who are pure in heart; these are not people who have lived blameless lives; these are not people who respected for their faith, their position in the community (secular or religious), or their success (by whatever measure may be applied).

The soil is good not by any virtue of its own, but because the sower cares for and works with the soil, and then sows abundantly. Abraham and Sarah are not very good people; they treated Hagar and Ishmael and even Isaac very badly, yet Scripture tells us that Abraham trusted in the Lord and it was accounted to him as righteousness. Isaac was a passive man victimized and cheated by his own family, yet he redug his father’s wells and received God’s blessing. Rebekah and her second-born son Jacob coveted and eventually received the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, but only because they cheated his brother and hoodwinked his father. They were not particularly good! None of them! As portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham and his family were deeply flawed human beings, yet they were the recipients of the Covenant. It took generations of the Lord’s attention and care for the descendants of Abraham to bear fruit.

And Jesus put his effort into disciples who looked similarly unpromising. “He squandered his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts.” (Johnson, Working Preacher, 2011) Yet his work with and among such as these yielded the fruit of the Church.

God’s work with the Abrahamic family, Jesus’ work with the outcasts of his generation, was like that of which the Psalmist sings:

You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous;
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain,
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
(Ps 65:9-11; BCP 1979, page 673)

The parable of the sower is an old story, a comfortable story, and we know where we fit into it. Or perhaps we don’t. We like to think we’re the “good soil,” but we are more likely the trampled down ground of the path, the rocky soil, or the patch filled with thorns and weeds. If we would be good soil, we must admit that we cannot do so of your own accord.

As the story of the first family invited into covenant with God makes clear, the soil is not good of its own virtue; it is the work of the sower that makes it good. The seed does not flourish because of the soil. The soil flourishes because of the seed.

(Note: The illustration is “Jacob offers a dish of lentels to Esau for the birthright” by an unknown 17th century artist after Gioacchino Assereto (1600 – 1649), it hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.)

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

Gloria! Homily for the Funeral of C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., 6 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston for the Requiem Mass for C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., June 6, 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible were Isaiah 61:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 5:24-27. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. The Gradual Psalm for the service was Psalm 121 from the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer; it can be read at The Online Book of Common Prayer.)

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As my parishioners know, I often find the images invoked by poets comforting and illuminating in times of grief.

Ronald Stuart Thomas, usually called simply RS Thomas, is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest English language and European poets of the 20th Century. He was an Anglican priest serving in the Church in Wales. No less a person than the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Primate of the Church in Wales, has said of Thomas that he

. . . articulate[d] through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith – the poet has been there before us. (BBC News, RS Thomas centenary celebrated by Bangor Cathedral service)

When Thomas’s wife of 51 years passed away in 1991, he published a multi-part poem entitled Mass for Hard Times. I would like to read for you the section entitled Gloria:

From the body at its meal’s end
and its messmate whose meal is beginning,
Gloria.
From the early and late cloud, beautiful and deadly
as the mushroom we are forbidden to eat,
Gloria.
From the stars that are but as dew
and the viruses outnumbering the star clusters,
Gloria.
From those waiting at the foot of the helix
for the rope-trick performer to come down,
Gloria.
Because you are not there
When I turn, but are in the turning,
Gloria.
Because it is not I who look
but I who am being looked through,
Gloria.
Because the captive has found the liberty
that eluded him while he was free,
Gloria.
Because from the belief that nothing is nothing
it follows that there must be something,
Gloria.
Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.
And because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

(Gloria from Mass for Hard Times by R.S. Thomas (1992), in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK:2013, page 135)

In Thomas’s first lines, I find an echo of the words of St. Paul in our epistle reading today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

Those of us who like Nevada have known cancer in ourselves, or like Roberta and their sons have known it in our loved ones, know all too well that “our outer nature is wasting away,” that (as Thomas put it) the body is at its meal’s end. There is no gentle or genteel way to put it: cancer is not an easy way to die. I don’t know that there is an easy way to end life, but if there is one, cancer isn’t it. That Nevada fought the disease as valiantly as he did and with his characteristic confidentiality, on might even say secrecy, is testament to both his strength of will and his private faith, to what St. Paul might have called his “inner nature . . . being renewed . . . for an eternal weight of glory.”

Our first reading was from the Prophet Isaiah; it is that portion of scripture with which Jesus began his public ministry, taking the scroll from the attendant and reading these same words in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and concluding with the declaration, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) In it we are told that the Messiah’s mission is to proclaim freedom to the captive. In Thomas’s poem he gives glory to God because the captive “has found the liberty that eluded him while he was free.” He must refer, I am sure, to the liberty from the pain and suffering of chronic disease that comes with physical death.

But physical death is not the end of life. As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, physical death, “the last enemy,” has itself been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) Christ “overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” (BCP, page 377) As the preface to the Eucharistic Canon which we will pray in a few minutes says, to God’s “faithful people … life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382) As Jesus promised in our reading from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

I am intrigued by the poet Thomas’s penultimate stanza:

Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.

When we think of all that passes between youth and age, when we (as we do at requiems like this) look back over the life of a friend and loved one and take stock of all that someone like Nevada Johnson was and did – student, law student, member of the Bar, captain in the Army and decorated hero, son and brother, lover and husband, father, fellow follower of Christ, volunteer in his community, hospital board and zoning commission member, historical society founder, and so much more – it is difficult to comprehend what Thomas means calling it a “moment” that “we do not count.”

But then I return to St. Paul and today’s epistle reading in which he refers to this earthly life as a “slight momentary affliction,” and I am reminded of the Psalmist’s declaration of how fleeting life is, that life is but “a few handbreadths” and “everyone stands as a mere breath.” (Ps 39:4-5)

In contrast are the promises of Isaiah that good men like Nevada (and, we believe, all of us through the grace of God) “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory,” and of Paul that this “weight of glory beyond all measure” will be eternal. As the Gradual Psalm which we recited together says: “The Lord shall preserve [us] from all evil; it is he who shall keep [us] safe. The Lord shall watch over [our] going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.” (Ps 121:7-8; BCP, page 779) It is as Jesus promised: we have passed from death to life eternal.

In his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul wrote, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Death has no victory; death has no sting. Death is nothing.

The Rev. Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached sermon entitled Death the King of Terrors while the body of the late King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster Abbey in 1910. His point in that sermon was that death is neither a king nor a terror. In it, he offered this meditation:.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

And so we understand Ronald Stuart Thomas’s final stanza in the Gloria of the Mass for Hard Times:

Because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good example of your servant, Carroll Nevada Johnson, Jr., who, having finished his course in faith, now finds rest and refreshment. May we, with him and all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 503, modified)

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

How To Be Good: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit who empowered the disciples to proclaim the Good News to peoples from many lands speaking many tongues: we now pray for those in many lands speaking many languages who have been hurt or killed by terrorist violence in the past fortnight in: London (England), Kabul (Afghanistan), Mosel (Iraq), Minya (Egypt), Khost (Afghanistan), Mastung (Pakistan), Gao (Mali), Borno State (Nigeria), Raqqa (Syria), Mogadishu (Somalia), rural Colombia, Manila (Philippines), Baghdad (Iraq), Basra (Iraq), Portland (Oregon, USA) and Manchester (England). May God grant eternal rest to the departed, healing to the injured, and comfort to those in grief. And since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies, we pray also for those who have committed these violent acts, and for those who may be contemplating additional violence. May God change their hearts and shed abroad the gift of peace throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs (13:14). The word translated there as “teaching” is Torah, the Hebrew name for the Law of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The biblical tradition tells us that seven weeks after the Passover the Hebrews camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, met God, and returned with the Torah inscribed on stone tablets. Therefore, the Jews celebrate on the fiftieth day after Passover the feast called Shavuot, which literally means “the feast of weeks.” It is also called “the feast of the giving of the Law” and “the feast of first fruits” because it also became a celebration of the barley harvest and a time of prayer for the success of the wheat harvest; it was a time when the tithe of the barley harvest, the first ten percent of the grain was brought to the Levites in obedience to the Torah’s requirement: “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)

When worship became centered on the Jerusalem Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot became a pilgrimage feast, one of the three annual festivals on which every male Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, which explains why there were so many people “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) in the streets of Jerusalem when the disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went out to proclaim the Good News. They were the Jews of the Diaspora and for many of them, Greek rather than Hebrew was the language in which they read Scripture and worshiped, and they called this feast “Pentecost,” a word which means “fiftieth day.” They had returned to Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Passover to offer their tithes at the Temple in gratitude for the giving of the Law.

A rabbi of the time famously described the Torah as a “disciplinarian” or “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:22). Writing in Greek, the word he used was paidagogos, a word describing someone in Greek society, usually a family slave, who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of growing boys. In other words, the paidagogos’ obligation was to teach the boys to be good. This was the purpose of the Law given at Mt. Sinai. A modern rabbi writes that one should immerse oneself in the Torah

to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a Godly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within . . . you, [until God’s] thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are [God’s]. (Tzvi Freeman, What Is Torah?)

That is what we as Christians believe happened in the event described by Luke in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, a sharing of the Holy Spirit of God until God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts and they had no alternative but to speak them to the world around them.

That First Century rabbi of whom I spoke was none other than our own parish Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Galatians. He would continue to say that with the coming Christ we are freed from the discipline of the schoolmaster, and instead are led by the Holy Spirit to bear the “fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Another word that describes this fruit is “virtue,” which St. Augustine of Hippo defined as “a good habit consonant with our nature.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Virtue)

The “fruit of the Spirit” should not be confused with the gifts of the Spirit. In the epistle reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul details many of the gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in other tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, 1 Cor. 12:8-10), one of which seems to have been exhibited by the disciples, the ability to speak in other languages. While these gifts are important for a variety of reasons, what is most important about them is that they are, Paul says, “given . . . for the common good.” (v. 7)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his listeners to be good, to do good to all, to enemies as well as friends, saying:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:37-38)

To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, echoing the words the Book of Proverbs applied to the Torah, Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the water of life which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) And in today’s gospel lesson in a similar metaphor, he says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38) This is what Pentecost is all about; this is what happened that morning in Jerusalem; the disciples were given a share of the Holy Spirit of God until, as that contemporary rabbi said, God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts, until the Torah of the wise became a fountain of life and flowed out of them like living water to the world around them.

So the Law was given to teach us to be good and the Holy Spirit empowers us to be good, but how do we actually be good?

An author whose poetry has often graced the pages of The Christian Century, a magazine to which I have subscribed for many years, offered an answer to that question a few years ago. His name was Brian Doyle; he lived in Portland, Oregon, taught at the University of Portland, and edited Portland Magazine. He died a week ago from the same sort of brain cancer which killed my own brother several years ago, so I took particular note of his passing. At his requiem day before yesterday at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, mourners were given a copy of an essay he wrote and published in his 2013 book The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press, Chicago:2013). The essay is entitled How to Be Good. I would like to read part of it to you now:

First, pick up your wet towel and at least, for heavenssake, hang it up to dry. And wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn’t have to be shining and spotless, that would be fussy and false, but at least don’t leave little mounds of your neck hairs like dead insects for your partner and children to find. At least do that. It’s the little things; they aren’t little. You knew that. I am just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from the street, where it fell broken and almost unrecognizable, and she saw it as a holy being and she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn’t little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and was thus holy beyond our ken. Or in the morning, when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say thank you to the harried girl with the Geelong Cats logo tattooed on her forehead. At least look her in the eye and be gentle. Christ liveth in her, remember? Old Saint Paul said that, and who are we to gainsay the testy little gnarled genius? And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving, yes, you are peeved, and yes, he could be chasing down murderers, but be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault, you could have checked the scores later, and for another, Christ liveth in him. Also in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man under the clock at Flinders Street Station, and in the foulmouthed man at the footy, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation and have detested since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful vulgar elephantine couch to yet another of his shabby flats, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so and who could blame you? But Christ liveth in him. Speak hard words into your closet and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch, for the ninth blessed time, and do not credit yourself with good works, for you too are a package of small sins and cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta, but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the kids’ team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear and give them away. Sell the old machinery and turn it into food for those who starve. Express gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write the minister and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is care for the bruised among us, not pose on television. Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter but we know that they matter. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like sharp swords against the squirm of despair and violence. The Church is you. Christ liveth in you. Do not cloak Him but let Him be about His business, which is using the tools the Creator gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love given and granted; savor that and disburse that which is not important. Use less, slow down, write small notes. All the way to heaven is heaven, said old Catherine of Siena, and who are we to gainsay that slight smiling genius? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance. If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out in the open. Try to forgive even that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I do not know how that can be so but it is so. You and I know that. I am only reminding us. Be who only you are. Rise to what you dream. Do not cease with joy. That is the nature of the gift we were given. It is the most amazing and extraordinary and confusing and complicated gift that ever was. Never take it for granted, not for an instant, not for the seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness and generosity and kindness and mercy. Also humor. Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what He said could happen if we loved well. He did not mean loving only the people you know. He meant every idiot and liar and thief and blowhard and even your cousin. I do not know how that could be so, but I know it is so. So do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Ready? (Page 15)

On this fiftieth day, this feast of the first fruits, this day of bringing our tithes and offerings of thanksgiving before God, this celebration of the giving of the Torah and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the church, let us begin again to be good, and let goodness be in us like the Torah of the wise, a spring gushing up to eternal life, running over, and flowing out, a river into the world around us, so that “justice [may] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us begin again to be good, you and me, today! Ready?

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

Pray for Them, Then Tell Them: Sermon for Easter 6A, 21 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and St. John 14:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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A couple of years ago Pope Francis made a cogent observation about praying for those who are hungry: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” (Little Book of Compassion, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, VA:2017, pg 88) When I heard that, I remembered my Methodist grandfather’s teaching about prayer, “Never pray for something you aren’t willing to work for.” That came mind as I pondered the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning.

The story told by Luke in the reading is illustrated in our altar window. Paul, standing on the Hill of Mars or “Areopagus,” addressing the philosophers of Athens and telling them about the God of the Hebrews and his Son Jesus, drawing on Greek religion, philosophy, and poetry to do so. It is a model for our sharing of the gospel with others outside the Christian faith and for our sharing with other Christians of our peculiar Anglican expression of the faith; it has both positive and negative lessons to teach us.

It is a strong part of our tradition that we pray for those of other faiths and for those of no faith. For example, in one of the Prayer Book forms of the Prayers of the people we pray “for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him . . . that they may find and be found by him.” (BCP, pg 386) In another we pray “for those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith, that they may receive the light of the Gospel.” (BCP, pg 390) And when we pray for the dead, we included “all who have died in the communion of [the] Church, and those whose faith is known to [God] alone.” (BCP, pg 391)

A few days ago, the parish chapter of the Episcopal Church Women met and, as is their custom, we began their meeting with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. That particular day was the feast of a missionary bishop, William Hobart Hare, who ministered among and with the Lakota Sioux in the Niobrara territory which we now know as the states of North and South Dakota. The epistle lesson for Bishop Hare’s commemoration is from Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he writes:

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Rom 10:13-15)

Or, to paraphrase the pope, “You pray for those who haven’t heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how prayer works.” We Episcopalians are pretty good at the praying, not so good at the telling. So let’s listen to what Paul says to the Romans and let’s look at how Paul told the Athenians.

First, some background. Why is Paul in Athens? Well, Paul has not come to Athens to preach; he’s come there to let things cool off in Thessalonica, where some folks upset with Paul’s preaching had “formed a mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5), and in Beroea these same folks had “stir[red] up and incite[d] the crowds” (v. 13). So the local “believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast,” (v. 15) wait for his companions Silas and Timothy.

Athens was no longer the center of the world. “That center now was obviously Rome. Still, Athens’ vast history of intellectual and political and architectural vigor made it a destination place, and the perfect location for the confrontation of the new message of Jesus and the old message of the Greek philosophers.” (John C. Holbert, Perkins School of Theology) So Paul decides to preach at the place where philosophers meet to (in Luke’s words) “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (v. 21) In other words, Paul has been given an unplanned opportunity to share his understanding of Jesus, and that’s the first thing to learn from this episode: most opportunities to share our faith will be unplanned. They will be serendipitous. They will come about not because we are searching for occasions to be evangelists and missionaries, but simply because we are going about our daily lives and in some way will be given an opening.

Paul saw an opening and ventured into it, but he didn’t go into it unprepared. As he says, he had spent some time walking through the city, looking carefully at the objects of Athenian worship (v. 23). He learned about their religion so that he could share his own. Rather than dismissing their beliefs and, thus, dishonoring the religious hunger all human beings experience, Paul acknowledged points of common belief with them. For example, although the Greeks were polytheists, the concept of a creator deity was not unknown to them; laying this foundation of common ground is an important part of Paul’s witness.

Paul can do this because he is an educated man. He clearly knows his own religious background both as a Jew and now as a follower of Jesus, but his education must also have included Greek literature. We can conclude this because in this address he is able to draw on Platonic, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophy and even quotes the Stoic philosopher poet Aratus.

So here are a whole bunch of additional things we learn from this episode: (1) be prepared; you never know when these unplanned opportunities will occur, so be prepared. (2) Look for the common ground, which means (3) you have to know your own faith well and (4) you have to know at least a little about the faith and the circumstances of the other person or persons. The other person’s life circumstances are, in our world and context, probably more important to understand than their religious beliefs.

My Education for Ministry group is reading a book entitled My Neighbor’s Faith which the authors describe as a collection of “stories of interreligious encounter, growth, and transformation.” One of the vignettes describes the friendship between a conservative Southern Baptist and a left-wing cultural Jew who discovered that they “were both fathers of seriously handicapped daughters and both heavily involved in their care.” In their story, they describe how they would meet and talk for hours “often finishing each other’s sentences,” which is something I thought only married people did. They were able to do so, able to share their faith stories, because (and here is another lesson) they shared a common life experience.

On the negative side of the learnings from Paul’s Areopagus sermon is, I think, a warning to avoid assumptions.

Paul tells the Athenians that in his tour of their city he has seen an altar inscribed “To an Unknown God” and proceeds to equate this mysterious deity to the God of the Jews whom he then identifies as the father of Jesus Christ. What Paul seems not have appreciated, however, is that that isn’t what that altar was all about. The “unknown god” was “not so much a specific deity, but a placeholder, for [a god] whose name [was] not revealed.” In other words, if a Greek felt moved to make an offering of thanksgiving or propitiation or supplication to one of the gods but wasn’t sure which one to address, he or she would make that offering at the alter “to an unknown god.” As the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann asserted, “An altar to the unknown God would simply imply uncertainty as to the god to which it should apply.” (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, 115-21) Or as Karel van der Toorn and his coauthors tell us:

Probably the most frequent motive to raise altars for (an) unknown god(s) was uncertainty or doubt about the identity of the god who had caused a certain event. In ancient religions it was of utmost importance to know the right name of the deity when invoking him/her or sacrificing to him/her. [The aim was] to prevent the god invoked from being offended…. (van der Toorn, Karel, et al, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1999 p. 884)

So Paul, rather than appealing to his hearers’ religiosity, was instead calling out their possibly fearful religious ignorance. This may be why when all is said and done only two people who heard this sermon are named as expressing any interest in Christianity. So a negative lesson: don’t assume.

But don’t be afraid to speak! And here is the last lesson I want to suggest we take from Luke’s story of Paul at the Areopagus, a reminder of something Jesus said on many occasions and which Peter repeats in our epistle lesson today, ” Do not fear . . . do not be intimidated!” Specifically referring to unexpected opportunities to testify to one’s faith, Jesus said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Lk 12:11-12) In our place and time, we are unlikely to be dragged before religious councils or secular authorities, but we will have opportunities to speak. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be intimidated! Don’t worry! The Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.

That is the promise of today’s gospel lesson: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth [who] abides with you, and he will be in you.”

So . . . lessons from the story of Paul at the Areopagus, lessons we who worship in a church building named for Paul and who every week look at this window depicting this story should learn and embody:

  1. Unplanned opportunities to share our faith abound.
  2. You never know when they will happen to you, so be prepared.
  3. Know your own faith well; study it, learn it.
  4. Know your audience; know something of their faith, if any, and of their life.
  5. Ground your message in shared experience, in the shared human hunger for meaning.
  6. Don’t make assumptions.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

There are many in our world who have not heard any story from our scriptures, let alone the gospel of Jesus. In September of last year, the religious demographer George Barna published a book entitled America at the Crossroads. In it he reported that 46% of American adults are not religiously affiliated. The current adult population of Medina County, Ohio, is about 106,000. Putting those two statistics together suggests that there are nearly 49,000 residents of this county who don’t go to church (and driving through my own neighborhood on a Sunday morning, I can well believe it). Barna also reported that 14% of the religiously unaffiliated “said they are open to trying a new church.” In our county, that would mean 6,800 adults who open to hearing from you about your faith and your church. (Barna data from Preaching; census data from Suburbanstats.org)

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

As I mentioned earlier, Paul didn’t really have much success preaching in Athens. Luke tells us that some of his audience scoffed; some said they might like to hear more. Only two people are specifically named as responding positively to his sermon, a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris, and Luke says there were some others. (vv. 32 & 34) It wasn’t a very large harvest, but that hardly matters. We aren’t called to be successful; we are only called to be faithful. As the Psalmist says in this morning’s gradual, “Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard.”

You pray for those who have not heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how it works. Amen.

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

Act One: Use Your Towel – Maundy Thursday 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and St. John 13:1-17,31b-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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On Palm Sunday, I suggested that we think of Holy Week and Easter as a three-act drama beginning with an Overture on Palm Sunday. Today, we take part in the first act. The analogy of the Three Holy Days (or “Triduum”) to a play breaks down if we think of ourselves as the “audience.” We are not the audience.

The audience of worship is God. The one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is the audience. We, all of us, are the actors. We, all of us, are the cast.

So, here we are….

Act One, Scene One: The curtain rises. We see a group of people gathered in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

A meal is in progress… we wonder if it might be a seder, the ritual meal of remembrance of the Passover. We don’t really know; the playwrights have not made this clear and the theater critics, the scholars, debate the issue.

Three of the story-tellers suggest that it is. Luke and Matthew based their stories on Mark’s, so to be honest there aren’t three stories, there’s only one that would make us think that this supper is a seder.

However, the fourth, John, tells the tale very differently. John doesn’t even seem to care about the dinner – he spends no time at all describing the meal; for him, it’s not important. What’s important is what happened afterward.

So as we continue this three-act drama of redemption let’s just assume that that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are correct and what we see in this first scene of the first act is, indeed, a seder.

Those present are prepared to do all that is laid out in the instructions in the book of Exodus; they have worn their sandals; they carry their staffs; they expect to eat of roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They anticipate spending the night in remembrance of that which happened generations before in Egypt. If we can imagine that they celebrate as modern Jews celebrate, they are gathered in that upper room, those serving the meal coming and going, and a breeze blowing through the open windows. They are following along in their prayer books, the Haggadah; they expect the youngest among them to ask the questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” They know that the head of the household, their rabbi Jesus, will answer those questions in the prescribed way and tell the story of the Passover.

So, when the youngest asks “Why do we eat the broken matzah?” they expect Jesus to answer “This is the bread of our affliction; the unleavened bread of poverty, baked and eaten in haste,” but instead he takes the bread, brakes it and says, “This bread is my body, given for you.”

They look up startled, glancing at one another, murmuring to each other, “What is he talking about? That’s not here! That’s not the right answer. Where is he? What page is he on?” But the moment passes, the meal moves on.

At the end he takes up the fourth and final cup of wine, the kiddush cup, which recalls God’s promise, “I will acquire you as a nation; you will be my people and I will be your God.” As before, they expect Jesus to say the prescribed prayer, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine,” but instead they hear, “This cup is my blood!” “What?!” They look at one another in disbelief. “What is he saying???”

It is for Jesus and his disciples one of those fleeting opportunities when, because of the pupils’ confusion or frustration or grasping for understanding, the teacher can pass on to the students new information, new values, new moral understanding, a new behavior, a new skill, a new way of seeing and coping with reality; it is what we have come to call “the teachable moment” and so he teaches, yet again, “Remember! Remember,” he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The curtain falls as Jesus continues to teach; the disciples look mystified.

Act One, Scene Two: The curtain rises again. We see the same group of people gathered in the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

The meal is over, the dishes have been cleared. The disciples are arguing among themselves about who is the greater among them. Jesus looks frustrated and troubled; the teachable moment has passed and the disciples clearly have not understood! They just haven’t gotten it.

“Look,” he says, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Here, let me show you what I mean.” Getting up from the table, he takes off his robe, picks up a basin of water and a towel, and begins to wash and dry their feet.

As many of you know, I am a fan of science fiction, so when I hear about towels, one of the first things I think of is the late Douglas Adams’ hilariously funny novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book begins seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, when the protagonist Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who has been posing for the last 15 years as an out-of-work actor. The one thing Prefect makes sure that Dent brings with him is a towel. Quoting from the guidebook, he explains that a towel is the one, crucial, indispensable necessity that the intergalactic traveler must bring along on any journey:

A towel (says The Hitchhiker’s Guide) is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have . . . . you can wrap it around you for warmth . . . . you can lie on it on . . . brilliant marble-sanded beaches . . . . you can sleep under it beneath the stars . . . . use it to sail a mini-raft down a slow river . . . . wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes . . . . you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it sill seems to be clean enough.

Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

John tells us that Jesus made use of the towel to dry the disciples’ feet and then said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” It has occurred to me that The Hitchhiker’s Guide suggests many other ways in which we might use a towel in following Jesus’ lead.

When we baptize someone here at St. Paul’s Parish, the altar guild supplies towels for them to be dried with; I often joke about getting those towels back. But now it seems to me that we might better give them to the newly baptized with an admonition to follow Jesus’ example of loving service. The towel of service just might be the one, crucial, indispensible necessity that the Christian traveler should bring along on his or her journey through life. It just may be the most massively useful thing we can have as we serve others. We can wash and dry their feet; we can wrap them in warmth; we can provide a comfortable place to sleep; we can help them on a journey; we can protect them; we can signal to them and for them in emergencies; we can clothe the naked, swaddle a baby, comfort the sick. I’m sure you can come up with many more uses, small and large, for a towel and, by extension, for your heart, for your life, and for your willing hands.

That Jesus made use of the towel in the context of the Lords’ Supper is a really important point. There used to be what some thought of as a silly and useless bit of priestly vesture worn at Communion called a “maniple.” It looked sort of like a short stole and was made of the same material as the stole and chasuble. It was worn over the left forearm and looked like, and in fact was meant to symbolize, the sort of towel or table napkin often worn by the wait-staff in fancy restaurants, a symbol of service. Anglican clergy stopped wearing maniples long ago and Roman Catholic priests were allowed to discontinue them in 1967, one of the minor reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In abandoning that symbolic vestment, however, we may have lost a reminder that, in addition to being called to follow Jesus along the way of the cross, we are also called to follow him in his use of the towel! Just as Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he might also have said, “Take up your towel and follow me.” In fact, he did when he said, “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”

Perhaps we no longer use the maniple as a priestly vestment because the ministry of Christian servanthood which it represents is not limited to clergy; it is the ministry of all baptized people. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” we are asked in the liturgy of baptism, and every person present answers, “I will, with God’s help.” This servant ministry is one which we all share, just as this meal of Bread and Wine, of Christ’s Body and Blood, is one which we all share.

The disciples, however, don’t get the opportunity to serve one another, for this second scene ends with Jesus, visibly agitated, declaring, “One of you will betray me.” As the curtain goes down, the disciples are looking puzzled and Judas Iscariot is leaving.

Act One, Scene Three: The curtain rises again. We see a garden and an olive grove just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is there, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. “Stay here,” he tells them, “Stay awake while I go over there to pray.” As they settle themselves, he moves away from them, and collapses in a heap, sobbing: “O God … Father, let this pass!”

Three times he returns to find them asleep; three times they rise looking sheepish and embarrassed; twice he tells them again to try to stay awake as he goes away still pleading with God for a way out. “Enough,” he says the third time, “Enough! We’re leaving.”

When they look back on that night, how must they feel? When we look back, how should we feel? Poet Mary Oliver offers a glimpse in her poem Gethsemane:

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree,
and didn’t move, maybe the lake far away,
where once he walked as on a blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.

Yes, this too, our utterly human inability to fully keep company with our Lord, this too must be part of the story when it is told, part of the third scene of the first act of this drama that is retold again and again. This minor, little betrayal is as much a part of the story as Judas’ treachery which now plays out.

Scene Three ends as Jesus is arrested and taken away off-stage. In the wings, a trivial side-story plays out as Judas dies, either by hanging himself (as Matthew asserts) or by falling and suffering some sort of rupture (as Luke portrays in the Book of Acts). In any event, Judas dies and, in the church’s eyes, is condemned.

The Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan, in a very long elegy entitled The Ballad of Judas Iscariot, tells the tale of the soul of Judas carrying his body in search of a burial place, only to have it rejected by even the worst of places in all creation. Eventually, he comes to a banquet hall where a wedding feast is waiting to get started. The guests (that is, the church), recognizing Judas, demand that he be “scourged away,” but the Bridegroom has a different idea:

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

We sometimes use a Scottish invitation to Communion which comes from the ecumenical monastic community on the island of Iona:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready.
It is the table of company with Jesus,
And all who love him.
It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world,
With whom Jesus identified himself.
It is the table of communion with the earth,
In which Christ became incarnate.
So come to this table,
You who have much faith
And you who would like to have more;
You who have been here often
And you who have not been for a long time;
You who have tried to follow Jesus,
And you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.

All who have faith; all who would like to have more; all who have been to Communion often; all who have not been for a long time; all who have tried to follow Jesus (in the way of the cross or the way of the towel); all who have failed to do so. In other words, as John of Patmos witnessed in his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, everyone is called to the Supper of the Lamb; everyone is invited to the Wedding Feast! Even the disciples who fell asleep in the garden; even Judas Iscariot!

In this, the first act of the drama of redemption, Jesus has gathered his disciples. He has gathered us at the table that in the upper room. He has shared Bread and Wine. He washed and dried feet. He has given us the New Commandment: “Love one another.” He has said, “I have set you an example.” He might well have said, “Take up your towel and use it.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide says your towel can be used as a signal. So take up your towel; wave it so that all may see, and when you have their attention, invite them into this drama of redemption in which, tonight, we witness and take part in the first of three acts. Say to them, with Jesus, “Come! Come to this table! . . . . We have waited long for thee!”

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

Be Holy, Be Perfect – Sermon for Epiphany 7, 19 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; and St. Matthew 5:38-48. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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pinkperfectionWhen the Prayers of the People are offered later in this service you will hear a name you’ve never heard before, and you will hear that the person named was buried in our memory garden this week, and you will wonder, “Who is Indra?” (“Indra” is not the child’s real name.)

Indra was born on February 1, 2017. And Indra died on February 1, 2017. Whether she was stillborn or expired a few minutes after her birth is unknown. Indra suffered Turner Syndrome and was born in her parents’ automobile as they were driving to the Emergency Room. In any event, she was not living when they got to the hospital.

Because of her father’s cultural traditions, the family was not involved in her burial and do not know the whereabouts of her ashes. Only the funeral director and I were present. It was the shortest, simplest funeral I’ve ever conducted, but in many ways it was perhaps the saddest and hardest burial I have done in 27 years of ordained ministry.

I was going to start this sermon with the declaration that being a priest is hard, but then I was asked to handle Indra’s burial and I thought perhaps that telling you about her and her funeral would illustrate that better than my simply whining to you about how hard it is to be priest.

It’s not this stuff, this Sunday stuff, that is hard. This is easy. Just follow the Prayer Book, follow the Lectionary, choose some hymns that fit the lessons, ask David to pick some other music, say a few words about Scripture, and share some Bread and some Wine. That’s easy.

And funerals and weddings are usually pretty much the same. Just follow the recipe; like cooking, it all pretty much takes care of itself.

But, sometimes, it’s not. Funerals usually aren’t hard, but Indrah’s fast, simple, no-family-to-deal-with burial was incredibly hard.

Sitting with someone in hospital who is facing their death is hard; sitting with a family whose loved one is facing death is even harder. Counseling two people getting married is hard; counseling two people getting divorced is harder. Getting over being angry with God is hard; helping someone else get over being angry with God is harder.

I don’t really know how handles those situations. I don’t really know how to do this stuff and I’m never sure I’ve done it right. If putting together a Sunday service is like cooking, this sort of stuff is more like baking. I was tempted to say there are no rule books for this sort of thing, but the truth is that there are lots books. There are lots of recipes. There are too many, in fact, and they seem to all give contradictory advice.

I say it’s like baking because I am always looking for the secret to flaky pie crusts or to a successful soufflé. One of my grandmothers swore by using lard in her crusts; the other used butter. My mother said to use vinegar in the dough, but my aunt insisted that ice water was the trick. And as hard as making a good pie crust is, baking a soufflé is even worse. Follow the recipe, but get the slightest thing just a wee bit “off” and what might have been a glorious dessert is a hopeless disaster, and more often than not, you have no idea what you did wrong.

Some of being a priest, a lot of being a priest actually, is like making pie crust or baking a souffle. Do it right – everything is great. Do the slightest thing wrong – it’s a complete mess. And constantly live in fear of that slight, wrong thing.

I think the priests in Solomon’s Temple had it easier. They had Leviticus. Most of us aren’t very familiar with Leviticus. It is, for the most part, a book of rules, of very detailed rules. So we don’t read it in church very much.

We Episcopalians are fond of saying that our worship is among the most biblical of all Christian denominations. We are often criticized for not taking the Bible more seriously and those not familiar with our liturgy accuse us of ignoring it. When that happens, we often fire back that our Prayer Book is about 80% scriptural and that we read through the Bible using a Lectionary so that (and I’ve heard clergy say this) “we read all of the Bible in three years.”

Except that’s not true. We don’t read all those genealogies. There are some of the Psalms that we don’t consider appropriate for Sunday worship, although we do read them in the Daily Offices. And there’s Leviticus from which we read, I think, only two short lessons in the whole three years of the Lectionary cycle. Today is one of those two times. Nonetheless, it is a book worth knowing and knowing about. I commend it to you; it is especially good for reading late at night when you can’t get to sleep . . . .

Very briefly, this is what you’ll find in Leviticus. First, there are six chapters on various kinds of offerings and sacrifices, then two chapters instructing priests how to handle all the different sorts of offerings and sacrifices. This is followed by four chapters on the history of the Aaronic priesthood.

Next are five chapters on uncleanness with which the Temple priests were expected to deal, unclean animals, the uncleanliness of women caused by childbirth, various unclean diseases (such as leprosy) and how the priests were to cleans them, if possible, and (my favorite) unclean bodily discharges. (Maybe the Temple priests didn’t have it easier, after all. I’m quite happy that you don’t come to me with your unclean diseases, your weeping ulcerous sores, and your other bodily discharges! That would be really hard . . . .)

After the uncleanness chapters, there is one chapter detailing the Day of Atonement.

Then comes something scholars call “the Holiness Code,” ten chapters for the not-priests, for the people of God. Ten chapters of practical rules for living a righteous life. One of them, from which we heard today, concerns neighborliness and begins with this admonition, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Do you know why I became a priest? Yes, I had that sense of call and went through the discernment “process” and all of that (twice, actually, but that’s another story). But . . . really . . . when I look back on it, I realize that I left my life as a trial lawyer and went into the ordained ministry because, as hard as it is, it’s easier than being a lay person. As hard as it sometimes is to be a priest, to be a “professional Christian” in the church, it’s harder still to be a lay Christian in the world.

There are no good rule books for priests, or too many contradictory rule books, but there are expectations and there are permissions. There is a stereotype and there are prescribed situations. There is “safety within the walls” of the church, within the set of circumstances in which a priest finds him- or herself.

That’s not true in the world. In the the wide open, free wheeling, anything-can-come-at-you-world where you not-priests have to do your ministry, you have the much harder job.

You can tell that just by look at the Book of Leviticus: there are five chapters of rules for priests, but there are ten for the not-priests! The people of God have twice as much to do as the priests of God.

And you can tell it just by reading the Catechism of the Episcopal Church (it’s in the Prayer Book back around page 845 or so, in that part of the book no one ever seems to open). It asks there who the ministers of the Church are and answers that it’s everyone: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. The ministry of priests, it says, is to “share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 856)

That’s a piece of cake when you compare it to the ministry of the laity. According to the Catechism, your job, oh People of God, is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [you] may be; and, according to the gifts given [you], to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take [your] place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” (BCP, page 855) Now that is hard work!

The Jewish bible scholar and rabbi Jacob Milgrom said that the point of the Book of Leviticus is that holiness is not the responsibility of priests alone. In this book, and especially in the Holiness Code, “the domain of the sacred expands, embracing the entire land, not just the sanctuary, and all of Israel, not just the priesthood.” Israel, he said, attains holiness and priests strive to sustain it. (Milgrom, J., Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, Fortress Press, Minneapolis:2004, pp 175, 178)

Although priests are not allowed by the rules in Leviticus to make any mistake, attaining holiness takes a lot more work than sustaining it. What we priests do in the sanctuary merely sustains holiness; what the People of God do in the world, that is how holiness is attained. That’s much, much harder!

It takes love … It takes loving even people we don’t really like, even people we can’t stand! Indeed, the word used in Hebrew text is not exactly “neighbor;” it is not limited to those who are geographically nearby. The Hebrew word is more akin to “fellow” and seems to be much more expansive. Thus, when a lawyer questions Jesus about the Law, Jesus is able to cite the rule from Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and then illustrate it with a story involving someone from another country, a hated foreigner, the Good Samaritan. (See Luke 10:25–37)

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus quotes (or, actually, misquotes) the same verse from Leviticus, adding words that aren’t in the original: “You have heard that it was said,” he says, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” (Mt 5:43)

Now to be fair to Jesus, he doesn’t actually say he’s quoting Leviticus, just “you have heard it said.” That last bit about hating enemies could just be a rabbinic gloss; it could just be folk wisdom. In any event, it was (and is) the way people act. Jesus acknowledges human nature by beginning this bit of the Sermon on the Mount (and that’s what this is, the end of the first chapter of that long sermon) with commentary on what’s called “the lex talionis,” that eye-for-an-eye rule. But the lex talionis isn’t about enemies; that’s a rule of justice not of war. “An eye for an eye” deals with retribution toward a neighbor who has violated social norms. Jesus dispenses with that (saying, basically, don’t follow the lex talionis, don’t seek retribution or revenge) and now moves beyond it; he leaves the neighborhood, so to speak.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Love those whom you fear, even those you think might kill you, even the hated foreigner.” He’s saying that “enemy” is not really a separate class, that the world isn’t divided into neighbors and enemies. Although some people would like to do that, although some people have always done that (it’s human nature, after all), the world isn’t carved up that way. Jesus is saying (I think) that “enemies” are simply a class of “neighbors;” that enemies and neighbors are all “fellows;” that the division – neighbors here, enemies there, those we’re unsure about in some holding pen over there – doesn’t hold water.

And then, echoing Leviticus’ “Holiness Code,” especially the first verses of the neighborliness rules of Chapter 19 – “Be Holy because God is holy” – Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)

That’s heavy stuff! And remember the Leviticus command and Jesus’ admonition are not directed to the priests; these are directives for the whole People of God, for the laity.

It’s hard work . . . but as Kathryn Schifferdecker, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says these verses are as much promise as command:

“You shall be holy.” It is both command and promise. And to believe that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living out in our day-to-day lives genuine love for God and for our neighbors. (Working Preacher)

You will be holy. You will be perfect. It’s a promise – so act on the promise; live as if you believe the promise. And keep this in mind, “holiness” is just another way to say “wholeness” and “perfection” is just another way to say “completion.” The promise of holiness is an instruction to strive for wholeness; the promise of perfection is a command to work toward completion.

What Leviticus and Jesus ask of us is that we be fully human, that we be as whole and complete a human being as each of us can be. And the way we do that is to love our neighbor, even the neighbor who seems to be our enemy, even the neighbor of whom we are afraid, even the neighbor we think may kill us.

When I was kid, I helped my stepdad restore old homes. I think my parents invented to the practice of “flipping,” buying old fixer-uppers, rehabbing them, and then selling them hopefully at a profit. From the time I was about 10 years old until I went away to college, we lived and fixed up in a different house every year. The last thing we would do was to paint the interiors. My stepdad encouraged me to do that very neatly and carefully because, he would say (and I had no idea that he was referencing scripture), “Paint covers a multitude of sins.”

He was parodying the First Letter of Peter, “Love covers a multitude of sins (4:8).” Peter goes on to say, “Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (v. 10).” Just be human, be yourself, be the best you you can be, loving your neighbor and using whatever gifts you have been given. I know that’s hard; it’s really hard. But with the help and grace of God, you can do it.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is a promise more than it is a command. With the help and grace of God you will be holy; you will be perfect.

And the glorious thing is – the Gospel truth is – that through the grace of God you already are!

Amen!

(Note: The illustration is Camelia Japonica, “Pink Perfection,” a camellia cutlivar dating from the late 18th Century; it was one of the most popular flowers of the Victorian Age.)

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

Daily Habits: Sermon for Holy Name Day, 1 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, January 1, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are the second set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Holy Name Day in Year A: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; and St. Luke 2:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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holy_name_picToday on the secular calendar is New Year’s Day, but that’s not true in the church. We celebrated a new church year several weeks ago on the First Sunday of Advent. In the church, January 1, being eight days after the Feast of the Incarnation, is the day on which we celebrate Jesus’ Jewishness. We call it, these days, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus; it was formerly called the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ because that is what Luke’s Gospel tells us was done. It was a very Jewish thing to do.

We sometimes forget (and there are people who would like to completely ignore) that Jesus was a Jew, a very devout and observant Jew. Apparently his parents were, as well. They had him circumcised on his eighth day of life in accordance with Leviticus 12:3. The ceremony is called a “bris milah” (which means “Covenant of Circumcision”):

While the circumcision is performed, the child is held by a person called a sandek. In English, this is often referred to as a godfather. It is an honor to be a sandek for a bris. The sandek is usually a grandparent or the family rabbi. Traditionally, a chair (often an ornate one) is set aside for Elijah, who is said to preside over all circumcisions. Various blessings are recited, including one over wine, and a drop of wine is placed in the child’s mouth. The child is then given a formal Hebrew name.

It is not necessary to have a minyan for a bris, but it is desirable if feasible. (Judaism 101)

It’s kind of disappointing that Luke doesn’t tell us who the sendak was or whether there was a minyan or (if there was) who the ten men were.

Luke does tell us that later, thirty-three days to be exact, Mary and Joseph took the child to the Jerusalem Temple where they made the mandatory sacrifice of two pigeons, since they were too poor to afford a lamb. We celebrate this event on February 2 in a feast called by some churches the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and by others the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. Luke tells us also that every year Mary and Joseph would go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover; it was on one of these trips when Jesus was 12 years old that he was inadvertently left behind and was later found in learned conversation with the doctors of the Law. Luke tells us all of these things in the second chapter of his gospel.

What Luke, and to a lesser extent the other gospels, demonstrate is that Jesus came from a very devoted and observant Jewish family and that he himself continued that pattern throughout his life. He regularly attended synagogue services on the Sabbath. He prayed frequently. He commended observance of the Law and declared that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, [would] pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Mt 5:18; cf Lk 16:17) In his devotion to his Jewish faith, what Jesus modeled and taught was the regular practice of religion, the cultivation of a habit of religious observance, a life of spiritual discipline.

But, we might think, Jesus was and is God! One would think that if anyone could take a pass on spiritual discipline, it would be God. However, as Paul writes in our selection from the letter to the Philippians this morning, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself.” (Philip 2:7-8) Part of his human humility was this habit of regular religious and spiritual practice.

Our gradual this morning speaks of human existence in terms that seem somewhat at odds with a sense of human humility:

What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?
You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;
You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet . . . . (Ps 8:5-7, BCP Version)

Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the character Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2, of that play:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

I have always been certain that Shakespeare was glossing on Psalm 8.

The psalm, in our Prayer Book version, speaks of human mastery over creation; the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this as “dominion.” The Hebrew word is mashal, which is sometimes translated as “authority.”

Presbyterian pastor and theologian Matthew Stith argues that our dominion or authority over the creation should “look like the loving stewardship,” though it seldom has (Stith). Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb makes the same point when she writes:

To be human is to be responsible for our fellow creatures, and we must take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness. * * * [A]t the same time that Psalm 8 recognizes our dominion, it also reminds us of our humility. We are each still that awestruck person gazing in wonderment at the stars. We bear the image of God; we are not God. Our finitude and fallibility must be kept in mind as we exercise our responsibility. We are also reminded that we are a part of the creation over which God has granted us dominion. We do not stand apart from our fellow creatures, but we stand with them. (Webb)

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare’s Hamlet does not stop where I ended quoting the character. Instead, he tells Guildenstern and Rosencrantz that “Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither” declaring humankind to be nothing more than the “quintessence of dust.”

And, yet, this is dust which God blesses. God instructed Moses to teach his brother Aaron the priest a particular blessing, one we heard in our reading from the Book of Numbers, one which I’m sure is familiar to all of us:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Num 6:24-26)

This blessing is taught as part of the instructions for the Hebrews’ preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai where they have been camped for almost a year. This blessing is designated for their journey from Sinai to the land of promise; it was to be said daily throughout their journey.

Terence E. Fretheim, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, tells us that the climactic word of the benediction, shalom, has wide-ranging connotations. Citing Professor Dennis Olson’s commentary on the Book of Numbers, Fretheim says the richness of the word includes “prosperity (Psalm 37:11; Proverbs 3:2), longevity, happiness in a family (Psalm 128:6), safety, security (Psalm 4:9; 122:6-8), good health (Psalm 38:4), friendship (Jeremiah 38:22), and general well-being.” (Fretheim, quoting Olson, Numbers, [Louisville: John Knox, 1996] 42-43)

That the Aaronic blessing was to be said over the Jewish people daily brings us back to the teaching and model of Jesus put before us by Luke the Evangelist: a devout and observant Jew who cultivated the daily habit of spiritual and religious practice. Today, in this Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, we celebrate his Jewishness, his daily devotion to his faith. Today, as we celebrate our secular New Year, let us resolve to follow his example and renew in the coming year our own daily devotion to God. As you do so, everyday

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Amen!

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

A Christmas Lamb Chop: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are the second set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Christmas in Year A: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; and St. Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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lambchop1I was in the pet supply aisle at Giant Eagle several days ago getting food for the Archbishop (that’s our black cocker spaniel, Lord Dudley of Ballycraic, the Archbishop Canine of Montville) when I found, right in front of the Beneful which is his favorite meal, a bin filled with these: dog toys in the likeness of a lamb dressed for Christmas. And not just any lamb! This is Lamb Chop, the somewhat snarky puppet introduced to the world by the late Shari Lewis in 1957.

As many of you know, this is something I do every year for this Christmas Eve sermon . . . find something to be a sort of “focus object” or trigger for our Christmas Eve meditations. Lamb Chop just seemed perfectly suited. This Christmas toy suggested four poetic associations to me: one is the title given Jesus by John the Baptizer, “the Lamb of God;” a second was a familiar nursery rhyme; the third was a romantic English poem; and the fourth, a song that Lamb Chop sang on the Shari Lewis television show, all of which can help us explore and understand the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.

So, the first thing that comes immediately to mind when we look at a lamb, whether Lamb Chop the puppet dressed up for Christmas or an actual lamb in the fields is the statement made by John the Baptizer in the Gospel of John: “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn 1:29) That seems an odd way to refer to a grown man, which Jesus was at the time.

The 20th-century bible scholar Joachim Jeremias suggested that a way to understand John’s statement is that he probably used the Aramaic word talya. Jeremias says that “lamb” (amnos in the Greek in which the gospel is written) is a translation of this Aramaic word, which can also be translated “boy,” “child” or “servant.” When Jesus was described as the talya of God, Aramaic speakers of the earliest church would have heard “child” of God, or “son” of God, or “servant” of God, or “lamb” of God. When that gospel story was written after Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, the image of the sacrificial lamb of the Hebrew tradition resonated with the author. (See America)

According to some widely accepted Christian theologies, the sacrifice of the cross is the very reason for which Jesus was born. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case; I suspect that God the Father would much rather have had Jesus followed than killed, but certainly God made use of Jesus’ Crucifixion and through it opened for us the way of salvation. In any event, some people think that the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, the second thing called to mind by our Christmas Lamb Chop, is about Jesus’ birth as the sacrificial lamb of God. You know the one:

Mary had a little lamb,
a little lamb, a little lamb
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.

It’s not really about the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus, however. It was written by Sarah Josepha Hale of Sterling, Massachusetts, in 1830, and is said to describe an actual event of a pet lamb visiting the local schoolhouse. (See Wikipedia) Nonetheless, we can learn something about our Christian faith by considering the lamb of that story.

The rhyme continues that the lamb followed Mary and “everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.” Although I don’t believe that the Son of God was born necessarily or primarily to be a sacrifice, I am sure he was born to be followed; I’m certain Christ came into Creation to teach us how to live life God’s Way. He is the Word given to us to lead us to salvation. The little lamb in the nursery rhyme trusted Mary and followed her, and that is what God wants us to do, to trust and follow the Son so that, with the Son, we may live the abundant life of the Kingdom of Heaven that God constantly offers us. This is what makes his birth so important to us and why we celebrate the Incarnation in our many special ways.

So, anyway, I picked up this Christmas Lamb Chop dog toy and the first thing I did was check to see where it was made. I’m very careful not to give the Archbishop, Lord Dudley, anything made overseas. (I’m sure you’ve heard about the toxins found in dog toys and treats made, for example, in China.) Doing so, I thought of another bit of lamb-inspired poetry, one by the English Romantic poet William Blake. You may know it; it is entitled simply The Lamb. It is, in essence, a question asked of a lamb by a child:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake’s poem is a deceptively naive child’s song. Beginning with a descriptive, pastoral stanza, it moves quickly to focus on the abstract spiritual matter of Creation. The child’s guileless but profound question – “Who made thee?” – echoes the deep and timeless question that all human beings have about our origin. It reminds us of the opening lines of John’s Gospel with its abstract account of the Incarnation:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth
(Jn 1:1-3,14)

In Blake’s poem, this profound truth is presented with the naiveté of a child’s puzzle revealing the child’s confidence in a simple and innocent Christian faith. Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:15) Christmas is a time for us all to experience once again our childlike wonder at the simple beauty that is the Incarnation.

But our Christmas dog toy can trick us! We have to beware of oversimplifying the Incarnation. I read recently about “a Christmas display . . . at [a shopping] mall: giant plush bears robed as Mary and Joseph, beaming at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger.” Theologian Fredrica Mathewes-Green, who described this display, said of it,

If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since dispersed. Three jolly bears now convey everything we know or expect to know. It is a scene plump with stupidity. Jesus as a cookie. God as a pet. (Patheos)

This, she says, “is very bad news,” because “a circle of cuddly bears is useless at helping us deal with pain. It cannot help us grasp searing heartbreak.” Neither can a puppet, even a nice Christmas Lamb Chop puppet, but it can serve as a warning and a reminder!

Tracy Dugger, an Episcopal priest in Florida, has written about what she calls “meat puppet theology,”

. . . the idea that our bodies are machines simply being utilized and driven around by our minds. The mind/soul is the control, and the body is subservient. This way of thinking about the mind/body connection is wrong, and leads us into some pretty wrongheaded [ideas]. (The Young Anglican)

“The ultimate example of why bodies are important,” she says, is the simple fact that “JESUS HAD ONE! Jesus was Incarnate. Not only was Jesus, Son of God, begotten by the Holy Spirit, He was knit together in Mary’s womb. Jesus was a man of flesh and blood, as well as God from God, light from light.”

Mathewes-Green puts it this way:

God came down in a suit of skin and bones, and walked and talked and offended people, and finally they tortured him to death. And by that death he destroyed death; he rescued us and gave life everlasting and every other good thing. Into this universe crammed with pain we say that God came down, because he loves us with the kind of love that we can only understand by thinking of how a parent loves. (Patheos)

In an Advent meditation offered earlier this week, Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminded us that parental love and every act of kindness is an action of the body. He wrote: “The Spirit of God animates us, but it all happens in the flesh: every deed of kindness, every act of generosity, every word of encouragement happens in the flesh. Every embodiment of Christ’s grace or truth or love happens in the flesh – or it doesn’t happen.”

Tonight, tomorrow, as we celebrate the Word becoming flesh, we celebrate that bodily parental love . . . the love of mother and father tending their newborn child; the eternal love of the Father sending the Son to redeem us. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary, we celebrate also the truth we recite every Sunday (and this evening) in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father . . .
(BCP 1979, Pg 358)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem once for all time; the Son of God is eternally begotten of the Father and both, as we say in the Creed, for our salvation.

lambchop2Which brings me to the fourth and last bit of poetry our Christmas Lamb Chop brought to mind, which is a song Lamb Chop and Shari Lewis taught their viewers during the 1992 season of the PBS show Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. Some of you may know the song and can sing along:

This is the song that doesn’t end
Yes, it goes on and on my friends
Some people started singing it
Not knowing what it was
And they’ll continue singing it
Forever just because . . .
(Repeat)

There is a contemporary Christmas carol by Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn entitled The Cry of a Tiny Babe which expresses the timelessness and eternality of Jesus’ birth in its refrain:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
(Cry of a Tiny Baby YouTube)

In the last book of the bible, St. John of Patmos recorded his many visions, the last of which was of the Lamb:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. * * * Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 21:22-26,22:3-5)

Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that salvation is a song that doesn’t end, that “redemption rips through the surface of time,” and that our Christmas carols are but a faint echo of the multitude’s song of worship before the throne of the Lamb for ever and ever. Mary had a little lamb, the Lamb of God, the Word made flesh through Whom all things were made, Who came down for our salvation, and Whose song of redemption doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friends.

Merry Christmas!

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

Our Immigrant Lord: For the Parish Newsletter, December 2016

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the December 2016 issue of The Epistle, the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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thirstednot-jesusindesert2A few years ago I read an essay about the trials and tribulations of relocation, particularly from region to region within our country. In it the author made the comment that when relocating to the South, there were two invariably asked questions of the newcomer: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” These, he said, are quintessentially Southern inquiries which serve to position the interrogated in a place’s social network and milieu. The assumptions, of course, are that no one would relocate to a town where they did not have “people” (i.e., family members) and that everyone goes to church somewhere.

I’m not sure, after making several regional locations myself, that those are only Southern questions. They seem to be universally asked, in one form or another, of newcomers to every American community. In fact, they may be quintessentially human questions asked around the world!

In 2005, when Evelyn and I made our first trip to Ireland, one of my goals was to find distant relatives, members of the Funston clan whose ancestors had stayed there when my great-great-grandfather had come to America. So we visited the places I believed he might have come from, the Funston township lands of Counties Donegal, Tyrone, and Fermanagh. During our stay in the city of Donegal we happened to visit a woolen goods store run by a delightful man named Sean McGinty. We entered the shop just as Sean was closing up for the day and he graciously stayed open so we could peruse his sweaters, tweeds, and other goods. Of course, that meant he was going to be late to dinner . . . and, as a result, his wife Mary came looking for him.

We’d been in conversation with Sean before Mary arrived and told him of my search for Funstons. He said he thought there might be some living in Pettigo, a small village on the border of County Donegal and County Fermanagh. When Mary came into the shop, he drew her into our conversation and asked her, “Mary, you’re from Pettigo. Were there any Funstons living there?” She thought for a moment and then replied, “Aye! But they weren’t our people.” I knew immediately what she meant: they weren’t members of the Catholic Church. And that would have been right! My ancestor was a member of the Anglican Church of Ireland and his descendants are still Anglicans!

So there were those same two concerns: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” They are the questions still being asked of newcomers to our communities wherever we may be, whether we are in the South of the United States, in Ohio, or somewhere in Europe. As so many people are on the move because of war, political unrest, and economic necessity, as so many are labeled “immigrant” and “refugee,” they are increasingly divisive and exclusive questions.

“Who are your people?” . . . “Where do you worship?” . . . What is your ethnic background? . . . What is your religion? . . . Instead of being asked to position the newcomer within the social milieu of his or her new home, the questions and their answers too often lead to the erection of social barriers, sometimes even physical walls. Instead of being welcoming questions of inclusion, they are the defensive or belligerent interrogations of exclusion.

Recently in the Christian press, particularly those journals which cater to a more conservative audience, there has been a lot of discussion about the assertion that Jesus was an immigrant and refugee. It is a common enough hermeneutic drawn from the story of the Holy Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt as related in Matthew’s Gospel: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matt 23:13 NRSV) It occurred to me that it may be a useful reminder that the Son of God was an immigrant from the very start, that he was not and is not a native resident of our world; he is from elsewhere, from heaven, from the very Throne of God.

As Dr. John Marshall, a Southern Baptist minister in Missouri, recently wrote: “Our Savior was an immigrant. He left His home in Heaven to become a stranger in the very world He created. There was no room for Him in the Bethlehem inn (Lk 2:7). He came to His own people, but they received Him not (Jn 1:11).” (Marshall) As we prepare once again to welcome him in the annual celebration of his Incarnation, we do well to remember that and to remember that he remained an immigrant and a refugee throughout his life.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, a land dominated by the Roman empire through a client ruler named Herod the Great. Apparently Mary, Joseph, and Jesus remained there for a couple of years before fleeing to Egypt where they lived until Herod died about four to six years after that. When they left Egypt, they returned not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth in Galilee, which was under the rule of Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. Jesus grew up, then, as a resident of Galilee; when he undertook his ministry to Jerusalem (which is in Judea), although he was returning to the country of his birth, he was an immigrant into Judea.

Judea, by the way, during Jesus’ life and ministry was ruled not by a local king but directly by the Romans. Herod the Great was succeeded by his son Archelaus, who had the title of “Ethnarch of Judea.” Archelaus died less than ten years after succeeding his father. After his death, a series of Roman governors or “Prefects” ruled, the last of whom during Jesus’ life was Pontius Pilate.

In truth, Jesus spent most of his time on the move. Both Matthew and Luke report him saying to a potential follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20; Lk 9:58) Jesus was not a settled person and, interestingly enough, neither are his followers (us) supposed to be. This goes back to the Jewish roots of our faith, a reminder of which is found in the Torah’s instructions for eating the Passover feast: “You shall eat it [with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (Ex 12:11) We are always to be ready to be on the move.

Our parish patron, St. Paul, takes up this theme in his letters. He reminded the Philippians that we are not to set our mind on earthly things because “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philip 3:19-20) And he promised the Ephesians that we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19) Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon expanded on this notion in their book Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989), arguing that today the church is not “a service club within a generally Christian culture,” but rather “a colony within an alien society.” (pg. 115)

How might this inform and shape our Advent preparations and our Christmas celebrations? What if we understood that we are not getting ready to welcome Jesus into our settled existence, our cozy homes and our warm hearths, our abundant feasts and our lovely dining rooms? Rather, we should be preparing for our immigrant Lord Jesus to invite us to join him on the road, to eat with him hastily consumed meals wearing our sandals and holding our walking sticks, to sleep with him in places where we have no place to put our heads. What might we do differently to get ready for the anniversary of his Incarnation and for his promised return? What might we do differently for all who, like him, are refugees and immigrants?

Who are our people? The people of God whoever they are and wherever they may be, temporarily settled in “a colony within an alien society” or on the road. Where do we worship? Wherever we find our Lord, in church, in a refugee camp, in places we cannot even imagine. Every year Advent and Christmas challenge us with what Hauerwas and Willimon call “the greatest challenge facing the church in any age” which is to be “a living, breathing, witnessing colony of truth.”

May that challenge be our blessing in 2016! May each of us, and all of us together, be living, breathing witnesses to the Truth!

(Note: The image is a digital painting by an internet blogger calling himself Horseman. I could find no further information about it or him.)
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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.

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

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 1 in Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; and St. Matthew 24:36-44. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

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

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

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

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

We keep waiting for it, don’t we?

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

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

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

Here’s a little First Century history lesson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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