That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Mark (page 2 of 13)

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.

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.

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.

Restoring Wholeness: Sermon for Pentecost 17, RCP Proper 19C (11 September 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 19C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; and St. Luke 15:1-10. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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little-lost-lamb-59319I’d like you all to take your Prayer Books in hand and turn with me to page 855 which is way in the back of the book in the section called The Catechism or Outline of the Faith. At the top of the page are three questions about the mission of the church and the answers to those questions that we as Episcopalians teach. I’m going to read the questions; I’d like you to read the answers:

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

Following those questions are a few more about the specific ministry of the various orders (lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons); I invite you to read those on your own.

For now, just keep in mind that the church’s mission is to restore people to unity with God and one another; we have a word for that – it’s called reconciliation. Remember that the church carries out that mission in prayer, worship, and proclamation, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. And, finally, remember that the church does so not as an institution, but through the individual ministries of its members, not as a collective like the Borg of Star Trek but as individuals with distinctive skills, talents, and interests (as Capt. Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager often instructed the former Borg drone Seven-of-Nine).

As you keep all that in mind, let me tell you a story about myself as a younger man, about thirty years younger. Back then I was not ordained; I was a practicing attorney living in Las Vegas, Nevada, with Evelyn and our children. Patrick was three years of age and Caitlin was one. One day I decided to take my son to the circus; more accurately, I took him to Circus Circus Casino. Now normally one does not take a 3-year-old to a casino, but Circus Circus is (or at least was) a special sort of casino. Housed in a building made to look like a “big top”, it had a mezzanine circling the gaming floor and on this mezzanine was an arcade filled with all the circus and carnival attractions you can name. Over the gaming floor was a trapeze rig on which gymnasts swung and flew with reckless abandon, while on the mezzanine midway barkers sought to attract patrons to shooting galleries, ring-toss games, and the like. My toddler was in awe of the whole thing.

We stopped for a few minutes to watch the trapeze artists and at some point I looked down and discovered that my son was no longer at my side. He was right there – and then he wasn’t! I know that most, if not all parents, have experienced something similar. That moment when your child has gone missing and you begin to experience every emotion known to humankind . . . in spades! Adrenaline courses through not only your body but your soul; you are in a physical and spiritual panic! “Where is my child!?!?” Fear and worry, hope and hopelessness, confusion and sadness . . . it’s all there, all jumbled together. It’s almost impossible to function and yet function you must; you have to find your child!

As it turned out, Patrick was only about eight feet away. The trapeze wasn’t nearly as exciting as the ring-toss game where, if his father had a good eye and a steady hand he might throw a plastic ring around a jelly jar and Patrick would get the gold fish living therein. When, after an eternity of maybe two or three minutes, I finally found him, a whole new rush of mixed emotions set in – relief, anger, joy, love – and I found myself kneeling on the floor holding him by the shoulders and yelling at him, adding to the circus noise of the crowded casino.

A security guard about my age, probably a father himself, had seen my panicked search and started to come over, arriving about the same time that I’d found Patrick. As I was shouting my lecture about not leaving Dad’s side, the guard put his hand on my shoulder . . . and that’s all it took. It calmed me down; the anger fled and the relief, joy, and love flooded in. I hugged my son tightly to me and vowed never to lose him again.

If you’re a parent, perhaps you’ve had a similar experience; as I said, I imagine most if not all parents have done so. Or perhaps you’ve been through that situation where you’ve worked for days on a project at work or school only to have a co-worker or a fellow student do something that renders all your effort of no worth at all. You’ve just lost all that time and work, and the feeling of futility that washes over you is just mind-numbing and drains you of all sense of worth and well-being. If you could, you’d drop-kick that colleague right out the front door. But then, perhaps another workmate, perhaps a supervisor or a teacher, makes a gesture or says a word and you realize that you really have no reason for anger. This is just the way things go sometimes and whatever the other worker or student may have done probably wasn’t done to hurt you; that’s just life. You pick up and you move on.

If you’ve had experiences like these, you know how the shepherd or the woman in Jesus’ parables this morning felt. You know how Yahweh felt at Sinai in our story from the Book of Exodus.

In the latter, Moses has left the Hebrews encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai while he has climbed the mountain to converse with Yahweh; he will eventually be bringing down the Law, the Commandments etched on stone by God’s own self. Moses is on the mountain for forty days and forty nights during which the Hebrews begin to feel themselves abandoned. They probably go through that whole gamut of emotions that a lost child, or a parent looking for a lost child, feels . . . but this story really isn’t about them . . . . Anyway, they feel abandoned because of Moses’ long absence and so they turn to his brother, Aaron the Priest, and say, “Make us a god!”

Aaron complies; Aaron seems like the type who is always easy going and willing to compromise and so he does as they ask, taking their jewelry and gold money and fashioning a god for them, the Golden Calf. This comforts them and so they begin to celebrate with revelry, the Bible tells us; that’s singing and dancing and some things we don’t generally talk about in church.

Meanwhile, Yahweh distracted by his conversation with Moses doesn’t notice his children wandering off. When he looks down, however, he finds them gone and, worse, when he finds them they aren’t just distracted by a ring-toss game and some goldfish. They are worshiping an idol!

Shauna Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, says that we should stop referring to this text as the “golden calf” incident and begin calling it the “God changes God’s mind at the request of Moses” incident. (Hannan) One of the things that strikes me about this incident is how very much Yahweh acts like an angry parent in this episode.

Something I found myself doing early in parenthood was referring to our kids as “my son” or “my daughter” when they were behaving well, but when they misbehaved I would turn to Evelyn and say, “Do something about your son (daughter)!” Back in Chapter 20, Yahweh said to the Hebrews, “I am the Lord your God, [I’m the one] who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (v. 2) but now he says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (32:7) I can really relate to Yahweh’s doing that!

And not only does God sort of disown these folks! Prof. Hannan points out that

God calls them names: stiff-necked people. And worse, God wants to be left alone to wallow in anger and to “consume” the idolaters. If that is not enough, God seems to bribe Moses to leave him alone (32:10). If Moses does so, God will make of him a great nation. Anger, tirade, blame, name-calling, destruction, bribery; this is not God at God’s best. (Hannan)

But Moses steps in like that security guard at Circus Circus, or like the supervisor at work or the teacher at school, and says a calming word. “Turn from your fierce anger,” he says, “Calm down. Remember your promises to Abrahan, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses figuratively lays a hand on Yahweh’s shoulder. Callie Plunket-Brewton, who teaches at the University of North Alabama, says Moses here serves as a model for the Church, bearing witness to God’s faithful compassion and urging reconciliation between God and God’s people, although in this peculiar circumstance it is Yahweh himself to whom Moses is witnessing! (Plunket-Brewton)

Five years ago, on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the September 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, of which today is the 15th anniversary, I was invited to preach at St. Paul’s Church of Ireland Parish in the town of Banagher, County Offaly, Ireland. The lessons for that day were from the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, in which Lady Wisdom cries out to passersby, “How long will you love being naive?” (Prov. 1:22) and from the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel in which Peter tries to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mk 8:33)

I suggested to my Irish audience that there is a parallel between the way the British authorities responded to Ireland’s Easter Uprising of 1916 and the way we in America responded to the actions of Al-Qaeda on September 11. They and we were naive, and when they and we experienced the tragic loss of life and the overwhelming loss of control that those events represented, we did, indeed, set our minds on human things, on revenge and retribution, rather than on divine things, on restoring all people to unity with God and each other, on promoting justice, peace, and love. So Ireland found itself in nearly a century of sectarian strife and eventually the deadly and devastating Troubles of Northern Ireland. And we have found ourselves 15 years later still battling terrorists, still fighting in the Gulf States, still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq in the longest armed combat in our nation’s history, and trying not to get deeply involved in the directly consequent civil war in Syria.

If only someone had raised their voice, if only someone had laid their hands on our nations’ shoulders and said, “Turn from your fierce anger. Calm down. Remember your promises . . . .” Eventually the Irish and the British were able to end their bitter relationship and the Troubles which made Northern Ireland a hell-on-earth; we hope and pray that we will be able to do the same in and with the Gulf States and those who live there.

I said that the reading from Exodus is really not a story about the Hebrews. It is a story about God, about Yahweh, a god who understands those feelings of loss, who knows what it is to feel loss-engendered anger and to want retribution and revenge, and who turns away from those things to seek reconciliation instead.

The parables that Jesus tells in our selection from Luke’s Gospel are also stories about God, about God and loss, and not (as we often think) about us. Though they are often called the parables of the “lost sheep” and the “lost coin,” they ought to be called the parable of the shepherd who went in search of a sheep and of the woman who cleaned her house looking for a coin. That would take the focus off the thing that is loss and put it properly on the one who does the finding.

However, we do have to consider the things that are lost and what that means. Karoline Lewis, who writes a weekly internet column about the lectionary texts entitled Dear Working Preacher, noted this week that “the state of being lost is a rather ambiguous determination in life.” Being lost can mean being misplaced, or misdirected, or misguided, or wasted. “A definition of ‘lost’ seems as broad as its incidences: unable to be found; not knowing where you are or how to get to where you want to go; unable to find your way; no longer held, owned, or possessed.” (Lewis)

On Thursday afternoon I was driving to Brook Park and listening to Terry Gross’s NPR show Fresh Air as she interviewed an author named Steve Silberman about his book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. (Available online) As they talked about the autism spectrum, it occurred to me that there might be a similar continuum of “lostness” that could help us understand these bible lessons. It seems to me that at one end of such a lostness spectrum are the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They are lost by reason of their own decision; they are, as Yahweh said, stiff-necked people and their lostness is the consequence of their own actions, their own impatience, rejection, and alienation. In short, the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai are lost because of sin.

At the other end of the spectrum is the coin, about which we might ask, “How does a coin sin? How does a coin lose itself?” and the simple answer is that it can’t.

And somewhere in the middle of our lostness continuum is the sheep, who wandered away from the flock not out of rejection or alienation, but simply because sheep are rather dull-witted and naive. It has wandered off not through sinful intent, but through silly innocence.

The wonderful thing that these stories demonstrate is that the mechanism of lostness, the reason the Hebrews, the sheep, or the coin are lost, is irrelevant. What these stories show is that the one who feels their absence, the one who is concerned about their lostness, God, is going to find them. Influenced by the intervention of Moses, by his witness to God’s own ministry of reconciliation, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people,” and instead restored Godself to unity with them. The shepherd sought and found the lost sheep and rejoiced. The woman sought and found the lost coin and rejoiced. The emphasis in all these stories is on the finding and the restoration of relationship, on the one committed to that end.

Jennifer Copeland, a Methodist minister, wrote several years ago in The Christian Century magazine:

The lost sheep and the lost coin are more than the prized possessions of their owners; they are also parts of a whole. The sheep belongs to the flock and the coin to the purse; without them the whole is not complete. The search, then, is a quest for restoration and wholeness. In this sense, all of us who are part of God’s creation should be just as anxious as God until the lost are restored and we are made whole again by their presence. (Clean Sweep, The Christian Century, September 7, 2004, p. 20)

Prof. Hannan suggests that this emphasis on wholeness is also the “shocking and profoundly hopeful news” of the Exodus passage, the news “that God sticks with us; God continues to claim us as God’s own despite” everything. (Hannan)

On this 15th anniversary of those terrible events that are summed up in the simple numbers “9-11,” in this 13th year of armed conflict that has flowed from them, let us remember that our mission as a church, our mission as individual members of the church, has that same emphasis of reconciliation and wholeness:

The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

In today’s Daily Office gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus admonishes his hearers, “Be reconciled to your brother or sister.” (Matt 5:24b) I can think of no better way to memorialize all who died September 11, 2001, and in the conflict and violence that has followed.

To close, I would like to offer a prayer for this anniversary co-authored by my friends Deacon Scott Elliott of the Diocese of Chicago and Fr. Bob Winter, a retired priest of this diocese.

Let us pray:

O God of mercy, justice, and love, you have taught us to love even those with whom we are at enmity: As we gather in the Name of your Son to celebrate your goodness and grace, we remember the great evil done in your Name on this day. In your mercy, relieve our hearts of the burden of shock and horror and help us to remember that we, your children, are likewise called to be merciful; help us, as children of the Just One, to respond to your call to be people of justice; help us, as the beneficiaries of your love, to remember your command to love the whole world in your Name. All this we ask in the Name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Stairway to Heaven – Sermon for Easter 4C – April 17, 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and St. John 10:22-30. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Stairway to HeavenThere’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for . . .

As I read and pondered both the vision of heaven in John of Patmos’ Revelation and the words of Jesus – “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27) – I could not get the words of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven out of my head!

The metaphor of God’s Presence – and of our future and eternal life with God – in a place “beyond the sky” may be the oldest metaphor in the human lexicon. It is shared, in some form, by every culture on earth. Our distant ancestors standing at night and gazing at the moon and the stars, watching the sun as “wide he goes through empty heaven with repose” (RL Stevenson, Summer Sun), or facing “the fierce wind, while mid-day lightnings prowl [and] untimely thunders growl” (Wm Wordsworth, Composed During A Storm) conceived of the sky as a place of unspeakable and unimaginable power, the dwelling place of the gods.

But we have been there; we “have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;” we have “trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space.” (JG Magee, Jr, High Flight) Men have walked on the moon and our machines are even now wondering the surface of Mars; our probes have studied the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and then left the planetary system entirely moving on “through corridors sublime, the [realms] of interstellar space and [the passageways] of time.” (And Have the Bright Immensities, The [Episcopal] Hymnal 1982, Hymn 459) We know that beyond the blue dome of our earthly sky is not some otherworldly domain filled with angels and gods, but the physical reality of the Solar System, the Milky Way galaxy, and the limitless universe. And, yet, the metaphor of heaven up there beyond the sky where we may get to go when we die, that metaphor still captures our imaginations and our spirits.

Our lesson from the Book of Revelation today is the second half of a two-part vision shown to John in Chapter 7 of the book; it begins with the words “After this. . . .” – “After what?” we may ask. In the first eight verses of the chapter, John is shown the “servants of our God [marked] with a seal on their foreheads,” an army numbering 144,000 – 12,000 from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. These represent what we traditionally call “the church militant,” defined theologically as Christ’s “disciples [who] are pilgrims on earth” (CCC 954), who are “engaged in constant warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil” (Turner, H.M., The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity, A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia:1885, online). In other words, you and me and every other Christian currently alive, the people doing Jesus’ work on earth right now. Bible commentator Christopher C. Rowland of Oxford University tells us that the number, 144,000, is neither exclusive nor limiting; instead, like all of the numbers and measures in the book, it is a sign of God’s possession and ownership of the earth and its people. John’s numbers are not “a measure of the success of human endeavours.” (NIB, Vol. XII, page 620)

It is after this part of the vision that John then sees the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9) This is “the church triumphant,” those who have died and “are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’” (CCC 954) In a word, these are the “saints in heaven.”

John says that “one of the elders” in his vision describes them as those “who have come out of the great ordeal.” (vv 13-14) Early translations use the term “great tribulation” and many have suggested that this refers to some kind of organized persecution that may have been experienced by John’s original audience. But other scholars suggest that “the ‘tribulation’ (thlipsis) of Revelation’s [original] audience was not state-sponsored persecution but rather the social, economic, and religious marginalization of those who refused to participate in the Roman imperial system.” (Barbara Rossing) Thus, the lesson for us “is not that all Christians must shed blood as a form of testimony but rather, all Christians are candidates for tribulation in some form or the other, and in whatever comes their way, it is paramount to follow the Lamb’s way.” (Israel Kamudzandu)

Laurence Hull Stookey, Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C, in his book on the liturgical calendar, reminds us that these saints seen by John are not there by their own merit: “Men and women do not by sheer determination and self-discipline become saints. Sanctity is a divine gift. It is indeed the power of the resurrection at work in human lives. * * * We are saints because God’s sanctity is at work in us, not because on our own we have come to great spiritual attainment.” (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1996, pp. 141-42)

In terms of Led Zeppelin’s famous song, we cannot build or buy a stairway to heaven on our own; we can only get there by “follow[ing] the Lamb’s way,” by hearing the Shepherd’s voice, being known by him, and following him. But if we listen to the Shepherd, what do we learn about heaven? What do we learn about where and when it is? Is it, as John’s vision suggests, only accessible after death? Is it, as John’s vision and Led Zep’s song and all the myths and legends of heaven suggest someplace beyond the sky?

Here’s an interesting thing . . . look the word “heaven” up in the New Testament and review all the times Jesus uses it and you will notice something fascinating: Jesus never refers to heaven in anything other than the present tense. Heaven is always now, never then. It’s not in the past; it’s not in the future; it’s now. And the other thing you will notice is that it is not far away: “The good news [is that]‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Mt 10:7) “The kingdom of God has come to you.” (Mt 12:28) “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mk 1:15) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27) He’s really just repeating something he said earlier in this same chapter: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (Jn. 10:14-15) In John’s Gospel, “knowledge is not a cognitive category, but is a category of relationship.” (O’Day, Gail R., NIB, Vol. IX, p. 670) Those who hear his voice and follow him belong to Jesus and are in relationship with him in the same way that Jesus is in relationship with the Father. This kind of relationship “does not mean to be acquainted; rather, it means to have a living bond.” (Haenchen, Ernst, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1984, Vol. 2, p. 48)

And what is that “living bond”? Bishop Charles Grafton, early 20th Century bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac, answered that in his commentary on the Catechism: “The Holy Spirit is the living bond which unites us in Baptism to Christ’s nature.” (Grafton, Charles C., A Catholic Atlas: Or Digest of Catholic Theology, Longmans Green, New York:1914, Vol. III, p. 112) It is through the action of the Holy Spirit that we are in relationship with Jesus and hear the voice of our Shepherd, or as the great 17th Century bible commentator Matthew Henry put it: “The great Shepherd of the sheep knows all that are his, guards them by his providence, guides them by his Spirit….” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary, online) The Spirit, as Jesus reminded Nicodemus late one night, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Jn 3:8) So we must listen carefully to hear the voice of our Shepherd.

“It is [a] voice which is especially precious in times of struggle and pain. And it is one we sometimes have to work harder to hear in better times when other voices especially seem to drown it out.” (Janet Hunt) Thus, “we tend to hear God’s voice better when we do so in community with others than when we are listening alone.” (Eric Mathis)

Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven ends with these words:

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

Our “stairway to heaven” lies on the wind; it depends on the Spirit, who blows where she will and cannot be controlled, but who conveys to us the voice of our Shepherd. “And as we wind on down the road,” as we follow our Shepherd on the path he sets, “all are one and one is all;” we are all in that relationship, that living bond, with God and with one another. And we are not in want. We are cared for and protected, for our Shepherd is also our “strong rock, a castle to keep [us] safe . . . [our] crag and [our] stronghold.” (Ps 31:3) A rock that will not roll.

This is the kingdom of heaven – where we are – on the path with our Shepherd, hearing his voice, and being in relationship with him. We need not buy or build, indeed we cannot buy or build a stairway to get there; we are already here. “The kingdom of God has come to [us].” (Mt 12:28) When the Shepherd speaks and we hear his voice and follow, heaven it is not far away; it is here, always here, never there. Heaven is not in the past, nor is it in the future. It’s always now, never then. It’s here and it’s now.

Let me close by quoting a song about a hundred years older than Stairway to Heaven, a hymn first published in 1883:

Oh, not in far-off realms of space,
the spirit hath its throne;
in every heart, it findeth place,
and waiteth to be known.

Thought answereth alone to thought,
and soul with soul hath kin;
the outward God he findeth not
who finds not God within.

And if the vision come to thee,
revealed by inward sign,
earth will be full of Deity,
and with his glory shine.

Thou shalt not wait for company,
nor pitch thy tent alone:
the indwelling God will go with thee,
and show thee of his own.

O gift of gifts, O grace of grace!
That God should condescend
to make thy heart his dwelling-place,
and be thy daily friend.

(Hosmer, F.L., The Indwelling God, in Sacred Songs For Public Worship, Savage, M. J., ed., Geo. H. Ellis, Boston:1883, p. 35)

Rejoice! The kingdom of heaven has come to you! No stairway required. Amen.

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

====================

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

God Is the Question – Sermon for Easter 2, Year C (3 April 2016)

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The-Doubt-of-St_Thomas-300x300Every year on the Second Sunday of the Easter season, we read the story from John’s Gospel of Thomas’s refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, but in each year of the Lectionary Cycle, it is coupled with different lessons from the Book of Acts and a different epistle lesson. So this year, in Year C of the cycle, we have heard of the confrontation between Peter and the high priest about the apostles’ teaching in the Temple, and we have heard part of the introduction of John of Patmos’ Revelation.

In the first, we see the clash between two parties each absolutely convinced of the truth of their conception of God: the high priest, speaking for the council, is absolutely sure that his God, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, had nothing to do with the itinerant rabbi from Galilee; Peter, speaking for the fledgling Christian community, is just as certain that his God, the Father of Jesus Christ, had everything to do with him. There is no way to avoid conflict between these two camps, their spokesmen, and their very different understandings.

In the reading from Revelation, John of Patmos gives us yet another view of God, whom he quotes as saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and who (says John) is and was and is to come. John’s God is a god of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

These lessons encourage us to grapple with the story and example of Thomas, the apostle whose insistence on solid evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection earned him the epithet “the Doubter,” but who in fact made the first post-Resurrection statement of convicted faith, crying out “My Lord and my God!” upon seeing Jesus.

My friend David Henson, a priest and journalist in North Carolina, says that “it hardly seems fair” to brand Thomas as “the archetypal doubter, the skeptic that demanded proof.” “He wasn’t the only disciple in the Christian gospels to express disbelief or doubt at the reports of resurrection.” (Easter for Doubters: The Unexpected Faith of Thomas, Patheos, April 1, 2013) And Professor David Lose, president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, agrees with him:

When you read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, you quickly realize that Thomas is not alone in his doubt. In fact, doubt isn’t the exception but the rule. No one – even after all the predictions – no one says, “Welcome back.” Or “We knew it.” Or even “What took you so long?” No. No one anticipates Jesus return and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.

Which makes me think that maybe doubt isn’t the opposite of faith but, actually, part of it, maybe even an essential part of it. (Faith and Doubt, Dear Working Preacher, April 8, 2012)

Last week in The New York Times, William Irwin, professor of philosophy at King’s College, a Roman Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an op-ed piece entitled God Is a Question, Not an Answer (The New York Times Opinionator Blog, March 26, 2016). In it he said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.

***

We should all feel and express humility in the face of the question even if we think the odds are tilted heavily in favor of a particular answer.

Thus, Prof. Irwin says, “The believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt.”

Today, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon, and welcome them into the household of faith, into the community which believes not only that there is a God, but that that God is most fully revealed to humankind in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the course of their lifetimes, they will explore with us what that means.

We could tell them, as many Christian preachers do, that “God is the answer.” They will encounter people like the Christian writer Dana Gatlin who begins one of her books with this firm statement and admonition:

In every human difficulty I have learned to center on God as the way out. God is the answer! ~ Center on God quickly, completely. God cannot fail! God loves you, right now is waiting to help you, and if you really put your trust in Him with all your heart, He will not fail you. Trusting in Him utterly, you cannot fail! ~ Whatever your dilemma or need may be, God is the answer. (God Is the Answer, Kansas City: Unity School of Christianity, 1940, p 7)

And they will encounter many others who witness that many in this life do in fact fail and that there always seem to be dilemmas which cannot be resolved and needs that are never met, and thus just as firmly assert that not only is God not the answer, but that there is no God. This conflict of certainties is not unlike that between Peter and the high priest about which we heard in the reading from the Book of Acts.

In this Easter season of alleluias we can sometimes be blinded to the reality of human doubts, fears, and pain, even our own. We tend to forget, as Professor Lose reminded us, that for the first disciples, for every one of them, not just Thomas, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place. The loud alleluias of Easter can make us forget that, as Prof. Irwin suggests, we “all exist along a continuum of doubt. Some of us will approach religious certainty at one extreme and others will approach atheistic certainty at the other extreme. Many of us will slide back and forth over time.” The story and example of Thomas serves as a reminder.

Poet Denise Levertov in her poem St. Thomas Didymus remembers another man in scripture who, like Thomas, expressed his doubts, a father who came to Jesus in the midst of fear and pain seeking healing for his child. Mark tells us the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus saying, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. * * * If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replied, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” In answer, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24)

Levertov imagines that Thomas witnessed this encounter and, remembering that Thomas’s name means, “the Twin,” names the father as Thomas’s “spiritual twin.” Her poem gives voice to Thomas’s doubts and their resolution:

In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teeth-gnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tight-drawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life.

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

(St. Thomas Didymus in Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire; Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, p 81)

In a moment, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon. Before we do so, their parents and Godparents will make some promises and commitments on their behalf and then, as the presiding priest, I will ask them and you some questions about belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” And each time the answer will be, “I believe.”

Perhaps for some of us, perhaps sometimes for all of us, the unspoken answer will be “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” The affirmations of the Creed, which is what those answers are, are not statements of certainty like those of Peter or the high priest, of the author who asserts that “God is the answer,” or of the atheist who insists there is no God. They are, rather, statements of faith, statements of hope, statements of trust in the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come, the God of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “You cannot be a [person] of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning . . . .” Therefore, he said, religious faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, 2007, p 105)

It is said that when the early 20th Century novelist and poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her life partner Alice B. Toklas at her bedside, Stein roused herself and asked, “What is the answer?” Toklas was unable to respond and sat there silent. “In that case,” Stein said, “What is the question?”

The question is God. God is the Question. When we welcome Laura May and Anthony Jon into the household of faith, we welcome them not to a life of nailed down certainty, but to a life of exploring the Question, in the course of which some lesser questions may be answered, but for the most part they will find that, like Levertov’s Thomas, their questions (and ours) will not so much answered as given their part in a vast unfolding design lit by the risen Son. Amen.

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The illustration is “The Doubt of St. Thomas” by the Chinese artist He Qi.

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!

====================

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

Forgive Us Our Sins: Third of a Series – Sermon for Advent 3 (13 December 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 [Isaiah 12:2-6]; Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:7-18. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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derrystatueJohn the Baptizer came, Luke tells us, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk. 3:3) In today’s Gospel lesson, John tells the crowds who came to him, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (v. 8) Our catechism teaches us that repentance is required of us to receive the Sacraments. With regard to baptism, the catechetical requirement is that we “renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior;” with regard to the Holy Eucharist, that we “examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people.” (BCP 858, 860) But John’s admonition and the Catechism’s requirements leave us wondering, “What exactly is ‘repentance’?”

It is something more than mere acknowledgment of transgression or wrong-doing, more than saying I’m sorry. The biblical and theological word for repentance is metanoia, which means a “turning around” or a changing of direction. We get a hint of this meaning in the invitation to confession used in earlier Anglican prayer books and still found in Rite One in our current Book of Common Prayer:

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

To repent is to turn from our path onto God’s “holy ways” and “lead a new life.”

John’s audience clearly knew that some amendment of life was part of what he was calling them to, for “the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?'” (Lk 3:10) His answers probably seem to us pretty common-sensical: share what you have, don’t take more than you deserve, don’t extort money, don’t make false accusations, be satisfied with your wages. That’s pretty much what the old prayer book invitation to confession said, too: follow the commandments, follow God’s ways, be on good terms with your neighbors. It’s common sense; it’s hard to do!

That’s why Jesus taught us to seek forgiveness, to repent every time we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Which brings us to this, the next petition in our consideration of the Lord’s Prayer.

Now the truth is that hundreds if not thousands of books of several hundred pages each have been written about the Lord’s Prayer, and hundreds of those books are specifically about this petition, and only this petition. Perhaps that is because sin, the subject of this part of the prayer, is so fascinating. Perhaps it is because of the difference in terminology used by Luke and Matthew; Luke uses the Greek word hamartia, usually translated as “sin” although it actually means something else, while Matthew uses opheilemata, usually translated as “debt” which is pretty accurate, and neither uses the word which means “trespass,” which is paraptoma, a word found in Matthew’s follow-up commentary on the prayer, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Mt. 6:14) “Trespass” made its way into the older liturgical version of the prayer because of the early English translation work of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale in the 15th Century.

So what do these two words tell us about sin? By the way, the English word “sin” comes from an old Germanic word meaning a failure to obey a rule and carries an inference of moral guilt; neither of the Greek words derives from anything like that. Hamartia comes from the sport of archery and means “to miss the mark”; opheilemata comes from business accounting and means a monetary debt. (The word meaning “forgive,” aphes, also comes from accounting and means cancelation of a debt.)

Bible commentator William Barclay, in his book The Lord’s Prayer (Westminster John Knox, Louisville:1998) explains hamartia this way:

Harmartia was not originally an ethical word; originally it meant quite simply a missing of the mark, as when a javelin, or an arrow, or a blow misses its mark. In this sense, sin is a failure to hit the mark, a failure to realize the true aim of life, a failure to be and to do that which we ought to have done, and which we could have been and could have done. (p. 86)

And of opheilemata he writes that Matthew was directly translating an accounting metaphor used by Aramaic speaking rabbis of Jesus’ time, probably the very word that Jesus used in his original teaching:

Now in the time of Jesus in Palestine the rabbis thought of sin almost exclusively as a failure in obedience to God. To them goodness was obedience, sin was disobedience. This is to say that man’s first obligation is to give God obedience; not to give obedience to God is to be in debt to God; and therefore their commonest word for sins was choba’, which in fact means debt. (p. 86)

Neither of the Greek terms necessarily carries a connotation of moral culpability. Certainly there are times when a person commits an intentional act which misses the mark of moral or ethical behavior, but there are many more times when we miss the mark because, like a trained archer, we aim carefully to do the right thing and then miss. Certainly there are times when a person intentionally fails to pay a debt, an unethical and perhaps even criminal thing to do, but there are many more times when we incur indebtedness because we have blundered or slipped through inadvertence.

These Greek words remind us that sinfulness is not about breaking rules; sinfulness is about harming relationships. This is why the great existentialist theologian Paul Tillich insisted that “sin does not mean an immoral act;” he suggested “that ‘sin’ should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.” (Quoted in Killen, R. Allan, The Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, J. H. Kok, Kampen:1956, p. 185) That problem, he said, is separation: “To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation.” (Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:46)

Thus the state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth; but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditioned is demanded of us; but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Chapter 19: You Are Accepted.)

In trying to make that urgent escape, we stumble. We say the wrong thing, or perhaps the right thing in a wrong way, or we hear what another says differently than that other intended, and we both incur the debt of explanation. We do something we shouldn’t do or fail to do something we should; we miss the mark. We blunder off the path, transgress a boundary, and put things out of balance. We may not break any rule, but we hurt feelings and damage relationships. We exacerbate the sin of separation and increase our estrangement from ourselves, from others, and from God. Sin is not about breaking rules; sin is about harming relationships. Sin is separation.

God’s forgiveness, aphes, the cancellation of any debt, balances the books, moves the arrow from wherever it went astray and counts it a bull’s-eye. This is the promise of God set out by Zephaniah in today’s Old Testament lesson: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. . . . . I will change [your] shame into praise . . . .” (Zeph. 3:18-19) God’s forgiveness sets the pattern for our own; we are able to forgive others because we know that we are forgiven. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in our liturgical version. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Lk 11:4) is how Luke renders it; “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12) is Matthew’s version.

Mark, of course, does not tell us about Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer, but he does tell us that on the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he instructed his disciples about the power of prayer and in that teaching said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk 11:25) In March of 2014, Pope Francis preached a homily on the feeding of the 5,000 in which he said this: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” It’s an insight that applies to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, as well: “You pray for forgiveness. Then you forgive. That’s how prayer works.”

Last week, on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Facebook page, he posted a picture of a statue erected in Derry, Northern Ireland, of two men reaching across a wide gap and reaching for each other’s hand. The Archbishop’s caption for the photograph said,

Reconciliation is about our relationship with God and with each other. It’s people, communities and nations learning to live together with deeply-held differences in a spirit of love and respect. It’s working for justice and seeking truth in the light of God’s mercy and peace. It’s the very heart of the gospel.

Forgiveness is the first step of reconciliation; together, forgiveness and reconciliation are chief among the fruits of repentance John the Baptizer admonished his hearers, and us, to bear.

There is so much more that could be said about this petition! Hundreds of books of hundreds of pages have been written about it. Please forgive me for only scratching the surface.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Three-Dimensional Kingdom: Sermon for Christ the King (Proper 29B), 22 November 2015

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A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King, (Proper 29B, Track 1, RCL), November 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-19; Revelation 1:4b-8; and John 18:33-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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Christ the KingThe kingdom of God, of which today we celebrate Christ as king, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, dangerous peace.

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1934, quoted in Bethge, Renate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life)

In 1934 the young German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched in sadness as his democratic, educated, and Christian country discarded more and more of its core values. Fear-mongering politicians lured patriotic citizens to ignore their Bibles and the promise and hope of the Prince of Peace, and worship instead at the altar of safety and national security; he witnessed them behave terribly toward foreigners, minorities, the disabled and the mentally ill. Three weeks after Adolf Hitler was proclaimed Der Führer, Bonhoeffer preached the sermon I have just quoted.

Today, as the Christian year draws to a close, we celebrate the universal sovereignty of Christ. We call this last Sunday after Pentecost “Christ the King” and we underscore that Jesus is our Lord. My friend and colleague Kara Slade, who is completing her doctorate in systematic theology at Duke, posted as her Facebook status this morning:

Because Jesus is Lord, your fear is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your bank account is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your preferred political candidate is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your theological platform (and mine) is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, every power and principality of this world is not.

Theologian Daniel Clendenin makes the same point when he writes, “The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless — peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion.”

This morning we are joined by several young men and women, members of our own Episcopal Youth Community and of youth groups of other parishes, who erected cardboard shelters on our church’s front lawn, who spent the night as many homeless do in the cold and rain, and who walked the town square with volunteers from Operation H.O.M.E.S. to raise money for and call attention to the needs of the homeless in our community. Their witness extends beyond our community to the other cities where their other congregations are located, but also beyond our own diocese and state; they witness to plight of people of all ages made homeless by economics, made homeless by ill-health, made homeless by addictions, made homeless by war. They witness to hundreds of thousands in this country and beyond our borders who are refugees from their homes but who, like us, are “no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19)

In worldly terms, Jesus’ kingship during his life was a pretty spectacular failure. He was born in a stable and soon (probably when he was about two years of age) became a refugee himself, living in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by most of his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20) He died, as we heard in the Gospel account this morning, condemned as a political rebel. “Behold,” he says in the form of the Stations of the Cross we often use in this parish, “the poorest king who ever lived. Even my deathbed, this cross, is not my own.”

Yet within less than generation communities would form throughout the ancient Middle East dedicated to the idea that not only was he a king, but that he was and is the very Son of God. Within less than 60 years after his crucifixion, John of Patmos would declare that he is “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”

When we focus on Christ as our king, we celebrate and give thanks for this temporal three-dimensionality; when we give thanks for the universal sovereignty of Christ, who in the words of one of our Ascension hymns we name “the Lord of interstellar space and Conqueror of time,” we see these three tenses of Thanksgiving: the past, the present, and the future. The kingdom over which he is Lord and of which we are all a part always has been, is, and always will be. It is, preached Patrick of Ireland,

. . . greater than all report, better than all praise of it, more manifold than every conceivable glory. The Kingdom of God is so full of light, peace, charity, wisdom, glory, honesty, sweetness, loving-kindness and every unspeakable and unutterable good, that it can neither be described nor envisioned by the mind. . . . . In the eternal Kingdom there shall be life without death, truth without falsehood, and happiness without a shadow of unrest . . . (Sermon for Advent quoted in Ramshaw, Gail, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary)

On this Feast of Christ the King, in a few minutes, we will dedicate our financial commitments to our ministry in Christ’s church and our stewardship of Christ’s kingdom. The pledge cards we have completed and turned in are tokens of our gratitude, signs of our thanks for all “the unspeakable and unutterable good” that God has given us, sacramental of our commitment to care for it and use it to the benefit of others. Our thanksgiving is three-dimensional, evidencing our awareness of God’s abundance through the ages, our sense of his very presence in this moment, and our declaration of faith that God is also yet to come. When we live with that sense of expectation, today makes a difference; our pledges of gratitude and good stewardship make a difference.

When we celebrate Jesus as King, we reach back into the Jewish roots of our faith, into the Hebrew past. We hear King David, the shepherd son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, proclaim, “The God of Israel has spoken . . . to me, . . . he has made with me an everlasting covenant.” We hear the words of the prophets, such as Isaiah, proclaiming through the ages their expectation of the Messiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Isa 11:1-2)

Princeton philosopher Michael Walzer, however, reminds us that the prophetic expectation was not a political one. The prophets, indeed, “disdain” politics. In contrast to Greek philosophers, “the Biblical writers never attach great value to [human] politics as a way of life.” Politics is simply “not recognized by the Biblical writers as a centrally important or humanly fulfilling activity.” Their emphasis was on divine intention, not on human wisdom, The prophets exemplify the Hebrew Bible’s “radical denial of the doctrine of self-help,” of human safety and national security. (Walzer, Michael, In God’s Shadow; Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale:2012, pp 125, 186)

The prophetic emphasis is not one of political security; when Isaiah describes the Child upon whose shoulders authority will rest he names him “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6), and (as quoted above) asserts that he will possess a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. St. Ambrose of Milan said:

When we speak about wisdom, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about peace, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking of Christ.

Neither St. Ambrose, nor Isaiah, nor any Hebrew prophet ever spoke of national security or personal safety. As Bonhoeffer said, “Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. [To give] oneself completely to God’s commandment, [means] wanting no security . . . .” “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” said Jesus (Mk 8:35)

When Jesus says, “I am Alpha and the Omega,” he is reminding us all that our beginning and our ending is in him. No one is self-made. No one is safe apart from him. No one is secure apart from God. Nothing that God loves will ever be lost. No evil will endure. All that God has created he will redeem. The kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus the Son of David, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, forever. And it’s for everyone.

Our annual fund campaign pledges represent our three-dimensional acknowledgement of the fact of Christ’s kingdom, our gratitude for the truth of Christ’s kingdom, and our commitment to be good stewards of that kingdom entrusted to us. Those pledge cards which have already been received are in this basket; I will ask our ushers now to take it and receive any additional cards which you have brought today. If you’ve not turned in a card and haven’t brought a completed card with you this morning, there is a form in your bulletins which you may use. We’ll take a few minutes of silent reflection upon the abundance of God’s kingdom while you do so. At the offertory, we will pray over and bless our pledge cards.

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

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