That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Micah (page 1 of 2)

Authority: To Bend the Knee – Sermon for Proper 21A (1 October 2017)

Authority. The authority of Jesus Christ is what Paul writes about in the letter to the Philippians, in which he quotes a liturgical hymn sung in the early Christian communities:

At the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord. (Phil. 2:10-11)

Jesus’ authority is also the subject of today’s Gospel lesson.

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Truth, Justice, and the American Way: A Sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A, 29 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; and St. Matthew 5:1-12. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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supermannationaloriginsHave you ever had the experience of a long-forgotten memory rushing back upon you and just knocking you for a loop? Something like an odor or a song or a picture brings it back and the details hit you like a sledge hammer. That happened to me on Monday evening.

We were watching a biography of Rachel Carson, author of the book Silent Spring, on PBS. It was very well done. The program opened a floodgate of memory of my childhood; what did it was a segment in the show in which film of atomic bomb explosions was shown. I remembered two occasions when my father and I, with others, went out into the Nevada desert to see the mushroom clouds. The first was in the summer of 1957 when I was 4-1/2 years old: my dad, my brother, and I went to the test site at the invitation of a physics professor colleague of my father (my dad was an accountant, but he also taught math and accountancy at what was then called Nevada Southern University). The second in December of that same year, after I had started kindergarten and my class, together with several others from John S. Park Elementary School in Las Vegas, went to the test site on field trip and my father, who was self-employed and could take time to do those things, went along as a chaperone.

All the details of those excursions into the Nevada desert, and seeing those glowing clouds rise miles and miles away to the northeast from where we were watching, and my father’s reaction to them, all came rushing back.

After both of those experiences, I can remember my dad for a few weeks being what my grandmother would have called “cranky.” Things around our house got chaotic. The person who was supposed to be the adult in charge got mean and spiteful, and did things that were erratic and made no sense. My dad, the person who was supposed to be the adult in charge, just seemed to be angry and crazy all the time.

I suspect that what he was was drunk, and I suspect he was drunk because he was scared to death of nuclear war. My dad was a decorated combat veteran of World War II who had been badly wounded in the Battle of the Bulge; he’d been awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for heroism. He was in constant pain during the short period of my life that he was a part of it. I know now, but didn’t know then, that he was an alcoholic who self-medicated his pain and his fear with booze. In March 1958, he drove away from our house after a drunken argument with my mother and never came back; he killed himself in a single-vehicle roll-over accident on the highway between Las Vegas and Kingman, Arizona. The family guesswork is that he was trying to drive back to my grandparents’ home, his childhood home, in Kansas.

Why do I share those memories with you this morning? I suppose it is because whenever I read the words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . . .” (Mt 5:1-2) what I envision is something very like the desert hillside from which we viewed those atomic bomb blasts. And when I read St. Paul writing to the Corinthians that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning [he] will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19) and that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25), it is those mushroom clouds that metaphorically come to mind.

But I have another childhood memory which is also excited by these lessons, and that is sitting down in front of our small, black-and-white television every week and hearing these words:

Yes, it’s Superman . . . strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman . . . who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!

I couldn’t help but remember that famous opening sequence each time I sat down this week to consider the words of the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Truth, justice, kindness, humility . . . Biblical values that all seem to be jumbled together with the American way in my Superman-TV-program-educated mind, or at least I feel like they should be . . . and I am too often confronted with the reality that they are not.

This week, one thing I noticed particularly about the Superman intro that I’d not considered before is that it isn’t in the Superman persona, that incredible being who could stand right next to an exploding atomic bomb without being injured, that the alien immigrant Kal-El “fights [the] never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” No, it is in the guise of “mild-mannered reporter” Clark Kent that the refugee from the destroyed planet Krypton does so! It is the journalist character, not the superhero, “who speaks the truth from his heart” and upon whose tongue there is no guile!

So I have these two memories that rush into my consciousness when I read and consider these lessons, images of nuclear explosions and memories of my angry, alcoholic father, mythic superheroes, and “mild-mannered reporters” fighting “never-ending battles.” They color my understanding of these Scriptures and, yet, I must admit that they also clash with them for there is nothing here about war, about anger, about fighting, about battles. If anything, they seem to be quite the opposite!

The beatitudes, these statements of blessedness which we find here in Matthew and in a rather different form in Luke’s gospel, for example, raise for us the question, “Are they a programmatic outline for the church’s social justice ministry or are they simply words of comfort and encouragement for Jesus’ down-trodden original audience?” In his essay on Luke’s gospel, Southern Baptist scholar Robert H. Stein argues for the second; he writes:

Are the beatitudes to be interpreted as requirements for entering God’s kingdom or as eschatological pronouncements of blessing upon believers? In other words, are the beatitudes an evangelistic exhortation for salvation or pastoral words of comfort and encouragement, a kind of congratulation, to those who already possess faith? For several reasons they should be understood as the latter. (Stein, Robert H., Luke, The New American Commentary, Vol 24, B&H Publishing: Nashville, 1991, page 199)

On the other hand, Lutheran seminary professor Karoline Lewis takes the opposite position. “The Beatitudes,” she writes, “are not just blessings but a call to action.”

[T]he Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is. Perhaps not the Jesus you want. Perhaps the Jesus who likely rubs you the wrong way. Perhaps the Jesus that tells you the truth about yourself. The Jesus who reminds you, at the most inconvenient times and places, what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about.
The Beatitudes are a call to action to be church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest when the world tries desperately to silence those who speak the truth . . . . (Lewis, Righteous Living)

I wonder if they might be neither . . . or, perhaps, both, in the same way that nuclear energy can be both destructive weapon in the form of an atomic bomb and source of constructive power as in an electrical power plant, or in the same way that Kal-El can be both the mighty indestructible “man of steel” and the mild-mannered journalistic champion of truth. Perhaps the beatitudes are nothing more nor less than Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to recognize blessedness. “Not how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but rather to recognize who is already blessed by God.” (Lose, Recognizing Blessing) Their blessings are spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and persecution.

Several years ago, a Disciples of Christ pastor and professor named Lance Pape wondered, “To which of these blessings do our national leaders refer when they insist that ‘God Bless[es] America!'” And he answered his own question:

To none of these, for our national creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God. And so we live by those other beatitudes:

  • Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
  • Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
  • Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.

If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves. (Pape, Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12)

In the world we have made for ourselves we see the bombs, the anger, the war, and we look for the “man of steel” to save us, to fly in singing “Here I come to save the day” (although I do know that’s a different superhero) and then taking us away to some kingdom of heaven in the sky. We know better, though, don’t we?

When Jesus teaches us to recognize blessedness in the Beatitudes, he teaches us to “recognize that God’s kingdom isn’t a place far away but is found whenever we honor each other as God’s children, bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and meet each other’s needs.” (Lose, Op. Cit.) He teaches us, as the Prophet Micah taught the ancient Israelites, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). He teaches us, as the Psalmist taught in the liturgy of the ancient Temple, to lead a blameless life, to do what is right, to speak the truth from his heart, to have no guile upon our tongues, to do no evil to our friend, to heap no contempt upon our neighbors, and to reject what is wicked when we see it (Ps 15). That is the Christian way. And child of the atomic 1950s and devotee of television’s Superman that I am, I still believe it is, or at least it should be, the American way.

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

Get Up! Get Dressed! Go to Work! – Annual Meeting Sermon, January 22, 2017

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A homily offered on January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the 200th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are those for the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle: Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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the-conversion-of-st-paul-1528May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. (Ps. 67:1) Amen.

Have you ever been knocked off a horse? I have. Twice. Once when I was 11 and again when I was 24. Different circumstances and if you promise not to laugh, I’ll tell you about them when we have our luncheon after the business meeting. In both instances, however, one element was the same: landing flat on my back, having the wind knocked out of me, and being stunned not quite to unconsciousness. Both times it was a startling and uncomfortable experience.

The story of Paul’s conversion is told not once but four times in the pages of the New Testament; three times in the Book of Acts and once in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Although not mentioned in any of those descriptions, artists often depict Paul falling from a horse or donkey. When I read or hear the story, therefore, I have some sympathy for Paul. In addition to being knocked flat on his back, having the wind knocked out of him, and being mentally stunned, his incident included a blinding light, an encounter with a living rabbi he was convinced was dead, and the voice of God, and it was followed by three days of blindness. Now that’s an experience!

Now this is homily is supposed to be both a sermon and the rector’s report for the 200th Annual Meeting of the parish. Were I to focus on the second purpose, I could give you a lot of history – but I did that at our Bicentennial Choral Evensong on the Feast of the Epiphany, so I won’t do that. I could give you a summary of all the good things and some of the not-so-good things that have happened in the last year – but you can read the various ministry reports and the financial statements in the Annual Journal for yourselves. I could tell you about all the wonderful things planned for the coming year – but, again, you have the Annual Journal in your hands with the bicentennial event calendar and the 2017 Budget, so there you have it.

A rector’s report would merely repeat things you already know or have available to you in that Journal. So this will be more of a homily and less of a report, more (I hope) of a proclamation of a theology for the future and much less a review of the past. I am convinced that God is merciful to us, does bless us, illumines the way with the light of his countenance, and comes to us every day. Perhaps God does not come to us as dramatically as the Risen Lord came to Paul . . . or perhaps he does and we just don’t recognize it. We may be getting knocked off our horses regularly and we may simply be too oblivious to notice.

A canon of Durham Cathedral a few years ago preaching on these same texts said:

The experience of a light, of falling, an involuntary act of submission doubtless sending him into great fear and shock, was further heightened by a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s reply uses the divine title “Lord”, “Who are you, Lord?” He recognizes that this is something from heaven, while being unsure of exactly who it is that is speaking. The response was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Of course, those words are moving words; Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his disciples; in persecuting them, Saul was persecuting him. It is a narrative illustration of the kind of mystical theology that Paul was later to develop in his letters; through faith and baptism we are mystically joined to Christ, incorporated in him – we become his body; he indwells us and we indwell him. (St Paul’s Conversion, the Rev. Canon David Kennedy, Durham Cathedral, Church of England)

This is an everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over, just like being knocked from a horse. I am reminded of the observation of Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row 1982), makes this point in an oft-quote observation:

Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Dillard, Annie, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Harper & Row, New York:1982, pp 40-41.)

Every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, after the presider has said Jesus’ words over the bread and wine – “This is my Body” – “This is my Blood” – we are invited to affirm the powerful everyday-ness and everyday power of Jesus’ presence, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:”

Christ has died.
Christ is risen
Christ will come again (BCP 1979, p 363)

These words remind us that Jesus is here with us now:

The person Jesus and his story are now.
The forgiveness and hope he offers are now.
The invitation and the expectation for us to change and to grow through his love and presence are with us are now.
The renewal, vision and hope that transformed Paul from bigotry and narrow-mindedness are open to us now.
But, only if we have the faith and the courage to respond: to get up and follow Jesus. (Sermon at All Saints, the Rev. Alan Wynne, Parish of Poplar, Church of England)

You know . . . the getting up part is really important! Getting knocked of the horse isn’t the whole of Paul’s conversion; it was just the beginning. In Paul’s own description of his conversion in our reading from Galatians we can see that it took some time; including going into retreat in the Arabian desert and then a three-year delay before he went to Jerusalem to meet the original apostles. In the early church, entry into the worshiping community replicated Paul’s experience. The training for baptism, called “catechesis,” often took years, typically three, before someone was “exposed to the very real risks and challenges of full membership of the Christian faith” and admitted to full participation in the mysteries of the Holy Communion and full responsibility for the mission and ministry of the church. As English priest David Rowett says,

Conversion isn’t some once-and-for-all process, over in a blinding flash, not even for the Pharisee from Tarsus. It is a life-long process of deepening and learning which may begin in one moment – with or without a donkey – but then requires working out throughout the rest of our lives, and in the company of other pilgrims. (Conversion of St Paul, the Rev. David Rowett, St Mary’s Church, Barton-on-Humber, Church of England)

Our conversion is an on-going and everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over. Like Paul, however, we couldn’t just lie there stunned. Jesus would say to us as he said to Paul . . . indeed, Jesus does say to us, “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus promised his first twelve followers that they would be handed over to councils, flogged in religious institutions, and dragged before secular rulers, but he told them not to worry about making a defense because, in words similar to those he would say to Paul on the Damascus Road, “What you are to say will be given to you at that time.”

I think it helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to in both stories. Talking to the Twelve he is not talking to the stained-glass saints they have become; he is talking to hide-bound, conservative, Law-abiding Jews. He is talking to Peter who, even after spending all that time with Jesus and going through the events of Jesus’ trial, execution, burial, and resurrection, would say, “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” and would refuse to eat with Gentile Christians. He is talking to Thomas who is portrayed as a skeptic, a doubter, and something of a pessimist. He is talking to Simon the Zealot, who may have been a member of that Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to Rome and pagan practices. And on the road to Damascus, he is addressing Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee set upon the path of persecuting and, indeed, destroying the fledgling Christian church.

Jesus in both the Gospel lesson and in the story from Acts is speaking to men who exhibit an attitude we still see in the church and in our society today – it is nothing new – an attitude characterized by bigotry, zeal, closed-mindedness, tunnel vision, intolerance, and exclusivity. “In varying degrees it may be present in each one of us:

our lack of openness to new ideas;
our total certainty that in all matters of faith, morality or ritual we are right and others are wrong;
the ease with which we judge or condemn those who see things differently;
the way we cling uncritically to the traditions and practices of the past;
our failure to see God’s continuing presence and work in creation;
our desire to contain God in our pockets and limit him to our shrines where he can be controlled and we can be cosy and unchallenged;
the way we call Jesus “Lord” and ignore the most basic of his teachings about love and respect for others.” (Alan Wynne, op. cit.)

When we discussed this Gospel passage during our bible study time at Monday’s last meeting of the 2016 Vestry, someone suggested that Jesus seems to be foreshadowing what would happen later to himself. While that is true, he is also, by forecasting this experience, demonstrating his authority and intimacy with God. His words assure the Twelve and us that:

Opposition is not a sign of failure or that Jesus was not trustworthy as a leader. And
Paradoxically, getting arrested is the only way you will have a chance to speak to the elites, so use it to testify. And [again]
Don’t worry about what you will say – God’s Spirit will speak through you. (Holy Textures, the Rev. David Ewart, United Church of Canada)

Quite a while after the event in today’s Gospel lesson, “the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt 18:1-4)

In the last sermon he ever preached, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of this story:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness . . . . It means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant. (Drum Major Instinct, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached February 4, 1968)

You can be that servant. You are that servant. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you.”

Two hundred years ago a few men and women living in Weymouth, Ohio, heard God speaking to them and founded this parish. In Annie Dillard’s words, the waking god drew them out to where they could never return. They got up because they heard the call of Jesus telling them what they had to do, and here we are as a result. I firmly believe that everyday Jesus is still speaking to his Church – to you and to me – still knocking us off of our horses and then saying “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

On Friday morning, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President. You may feel that’s a good thing; you may feel that’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is a fact; it is reality. He and his party colleagues in the congress will change the spending priorities of our government; this is the way our democratic system works. Already his administration has announced plans to cut funding to and to cancel a variety of government programs including some which support the arts and humanities, some which fund educational endeavors, some which fund housing projects, some which fund health care, some which fund food assistance programs. You may feel that this budget-cutting is a good thing; you may feel that it’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is reality.

We can all agree on reality – that there are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. And this reality means that if there are fewer government-funded programs to do these things, charities and charitable institutions, such as churches, church-run schools, nonprofit hospitals and clinics, volunteer food banks, and the like, are very likely to be called upon to take up new ministries to replace what is no longer being done by government-funded agencies. Whether we think this a good thing or a bad thing, it is reality. It is as real as being knocked off a horse, and like Paul we – the church – can’t just lay there. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” There are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. “And the king will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:40)

During this last week, two lessons in the Lectionary have stood out for me: one is the Old Testament lesson for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (that’s next Sunday and, yes, clergy do read ahead) and the other is yesterday’s Epistle lesson for the Daily Office. They speak to me, and I hope to you, about what it is we have to get up and do. The first is this from the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The other is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Stand . . . and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:14-17)

Two hundred years ago, that small band of Episcopalians in Weymouth got up because there was work to be done. Now it is our turn. Every day it is our turn. Get up! Get dressed! There is work to be done. And we have been told what we have to do.

We stand at the beginning of a new century for our parish, at the beginning of a new administration for our country. We pray for the new President and we pray for ourselves. May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is The Conversion Of St Paul by Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, a/k/a Parmigianino, (1527-1528). It hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.)

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

An Unpreached Clergy Installation Sermon in the Time of Donald Trump

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile, thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP 1979, page 855)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus was once asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he replied “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39) In fulfillment of these commandments, our ministry of reconciliation requires that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, Page 305) call others to do so, and oppose those who would thwart those goals.

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

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

Save and Deliver: Fourth of a Series – Sermon for Advent 4 (20 December 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 15 [Luke 1:46-55]; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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hen-with-chicksLanguages and the study of languages fascinate me – if you didn’t know that before this series on the Lord’s Prayer, you probably know it now – and I am therefore always keenly aware of the difficulty of fully appreciating the Holy Scripture if we only consider the meaning of the English translation.

In the 1950s the social scientist Noam Chomsky proposed the idea that the ability to communicate complex data with our fellows is one of the characteristics that distinguishes human beings. He went so far as to propose that all humans, unlike all other animals, are genetically programmed with a limited set of rules for organizing language; this became known as “the Universal Grammar.” Chomsky’s idea became received wisdom and pretty much the basis for all academic study of linguistics despite the fact that there was not a shred of objective, empirical data to support it.

In fact, there is now plenty data contrary to Chomsky’s notion. We now know that a variety of animal species are able to communicate among themselves and convey very complex information to one another. Furthermore, studies of human languages around the world have repeatedly demonstrated that there are no linguistic universals; instead, there is abundant variation at all levels of linguistic organization. For example, there is a language spoken by one small group of people on one of the South Pacific islands in which verbs have no tenses; we would, I suppose, say that the verbs are all in the present tense but that would be misleading because their verbs, in fact, carry no sense of time. That sense is expressed, instead, by adjectives, and specifically by color adjectives; the color variation ascribed to the subject and object of a verb conveys the idea of past, present, or future.

Can you imagine how difficult it is to translate from that language into English, or vice versa? A direct translation

I bring this up because, although the difficulties are not nearly so great in the translation from Greek to English (which we must do to read the New Testament in our own language), such difficulties are nonetheless there, and especially so as we consider the last of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” in the older liturgical form; “save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil,” in the newer.

Some of the difficulties that confront us are (a) Greek words which can be translated in more than one way; (b) Greek word order which differs from, and is less important than, word order is in English; and (c) the fact that biblical Greek uses no punctuation, leaving us to guess about phrases and sentences. (I’ll only address the first today, but the others are also present here.) And, then, there is the overarching matter that Jesus, in teaching us to pray, is also teaching us something about God and such teaching is always contingent, partial, and problematic; no human language can encompass the reality of God. Any human attempt to describe God, even Jesus’, is incomplete and may be ultimately misleading.

In today’s Gospel, Mary pregnant with Jesus visits her kinswoman Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptizer. Elizabeth greets her, commenting on how active her own baby becomes at the sound of Mary’s voice and then praising Mary as “blessed” because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary’s answer is the Magnificat, the song which we recited as our Gradual, in which she says of God that God casts down the powerful, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away hungry, but that God lifts up the downtrodden, feeds those in need, and remembers those with whom God has made covenants. This doesn’t mean that God has nothing to do with the rich, nor that God ministers only to the poor, nor that God is not active in the lives of those outside of God’s covenants. It gives us a picture of God’s commitment to justice, but only a partial picture.

The same is true of the Lord’s Prayer. This petition (like all of the petitions in this prayer) is loaded with more meaning than we are aware of. Methodist theologians William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in their book Lord, Teach Us, say this about this petition:

Words like “save” and “trial” and “deliver” are words of crisis. They remind us that to pray this prayer means to be thrust into the middle of a cosmic struggle. At this point the temperature rises within the Lord’s Prayer. Things are not right in the world. It is as if something, someone has organized things against God. You pray this prayer faithfully, attempting to align your life to it and the next thing you know, it’s like you are under assault.

How often is salvation presented as some sort of helpful solution to everything that ails us. “Lonely? Come to Jesus and get that fixed.” “Alcoholic? Come to Jesus and be delivered of your addiction.” “Confused? Join the church and find all the answers.” In such a presentation of the gospel, salvation is the resolution of all your problems, the way to fix whatever ails you.

But this petition, in which we ask for salvation, deliverance and help in time of trial reminds us that salvation in Christ is an adventure, a journey, a larger drama. Praying this prayer is the beginning of problems we would never have had had we not met Christ and enlisted with Christ’s people. The forces of evil do not relinquish their territory without a fight and, in being saved, God’s newly won territory is you. (Willimon, Wm. H., and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us, Abingdon, Nashville:1996, ch. 8)

“At this point the temperature rises . . . . ” What a great way to present the tensions of this petition and of the protection for which it asks!

So let’s take a look at some of these “words of crisis,” as Willimon and Hauerwas label them. The first are the words translated in the King James Bible and in the earlier liturgical prayer as “lead us not into,” in the NRSV as “do not bring us into;” this is the Greek phrase me eisenenkes hemas eis, and either translation may be correct. The root verb is eisphero which can mean “lead”, “bring”, “carry”, or even “sustain.”

A problem for many people is not so much in the translation as in the idea that God could or would lead someone into temptation. Walter Kaiser in his book Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity, Downers Grove, IL:1996, p 366) exclaims, “Why should we ask God not to lead us into this? As if God would do any such thing! ‘God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone’ (Jas 1:13).” This is why the newer liturgical form paraphrases the Greek as a plea for protection – “Save us from.”

Save us from what? The Greek word is peirasmon. If that is translated as “temptation”, and that in turn is understood to mean an enticement to evil, then it does seems strange and perhaps even offensive to ask God not to do what God would never do. However, “temptation, when the word occurs in the older versions of the Bible, means more than temptation to sin; it has the wider sense of testing.” (Kaiser, 367) A 1st Century Greek physician and natural philosopher named Dioscorides used the word peirasmos to describe medical experimentation (Mat. Med. Praef. 5.12), and a Greek-speaking Indian philosopher of the century before named Syntipas used the word to denote the afflictions of life which tend to crush those who do not possess sufficient inner fortitude. It is in this way that Jesus or the evangelists seem to have used it when he went with the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper.

When they arrived at the garden, he went away by himself admonishing his friends, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Lk 22:40) When he returned to them, he found them asleep and again he admonished them: “Get up and pray that you may not enter into the time of trial.” (Lk 22:46) In the Greek of the New Testament, the words of Jesus’ admonitions are nearly identical to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, the full first half in the new liturgical form is, “Save us from the time of trial.”

The second half of the petition is rendered the same in both liturgical forms, “Deliver us from evil.” Sometimes the Biblical versions are personalized, “Deliver us from the Evil One” on the basis of some Greek variants, which would seem to limit it to being a request for protection from (perhaps) Satan. However, most translators and commentators support the more general understanding, many noting that Jesus seems to be using a Hebrew literary or poetic form known as parallelism. “‘Lead us not into temptation’ and ‘deliver us from evil’ mean just the same thing: Prevent us being brought into temptation too great for us to conquer.” (Palmer, Albert W., Humanity’s Greatest Prayer, in Prayer and Spiritual Living, Vol 2, Kregel, Grand Rapids:1995, p. 10) As Lutheran writer Lois Tverberg says, “[This petition] is an all-encompassing plea for God to protect us from what is outside us, but what is inside as well.”

The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff suggests that this petition “presupposes a bitter awareness that human beings are fragile, subject to temptation of betraying their hope, becoming unfaithful to God, actually succumbing to temptation, and consequently being lost.” (The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll:1983, p 97) And Franciscan author Michael Crosby observes, “We cannot offer this petition without being aware of how we ourselves might be contributing to the very evil (for others) that we pray to be delivered from ourselves.” (The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us, Orbis Books, Maryknoll:2002, p 171)

With that “better awareness” we know, even as we utter this prayer, that there will be times of trial. I’m sure that even as Mary sang the praises of the God who “casts down the mighty from their thrones,” she knew that she would still have to deal with life in an occupied Israel under the control of Imperial Rome. Even as she thanked God for “lift[ing] up the lowly” and “fill[ing] the hungry with good things,” she knew that she and Joseph would have to work hard earning very little to support themselves and the baby she carried. She knew and we know that there will be times of trial.

This petition, then, is for us, the family of Jesus, who know that despite our best intentions every day we will be faced with and tempted by choices which may be bad and unhealthy for us or for others, who know that left on our own we will give in and make (some of) those choices. This is a petition that God will give us the protection and the resources we need to resist those choices. “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” is a prayer for God’s protective guidance and strength to endure, because on our own, we cannot resist temptation; we cannot do what is right and good. It is a prayer that what Paul wrote to the church in Rome will be true for us:

[S]ince we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1-5)

Endurance, character, hope, and love: these are the protective gifts we ask for when we pray, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

An oft-repeated alliterative aphorism sometimes attributed to former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan summarizes the Lord’s Prayer as one for provision, pardon, and protection. We pray for our basic needs; we pray for forgiveness; we pray for safety from evil, both that of others and our own.

Despite the difficulties of translation from Aramaic to Greek to English, despite cultural differences between 1st Century Palestine and 21st Century America, in our world with all of its complications, in our world which is (as Willimon and Hauerwas remind us) a battlefield where the battle may already be won but still must be fought, this prayer reminds us that these three things – provision, pardon, and protection – are ultimately all we need to live for God, whose was, and is, and will be “the kingdom, the power, and the glory . . . now and for ever. 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.

Share Your Astonishment! – Sermon for Thanksgiving Day, 26 November 2015

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A sermon offered on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Joel 2:21-27; Psalm 126; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; and Matthew 6:25-33. 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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This morning, after I took the dog for her walk and poured a cup of coffee, I turned on my computer and found a message from my friend Melania, who is from Naples but is currently working in Spain. We were students together in Ireland. This is her message:

“Thanksgiving” has always been my favorite American festival. If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better! Don’t miss any opportunity to tell people how grateful you are for them! Happy Thanksgiving Day to all my dear American Friends and acquaintances out there!

Isn’t that lovely? That someone from another country would take the time to send greetings on what is a quintessentially American holiday?

There are a lot of myths surrounding Thanksgiving and we’re all familiar with them . . . the story of English pilgrims escaping religious persecution, their landing at Plymouth Rock, the help they received from the Native Americans, and so on and so forth. Do you know when Thanksgiving actually was made a holiday? 1863. By President Abraham Lincoln. It has more to do with the Civil War and the preservation of the Union than it does with our colonial origins. But it is, as I said, a quintessentially American holiday.

It is a day when we pause to give thanks for the abundance this nation enjoys, the abundances the prophet Joel describes and promises in the Old Testament lesson this morning. It is a day, too, when we reflect on our country’s beginnings, its original, aspirational ideals, and the social progress that has made here and that we have fostered in other places . . . but also a day on which we have to acknowledge our history and the on-going reality of brutal conflicts, of ethnic and racial oppression, of economic disparity here and abroad. It is a day when we must acknowledge that, despite Jesus’ assurance that we need not worry about food or drink or clothing or housing, there are many in this world who must worry about such things on a daily basis.

Another thing I did this morning was catch up on my daily news and blog reading. One of the websites I frequently visit is the On Being blog. On Being is a Sunday morning NPR show hosted by Krista Trippet, a religion journalist. She interviews someone each Sunday morning (at least that’s with our local station broadcasts the show) about their religious and spiritual life. She and several others keep a related blog and today I read a piece by Courtney E. Martin about being thankful. This is her conclusion:

[G]ratitude is not just about empty platitudes or forced dinner table exercises. It’s about marveling. It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do. It’s about natural science and human anatomy. It requires, above all else, slowing down and noticing and letting yourself be astonished. (Courtney E. Martin, The Sensory Astonishment of Gratitude)

“It’s about witnessing people and telling them that you do.” It’s about sharing that astonishment. I think that may be what the biblical command for justice is all about: it’s about sharing astonishment. Only those who live in a just world, who are not suffering from hunger, fear, oppression, illness, warfare, or the myriad other brutalities of injustice can marvel at the grace and beauty of this world. If we are to share our astonishment with others, especially with those for whom worry about food, drink, clothing, or housing is daily a matter of survival, we must put an end to injustice. If Joel’s prophecy of threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil so that all “shall eat in plenty and be satisfied” is to be a reality, it is up to us to make it so.

The stole I’m wearing this morning is the one you all gave me when I was installed as Rector here at St. Paul’s Parish. It was made by vestment creator Lynn Ronkainen of Houston, Texas, a long-time friend of mine and is embroidered with a verse from the prophet Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Am 5:24)

I think that may be my third favorite verse from the Old Testament prophets. The first is from Isaiah and is inscribed on a wall at the United Nations Plaza in New York City: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Isa 2:4 KJV)

The second is from the end of book of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)

When these prophets speak of peace and justice, I believe they are calling us to share our gratitude with others, to witness to that marvel and astonishment about which Ms. Martin wrote, and to what is necessary to make it possible for others to feel it as well.

This year that may seem more difficult that it usually is, and it’s often difficult enough. This year, with the killings in Paris and Beirut, the bombing of the Russian airliner, with the rise “ISIS” (or “Da’esh” as I am told we should call it) and its particular brand of Islamism of jihadism (whatever you want to call it – it’s not Islam but some terrible mutant creature that claims to be Muslim), with the Syrian civil war and the massive refugee crisis stemming from it, with rising sea levels and changing climate whatever its root cause may be, with economic disparity here at home even though unemployment has improved and many still struggling to meet their basic needs, with all of that . . . sharing gratitude and witnessing to astonishment just seems difficult.

Nonetheless, as we gather around our Thanksgiving Day tables, as we say our prayers of thanksgiving and enjoy our abundance, we need to ask ourselves: What can we do between this Thanksgiving Day and next to help those who are hungry, those who are homeless because of war, those who are oppressed and down-trodden by the brutalities of this world? What can we do to allow them to share our astonishment? What can we do so that they, too, can offer thanks?

That may seem to be a downer on this day of gratitude and celebration; it may seem an overwhelming task. But remember the words of a gloss on that verse from Micah. It is sometimes referenced to the Talmud, sometimes to the First Century sage Rabbi Tarfon; I don’t really know the source, but I think it filled with wisdom: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” As my friend Melania said, “If we remembered to be thankful for someone or something everyday, we would definitely live better!” Share your astonishment! Work for justice! There is no better way to give thanks.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

City on the Hill, Obscured – Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Epiphany, Year A – February 9, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 9, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Isaiah 58:1-12; Psalm 112:1-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-16; and Matthew 5:13-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Mythical City on the Hill by Colej_ukListen again to the words of the Prophet Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
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.

Listen again to the words of our Savior Jesus Christ:

You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

If you read my blog of meditations on the Daily Office readings which I post to the internet everyday and offer to this parish and to others through Facebook, you will already have read some of what I have to say this morning. This is because earlier this week the Daily Office lectionary included the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham, at the end of which, after Abraham has shown himself willing to do this humanly unthinkable thing at the command of God and thus demonstrated his faithfulness to God, the angel of the Lord addresses Abraham saying, “By your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” It is the first mention in Scripture of the over-arching purpose of God’s People, the ministry that will be Israel’s and then will be the church’s: to be a source of blessing for all people, not just to be the recipients of blessing, but to be the source of blessing for all nations, to be (as Jesus says in this morning’s gospel) salt and light for the world.

This is and has always been the mission of God’s People; it is repeated again and again throughout the Old Testament. Isaiah prophesied to Israel that “in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.” (Isa. 2:2) Psalm 72 includes the prayer for the king of Israel that all nations may be blessed in him (v. 17), and Psalm 87 proclaims that God will say of all people from every nation that “this one was born” in Zion (v. 6). Ben Sira refers to the promise to Abraham when he writes, “To Isaac also he gave the same assurance for the sake of his father Abraham. The blessing of all people and the covenant he made to rest on the head of Jacob.” (Ecclus. 44:22-23)

We were reminded last Sunday that this mission was inherited by Jesus when old Simeon took the infant Christ in his arms and proclaimed that he was to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (Lk 2:32) And now this week, as an adult rabbi, Jesus passes on that mission to his church, the new Israel (as St. Paul would later call it). Jesus instructs his disciples, those present at the Sermon on the Mount and all those to follow them through the ages, right down to you and me, to “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16) He has commissioned us to be “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world,” and reminds us that “a city built on a hill cannot be hid.” (v. 14)

The Puritan preacher John Winthrop, who became governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, took up that image when he proclaimed the Puritan colonists’ covenant aboard the vessel Arbella in 1630; he admonished his band of pilgrims to set an example of righteousness for the world. He concluded a very long sermon with these words:

Now the only way . . . to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. The Lord will be our God, and delight to dwell among us, as His own people, and will command a blessing upon us in all our ways, so that we shall see much more of His wisdom, power, goodness, and truth, than formerly we have been acquainted with. We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, “may the Lord make it like that of New England.” For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God, and all professors for God’s sake. We shall shame the faces of many of God’s worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

And to shut this discourse with that exhortation of Moses, that faithful servant of the Lord, in his last farewell to Israel, Deut. 30. “Beloved, there is now set before us life and death, good and evil,” in that we are commanded this day to love the Lord our God, and to love one another, to walk in his ways and to keep his Commandments and his ordinance and his laws, and the articles of our Covenant with Him, that we may live and be multiplied, and that the Lord our God may bless us in the land whither we go to possess it. But if our hearts shall turn away, so that we will not obey, but shall be seduced, and worship other Gods, our pleasure and profits, and serve them; it is propounded unto us this day, we shall surely perish out of the good land whither we pass over this vast sea to possess it.

Therefore let us choose life,
that we and our seed may live,
by obeying His voice and cleaving to Him,
for He is our life and our prosperity.

Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan made use of the “city on the hill” metaphor in their inaugural addresses; Reagan conflated it with Jesus’ lamp on a lampstand by adding the adjective “shining” . . . America, said President Reagan, should be a “shining city on the hill.”

Now, I would be the last person to stand in a pulpit and tell you that I believe the United States of America was founded to be a “Christian nation.” I know my history far too well to offer that canard. America was not founded to be a Christian nation; it was founded to be a religiously free nation, a pluralist nation, a spiritually diverse nation. But America is a Christian majority country; it is a nation in which Christians have had influence; it is a nation in which Christians still have influence; and it is a nation in which Christians should act like Christians! It is we, the Christians — the followers of Jesus Christ — to whom Jesus gave the mission to be the “city on the hill,” to “let our light shine before others.”

Governor Winthrop, in his address to Puritan pilgrims, made reference to the Prophet Micah and made specific reference to that prophet’s proclamation: “[God] has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8) Isaiah’s prophecy read today puts flesh on the bones of Micah’s admonition: we do justice, love kindness, and walk with God when we feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.

We Episcopalians are pretty good at those material things. We run food pantries like our own Free Farmers’ Market. We run soup kitchens like the phenomenal ministry at Church of the Holy Apostles in New York City. We plant public gardens like our brothers and sisters at our own diocesan cathedral have done. We support shelters for the homeless and the abused, like our local Battered Women’s Shelter. We provide financial backing and volunteer labor to programs like Habitat for Humanity. Our own youth group and their adult supporters have traveled on mission trips to the Gulf Coast, to Appalachia, to central Pennsylvania, and to north-central Ohio to participate in housing improvement projects. We participate in Blanket Sunday programs to provide warm blankets and clothing to those in need. Our own knitting groups make shawls for the sick, and mittens, scarves, and woolen caps for merchant seamen. And we are just one of thousands of parishes around the country doing these things and many others.

We Episcopalians are pretty good, really, at the material mercies of feeding, housing, and clothing those in need.

But Isaiah didn’t stop fleshing out Micah’s call to justice, kindness, and humility with only those material ministries. He added that we have to “remove the yoke from among [us], the pointing of the finger, [and] the speaking of evil.” This is what Governor Winthrop was addressing when he said:

We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality. We must delight in each other; make others’ conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body. So shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

I’m not so sure we Episcopalians . . . I’m not so sure that we mainstream American Christians of any denomination . . . have done such a good job in these areas.

Last Sunday was notable not only as the Feast of the Presentation, on which we heard that story of Simeon declaring the infant Jesus to be the light of the world, it was also Super Bowl Sunday. During the broadcast of that game, Coca-Cola offered an advertisement featuring several people of differing ethnicities singing in a variety of languages a rendition of the song America the Beautiful. It was, I thought, a lovely commercial. I enjoyed it. It reminded me of the same company’s ad from nearly 40 years ago when a crowd of folks on hillside proclaimed their desire to “teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.”

Apparently, however, there were others who saw the ad differently. Almost immediately after its showing, the internet social media was flooded with statements of outrage demanding that the Coca-Cola singers “speak American,” condemning the singing of “our national anthem” in any language other than English, and threatening a boycott of Coke. (As much as I might want to, I’m not going to address the issues that are raised by someone referring to the English language as “American” or by someone not knowing that America the Beautiful is not the national anthem of the United States.)

I must admit that I was both shocked and puzzled that people whom I believe would claim to be Christian, and who clearly claim to be Americans, would be upset with a successful American corporation advertising its product in a commercial in which people from all over the world extol the beauty of our country. The only explanation I can conceive is some sort of misunderstanding of what national unity is, and a misapprehension that uniformity of language promotes such unity. Indeed, that is the tenor of many remarks I’ve seen in the internet social media since the Super Bowl advertisement was aired. In many of those comments, the old image of America as a “melting pot” has been invoked.

Many of us may remember that image from grade school and junior high civics lessons; I remember a junior high school civics and history instructor who suggested another image. Our society is not and never has been a melting pot, he told us. A melting pot, he said, blends everything together. If our country was a melting pot, there wouldn’t be Hispanic barrios, black ghettos, Little Italies, Chinatowns, Levittowns, lace-curtain Irish neighborhoods, and all the other ethnic enclaves that have existed for decades and even centuries. We’re not a melting pot, he said. We are a tossed salad, a lively, tasty, vibrant, salty (to use Jesus’ metaphor) tossed salad. It is our diversity that makes us exciting and makes us strong, unity in diversity, not uniformity, which is what the critics of the Coca-Cola ad seem to want.

Ethnic diversity, however, is the biblical model. All the nations of the world receive a blessing through Abraham and his descendants, but they do not become Israel; they do not become Jews. Even as the nations stream to the mountain of God as Isaiah prophesied, even as God enrolls them as Psalm 87 describes declaring their birth in Zion, they remain Rahab, Babylon, Philistia, Tyre, Ethiopia, and all the other nations of the world. As immigrants come to be part of America, even as they may become naturalized citizens, they retain their histories and identities as Moroccan, Thai, Xosa, French, Maori, and all the rest, with cultural heritages to be honored, languages to be spoken and sung, and diversity to be celebrated. The shining city on the hill shines with diversity, the diversity shown in the Coke commercial!

I hope you saw the ad. I hope you enjoyed as much as I did. I hope you didn’t send any of those tweets and other messages condemning it and calling for people to “speak American.” I hope you didn’t receive any of those messages from acquaintances, but I have to tell you that I did. And I have to confess to you that it wasn’t until a few days later that I was able to reply to them. I have to confess to you that in failing to immediately respond and to gently rebuke, I failed to “remove the yoke from among [us], the pointing of the finger, [and] the speaking of evil.” I failed to “uphold a familiar commerce in meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.” I failed to “keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.” And in that failure I allowed the bushel of hatred and malice to cover the light set upon the lampstand; I allowed the darkness of injustice and oppression to obscure the city on the hill.

And . . . I’m sorry to say . . . I don’t think I’m untypical as an Episcopalian, even as a mainstream American Christian. We are very good at the material ministries of food, housing, and clothing. Not so good at the spiritual ministries of unity and peace. We need to get better — I need to get better — at expressing the Christian faith in public. When someone tells a joke that is racist or sexist or homophobic, when someone makes a statement that demeans another, when someone speaks in any way that promotes injustice or oppression, we need — I need — to not be silent, but to respond immediately with “all meekness, gentleness, patience, and liberality.” Otherwise all of our material works of mercy, all the feeding, all the housing, all the clothing, will be obscured; the city on the hill will be hidden; our light will not shine for all to see; and none will glorify our Father in heaven.

Let us pray:

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of Christian people throughout our country — especially our own hearts — that any barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that we recognize that diversity is not division and that unity does not require uniformity. Help us to confront injustice and oppression without hatred or bitterness, to struggle for justice and truth with gentleness and patience, and to work with everyone with forbearance and respect, that our city on the hill may not be obscured and that our light may shine before others so that they glorify you, our Father in heaven, through your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

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

Houses and Vineyards, Laws and Regulations – From the Daily Office – November 23, 2013

From the Prophet Isaiah:

They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 65:21-22 (NRSV) – November 23, 2013.)

House and VineyardThis part of Isaiah was written shortly after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, which Cyrus of Persia had allowed in the middle of the 6th Century BCE. Isaiah (on God’s behalf) was promising two things with these images of laborers enjoying the fruits of their own efforts: first, that the people would no longer be (if not slaves) subjugated workers of foreign (or domestic) overlords and, second, that there would be peace. Israel’s and Judah’s history had been one of regular (if not constant) upheaval with invaders coming in and taking control of the vineyards and seizing the people’s lands and homes: the simple planting of vineyards with an expectation of enjoying the crop was a metaphor of peace and security.

As I read the words this morning in our modern context, I thought how inappropriate a metaphor this is for us. We no longer live in a world where enjoying the fruits of one’s own labor is the norm. We live in a world dominated by an economic system in which those who tend the vines and harvest the grapes are not those who enjoy the crop, those who build the houses are not those who will ultimately live in them; indeed, they are several levels of “production” and “marketing” away from those who do. The metaphorical vineyard workers and home builders of our society have no personal or emotional connection to the crops and the buildings; they work for a paycheck which, one hopes, will enable them to purchase other crops harvested by other workers and to live in other homes built by other builders.

Not that there is anything wrong with that system, so long as it is fairly administered. Fairness, justice, and peace are, after all, what this prophecy is really addressing. Any economic system that produces those fruits lives up to the biblical standard. But it takes laws and regulations (and law enforcement systems and regulatory agencies) to assure that human beings and their economies behave in such ways. Left to our own devices, we humans seldom do so, as the historical record makes painfully clear.

As so often happens, I could not help but think of two recent news reports when confronted with this witness of scripture, reports that clearly demonstrate the need for such laws and the need for vigilance by those (like me) who would insist that they are needed. The first was the news that a congress woman from another state has introduced a bill to abolish, as a matter of federal law, the requirement of overtime pay for those whose employers demand they work in excess of 40 hours per week. The second was a report yesterday that British authorities had found and freed three women who had been kept as domestic slaves (in London, for heaven’s sake!) for thirty years!

We are so far from the biblical standard of fairness and justice for laborers! So far! And at times we seem to be slipping further way. The prophecy promises that the time will come when workers will know justice and peace; present-day news reports show that that time hasn’t come yet.

Another prophet once asked “What does the Lord require of you?” and then answered his own question: “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) Only when each person and the whole of society (through its laws, regulations, and law enforcement) does so can we be assured that workers will build houses and inhabit them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit.

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

Purify Our Conscience – Sermon for Advent 4, Year C – December 23, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 23, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Advent 4, Year C: Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; and Luke 1:39-55. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Orthodox Icon of the MadonnaI want to ask you to read along as I re-read the collect for the day, the particular prayer of the Fourth Sunday in Advent: “Purify our conscience . . . . ” That’s enough, just those three words: “Purify our conscience . . . . ” Don’t you think that’s asking a lot of God? I mean really . . . purify the human conscience, that place in ourselves where we know all the wrongs we have done. Tall order, purifying that! But that’s what the prayer asks and in doing so it draws on the language of the Letter to Hebrews from which our second lesson today is taken.

Our reading came from Chapter 10 of the letter, but what we heard is only small part of a longer section dealing with the efficacy of sacrifice, a section that begins in Chapter 9. There we read these words:

For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God! For this reason he is the mediator of a new covenant . . . . (Heb. 9:13-15a)

But what is the conscience?

The dictionary tells us that the conscience is that “inner sense of what is right or wrong in one’s conduct or motives; the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual.” (dictionary.com) Another definition comes from the devotional text My Utmost for His Highest compiled from the lectures of the British Baptist educator Oswald Chambers:

Conscience is that ability within me that attaches itself to the highest standard I know, and then continually reminds me of what that standard demands that I do. It is the eye of the soul which looks out either toward God or toward what we regard as the highest standard. This explains why conscience is different in different people. If I am in the habit of continually holding God’s standard in front of me, my conscience will always direct me to God’s perfect law and indicate what I should do. The question is, will I obey? I have to make an effort to keep my conscience so sensitive that I can live without any offense toward anyone. I should be living in such perfect harmony with God’s Son that the spirit of my mind is being renewed through every circumstance of life, and that I may be able to quickly “prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God” (Romans 12:2 ; also see Ephesians 4:23).

So, then, our conscience is that sense within us which, if it is pure, directs us to do that which God asks of us. But note what our prayer asks of God . . . that the purification of our conscience has to happen everyday: “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation . . . ” and then the prayer goes on to sound an Advent note ” . . . that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.”

I was a great fan of Charles Schultz’s cartoon Peanuts. I recall a Sunday installment in Lucy and Charlie Brown were talking about cruise ships. Lucy was holding forth giving, as she was wont to do, her unflappable opinion: “You know,” she says to Charlie Brown, “there are two kinds of people who go on cruise ships. There are some people who face their deck chairs toward the stern so that they can see where they have been, and there are others who face their deck chairs toward the bow so that they can see where they are going. Now,” she asks Charlie Brown, “on the great cruise ship of your life, how do you face your deck chair?” Charlie Brown thinks for a moment, then says, “I can’t get mine unfolded!”

Focusing our conscience like “the eye of the soul,” as Chambers said, so that it looks outward toward God whom we beseech to purify it daily, is like getting our deck chair unfolded and faced toward the bow of the ship so we can see where we’re going, so that we are prepared for Jesus. I think that’s really what today’s Psalm is all about, too, especially the refrain that is repeated twice in the portion we read and is repeated again in the whole Psalm: “Restore us, O God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” Purify our conscience so that we are prepared for our savior, for Jesus.

The great example of that preparation is the virgin Mary. Her trip to the hill country of Judea about which we heard in today’s Gospel lesson took place almost immediately after the angel Gabriel had visited her to inform her that she would be the mother of the savior. Her willing response to that news, of course, was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) If we are honest in our prayer that God purify our consciences each day, then we must be willing to follow Mary’s example and accept whatever God wills for us; when God makes God’s daily visitation to us, our response must echo hers, “Let it be with me according to your word.”

The German medieval mystical theologian put it this way: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place increasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.”

So it is that we pray today, “Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation,” that we like Mary may be bearers of the Eternal Word. Amen.

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