That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Philemon

Labor Sunday: Sermon for Pentecost 16, RCP Proper 18C (4 September 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 18C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; and St. Luke 14:25-33. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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labor-sabbath“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. * * * None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Jesus just doesn’t make it easy, does he? He doesn’t make it easy to preach this Gospel of his; he doesn’t make it easy to life this life of his! He just doesn’t.

And then there’s Paul! Sending a slave back to his owner, a slave who apparently ran away and owes his owner something. And Paul doesn’t even say to the slave owner, “Set him free.” He sort of hints at it, I guess, but he doesn’t come right out and say it! He doesn’t make this any easier.

And, of course, there’s Moses: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” One way or the other, black or white, yes or no, no grays, no (as my mother would have said) “ifs, ands, or buts,” no compromises, no negotiations. Take it or leave it. Decide.

They don’t make it easy.

So let’s just ignore them, OK. It’s Labor Day weekend, so let’s just not work that hard.

Labor Day, as you already know because you read the parish’s weekly email update on Friday, was created by Congress in 1894 as a “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday of September and has remained so for 122 years. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution calling on churches to observe “Labor Sunday” on the day before Labor Day, and nearly every denomination including our own did so. The prior year the Federal Council of Churches had adopted the “Social Creed of the Churches” which called for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life,” a living wage, abatement of poverty, and numerous worker protections, including arbitration, shortened workdays, safer conditions, the abolition of child labor, regulation of women’s labor, and assistance to elderly and incapacitated workers. “Labor Sunday” fit right in with those lofty social goals.

Observance of Labor Sunday waned in the 1960s; today (to the best of my knowledge) it is an official observance only in the United Church of Christ. We, however, have paid homage to this heritage when we sang the hymn Divine Companion as our Sequence a few moments ago. It was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1909 as a “Hymn of Labor” and set to the American folk hymn melody Pleading Savior which dates from before the Civil War. Let me read again Van Dyke’s lyrics:

Jesus, thou divine Companion,
by thy lowly human birth
thou hast come to join the workers,
burden-bearers of the earth.
Thou, the carpenter of Nazareth,
toiling for thy daily food,
by thy patience and thy courage,
thou hast taught us toil is good.

Where the many toil together,
there art thou among thine own;
where the solitary labor,
thou art there with them alone;
thou, the peace that passeth knowledge,
dwellest in the daily strife;
thou, the Bread of heaven, art broken
in the sacrament of life.

Every task, however simple,
sets the soul that does it free;
every deed of human kindness
done in love is done to thee.
Jesus, thou divine Companion,
help us all to work our best;
bless us in our daily labor,
lead us to our Sabbath rest.
(Episcopal Hymnal 1982, No. 586)

So, I guess if we really mean it – if St. Augustine is right that the one who sings his prayer prays twice – and we expect Jesus to lead us, then I guess we really are going to have to take up our cross. We are going to have to figure out what Jesus meant when he demanded that we hate our families and our possessions. We are going to have to wrestle with whatever it was Paul was up to with Philemon and Onesimus; and we are going to have to make that decision between “life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of the Law, the Torah. It is said to be Moses’ farewell discourse to the Hebrews whom he has led across the desert to the Holy Land, which they (but not he) are about to enter. He is here addressing the entire people of God. But he is not speaking to them collectively; he uses the second person singular “you” in this text. He is here speaking of a personal, not community, decision, one each person must make for him- or herself. In the words of Woodie Guthrie:

You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Nobody here can walk it for you,
You gotta walk it by yourself.

Moses’ advice to the Hebrews, to each individual Hebrew, is “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Lutheran bible scholar Terrence Fretheim says of this text:

Two possible futures are laid out in this text: life and death (Deuteronomy 30:15; 30:19). Note that the future is not laid out in absolute certainty — as if God knows that future in detail and could describe it to the people right now. The future is noted in terms of possibilities. What Israel says and does will give shape to that future, but what that shape will be is not determined in advance; that future remains open to what happens within the relationship, even for God. (Working Preaching Commentary)

Fretheim points out that it is worth noting that Deuteronomy does not say how the Hebrews responded to Moses. The story is open-ended. The book, and thus the Torah, ends with uncertainty regarding what Israel’s response is or will be. Thus, this personal decision is an open-ended question not only for the Hebrews but for us today; each and every reader, every person who hears Moses read, is called to provide an response.

And that is basically what Jesus is recalling to his listeners; he is reminding the large crowd of Israelites following him on the road and he is reminding us of the stark reality of the choice Moses had set out for them and for us centuries before. He has phrased it differently, using rabbinic hyperbole, but the choice is the same: life or death; following the way of God or the way of the world symbolized by “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” and all of one’s possessions.

We, and I’m sure Jesus’ first listeners, are shocked by this language of “hate.” We cannot help but think of the fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12; BCP 1979, Pg. 350) and this hardly seems consonant. We are naturally affectionate toward our parents, our siblings, and our children. But Greek scholar D. Mark Davis points out that in many instances in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, “hate” is used without the emotional content we habitually invest in it. Davis writes:

This use of “hate,” where there are two possibilities and one must choose decisively, seems to be the dynamic at work in our text. The full commitment to one possibility means the severance of commitment to another possibility. (Left Behind and Loving It: Holy Hating)

What is demanded by Jesus is not enmity and malice, but rather detachment. How is this to be acted out? Davis suggests:

[T]his call to discipleship is radical, implying that those who follow Jesus are not going to be making decisions based on “what’s best for me,” or even “what’s best for our marriage/family/children.” It may mean living in that “dangerous neighborhood” or attending a less achieving school, because a gracious presence is needed there. It may mean living more simply because one’s resources can be used better for others. It may mean making unpopular choices despite the protests of one’s family. This is real and critical engagement that Jesus is talking about, a stark contrast to the typical depiction of “the happy Christian home” where one’s faith is demonstrated by how committed on is to providing every possible advantage to one’s own. That kind of choosing, it seems to me, has to be cast in the strongest language possible, because we will domesticate the gospel and make it a matter of enhancing ourselves and our families until we hear this kind of extreme language and let it shake us. (Ibid.)

Using parallel structure, Jesus offers a second metaphor to explain his expectations: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Again, we must wrestle with what this means, especially because it is so often twisted by the popular expression, “It’s my cross to bear,” making it almost equivalent to another popular expression which twists Paul’s complaint of “a thorn in my flesh.” (2 Cor 12:7) But as seminary professor Karoline Lewis reminds us, carrying the cross “cannot only be located in suffering and sacrifice when the biblical witness suggests otherwise.” (Dear Working Preacher: Carrying the Cross) In terms echoing Mark Davis’ interpretation of what it means to “hate” our families, Lewis says:

[C]arrying your cross is a choice and ironically, it is a choice for life and not death. But here is the challenge. We tend toward saying the cross is a choice for life because it leads to resurrection. Yes. And no. Yes, this is what God has done – undone death for the sake of life forever. But no, if that reality has no bearing on your present. (Ibid.)

Thus, to “carry the cross”

. . . could mean to carry the burdens of those from whom Jesus releases burdens. It could mean to carry the ministry of Jesus forward by seeing those whom the world overlooks. It could mean favoring and regarding the marginalized, even when that action might lead to your own oppression. (Ibid.)

It might mean defending equal rights and complete justice for all people in all stations of life, a living wage, abatement of poverty, worker protections, arbitration, shortened workdays, safer working conditions, the abolition of child labor, protection of voting rights, and assistance to the elderly and incapacitated, even if that might lead to higher taxes.

And that is the reality that Paul lays before Philemon in his letter returning the slave Onesimus to his household. Paul addresses Philemon as a “dear friend and co-worker,” as a leader of a church group that meets in his home, as someone filled with “love for all the saints and . . . faith toward the Lord Jesus.” And then like Moses addressing each of the Hebrews individually, like Jesus addressing the Israelites following him on the road, Paul says to Philemon, “You have a choice to make.” In his case, of course, the choice is whether to free Onesimus.

The traditional understanding of the situation addressed in this letter is that Onesimus (whose name means “Useful,” by the way) had run away, had somehow come into Paul’s service during Paul’s imprisonment, and was now being sent back to his owner. The letter doesn’t actually describe the situation that way, but verse 18 (“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”) is taken to support that view. Another interpretation of the text, however, is that Philemon had sent Onesimus to Paul for a period of time and Paul, honoring that time limit, is returning him: “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” writes the apostle.

In any event, Onesimus is a slave who, like his master, has become “a beloved brother … in the Lord.” Onesimus in his conversion, in his “transformation is a vivid embodiment of the gospel. He is a walking reminder of the power of the good news.” (Eric Barreto, Commentary)

According to seminary professor Eric Barreto,

For Paul, what happens in these Christian communities [like the one that meet is Philemon’s home] is a matter of life and death. His letters are not just doctrinal. He’s not just concerned with ideas, with the right Christological or theological or eschatological perspective. Paul is a pastor, remember. He cares for these communities because these communities are seeds of the resurrection, sites where the resurrected life can already flourish, places of resistance to an empire that would place us in rank according to social status. (Ibid.)

And so he places before Philemon a choice, not unlike the decision Moses laid before the Hebrews, not unlike the choice Jesus gave those folks following him on the road. It no longer matters who Onesimus’ or Philemon’s father or mother may have been, who their children or their siblings are. It no longer matters what they possess; what matters is who possesses them. They have both been baptized into the Body of Christ; they are both belong to the Lord of life.

Professor Fretheim pointed out that we are not told what decision the Hebrews made and so their choice becomes an open-ended question. Likewise, we are not told what the people on the road with Jesus chose, nor do we know what Philemon decided to do. In each story, the choice is the same – life or death – and each story calls us to make the same choice.

For generations, the Jews have had a toast: “L’Chaim!” It simply means “To Life!” Every time I read this letter, I can almost see Paul putting down his pen as he finishes writing, reaching for his cup, lifting it up to the absent Philemon, and offering the toast unspoken in the letter itself: “L’Chaim! Choose life! Take up your cross! Set Onesimus free!”

Every task, however simple,
sets the soul that does it free;
every deed of human kindness
done in love is done to thee.
Jesus, thou divine Companion,
help us all to work our best;
bless us in our daily labor,
lead us to our Sabbath rest.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 1979, Pg. 261)

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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.

Redeeming Philemon – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Redeeming Philemon

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Proper 24, Year 1 (Pentecost 21, 2015)

Philemon 17 ~ So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.

Let me begin with the admission that the Letter to Philemon is not one of my favorite biblical texts. I really wish Paul – and it is Paul; if there is any epistle that is genuinely Pauline, it is this one – I really wish Paul had been less diplomatic, less tactful, less beating-around-the-bush with his friend Philemon and just told him, “Set the slave Onesimus free.” Unfortunately, he didn’t. Instead, he wrote, “Take him back as more than a slave; take him back as a beloved brother” (v. 16) which is open to interpretation and has been variously understood through the centuries, including as permission to continue the institution of slavery.

After those words, however, he wrote the sentence quoted above from verse 17 and today I have come to realize that this is Paul’s subtle twist on the Golden Rule. You remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It seems pretty straight forward, pretty cut and dried, doesn’t it? But, then, have you ever considered how people actually apply the Golden Rule, how people conditionalize it? We make it into “Do unto others as I would have them do unto me if I were them.” So Philemon could say, “If I was a slave like Onesimus, I would want to be treated thusly,” which leads him away from thinking about whether Onesimus actually should be a slave at all.

So Paul doesn’t phrase his admonition in that way. Instead, he says, “Do unto Onesimus as you would do unto me.” In other words, instead of subjectively personalizing this ethical touchstone, he objectifies it. Instead of “consider yourself,” he writes “consider someone whom you hold in high regard and respect” (Paul is assuming Philemon so holds him), then treat others as you would treat that person. It’s much harder to conditionalize this standard: I can’t say, “If Paul was a slave like Onesimus….” because Paul isn’t a slave and holding Paul in high regard I cannot imagine Paul a slave. I can imagine myself in a slave’s position; I cannot do that with Paul.

Problem is, of course, that we don’t know what Philemon did with Onesimus. Did he welcome him back as “more than a slave, a beloved brother” and set him free? Did he welcome Onesimus as he would welcome Paul, as a person of high regard and respect? If we knew that, then this Letter in the biblical canon would be redeemed; it wouldn’t be subject to interpretation as an apology for and warrant of slavery as an acceptable human institution. Still . . . it’s not so bad as it has seemed.

Philemon Pisses Me Off – From the Daily Office – February 28, 2014

From the Letter to Philemon:

I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back for ever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother — especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Philemon 14b-16 (NRSV) – February 28, 2014.)

Slave AuctionThere’s really very little in the Bible that makes me angry. I find a good deal to object to, to be annoyed by, and to wish wasn’t there, but very little that riles me. Paul’s letter to his friend Philemon, however, just plain pisses me off.

Paul has somehow encountered the runaway slave Onesimus while he, Paul, is imprisoned. Onesimus has become a follower of Christ like his owner, Paul’s friend Philemon, a leader of the Colossian church. Paul sends the slave back to his owner with this letter which can be interpreted as carrying a strong hint, but never actually saying, that Philemon should manumit Onesimus.

It is maddening that Paul apparently does not view slavery as incompatible with Christianity. Not once in this letter does Paul condemn slavery either in general or as it specifically applies to Onesimus. He does not try to persuade Philemon that Onesimus, “a beloved brother . . . in the Lord,” is deserving of his freedom. In failing to do so, Paul gives tacit approval to the economic institution of slavery.

He had done so before. In his first letter to the church in Corinth he wrote:

Let each of you remain in the condition in which you were called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever. For whoever was called in the Lord as a slave is a freed person belonging to the Lord, just as whoever was free when called is a slave of Christ. (1 Cor. 7:20-22)

Now I know that Paul expected the parousia to happen at almost any moment so staying in slavery, or in marriage, or in a single state, or whatever was not a big deal. And I know that in the Corinthian letter Paul was using slavery more as a metaphor or as an example to make a theological point. But . . . this text and especially the letter to Philemon were used for so long to justify the institution of slavery, the very idea that one human being owning another as a piece of property, was acceptable before God . . . and it just pisses me off that Paul didn’t demand of Philemon that he set Onesimus free. Every time I read the letter to Philemon I get angry!

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

Radical Transformation — Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18C — September 8, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 16 (Proper 18, Year C): Jeremiah 18:1-11; Psalm 139:1-5,12-17; Philemon 1-21; and Luke 14:25-33. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Swallowtail MetamorphosisWe are given three very challenging readings from Holy Scripture this morning. First, there is Jeremiah’s familiar, but radical, prophetic metaphor of God as a potter able to do with the nation of Israel what a potter does with a spoiled piece of work. Second, perhaps the oddest piece of New Testament literature, Paul’s personal letter to a man named Philemon returning a runaway slave whom Paul has converted to Christianity. And, lastly, Luke’s report of Jesus’ radical requirement that his followers must hate their possessions, their families, and even themselves. What I believe is common among these lessons is a call to radical transformation.

Let’s look first at the Gospel lesson. According to Luke, Jesus says to a great multitude of people, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” It appears to have been Jesus’ intention to turn away any potential follower who might be half-hearted, or luke-warm; he was not willing to just let anyone come along. Jesus was not interested in “church growth.” But when Jesus says, “You cannot be my disciple,” we need to careful parse and understand what he is saying. He is not say, “I will not let you be my disciple.” The Greek is ou dunatai einai mou mathetes. The verb dunamai means “to be able to, to have power to” – from its root dunamis we get our word “dynamic.” Jesus is not saying he will prevent or stand in the way of such a person becoming a disciple; rather, Jesus is saying such a person is simply incapable of becoming a disciple. The blockage is in that person, not in Jesus.

Jesus goes on to illustrate what he means with two short parables which would have been within the experience and understanding of his listeners: a man counting the cost of building a tower and a king calculating the probability of success in going to war. These examples of what we might call “social calculus” give meaning to Jesus’ use of the word “hate” — and that’s what it is in Greek; in fact, “detest” might be an even better translation — and applying it to family, wealth, and even one’s own soul. Discipleship, as Jesus understands it, is complete, total, uncompromising. It includes counting the costs and considering what it means to set out on the path of discipleship; one cannot do so on the spur of the moment in a brief burst of enthusiasm without a thought where that path might end. Jesus’ use of “hate,” illustrated by stories where there are two possible courses of action, only one of which may chosen and that one must be chosen decisively, underscores that, for Jesus, full commitment means the severance of even potential commitment to any other possibility.

For us, as contemporary Christians, this Gospel faces us with the hard truth of what it means to follow Jesus; we must grapple with the reality that our Messiah is a radical, counter-cultural prophet. As my friend Presbyterian theologian Bruce Reyes-Chow puts it, in this Gospel Jesus calls us “to step into that space of faithfulness that Jesus calls ‘hate.'” (The Hardest Question) That’s really, really hard! His message and actions are not easy to follow, and they do not fit easily or comfortably into our 21st Century context. It is a call to radical transformation.

This was also the message of the Prophet Jeremiah with his deceptively folksy metaphor of a potter reworking a lump of clay.

A potter working with clay was an everyday occurrence in the ancient world. This is not an artisan working on an art piece that Jeremiah is describing. This is a merchant working on the rough and ready pots that were the everyday utensils of a typical Judean household, not perfect, not particularly attractive, but serviceable, useful to hold the grain, oil, and wine to sustain life, the jug to hold water, the bowl or plate from which to eat. God sends Jeremiah to the potters to watch him at this everyday commercial task, and as Jeremiah looks on, the potter decides that his work just isn’t going according to plan . . . and so he smashes the clay and destroys the pot that he is making. He begins again.

There was, in Jeremiah’s time, a conflict or tension between what has come to be called “temple theology,” which the religious leaders of the nation, the King and the priests, believed, and a “covenant theology” taught by the prophets. Temple theology taught that Israel was God’s chosen nations so that bad things would not happen to Israel; indeed, bad things could not happen because of the protection of God guaranteed by performance of the proper rituals and sacrifices in the temple. Covenant theology, on the other hand, was an understanding that God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience, that more than ritual sacrifice was required of God’s people, that fulfillment of the whole covenant, especially its social teachings of justice and care for the poor, the widowed, the orphan, and the stranger, was required.
God says to Jeremiah, “I can do with Israel what this potter has done with his clay.” The word “potter” spoken here by God is based on the verb, yatsar, “to fashion, form.” This is the verb used in Genesis 2:7 to describe God’s creative action when God took up a piece of wet clay and molded it into Adam, the human being. It is a reminder that humankind was formed for a purpose just the way the jugs and bowls and plates of the potter are formed for a purpose and, when that purpose is unfulfilled . . . . well, you understand.

Jeremiah’s prophecy is a call for repentance which includes the unequivocal warning that there are consequences for failing to honor God’s covenant and that those consequences can be severe. The people of God need to know that God’s actions toward them are not limited to the blessings of temple theology; they include the possible consequences of covenant theology, as well. It is a call, as all true calls for repentance are, to radical transformation.

And then we have the Letter to Philemon.

This one chapter letter, the shortest piece of literature in the Christian bible, may just be the most challenging. On its face, it’s just a letter sending a slave back to his master, and therein lies the difficulty.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, anybody could become a slave for a variety of reasons — being captured in war, becoming unable to pay your own debts, being sold in to slavery by one’s own parents faced with bankruptcy. It is estimated that as much as 40% of the populace of the Roman Empire were slaves! Slaves were the property of their masters. They could be bought and sold at discretion; they could be expelled from their master’s demesne simply for being old or sick. They were often abused. Most important for our understanding of Paul’s letter to Philemon is that a master had the right to kill a slave when he or she ran away. It is not clear that Onesimus was a run-away, but that is the accepted understanding of this letter. Paul was dealing with a potential life or death matter.

Paul’s appeal to Philemon is to accept Onesimus back because, under Paul’s tutelage, Onesimus has become a Christians, as Philemon himself has become. Paul urges the master to accept the slave as his brother in Christ. What is troubling for us is that Paul does not demand that Philemon give Onesimus his freedom. What is troubling for us is that Paul says nothing about what Onesimus might want. From Philemon’s perspective Onesimus is a slave and a useless one at that. What Onesimus actually was, we are not told. We are never told what he thinks or feels.

As Holly Hearon, Professor of New Testament at Christian Theological Seminary, in Indianapolis, Indiana, says:

The letter to Philemon challenges us to discern, in and for Christ, what is the right thing to do. It would be easy if doing the right thing was, for example, taking out the garbage, or helping an elderly person cross the street. It is another when the right thing involves a radical transformation of social relationships: of learning to see people that time and experience have led us to view one way in a completely new way. It is another thing when this radical transformation of social relationships asks us to give up what we have come to view as our rights: to willingly let go of privilege. It is another thing when this letting go of privilege leads us to assume a relationship of kinship — of obligation — with those whom we have formerly viewed with suspicion because we now recognize that we are bound together in Christ. (Working Preacher)

So, again, the theme of the reading, the demand of the reading, is radical transformation.

In his Second Letter to the church in Corinth, Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17) In his letter to the Romans, he wrote, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (Rom. 12:2a)
Radical transformation involves removing the barriers that prevent us from becoming Christ’s new creation, the things that prevent us from being renewed. Jesus told us to “hate” anything that stands in our way; simply put, that means letting go of those things. That’s easier said than done; in fact, on our own I don’t believe we can. The message of Jeremiah’s homely potter metaphor is that the One with the power to do so is not us, poor lumps of clay that we are; it is God. In Alcoholics Anonymous the first two of the Twelve Steps are:

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

That is a statement of the very core of Jeremiah’s metaphor: We’re powerless; God isn’t. We do not have the power in ourselves to follow Jesus, but with God’s grace we can.

Being a follower of Jesus and living a life of radical transformation requires a commitment to allow God to continually work on transforming us, and that commitment must be full including severing every potential commitment to any other possibility. Radical transformation does not happen overnight; it takes time, it takes persistence, it takes faith. It takes a willingness to let go and an inner desire to allow the Potter to remake us into the creation God intends us to be.

And when we are transformed, when we are that new creation, we can turn to God and say with the Psalmist: “I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it well.” 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.

Fanfare for the Common Man – From the Daily Office – March 12, 2013

From the Paul’s Letter to the Romans:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 7:15-25 (NRSV) – March 12, 2013.)

Trumpet FanfareSt. Paul wrote some great stuff. He’s treatise on love in the thirteenth chapter of the first letter to the church in Corinth is brilliant! He wrote (or, at least, is blamed for) some incredibly stupid stuff, too: telling women to be silent in the very next chapter of First Corinthians, for example, or sending Onesimus back to Philemon without clearly denouncing the institution of slavery.

But I think nothing may have been as damaging to Christian spirituality and theology than this little bit from the letter to the church in Rome. We don’t know what Paul’s personal problem was – an addiction, a sexual dysfunction, OCD, who knows? – but whatever it may have been he attributes it to his own sinfulness and then (here’s the really damaging thing) he universalizes his experience. He claims that everyone is like him, that every single human being who ever lived and everyone who will come after him has been, is, and will be “captive to the law of sin” and completely unable to do anything about it.

Find something like that in the Gospels! Read every word of the four Gospels and see if there is anything like that coming from Jesus’ mouth! There isn’t. Sure, Jesus suggested that we are all sinners (particularly when he breaks up the execution party and prevents the woman taken in adultery from being stoned in John 7:53-8:11), but he never suggests that we have no power to do anything about our sinful behavior. In fact, quite the opposite. Jesus makes it clear that we have the ability to choose to do good, and again and again he commends that choice to us.

Today is the 70th anniversary of the premier of one of my favorite pieces of music, Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. It was commissioned in 1942 by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Eugene Goossens as one of eighteen fanfares to begin the next year’s concert performances as an orchestral support for and tribute to the United States effort in World War II. Copland named to piece after a line in a speech by Vice-President Henry A. Wallace proclaiming the arrival of “the century of the Common Man.” Goossens was surprised by the title and wrote to Copland, “Its title is as original as its music, and I think it is so telling that it deserves a special occasion for its performance. If it is agreeable to you, we will premiere it 12 March 1943 at income tax time”. Copland replied, “I [am] all for honoring the common man at income tax time.”

I find the Fanfare to be stirring and uplifting and full of affirmation of the goodness of everyday human beings, a great musical antidote to Paul’s dreary, pessimistic, and almost self-defeating assessment of his (and everyone else’s) inner nature.

Lent is a time of self-evaluation and, sure, we all have our dysfunctions to be honest about and to work on. But I find it impossible to believe that (as the collect for the third Sunday in Lent puts it, paraphrasing Paul) “we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves.” (BCP 1979, page 218). We do have that power; what we don’t have is the strength of will or the stick-to-itiveness to sustain the effort. That’s how I understand that prayer, not that we asking for some sort of magic pill to give us something we lack, but rather that we are seeking support and help to keep us going through the darkest of times. It’s not simply that we shrug our shoulders and say, “We can’t do this. You take care of it, God.” Instead, we are asking that our own power be supplemented and strengthened by the power, the presence, and the pardon of God, our God who “saw everything that he had made [including humankind], and indeed, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31)

I, for one, find no help in Paul’s words to the Romans in today’s lesson. But on this anniversary of the first performance of the soaring strains of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, I find in that music the voice of hope, the voice of God urging me on.

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