That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Proverbs (page 1 of 3)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act Three (Pt 1): Fully Human – Easter Vigil 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday, April 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31,15:20-21; Proverbs 8:1-8,19-21,9:4b-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Two weeks ago, the Sunday lectionary treated us to the entire long Gospel lesson of the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and then last week the Daily Office lectionary repeated it in smaller bits over the course of several days. Last Sunday I suggested that Holy Week and Easter can be conceived as a three-act drama to which the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday is an overture.

The Lazarus story, like last Sunday’s Gospel, is part of that overture, the introduction to the three-act drama of celebration in which we have participated this week and in which we have come, this evening, to the third and final act. Lazarus has been much on my mind as we have prepared for this Easter celebration and for the baptisms we have just performed. I believe the story of Lazarus’ raising has much to teach us about what we have done here tonight in this third act, this Baptismal Vigil, this liturgy of welcoming and inclusion.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany; they are a family which figures prominently in the Gospels as friends of Jesus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. This family really seems to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. When word is sent to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Lazarus is described to him as “he whom you love.” (John 11:3) Lazarus and his sisters are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.

As the story of Lazarus raising is told, the family is described as accompanied by “Jews.” That has always struck me as a bit odd. After all, aren’t they all Jews? Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, the whole lot of them? Of course they are! So many scholars suggest that we should better understand John’s term Ioudaiou to mean “Judeans,” that is people native to the Jerusalem area; these scholars suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus, were Galileans who had moved to Judea and been accepted into this southern community. This strengthens the suggestion that they may have been members of Jesus’ extended family.

Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (John 11:21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”

We’re told that Jesus’ response to this is that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s a fine translation, but it’s also a bit misleading. The Greek word rendered “disturbed” very literally means he “snorted with anger”; and the word translated “deeply moved” means “stirred up” and implies a certain physicality, not simply an emotion. Jesus response to the sisters’ confrontations, to Lazarus’ death, to the whole situation is to become indignant and sick to his stomach.

The Lazarus story contains the shortest verse in the New Testament, famously rendered in the King James Version with only two words, “Jesus wept.” Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest that, since John describes Jesus as angry and physically sick, we might consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.

We have just baptized four children and, together with them, we have affirmed the Baptismal Covenant beginning with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in which we will claim that Jesus, the Son of God, was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (BCP 1979, p 304). In the Nicene Creed, which we recite most Sundays during the Holy Eucharist, we go further and declare that he “became incarnate . . . and was made man,” that is, that he became a flesh-and-blood human being. (BCP 1979, p 358). In the Definition of Chalcedon, which you can find on page 864 of the Prayer Book, the church goes even beyond that and asserts its conviction that Jesus is “truly [human] . . . like us in all respects, apart from sin.”

I believe that standing before that tomb where his beloved friend Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, feeling the anger and frustration of his close friends Mary and Martha, surrounded by Judeans muttering “couldn’t he have prevented this,” and perhaps physically exhausted from traveling from the other side of the Jordan valley where he was when he got the news, Jesus’ humanity hit him like a ton of bricks. In that moment, everything that it meant to be human came crashing in on him: the way human beings settle for easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships; the injustice, oppression, and exploitation we impose on one another; the pain, rejection, hunger, and war we endure . . . but, also, the love, friendship, community, family, support, and every other good thing about being a human being; it all come together in that moment standing at that grave.

Why do I think that? Because that’s what I feel every time I stand at a grave. The first time I did that, I was 5-1/2 years old. I remember standing between my mother and my paternal grandmother watching two members of the US Army fold the flag that had draped my father’s coffin, feeling loss, grief, anger, confusion, and emotions I couldn’t even name. But there was also the love of family, pride in my father’s military service, a sense of community with extended family and friends, all the comfort that comes from our common humanity. And every time I have stood beside a grave, I have felt that again, and I can surely imagine that our Lord experienced something very like that. No wonder Jesus – the sorrowful-but-also-angry and stirred-up Jesus, the knowing-he-too-might-soon-be-dead Jesus, the fully-human, like-us-in-all-respects Jesus – wept.

We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As St. Paul asks in his letter to the Romans which was read just a few minutes ago, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” The Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death.”

St. Paul’s assurance that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” is echoed by the Prayer Books bold promise that by baptism we share in Jesus’ resurrection, and that “through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 1979, p 306) As Jesus called for Lazarus to be unbound from his funeral wrappings, as Jesus himself rose and set aside his shroud, through Holy Baptism our Lord calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with those whom the Psalmist describes as having “clean clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)

The Creation story in Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn 1:27) The story of the Fall reminds us that somehow that divine likeness has been marred, that on our own we fail to live up to that image; we fail to fully live up to the potential God created in humankind. Through baptism, the divine image is restore; through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a process of transformation begins and God restores us to who and what we were meant to be – fully human.

When we baptized these children, we asked them and their baptismal sponsors (and we asked ourselves) some questions which are taken directly from the Apostle’s Creed, to which I referred earlier. These questions began with the words, “Do you believe . . . .”

A few years ago a colleague of mine said that he had once asked his congregation, when reciting the Nicene Creed, to say “We trust in” instead of “We believe in” since the original Greek could have been translated either way. He said he wondered if the church would be less fragmented if we had used “trust.” He suggested that there might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here.” When we ask those questions of baptismal candidates and their Godparents, when we say the creeds ourselves, are expressing a deep affirmation of community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe we don’t “believe” exactly the same things that others here believe, but we all trust in the same God.

In that same conversation, another priest objected to what he called the distinction between “faith as trust and faith with content.” “It’s always struck me as a strange distinction,” he said. “If, for example, faith as trust is about relationship [and not about content], it is like someone saying to a prospective marriage partner, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but I’m not certain who you are.’” I suggested to him, however, and I suggest to you now that this distinction really doesn’t exist, that faith as trust or as relationship necessarily implies and includes “faith with content.” One cannot place trust in another person, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named in the Creed, without assenting to that person’s existence and properties; to say, “I trust you” or “I love you” and not also agree that you exist makes very little sense.

This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with God the Holy Trinity, and through God with the full community of human beings whom God loves and whom God has redeemed in all that long salvation history that we have heard read from the Hebrew Scriptures this evening. When we baptized these children, when we baptize any new member of the Christian community, we recognize them as part of that fully human community whom God invites to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov 9:6), whom God promises to save, and gather, and bring home, and restore. (Zeph 3:19-20)

That full human community relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us, the full humanity which gathered with friends and family at the Last Supper in the first act of this drama of redemption, the full humanity which was arrested and brutalized and crucified in the second act, the full humanity whose Resurrection we celebrate in this, the third act, the feast of Easter. It is into that Easter promise that we have baptized Kadence, Bryce, Hadley, and Joseph this evening. And that is why the Lazarus story figures so prominently in the church’s preparations for Holy Week and Easter, part of the overture of this three-part drama of redemption!

In the words of a popular Franciscan blessing, let us pray that, as these children grow into the full humanity into which they are initiated today, God will bless them with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that they may live deep within their hearts; that God will bless them with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that they may work for justice, freedom, and peace; that God will bless them with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that they may reach out their hands to comfort others and turn their pain into joy; and that God bless them with enough foolishness to believe that they can make a difference in this world, so that they can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice, kindness, and love to all.

As they have been buried with Christ, they have begun to share in his Resurrection; may God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

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

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

Banquet Seating: Sermon for Pentecost 15, RCL Proper 17C (28 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 17C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Sirach 10:12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; and St. Luke 14:1,7-14. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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placecardOur first lesson today is from a book with the wholly amazing title The Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Joshua ben Sira, usually (and mercifully) shortened to Sirach. It is accepted as part of the Christian biblical canon by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and most of the Oriental Orthodox churches. In our Anglican tradition, it is not accepted as canonical, but we do read it “for example of life and instruction of manners;” however, it cannot be used to establish any doctrine. (Article VI of the Articles of Religion, 1801) The book is in the tradition known as “wisdom literature;” basically, it is a collection of ethical teachings closely resembling the canonical Book of Proverbs, and serving the same function.

This material in general does not deal with the “big questions” of life; it does not try to fathom the ultimate meaning of life or to answer the problem of evil or to explain why bad things happen to good people. Rather, the wisdom literature deals with the smaller issues of day-to-day life. “How should I handle my financial affairs? How should I relate to friends and colleagues? What about relationships to the opposite sex? What can I do to maintain a healthy marriage? How should I treat the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger, the aged? These are the sorts of things that [the wisdom literature] addresses.” (James Limburg, Working Preacher Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7) They were important questions in a society where social standing was based on an unwritten but rigid system of honor and shame. They are still important questions.

Sirach, written perhaps 150 to 200 years before Jesus’ time, is somewhat more theological than Proverbs, however, and in the passage we heard this morning does address the question of why some nations fail; the author’s answer is simple, “God’s judgment.”

The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.

What is the reason for this judgment? The pride and arrogance of their rulers and governors. To us, that may seem a bit harsh. But, as commentator Rich Procida reminds us, “These words as used in the Bible are not about feeling good about yourself and your accomplishments. They are not even about being conceited or immodest. The Book of Sirach describes arrogance as a form of hate, the devaluation of others in relation to oneself. Once devalued, evil is more easily done to others.” (Think Impunity: Understanding Arrogance and Pride in the Bible) Thus it is that Joshua ben Sira declares, “the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.” Those are strong words in the honor-and-shame social milieu of the Greco-Roman world!

While the Book of Proverbs does not go as far as ben Sira does to give the credit to God, it sounds a similar note declaring, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov 16:18, KJV) Thus, in giving counsel about those day-to-day issues, about relating to friends and colleagues, Proverbs offers this piece of advice: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” (Prov 25:6-7, NRS)

That should sound familiar. In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus is quoting from Proverbs, but his “parable” – a word Luke uses that we should make special note of – about being a banquet guest is clearly derived from this bit of wisdom.

Proverbs‘ and Jesus’ advice are about much more than etiquette, more than “example of life and instruction of manners.” As I said, they deal with how one got along in and how one advanced one’s social standing in the honor-and-shame society of the Greco-Roman world of which First Century Palestine was a part. In a nutshell, it worked like this: suppose I throw a dinner party and I invite ten people to that party, all of whom come. Those ten people are now indebted to me and must reciprocate by inviting me to a similar affair in their homes. If I have been paying attention, I will have invited at least one if not two or three persons who are of higher social standing than myself. So when I am invited into their home, my social credit is advanced; I gain social standing. At least, I do if I can figure out where to position myself in the banquet hall. Hence, the advice of Proverbs: don’t “stand in the place of the great,” otherwise you will be told to go to a lower place and you will be shamed. It is better to sit in Coach and be invited into First Class, in which event you will be honored. And, believe me, there were the local, then-popular equivalents of Hedda Hopper or Matt Drudge, The National Enquirer or People Magazine to make sure that one’s honor or shame became well known in the community.

Of course, we don’t behave this way today, do we? We don’t worry about where we sit at dinner parties or banquets, right?

Wrong! Of course we do. There are “life coaches” out there making a bundle teaching entrepreneurs and business executives and even clergy how to “network,” how to jockey for position at business lunches and conferences, doing for us exactly what the writers of the wisdom literature were doing for the young courtiers of the ancient world, young men seeking a position in the courts of kings and emperors.

And if you don’t believe that there is still worry and angst about where people are seated at banquets, then you have never sat with a bride and her mother figuring out where and with whom and how far from the head table wedding reception guests should be seated. The thing about these banquets in the Greco-Roman world is that there wasn’t anyone making the seating assignments; no bride or mother of the bride filling out place cards and making the decision where you would be placed. You had to figure that out for yourself, hence the jockeying for places, and thus the advice in the Book of Proverbs.

And Jesus’ counsel sounds a lot like that advice, too, doesn’t it? The wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, was written to teach those aspiring young courtiers how to behave in order to advance. Jesus’ takes that advice, applies it to everyone, and does so as a “parable.” Remember I said we needed to take special note that Luke uses that word to describe what Jesus says to his host and the other guests. A parable. So what is a parable?

Simply put, a parable is a type of analogy; it is a short, didactic story or statement in which one thing is used to illustrate or explain some other thing. And what is always the “other thing” in Jesus’ parables? The kingdom of heaven, the eternal and abundant life to which he as God Incarnate is constantly inviting his listeners.

So what does Luke mean by calling Jesus’ counsel a “parable”? And what is Jesus saying about the reign of God with these words? Is he suggesting that life in the kingdom is like the jockeying for position that goes on at dinner parties in the honor-and-shame culture of the Greco-Roman world? Of course not! Because Jesus’ parable differs from the advice of the wisdom literature in one significant detail.

Proverbs tells the young courtier to not take the seat of the great; in other words, its advice is to be careful during that jockeying for position that goes on at state banquets. What it does not say is what Jesus says: take the lowest ranked seat available! Jesus’ parable, his counsel to his host and the other dinner guests turns the conventional wisdom literature on its head. Proverbs is saying, “Don’t be too prideful, but take the position to which you are entitled.” Jesus is saying that no one is entitled, that in the kingdom of heaven everything is given as grace, as an invitation from God to come up higher.

This is typical of Jesus’ teaching: he often takes an accepted notion and extends it to make his point. Most often he does this with notions of sin – The accepted teaching is that adultery is sinful; according to Jesus, even thinking about it is a sin! The accepted teaching is that one should not murder; according to Jesus, don’t even get angry! The accepted teaching is to not break one’s oath; according to Jesus, don’t swear at all! (See Matthew 5:21-48) So here . . . the accepted teaching of the wisdom literature is to be careful about jockeying for social position; according to Jesus, don’t jockey at all! Take the lowest place! For sure, taking the seat of the great is prideful; for Jesus, taking any seat higher than the lowest is prideful and, as Joshua ben Sira wrote, “Pride was not created for human beings.”

Jesus tells his parable and then drives home his point when he turns to the host and says, “You really shouldn’t be throwing dinner parties for those who can repay you. You shouldn’t be playing this social networking game at all! When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I love the way Dr. David Lose, the president of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia describes this story:

Jesus [is] telling the guy who’s invited him to his home for supper – how gauche! – and who also just happens to be a leader of the Pharisees, that his (and our) pecking orders aren’t worth squat. More than that, Jesus is inviting this guy (and us) to defy the pecking order, to actually turn it on its head. (Dear Working Preacher, More Than Good Advice)

The Australian theologian Bill Loader says that Jesus’ words were “totally absurd and . . . meant to heard that way.” (First Thoughts) “It was a crazy idea,” he says, “designed to subvert the games being played. . . . . Jesus is subverting the whole enterprise which was driving his culture and its values.” Of course, his host and his fellow guests are the ones who are invested in that culture and its values; they are the winners in the pecking order so they are going to have to put Jesus to death. If his way of looking at things catches on, they are going to be toast!

Kill him they did, and his crazy idea hasn’t caught on quite yet; brides and their mothers are still making those seating decisions for wedding receptions; entrepreneurs and executives and clergy are still jockey for position at conferences. So, as Dr. Loader says, “we (and those with whom we work) may benefit from re-examining” our own behavior; Jesus “crazy idea . . . has huge application for today.”

The Bible’s condemnation of pride, whether in the wisdom literature or the prophets or the gospels or anywhere else, is not an insistence that we abandon self interest.

People who claim to be acting . . . without any self interest are frequently in a state of denial, so much so at times that they fail to recognise [or] to control their self interest – to their own harm and that of others. The gospel is not an appeal to abandon self love, but to believe in being loved and loving and to engage in it fully in all directions, including towards ourselves. [This] invitation to love is an invitation to life, made from the premise that life’s greatest reward is to live in love and that to do so is to participate in God’s being and to best fulfil our own. (Loader)

Remember that this is more than advice from a Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom; “this is Jesus, God’s Son, and he will come back, lifting his scarred hands in eternal blessing and benediction, inviting us [as he invited his host and the other guests] to a new vision and way of being where there is no first or last, no honor or shame, only each other, bound to one other in God’s abundant love and grace.” (Lose)

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.

Receiving Hospitality: Sermon for Pentecost 7, RCL Proper 9C (3 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 9C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 66:10-14; Psalm 66:1-8; Galatians 6:1-16; and St. Luke 10:1-11,16-20. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Cajun Stir Fried Liver and Okra (Dirty Rice)Take just a quick look at me and you will know that I like to eat, probably too much. I like to cook; I like to entertain and have dinner parties; I like to go to dinner parties; I like to enjoy good restaurants; I like to go to not very good restaurants, too. I like to eat. So when I read a story in which Jesus tells his followers, not once but twice, to eat, it makes me happy. Except for the part where he tells us to not be picky. “Eat and drink whatever they provide . . . eat what is set before you.” (Lk 10:7,8) Yeah . . . but, Jesus, what if it’s, like, okra or liver or raw oysters?

I have a friend who is a priest in the Anglican Church of Canada. He grew up in the cattle country of Alberta, studied and was ordained in Ontario, and took his first solo assignment on the coast of Labrador, where he served three small seaside parishes. On his arrival, he was quickly invited to dinner by nearly every family in the three congregations and scheduled several of these in rapid succession. Unlike me, my friend loves seafood and was looking forward to feasting on the fresh catch from off the maritime coast. But instead of fresh seafood, his first hosts fed him canned beef. So did the next . . . and the next . . . and at the end of his first week in Labrador, a place known for its fishing industry, he’d had four canned beef dinners.

He also got a call from the bishop at the end of that first week and, when asked how things were going, expressed his disappointment in these dinner offerings. The bishop laughed out loud and then explained to my friend that his parishioners were fisher folk. Seafood was cheap and abundant for them, so that’s what they had every day at nearly every meal. For them, a special occasion, like dinner with the vicar, required a special meal and “special” to them meant beef; most of them couldn’t afford fresh meat from the butcher, so next best was a canned beef roast. The priest might be disappointed, but his parishioners were paying him the highest compliment of hospitality, serving what for them was the most festive of meals. “Eat whatever they provide; eat what is set before you.” Receive hospitality graciously for you do not know the circumstances from whence it is extended.

Paul K. Palumbo, a Lutheran missionary, has written of his similar experience among the poorest of the poor in Latin America:

[E]very time we sat to eat rice and beans, we received . . . a steady diet of honor and humility. To be served rice and beans prepared over a stone oven fueled by wood in dirt-floor houses on the only little table in the house was an honor. To be told the stories of our host families’ lives over the meal was an honor. To have the tiny house in which we were guests rearranged so that we might have a bedroom to ourselves was an honor. The tendency, of course, was to raise one objection or another, that what was set before us was not to our taste or, more typically among our group, that it was too much for a poor family to spend on rich North Americans. These objections were both true, perhaps, but for the sake of the gift and for the sake of learning to receive, it was important to eat what was set before us. (Texts in Context: Eating What Is Set before You)

And that, I think, is the point of this admonition that Jesus gives the 70 (or the 72) not once but twice, to eat what they are provided; they are to learn to receive. They had a lot to give, teaching and admonition, the good news of the nearness of the kingdom of heaven, healing of infirmities both physical and spiritual, but they also had to learn, learn to receive.

That’s a very hard lesson to learn. As some of you know, my wife was hospitalized for several days week before last and being with her in the hospital reminded me of my own experiences being a patient, and how difficult that is! You’re lying in bed (a strange electrical bed all sorts of controls that, even if you can reach them, you can’t figure out). Usually you’re tethered by a needle in your arm to a bag of something hanging out of reach behind your head; you may be wired up to some sort of monitor or connected by a plastic tube to an oxygen valve in the wall. You can’t even get out of bed without assistance, let alone do anything else. You can’t just go to the kitchen and make yourself a meal or a late-night TV snack. You can’t wander down the hall to find something to read in the next room. You can’t do anything for yourself. You must receive the ministrations, the ministry of others. And some of us are just not very good at that because we’ve never learned how to do it. We hear Paul tell the Galatians, “Bear one another’s burdens,” and what we understand is that we must be the burden-bearers; we seldom, if ever, understand that sometimes we must receive the gift of others bearing our burdens.

This is why, instead of sending his messengers out fully equipped and prepared, Jesus sends them with “no purse, no bag, [not even] sandals,” (Lk 10:4) and instructs them to “eat whatever is put before you.” In order to learn to receive, we have to eat whatever we are served, even if it is our own sense of self-sufficiency; we have to swallow our pride and in doing so we receive a precious gift.

Melissa Bane Sevier is a Presbyterian pastor who writes of her experience traveling abroad as an illustration of this gospel passage:

Jesus tells the seventy to receive whatever hospitality is offered. That’s odd. We expect to be told to share hospitality, not to receive it. How happy we are when someone thanks us for a nice meal or is grateful to have a place to stay. When the worshiping community extends hospitality to the stranger, the person on the margins, the immigrant, that community finds itself warmed and renewed by the act of giving.

And yet, receiving is also a gift to oneself and to the giver. Some of the most memorable travel moments I’ve ever experienced happened in some of the poorest places, when my friends and I were offered a simple meal of homemade tortillas, bananas and papayas picked from village trees, and ice cold Coke bought from the local tienda.

Thousands of miles from home, we were served a meal that transcended language and culture with its hospitality and welcome. It was more than we could have asked or expected, and it made us feel at home.

Jesus knew what he was doing when he sent out the seventy in twos. We don’t have to go to a foreign country to be on the journey together. We share memories and adventures. Sometimes we remember the wolves, and can laugh together at the ones who were mean but not really dangerous. We encourage each other to watch out for the truly alarming. But mostly, we talk about those lovely situations where we were given incredible hospitality, where we were welcomed. Sometimes it is hard for us to accept those gifts of hospitality, for we have been trained to give rather than to receive. But Jesus wanted the seventy to know the joy of receiving. (Melissa Bane Sevier, Two-Way Blessing)

And why do we have to learn this joy, this lesson of receiving from others?

Do you remember the old television show All In The Family. The main character, Archie Bunker, was fond of saying, “As the Good Book says . . . .” and then he would quote Poor Richard’s Almanac, or an Aesop’s Fable, or Ann Landers, or any number of other sources, but never anything that actually came out of Scripture. How many of us grew up believing that “God helps those who help themselves” was straight out of the Bible? Well . . . it isn’t! And, in fact, it’s diametrically opposed to the lessons of Scripture! “There is no king that can be saved by a mighty army; a strong man is not delivered by his great strength,” says the Psalmist (33:16; BCP version). In Proverbs we read, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.” (3:5, NRS) And again the Psalmist says, “It is better to rely on the Lord than to put any trust in flesh,” (118:8, BCP version) even – or perhaps especially – our own!

We have to give up our sense of self-sufficiency; we have to learn to receive the ministry of others so that we can receive the ministry of God, so that we can trust in the Lord with all our heart. “For thus says the Lord:

I will extend prosperity to [Jerusalem] like a river,
and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm,
and dandled on her knees.
As a mother comforts her child,
so I will comfort you;
you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
your bodies shall flourish like the grass . . . .
(Is 66:12-13)

Theologian Elizabeth Webb (an Episcopalian, by the way) writes about this passage from the Book of Isaiah, echoing Pastor Sevier’s observation that the joy of receiving hospitality “makes us feel at home:”

The comfort that Mother God provides for her people is the comfort of home; restoring the people to the place they belong, rebuilding their ruins, and washing them in riches and security (see also 49:13, 51:13, 52:9, and 54:11). Under God’s nurturing care, the very bodies and spirits of God’s people receive restoration (verse 14).

The word translated “bodies” in the NRSV should more properly be translated “bones,” which speaks to the sense that despair can settle in and take over our very essence, and which emphasizes that God can reach in and restore that essence to joy. The home in this world that God provides for us is within the circle of God’s own arms, and in that place the tired old bones of humanity flourish again. Deep within our bones we are weary and broken, and deep within our bones God’s nurturing love reaches in and restores.

Joy and comfort. Milk and water. Weary bones refreshed and restored. In the midst of the thundering of condemnation and retribution, it is this quiet passage of maternal care and human delight that gestures more particularly to the presence of God with God’s people that their bone-tired bodies and spirits might flourish again, like the grass. (Elizabeth Webb, Commentary on Isaiah 66:10-14)

It is precisely that sort of internal transformation that Paul writes about in today’s passage from the Letter to the Galatians when he says that, by “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, . . . the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” In their book The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary (HarperCollins:New York, 2010), Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, argue that what Paul means is that he has left behind “the world of imperial normalcy,” the world characterized by “‘domination systems,’ societies ruled by a few who used their power, wealth, and ‘wisdom’ to shape the social system in their own self-interest.” (Pg 136)

In its place, transformed by God’s maternal hospitality in Jesus, Paul embarks on what Prof. Sarah Henrich calls the “crazy project” of imagining a world where human beings “eschew the measurements of value used in the everyday world,” where people “devote themselves to one another’s well being, confident that there would be others who would care for them.” In other words, Paul urges the Galatians and us to imagine (and create!) a world where we have learned the lesson of receiving hospitality, where we know how to accept the ministration and the ministry of others, and thus can receive the maternal hospitality of God.

Henrich writes:

Perhaps the best way to fire our imaginations and live in accord with [Paul’s vision] requires us to do the burden bearing more graciously. That is, we are privileged to hear one another’s dreams and desires, to continuously extend the tables at which we sit, the suppers we call Holy, to make room for folk who will see gifts and challenges that surprise us. In listening, in surprise, in hospitality for a moment we catch a richer glimpse of God’s reality and find the energy of the Spirit, lest we grow weary. (Sarah Henrich, Commentary on Galatians 6:[1-6]7-16)

“Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” When you enter a house, say first “Peace to this house!” “Eat and drink what is provided; eat what is set before you.” It may be okra or oysters or canned beef, but whatever it is it will be more than you could have asked or expected, and it will make you feel at home. Receive from others the gift of their bearing your burdens, and you will know the comfort that Mother God provides for her people. “As a mother comforts her child, so [God] will comfort you;” your bone-tired body and spirit will flourish again; and your name will be written in heaven. Amen.

(Note: The accompanying illustration is a plate of Cajun “Dirty, Dirty Rice” which includes sautéed pork liver and okra. This is definitely not something I would ever want to eat, but my readers may be interested. The recipe can be found here.)

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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.

More Than Much Fine Gold: Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 19B – 13 September 2015

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A sermon offered on Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 19B, Track 1, RCL), September 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proverbs 1:20-33, Psalm 19, James 3:1-12, and Mark 8:27-38. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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GoldSo here’s a thing that happened this week . . . . We prepared the bulletins for today; both the church secretary and I reviewed them and proof-read them and only after they’d been copied and folded that I saw something out of order with today’s Psalm (as printed in the bulletin). It’s Verse 10….

There’s nothing really wrong with it, but the verse number, you see, is larger than the numbers of all the other verses. We set the type size for the verse numbers at 10 pt, but that one verse number didn’t get set that way . . . it’s 14 pt; stands out like a sore thumb, calls attention to the verse: “More to be desired are they [the statutes and judgments of God] than gold, more than much fine gold . . . . ” I took that as a sign that I should talk about gold this morning, that I should talk about money, and that seemed like a good idea because next week you will be receiving the annual pledge campaign flier.

On the other hand, I’d rather talk about today’s gospel in which Jesus asks his closest companions, “Who do people say that I am?” to which they give a variety of answers, but then he really puts them on the spot with his follow-up question: “But who do you say that I am?” Peter, of course, comes up with a correct answer, but this is a question which is never completely answered, is it?

It’s funny, but when I read this particular story I can’t help thinking of The Logical Song by the rock group Supertramp. The refrain of the song goes:

There are times when all the world’s asleep,
The questions run so deep
For such a simple man.
Won’t you please, please tell me what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Please tell me who I am.

Now I know that the pleading, lost, confused, and rebellious attitude of the singer of the song is not the attitude of Jesus in his conversation with the disciples, but the lyric is right that this is a question that runs deep, as absurd as it may sound. Jesus asks us this question on a regular basis: “Tell me what you’ve learned. Tell me who I am to you.”

Jesus first asks the twelve, “What have you learned? What’s public saying about me?” But he doesn’t stop with asking about public opinion. He asks them for a personal position: “Who do you say that I am?”

We live in a pluralistic society; we live in a time in which there are many religious choices, and we have much to learn from the many others, different sorts of Christians as well as those of other faiths and those of none, all the variety of persons among whom we live and with whom we interact. In this pluralistic milieu we also have much to share with these others and we need to be able to give an account of our own religious choice. We have chosen to follow Christ. We have chosen to follow Christ in a particular way. Why? Who is Jesus to us?

Paul, in the letter to the Ephesians, insists that he is the model of our spiritual maturity, the gauge (if you will) of our spiritual development: it is our calling, Paul insists, to “come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Mark’s way of making this same point is to quote Jesus as saying to us, as he said to Peter and the other disciples, “Deny [your]selves and take up [your] cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

Jesus’ question is really not about his identity, at all. It’s really about ours. When each of us answers his question, what we respond says more about our self than it can ever say about Jesus. Who are we becoming as we follow him, as we come “to the measure of the full stature of Christ,” as we live into his identity that resides within us? “Who do you say that I am?” is a question about our identities and our priorities.

It is often said if you want to know your real priorities, look at two things: your appointment book and your checkbook. These days you might look at your Google calendar and your online bank account statement, or the calendar app on your smartphone and your credit card statement. Whatever. The point is that your priorities are always going to be reflected in the way you spend your resources: your time, your talents and abilities, your money, your energy. Jesus said it plainly: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Lk 12:34). Where your gold is, there are your priorities.

Jesus says, “These are the priorities: Deny yourself and take up the cross and follow me.”

A theology of the cross or a theology of self-denial does not mean a contrived humility or a self-sacrificing martyrdom; we do not follow Jesus, we do not take up our cross, we do not grow into the full stature of Christ by demeaning ourselves. A true theology of the cross, a true denial of self means that we are called to selflessness, to an unselfishness in which we do the very best we can with the treasure, the talents, the abilities, and the energy God gives us. To “deny oneself” and take up one’s cross means to keep one’s priorities in harmony with what Jesus told us in the two “great commandments” — love God and love your neighbor (Mk 12:28-31).

The commandment[s] of the Lord [are] clear
and give light to the eyes.
The judgments of the Lord are true
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
more than much fine gold . . . .

So, I guess I ended up talking about money after all, and that probably is a good idea because this next week you will be receiving your annual pledge card for 2016.

Late at night, when all the world’s asleep,
And the questions run so deep
When you fill out next year’s card.
Won’t you please, please tell us what you’ve learned
I know it sounds absurd
Tell Jesus who he is; tell him who you are.

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.

Of Dogs and Lives that Matter: Sermon for Pentecost 15 (Proper 18B) – 6 September 2015

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A sermon offered on Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18B, Track 1, RCL), September 6, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proverbs 22:1-2,8-9,22-23; Psalm 125; James 2:1-17; Mark 7:24-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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syrophenician woman icon“Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.” Mark’s Gospel can be infuriating at times. This introduction to the story of the Syrophoenician woman is definitely one of those times, two short sentences which leave us wanting to know so much more. We can, I think, understand why Jesus might not want anyone to know he was in the place; we frequently observe him throughout the Gospels trying to find some “down-time,” some privacy, some solitude to be with God. But why did he set out and go “to the region of Tyre?”

Tyre was a Greek commercial center in southern Lebanon. For the Jews of First Century Palestine it was just beyond the northernmost extent of their province; “the region of Tyre” was where Jews and Gentiles frequently interacted, a frankly uncomfortable situation for Jews whose religion and law forbade that, whose racial and religious prejudices informed them that they were God’s chosen and that all other persons were unclean, whose sense of self and national importance required that they separate themselves from Gentiles. It was not the sort of place one would have expected the Jewish Messiah to go. So why is he there?

“He entered a house . . . “ Whose?!? Why!?! There are just all sorts of questions that erupt from those four short words.

Mark leaves us wanting so much more information! It’s infuriating.

Of course, Mark leaves out those details that he doesn’t think important. What’s crucial for Mark is the story of the interaction between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, probably the most uncomfortable, the most disturbing story about Jesus in all of the Gospel literature.

The story is simple and brief. A non-Jewish woman who has heard of Jesus’ power as a healer comes seeking aid for her daughter. Mark specifically identifies her as a Syrophoenician, a Greek-speaking resident of what we now call Syria. She has, perhaps, come from Syria to the Mediterranean with her child seeking a better life and now she needs help. Jesus dismisses her; to be honest, he blows her off. “I’m here for the Jewish children,” he says, “not you Gentile dogs.” He’s not just dismissive; he’s rude. He’s not just rude; he’s insulting! “But even the dogs,” she replies in the face of his insult, “even the dogs get the children’s scraps.”

My friend David Henson, an Episcopal priest and journalist, writes of this story:

Jesus uttered an ethnic slur.

To dismiss a desperate woman with a seriously sick child.

In this week’s gospel text, in the Black Lives Matter era, I think we have to start with that disturbing and disorienting fact.

Our immediate response likely is, “Of course not! Jesus couldn’t possibly have uttered a slur!” But Jesus’ exchange with the Syrophoenician woman seems to tell a different story. No matter what theological tap dance can avoid it: Jesus calls the unnamed woman a dog, an ethnic slur common at the time.

To be clear, while there is some debate about the social and cultural dynamics at work here, Jesus holds all the power in this exchange. The woman doesn’t approach with arrogance or a sense of entitlement associated with wealth or privilege. Rather she comes to him in the most human way possible, desperate and pleading for her daughter. And he responds by dehumanizing her with ethnic prejudice, if not bigotry. In our modern terms, we know that power plus prejudice equals racism. (In Patheos “Edges of Faith” Blog.)

I believe David is right to link this story to the refrain “Black Lives Matter” which we have begun to hear with increasing fervor and increasing frequency, because that is exactly what this woman says to Jesus: “Syrophoenician Lives Matter” . . . . and Jesus responds out of his religion which forbade interaction with non-Jews, out of the racial and religious prejudices which informed his society that Jews were God’s chosen and that all other persons were unclean, out of that sense of self and national importance that required that he and all Jews separate themselves from Gentiles. When we hear “Black Lives Matter,” we are likely to do very much the same thing.

More than once I have heard members of my race and economic class respond with the comeback “All lives matter” and at first that made sense to me. Then I read an editorial in which was written:

If I say, “Black lives matter,” and you think I mean, “Black lives matter more than others,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If I say, “White privilege is real and it means white people have some unearned social advantages just because they’re white,” and you think I mean, “White privilege is real and it means white people should be ashamed of themselves just because they’re white,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If I say, “We have a problem with institutionalized racism in our legal system,” and you think I mean, “We have a problem with everyone being racist in our legal system,” we’re having a misunderstanding.

If we are having these misunderstandings, where are they coming from and what can we do about them?

(Note: The source is an internet meme seen on Facebook and Pinterest; the origin of the text is unknown.)

“Sir,” said the Syrophoenician woman, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs. [We are having a misunderstanding, where is it coming from and what can we do about it?]”

I came to realize “All lives matter” is a retort that dilutes and even negates the assertion that “black lives matter.”

We generally do not respond in that way when others make claim to particularity. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor,” we don’t rise up and insist “No, Jesus, blessed is everybody in every economic class.” When the Buddha says, “The enlightened one must delight in the forest,” we don’t dismiss him with “No, Siddhartha, one should delight in the desert and the meadow, as well” We don’t because we realize that their specificity has a point; the specific does not negate the general or the other, but it does highlight the particular. “Blessed are the poor” highlights the plight of those who lack; “Delight in the forest” draws attention to the interconnections of all life.

“Black lives matter” underscores the sad fact that, for many, black lives do NOT matter, and offering “All lives matter” as a response invalidates that specific and particular realization. Of course, all lives matter, but in our contemporary social circumstance specifically noting that black lives matter has particular currency and validity.

To respond “All lives matter” drowns the specificity of the assertion in an undifferentiated sea of sameness and unrecognizability which we know darn good and well really does not exist! The claim of the particular cannot be overwhelmed by the flood of the undefined, and we are wrong to respond in that way, just as wrong as Jesus came to know himself to have been in calling the woman a dog!

Early last week the news media and social media were flooded with pictures of three-year-old Aylan Kurbi, and later with photos of his five-year-old brother Galip and their mother Rehan. Like the woman in our Gospel story today, a mother and her children come from Syria to the Mediterranean seeking a better life, three refugees fleeing their own war-torn and atrocity-ravaged country, trying to get to Europe and from there to Canada where Aylan’s aunt and uncle live and were preparing a new life for them. They didn’t make it. Whatever vessel they were in capsized and they drowned, Aylan’s little body washing up onto the beach of a Turkish resort.

Aylan KurbiAs photos of his lifeless body laying face down in the sand made their way instantaneously around the world, an international hew and cry was heard; in a phrase, the world said, “Refugees’ lives matter! Syrian lives matter!” In response to the death of that one, specific little boy, no one was heard to say, “All lives matter” . . . .

It is easy for us to look across the wide ocean to the Middle East and Europe, and diagnose the social ills, the evil spirits, and the political injustices that led to Aylan’s death; it is less easy for us to acknowledge and diagnose in our own country what Presiding Bishop Katharine and President Jennings called the “structures that bear witness to unjust centuries of the evils of white privilege, systemic racism, and oppression that are not yet consigned to history.” (A Letter to the Episcopal Church. Note: The letter was read in full to the congregation prior to the service.) As Jesus noted, it is much easier to see our neighbors’ problems than our own, but he advises us: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Lk 6:41-42, cf Mt 7:4-5)

Mark’s Gospel can be infuriating at times, his ending to the story of the Syrophoenician woman no less so than its introduction. Jesus listened to the Syrophoenician woman, heard the truth of her Gentile reality, and realized the brokenness of his own Jewish milieu: “For saying that,” he tells her, “you may go – the demon has left your daughter.” Going home she finds that to be so and that’s where Mark ends the tale; he gives us not a single additional detail. In the next paragraph, Jesus is forty miles away somewhere east of the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis, another place with that troublesome intermixture of Jews and Gentiles.

While he is there, another soul in need of help is brought to him, a deaf man with a speech impediment. Mark, having been so careful in the last story to make sure that his readers understand that the woman seeking help for her daughter was a Gentile, completely ignores this man’s ethnicity; but Mark leaves out details that he considers unimportant. Although this story takes place in exactly the same sort of social situation as the last – Jews and Gentiles living side-by-side in that uneasy mix, the Jews here no less bound by those laws of separation, no less steeped in those racial and religious prejudices of chosenness and uncleanness – those differences no longer matter. Jesus’ eyes and ears and heart having been opened by the Syrophoenician woman’s plea; he ministers to the deaf man without regard to whether he is Jew or Gentile. He “put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” I wonder if he thought about how his own understanding of his messianic ministry had been opened up by the woman in Tyre.

“Racism will not end with the passage of legislation alone; it will also require a change of heart and thinking,” our leaders quoted AME Bishop Jackson. It will require that our ears be opened, that we remove the logs from our eyes, and that we confess and repent of the sin of racism, including those times when we have simply ignored it, tolerated it, accepted it, or even unknowingly benefited from it. And lest any of us think that we have nothing in this way to confess, just ponder briefly the words we heard from James’ epistle this morning:

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

[Silence]

“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor[, Jews and Gentiles, blacks and whites, women and men, Syrians and Europeans, Christians and Muslims] have this in common: the Lord is the maker of them all.”

Yes, all lives matter.

All lives matter because . . . .

Black lives matter.

Syrian lives matter.

Refugees’ lives matter.

Aylan Kurbi’s life mattered.

The Syrophoenician woman’s daughter’s life mattered.

“Even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs,” and “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”

Let us understand and affirm that the call to pray and act for racial reconciliation, to pray and act for an end to racism in our world and in our country, is integral to our witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to our living into the demands of our Baptismal Covenant. “[We] do well if [we] really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

Let us pray:

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Prayer for Social Justice, BCP 1979, page 823)

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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.

Shrove Tuesday Confession – From the Daily Office – March 4, 2014

From the Book of Proverbs:

Thus says the man: I am weary, O God,
I am weary, O God. How can I prevail?
Surely I am too stupid to be human;
I do not have human understanding.
I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the holy ones.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is the person’s name?
And what is the name of the person’s child?
Surely you know!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Proverbs 30:1b-4 (NRSV) – March 4, 2014.)

Stained Glass Window Portraying ConfessionI am later than usual committing to “paper” my thoughts on a portion of today’s readings, but these first verses of the lesson from Proverbs have been with me all day. Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before the season of Lent begins, a day on which in the 2,000-year tradition of the church the faithful are encouraged to meet with a priest and make their confessions. The name, “Shrove Tuesday,” comes from the old English verb “to shrive,” which means to absolve of sin.

Several days ago I sent out an email to the members of my parish advising them that they could, if they would like, make an appointment to offer their confession in the formal rite of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I make that invitation every year. In ten years in this parish not a single person has approached me to hear their confession. I’m not surprised; the piety and devotional practice of what is, essentially, a Midwestern Protestant congregation is very different from the nosebleed-high, bells-and-smells, Anglo-Catholic piety and practice of my initial formation as an Episcopalian. These folks are very like my southern Methodist grandparents for whom the very idea of baring their souls to a priest was anathema.

So it’s been a very long time since I have heard someone say to God, through me as a priest, “I am weary, O God, I am weary. I am too stupid; I have not learned wisdom.” That, really, is what every confession boils down to — a recognition that I am burdened by something really incredibly stupid that I have done or failed to do, an acknowledgement that the result of that has wounded my spirit, and an action taken in hopes of relieving the pain of that wound. It isn’t necessary to do this in the formal confines of the confessional, nor is it necessary to do it in the presence of another human being. But sometimes it helps. Confession, like any prayer, is a conversation between the penitent and God; the confessor is there only to aid in the communication.

I’ve had people tell me that they’ve never done (or failed to do) anything that requires confession. I’m dumbfounded when I hear that . . . because I know for sure that I have! And I’ve heard enough confessions in my years as God’s priest to know that I’m not alone and my experience of my own sinfulness and stupidity (and that of others) pretty much convinces me that it is a universal human condition. We all, every single one of us, fall short of the mark. Every single one of us is in debt to God in some way. Very few of us (and certainly no one I know) has ascended to heaven; very few of us can gather the wind in our hands; very few of us can wrap the waters in their garments; and none of us established the ends of the earth. Perfection and universal knowledge is the providence of only one or two . . . definitely not me and, I’m pretty sure, not of anyone I’ve ever met on this earth.

It’s appropriate to acknowledge that occasionally, even if only once a year.

And now I must confess that I didn’t make an appointment with a priest to make my confession this year. I knew what my day would be like; I knew what was on my itinerary through this day. I started early and didn’t write this, my daily meditation, at the usual time — in fact, I didn’t think I’d write one at all. But something I thought would take more of my time than it did is now accomplished and I find myself with a few minutes to spare. So in the absence of a private time with my confessor . . .

Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste.

Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . .

[Well, let’s just say that there have been some times when I have been too stupid to be human, when I have not had human understanding, when I have not learned wisdom . . . ]

Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. (BCP 1979, page 450)

I haven’t done any of those things the author of proverbs asks about, but I do know who has, and I know the name of that Person’s Child. And knowing that, I know that I am shriven. Thanks be to God!

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

Get Wisdom – From the Daily Office – February 25, 2014

From the Book of Proverbs:

Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away
from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight.
Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a fair garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Proverbs 4:5-9 (NRSV) – February 24, 2014.)

Christa by Edwina SandysMy favorite thing in the Book of Proverbs is the personification of Lady Wisdom. Perhaps because of the further development of her portrait in Chapter 8, where she is said to have been with God in the moments of creation, “daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (vv. 30-31), I see her as young, slender, and athletic, her rejoicing being manifest as dance.

Many scholars have pointed out that in pre-Christian Judaism, wisdom (sophia) and word (logos) were nearly synonymous alternative descriptions of the creative and immanent power of God. Some have suggested that the Prologue to John’s Gospel could have been written: “In the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God.” However, John — as either proponent or victim of patriarchy (or both) — chose to use word rather than wisdom because of this personification of Lady Wisdom. Perhaps John felt it would have been awkward to speak of a female figure “being made flesh” in Jesus, a male.

Several years ago, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City created quite a stir by exhibiting a crucifix displaying a nude female body as the Christ figure — Christa by Edwina Sandys. Parks Morton, the dean of the cathedral, said at the time, “Christa simply reminded viewers that women as well as men are called upon to share the suffering of Christ.” I think, however, that the sculpture did more than that. It challenged preconceptions and established theologies; it made graphically visible the inherent sexism in the notion that the Second Person of the Trinity is “eternally masculine” as some Orthodox theologians argue.

I’ve often wondered how the Christian faith might have developed if John had embraced that awkwardness and used the term wisdom, instead. He did not, but we still can. We can still “get wisdom; get insight,” and she will lead us “in the paths of uprightness.” (Prov. 4:11) Along those paths we still have much to see, much to learn.

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

The Logos Became Meat – Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas – December 29, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 29, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Christmas 1A: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7; and John 1:1-18. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Selection of Raw MeatsOne of my favorite Christmas hymns is O Come, All Ye Faithful. The last verse of the hymn is:

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

The last line is derived from our Gospel lesson this morning, from prologue to the Fourth Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” These verses from the prologue to the Fourth Gospel are among the most beautiful, the most familiar, and the most abstract sentences in Scripture.

Although tradition tells us that the Fourth Gospel was written by the Apostle John, it’s actually highly unlikely that this is true. There are two basic reasons for this.

First of all, the development of the New Testament. A briefly sketched timeline of it would be something like this:

AD 30-33: Jesus is crucified and buried; he rises form the dead, appears to many over a period of about seven weeks; he ascends. The story of this is spread by word of mouth for several years and the “Jesus movement” grows as a sect within Judaism.

AD 35-40: Saul, a Pharisee, becomes a persecutor of the church, but is later converted and becomes Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, founding churches in several Gentile communities.

AD 45-60: Paul produces the first written materials of what becomes the New Testament, his epistles (letters) to the various churches. These are written basically to solve problems that have arisen in the new Christian congregations.

AD 60-70: As those who personally knew Jesus begin to die, preservation of the story becomes important and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are produced; Mark is probably the first one written. In addition, more letters (the Catholic epistles of Jude, James, 1-3 John, the “letter” to the Hebrews, and so forth) begin to be produced.

AD 85-100: The Fourth Gospel is written.

Now let’s just think about this. Sometime during the third decade of the Christian era, Jesus called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to be among his disciples. They were working men, possibly as young as 16, more likely in their early 20s, not too much different in age from Jesus himself. This would mean that by the time the Fourth Gospel was written, John would have been about 80 years old! That would have been more than uncommon in that day and age. It is very unlikely that he lived that long. I know that Christian tradition insists that John was the youngest of the disciples and lived to the ripe, old age of 98, but there is truly no evidence of that.

I believe the tradition may be accurate that the Fourth Gospel is based on the memories of John the Apostle, perhaps told (and possibly re-told) to someone who then built the Fourth Gospel from them, but I’m not convinced that John actually wrote this book.

The second reason for disbelieving the traditional attribution of the Fourth Gospel to the Apostle John is its literary style and erudition. Like all of the New Testament, it was written Greek, the common trade and international language of the First Century Roman Empire. Its Greek and its theology are surprisingly sophisticated; this prologue, which the lectionary makes our Gospel Lesson not only for today but also includes in one of the three sets of readings that can be used on Christmas, sets the tone. Its initial verse is probably the most abstract piece of prose in the whole of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. It is a philosophical statement worthy of the greats of Greek philosophy. John the Apostle was a simple Galilean fisherman! It’s possible that he became a scholar of Greek philosophy and an abstract theologian in later life, but somehow . . . I just don’t think that likely.

So I don’t believe this Gospel was written by John the Apostle, the hot-tempered son of a Galilean fisherman. Instead, I believe it was written by an educated and erudite man, possibly a Greek-speaking Jew of the diaspora familiar with the traditions and texts of Greek philosophy. And from the pen of this man we have this beautiful but abstract explanation of the incarnation of God:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The first verse could very easily have been written by a Greek philosopher living 500 or 600 years earlier. The concept of “the Word” or “the Logos” (to use the original Greek) was first introduced into Greek philosophy by Heraclitus in the Sixth Century BC. In his writings, the Logos seems to be a sort of independent, universal and ideal wisdom according to which all things come to pass, but to which humans cannot attain despite their best efforts. He wrote, “This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds….”

For Aristotle, the Logos is a universal reason or rationality, movement toward which is the optimum activity of the human soul and should be the aim of all deliberate human action. Not long after Aristotle, the Stoic philosophers, starting with Zino of Citium, conceived of the Logos as an active reason pervading and animating the universe; they spoke of a logos spermatikos, the generative principle of the Universe which creates and takes back all things. They seem to have equated it with a psyche kosmou or “soul of the world,” and believed it to be the only vital force in the universe.

The author of the Fourth Gospel apparently knew of this Greek philosophical tradition and reaches into it to explain how it is that God became incarnate (I’ll come back to that word, incarnation, in a moment). It’s as if he’s consciously building a bridge between the philosophical world of the Greeks and the theological world of the Jews. There was precedent for doing so; the Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora had used the term Logos in translating the Hebrew Scripture’s description of God’s creative activity, as for example in Psalm 33: “By the word (logos) of the LORD were the heavens made. . . .” (v. 6a) The Septuagint’s translators had used, but not expounded upon, the concept of the Logos, and — truth be told — the Greek and Jewish uses and understandings of the word were different.

For the Greeks there was a sharp distinction between the ideal, spiritual world and the mundane, physical world (Plato and Socrates with the “theory of forms,” which taught that there were unattainable ideal forms for every thing and every idea of which the things and ideas in the material world are only “shadows,” are perhaps the extreme case of this). The idea that the Logos, the creative force in the universe, might dirty itself with the material world, was unthinkable; the Logos might communicate directly with human beings, but entering the material world was out of the question. For the Jews, on the other hand, it was no problem to think that God might involve himself in the physical world, after all the Garden of Eden story portrait God as working with dust and clay, molding it with his own hands and breathing life into it from his own lips. For them, the direct communication was a problem! God spoke to humankind through intermediaries, through angels or through specially chosen people (Moses and the prophets); regular folks didn’t talk to God face to face. If a human heard the Logos of God directly, that human would die!

The Fourth Gospel takes on both and builds a bridge between them in this prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

In the second of these verses, the author of John’s Gospel asserts (scandalously for the Greeks) that the ideal, the Logos, “became flesh,” sullied itself by taking on earthly form, and (scandalously for the Jews) “lived among us,” as one of us, someone anyone could talk to face to face, a man named Jesus.

The Greek translated as “became flesh” is rather more graphic than our lovely Jacobean archaic translation preserved through the centuries would suggest. Since the King James Version’s translation of these words as “the Word was made flesh” that (or the even more sterile “became human”) has been the typical English rendering of the Greek Kai ho logos sarx egeneto. The important word here is sarx. It might better be translated as “meat,” which would actually be how a speaker of Jacobean English would have understood the term “flesh,” as Strong’s New Testament Lexicon puts it, “the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood,” the part used as food. Meat!

Today is the fifth day of Christmas . . . what should you have received from your “true love” today? Five gold rings! There is a legend that the song from which that is take, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was a catechetical device used by Roman Catholics in England and Ireland at a time when their religion was illegal; each of the days and each of the gifts is said to represent in code a particular lesson. A partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus; two turtle doves, the Old and New Testaments; three french hens, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; four colley birds, the four gospels; five golden rings, the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Nice legend, not true! I recently read a musicological analysis of the song suggesting that, instead, the song is all about feasting and partying, and identifying the gifts as the dishes or entertainments that would be offered at a Christmas banquet. According to that author, the five golden rings are the rings on the neck of an English pheasant! The song is all about the meat served at the feast honoring the birth of the God who becomes meat. . . .

Those who speak a little Spanish will be familiar with the word carne, as in carne asada (which means “grilled meat”). Remember that when you think of the “in – carne – tion.” And remember that this incarnate God would later take a loaf of bread and say, “This is my body” of which we are instructed to eat. John’s Gospel, from these very first words in the prologue, is eucharistic in emphasis, insisting that the irruption of the Logos is for our nourishment. An absolute scandal to both Jews and Greeks! (The author of John seems intent on living up to Paul’s assertion that the Gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” [1 Cor. 1:23])

And then there is that notion that this God who becomes flesh “lived among us,” a very weak translation of the original Greek which means something on the order of “and pitched his tent among us.” Here, the author is reaching back into Jewish history, in to the story of the Exodus. During those forty years in the desert, God was present with the Hebrews in the form of a pillar of fire and cloud which went before them to show them the way, occasionally behind them to guard them from harm, and when they would stop the pillar would stop and rest over the Ark of the Covenant. They were instructed to build a tent to house the Ark, a very elaborate tent but still, just a tent. When they encamped, they were to set it up and place the Ark inside of it. Once it was so housed, only Moses or his brother Aaron the high priest could approach it. Now, however, this enfleshed God was pitching his own tent and living among his people as one of them, someone to whom anyone had access, a man named Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The prologue to the Fourth Gospel tells us that the Word was the light of creation shining in the darkness, that the Word became flesh that that light might be kindled in all people. There are bible scholars who assert that John was drawing on the wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures in which Wisdom is personified and portrayed as working with God in the Creation:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
(Proverbs 8:27-31)

I think the prophet Zephaniah might have been drawing on that wisdom image, as well, when he wrote, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zeph. 3:17b)

And I wonder if the author of the Fourth Gospel might have alternatively used that image . . . or maybe he just left it for us to do. Could we not paraphrase the prologue:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the song of all people. The song sings in the silence, and the silence did not overcome it.

And could we not say, “And the Word was made flesh, and sang his song among us?” Someone with whom anyone might sing along, a man named Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Two short, simply-stated verses from the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, perhaps the most abstract, meaning-laden of verses. I don’t think a simple fisherman from Galilee wrote them, though perhaps he did. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter who wrote them. If we believe they were inspired by God and preserved by the church in the canon of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we must take them seriously and seek to understand them. No amount of exposition in a sermon can unlock them for you, but I offer you these bits and pieces of information about their background with the encouragement to ponder them, to contemplate them, to pray and meditate about them. In them there is the reason for and the promise of the birth we celebrate in this season.

And it is a season! Despite the fact that the stores started their “after Christmas” sales on December 26, despite the fact that the radio stations are no longer playing Christmas carols, despite the fact that there are no more holiday movies playing on television, it is still Christmas. As I said, this is the fifth day of Christmas, the first of two Sundays in the season!

But I will give the stores and the broadcasters their way for a moment and close with a poem about Christmas being over, a poem by Howard Thurman, sometime dean of the chapels at both Boston University and Howard University, and an honorary canon of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It is entitled The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

“To make music in the heart.” Do you ever sing to yourself? I do that a lot. I don’t sing out loud much, but when I’m driving or vacuuming, shoveling snow or doing yard work, I often sing to myself, inside my own head, in my own heart. And I don’t just hum tunes, I sing the words. I sing of the Word incarnate: “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come, let us adore him.”

As you contemplate the Word made flesh, the light shining in the darkness, the song singing in the silence, pitching his tent and singing his song among us, may your heart be filled with song and may that song empower you to do the work of Christmas. Amen.

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

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