That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Romans (page 2 of 8)

Once to Every Man & Nation – Sermon for Proper 9A – July 9, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 9A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; and St. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was a lawyer, poet, college professor, and diplomat in the middle of the 19th Century. He graduated from Harvard College at the age of 19 in 1838, and was called to the Bar two years later in 1840. In 1855, he succeeded his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Harvard. He is best remembered as one of the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who gained popularity in the first half of the 19th-Century.

Lowell’s political opinions often found expression in his poetry, and the old hymn we know as Once to Every Man and Nation is a part of one example. The words are originally from a much longer poem entitled The Present Crisis published in The Boston Courier in 1845 in protest of the impending U.S. war with Mexico. Some of Lowell’s words were rearranged by Garrett Horder, set to the hymn tune Ebenezer, and published in Horder’s Hymns Supplemental to Existing Collections in 1896.

I can’t help but think of the hymn’s opening lines, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,” every time I prepare for a baptism, every time I sit down to consider the lessons of the day in light of the once-in-a-life-time event they will accompany. Today, we have another part of the patriarchal story when Abraham’s unnamed servant – we’ll call him Eliezer, the name given Abraham’s servant in another part of Genesis – is sent on an important errand, to find a wife for Isaac. It is really the transition in Genesis from Abraham’s story to that of his son Isaac. The story itself subtly notes this transition when, at the beginning, Eliezer refers to Abraham as his master and then, at the end, names Isaac as his master.

It’s a long story and I won’t go through it in detail (after all, you just heard most of it read to you – there are some verses left out, but we won’t worry about those). The important thing to remember is that this is a story about making a decision – in fact, it is about many decision: Abraham decides to get a spouse for his son, but decides she must not come from among the Canaanite people among whom they live; he decides she must come from his relatives in his former home of Haran; Eliezer decides on a method by which he will discern the identity of the future bride and seeks God’s guidance; Rebekah, who comes to the well and does the thing Eliezer decided would be his sign, decides to accept the proposal that she travel to a foreign country and marry a man she has never met; Isaac decides to accept Rebekah as his wife and, the text tells us, “he loved her.” (Gen 24:67)

In his commentary on Genesis in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Lutheran scholar Terence Fretheim underscores the importance of human decision-making illustrated in this story. Taking issue with another author, Prof. Fretheim says,

One should not say that “the success or failure of the commission depends on whether God grants success or not.” Although success may well depend on God, the activity of human beings may occasion failure even though God intends success. * * * The author presents no claim that lack of success would mean that God had withheld kindness; it could simply result from human decision making. Divine providence does not mean that the future is somehow predetermined or that human decision making can never frustrate the divine designs. (Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994, pg pg 510)

Eliezer the servant is the figure in this drama whose decision tree is most obvious. “Given a difficult task, he does what he can and he leaves the rest to God. He travels to the homeland of [Abraham’s] family; he takes his stand at a likely place to meet young women; and then he prays. . . . [H]e watches and waits to discern God’s will. When the sign is fulfilled, [Eliezer] is quick to praise God for God’s faithfulness and [loving kindness]. Finally, he bears witness to others of that divine faithfulness.” (Working Preacher 2017)

Katherine Schifferedecker of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes:

We could do worse than follow the example of Abraham’s servant when called to a particular task. Prepare. Pray. Wait. Watch for signs of God’s faithfulness. Then be quick to praise God and to witness to others of God’s faithfulness. Oh, and be generous. Generosity marks the actions of both Rebekah and the servant. (Working Preacher 2017)

But we must acknowledge with Prof. Freitheim that not every decision leads to a happy and successful outcome; failure and difficulty are also potential results of our decisions. We also have to turn Prof. Fretheim’s observation around and note that, while lack of success may not mean that God has withheld kindness, success does not necessarily mean that an enterprise or a decision has God’s blessing.

Lowell’s words as edited into a hymn by Horder continue:

. . . . to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
[Before] her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside.
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

These lines speak of defending truth when falsehood seems to rule. That they were written in 1845 illustrates how history, even if it doesn’t exactly repeat itself, seems to follow recurring themes. As Mark Twain is often reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And that is particularly true in our personal lives, as St. Paul writes in that portion of the letter to the Romans that we hear this morning:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. * * * I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. (Rom 7:15,21)

The hymn speaks of making the decision to “side with truth” as leading to the sharing of a “wretched crust,” implying that taking the opposite side leads to fame, profit, and prosperity. The brave person chooses to take the side of truth alone, while a coward waits to see what the crowd may do.

Important, once-in-a-lifetime decisions are difficult to make and keep on one’s own (as Paul clearly suggests). This is why no one is ever baptized without sponsors and why, since the theological reappraisal of the sacrament of Baptism that led to the changes in the service of baptism incorporated in our current Book of Common Prayer, baptisms are not done privately but as part of the public worship of the whole People of God. The decision to be baptized is a momentous and once-in-a-lifetime choice, and it is a difficult one to maintain throughout life without help and support.

Today we welcome Braylen into the Household of God through this sacrament. As I wrote in our weekly e-mail newsletter, Baptism is the basis of our entire Christian life; it is the gateway to life in the Spirit and the doorway through which we access the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as children of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church, and share in the church’s mission.

Braylen is only 10 weeks! That’s a lot for 10-week-old person to absorb! This, as I said, is why children (and adults) have baptismal sponsors, also called “Godparents.” Godparents at baptism make big promises to encourage their Godchild to grow in faith and commit to helping them understand how to live their life in a Christian way.

Godparents do not play a special role just on the day of a child’s baptism. To be a Godfather or Godmother is a life-long commitment which will involve special times and treats, but much more as well. Godparents are expected to:

  • Give time to their Godchild to talk to about the bigger questions of life – questions about hope, faith and love.
  • Model and encourage their Godchild to develop Christian values – being kind and compassionate towards others, being generous towards others in need with time or money and standing against things in the world that cause injustice and suffering.
  • Pray for their Godchild through the ups and downs of life and throughout their faith journey.
  • Show their Godchild by example how to make good choices in life, for themselves and for others.
  • Help their Godchild to learn more about the Christian faith, through the church and in other ways. Godparents should go to church with their Godchild, talk with them about the Bible, and help them learn how to pray.

Being a Godparent is a demanding role. If you are a Godparent, may you be blessed as you shepherd your Godchild through life. But all of us should remember that Godparents also do not make these decisions or take on these obligations alone. The entire Christian community joins with them. At every Baptism everyone in attendance is asked: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” And all answer, “We will.” (BCP 1979, pg 303) Then all present join the candidate and the sponsors in affirming the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

. . . continues the third verse of the hymn. Baptism is the first step up those “new Calvaries . . . with the cross that turns not back;” it is the beginning of that trek “upward still and onward . . . keep[ing] abreast of truth.” It is not a trek undertaken alone. “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” (S. Baring-Gould, Onward Christian Soldiers, #562, The Hymnal 1982) It is a trek in which we join “the glorious company of apostles . . . the noble fellowship of prophets . . . the white-robed army of martyrs” by whose light we take journey. (Te Deum, BCP 1979, Morning Prayer, pg 95)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus compares the leadership of the then-present generation, the so-called “wise and intelligent,” to children in a market place. Some of the children want to engage in a game of a make-believe wedding; others among them want to play at a pretend funeral. They cannot make a decision. Jesus offers an alternative to both, a simpler way hidden from wise but open to “infants:” “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:29-30)

This is not an offer of a life of ease, but rather a life delivered from the artificial burdens imposed upon us by the expectations of religious society. It is not a summons to be idle, but a call to learn a new way of understanding and living in accord with God’s will. It is, as Australian theologian William Loader says, “a call to lightness of being [in] contrast with the serious calls of those who interpret scripture as demand and stricture.” (First Thoughts)

“It is not that Jesus invites us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery.” (Working Preacher 2011) Our hymn’s last verse acknowledges the dangers of taking the side of truth:

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

The decision to take Christ’s yoke is the decision to live with “Jesus under God’s gracious and merciful reign, free from the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself, free to rest deeply and securely in God’s grace.” (Working Preacher 2011) This is the decision which Braylen, through his parents and Godparents, is making today; it is the decision which he will be invited to affirm later in the Sacrament of Confirmation; it is the decision which we all make everyday.

In the last stanza of his original poem, James Russell Lowell exhorts his readers to be pilgrims, to launch our own Mayflower, and to steer boldly into the future. Today, we welcome Braylen into the Household of God to be a pilgrim with us and we set his course into God’s future, upward and onward, abreast to and yoked with the Truth. May his parents’ and Godparents’ decision lead to a life of love for Braylen as Eliezer’s decision to chose Rebekah lead to a life of love for Isaac. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is “Rebekah and Eliezer at the Well” by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–1674). It hangs in the National Gallery, London, UK)

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

Knight of Faith & the Dark Night of the Soul – Sermon for Proper 8A – July 2, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 8A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; and St. Matthew 10:40-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The great Anglican preacher Herbert O’Driscoll begins his reflections on our Old Testament lesson, the story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, truthfully the near-murder of Isaac, with these words:

No one approaches this passage without feeling the great weight of it. It exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers. (The Word Among Us: Year A, Volume 3, Anglican Book Centre, Toronto:1999, pg 35)

In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that “darkness and mystery,” those thousands of unanswerable questions, are really fundamental the nature of our relationship with God. (Our opening prayer at each Eucharist, the so-called Collect for Purity, is the opening prayer of The Cloud of Unknowing.) The book takes the form, in part, of a conversation between student and master. The student asks how one can think about God, and the master replies that a human being cannot actually do this:

[O]f all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love . . . . “ (The Cloud of Unknowing, Evelyn Underhill, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 31)

The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem which he did not title but which has come to be called The Dark Night of the Soul. The first verse, as translated by A.Z. Foreman, a linguist at the University of Chicago, is this:

Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose
(Poems in Found Translation)

St. John of the Cross, who published his poem with a couple of expository essays, said of the first stanza:

In this first stanza the soul relates the way and manner which it followed in going forth, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, and in dying to them all and to itself, by means of true mortification, in order to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation, which causes passively in the soul the negation of itself and of all things referred to above.

And this going forth it says here that it was able to accomplish in the strength and ardour which love for its Spouse gave to it for that purpose in the dark contemplation aforementioned. Herein it extols the great happiness which it found in journeying to God through this night with such signal success that none of the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh, . . . could hinder it; inasmuch as the aforementioned night of purgative contemplation lulled to sleep and mortified, in the house of its sensuality, all the passions and desires with respect to their mischievous desires and motions. (St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, E. Allison Peers, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 16)

In contemplating this bizarre story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, we are forced to approach God with the same sense that the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. We must read this and take it in through our love of God because we cannot make sense of this intellectually; if we try, we may end up not loving God because this God who seems to demand human sacrifice is not lovable.

Better folk than I have tried to make sense of this over the many centuries, the millennia since the story made its way into the foundational religious literature of Judaism and Christianity. Let me tell you about some of their attempts.

Although tradition says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), biblical scholars identified four “sources” or schools of authors for it. The earliest source is called the “Yahwist” because this writer (there may be more than one, but I’ll refer to each source as a single person just for ease of expression) habitually refers to God by that name; it is believed that the Yahwist was associated with Jerusalem during the united kingdom of Israel sometime before the year 950 BCE. The second source is called the “Elohist;” he won’t use God’s Name but substitutes the word “Elohim” (meaning “Lord God”). The Elohist is next historically, believed to be associated with the norther kingdom around the year 850 BCE. The third source is the “Deuteronomist,” so called because he is the author of Deuteronomy and some of the historical texts outside of the Pentateuch. The Deuteronomist is believed to have written during the reign of Josiah in the southern kingdom of Judah around the year 625 BCE. The last is the “Priestly” source, sometimes called the “Redactor.” He is believed to have taken the other three, edited them together and additional material of his own, about the year 500 BCE shortly after the Babylonian Exile.

I tell you all that because one of the ways scholars have tried to make sense of this story of Abraham and Isaac is to argue that it’s a mash-up, that the Redactor has taken an early Yawhist story, mixed it up with some bits from the Elohist, and added some bits of his own to create a story which emphasizes the obedience and submission of Abraham at the expense of the story’s depiction of the Almighty. The emphasis is on Abraham’s trust, not on God’s demand. “Abraham does not simply obey; he obeys because he trusts. He could have obeyed because he was ordered to do so; if God commands, he had better respond. But [the text] makes clear that he obeys because he trusts God, that God will be faithful and will act in his best interests.” (Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994, pg 499).

Another way faithful people have sought to make sense of the story is by adding to it themselves. In the rabbinic tradition there is the practice of authoring what are called midrashim. This is a genre of rabbinic literature which seeks to flesh out the characters of the Bible. The midrashic authors often sought to provide a sort of back story for the biblical characters. The sages invented these stories to explain the motivations of God and human characters, imagining their inner lives. Midrashim take roughly sketched biblical characters and fill in the blanks, making the biblical sketches into human figures with whom we can more easily identify. Some of the most famous midrashim have become so imbedded in the tradition that many people do not even realize they aren’t found in the Bible. (The pious legends of Joseph, Mary, and other saints are a similar sort literature.)

The opening words of today’s text, “After these things,” apparently can be understood in the Hebrew as meaning “after these words,” so the midrashic rabbis, wondering what that might mean developed some explanatory scenarios. One midrash on this text suggests that God and Satan had a bet about Abraham much like their wager about Job, i.e., will the righteous man, Abraham, kill his son when asked? Another imagines Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s older son born to Hagar the slave woman, arguing about whose circumcision is “better” – Ishmael’s because was done when he was a teenager and therefore able to refuse, or Isaac’s completed when he was an infant only eight days old. Isaac says he is willing to sacrifice every member of his body to God, and God thus tests Isaac through his order to Abraham. Another midrashic gloss on the story tells us that Isaac at the time of this incident was 37 years old and a willing participant in his near-sacrifice, not an innocent and unsuspecting child. Changing or trying to understand the story through editing, revision, and addition is a venerable tradition.

But the story pretty much stands “as is” in our biblical canon and although it is fun to imagine these back-stories, when we rely on them we don’t rely on Scripture. We rely, instead, on our own imaginations. The text remains stark and troubling, dark and unfathomable.

The 19th Century Danish Theologian Søren Kierkegaard in looking at this story called Abraham a “knight of faith.” A knight of faith is a person willing to make a move of resignation in which demonstrable love of God predominates over worldly happiness. The knight of faith does this in solitude, as Abraham does. Despite the fact that he loves his son, Abraham’s love of God is greater, so he resigns himself to giving up Isaac at God’s command, and he moves to do so without discussing his actions with Sarah or with anyone else. This is what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Seventh-Day Adventist writer Jason Hines describes it this way:

When God asks us to do something that defies social convention or that seems out of the ordinary, if we decide to do it, it seems that we feel the need to justify our decisions to others. It is a human trait – we don’t want to seem crazy for doing whatever thing God just led us to do. However, the knight of faith realizes that the walk of faith is not always a group activity. Therefore there is no need to justify the action.” (Jason Hines, The Knight of Faith, Spectrum Magazine, April 25, 2013, online)

For the knight of faith, the ultimate deciding factor is not the ethical norm, but his individual relationship to God. To fulfill the telos – God’s ultimate purpose – Abraham’s faith in God is called upon to set aside normal canons of ethics and humanity. Here, the knight of faith encounters the dark night of the soul: Abraham, in John of the Cross’s words, “in order to attain to living the . . . life of love with God” must “go forth” from himself “and from all things,” including not only his beloved son, but also the ethical norms his community. One cannot do this intellectually; as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it, God “may well be loved, but not thought. By love may [God] be gotten and [held]; but by thought never.”

Herbert O’Driscoll, in his commentary on today’s lessons, noted that he could find little, if any, connection between this seemingly monstrous Old Testament tale of Abraham nearly killing his child and the gospel lesson, and on the surface he is right. But our gospel lesson today is the tale end of Jesus commissioning his apostles, which began in last week’s gospel reading with his telling them

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:34-39)

Now he tells them that there are others, outside their families but within the community of disciples, who will welcome and reward them. “The integral relationships between the disciples, Jesus, and God replace the disciples’ broken relationships with family and society. . . . [T]he call of discipleship does not fit very happily with ‘traditional family values,’ whether ancient or modern. The vocation of disciples necessarily relativizes all other relations and obligations – whether to party, corporation, or family – in favor of the new family that is the community of disciples.” (Stanley Saunders, Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42, Working Preacher, online)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, of course, is not history, it is metaphor. It is not meant to teach us about the characters in the story; it is meant to teach us about ourselves. As metaphor, I suggest to you that it represents the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith and action revealed in Jesus words in last week’s and this week’s gospel lessons. Just as Abraham had to turn away from and reject the ethical norms of his society to follow the command of God, so must the disciple of Christ be prepared to deny the cultural norms of his or her society. Again, as John of the Cross said, “in journeying to God” we must not allow ourselves to be hindered by “the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh,” any more than Abraham was hindered by the ethical norms of his culture.

As Christians called “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Catechism, BCP 1979, pg 855) we are to be salt, preserving agents actively working for that restoration in the midst of and rejecting a culture many perceive as decadent and decaying. We are to cooperate with Christ’s redeeming power working through us in ways that may contradict cultural norms and often flow counter to the cultural tide.

A commitment to being countercultural . . . isn’t always easy. Living differently can be hard. Going against the ebbs and flows of culture can create friction and sometimes provoke a hostile reaction to the good we are trying to create. Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon remind us that this should be expected, for “whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world.” (Gabe Lyons, What Does Being Countercultural Look Like?, Q Ideas, online; quoting Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1989, pg 94)

The story of the binding of Isaac and the gospel story of Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles are both stories with what O’Driscoll called “great weight.” They exude a darkness and mystery that raise a thousand unanswerable questions; they call us to an alternative way of seeing our world, to protest and stand against what is wrong, to cry out against injustice, and to call for an end to corruption. They call us to stand for something better, to stand for the “restor[ation] all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” to stand for “the sweet and delectable life of love with God.”

(Note: The illustration is “Le Sacrifice d’Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). It hangs in the Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France)

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

Questions of Hagar: Sermon for RCL Proper 7A (25 June 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 7A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10,16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; and St. Matthew 10:24-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty . . . .*

Today, June 25, is the feast day of James Weldon Johnson, the poet who penned those words, the first lines of his poem written in honor of the 100th birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. We no longer commemorate the saints on Sundays and so, instead of lessons “full of the hope that the present has brought us,” we have the lessons of our usual Sunday lectionary, including a story of slavery “full of the faith [and raising the questions] that the dark past has taught us.”

Our Old Testament Lesson today is from the 21st Chapter of Genesis, the story of the casting out of the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael, the first-born son of Abraham. To fully understand and appreciate the significance of this incident, however, we have to go back to the beginning of the story, even before Hagar’s name first appears in Scripture, back six chapters in Genesis. We have to go back to Abram questioning God, who has made a covenant with Abram. Abram, who is childless at that point, wants to know who his heirs will be, so God takes him out under the open sky and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15:5)

In the next chapter (Ch 16) we learn that ten years go by during which Abram’s wife Sarai (who ages from 65 to 75 during this decade) bears no children. So she decides to take things into her own hands help God keep God’s promise: she “[takes] Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and [gives] her to her husband Abram as a wife.” (16:3) Sure enough, Hagar gets pregnant; she is the first woman other than Eve recorded in Scriptures bearing a child.

Now, as you may know, in the ancient middle east, women had no status except that which came through marriage, gained higher status by childbearing. So Hagar, who started out as a slave with lower status than Sarai, gains greater status and their roles are reversed. Sarai begins, therefore, to “[deal] harshly with her, and she [runs] away.” (16:6) But in the desert, she encounters God who tells her to return to Sarai and Abram, and promises her that she shall have “offspring that cannot be counted for multitude.” (16:10) Hagar calls God “El-Roi,” the God who sees, thus becoming the first and only person in Scripture to give God a name. The place where this happened is named for this event; it is called Beer-lahai-roi, the well of the God who sees. She follow’s God’s instructions, returns, and gives birth to a son is named Ishmael (a name which means “God hears”). Abram is 86 years old with Ishmael is born. (16:16)

Thirteen years pass and God again appears to Abram, repeating God’s promise to make Abram “exceedingly numerous:” “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (17:2,4) God changes Abram’s name from Abram (meaning “exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of many nations”). God also instructs Abraham to stop calling his wife Sarai (which means “my princess”) and to call her Sarah (more generally “princess”) because, God says, “I will give her a son … and kings of peoples shall come from her.” (17:16) Abraham falls on his face laughing, as Sarah would later laugh listening behind a tent flap (18:12-25), and cries out, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (v. 17) Abraham begs God to bless Ishmael as his heir (v. 18), but God declines and predicts the birth of Isaac. Although Ishmael is not to be Abraham’s personal heir, he is made an heir to the covenant when, at the end of Chapter 17, God instructs Abraham to institute the practice of circumcision including himself and all the males in his household, slaves and relatives alike, including Ishmael.

Sarah does indeed become pregnant and Isaac is born and initiated by circumcision into the covenant with his father and his half-brother (21:1-3). So in our lesson, we are another three or so years further on. Isaac has been weaned, which according to Jewish tradition as set out in the Talmud can be any time between ages two and four. This means that Ishmael is about 17 years old now.

In the ancient middle east, Jews celebrated weaning with a large festive party serving a dish of wheat cooked in sugar and cinnamon, symbolic of the baby’s first solid food. In some Jewish communities, this “first food” was provided by a neighbor. When the baby accepted the offering, the mother would say, “May this be the last time you will be supported by others.” Wheat is also symbolic of fertility, so the feast celebrated not only the child’s independence, but also greeted the possibility of a new pregnancy. It was at such a feast that Sarah saw Ishmael “the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.” (21:9) Exhibiting the same sort of nastiness as she had when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah insists that Abraham “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (v. 10) Abraham is distressed by this, but God tells him not to worry, that God will look after Hagar and Ishmael, and so he casts out the slave woman and her son to (in James Weldon Johnson’s memorable phrases) tread the stony road, feel the bitter chastening rod, travel a way watered with their tears, and feel that hope unborn had died . . . until they are saved when God leads Hagar to find a spring of water.

This is the last we hear of Hagar in the Jewish Scriptures, but not quite the last of Ishmael. A few chapters later on we find that Isaac and Ishmael must have achieved some sort of reconciliation, for we are told that Abraham, at the age of 175, “breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites.” (25:8-9) Interestingly, Isaac then settles at Beer-lahai-roi, the place where Hagar named God. The Hebrew Scriptures say nothing further about Ishmael, but do take time to list the generations of his descendants.

If we want to know more about Hagar and Ishmael, we have to turn to the Muslim scriptures and traditions, to the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith of Islam. There we would learn that she and Ishmael are the ancestors of the Prophet Muhammed, that the spring described in our story today still exists, that that spring is about 20 meters away from her tomb which Abraham and Ishmael built together, that her tomb – the Kaaba – is considered the holiest place in Islam, and that making a pilgrimage to her tomb, the Hajj, at least once in one’s life, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. She is revered as the matriarch of Islam and called “the mother of Arabs.”

Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl, and her son Ishmael, the outcast half-brother of the Patriarch Isaac and uncle of Jacob who became Israel, are our Scriptural connection to the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world who are our religious cousins, 3.3 million of whom are also our fellow Americans.

In trying to understand Hagar, I suggested to some clergy friends that she reminded me of Sally Hemming, whom I described as “the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson.” (You may know the story of Jefferson and Hemming; she apparently bore him several children and DNA testing of some of their descendants has documented that.) My friend Wil Gaffney, who teaches Hebrew Scriptures at Brite Divinity School in Texas, took me to task. “An enslaved woman is not a mistress,” she said. “She had no legal or cultural right to refuse. Whatever consent she may have given (if she can even be said to have done so) was always constrained and negated by her enslavement.” (Facebook comment) And she’s absolutely right! We have to remember that about Hagar and about so many women in our history.

Phyllis Tribble, the late Episcopalian religious author, wrote about Hagar:

[A]ll sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others. (Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1984, page 28)

While Sarah may be the chosen and privileged “mother of many nations,” Hagar is the prototypical working mother. She is “the first woman to hear an annunciation, the only one to received a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child.” (Ibid.)

I think the easy thing to do with this entire story is to focus on Sarah. It is not wrong to do so, and there is something to be learned from her role in this drama. Her part in this tale is

. . . a warning against arrogance and the human tendency to want to control others. It is a commentary about the human tendency to accept a gift from God and then to act as if it were our own to defend and protect at all costs, even at the cost of other people.
* * *
[God’s] gift of [a child] was never really for Sarah herself even though God worked the miracle in her. The gift was really for the larger world, the world that would be blessed through the community that would emerge through this child, just as God had promised Abraham. To begin claiming special status for oneself based on the gift of God is radically to misunderstand the nature of the gift. (Dennis Bratcher)

Sarah’s part in this story teaches an important lesson. Hagar’s part, however, raises questions, questions that are uncomfortable and almost unanswerable. John Holbert, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, asks the basic question, “What are we to make of such a sordid tale, one where the joy of laughter turns into the anger of disparagement and near murder?” (Patheos)

How can we not be angry with Sarah and her manipulative arrogance? As Baptist preacher Linda Pepe asks:

How can [we] not be angry at Abraham for listening to Sarah?
How can [we] not be angry at God for letting Abraham push Hagar and his firstborn son out of his life?
How could God allow what [we] perceive to be injustice, and selfishness, and manipulation on Sarah’s part to have such an impact on the innocent? (Theological Stew)

And when we ask those questions about Abraham and Sarah or any of the other flawed human beings we find in Scripture or in church history, we find that no matter how craven or evil they seem to us we are convicted of our own sinfulness and come to understand that we are no better than they.

When we ask such questions about Abraham and Sarah and their exclusion of Hagar and Ishmael, we must ask the same questions about the way our own society excludes and mistreats the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the runaway youth, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless person, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare recipient, the Arabs and other Muslims, and all those others who are their spiritual descendants. We must question our own complicity in that exclusion and mistreatment.

Naomi Steinberg, author of Kinship and Marriage in Genesis (Fortress Press, 1993), suggests that at its core, the story of Hagar and Ishmael asks the question, “What does it mean to be a member of society – who’s in, and who’s out?” (U.S. News) As Pastor Pepe acknowledged, we never get the answer to those questions in the story itself “because the text doesn’t give us anything to satisfy.” (Theological Stew)

“Do you not know?” pleads St. Paul (Rom 6:8), and sometimes we have to answer back, “No, we don’t!” We don’t know what to make of Sarah. We don’t know what to do with the story of Hagar. We don’t know how to relate to our Muslim cousins who revere her. We don’t know how to deal with the indigent, uninsured welfare mother whom Phyllis Tribble says she represents.

Perhaps the answers come when we turn our attention to the last character in the drama, who is the first . . . to the God who sees (as Hagar named God in the desert), to the God who hears (remember the meaning of Ishmael’s name?) “Keep watch over my life,” cries the Psalmist, “Give ear . . . and attend to the voice of my supplications” (Ps 86:2,6) Perhaps the answer lies in turning to the God who sees the sparrow, who counts the hairs on every head (Matt 10:29-30), those of the chosen like Abraham and Sarah, those of the excluded like Hagar and Ishmael, those of the questioning and bewildered like you and me.

Perhaps when we give up our notions of what life ought to be like, perhaps when we stop trying to manipulate things as Sarah tried to do, perhaps when we truly follow the

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way . . .

relying not on our own devices, but on God to “keep us forever in the path,” perhaps then we’ll find the answer. Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). Perhaps when we start trying to live in that way, “true to our God,” we’ll find the answers and learn how to live with Hagar and her son and their descendants, facing with them “the rising sun of our new day begun, [and] march[ing] on till victory is won.” Amen.

* The hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing is often referred to as the “Negro National Anthem” having been so designated by the NAACP in 1919. These are the full lyrics:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.

(Note: The illustration is “Hagar Offering Water to Her Son, Ishmael, in the Desert” by Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865) painted in 1842. It hangs in the National Trust Gallery in the Lake District, UK.)

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

Fatherhood and Laughter: Sermon for RCL Proper 6A (18 June 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 6A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116:1,10-17; Romans 5:1-8; and St. Matthew 9:35-10:8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Our gospel lesson is the shortened version of Jesus’ commission to the twelve as he sends them out to do missionary work. As he continues with their instructions he tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mat 10:16), and then he warns them that those who follow him are likely to face all sorts of terrible strife, including bitterness and enmity within families.

“Brother will betray brother to death,” he says, “and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:21-22).

It’s an odd lesson, I suppose, for Father’s Day, but of course Father’s Day isn’t on the church calendar and the Lectionary doesn’t take it into account. It’s simply a coincidence that this lesson about discord between fathers and sons should come up this morning, just as it’s a coincidence that the Old Testament lesson about the promise of a child to the elderly and barren couple Abraham and Sarah should be in the Lectionary rota today.

As that story continues, you know, Sarah laughs at the idea that she (at the age of 90) would become pregnant by Abraham (who was 100 and – as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says – “as good as dead” [Heb 11:12]). But that is exactly what does, indeed, happen. She gives birth to a son whom she and Abraham name Isaac because, as Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). Isaac’s name in Hebrew, Yitschaq, means “he laughs.”

Lutheran seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker says of this episode that it proves there is humor and comedy in the bible,

. . . [not] comedy in the sense of stand-up routines or canned laugh tracks, but comedy as something so extraordinarily good that it’s hard to believe, something so out-of-the-ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down. It’s what Frederick Buechner calls “high comedy”: “the high comedy of Christ that is as close to tears as the high comedy of Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau or Edith Bunker is close to tears – but glad tears at last, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.” (Working Preacher, citing Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Harper & Row, 1977, p. 61.)

That is the very contrast these two lessons on Father’s Day present us: the “hilarious unexpectedness” and the “tragic expectedness” of life, both of which are so often present in the always serious, sometimes heartbreaking, and often uproarious business of parenthood.

A few weeks ago I mentioned the late essayist and poet Brian Doyle. A few years ago in The Christian Century magazine (July 22, 2014), Doyle published a poem entitled The poem about what it’s about:

Here’s my question. What if there was a poem
That didn’t know what it was about until it got
To the end of itself? So that the poet’s job isn’t
To play with imagery and cadence and metrical
Toys in order to make a point, but rather to just
Keep going in order to find out that the poem is
About how hard it is to watch your kids get hurt
By things they can’t manage and you cannot fix.
If I had been the boss of this poem I would have
Made it so they can manage things, or I could be
The quiet fixer I always wanted to be as a father;
But that’s not what the poem wanted to be about,
It turns out. This poem is just like your daughter:
No one knows what’s going to happen, and there
Will be pain, and you can’t fix everything, and it
Hurts to watch, and you are terrified even as you
Try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.
Some poems you can leave when they thrash too
Much but kids are not those sorts of poems. They
Have to keep writing themselves, and it turns out
You are not allowed to edit. You’re not in charge
At all—a major bummer. I guess there’s a lesson
Here about literature, about how you have to sing
Without knowing the score . . . something like that.
All you can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish
So joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.

I have called that “the best poem about fatherhood . . . ever.” I know from personal experience how absolutely accurate Doyle is when he writes that in parenting (and in so many other aspects of life) there are times when “there will be pain, and you can’t fix” it and “it hurts . . . and you are terrified,” and all you can do is “try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.” Being a father, being a parent is the case-in-point that proves again and again how correct St. Paul was in writing that we accept our “sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:3-5). It is the case-in-point that proves Jesus’ words that even when there is strife between father and child, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:22).

This is why fatherhood is the primary Christian metaphor for God’s relationship to us. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For . . . [we] have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ . . . .” (Rom 8:14-17)

And as John wrote:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. * * * Beloved, we are God’s children now. (1 John 3:1-2)

The Prophet Zephaniah wrote of God: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zeph 3:17-18). Just as our poet, Brian Doyle, said in his poem, “All [a father] can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish so joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.” That is God’s hope and promise for us, that everything, all the hilarious unexpectedness and all the tragic expectedness, will “finish so joyous and refreshing” that we will all gape with awe. Those who endure to the end will be saved, and we will all laugh with Sarah. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is “Sarah Laughing,” a woodcut by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld from Die Bibel in Bildern: 240 Darstellungen, erfunden und auf Holz gezeichnet published in 1899.)

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

Not Sheep, Not Slaves: Sermon for Easter 4, 7 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 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 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; and St. John 10:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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It’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter and that means it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And that means that clergy throughout the church have, for the last week, been scratching their heads thinking, “This again? What can I do this time with the sheep-and-shepherd simile?” But, I’m not among them. For three days this past week, the clergy of this diocese have been in conference with our bishop, with a retired seminary president, and with a retired cathedral dean exploring exactly what we understand our ordinations to the diaconate and to the presbyterate to mean. That has kind of taken my attention off the “Good Shepherd” metaphor.

In addition, tomorrow will be the twenty-seventh anniversary of the day the Bishop of Nevada laid his hands on my head and said:

Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Eric; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your Church. (BCP 1979, Ordination of a Deacon, page 545)

I suppose the clergy conference and tomorrow’s anniversary may be why, as I studied today’s lessons, it is verses 19 through 21 of the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter, the words “For to this you have been called . . .,” that caught my attention rather than anything in the Gospel text, and focused my thoughts on Peter’s admonitions to patient endurance of wrongful suffering. Of course, Peter’s instructions are not particularly addressed to the clergy. The way in which our Lectionary is edited, the implication is that they are addressed to Christians in general and, in a broad and inchoate sort of way, they are.

In next Sunday’s epistle reading, we will be treated to some of the verses that precede today’s lesson; we will hear verses 2 through 10 in which Peter will address us as “newborn infants,” describe us as “living stones” being built into a “spiritual building,” and assure us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] God’s own people.” What we did not hear today and will not hear next week and, in fact, never hear read in church on a Sunday as an official Lectionary reading are verses 11 through 18:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

And only then, after these introductory verses, does the selection we heard read today begin with a word edited out of our reading, “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly . . . .” As true as those words may be, they are not addressed to you or to me; they are specifically addressed to aliens, exiles, and slaves. They are addressed to the marginalized and the oppressed; they are addressed to those who must endure injustice because they are powerless to do anything else. These are words of comfort to those who cannot escape oppression, a reminder of St. Paul’s words that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” (Rom 5:3-5) Certainly, we can learn from Peter’s words, but they are not addressed to us. We are not aliens, exiles, and slaves; we are not the marginalized or the oppressed; and we are not powerless.

The patient endurance of unjust suffering is not the life to which I was called as a deacon or as a priest, nor to which you have been called as a follower of Christ. As people who have power, and we do have power, we are called to do something about unjust suffering not simply endure it stoically or heroically.

I keep reading editorials and news analyses which assert that the outcome of the most recent US presidential election, the so-called “Brexit” vote of the electorate in the UK, and the rise of nationalist parties in Holland, France, and elsewhere in the European Union are the result of people rising up against an elite political class with regard to whom they have felt powerless. Well, I can’t speak to the situation in other countries, but I can call “Nonsense” on that assertion here in our own country. You and I and every other eligible voter in the United States are not powerless with respect to our elected politicians! We just aren’t!

What many voters in our country are is apathetic! What many voters in our country are is ill-informed! What many voters in our country are is disengaged! That’s not powerlessness; that’s surrender. Do you know what the percentage of eligible voters who actually bother to cast a ballot is? On average over the last 100 years, the turnout of registered, eligible voters in presidential elections is just over 55%. Expressed differently, that means that 45% of those who could have voted . . . didn’t. And the turnout in non-presidential elections is even worse. We are not a people without power; we are a people who have failed to exercise the power we have been given. We are not slaves patiently enduring unjust oppression; we are empowered people who have surrendered to political usurpation! When we do not exercise the power we are given, we “go astray like sheep.”

But, as Peter writes, we “have returned to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls.” (1 Pet 2:25) We are followers of Jesus Christ who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them.” (Jn 10:3) Jesus who told us that on the last, great day, in his role as our shepherd, “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . ” and to those who have truly followed him he will say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mt 25:32,35-36)

In some metaphorical ways, we may be like sheep, but in truth we are not sheep. We are followers of Jesus Christ and, unlike sheep, we have the power to do all those things, the social power, the economic power, and the political power. We can, as our Free Farmers’ Market volunteers do, roll up our sleeves and distribute food to the hungry; as our Lay Eucharistic Visitors do, take time from our Sunday afternoons to call on sick and shut-in parishioners; as our greeters do, stand at the church door and welcome those unfamiliar to us. We can, as many of us do, give of our wealth to the church, to charities (such as the American Cancer Society, the SPCA, Let’s Make a Difference, Hospice of the Western Reserve, Project Learn, and many others), and to public institutions (such as PBS and NPR, the Medina Schools Foundation, and our universities’ and colleges’ alumni associations and foundations). And we can, as so few of our fellow citizens do, vote, participate in the political process informed by our Christian faith!

On that day 27 years ago tomorrow, the Bishop of Nevada said to me as every bishop says to those who stand before him or her to be ordained deacon:

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself. (BCP, page 543)

We are not aliens, or exiles, or slaves; we are residents, and citizens, and politically empowered voters in one of the greatest nations on Earth. We have the political power to serve Christ himself ensuring that our country responds to “the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world,” that it serves the helpless, feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger, houses the homeless, clothes the naked, and cares for the sick. If we truly follow Christ and live up to our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, Holy Baptism, page 305), neither we nor anyone in our country need ever endure unjust suffering.

The idea that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” is attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, the liberator of India, but he was not alone in expressing that sentiment. The anti-Nazi German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often quoted as saying, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Author Pearl S. Buck wrote, “[T]he test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” (My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, Pocket Books, New York:1954, page 337) And Vice-President Hubert Humphrey said:

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped. (Remarks at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, Nov 1, 1977, Congressional Record, Nov 4, 1977, vol 123, p. 37287.)

The Book of Acts tells us that the earliest Christians devoted themselves to the fellowship and teachings of Christ and his apostles, that they ordered their small society so that any who had need were provided for, and that (as a result) they had the goodwill of all the people. Some of them were slaves, but we are not. We are neither sheep nor slaves, but we can follow the example of those early Christians and order our society so that the needy are cared for. We have the power, and we have made the promise, to do that.

In that service 27 years ago, as in every ordination service, the bishop offered this prayer:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord . . . . (BCP, page 540)

It is through us, the followers of Jesus Christ, not as sheep nor as slaves, but as socially, economically, and politically empowered citizens of this great nation, that God accomplishes these things in our place and in our time.

“Truly I tell you,” the Good Shepherd will say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

Amen.

(The illustration is “The Good Shepherd” (1975) by Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996), a stencil print in the Mingei style.)

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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.

Living Water: Sermon for Lent 3, RCL Year A (19 March 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; and St. John 4:5-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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overflowingwellToday the lectionary gives us two stories about water. The first set in the Sinai desert where the Hebrews found themselves exhausted, thirsty, and more than a little bit feisty and quarrelsome demanding water from Moses and from God; the second set at a well in a Samaritan village where Jesus, “tired out by his journey” (Jn 4:6, NRSV), encountered a lone woman and asked her for a drink.

I sometimes think that we take the biblical metaphor water way too lightly. We live in a world which is water-abundant. Here in NE Ohio we are surrounded by the stuff! There’s that big lake up to the north of us; there are rivers and streams running nearby; and I’ll bet most of us live in neighborhoods where some of our neighbors have ponds in their back yards. There’s water everywhere.

Even in the sorts of desert places I lived as a young adult along the Southern California coast there is an abundance of water. There’s all that salt water in the ocean, of course, but that won’t sustain human life. What there is is water brought in by aqueduct from the Sacramento River or piped in from the Colorado River; without that Los Angeles and Orange and San Diego Counties could not sustain the populations that presently live there.

Get out of those artificial oases, however, and life in southern California is pretty precarious. When I was in college in San Diego, my friends and I used to hike either the Anzo-Borrego Desert or the Agua Tibia Wilderness Area on over-night excursions pretty frequently. We would have to carry our water because there are no rivers or ponds or springs in either area; with desert back-packing, you have to figure on at least one gallon per day per person on the trail. Water weighs about 8-1/2 pounds per gallon, so that single item takes up a good deal of your backpack capacity and your weight limit for a hike! (Of course, as you use it, your pack gets lighter quite fast, so there is that to be thankful for.) You really learn to appreciate just how important and how precious water is doing desert back-packing.

These days, on my days away from the office, I don’t do any back-packing. On my typical day off, what I do is laundry. I usually do three and sometimes four loads of laundry …

We have an old-fashioned, fairly standard top loading clothes washer, the kind with a vertical-axis drum and a central agitator. I looked this up, so I know that design hasn’t changed much since General Electric introduced such washers in 1947. A typical vertical-axis washer consumes about 45 gallons of water per load, although newer models of the sort have reduced the water usage to less than 40 gallons per load. (See Home Water Works) That means that every day off, when I do my three or four loads of laundry, I use somewhere between 120 to 180 gallons of water. That might be enough water for one person to live in the desert on our back-packing ration for 17 to 26 weeks, between a third and a half of a year. But, in fact, it’s not enough! The World Health Organization estimates that the minimum basic water requirement for a human being is 20 liters (that’s about five gallons) of water every day to maintain basic health and hygiene. (See World Health Organization)

When I think about our Old Testament story this morning and Moses striking the rock at God’s command, providing water for the Hebrews. There must have been a lot of water . . . Earlier in the Book of Exodus we are told that the number of people who left Egypt was “about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.” (Ex 12:37, NIV) That must mean there were nearly 2,000,000 people wandering around the Sinai desert; they would have need 10,000,000 gallons of water just to let each of them have the minimum WHO amount of five gallons for one day! And I use 180 gallons in one day doing laundry. We take water so much for granted that, as a biblical metaphor for the loving grace of God, it becomes (pardon the pun) rather diluted!

We also treat water differently than did the people of the Bible. Jesus is out walking the countryside, traveling through Samaritan territory where, frankly, he is a foreigner. He comes to the community well at Shechem, a well given to following generations of both Jews and Samaritans by their claimed common ancestor Jacob, a well from which anyone may draw water. Water was necessary for life and when it was present it was available to all who needed it. That’s the way it was in the Nevada desert where I grew up.

Las Vegas in those days drew no water from the Colorado River; all of its water came from artesian springs in the Las Vegas valley. Everyone in town got their water piped into their homes from those springs, at almost no cost. You paid for the pipes, but water usage was unmetered; you used as much as you wanted. Until just two years ago that’s the way it was in Reno, Nevada, where water is drawn from the Tahoe-Truckee watershed. Pretty surprising that in the desert water would be unlimited and practically free of charge: “Use as much as you need!”

Unfortunately, that’s no longer our attitude. You may recall a few years ago when Peter Brabeck of Nestlé got into some political hot water (another pun, forgive me) for suggesting that there no human right to water, that water is simply another foodstuff to be commodified and monetized. His comments kicked off quite a debate, but let’s be honest: Mr. Brabeck was doing nothing more than giving voice to the attitudes of a society were millions, if not billions, of consumers purchase and consume water in little plastic bottles even when they have free-flowing water from the taps in their own homes (water which, frankly, they also pay for).

We simply do not have the same appreciation of and attitude toward water that the people of the Bible had. We wastefully regard it as something to be taken for granted, and yet we charge people for it. They recognized it as scarce but absolutely necessary for life, and so they made it freely available to any who needed it. If we are to understand its importance as a biblical metaphor for the grace of God, we must abandon our attitudes and adopt theirs. We need to relearn the lesson my back-packing buddies and I learned by carrying water with us on those hikes into the desert; we need to know what the biblical peoples knew, that water is precious!

Of course, we do know that! We know that we can’t survive without water . . . waste it as we may, sell it in supermarkets as we do . . . we know at some gut level that this plain, clear liquid is essential to life. So when Moses strikes the rock at Horeb and through the grace of God water gushes out to quench the thirst of those 600,000 men and their wives and their children, when Jesus quenches his thirst and then offers the woman living water that will assuage her thirst for eternity, we get it.

We get it when we sing that great old revival hymn and envision the water mingled with blood flowing from the side of the Rock of Ages, the double cure of sin, cleansing us from sins guilt and power. (Rock of Ages, Episcopal Church Hymnal 1980, #685) We get it when we sing that wonderful Welsh anthem beseeching great Jehovah to guide us through the barren land and “open . . . the crystal fountain from whence the healing stream doth flow.” (Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah, Episcopal Church Hymnal 1980, #690) We get it; we know that that is precisely what Paul is talking about when he writes to the Romans about “God’s love . . . poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” so that we may “boast in our sufferings [whatever they may be], knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:4-5, NRSV). We get it!

So, let us pray for the courage and wherewithal to also share it. Even as we get it, let us pray that it will, indeed, “become in [us] a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14, NRSV); let us pray that it will be for us as Jesus cried out in the streets of Jerusalem on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” (Jn 7:37-38, NRSV) We get it; let us pray for the endurance and character and hope to share it.

Let us pray:

Around the well of your grace, O God,
are those who thirst for friendship and love;
Help us to offer them
the living water of community and connectedness;
Around the well of your life, O God,
are those who thirst for joy and safety;
Help us to offer them
the living water of playfulness and protection;
Around the well of your mercy, O God,
are those who thirst for wholeness and peace;
Help us to offer them
the living water of comfort, healing and welcome;
Around the well of your presence, O God,
are those who thirst for meaning and connection;
Help us to offer them
the living water of service and worship;
May the life we have found in you,
be the gift we share
with all who hunger and thirst,
with all who are outcast and rejected,
with all who have too little or too much,
with all who are wounded or ashamed,
and, through us, may this corner of the world overflow
with your living water.
In Jesus’ Name,
Amen.
(From Sacerdise)

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

We Were There: Sermon for Lent 2 (RCL Year A) – 12 March 2017

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A homily offered by Mr. Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation, on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio. Mr. Romnanik led a Vestry Retreat for the Parish the previous two days and graciously agreed to preach the sermon for our congregation on Sunday morning.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; and St. John 3:1-17. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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We-Were-There-at-Pearl-HarborWhen I was child in my tween years, I spent a lot of time at the Public Library checking out stacks of books, with that wonderful musty library smell, to read under the big oak tree in our back yard on hot summer days. As I was a U.S. history buff both then and now, I gravitated toward a series of children’s books whose titles began with the phrase – “we were there”. For example, We Were There at Lexington and Concord, We Were There at Battle of Gettysburg and my favorite – We Were There at Pearl Harbor. The books had the same two characters – a boy and a girl around my age at the time, who happened to be living right in the middle of these key historic events. They often performed semi-heroic acts and were usually honored or congratulated by some famous person at the end of the book.

In addition to making these historic events come more alive, I was intrigued by the idea of actually being present during important times in human history and trying to imagine what I would see, say or do had I been there. I also engaged in this same exercise with bible stories, especially those involving Jesus. What would it be like to be living in first century Palestine and experience Jesus first hand? Which characters in the New Testament did I most identify with? And it was not just about being present during the most significant events in the life of Christ – his birth, death or resurrection. Sometimes I would just want to follow him along the way and watch him preach, teach and heal. And unlike the two protagonists in the “We were there” series, I didn’t even have to do or say anything – just be an innocent bystander or a proverbial fly on the wall.

Today’s Gospel passage would be a good time for me to be a fly on the wall in order to overhear the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Like much of the Gospel of John, this passage is not about the action, it’s about the dialogue and Jesus has the principal speaking part. Furthermore, there isn’t a lot to see because it’s dark since Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. So let’s set the scene and try to think about what we would hear and experience had we been there.

So far in John’s narrative, after being heralded by John the Baptist, Jesus does two main things – turning water into wine at the wedding feast and driving the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem right before the Passover. Both of these events illustrate how God was acting out God’s purpose in the world in the person of Jesus – the wine as a symbol of God’s abundance and grace and the temple event suggesting that animal sacrifices were no longer necessary because human salvation was now assured through the cross and resurrection. It is with this background and in this context that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus.

In addition to dialogue, John is a master of dramatic setting and vivid imagery. Note that Nicodemus arrives at night with all of its connotations of darkness and secrecy. Nicodemus begins his encounter with a bold affirmation that clearly Jesus must have been sent by God as evidenced by his God-like actions and signs. In a somewhat typical John-like non-sequitur, Jesus responds with a pronouncement that no person can see or experience the kingdom unless being born from above, or, in some translations, born again. This is followed by back and forth interactions, confusion on part of Nicodemus on the difference between spirit and flesh, and Jesus’ somewhat glib comment that a Jewish leader and a learned scholar should be much more knowledgeable and astute. But Nicodemus’s apparent ignorance or naiveté provides Jesus with the perfect opportunity to proclaim the bold reality that the Son of Man has come from heaven to be lifted up as a sign that God loves the world and that whoever believes will have eternal life. Jesus invokes the image of Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert and portends his own lifting up on the cross at Calvary. We then hear one of the most famous and beloved passages in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

All we know of Nicodemus in the Bible is contained in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee, that group of Jews who were fastidious in keeping the letter of the law and often opposed Jesus throughout his ministry, especially when they felt he did not share their legalistic and ideological purity. Jesus criticized Pharisees on several occasions especially for their blatant hypocrisy. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem which was the final court of appeals for matters relating to Jewish law and tradition. It was the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death but ultimately needed the approval of Pilate since the death penalty was beyond their jurisdiction under Roman law.

John reports that Nicodemus came to speak to Jesus at night. Some scholars speculate that since he was a Jewish leader and official, Nicodemus was afraid, or at least embarrassed, to be seen with Jesus in broad daylight. But given his position on the Sanhedrin, wasn’t it perfectly appropriate for Nicodemus to question Jesus in order to assess his theological credentials? No one should have been able to question Nicodemus’ authority or motivation for being there although his opening comment that Jesus must have been sent from God could have raised a few eyebrows back at the temple. Clearly, Nicodemus was as least curious about Jesus if not somewhat intrigued by and attracted to his ministry. Interestingly, after this incredible explanation by Jesus of his role as the Son of Man who came to reveal and demonstrate God’s love and the promise of new life, Nicodemus has no response. In fact, he simply disappears from the scene and presumably goes back to his former role as a member of the establishment – not yet ready to accept Jesus or to make a commitment to follow him and embrace his message of love. Perhaps after this encounter Nicodemus decided that he just wasn’t as curious or interested in Jesus as he thought he would be. As innocent bystanders and flies on the wall, all we are left with at the end of this passage is Jesus’ incredibly profound words.

Nicodemus reappears at two later points in John’s Gospel. In Chapter 7 he is sitting as a member of the Sanhedrin – that official body that condemns Jesus to die and offers a somewhat half-hearted defense that Jesus should at least have the right to defend himself and respond to the charges against him. In Chapter 20, however, Nicodemus accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, another secret follower of Jesus, and contributes an exorbitant quantity of spices for Jesus’ ritual burial. Can we assume that by the time of the crucifixion Nicodemus finally gets it and accepts Jesus as his Lord? Does Nicodemus finally have the conversion experience of being born from above and now able to experience God’s kingdom of love?

This passage from John’s Gospel is often used by fundamentalist, evangelical Christians to support their belief in the necessity of an actual and affirmative conversion experience – being born again – in order to be a true follower of Christ. But I think this approach sells these words of Jesus short and oversimplifies the concept of conversion. I’m sure there may be some people who truly have a dramatic experience of being born again into a new life in Christ. For most of us, including our friend Nicodemus, the process of discipleship moves much more slowly, and, may take an entire lifetime in order to be truly realized.

Let’s look at these famous words of Jesus once again – “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Jesus did not say that God was responding to the pleas of anguish from humankind or was acting from a sense of justice, power or expectation. God does not ask the world whether it wants to be loved. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves, but gives his only beloved Son over to death. God’s sending Jesus to our broken world was an act of unconditional love – plain and simple. God loves us whether we like it or not. In light of this love, however, we are called to accept it, embrace it and share it with others or, in the alternative, run away screaming. For it is virtually impossible to remain neutral or ambiguous in light of such Godly extravagance and abundance.

Notwithstanding a vivid imagination and my “we were there” reading memories from childhood, I was not present at Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Gettysburg or at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But, while I was not present with Nicodemus when he had his conversation with Jesus at night, attempted to defend him at his trial and helped prepare him for burial after his brutal passion and death, I feel that I and all of us have a lot in common with this famous Pharisee.

Ultimately, like Nicodemus, we have to choose to be followers of Christ fully mindful that the process is not easy, predictable, linear or quick. And that’s why we have Lent. Lent provides us with an incredible opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, appreciate God’s unconditional love and contemplate God’s ultimate act of redemption. What we learn from Nicodemus this morning is that being born from above takes time. And what we learn from Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus is that God is infinitely patient, does not expect us to be perfect, loves us unconditionally and is waiting for us with open arms – dramatically symbolized by the open arms of Jesus on the cross. Amen.

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Donald Romanik is the President of the Episcopal Church Foundation.

Shortcut: Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (5 March 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; and St. Matthew 4:1-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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shortcutsThe First Sunday in Lent … that’s today. That means we get the story of Jesus being chased into the desert by the Holy Spirit after his baptism by John in the River Jordan, the story of Jesus being accosted in the desert by the Tempter (whom Matthew in our Gospel text today also names “the devil” – in Greek the word is diabolos meaning “accuser”), the story of Jesus refusing to give into the three temptations. We always get some version of this story on the First Sunday in Lent. And this year the Lectionary gives us a double-whammy of temptation by linking that familiar gospel tale with the equally family story of Eve and the serpent and the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the so-called “apple.”

Temptation writ large . . . and in reading these stories again and again over the week, I kept coming back to a single question, “What exactly is temptation?”

My colleague David Henson, in the on-going online dialog we clergy seem to have about preaching and the lessons given us to preach about, was addressing the dualistic nature of the gospel lesson, how it can be wrongly understood to suggest that God and the Tempter are equals. He rightly observed that the story of Christ’s temptations can encourage us to think that there

. . . are two powerful deities – God and Satan, good and evil – commanding from the two opposing fronts of heaven and hell and warring against each other for the territory of earth and for the soul of humankind. (The Rev. David Henson, Facebook posting, March 4, 2017)

And he correctly pointed out that that would be a gross distortion of the Christian understanding of God and creation. The Tempter, the Accuser, Satan, the Devil, the wily old serpent, is not God’s equal! In the course of that discussion, David said that one reason this story can encourage that incorrect dualistic thinking is that

. . . ultimately it makes folks profoundly uncomfortable to consider Jesus being tempted — really, really, really — wanting these things, really feeling the seductive call of comfort, power, and security.

We don’t want to think of the Savior of the world, the Incarnate Son of God, as temptable.

David’s comments, however, really stirred up for me this question about what temptation really is.

Another clergy friend, Nurya Love Parish, is an Episcopal priest who like me was born and raised in Las Vegas and who, also like me, was wasn’t raised in the church. She wrote in an article in a recent issue of The Christian Century that the three temptations offered to Jesus “stand for pride, power, and possession.” She said that when she first realized that, having read it in another essay during her pre-Christian life,

I didn’t know much about Jesus, the devil, or that desert, but I knew pride. I knew the desire for power; I knew the wish for possessions. I was familiar with all of them, from painful experience.

All of a sudden the story wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about me, too. And not just me: it was about all humanity. I knew from the history books and the newspapers that we all struggle with pride, power, and possession. People and nations fight, kill, and die over who is worthy of respect, who gets control, and who owns what. The more I thought about it, the more these three simple words seemed to be at the heart of the human experience. (Living by the Word)

When I read what Nurya wrote, I thought it was spot on, and I still do, but it occurred to me that pride, power, and possession don’t really help us, or at least they don’t help me, to understand today’s other temptation story, the tale of Eve (and Adam) and the serpent and the so-called “apple.” If the temptations of Christ represent pride, power, and possession, what does the temptation of the proto-parents in Eden represent?

Well, in the midst of contemplating that, I was also doing my reading for the Education for Ministry seminar group that I participate in each week at the Cathedral, and in this week’s readings I was reminded of the theological focus of our study this year, the idea of “deification” or (to give it its technical Greek name) theosis.

Way back in the Second Century, the Bishop of Lyons in what is now France, a man named Irenaeus, wrote a book entitled Against All Heresies (Adversus omnes Haereses) in which he said, “The sure and true Teacher, the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, on account of his immense love was made what we are, so that we might become what he is.” A later bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, about 150 years later wrote, “God became human that humans might become God.” (De Incarnatione) What these ancient writers are saying is that the ultimate end of human beings is union with the divine. This is what is meant by “deification” or theosis.

You will remember, I’m sure, the words of Genesis in which the creation of humankind is described, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Gen 1:27) The Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov says that our creation in the image of God predestines us to theosis. Our creation in God’s image gives us a built-in longing to be united with our Creator, an innate desire for deification.

The the late-17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about this longing in this way:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. (Pensées VII[425])

Pascal’s formulation has been summarized by the often-heard comment that we human beings have a “God-shaped hole” in us.

So it seems to me that the temptation of Eve (and Adam) is the attempt to take a shortcut to the human destiny of deification. This is what the wily serpent promises her, “You will not die; . . . when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Gen 3:4-5) You will have taken a shortcut to theosis!

Shortcuts are also what the Tempter offers to Jesus.

Have you ever baked bread? I used to bake bread every week. Back in my college days, I lived in a house with six other guys, nine dogs, and a cat. We shared the cooking responsibilities (well, the guys did – the dogs and the cat, not so much). I took on the task of making our breads. I loved to bake bread; there is something intensely satisfying about it. It’s a process: the measuring, the mixing, letting the dough rise, punching it down to rise again, forming and proofing the loaves, and then the oven . . . and what comes out! It’s heaven! I love it. I wish I had the time to do it now. The Accuser’s suggestion that Jesus turn stones into bread is a shortcut temptation; forget the process, skip the work and the effort, go straight to that wonderful stuff that comes out of the oven.

The proposal that he throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in a show of religious power is another temptation to shortcut. Do that, make a big splashy show of being divine, and you won’t have to go through the laborious, frustrating, and frankly painful process of calling, teaching, and leading disciples. The idea that Jesus might accept political domination of the world is nothing more than the temptation to shortcut the process of being and setting a moral example, of being and showing the love and life of God in human form.

Just as, for Eve (and Adam) the temptation to eat the fruit was a temptation to shortcut the long process of learning and growing into unity and community with their God, into theosis or deification, for the Son of God the Devil’s offerings of power, pride, and possession were temptations to shortcut the process of being incarnate, of taking part in those things which my friend Nurya correctly tagged as being “at the heart of the human experience.”

So it occurred to me that that is what temptation is. That there is really only one temptation – the shortcut. That every temptation boils down to what we in the modern world have come to call “instant gratification.”

I don’t spend all my reading time on the Bible, on Education for Ministry, or on theology. I actually do take time to read for fun and currently my leisure reading is a collection of novellas by the famous science fiction writer Ursula Leguin. They have been gathered into a single volume entitled The Found and the Lost. One of the stories is a first-person narrative called A Woman’s Liberation and tells the tale of woman raised in slavery who gains freedom and becomes a scholar. At one point, describing her education, she writes,

What I loved to learn was history. I had grown up without any history. There was nothing [where I lived] but the way things were. Nobody knew anything about any time when things had been different. Nobody knew there was any place where things might be different. We were enslaved by the present time. (Ursula Leguin, The Found and the Lost, Saga Press, New York:2016, page 389)

This is what the temptations of Eve (and Adam) and of Jesus represent: entrapment in a dead-end present where the process of growth, like the yeast in the bread, like the gathering of a community of disciples, like human development into theosis, is cut short.

To be sure, Jesus told us to live in the present. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he said, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Mat 6:34) But the reason he gave that instruction was clear: he said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or What will we wear?’ For . . . your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mat 6:31-33) Do not be enslaved by the present time; do not live in a dead-end present where you have filled your “God-shaped hole” with instant gratification because of worry over pride, power, and possession.

Live in an open-ended present where things might be different, an open-ended present that leads to the kingdom of God and his righteousness, an open-ended present that leads to deification.

So . . . I think that’s the answer to my question, “What is temptation?” Temptation is a shortcut that leads to entrapment in a dead-end present. This is why Lent is a season, a process that begins with the story of Jesus’ temptation. It reminds us to live in the open-ended present where the yeast can rise, where the community can form, where becoming is as important as being.

God became human . . . and refused the temptation to shortcut that process . . . that humans might become gods . . . despite Eve’s (and Adam’s) giving into the temptation to shortcut that process. Live into that process; live in the open-ended present, the open-ended Presence of God. Amen.

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

Complicated Joseph: Sermon for Advent 4 – 18 December 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 4 in Year A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; Romans 1:1-7; and St. Matthew 1:18-25. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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angel-appears-to-joseph-in-a-dream1In these few verses, Matthew opens up for us the complexity of Joseph as a human being. He hints at, and we can imagine, Joseph’s distress, his sense of betrayal, his disappointment, and all the other emotions he must have experienced. We can imagine also the fear and hurt that Mary probably would have felt as she and her betrothed sorted out the complications caused by the divine intrusion into their relationship.

Unlike Luke’s pastorally pleasing story of the manger, the angels, and the shepherds, Matthew gives us a direct and simple story of Mary and Joseph as human beings, not characters frozen in a stained-glass window, but flesh and blood people, people like us dealing with a serious complication in their relationship. Thus, we can see ourselves to be people like them, people who live complex lives, who have all sorts of experiences, some of them quite detrimental, and yet whom God invites nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.

Poets have explored the complex humanity of Joseph and his possible reactions to the news given by the angel in his dream. For example, in Joseph’s Suspicion, Rainer Maria Rilke envisions Joseph arguing with the angel, forcefully refusing to believe even that Mary is pregnant, raising his fist to the angel defending Mary’s honor:

The angel spoke and patiently tried to
convince the man, who met him with clenched fists:
Can you not see that in every way
she is as cool as God’s first morning mist?

And yet the man looked at him glowering with
suspicion, murmuring: what has brought about her change?
But then the angel cried in anger: Carpenter!
Do you not yet perceive the hand of God’s own doing?

Because you handle wood and know your trade,
do you in arrogance call Him to task
who from the self-same wood you handle now
can make green leaves appear and swelling buds?

He understand. And as he raised his eyes;
now full of fear, to meet the angel’s face,
he was gone. Slowly Joseph removed his cap.
Then he began to sing his song of praise.

In his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden envisions Joseph asking for “important and elegant proof” that Mary’s word is true; the angel refuses and, instead, demands that Joseph simply have faith in what Auden clearly considers a scientific impossibility.

JOSEPH:
Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
Everything, everything,
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of the sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Stupidly, stupidly,
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me, Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them . . .
GABRIEL:
No, you must.
JOSEPH:
How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.
GABRIEL:
No.
JOSEPH:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
GABRIEL:
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

The Narrator of the oratorio then compares Joseph’s dilemma to that of Adam believing Eve and eating the apple, and traces the spiritual relationship of men and women through the ages, ending with this advice to Joseph:

You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.
There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.

The Jesuit poet John Lynch in his narrative poem A Woman Wrapped in Silence, writes of what we do not know, capturing through our ignorance what Joseph and Mary might really have been to each other in their mutual consternation:

What source we have of knowledge of her days
Is sparing, and has left us many days
Still veiled, and if there is enough to find
What Joseph found, and a few dear treasured words,
We must have more to lead us where our love
Would seek to go. And there is one sweet place
That distant watching eyes could fondly wish
To see and ponder on. Did Joseph come,
And with his sobs seek pardon for his fears?
And did he see how, suddenly, his love
Was greater than he knew and could be carried
Now along new pathways with his prayers?
God’s kingdom now was four, and claimed again
Another life to be with Zachary,
To listen with Elizabeth, and then
With her to serve. O, glad, he was for strength,
And glad for honor, and for nmae, and glad
His hand was skilled enough to fashion walls
And build the smallness of a crib that now
Would cradle more than all the world could hold.
Dreams of all his fathers fell on him
In one bright dream, and all bright hopes were clear.
We may not know for sure, and yet, and yet,
May we not see how quietly he came
And spoke no word. And Mary saw him come,
Finding a new thing shining in his eyes.
And when quick tears of gladness and relief
Were done, she saw him kneel, lift up his hands,
Two hands that held invisibly, his life.
She may have reached her own pale fingers out
And found them . . . callused, generous, and strong.

Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship, Perkins School of Theology, in her commentary on this gospel entitled The Fear of Betrayal offers not a poem, but a vignette offering another possible conversation between Joseph and the angel:

On this night, as much as on Christmas Eve, an angel hovered near, whispering a message from God into Joseph’s sleeping ear. The angel interrupted the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement that played in the theater of Joseph’s dreams. The angel replaced them with a manger scene and visions of a boy growing and becoming strong.

“Here,” whispered the angel, “is the key that unlocks your dilemma. Believe her unbelievable story. Marry her, and become the father of God’s child. He will need a father to be accepted by others as he grows to manhood. He will need, not just any father, but a father like you, capable of nurturing him, and giving him a name. ‘Immanuel — God with us.’

“He will need a father like you to teach him to take risks like the one you are about to take, for he will be tempted not to take them.

“He will need a father like you to teach him to withstand the disapproval of others, as you will soon have to withstand it.

“He will need a father like you to teach him what to do in situations like this one, when all hope seems lost and only pain remains; to model how to believe the unbelievable good news and to walk ahead in faith.

“If you do not walk the hard road to Bethlehem, who will teach him how to climb the cruel hill to Calvary?”

In this way, I imagine the father of our Lord was born that night.

These writers through their imaginative treatments show us what Matthew hints at in his simple story: that Joseph was a complex man, a human being like any of us, entrusted by God with the ominous responsibility of fostering God’s own son. We can imagine that his response to that invitation might have been as fearful and as conflicted as any of ours would have been and yet, although Joseph soon disappears from the gospel narratives, we can be assured that he accomplished that ministry with skill and grace. From that we can take the comfort that when God invites us to accomplish his purposes, as God surely does, we too will be able to do so with skill and grace.

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

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