That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Romans (page 2 of 8)

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.

Swords into Ploughshares, But No Rapture: Sermon for Advent 1, 27 November 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 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 1 in Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; and St. Matthew 24:36-44. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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swordsploughsharesrockefeller“Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt 24:40-42) You probably have friends who have told you these verses from Matthew’s Gospel describe something called “the Rapture.” You may have read the Left Behind books or seen the movies. So you may think you have a handle on what these verses mean and why they are offered to us as we begin our Advent preparation to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s Incarnation and to look forward to his return, his “Second Coming.”

Well… just hold that thought for a moment and let’s explore the first reading before we get back to it.

This is such a great passage from the Prophet Isaiah that we have this morning. It’s got those wonderful verses that are carved into the wall of the broad plaza across the street from the United Nations building in New York City:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4, NRSV)

It’s got all that wonderful imagery of the nations of the world streaming toward the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, at peace with one another. It’s a wonderful, wonderful vision.

We keep waiting for it, don’t we?

Isaiah saw this vision during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah about 750 years before Jesus’ time. Isaiah promulgated what is known as “Zion theology,” a religious understanding of Jerusalem as the center of the world and the Temple as the center of Jerusalem. The Lord will come to it and its mount, Holy Zion, will be the most prominent mountain. The nations will all come to Jerusalem to learn divine teaching. Yahweh, enthroned in the Temple, will mediate and end all international conflict. The waging of war will cease.

Of course, none of that has ever happened, but for nearly eight centuries after Isaiah the son of Amoz this was the belief and hope of Israel, of all Jews. The realities of this text exist in the realms of promise, hope, and faith.

Or at least they did until about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here’s a little First Century history lesson:

Jesus was born sometime around the year we might think of as “Zero” – in truth, we think he was born about the year now designated 4 B.C. (The calendar designations we use were developed by a man named Dionysus Exiguus – Dennis the Short – around the year 525 A.D. Dennis made a couple of miscalculations and so our calendar is just a bit off; it really doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus.) He lived to about his mid-thirties; the most popular dating of the crucifixion is April 3 of the year 33 A.D.

The Gospels were written several years after Jesus’ Ascension. Folks apparently thought it would be a good idea to get things written down because the original followers of Jesus were dying off. So Mark’s gospel was compiled a few years before 70 A.D., perhaps in the mid-60s. Matthew’s gospel is believed to have come next, about 80 A.D., perhaps as late as 90 A.D. Luke wrote his gospel and the Book of Acts at about the same time. John’s gospel comes along about the year 100 A.D.

These dates are important because of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Around the year 64 A.D. the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled against the then-ruling Roman Procurator, a man named Gessius Florius, who had tried to take the Temple treasury for his own use. They succeeded in expelling Florius from the city, but only after nearly 4,000 Jews had been killed. Then they got into a battle amongst themselves. There was essentially a civil war between the forces of Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, who claimed to be king, and Eliezer ben-Hananiah, who was the high priest.

This division between the Jews allowed the Roman Procurator of Syria Cestius Gallius to lay siege to the city for four years between 66 and 70 A.D. and basically starve the Jews. In the late summer of 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus Flavius successfully breached the city walls and destroyed the city and the Temple. The contemporary Jewish historian Joseph ben Matityahu reported that more than a million Jews were killed.

That is when the Zion theology of Isaiah took a nearly fatal blow. There was no longer a Temple to which (as the Psalmist put it)

the tribes [could] go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord. (Ps 122:4, BCP 1979 Version)

This was also the background, the context within which Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels were written. When the authors set about to record the story of Jesus, they look back to view him through the smoke of burning Jerusalem, across the rubble of the destroyed Temple.

Thus, they remembered things that Jesus had said about the Temple’s destruction. They remembered things that Jesus had said about his own probable death. They remembered and interpreted and wrote about many things in light of what was happening and had happened in the world around them. Of course they did! They were just as human as you and me, and the way they saw things and understood things and reported things was influenced by their experiences.

“The impact of this catastrophe cannot be overestimated. The loss of the war was itself devastating. The loss of the city of Jerusalem, the symbolic unifier of the Jewish people and the physical link to the memories that make Jews distinctively Jewish, tying them together all the way back to David, who ruled from this city, this loss shook the people deeply.” (Prof. Richard W. Swanson) Including the followers of Jesus, who at that time still thought of themselves as Jews.

Which brings us back to those verses from today’s gospel reading . . . that much cited and much misinterpreted text! When they remembered Jesus saying, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matt 24:40-41), the evangelists didn’t think he was talking about something that would happen in some future when he would return. They believed, probably correctly, that he was talking about something that had already happened to them and to their families and to their country. They had lived through a devastating and now inescapable loss. As a result of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which they had 800 years of regarding as the center of the universe, “every extended family [had] lost many members.” (Swanson)

In Luke’s version of this story, by the way, the disciples ask a follow-up question: Jesus says, “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” (Lk 17:34-35) Then his followers ask, “Where, Lord?” and Jesus them to look for the ones taken “Where the corpse is,” where “the vultures will gather.” The authors of the gospels were not looking forward to this happening; they had already been through it. (See Benjamin Corey)

It wasn’t until a crazy Irish Anglican priest named John Darby took these verses out of context and mashed it together with something Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about being “caught up in the clouds together with [the risen dead] to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4:17), and stirred it all together with some crazy imagery from the Book of Revelation, that we get the notion of a “rapture.” That “pointless [and] weird theology has . . . produced some strange bumper stickers (In case of Rapture this car will be driverless, etc.), and bad movies (you know which ones), [but] it is not what these words are about.” (Swanson)

These words are about hope even in the worst possible of circumstances. As Professor Arland Hultgren of Luther Seminary says:

The message of Christ’s return is not meant to frighten us. It is to give us hope. ~ The Christ who is to come is the Christ who once lived among us on earth, and who is known in the gospel story as the friend and healer of those in need. Moreover, living in hope, expecting Christ’s return, is integral to the Christian faith, for by it we insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already. (Hultgren)

There is another prophet whose words convey this message, the Prophet Habakkuk who shouted his intent to praise the Lord even when everything had gone bad. He wrote:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Hab 3:17-19a)

This is the hope of Advent, the hope that lets us believe, indeed lets us know with certainty that although Jerusalem may be destroyed, although the Temple may be in ruins, although war may rage around us, still there will be a time when

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4)

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man [who will usher in that time of peace] is coming at an unexpected hour.” Amen.

Note: The illustration is “Swords into Plowshares” by Lee Oscar Lawrie at the International Building, Rockefeller Center, NYC, NY.

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

A Meditation on Mortality (for the parish newsletter)

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the July 2016 issue of “The Epistle,” the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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firefliesThe week of the summer solstice was an interesting one in the Funston household.

The night of the solstice there was what is known as a “strawberry moon,” a phenomenon which only occurs when a full moon coincides with the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, longest day of the year. The moon takes on an amber or pinkish glow which astronomers explain is caused by the setting sun’s positioning, affecting the angle at which the sun’s rays pass through Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, the apparent coloration of the moon.

The name “strawberry moon” was given by the Native American Algonquin tribes of northern Michigan and Canada. They believed that a full moon in June signified that it was time to start picking fruits, including strawberries. It is also known as the Rose, Hot, or Honey Moon (the latter being the origin of the name given a newly married couple’s post-wedding get-away). The last time there was a “strawberry moon” was during the so-called “summer of love” in 1967.

Biblically, the summer solstice and the nearest full moon are associated with punishment and death. It was taught by the rabbis in their commentaries on Scripture that this was the time when Moses disobeyed God and was told he could not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Hebrews, but would die instead.

I made note of the “strawberry moon” as I took Dudley for his last walk of the evening before going to bed. I also noticed a large number of fireflies winking in the trees and lawns of our neighborhood. Fireflies always remind me of two things: summers spent with my grandparents in Winfield, Kansas, during the 1950s, and burying my late brother in 1993, also in Winfield which was his home town. The night after his burial in late June, the fireflies were more numerous and more active than I had ever seen them before, nor have I ever seen that many since!

So the “strawberry moon” and the fireflies were, in a sense, a reminder of mortality. The next day, I was scheduled to visit a urologist at the request of my primary care physician. The reason: elevated prostate specific antigen levels in my blood. “Not a big deal,” I thought. I have always had a high PSA level. However, after taking my history, asking a lot of personal questions, and conducting an examination, the urologist told me that I have the classic signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and referred me for a biopsy. That will happen later this month.

“Still,” I thought, “No big deal.” Prostate cancer is slow growing and can often be left untreated without any real impact on a man’s health. However, given my family history of various sorts of cancers, it’s a matter of some (though not a lot of) concern.

I thought that would be the big medical news of the day until late that night. I had gone to bed and was sound asleep when Evie woke me up gasping for breath and obviously very anxious. We headed for the hospital where, eventually, it was discovered that she had two pulmonary emboli, blood clots, in her left lung. (See note below.)

That was yesterday. As I write, she is still in the hospital and will be for a few days while the doctors try to determine how and why she developed these clots.

So in the course of 24 hours, we have both been reminded of our own mortality and, I have to say, I think we’re taking it rather well. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about how we modern human beings face the reality of our own mortality (Facing Your Own Mortality, 9 Oct 1988).

The article contrasted a 60-year-old woman “stricken by two life-threatening ailments – insulin-dependent diabetes and breast cancer” – with a man in his 60s, a doctor “crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The woman, the author wrote, “stares death down every day. Despite the odds against her, she accepts the possibility of her imminent death with astonishing serenity. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not ask, as many patients do, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she thought, ‘Why not me? Rather than crying about your affliction, you have to live every minute you have as a gift.’”

The man, on the other hand, was described as “unable to overcome his anger at being crippled.” He “refused to acknowledge his encroaching impairment. He became hostile toward those around him. As his condition forced him to give up his practice, his anger often exploded. His wife, his full-time caretaker, bears the brunt of his fury. She has confided to friends with great sadness that she awaits the time when both of them will be released from the prison of terminal illness.”

What is it that makes it possible for some of us to face our own deaths with equanimity while others become anxious and angry? I believe the answer is faith, not necessarily the Christian (or even religious) faith, but that sense that life has meaning and that there is a greater purpose in the universe than simply our own meagre existence.

As I write on June 23 for the July issue of The Epistle, today’s Daily Office Lectionary texts included a selection from the Letter to the Romans in which Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, be-cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3b-5) That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith, the sure and certain hope that (as Paul writes later in the same letter) “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

I used to have a congregant (in another parish) who frequently asked me, “What will happen when I die?” I would answer her, “Martha, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know because I haven’t been there yet; I don’t care because there’s not much I can do about it.” Jesus asked his followers, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) He clearly didn’t think so, for his follow up instruction was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It is that attitude of faith, to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, that I think allows some to face death with calmness and composure. I commend it to you.

Live for today! Enjoy the summer!

(Note: Yesterday, the day after this was written, I was told by the attending physician that Evie had “a lot of clots, so many clots” in both her lungs. He said that if I hadn’t brought her to the emergency room on Wednesday night, but had opted to wait until morning, she would probably have died. So, take it from me, don’t dismiss even a little unexplained shortness of breath! – Return to Text)

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

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

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

Beloved Insecurity (Sermon for Lent I, RCL Year C) – 14 February 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; and St. Luke 4:1-13. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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417px-Temptation_of_Christ

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night.

But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

That is the poem Beloved Is Where We Begin by Jan Richardson from her collection of verse entitled Circle of Grace. It speaks to us of the gospel story we have just heard; it speaks to us as we begin our Lenten journey. We know the story – we know that this “whispered name” is what Jesus heard right before, “full of the Spirit,” he was led into the desert: “You are my Son, my Beloved. In you I am well pleased.”

Today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy was clearly chosen to make the connection between the Hebrews’ forty years of wandering and Jesus’ forty days in the desert, between their celebration by feasting and his time of fasting. In Year A of the Lectionary cycle, however, we are asked to consider Genesis 3 and the “fall” of Adam and Eve, their giving into the serpent’s temptation to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. I suspect that, when most of us think of temptation, it is that story we most often recall.

You may remember a few weeks ago, when we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, that I read you the genealogy which Luke places between that story and this tale of his time in the desert. That Luke closed the baptism story and introduces the temptations by tracing Jesus’ descent from Adam, suggests that Luke is thinking of the Garden of Eden story, as well. Perhaps Luke is making the point that, like the temptation of Adam and Eve, the temptations put before Jesus had very little to do with a power grab by Satan and almost everything to do with playing on human feelings of insecurity and mistrust.

This is also true, however, of the Hebrews’ forty-years journey through the wilderness of Sinai. They, too, faced desert insecurities during those four decades and those temptations were parallel to those offered Jesus. Like Adam and Eve, the first temptation offered Jesus is one of food, playing human insecurity around nourishment and food, both physical and spiritual. The wandering Hebrews, too, faced that anxiety. Remember that they complained of Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3)

The second temptation of Jesus, the offer of lordship over all the kingdoms of the earth, is less about being a ruler and more about simply being recognized; it is the insecurity of identity, of being known to one’s fellow human beings. In the wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites again railed against Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3) They were afraid that they would all parish and that no one would remember them, that their existence and their identity would be forgotten.

The third temptation addresses the human insecurity of support, the human need for reassurance that God cares. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple; surely God will command his angels will save you!” says Satan. The Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when Moses was delayed for 40 days and 40 nights, began to feel that same insecurity; they begged Aaron to make them a god. He did, a Golden Calf, before which they danced and felt reassured. (Ex 32)

Forty days and nights on the mountain, forty years on the desert journey, forty days in the desert . . . Why the forty days? I’ve read that whenever we see “forty” in the Holy Scriptures what it is really saying to us is “this lasts as long as it takes for us to figure this thing out.” It means “as long as it takes for you to hear that word, ‘Beloved,’” “as long as it takes for you to know that the one who loves you will not abandon you, will not leave you without nourishment, will not let you cease to be as if you had never existed, will not fail to care for you and support you.” As long as it takes.

The 17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal described human beings as having what he called a “God-shaped hole,” not a flaw, but rather a natural yearning, “the empty print and trace” of a true happiness that once was there, an “infinite abyss” that can only be filled by God. (Pensees, 10:148) Similarly, St. Augustine of Hippo, the 4th Century African bishop, in the first lines of his Confessions, wrote that “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” (1.1.1) Based on such insights, Lutheran theologian David Lose has suggested that before there was “original sin” there is “original insecurity.” He writes, “Adam and Eve are tempted to overcome that original insecurity not through their relationship with God but through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit that in that moment looks to be shaped just like their hole.” The Hebrews in the desert of Sinai thought that the soup kettles and stew pots of Egypt would fill the hole, or that water from a desert spring would fill the hole, or that a Golden Calf cast from their earrings and necklaces would fill the hole. Satan tried to convince Jesus that bread made from stones, or rulership of the world’s nations, or the ability to fly like Superman, held up by the angels, would fill that hole.

Over and over again in human life, the devil attempts to sow mistrust: you may go hungry; you may not be recognized and appreciated; you cannot trust God to sustain and care for you. In the wilderness, Jesus replies with Scripture, not because life’s challenges can be answered by remembering or quoting Bible verses but because Jesus finds in Scripture, as we can, the words to give voice to his trust in the Father. At the core of each reply is Jesus’ absolute trust in God for spiritual and physical nourishment, for identity and ministry, for support and care.

And where does Jesus find that? Just where the Hebrews ultimately found it. For them, the nourishment, identity, and support were not, ultimately, found in a homeland; they were found where God had put them, in their hearts. Looking for security outside themselves, they failed to see it inside. Over and over again the security they longed for was offered to them, well before they entered the Promised Land. Manna falling from the sky, miraculous springs of water opening to assuage their thirst, rules to live by offered on Mt. Sinai – these weren’t just sign-posts pointing to the promise. They were and are the promise! The Hebrews were looking for a home, a Promised Land which would sustain and support them. But they had that all along. God was their home, their sustenance, their support.

Unlike the Israelites, Jesus knew that all along. Luke drops this short phrase into the story – “full of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and, thus, able to respond with steadfast sureness and faith when tempted by the Devil. Every one of us knows how hard it is to resist temptation; the world (if not the Devil) plays on our insecurities all the time! Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit in the desert was not an isolated or special thing, a temporary truth for him alone; it is a promise for us. It is a promise that has been for all of God’s People since the beginning and will always be, for Adam and Eve, for Moses and the Israelites, for you, and for me.

That insecure, yearning hole in the middle of our existence is already filled, we just need to realize that! For the next forty days, or the next forty years, or as long as it takes, we need to come to the recognition that that “God-shaped hole” is already “filled with the Holy Spirit,” that the Lord has always been our refuge, to come to the knowledge that the Most High has always been our habitation, to understand that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and to know those

strange graces
that come to our aid . . . .
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:
Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

Amen.

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

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

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

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

Baseball and a Father’s Death: A Funeral Homily, 18 November 2015

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A sermon offered at the requiem for James E. Freiberger, held November 18, 2015, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the requiem were Lamentations 3:22-26,31-33; Psalm 27:1-7; Romans 8:14-19,34-35,37-39; and John 11:21-27. These lessons may be found at the Burials Lectionary Page The Lectionary Page. Mr. Freiberger’s obituary may be found here.)

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Baseball and GloveThe death of anyone important in our lives is a tragic and painful thing, even if the relationship was strained or even broken. This is especially so when a parent dies and, for some reason, more so when that parent is our father, perhaps because we use that metaphor of fatherhood to explain God’s relationship to us. Whenever someone’s father passes away, I cannot help but remember the poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

The death of a parent, especially a father (I think) no matter what our relationship with him may have been, fills us with rage, with conflicted emotion, with a frustration difficult to name. Let us commend all of that to God, as we commend the soul of James E. Freiberger to God’s eternal care.

I didn’t know Jim Freiberger; I do not know if he was (to use poet Thomas’s labels) a wise man, a good man, a wild man, or a grave man, so I cannot eulogize him. But I do know that he was a father and I know that he was in the Navy, that he had a career in data processing, and that he had three children, one of whom I know. I am told that he was a gifted athlete and almost had a chance to play professional baseball, a game about which he was passionate . . . a love I know he passed on to his daughter.

So I got to thinking about baseball and did some research and found an article about the lessons baseball can teach us, lessons that can be applied in business and management. I think what the author has to say suggests that baseball can also teach us something about our spiritual life, as well. It’s a cliché, I think, that baseball is a metaphor for life, but (in many ways) it actually is.

The author of that business article contrasts the timing of baseball with the timing of sports such as football or basketball, noting that in those sports there is a clock which limits the time of the game and ticks down inexorably and finally, and although there might be overtime in the event of a tie at the end of regulation play, even that is bounded by the clock. In contrast, he writes:

Baseball is a game that is pastoral in nature, a reminder of a time that our life was slower and most of us lived on farms and small towns. You have 27 outs and the game is not over until all outs are exhausted. There is no clock to pressure you. You simply go on your business until it is done. Time marches slowly in baseball and baseball allows us to simply relax for three hours while drinking a few adult beverages.

I think this is part of the message of the lesson from Lamentations: “[God’s] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” God’s time marches slowly and it is always merciful and every morning is new. We can relax into God’s time; we can find comfort in God’s time; we can find all things renewed in God’s time; we can abandon our frustrations, our rages, and our fears in God’s time. “The Lord is the strength of my life,” says the Psalmist today, “of whom then shall I be afraid?”

In the article, then, the author talks about the way baseball deals with failure:

Baseball teaches about failure as the length of the season reflects the pace of our life. You have 162 games and there are days in which the batter can’t see the ball or the pitches look more like beach balloons as the opposing hitters feast on the big fat pitches coming their way. The beauty of baseball is that you can suck one day but the next you can redeem yourself. You don’t have to wait a week before getting a chance to get it right.

And you don’t have to dwell on getting it wrong. It occurred to me this morning that there’s a real contrast between football and baseball with regard to getting it wrong. In football, every mistake a player or a team can make has a name and is remembered by that name: the quarterback sack, the fumble, the incomplete pass, the missed block, and so forth. Fans and players relive, again and again, all the mistakes of past games. In baseball, on the other hand, there’s just one word for every sort of mistake: error. The scorekeeper and the statisticians keep track of “errors,” but the rest of us move on. There’s no point in dwelling on mistakes, because (after all) they are forgiven. They will be of no consequence in the end. As Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [and I would add that includes ourselves and any mistakes or errors or bad decisions we have made] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The author of our article on baseball and business then takes a look at the game’s attitude towards success, something that none us (especially in our families and interpersonal relationships) really have much of. He writes:

In baseball, if you hit .300, you are very good. In most sports, hitting .300 represent failures. Quarterbacks lose their jobs if their accuracy is 55% but in baseball, a manager who win 55% of the games is brilliant. In college football winning only 55% of your games will get you fired. Ask any good salesman and they will tell you if they get 30% of their prospects to buy their products, this will produce a successful year. There are days that you wonder why you got up and then there are days in which wow, you can’t do no wrong just like the baseball player who hits for the cycle.

In the Christian faith we believe in a cycle . . . a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that we call “Resurrection,” not a rebirth into this world as taught by some other religions, but a rebirth into the Presence of God. This is the assurance Jesus gave to Martha, to Mary, to their brother Lazarus; it is the assurance that his own birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension gives to us. “I go,” he told his disciples, “to prepare a place for you . . . and I will gather you to myself, that where I am you may also be.” Martha said to Jesus about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And we can say that now about Jim Freiberger and about all of us, no matter what our “batting average” or our “percentage of accuracy” may have been.

So, baseball (about which Jim was passionate) has something to teach us about our spirituality; it may be a cliché, but it is true that baseball can be a metaphor for life. If you “Google” that phrase – “baseball is a metaphor for life” – you will find, among many other less colorful explanations, this somewhat off-color monologue by the character Kenny Shea in the television program Rescue Me:

Anyway, baseball and life, one in the same. Everybody always says that life is too short. Bullshit. Life, unless you get cancer or hit by a bus or set on fire, takes forever. Just like baseball. It’s a series of long, mind-boggling boring stretches of time where absolutely nothing happens. So, you take a nap, and then, after a little while, when that crisp crack of the bat hittin’ the ball, so crisp you could almost smell that wood burning, jolts you awake and you open your eyes to see something so exciting and intricate, and possibly, very, very meaningful has just happened, but you missed it ’cause you were just so goddamn bored in the first place. Oh, you know, a couple of hot dogs, throw in some beers, . . . and that’s that.

So baseball is a metaphor for life with its long boring stretches and its moments of excitement and its disappointments. The author L.R. Knost didn’t mention baseball but she made the same point when she wrote:

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Today, we commend to almighty God the soul of James E. Freiberger – Navy man, father, grandfather, data processing worker, lover of baseball – whose life was amazing and awful and ordinary and routine and, like everyone’s in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful. Remember that, remember the beautiful part, and remember that, whatever else may be true about Jim Freiberger, remember that “nothing in all of creation will be able to separate [him] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

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

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

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

Caring vs Rules: A Sermon for Proper 27B, Pentecost 24 (8 Nov 2015)

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B, Track 1, RCL), November 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Ruth 3:1-5;4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44 . These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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The Widow's Mite by RembrandtI get letters. Sometimes they’re really nice letters. And sometimes they’re not. Today, I want to tell you about a letter and how it caused me to rethink the two stories of women in today’s lectionary readings: First, the end of the story of Ruth from the biblical book named for her, and second, the story of Jesus watching and commenting upon the sacrificial giving of a widow in the Jerusalem temple.

The Book of Ruth is a very simple story. As Dr. Alphonetta Wines, a Methodist theologian, has said:

The genius of the book of Ruth begins with its literary simplicity. In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself. Both are abundantly blessed in the process. In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. In chapter four, the birth of Ruth’s child Obed brings Naomi joy that she thought would never be hers again. What began in misfortune has turned out to be a blessing for generations to come. (Working Preacher Commentary)

It’s simplicity, however, obscures for us its very radical messages: one of hope for women in a patriarchal society where the rules are all stacked against them, and another for inclusion of the stranger and the alien for it tells us this foreign woman, Ruth the Moabite, was the great grandmother of Israel’s King David and, thus, an ancestor of his descendent whom we believe to be the Son of God.

The story of the widow in the temple is another study in simplicity. Jesus is in the temple teaching, very clearly teaching against the scribes whom he criticizes for their opulent and self-serving ways. Having just criticized the scribes for “devouring widows’ houses,” he watches this particular widow turn over to those same scribes everything she possesses. Jesus seems to praise her for giving “out of her poverty . . . everything she had,” while criticizing wealthier donors who merely “contribute out of their abundance.”

This story has been used countless times a “stewardship sermon” text to encourage sacrificial giving by modern Christians. However, while I certainly want to encourage your generosity to the church, I think that’s a misuse of the text. Elsewhere, Jesus has encouraged such giving (as when he tells the wealthy young man to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor”) but I don’t believe that that is his intent here. Rather, in this story he is (I believe) teaching a lesson about two approaches to religion, a lesson also taught by the whole story of Ruth.

I came to this conclusion on Friday. Two things happened on Friday. The first was my practice of reading every morning from Daily Office lectionary; the second was the letter I just mentioned, which was delivered to the church office by our mailman on Friday afternoon.

The Daily Office Old Testament readings for the past couple of weeks have been from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah telling the story of the return of Jerusalem’s exiles from Babylonia and their rebuilding of the Temple; the Gospel readings have been from Matthew’s Gospel. On Friday, the latter was the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread, while the lesson from Ezra told of the sacrifice made in thanksgiving for the completion and dedication of the restored temple:

At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord. (Ezra 8:35)

In my Daily Office meditation on Friday, I wrote that the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story from Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is a striking illustration of two very different understandings of religion: on the one hand, religion as rules; on the other, religion as caring.

In our contemporary society and for the past several years, it’s been fashionable amongst some people to make a distinction between being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Those who study modern religion, such as the Pew Institute, even have a classification, “SBNR,” as one of their demographic categories, the “spiritual but not religious.” That distinction, I think, is what is addressed by our bible stories today; I don’t think Ruth or Naomi or Jesus or the widow in the temple would ever make that distinction, however. They would never divorce spirituality from religion. They might, however, make a distinction between these two kinds of religious practice: religion as rules versus religion as caring.

You know that I love looking into word origins, what is technically called “etymology”. Usually when I do this in a sermon I ask you to consider the original Greek of the New Testament, or the Hebrew of the Old Testament, but today I want to look at the English word religion, its root and derivation, and what we mean by it. If we look in the dictionary we will find that it is defined as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, offers this definition: “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, as part of their web presence, has a really good subsection for reporting religious news from all over the world. On the homepage of that religious news section, the BBC includes this statement:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (BBC.co.uk)

Notice what is common to all these definitions: beliefs about gods (or at least the supernatural), regulations of conduct, and ritual ceremonies. In other words, they are all about religion as rules. Only at the end, and only as a optional element, does the BBC definition include anything about morality or social behavior or anything that could be called “religion as caring”.

These definitions apply fully to the conduct of the scribes Jesus talks about in the Gospel lesson: they “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and . . . for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” They also apply to the Israelite society into which Naomi and Ruth come from Moab, a patriarchal society dominated by religious regulations, the Law of Moses, which denied independent livelihood to women. Beliefs, regulations, rituals: religion as rules.

The first recorded use of the word religion in the English language was in the 12th Century to describe the state of life of those bound by monastic vows and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, but in both uses the emphasis is on religion as rules. Our word religion derives from the Latin word religionem which Roman philosophers, such as Cicero and Lactantius, used to connote a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods; St. Jerome used it in the Latin vulgate translation of the Bible to render a Greek word meaning “religious ceremonies” (threskeia, Acts 26:5 & James 1:26-27).

The root of the Latin word religionem, however, was a matter of some dispute amongst those same Roman writers. Some believed it came from the verb religare which means “to bind up,” which is what rules do. Others, however, argued that it derived from relegere meaning “to read again” or “to read carefully,” that it is related to the word religiens meaning “careful”, the opposite of negligens, or negligent. This second derivation suggests that religion is less about rules than it is about caring.

The beliefs-rules-and-rituals understanding of religion is the way a lot of people, like the temple scribes and like early Israelite patriarchal society, understand religion. When this is our understanding, we end up following rules that lead the grossly over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock described in Friday’s Old Testament reading, we end up following rules that leave widowed women unable to provide for themselves, and we end up with religious leaders who make a show of their piety but who “devour widows’ houses.” Religion, understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies, produces such results . . . and it produces that second thing that happened on Friday, this letter delivered to the church office by our mailman that afternoon. [Note: the letter may be viewed here as a PDF file; the highlighting is in the original as delivered.]

In the November issue of our parish newsletter, we published an article about applauding during worship services which my colleague, the Rev. Peter Faass of Christ Church, Shaker Heights, had written. In it Fr. Faass commented that he invites applause when introducing married couples and, in that, made oblique reference to the fact that following this summer’s General Convention the Episcopal Church now offers marriage to same-sex couples. He recommended, however, that most of the time applause should not be offered during worship because what we do in the liturgy is not done as a performance for the congregation, but rather as an offering to God. What Peter suggested was that

instead of applause it would be best to offer a moment of silence after a pleasing offering; a moment when we may reflect on the gifts God has given to the person who is offering them up in the liturgy. In that silence let’s offer thanks. In that stillness let’s hear God’s applauding approval. [Note: Fr. Faass’s entire article can be read in PDF format in the parish newsletter here.]

Apparently we have a neighbor who reads our newsletter and who often drives by our building because that’s who this letter is from. In it, our neighbor takes us to task not only for Fr. Faass’s points, but also for our sign on which we have, from time to time, put the statement which has become a sort of unofficial motto of our diocese: “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

The letter begins, “It seems that Episcopalians are proud of being Episcopalians, but ashamed to be Christian. That explains why they find it so easy to stray from Scriptures, and hold so tightly to ‘tradition.'” The writer condemns us as “heavily influenced by popular culture” and then goes on to proof-text from Scripture why, in our correspondent’s opinion, same-sex marriage is contrary to his understanding of religion citing particularly the story of Adam and Eve. He then suggests that Fr. Faass is incorrect about God’s applause saying, “It may very well be that God is not only not applauding, but is sickened by ‘the liturgy,'” and he cites the prophets Amos and Isaiah who condemned the festivals, sacrifices, and assemblies of unfaithful Israel.

With respect to our sign, our neighbor informs us that “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions” is simply not true, that there are, in fact, human beings whom God not only doesn’t love but whom God positively abhors. He cites one of the Psalms for this proposition.

This [the letter] is religion understood as that which binds, religion as rules; this is Scripture understood as a set of binding regulations proscribing behavior, prescribing some rituals and prohibiting others, and denying not only basic dignity but even the love of God to many of God’s children. This is the religion of the temple scribes.

To this sort of religion, Jesus contrasted the religion of the widow in the temple. No law, no rule required her make her offering of “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” This is not her tithe (that would have been paid at a different time and in a different way). This is not a sin offering or a burnt offering (that would have entailed the sacrifice of some animal). This is nothing more nor less than a gift of thanks, given “out of her poverty” because she cared for the God on whose blessings she depended, because she cared for the faith that was in her. Because she cared, she gave; “out of her poverty [she] put in everything she had.” This is religion as caring.

I could answer this letter. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes that when Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16) he didn’t put any qualifications or restrictions on that statement. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes with our parish patron, St. Paul, that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39) I could do that. I could answer this letter, but I think the better response is for us as a church community to continue doing what we are called to do, to continue living a religion that emphasizes caring rather than rules.

Our correspondent admonished us that it is incumbent upon every Christian “to set the good example of following after Christ,” and he referenced the Letter of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jm 1:27 NRSV) What James is saying is that religion is caring, and the Episcopal Church could not agree more strongly!

Imagine how different this world might be if the caring, rather than the binding rules aspect, were the general understanding of religion! If we understood religion to mean “caring,” rather than “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” I really don’t think there would be any people who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” When the story of Ruth is understood not as a story about the rules of ancient Israelite society but, as Dr. Wines suggested, as the story of “a blessing for [all] generations to come” . . . when the story of the widow in the temple is understood not as a story about following the rules of stewardship, but as a story of giving as an act of caring . . . when the whole Bible is understood not as a book of rules and regulations, but as a collection of stories about God’s love . . . then it is clear that, contrary to our neighbor’s letter, Episcopalians do not “stray from Scripture.”

Our calling as “Episcopalians [who] are proud of being Episcopalians, [and who are positively delighted] to be Christian” is to demonstrate, to live out, and to invite others into what our new Presiding Bishop likes to call “the Jesus Movement,” a religion of caring, not a religion of rules. Like the widow in the temple, we are called to give out of our poverty all that we have and all that we are, and to invite into our self-giving not only those who are like ourselves, but also and especially those are different, the stranger, the alien, the one who is not like us, without regard to his or her social status, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, or anything else because nothing “in all creation, [is] able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” because “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

Amen.

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

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