That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Second Corinthians (page 1 of 3)

Giving Up & Taking Up – Sermon for Ash Wednesday, 14 February 2018

So we once again find ourselves at the beginning of Lent, this Day of Ashes on which we are marked with a sign of death, grief, and penance, and encouraged to enter into a time of fasting, a time of “giving up.” What are you giving up for Lent? We have all heard that question; we have probably asked it of others.

Noting the coincidence of Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day (something that apparently hasn’t happened for more than 70 years), Episcopal priest and cartoonist Jay Sidebotham recently offered some combined greeting cards for the day. Making light of the “giving up” aspect of Lent, one of Sidebotham’s mock cards reads:

Roses are red;
Violets are blue;
Lent is beginning;
No chocolate for you![1]

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Transfiguration and Multiverse – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year B, February 11, 2018

Preachers often focus on Peter’s unthinking outburst offering to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such booths would concretize his all-to-human desire to experience continually the radiance of God. Life, however, is not like that; it’s not all mountaintop highs. Life is full of ups and downs, both high mountaintops and low valleys.

My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below, what our lectionary reading leaves out. If we read further in Mark’s Gospel we find (as Paul Harvey might have said) the rest of the story:

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The Ten Suggestions? – Sermon for Proper 22A (Pentecost 18), October 8, 2017

I’m wearing an orange stole today and a couple of you asked me on the way into church, “What season is orange?” Well, it’s not a seasonal stole … although I suppose we could say it commemorates the season of unregulated and out of control gun violence. A few years ago, a young woman named Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Chicago; her friends began wearing orange, like hunters wear for safety, in her honor on her birthday in June. A couple of years ago, Bishops Against Gun Violence, an Episcopal group, became a co-sponsor of Wear Orange Day and some of us clergy here in Ohio decided to make and wear orange stoles on the following Sunday. Our decision got press notice and spread to clergy of several denominations all over the country.

Today, after what happened last Sunday in my hometown, I decided to wear my orange stole as a witness to my belief in the need for sensible, strict, and enforceable regulations on gun manufacture and sale, on gun ownership and use. But I am not going to preach about that; I did so after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, after the Mother Emmanuel church schooting in Charlotte, SC, after the Pulse dance club shooting in Orlando, FL. We talk about it and pray about it and preach about it after each incident and nothing changes and there’s nothing left to say. If we didn’t change things after the murders of children, after the murders of a bible study group, or after murders of people out nightclubbing, we aren’t going to change anything after 58 people get murdered (and one commits suicide) in Las Vegas. We just aren’t, and nothing I might say in a sermon will change that.

So . . .

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Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Homily for the Requiem of Organist Roberta Stamper, 8 Sept 2017

Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
stay right here with us,
filling us with your love. Amen.

(Please, be seated.)

I wonder if you remember a few years ago when the Broadway actress and singer Patti Lupone performing in a revival of Gypsy stopped the show, broke the “fourth wall,” and berated an audience member who was using his cell phone? She launched into what has been called a “blistering tirade” and “legendary rant,” and had the spectator thrown out of the theater. Her moment of ignominy is preserved forever on YouTube. (Radar Online)

In contrast, there is a story about Wynton Marsalis playing at the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Grennwich Village in 2001 told by The New Republic‘s music critic David Hajdu:

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I Rise Today in the Gray Zone: Trinity Sunday Sermon, 11 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 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; Song of the Three Young Men 29-34 (apocryphal verses found in some translations of Daniel 3); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and St. Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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This is “Trinity Sunday,” the only Sunday of the Christian year dedicated to a truly puzzling Christian doctrine, the peculiar Christian notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one. The late Jim Griffiss, the seminary professor with whom I studied systematic theology, once quipped that one could walk into any church on Trinity Sunday and hear heresy preached; that’s because there is no good or easy way to explain this doctrine. There’s also no way to really understand this doctrine as a matter of intellectual assent. But as a friend of mine said recently, “We [are called to] worship one God in Trinity, not understand one God in Trinity. Accept the Mystery, sing the Te Deum, and move on.” (Facebook discussion) I think he’s right. As a way of describing God, one must admit that the doctrine of the Trinity seems paradoxical, more than a little bit ambiguous, and frankly beyond explanation in a short (or even a long) sermon. So, we won’t be singing the Te Deum today, but I would like to use some poetry to explore how we can experience and worship the Triune God.

I was reintroduced during the past several months to the poetry of the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas and would like to begin our exploration of the Trinity with his poem The Bright Field (suggested to me for today by a seminary classmate).

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I’ll return to Thomas’s Bright Field, but first let me tell you about some other reading I’ve done recently.

A few weeks ago, I was reading in the news about conditions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world and learned that the Islamic State in Syria (“ISIS” or “Da’esh”) has coined a new term to describe Western civil society. An essay published by Da’esh leadership just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in 2015 called for the Extinction of the Grayzone, which is to say the secular West, which it described as the dwelling place of “hypocrites and deviant innovators.” (See Alternet) But the author of the news report I was reading offered a different take on the idea of a “gray zone” and suggested:

The gray zone is the zone of peaceful coexistence. Eliminating the gray zone and rendering a world as black & white as the flag of the Islamic state is the ultimate goal of fundamentalists on all sides. (Ahead of the News)

I filed that away as an interesting observation that might sometime be useful.

A few weeks later, this past week in fact, I was researching for this sermon, once again trying to find ways to explain the doctrine of the Trinity before deciding not to try to do so. In my researches I ran across a summary of an interview given several years ago by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in which he lamented that when we put something other than the authority of scripture, the ancient creeds, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the nature of Christ at the center of our religious life we end up in a “very sorry situation” of division. He went on to describe our Anglican tradition as one which tries, instead, to be comprehensive:

The Episcopal Church is a questioning community. … It’s confident that Christ is at its center, and that gives it the courage to look at things that are difficult. It also is a church which has lived with open-ended questions. It doesn’t need to reduce things to absolutes. We can deal with shades of gray, we can deal with paradox and ambiguity without feeling that we are being unfaithful. (Father Jake)

In a word, we and our church are that “gray zone” which fundamentalists (and fundamentalisms) on all sides seek to eliminate; we model and offer to the world that “zone of peaceful coexistence” because we place the Trinity – this peculiar and confusing notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one – squarely at the center of life. And into this “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity every so often comes that brightness, that flash of illumination of which poet Thomas wrote, that miracle of the lit bush, transitory as youth but holding the eternity that awaits us. We experience the Trinity even though we may not understand it.

God the Holy and Undivided Trinity is the eternal, archetypal Community, in whose image and likeness we, both as a species and as individuals, are created. Sinfulness, described in the Genesis story of the Fall, has seriously compromised human participation in that community; in terms of the theological metaphor of perichoresis, which envisions the life of the Trinity as a dance, we have taken a misstep. Through God’s grace, in Christ and in Christ’s Church, humanity is re-created in the Divine image and likeness, and invited once again into that Community, back into the dance with the Divine.

I chose the hymn called St. Patrick’s Breastplate (and stipulated all seven of its verses) as our opening hymn because it exemplifies how broad that Divine Community really is. The lyrics of the hymn are Cecil Frances Alexander’s rhythmic and rhyming paraphrase of an original found in the 9th Century Book of Armagh and titled in Latin St. Patrick’s Irish Canticle. In truth, the original is not a canticle or a poem of any sort; it is a protection charm or prayer of the form called a lorica.

The short first verse invokes God as Trinity, the three-in-one and one-in-three, but is more than in invocation. In the original it says, “I arise today” into the power of God; in Alexander’s translation, “I bind unto myself.” I lay claim to, I enter into, I become a part of the holy Community. C.S. Lewis described this Christian experience this way:

An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying – the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his [ordinary] prayers. (Mere Christianity, Fount Paperbacks, London:1997, p.135)

Extraordinary! The brightness breaking through, as transitory as youth and yet the eternity that awaits us.

The second verse binds the singer to Christ, but in a remarkably holistic and complete way, laying claim to every aspect of the Incarnation of God, his birth and baptism, his death and resurrection, his ascension, and his future return on the last day. The lorica thus evokes the comprehensiveness that theologians call “the Christ Event,” the fundamental act of God in and through the flesh to redeem not only the individual but the whole of the cosmos, the entire created order. The third and fourth verses attest to this by invoking our ties to the religious and human community through all of time – cherubim, angels, and archangels; patriarchs and prophets; the apostles, and all the saints and martyrs in verse 3 – and to the community of nature – the stars, the sun, and the moon; fire and lightning; wind and sea; rocks and earth – in verse 4.

The theologian Raimon Panikkar describes the Trinitarian nature of reality. The Trinity, he says, is reflected in all of creation: in human beings we see the harmonious interrelationship of body, soul, and spirit, and in the physical world there is the triadic reality of space, time, and matter. “All beings,” he writes, “share what they are by being one with him, with the Son. All that exists, that is to say, all of reality, is nothing but God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Panikkar) Perhaps this is why the lectionary for Trinity Sunday always includes the reading of the Creation Story from Genesis; a reminder of our connection to the whole created order, a community which reflects its Creator.

The fifth verse of the hymn calls upon God’s various powers and aspects as protections against evils, both natural and human-caused – God’s vision, God’s hearing, God’s wisdom, God’s hand and shield. It is said that St. Patrick was inspired by St. Paul’s Letter to Ephesians when he first sang his lorica, by St. Paul’s admonition to

take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17)

As we lay claim to faith in the Trinity by reciting or singing St. Patrick’s Breastplate, we do as Paul commanded, being thus assured that we are protected from all evils, many enumerated in two verses of the lorica not paraphrased by Alexander into her hymn: the snares of devils, temptations of nature, those who wish us ill, “the charms of false prophets, the black laws of paganism, the false laws of heretics, the deceptions of idolatry, [and] spells cast by [witches], smiths, and druids.”

The penultimate verse of the hymn both calls for and acknowledges Christ to be in all things, especially in all of the people we meet throughout any day. It is a reminder of Jesus’ promised words at the last judgment: “Just as you did it [or did not do it] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it [or did not do it] to me.” (Mt 25:40,45) It also calls to mind St. Theresa of Avila’s timeless reflection:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

And it should also be a reminder that there are times for all of us when our lives (in Ben Sledge‘s unforgettable image) can be “a train wreck in a dumpster fire” and that at such times it is through other people’s eyes that Christ looks at us with compassion, through their feet that he walks to do good for us, that is through their hands that we receive his blessing. “Christ in hearts of all that love me, . . . in mouth of friend and stranger” is the sun breaking through to illuminate the small field of my life.

The last verse repeats the Trinitarian invocation of the first and reminds us that salvation is found not in the black-and-white of fundamental religious doctrine, but the “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity, in the brightly lit “gray zone” of peaceful coexistence which is the dance of holy Community.

I want to end with another piece of poetry entitled Sonnet for Trinity Sunday by my friend, the English priest and poet Malcolm Guite:

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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

Gloria! Homily for the Funeral of C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., 6 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston for the Requiem Mass for C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., June 6, 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible were Isaiah 61:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 5:24-27. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. The Gradual Psalm for the service was Psalm 121 from the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer; it can be read at The Online Book of Common Prayer.)

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As my parishioners know, I often find the images invoked by poets comforting and illuminating in times of grief.

Ronald Stuart Thomas, usually called simply RS Thomas, is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest English language and European poets of the 20th Century. He was an Anglican priest serving in the Church in Wales. No less a person than the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Primate of the Church in Wales, has said of Thomas that he

. . . articulate[d] through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith – the poet has been there before us. (BBC News, RS Thomas centenary celebrated by Bangor Cathedral service)

When Thomas’s wife of 51 years passed away in 1991, he published a multi-part poem entitled Mass for Hard Times. I would like to read for you the section entitled Gloria:

From the body at its meal’s end
and its messmate whose meal is beginning,
Gloria.
From the early and late cloud, beautiful and deadly
as the mushroom we are forbidden to eat,
Gloria.
From the stars that are but as dew
and the viruses outnumbering the star clusters,
Gloria.
From those waiting at the foot of the helix
for the rope-trick performer to come down,
Gloria.
Because you are not there
When I turn, but are in the turning,
Gloria.
Because it is not I who look
but I who am being looked through,
Gloria.
Because the captive has found the liberty
that eluded him while he was free,
Gloria.
Because from the belief that nothing is nothing
it follows that there must be something,
Gloria.
Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.
And because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

(Gloria from Mass for Hard Times by R.S. Thomas (1992), in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK:2013, page 135)

In Thomas’s first lines, I find an echo of the words of St. Paul in our epistle reading today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

Those of us who like Nevada have known cancer in ourselves, or like Roberta and their sons have known it in our loved ones, know all too well that “our outer nature is wasting away,” that (as Thomas put it) the body is at its meal’s end. There is no gentle or genteel way to put it: cancer is not an easy way to die. I don’t know that there is an easy way to end life, but if there is one, cancer isn’t it. That Nevada fought the disease as valiantly as he did and with his characteristic confidentiality, on might even say secrecy, is testament to both his strength of will and his private faith, to what St. Paul might have called his “inner nature . . . being renewed . . . for an eternal weight of glory.”

Our first reading was from the Prophet Isaiah; it is that portion of scripture with which Jesus began his public ministry, taking the scroll from the attendant and reading these same words in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and concluding with the declaration, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) In it we are told that the Messiah’s mission is to proclaim freedom to the captive. In Thomas’s poem he gives glory to God because the captive “has found the liberty that eluded him while he was free.” He must refer, I am sure, to the liberty from the pain and suffering of chronic disease that comes with physical death.

But physical death is not the end of life. As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, physical death, “the last enemy,” has itself been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) Christ “overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” (BCP, page 377) As the preface to the Eucharistic Canon which we will pray in a few minutes says, to God’s “faithful people … life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382) As Jesus promised in our reading from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

I am intrigued by the poet Thomas’s penultimate stanza:

Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.

When we think of all that passes between youth and age, when we (as we do at requiems like this) look back over the life of a friend and loved one and take stock of all that someone like Nevada Johnson was and did – student, law student, member of the Bar, captain in the Army and decorated hero, son and brother, lover and husband, father, fellow follower of Christ, volunteer in his community, hospital board and zoning commission member, historical society founder, and so much more – it is difficult to comprehend what Thomas means calling it a “moment” that “we do not count.”

But then I return to St. Paul and today’s epistle reading in which he refers to this earthly life as a “slight momentary affliction,” and I am reminded of the Psalmist’s declaration of how fleeting life is, that life is but “a few handbreadths” and “everyone stands as a mere breath.” (Ps 39:4-5)

In contrast are the promises of Isaiah that good men like Nevada (and, we believe, all of us through the grace of God) “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory,” and of Paul that this “weight of glory beyond all measure” will be eternal. As the Gradual Psalm which we recited together says: “The Lord shall preserve [us] from all evil; it is he who shall keep [us] safe. The Lord shall watch over [our] going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.” (Ps 121:7-8; BCP, page 779) It is as Jesus promised: we have passed from death to life eternal.

In his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul wrote, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Death has no victory; death has no sting. Death is nothing.

The Rev. Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached sermon entitled Death the King of Terrors while the body of the late King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster Abbey in 1910. His point in that sermon was that death is neither a king nor a terror. In it, he offered this meditation:.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

And so we understand Ronald Stuart Thomas’s final stanza in the Gloria of the Mass for Hard Times:

Because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good example of your servant, Carroll Nevada Johnson, Jr., who, having finished his course in faith, now finds rest and refreshment. May we, with him and all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 503, modified)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They don’t make it easy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus, to “carry the cross”

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

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

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

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

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

According to seminary professor Eric Barreto,

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

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

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

The Perfect Scorecard: A Funeral Homily (James McKee, 28 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the funeral of James William McKee, July 28, 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 Book of Common Prayer lectionary for burials: Isaiah 61:1-3; Psalm 23; Second Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 10:11-16. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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golfWhen I was practicing law and serving as the chief legal officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada, there was a church member (of another congregation than mine) who always greeted me with a lawyer story. “What’s the difference between a lawyer and ….? ” “There was a lawyer who went to heaven ….” I think I’ve heard all the lawyer jokes, and I considered starting with one this morning. If I had had more than a passing acquaintance with Jim McKee, I might have done so. But I didn’t know Jim, so I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll begin with some poetry.

The death of anyone important in our lives is a tragic and painful thing. This is especially so when a father or grandfather passes away, perhaps because we use that metaphor of fatherhood to explain God’s relationship to us. Whenever a father or an older brother 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.

As I said, I didn’t know Jim McKee; I do not know if he was Thomas’s 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 a lawyer specializing in what I think of as an esoteric specialty (intellectual property law), and that he had a loving wife, two children and five grandchildren, and that he loved football and golf (though he is said to have had no skill at the latter).

So I have a few things in common with Jim McKee. I’m also am a loving husband, a father, and a grandfather. I, too, am a lawyer (though my specialty, before I left active practice, was medical negligence litigation) and I am a terrible golfer.

I don’t play the game any longer, but as I was preparing to celebrate Jim’s life and preach this homily today, I got to thinking about golf. I remembered the observation made by someone (I can’t remember who) that there are probably more prayers said on the golf courses of America on Sunday morning than are said in its churches, although as evangelist Billy Graham once quipped, “The only time my prayers are never answered is on the golf course.”

I collect prayers, as you might suppose, and over the years I’ve collected quite a few golf-themed petitions. One of the nicer is this one:

God, What is my fascination with this game? Is it the outdoors – the green fairways, the blue skies, the lakes and trees, the feel of the breeze across my face? Is it the friends with whom I play – their companionship, their encouragement, the conversation between holes, the silence as we wait our turn? Is it the game – the balance between grace and skill and power, the striving for perfection, the loft of the ball, the precision of the putt? Or is it all of these, and in these, meditations about all of life – harmony, friendship, balance, and – every once in awhile – the perfect shot and a glorious Amen. (The Joy of Golfing)

I suspect that that prayer captures what it was about golf that attracted an intelligent and thoughtful man like James McKee.

Another golf prayer, one written by a man named Don Humm, begins this way:

Oh God, in the game of life, you know that most of us are duffers and that we all aspire to be champions with plenty of birdies or eagles.

Help us, we pray, to be grateful for the course including both the fairways and the rough. We thank you for those who have made it possible for us to tee off. Thank you for the thrill of a solid soaring drive; the challenge of the dogleg; the trial of the trap; the discipline of the water hazard; the beauty of a cloudless sky and the exquisite misery of rain and cold. (Presbyterian Church of the Roses)

The Buddhist writer Roy Klienwachter writes that “golf is a metaphor for life. It is up and down. The harder you try to win the worse you get. When you learn to let go the game gets easier. So,” he advises, “learn to play the game and go with it. The ‘practice’ is the game, learn to practice.” And Roman Catholic monk and golfer Thomas Moore writes that a game of golf is “an abbreviated, symbolic round of life. A green is like Eden: You reach it, and you feel that you have arrived at an unearthly place with its perfect grass and chance at salvation.”

In our lesson from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus describes our salvation this way: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” so that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:11,16) The Eucharistic prayer which we will offer in a few minutes picks up this theme of salvation, recalling that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [the Father’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” (BCP 1797, Pg 362)

Lutheran Pastor Chris Rosebrough uses golf as a metaphor to explain Christ’s atoning sacrifice:

Pretend you are a terrible golfer (for most there is not much imagination needed here). Now pretend that your eternal salvation depends on you scoring a perfect round of Golf (par or better for the entire round) at Bethpage Black (arguably the toughest golf course on the planet) and the course has been set up for U.S. Open conditions (7400 yards long, 8 inch rough and greens so fast it’s like putting in a bath tub). But, wait just to make things even more difficult, the devil has thrown in gail force winds that are swirling and gusting as high a 60 miles an hour.

To give you an idea of how difficult this feat is, Tiger Woods at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, with practically perfect weather conditions was the ONLY golfer with a score that was UNDER par. Phil Mickleson was the only other golfer that scored an even par for the tournament. Every other golfer was above par for the tournament. But under these course conditions not even Tiger Woods has any hope of being saved. Sadly, even if Jesus gave you a Mulligan then there would still be no hope of your being saved. One ‘do-over’ would be quickly gobbled up at Bethpage Black under these conditions.

So then how can you be ‘saved’ in this scenario?

The Gospel teaches us that even under these impossible conditions, Jesus Christ shot the perfect round of golf for you at Bethpage Black and is offering you His scorecard as your own. He’s already taken your scorecard, the one with all the sins on it, and he’s atoned for those sins on the cross. In return, He will give you His perfect scorecard and let you sign your name to it as if you were the one who shot that round. (Extreme Theology)

Our guaranteed salvation notwithstanding, we must still face those “impossible conditions” as we play the fairways and putt the greens of life even though we are assured that they cannot defeat us. As the rabbis teach, we must not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. We are not obligated to complete the work but neither are we free to abandon it. We must, as the Buddhist philosopher said, continue to play the round and practice.

Thus, in Mr. Humm’s prayer, he give thanks that golf teaches us important life lessons: “how to get the right grip on life; to slow down in our back swing; to correct our crazy hooks and slices; to keep our head down in humility and to follow through in self-control . . . to be good sports who will accept the rub of the green, the penalty for being out-of-bounds, the reality of lost golf balls, the relevancy of par, the dangers of the 19th hole, and the authority of [the] rule book.” As Leonard Finkel wrote in Chicken Soup for the Golfers Soul, “In golf, as in life, obstacles are placed in our path. In overcoming these roadblocks, our greatest triumphs occur.” It is such times that we know that God (as Isaiah put it) brings good news to the brokenhearted, “the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” (Is 61:3)

New York Times writer Harold Segall observed that golf is “an adventure, a romance . . . a Shakespeare play in which disaster and comedy are intertwined.” The author L.R. Knost didn’t mention golf but she could certainly have been describing the game 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.

As I said at the beginning, I did not have the privilege to know James William McKee. I do not know if he was the wise man, the good man, the wild man, or the grave man of Dylan Thomas’ poem. But I know from what I have been told that Jim did bless each of you with his fierce tears, that he battled bravely the cancer which finally took him from you, and that he did not go gentle into the night, but raged against the dying of the light. Nonetheless, his last putt has dropped into the cup; the light of his last day has faded into the darkness of death, and though his trophies may be few, his handicap still too high, and that hole-in-one still an unfulfilled dream, he is able to turn in that guaranteed perfect scorecard.

Today, we commend to almighty God the life and death of James William McKee – father, grandfather, lawyer, friend, lover of golf – whose life was, like a round of the game he loved, an adventure and a romance, amazing and awful and ordinary and routine and, like everyone’s in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful. Remember that, remember the beautiful part, and be assured that, through the grace of God, he is at rest in the final clubhouse, that building “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 5:1)

I didn’t want to start this homily with a lawyer story but I’ll finish with one: A lawyer went to heaven. That’s it. No long tale, no punchline. Just a true story: A lawyer went to heaven. Amen.

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

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

What is Jesus up to? – Sermon for Palm Sunday (Yr C) – 20 March 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are as follows:
At the Blessing and Distribution of the Palms: Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 118:1-2,19-29
At the Eucharist: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Psalm 31:9-16; and St. Luke 19:28-40
At the Reading of the Passion Narrative following Communion: St. Luke 22:14-23:56
Most of these lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Jesus Triumphal EntryWhat is Jesus up to? Why is he doing this?

Many of us are old enough to remember when the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar made their first appearances. I wasn’t that big a fan of Godspell, but I really liked Superstar … and one of my favorite songs from it is Hosanna sung as Jesus enters Jerusalem, the scene which today specifically commemorates.

In Superstar, as in the Bible, as Jesus makes his way into the city, the crowds sing “Hosanna”. Unlike the biblical text, the hosannas sung in Superstar are a refrain for a duet, a musical conversation between Caiaphas, the high priest, and Jesus. In each iteration of the refrain, one line is changed. The first time, the crowd sings “Hey, JC, JC, won’t you smile at me.” The second time, “Hey JC, JC you’re alright by me.” The third, “Hey JC, JC won’t you fight for me?” And finally, “Hey JC, JC won’t you die for me?” These one-line changes in the hosanna refrain foreshadow the progress of Holy Week and the events leading to Good Friday and the cross. There’s a sermon in that, but not the one I want to offer you today.

Today, I want to focus not on what the crowd is singing but on what Jesus is saying by what he does and what he says. Listen to the words Caiaphas says to Jesus in the Superstar song:

Tell the rabble to be quiet,
we anticipate a riot.
This common crowd,
is much too loud.
Tell the mob who sing your song
that they are fools and they are wrong.
They are a curse.
They should disperse.

Tim Rice, the lyricist of Superstar, is elaborating here on the Lukan text: “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.'” (Luke does not identify the speaker as the high priest Caiaphas; that is artistic license on the playwrights’ part.) Jesus’ reply, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out,” is rendered by lyricist Rice in this way:

Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue were stilled
The noise would still continue.
The rocks and stone themselves would start to sing.

This conversation gives us a clue as to Jesus’ intent, his motive for doing what he did on that day riding into Jerusalem.

Way back in Jewish history, Joshua the son of Nun, the successor of Moses, when he led the people of Israel into the promised land swore them to their covenant with God and he had his men set up a stone monument as a testimony to the covenant. He said to the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” (Josh. 24:27) Later, the prophet Habakkuk condemned the ruling classes, the conquerors of nations who, in his colorful and disturbing words, “build towns by bloodshed.” (Hab 2:12) In his prophecy, Habakkuk proclaimed: “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” (Hab 2:13)

Jesus was recalling these ancient words, the covenant promise of Joshua and the justice prophecy of Habakkuk, when he said to the complaining Pharisees, “The stones would shout out.” They claimed to be the guardians of the covenant and they were the ruling class of their day, trained in the Law of Moses and the history of their people, and they knew what Jesus was saying.

They knew, too, what Jesus had done riding into the city on a donkey’s colt. He was acting out the prophecy of Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus was making a bold statement of his identity, a claim that could not be ignored. He was staking his claim on the kingship of Israel, on the role of the one who sits in judgment of the injustice against which the stones cry out and the plaster on the walls responds. He was telling them in no uncertain terms that they, the ruling class of his day, had built their empire by bloodshed.

That is what Jesus was up to then . . . and it is what Jesus is up to now! When the church re-enacts this drama each year, when we read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, when we wave our palms and sing our hosannas, we who “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” are making the same prophetic claim. We are saying to the ruling elites of our day that the rules by which they profit and benefit are unjust, that the society over which they preside is an empire built by bloodshed, that the stones are crying out from the wall, and the plaster is responding from the woodwork, that God’s creation is bearing witness against them.

And in one of those twists of meaning that God frequently pulls on us, we recognize that even as we “are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” even as we are both Jesus riding into Jerusalem and the crowds, the stones, crying out for justice . . . we are also the ruling elites against whom we cry. It is our own unjust acts, our own oppression of others, our own sinful exploitations that we are prophetically protesting.

If we do not understand that, if we do not appreciate that that is what we are saying and doing, then our Palm Sunday liturgy is hollow and meaningless. If what we are doing is not a reiteration of Jesus’ message, not a repetition of the prophecy he enacted and proclaimed, then what we are doing is a mockery of his life, his ministry, and his self-sacrifice. If in our waving of palms and singing of hosannas we are not proclaiming his gospel, if we are not announcing “good news to the poor . . . release to the captives . . . recovery of sight to the blind [and freedom to] the oppressed” (Lk 4:18), then all that we do today and during this Holy Week is nothing more than a burlesque, a charade, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)

But . . . but . . . I do not believe that it is. I believe that what we do bears witness to the truth of the gospel story, that what we do makes a difference in the world in which we live. I believe that what we do proclaims to the powers of this world the almighty power of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that when we wave our palms and sing our hosannas we are, like the prophet Isaiah, standing up and saying, “Who will contend with [us]? Let us stand up together. Who are [our] adversaries? Let them confront [us]. It is the Lord God who helps [us]; who will declare [us] guilty?” (Is 50:9)

We are proclaiming to the powers of this world, even (or even especially) those that reside within us, that they are defeated, that “in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17) We are saying, “Our God reigns!” and that “in Christ God [has] reconcile[ed] the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:18)

That’s what Jesus is up to! That’s what we are up to!

At the end of the Hosanna! song in Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus sings to the crowd:

Sing me your songs,
But not for me alone.
Sing out for yourselves,
For you are bless-ed.
There is not one of you
Who cannot win the kingdom.
The slow, the suffering,
The quick, the dead.

So wave your palms! Sing your hosannas! Be the stones who cry out judgment against the ruling elites! Be the plaster that answers from the woodwork! Be ambassadors for Christ! Be the voices of God’s ministry of reconciliation! Be the righteousness of God! (2 Cor 5) For there is not one of you who cannot win the kingdom! Amen!

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

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

Transfiguration and Conversation: Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (7 February 2016)

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A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, and St. Luke 9:28-43a. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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mttaborchurchAs many of you know, Evie and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the holy places of Palestine summer before last and one of the sites we visited was Mt. Tabor, the traditional “Holy Mountain” on which the Transfiguration is believed to have taken place.

Mt. Tabor is quite tall and quite steep. It is what’s called an inselberg or isolated “island mountain” rising nearly 2,000 feet above the Kfar Tavor plain which it dominates. To get to the top, you have to get out of your large tour coach and board smaller (and quite dilapidated) eight-passenger mini-vans piloted by maniacal Bedouins who drive you at break-neck speeds up a road with several sharp switch-back turns to the Franciscan monastery and church at the summit. (Making that ascent “transfigured” Jesus in my mind’s eye from the rather scrawny figure we often see on crucifixes into a very fit, muscular mountaineer! He and his disciples must have been in really good shape to make that climb!)

The Church of the Transfiguration is one of several in the Holy Land built for the Franciscans by the early 20th Century architect Antonio Barluzzi, who accomplished there what Peter sought to do in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel. As one comes to the entrance of the church, before actually entering the main church, one finds to one’s left a separate chapel dedicated to Moses, and to one’s right, a chapel dedicated to Elijah. There is no direct communication between the chapels and the main church. As much as I admire the architecture of Barluzzi, and think some of his churches in Palestine are wonderful, I think he got this one wrong, because I have come to believe that communication is what the Transfiguration is all about. Before I get to that, however, I need to talk about time and eternity, for they form the backdrop of the communication in question.

I have, a few times in the past several months, shared with you the poetry of an English priest named Malcolm Guite, and want to do so again this morning. This is his sonnet entitled Transfiguration:

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
(Transfiguration: a glimpse of light before Lent)

I love Guite’s first two lines: “For that one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet . . . .”

In the ancient Greek language and in the Greek of the New Testament, there are two words both translated into English as “time.” The first is chronos; this is measurable time with, as one writer has put it, “the future passing through the present and so becoming the past.” This word is the root of such English words as chronic, chronicle, and chronology. Chronos is characterized by the itemized, studied measurement of time. The word is used 54 times in the New Testament. When Luke, for example, uses it, it is in the context of measurable time, as when he says a traveler went away for a “long time” (Lk 20:9). Interestingly, when Satan tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time,” it is this measurable form of time that Luke names (Lk 4:5).

Perhaps picking up on Luke’s implication, Fr. Patrick Reardon, an Orthodox pastor and theologian, has said of chronos:

Because it is made up of some things that don’t exist anymore [the past] and other things that don’t yet exist [the future], [chronos] is a true image of non-existence, a veritable icon of death. In fact, only dead time can be measured. Moreover, chronos is, in this respect, rather ghoulish. Even dead, it continues to feed on us. We may speak of “killing time,” but it invariably ends up killing us. Chronos is, therefore, an image of everlasting death, what the Bible calls the “bottomless pit,” or hell. What is hell but the reign of death in ongoing, unending sequence? (Orthodoxy Today)

The alternative to measurable time, chronos, is kairos, a word used 81 times in the New Testament, almost always to refer to “the proper time,” to signify a chosen moment as when, in Luke’s gospel, the angel of the annunciation tells Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, that events will be “fulfilled in their proper time.” (Lk 1:20) Kairos is “time as a moment, time as occasion, time as qualitative rather than quantitative, time as significant rather than dimensional.” (Reardon) Kairos is always a “now.” Says Fr. Reardon:

Kairos, because it is present, is an icon of eternal life. To experience the now, after all, one must be alive. The dead know nothing of now. Therefore, the now, the kairos, is an icon of the life of heaven. Indeed, eternal life is an everlasting now, in which there is no sequence, no before and after.

It is to kairos, to eternity, that Guite refers, I believe, when he describes the Transfiguration taking place in “one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet.”

In the Transfiguration, eternity irrupts into time. The Lutheran Greek scholar Rob Myallis reminds us that the Greek for “brilliant” “has tucked within it the word ‘astra’ [as in] ‘astronomy.’ Jesus is bright like the stars. Interestingly, the only other place this word appears in the whole Bible is [in the Greek Septuagint translations of] Ezekial and Daniel, perhaps a reminder that transfiguration has an eschatological bent – it is the future breaking in and not simply the past catching up!” (Lectionary Greek)

What Peter and James and John saw on that mountain top, what we are privileged to see with them through the evangelists’ reports, is a vision of the climax of history, of the end of chronos time, and in its place a vision of the eternal now of kairos. Eternity, longed for by prophets, seers, and visionaries, is realized in the Transfiguration of Jesus. Heaven and earth meet in the Transfiguration; past, present, and future meet without dissolving the distinction between them.

Baptist theologian Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible says, “The transfiguration is like a composite of the whole Gospel tradition. In one scene we hear echoes of the baptism of Jesus, Jesus’ passion predictions, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and prophets, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his ascension and future coming.” (Vol. IX, p 207) From his birth and baptism to his ascension and his expected return, Jesus’ Incarnation is summed up in the Transfiguration which allowed his disciples, and allows us, to see him clearly.

The pieces all fall into place in this remarkable moment of kairos when the past, present, and future meet. In that moment, eternity irrupts into time, kairos overwhelms chronos, and past, present, and future are crystal clear. Little wonder the disciples are bedazzled by star-bright brilliance!

And what happens in this moment of eternity is a conversation. Luke, adding to the stories of Matthew and Mark who also report the Transfiguration, is very careful to tell us that this event took place in the context of prayer. In the very first sentence of his tale he says, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Prayer, as we all know, is conversation with God. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, often used the Spanish word conversar to describe prayer. Conversar means “to converse,” “to talk with.” Its simplest meaning in English is sincere talk between persons, the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the other person. It is in this conversational context that the Transfiguration takes place.

It is exemplified by the appearance of Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus discusses his departure. It is often said that they represent the Law and the prophets and their fulfillment in Jesus. Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, however, suggests otherwise. In her footnotes to Luke in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, she says this is unlikely, that instead they probably represent the elect, all the righteous people of God. (p. 120) They are human beings in intimate conversation with God Incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

How often do we imagine prayer to be nothing more than us talking to God? We who are formed in the Anglican tradition of “common prayer,” of saying together words from a book, often fall into this trap. I know a lot of Episcopal clergy who freeze up when asked to pray in public without a Prayer Book close at hand: “I don’t know how to pray extemporaneously; I don’t know the words to say,” they will explain in moments of candor. But if our prayer is truly to be the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the one with whom we are conversing, then our prayer should be at least as much listening as it is speaking. If God were to say nine words to us, what would they be? I suspect they would be the same ones said to Peter and James and John, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

We cannot all have experiences like the Transfiguration in our prayer lives, nor should we expect to do so. But the Transfiguration challenges us to seek something higher in prayer than speaking mere words in the hope that God might possibly somehow listen to us. Our daily prayer should include not so much talking and more listening, more communicating in hopes of hearing, of sensing, of knowing the powerful presence of God in our lives.

And that is where Peter got it wrong when he blurted out, not knowing what he was saying, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That is where Antonio Barluzzi, brilliant architect that he was, got it wrong when he realized Peter’s ambition and built those chapels, separate and apart and not communicating with the nave of the Church of the Transfiguration. If the Transfiguration teaches anything, it is that dramatic experiences of Christ’s glory, glimpses of eternity, instances of kairos come in the dynamic reality of communication. Experiences of the glory of God are only possible if lived together, in community. Nobody, not even Jesus, could shine alone! The Transfiguration shows that it is only when we are together that God’s radiance can light ours and others lives. It is only in the intimacy of holy conversation with God and with one another that we find that “one moment, ‘in and out of time’,” that place “where all moments meet,” where we get “that glimpse of how things really are.”

Amen.

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

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