That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Second Kings

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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True Worship: Sermon for Pentecost 21, Proper 23C (9 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 23C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; and St. Luke 17:11-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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leper-medieval-manuscriptFor ten months, since the First Sunday of Advent 2015, we have been in Lectionary Year C, during which we’ve been following texts from the Gospel according to Luke. Luke’s Gospel , after telling of his birth and infancy, sets out Jesus’ original mission statement, which he adopted from the Prophet Isaiah and proclaimed in his hometown synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)

Throughout the year, Luke has given us profound glimpses of God’s grace alive in the world of 1st Century Palestine, encouraging us to open our eyes and respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This sort of awakening and response to grace forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

In July of 2014, Evelyn and I were privileged to visit the place where the healing of the ten lepers is said to have happened. A tradition stretching back nearly 2,000 years tells us that it was in the village of Burqin and the Christian church which stands there today is believed to be sited on the longest continually used place of Christian worship in the world.

In the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us that this place is in “the region between Samaria and Galilee.” I have to assume that Luke was ignorant of Palestinian geography. There is no such “region.” At best, there is a line on the map, a border, between Samaria and Galilee, nothing more. If Jesus was “passing through” such a region, he was simply stepping over an imaginary line separating one human-defined locale from the next. In the modern world, he might have been going through a checkpoint. There’s a wonderful word for doing that, for being in that in-between place, in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other – liminality. It is derived from the Latin word for “threshold.”

The village of Burqin is located almost exactly halfway between Nazareth in Galilee and Sychar (now called Nablus), the Samaritan city where Jesus spoke with the woman at Jacob’s Well. Today, it is a village of about 6,000 people; fewer than 100 of them are Christian, and all of those are members of the Greek Orthodox congregation that worships at that longest-used church in all the world.

When we visited there, we were treated to lunch in the home of church leaders Usama and Nadya. During our conversations with them, one of our party asked Nadya if they felt uncomfortable living as such a tiny minority among so many Muslims and if she had ever considered leaving. “These are our neighbors and friends; they are our families,” she replied, “why would we ever leave?” She told us how they visited in each other’s homes, watched each other’s children, and celebrated each other’s holidays. And then she said, “Besides, if we left, who would be the church?”

I was struck then and continue to be amazed at the wisdom of her answer, at her choice of verb: “Who would be the church?” In that liminal place, that small group of Christians is constantly in that in-between place. Visiting, working with, celebrating with, being family with their overwhelmingly numerous Muslim neighbors, they cross over and through so many thresholds; they are constantly in spiritual motion yet grounded in that longest-used place of worship.

Their stewardship of that place is phenomenal, by the way. It must rank as the most lovingly cared for and tended church I have ever entered! Not a speck of dust, not a single cobweb, not a trace of tarnish on any of the numerous silver lamps, candlesticks, icon covers, and other objects of devotion, not a thread torn or hanging loose from the linens or tapestries. It was clear that, like the Samaritan leper who was healed there, the members of that community returned again and again to give thanks through their loving stewardship of God’s gifts.

That’s one thing about this story that grabs my attention and excites my imagination, that it takes place in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other, that it is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

It is that sort of story in the other particular that grabs my attention, as well. This other thing is something that I’ve never seen touched on in any commentary on this text, and that is the way in which their disease unites the ten lepers. Although Luke as narrator and Jesus as character in the story comment on the citizenship or race of only the one leper, the implication is that the others are Jews. One commentator has suggested that the Samaritan turned back from going to the Temple to present himself to a Jewish priest because he would have been unwelcomed there, but the others continued on suggesting that they were Jews for whom there was no similar problem. If that is so, then for the ten the shared experience of leprosy had bound them together and had overcome the traditional enmity between Jew and Samaritan.

I’d never thought of that before but now, every day, I show up at a cancer center where I converse with two men I would never before have interacted with. The man who gets his radiation treatment before me drives a Cadillac on which there are two bumper stickers. One reads, “Hillary for Prison 2016” and the other bears only the word “Trump.” In other circumstances, I would be very unlikely to converse with this man. But, thrown together by the common malady of prostate cancer, I know that he is also 64 years old, that he has two daughters and that both are married, and that he has three grandchildren. I know his name. He and I wish one another well every day, even though we know that our political views are wildly disparate. The man who comes after me rides a Harley; he has bushy, unkempt grey beard and tattoos on his arms; he wears “muscle shirts” and grubby jeans and his wallet is attached to his belt loop by several inches of heavy stainless steel chain. In other circumstances, I would be equally unlikely to talk with him. But I know particulars of his life also and we greet one another as friends.

We three will move on from this experience when the linear accelerator has done its thing and we are “cured” of the cancer. Like the ten lepers, our small community of shared disease will break up, but none of us will ever be the same; I will remember them and I hope they will remember me. In some sense, we will remain a community.

That is what the ten lepers were and what they remained even as they moved off on that spiritual journey from one state to another, from leprosy to wholeness; they were a community. I suggest to you that they are an icon of the church. We are all of us, both individually and together, on a journey from some form of “leprosy”, a journey from some illness of spirit, a journey to wholeness and salvation. That iconic community returned a tenth, a tithe (if you will) of its substance to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, falling prostrate at his feet, and giving thanks. (The other nine, also, would offer thanksgivings if they went, as instructed, to the Temple priests: the Law required a thank offering of two male lambs, a ewe, a measure of fine flour, and a measure of oil.) Thus, in this sense also, this is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. David Lose, the Lutheran seminary professor whose writings I like so much, says of this story:

All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in … and it made all the difference.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper has something for which to be thankful, praising God with a loud voice.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper changes direction, veering from his course toward a priest to first return to Jesus.
In this light, this story serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend? (Lose. Emphasis in original.)

After the Samaritan saw that he was healed, the rest of his response is characterized by four actions: he turned back, he praised God, he prostrated himself in worship, and he gave thanks. This, again, is Luke encouraging us to open our eyes and giving us an example of how we ought to respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This is true worship, a road map for our response to God’s activity in our world: returning, praising, worshiping, and giving in thanks.

Echoing Luther, Prof. Lose asks, “What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living? It is the tenth leper turning back. For now as then, seeing makes all the difference.” It is the sort of awakening and response to grace that forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

And now I would like to invite parishioner ____________ to share some thoughts about his spiritual journey and thanksgiving.

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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.

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered! – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered!

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 20, Year 1 (Pentecost 17, 2015)

Matthew 6:9-13 ~ Jesus said, “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.”

Today the Lord’s Prayer instruction from Matthew’s Gospel is paired in the Daily Office readings with the story of the death of Jezebel (with dogs eating her corpse) in the Second Book of Kings, and with Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about sex and marriage. It’s been three hours since I said the Office and read those lessons; I’ve had several cups of coffee and a high-fiber-high-protein breakfast. Despite that nourishment and caffeine, which should have kickstarted my brain, I confess to befuddlement. I don’t get the connection, any connection!

So that’s the take away today, not from the lessons themselves but from the Lectionary and its lack of connection between the readings that come up on the rota. In the Sunday Lectionary, one can generally find a linkage between at least two of the four readings (For non-Lectionary folk: the Eucharistic Lectionary for Sunday celebrations nearly always has four selections from Scripture – a lesson from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a lesson from the Epistles, and a lesson from one of the Gospels. Frequently, there is a thematic connection between the Old Testament readings and the Gospels), but not always. In the Daily Office Lectionary, thematic connections are even less common.

As a preacher I strive to find those connections when drafting my homilies for Sundays, and that influences my meditations on the Daily Office readings. Out of habit I try to find the linkages, the thematic relationships, the common message . . . and when it’s not there, I get bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. I become a simpering, whimpering child again . . . I want the lessons to make sense, together, not individually, and I’m angry with the Lectionary and whatever group of editors put it together!

Especially when I feel like I should be getting a good jolt of religion and spirituality with the Our Father but, instead, get Jezebel’s bloody death and Paul’s going on about people “aflame with passion.” I’m vexed again, perplexed again, and (frankly) oversexed again! Lead us not into temptation . . . .

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered!

Laying Fractured on the Floor – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Laying Fractured on the Floor

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 19, Year 1 (Pentecost 16, 2015)

2 Kings 1:2 ~ Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay injured; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury.”

I don’t know what lattice the Anglican Communion has fallen through, but it sure looks like it may suffer the same fate as Ahaziah. The Archbishop of Canterbury, traditional “first among equals” head of the Communion, has invited the other 37 Primates of the Communion to meet with him to discuss some sort of restructuring of our common life in a way that would allow the differing provinces to be in communion with Canterbury although not with each other. (He has also invited the “archbishop” of the break-away “Anglican Church of North America” to attend.)

The conservative (that’s a loaded word, I know) Primates of the “Global South” (mostly African) provinces which several years ago formed something called GAFCON (originally an acronym for “Global Anglican Futures Conference”) have rebuffed the invitation because they refuse to sit at the same conference table (or the same Communion Table) with The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada.

Maybe I do know what lattice the Anglican Communion has fallen through . . . it is the open-weave of cultural diversity. So long as the Communion was built with the relative solidity of English colonialism, all was well. When all of its provinces (other than a few rebellious folks like the Scottish and American Episcopalians) were “The Church of England in [fill in the blank],” all was well. When its provinces started to become independent and autocephalic (as their host colonies became independent nations) but still looked to England (and sometimes America) for guidance (and financial assistance), all was well.

But when those newly independent churches reached adolescence and early adulthood and began shrugging off the paternal arm of the English and American establishments, when the cultures of the former colonies reasserted themselves and the local leadership lost the thin gloss of British gentility, when the young churches began to flex their ecclesiastical muscle, fractures and gaps began to appear. The plaster of English churchmanship began to fall away from the apparently solid wall of Anglicanism leaving behind a lattice-work of cultural diversity and diversity’s evil twin, disparity.

The Communion fell through that fractured, lattice-work wall and, like a soft boiled potato pushed through a ricer, fractured itself. Laying injured like Ahazia, it called out to its gods, but not with a unified voice; the parts of the fractured body called out in many voices to many gods. Some parts called out to “inclusivity” and “toleration”. Some parts called out to “doctrinal purity”. Some parts called out to “covenant” and “structure”. All were valid “Anglican” appeals, but each seems not to have heard the Anglicanism in the others’ cries.

This remains the state of the Communion despite the Archbishop’s invitation to conversation. Like Ahaziah in his chamber, the Communion lays crippled on the floor still crying out to its various gods. This morning’s reading ends with Ahaziah’s death and his kingdom passing to his brother “because Ahaziah had no son.” Anglicanism, however, has many children and they seem hell-bent on continuing the fractious discord of diversity and disparity.

On the other hand, however, is the promise of the God to whom all the parties claim to call yet none seems clearly to have addressed, the God Incarnate who promised us that people (even members of our own family, of our own Communion) would “revile [us] and persecute [us] and utter all kinds of evil against [us],” but that on the other side of that would be a reward (Mt 5:11-12), something very like resurrection, I suspect. So, he said, stay salty and keep shining, even as we lay fractured on the floor.

Flesh and Blood – From the Daily Office – April 24, 2014

From the First Letter to the Corinthians:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Corinthians 15:50 (NRSV) – April 24, 2014.)

Human BodyI think I know what Paul is trying to say here, but I don’t like the way he’s saying it. I mean, I really have a theological issue with the assertion that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” I think the statement is just plain wrong. It states a dualism that relegates the material, specifically the human body, to realm of the damned, the unclean, the unworthy. In light of a creation story in which the Creator “saw everything that he had made [including that human flesh and blood], and indeed, it was very good,” I cannot accept the condemnation of our material being.

We have in our scriptural tradition an understanding that there have been human beings bodily “ascended” into the spiritual realms. “Elijah, because of great zeal for the law, was taken up into heaven,” says the First Book of Maccabees (1 Mac 2:58), and that is what Second Book of Kings describes: “Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” Elisha watched it happen and kept staring up until he could no longer see his master. (2 Kg 2:11-12) And then there is Enoch who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him,” (Gen 5:24) a statement which has always been understood to mean that he was taken, flesh and blood, into God’s eternal Presence.

Of even greater significance is the Ascension of Christ! As the Apostles stood “watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight,” and then a couple of angels assured them that he had “been taken up from you into heaven.” (Acts 1:9,11) This was Jesus in the same body that had been executed! That body still bore the wounds of crucifixion; he had invited Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (Jn 20:27) That flesh-and-blood body which ascended had sat at table with his friends; after his Resurrection, that same flesh-and-blood body had eaten a piece of honey and shared some grilled fish. Paul goes on and on about earthly bodies and heavenly bodies, physical bodies and spiritual bodies, perishable bodies and imperishable bodies . . . but Jesus lived, died, rose, and ascended in one and same body!

I’m rather fond of the body I’ve lived in. It’s fat and out of shape and, truth be told, I wish it were better looking! But I’ve done a lot of stuff with this body and, like Henry Higgins with regard to Eliza Dolittle’s face, I’ve grown accustomed to it. It has been useful — it’s climbed holy mountains and visited sacred places; it’s lifted babies from their cribs and cuddled them; it’s hugged my wife and children; it’s helped old people into and out of bed; it’s held the hands of dying parents; it’s fed the hungry and built shelters for the homeless; it’s stood at the altar of God and ministered the Flesh and Blood of Christ. This flesh and blood has done some holy things. If I’m going to be gifted with life eternal, I’ll be happy to do so in this flesh and blood that has served me well, and with which I have done my best to serve God and God’s people.

I think I know what Paul was trying to say, but I wish he’d found a different way to say it because I think what he said is just wrong. Flesh and blood can inherit the kingdom of God. Indeed, I believe that flesh and blood have already inherited the kingdom of God. Here and now.

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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.

By the Rivers of Babylon – Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22C – October 6, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 22C: Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; and Luke 17:5-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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You may recognize this reggae version of a portion of Psalm 137, the psalm we recited this morning, combined with a paraphrase of verse 14 of Psalm 19. It was originally done by the Melodians in 1969, but the version I played was recorded by Boney M, a German Caribbean group, in 1978 and claimed the Number 1 spot on the European pop charts that year. It’s quite a danceable little tune; it puts a bounce in your step which seems quite at odds with Psalm 137’s words of lament and with the violent imprecation with which the psalm concludes. I’ll return to this musical version in a moment, but first let’s take a closer look at this psalm and our other lessons today.

Paul begins his letter to the young bishop, Timothy, whom he has nurtured in the faith, with these words: “I am grateful to God — whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did . . . .” I’m glad that Paul was able to do so, to worship with a clear conscience, because I think he was wrong about his ancestors! His ancestors were the ones who wrote the psalm we recited just before Paul’s letter was read, the psalm that ends with these words:

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom, *
who said, “Down with it! down with it! even to the ground!”
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, *
happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!
(Ps 137:7-9)

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time worshiping with a clear conscience after reciting such words and, I suspect, so did the ancient Jews, even though those awful words may have been as heart-breakingly genuine, as horrifically honest as possible.

There is academic debate about the authorship of this letter; many scholars believe that it was not written by Paul even though it purports to be his personal farewell address, “Paul modeling how to die” as one commentator puts it. So we don’t really know when or why this letter was written, or by whom (but we’ll call the author “Paul” anyway). We know that Timothy was in tears: “Recalling your tears,” writes Paul, “I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.” Presumably, Timothy is distraught over Paul’s imprisonment and probable impending execution. Paul’s advice to Timothy is to buck up! “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Please keep this advice (and the happy, danceable music to which the Melodians and Boney M set Psalm 137) in mind as we turn to the other lessons of the day.

Lessons like the reading from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus admonishes his followers (specifically the Apostles, but also us), “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'” Bill Loader, an Australian theologian whose work and words I rather like, says this admonition is a slap in the face to the established order:

It deconstructs hierarchy [and] debunks the idea that we achieve value by achieving the good, as though we deserve a bonus for being decent, caring human beings. It does not let us play the game. We can’t claim: you ought to love me, because look at how good I am! Look at what I have done! The passage is probably deliberately offensive in flooring aspirations to human worth based on achievement capital. It is annoying and frustrating, and even seems mean. It gives us no credit. (First Thoughts)

Jesus’ comment subverts any system that bases value on achievement; very simply, Jesus is saying that we are valued by God (and thus should value one another), not because of what we achieve, but because of who we are! Paul’s admonition to Timothy to buck up because we have been given “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” is grounded in the assurance of Jesus that we are loved by God not because we have accomplished anything, but simply because of who we are.

The way Jesus (who is, remember, the incarnation of God) approaches human dignity and value is hugely comforting in a world where the poor are exploited and where anger explodes in violence and terror which disregards human life, in the very world of Psalm 137 and its cry for vengeance, its imprecation that someone will ” take [Babylon’s] little ones and dash them against the rock!”

So what was the world of Psalm 137? It was the world of the Babylonian exile, the world of the destruction of Jerusalem, the world of the demolition of the Temple, the very heart and soul of the Jewish people. The year was 587 B.C.E. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, aided and cheered on by the Edomites (ancestral enemies of the Jews, supposedly descended from Jacob’s brother Esau) invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians 150 years or so before.) The Babylonians took possession of Jerusalem, raping, pillaging, and slaughtering with abandon. They seized the priests and the scribes, the king and the nobles, the wealthy leaders and their accountants, and took them away to Babylon. For those left behind, the economy quickly collapsed, food became scarce, water became foul, the daily life ceased to make sense. Order was replaced by chaos. Jerusalem became a wasteland. The Book of Lamentations describes the scene:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
. . . .
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
. . . .
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper;
. . . .
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
(Lamentations 1:1,5)

The psalmist, speaking for those who have suffered through this desolation, curses those who have caused it. The psalm’s cries of deep sorrow (“We wept; we could not sing!”) and the dreams of horrible acts of vengeance (“Happy the one who murders their infants!”) are cathartic; they are a means of working through and overcoming the intense hurt of defeat and exile. By voicing anger to God, the exiles cleanse themselves of violent emotion, but they also give themselves a reason to persist.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, Boston, 2006), psychologist Viktor Frankl described his own experience in the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust and the lessons he and his fellow inmates learned about spiritual survival. Among those learnings was the need for a goal: “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future,” (p. 73) even if that future is one of vengeance. Without a goal, the concentration camp prisoners ceased to live for the future; indeed, they ceased to live at all, they simply decayed. “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how'” wrote Frankl. (p. 76) Their anger and dreams of revenge supplied the exiles with the why, the goal, the reason for them to survive. The provocative and hyperbolic language of the psalm expresses the horror and outrage the exiles were experiencing, and describes a future for which they could live. That it is a horrific future does not deprive it of its spiritually supportive power.

In their defense, we should note that “dashing babies” was a common practice of warfare in the international community of the exiles’ time. In the Second Book of Kings, for example, Elisha weeps in the presence of a foreign general who asks why the man of God is crying, and Elisha answers: “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set [Israel’s] fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.” (2 Kgs.8:12) Babylonian armies are known to have killed babies, raped women, and blinded some their war prisoners. The Babylonians committed terrible atrocities against the people Judah so, in their dreams of retribution, they cried out to God for proportional retribution. There is, however, no evidence that the exiles ever followed through on their bloodthirsty dreams of revenge.

Psalm 137 “tells it like it is;” anger, vengeance, hatred, rage, pain and suffering are a human reality. The people of Judah believed that everything they had hoped for and everything they relied upon, their own country, their sacred priesthood, the Davidic kingdom, and the Jerusalem temple had been taken away by the bloodthirsty Babylonians. We know that faith becomes compromised when hopes of ease and comfort and success are snatched away by economic chaos, by terrorism, by personal health problems, by hunger, or by the dysfunction (or non-function) of government. Bad things happen and people react. Many, I am sure, have been guilty of extremes of thought like those voiced by the psalmist. Have you never wished someone dead, even in unspoken your thoughts? I confess that I have. Have you never told someone (even if only under your breath) to “Go to Hell”? I have! In today’s culture, that may be more acceptable than threatening to “dash babies,” but theologically speaking, it voices a much stronger sentiment than the psalm. We and our world are more like the exiles and theirs than we know or want to admit.

This is how this psalm, this awful, horrific psalm, speaks both to and for us. The Babylonians may not have attacked us, but we live in a world at least as violent as that of the exiles. Since 1900, there have been 232 wars; more than 96 million people have been killed in those wars, and it is an inescapable fact of modern history that the same barbarism described in Psalm 137 or the Book of Lamentations or the Second Book of Kings occurred in many of those wars and still occurs today. One need only think of the ethnic cleansing episodes in the former Yugoslavia, the civil war in Rwanda, and the almost daily atrocities currently happening in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Myanmar, and elsewhere.

Abandoned Train Station, Detroit, MIWe live in a country where there are cities once full of people now sitting lonely: we sit here today less than 200 miles by turnpike from Detroit, where the picture on the cover of our bulletin was taken, a city which has been described as looking as if it had been bombed in a war! Just yesterday, Salon reported that in the United States there are 14 million unoccupied residences. Six months ago, “Detroit had more than 83,000 unoccupied residential addresses. That constitutes nearly 25 percent of the city’s potential housing stock. New Orleans had 44,000, for 21 percent. Cleveland had 41,000, or 19 percent.” (Salon, Abandoned Homes) Cities once full of people are sitting abandoned and lonely. Meanwhile, on any given night in this country over 633,000 homeless people sleep in shelters, and no one knows how many may be sleeping in cars, under bridges, squatting in abandoned buildings, or simply out on the streets. (National Alliance to End Homelessness)

We live in a country where 49 million Americans live in food insecure households, including almost 16 million children; where over 29 million people rely on assistance from government programs (now sadly shut down) to obtain sufficient food; and where 6.2 million households at least once in the last year have accessed emergency food from a food pantry or soup kitchen. (Feeding America)

This is not the country of our hopes and dreams; it is not the country we want it to be; it’s not even the country we think it is! It is a strange land: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The psalm speaks to and for us.

In this psalm, the poet and the exiles turned their pain over to God! Giving voice to their sorrow, their anger, and their thirst for revenge, they were able to let go of them and to trust in God to act as God might. They were able to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy, to buck up, to rely not on the spirit sorrow and of anger and of cowardly vengeance, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Eventually, they came to understand that they were valued by God (and thus should value others, even their enemies), not because of what they had or had not achieves, but simply because of who they were! This brought them a sense of freedom — even in their exile — to dream, to hope, and to pray. Their prayers may have been, as Bible scholar Walter Wink said, “impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous, [and] more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church,” and they may have offered them with far less a clear conscience than Paul claims, but through them they voiced faith and courage to hand their desire for revenge over to God; through them they started the long healing process of returning home and truly worshiping God.

And so can we. We can end the wars and put a stop to the genocides. We can rebuild the cities and house the homeless. We can provide good nutrition for everyone and end food insecurity. We can do so because, I believe, we have faith at least the size of a mustard seed, because we have been given a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline, and because we are God’s servants and we know what we ought to do. And when we have done it, we can sing Psalm 137 like a dance tune, with a spring in our step, like exiles returning home to God!

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.

Nothing! – From the Daily Office – March 15, 2013

From Paul’s Letter to the Church in Rome:

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For 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, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 8:37-39 (NRSV) – March 15, 2013.)

Dissociative Disorder IllustrationThese may be my favorite words from the pen of the Apostle Paul. My mentor during my education for ordained ministry, who also became my first boss after ordination, often referred to these verses and would add, “Not even ourselves.”

But there are times when I wonder about things Paul seemed not to know about. Sure, he puts in that great, inclusive catch-all phrase “nor anything else in all of creation,” but what about drugs, addiction, mental illness, brain dysfunction . . . . What about the things that make us no longer us, the things that separate us from ourselves?

We human beings can suffer all sorts of trauma, large or small, that can lead to separation from ourselves, from others, and from the meaning of life. Even simple depression, anxiety, or just getting “off-track,” can create a sense of separation or alienation. We may feel like we are living in a sort of fog; our thinking may become clouded. We may find ourselves unable to access our feelings, and simply not be aware of or engaged in the world around us. We seem to be functional, but we are living a life separated from ourselves and from those who love us. Dissociation becomes a way of life. People in such a state are vulnerable to quick fixes and bad habits, behaviors and addictions that promise quick relief.

My father was an alcoholic who drove off in the middle of the night, angrily separating himself from his family, and a few hours later dying in a single-vehicle automobile accident. He was “not himself;” he was, in a real sense, separated from himself. My mother-in-law took years to slip away deep into the darkness of Alzheimer’s disease; for the last few years of her life, she wasn’t there. In a very real sense, she was separated from herself.

Last Sunday’s gospel lesson was the parable of the prodigal son, a story of separation and estrangement. The story is that the younger of two sons demands his inheritance from his father, takes the money and squanders it, and ends up living as a starving swineherd in a foreign land. There is this wonderful line in which Jesus says of him, “When he came to himself he said, . . . ‘I will get up and go to my father . . . .'” (Luke 15:17-18) “When he came to himself…;” he was separated not only from his father, but from himself. Nonetheless, that separation was overcome and there was reunion first with himself and then with his father.

I do believe in divine grace that precedes any human decision we may make. God’s grace operates in no way dependent on anything we may have done or failed to do. In the words of The Book of Common Prayer, God’s “grace . . . always precedes and follows us” (Collect for Proper 23, pg 234); it allows us to engage our free will to choose reunion, to choose to not be separated, to choose salvation. And I hope that God makes that choice for us when, because of mental illness, alcohol, drugs, brain dysfunction or injury, or whatever reason we are unable to make it for ourselves, when we cannot “come to ourselves.” Because nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” not even ourselves. Nothing!

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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.

Raunchy, Glorious Hope – From the Daily Office – August 4, 2012

From the Book of Judges:

Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent-peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary. – Judge 5:24-27 – August 4, 2012)

Jael and Sisera by Artemisia Gentileschi (1620)“Most blessed” be a murderess? What is this? Yesterday, a friend and colleague who was only a little older than I am passed away after several months of pancreatic cancer, so I’m a little sensitive on the subject of death this morning. So, really! What is this?

This is part of the song sung by the judge Deborah and Barak, whom she had made commander of the Israelite forces, as they celebrated victory over King Jabin of Hazor’s Canaanite forces of whom Sisera was the commander. I think folks can be surprised and somewhat taken aback by how bloodthirsty some of our Holy Scriptures are, how much death there really is in the Bible.

We never read these parts in church on a Sunday, even if Morning Prayer is used for the main service of the day (a rarity among Episcopalians now that the Eucharist has taken a central place in our worship). These bloody, violent bits of the story are not found in either the Sunday Eucharistic lectionary nor the Sunday readings for the Daily Office. As a result, tent pegs driven into skulls, she-bears tearing apart children (2 Kings 2:23-24), and babies being dashed against rocks (Psalm 137:9), biblical images of violent, bloody death seldom, if ever, enter the perceptions of church-goers. About the most violent we ever get in church is wreaking vengeance on the nations, binding their kings in chains, and putting their nobles in irons. (Psalm 149:7-8, Proper 18 in Year A and All Saints Day in Year C)

What we have on Sundays is a whitewashed and sanitized religion, cleaned of its gorier, more violent, deadly images – except, of course, the scourging and crucifixion of Christ, but that was done by others, the Romans and the Temple authorities, not by the “good” people. We never learn that “blessed” Jael drove a tent peg into Sisera’s skull, or that the “man of God” Elisha was protected from children’s taunts by wild bears, or that God’s People who batter infants to death are “happy”. Maybe if we did, maybe if these serious images of violence and death were more widely known, these gruesome reminders of how the brutalities of life can also be part of God’s plan for the world (or at least of God’s people’s life in the world), perhaps then religion would not be considered the “fantasy” many think it is, the “pie in the sky by-and-by” irrelevancy some believe it to be.

The religion of the God of Israel is, as the late Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple famously remarked, “the most materialistic religion in the world.” He meant that Christians (and Jews) believe more about matter, believe more positively about matter, and do more with matter than do the devotees of any other religious systems. But beyond that the religions of the Bible face the fact of the dirtiness of life, the downright violent filth of it, and assert that even from that can good come. And if something good can come from the deaths of children torn apart by murderous animals or of infants bashed against rocks by battle-enraged warriors, then perhaps something good can come from the crap, the utterly awful shit that happens in every human life. That, at its raunchiest, basest worst, is the glorious hope present in biblical faith, that even from the very worst of human suffering something good, something happy, something blessed can come. Thanks be to God!

May my friend and colleague Kelly (who I know has been greeted with those welcome words, “Well done, good and faithful servant!”) rest in peace and rise in glory!

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

Infinite Abundance – Sermon for Pentecost 9, Proper 12B – July 29, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 29, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 12B: 2 Kings 4:42-44; Psalm 145:10-19; Ephesians 3:14-21; and John 6:1-21)

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How many of you have ever attended a potluck supper or potluck luncheon in this parish? Let’s have show of hands. OK – hands down. Those of you who have done so . . . have you ever known there to be an insufficiency of food at any such event? Ever? Keep that in mind, please, as we take a look at these lessons today.

First of all, a story about the prophet Elisha from the Second Book of Kings. This the fourth in a series of miracles which are set out in Chapter 4 to prove that Elisha is a spokesman for God. In the first story, one of Elisha’s disciples dies leaving a widow with two children to raise by herself; her only possession, we are told, is a jar of oil. Elisha instructs her to borrow as many vessels from her neighbors as she can and to pour the oil from her jar into the borrowed vessels. She and her children fill vessel after vessel with the oil from her jar. When all the borrowed vessels are filled, the miraculous supply of oil stops. Elisha then instructs her to sell the oil, pay her debts, and live off the remaining money. It is a story of over-flowing abundance.

In the second story, Elisha promises a barren woman who has provided him hospitality that she will conceive and bear a son, which she does. Sometime later, however, the son becomes ill and dies. The woman, after placing the body in the room of her house where Elisha had stayed, finds Elisha and tells him what has happened; he offers to send his servant Gehazi but she insists that the prophet himself must come. He does so and raises the son from the dead. Again, it is a story of over-flowing grace.

The third and fourth stories are tales about food. In the third, we learn that on his return from raising the boy a time of famine has come upon his land of Gilgal, but Elisha nontheless orders his disciples to make a big pot of stew. One of the students goes into the field to gather herbs. Along with other ingredients he brings some gourds from a wild vine. As they eat the stew, apparently some fall ill and die as the men cry out, “O man of God, there is death in the pot!” Elisha, by the simple expedient of throwing some flour in the pot, “cures” the stew. Once again, the prophet brings life out of death. Perhaps more importantly, when his disciples were without food, God through Elisha’s ministry was able to provide them with what they needed.

And then we come to our reading for today at the end of the chapter. In this fourth story, twenty loaves of barley bread and some undefined but clearly small amount of grain feed a hundred people with plenty left over. This story differs from the first three in that it specifically mentions the commandment of God. The instruction to give the loaves and grain to the people and to eat and have some left over are not Elisha’s, they are the Lord’s.

This series of miracles accomplished through Elisha proves his legitimacy as a prophet of God, but beyond that in each of these events God meets and satisfies a significant human need. Saving orphaned children and their widowed mother from poverty and possibly slavery, providing a son to a barren woman and then raising that child from the dead, and feeding the hungry with more than enough are accomplished in these miracles. These are not demonstrations of power for the sake of impressing an audience; these are acts of abundant compassion and love flowing from God.

These stories, especially the one chosen by the Lectionary this morning, form a backdrop to the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000. This story was so important to and had made such an impression upon the first Christians that we find it in all four of the Gospels – each of the the Evangelists puts a different “spin” on the story, but there it is in every Gospel. In fact, it is the only miracle of Jesus that is reported in all four Gospels. John, whose version we heard today, uses it to introduce a lengthy discourse on the “bread of life” from which we will hear pieces read over the next five weeks, but for now let’s just concentrate on story itself.

As John tells the story, Jesus had gone off to be by himself after a particularly intense period of ministry. However, the crowds followed him: “Jesus,” writes John, “went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. . . . . [Then] he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him.” This isn’t the sermon on the mount; it’s not a teaching event; he hadn’t encouraged this group of people to come to this place. In fact, as John tells it, there is almost a suggestion that Jesus didn’t want these people around, but there they are! There they are in a wilderness area at the end of the day, tired, hungry, and apparently without food.

“How are we going to buy food to feed these people?” he asks Phillip. Notice that there is no doubt or hesitation about whether or not he and his disciples have any responsibility to do so; it’s not even a question worth asking or thinking about. These people are here; they need to eat; what are we going to do about it? And Phillip’s immediate response is, “We don’t have enough money.” Meanwhile, Andrew pops up with the fact that there is a boy present with five loaves fish and two loaves, but then immediately observes (like Elisha’s servant in the story from Second Kings) that that clearly isn’t enough food for the number of people to be fed.

Elisha’s servant could not see how twenty loaves could feed a hundred men; Philip and Andrew could not see past the probably out-of-reach cost of sufficient supplies or the meagerness of the boy’s five loaves and two fish. And we, even though we regularly experience episodes of improbable and exorbitant abundance (remember those potluck meals I asked you to keep in mind), are much like them. We base many of our decisions on an assumption of scarcity and on our fear of insufficiency; we hoard and save and worry and end up living our lives, personally and corporately, in small and safe (but largely boring and ineffective) activities. We pull back when we should push forward. We give in to our fear of a shortfall rather than exercising faith in God’s profligate generosity. Elisha and Jesus, out of God’s overflowing abundance, gave the people what they needed.

These miracles, Elisha’s feeding of his 100 disciples and Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000, demand that we as the church face squarely this question: “Do we believe that God will provide what we need to do the ministry God wants done?” Note the essential qualifiers – what we need, not necessarily what we want, and the ministry God wants, not necessarily the ministry we’ve planned. Another way to ask the question: Do we operate according to a mind-set of abundance or of scarcity? The former engenders generosity, joy, and hope; the latter brings anxiety, fear, and decline. These stories encourage us to rely about God’s infinite abundance, to live in God’s world of generosity and hope, in God’s world of infinite possibility.

These stories demonstrate that will of God for God’s people, throughout both the Old and the New Testaments, is profligate generosity; God’s will for God’s people is the same today. God wants to meet our human needs. We face no problems that are any different from those faced by God’s people in the past; the problems we face can and will be resolved when we rely upon God’s generous abundance without fear of scarcity or insufficiency. Our problems are not our problem! Our problem is really believing that God is still able and willing to enter into our lives to meet our needs.Our problem is in really internalizing what we are saying when we repeat the words of the Psalm: “You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”

And yet we have our own experiences of that abundant provision. Elisha told his servant to feed the 100 men with the twenty loaves of bread: “He set it before them, they ate, and had some left, according to the word of the Lord.” Jesus had the people sit down; he took five loaves and two fish from the boy, gave thanks to God, and distributed the food. After everyone had eaten, “he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up, and . . . filled twelve baskets.”

That’s exactly what happens when we have those potlucks I asked you to keep in mind! When we have shared suppers in this parish, no one has ever gone away hungry. There are always plenty of leftovers. They don’t always go home with the people who brought them either – they are sent home with our seniors who live alone, with struggling young families with children to feed, or with the family whose breadwinner has recently lost his job. At our potlucks we personally experience of the very stories we read in the Bible. God not only meets our needs, God overfills them with profligate generosity.

With that experience, we really should have no trouble believing that God is able and willing to enter every area of our lives to meet our needs, not just at our potluck suppers but in every thing we do as individuals and together as the church. We should have no trouble comprehending, with all the saints, the breadth and length and height and depth of the love of Christ and the fullness of God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Amen.