That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Second Peter

Death at Christmas – Sermon for Advent 2, RCL Year B

Today’s Gradual, Psalm 85, includes what may be my favorite verse in the entire collection of the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v. 10)

I think it may be my favorite because it figures prominently in the movie Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by the Danish write Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The story tells of a grand meal prepared for the residents of a small Danish village in memory of their deceased Lutheran pastor. In flash backs, we see his ministry and on several occasions we hear him quote this verse, which seems to be a rallying cry for his flock.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

It’s a lovely poetic summation of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in that book of prophecy.

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“Squirrel!” – Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2017

During my three days away taking the Education for Ministry training I needed to continue my certification as an EfM mentor this past week, I was reminded of an old story about children’s sermons:

A pastor was giving his children’s message at the beginning of a church service. For this part of the worship, he would gather all the children around him and give a brief lesson before dismissing them to Sunday school.

On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson on industry and preparation. He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees . . . (pause) . . . and eats nuts . . . (pause) . . . .”

No hands went up. “And it is gray . . . (pause) . . . and has a long bushy tail . . . (pause) . . .”

The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch . . . (pause) . . . and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited . . . (pause) . . . .”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

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Listen to Him! – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, 26 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; St. Matthew 17:1-9. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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transfiguration_wLGHere we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.

Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:15; cf Mk 8:29; Lk 9:20) Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Then they had an argument. Jesus congratulated Peter for his astute answer and then tried to explain to him and the others what that would mean predicting his own death in Jerusalem. Peter, headstrong and outspoken, had contradicted Jesus and vowed that they would never let that happen. That’s when Jesus called him “Satan” and told Peter to stop obstructing him. “Get behind me,” he said. (Mt 16:23) Then he told the rest of them that to be his disciple would mean suffering and probably death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:25)

So nearly a week has passed now and here on the Holy Mountain (traditionally believed to be Mt. Tabor about six miles east of Nazareth) Peter, James, and John behold what John would later refer to as Jesus’ “glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Peter would report that they had been “eyewitnesses of [Christ’s] majesty” when “he received honor and glory from God the Father.” (2 Pet 1:16-17) In some way, Jesus was transfigured, a word that describes a change in outward form or appearance, usually implying exaltation or glorification. Whatever it was that happened, these disciples would come to understand that Peter’s answer a week before, that Jesus was “the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), meant much more than they had thought. In the Judaism of their time, it could refer to anyone of particularly noteworthy piety which the disciples believed their rabbi Jesus to be. (See Jewish Encyclopedia, “Son of God”)

Jesus instructed them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” and at sometime they must have told the story to someone, else we would not find it in the Gospels. And in the story they told not only of Jesus’ change in appearance, but of the voice from Heaven, a voice which spoke even as Peter was talking about building monuments to what was happening. As bible scholar David Lose describes the scene,

There is Peter, falling all over himself looking for something to do, when the voice from heaven literally interrupts him, saying (almost!), “Would you shut up already, and just listen to him!” (Dear Working Preacher, 2011)

I find it both amusing and disappointing that when Peter writes his second letter and describes the voice and what was said, he leaves off those last three words, “Listen to him.” It is so like Peter, and so like the church which he represents, to ignore and even forget those three words that Professor Warren Carter of Brite Divinity School has characterized as a “divine plea.” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) As the priest-blogger who calls himself “the Listening Hermit” says,

[This] is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus. (Listening Hermit, emphasis in original.)

I believe those three words spoken by God to Peter, James, and John, and through them to us, may be the most important divine admonition in the whole of the New Testament, perhaps in all of Holy Scripture. “Listen to him!”

It has occurred to me that there are two ways in which we don’t listen fully to Jesus. One way is that although we may know what it is that he said, we don’t hear it as coming from Jesus the Son of God. The other way is that although we may recognize Jesus as the Lord of creation, we don’t hear his words.

The first way to fail to listen to Jesus is represented by Thomas Jefferson. As you may know, Jefferson was an Episcopalian, a vestryman in his Virginia parish, and very well versed in Scripture. But he was also a free-thinker who really didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, so he edited the New Testament, apparently using a pen knife to cut out and rearrange the portions he liked best to produce a text more to his own taste.

Jefferson produced [an] 84-page volume . . . bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. * * * [He] elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread; he eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” (Smithsonian Magazine, January 2012)

Basically what he did was take out anything that suggested Jesus’ divinity, reducing the Son of God to nothing more than a philosopher. When the words of Jesus are not those of God but merely those of a man, no matter how morally upright and impressive he may be, we do not hear them with the same import; the words of a mere man, no matter how moral and inspiring he may be, simply do not carry the same weight as the words of God. If we take Jefferson’s approach, we do not “listen to him.”

That first way is also represented by someone rather less imposing than Mr. Jefferson, and that is the title character of the Will Farrell movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. If you saw the movie you will remember the Thanksgiving Dinner scene in which Ricky Bobby offers the table grace which he begins with these words, “Dear Lord baby Jesus . . . .” After he is interrupted by his friend Cal, he begins again, “Dear Lord baby Jesus . . . .” at which point his wife Carley interrupts him saying, “You know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him, ‘Baby.’ It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” And Ricky responds, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best.” At that point, the offering of prayer is abandoned and the family begins a discussion of what image of Jesus each prefers. When Ricky does finally get back to the prayer, he addresses our Lord as: “Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers . . . Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent . . . .” (MovieWavs.com)

Obviously that’s completely overblown and played for laughs, but it drives home the point that we cannot hear Jesus’ words, we cannot “listen to him,” when we conceive of him only through our own preferences and inclinations as embodying nothing more than our own likes and dislikes. This is no different from Jefferson hacking away at the New Testament; Jesus as “8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant . . . [although] still omnipotent” (or whatever our preferred, self-made image may be) is no more to be taken seriously than is Jesus the moral philosopher.

The other way we don’t listen to Jesus takes his divinity and authority seriously, but not his actual words. More often than not this sort of not listening takes the form of talking over Jesus or of putting words into his mouth. The “poster child” for this sort of not listening is Archie Bunker, the pater familias from the old television show All in the Family. If you recall the show, you will remember any number of scenes in which Archie respond to a situation by saying, “As the Good Book says . . . .” and then offer some mangled word of wisdom that was like nothing ever written in Scripture. Among my favorite religious Bunkerisms were “Let the one without sin become a rolling stone” and “Patience is a virgin.”

Screenshot 2017-02-25 21.02.08The world is full of Archie Bunkers who will say, “Jesus said this” or “Jesus said that” – who will tell you flat out that Jesus is firmly against abortion (about which he said nothing) or that Jesus doesn’t like gays or lesbians (homosexuality being something else he never mentioned). I recently purchased this t-shirt and, believe, me there are places where and people with whom I would dearly love to wear it. If you are unable to see it clearly or read what says, it bears a familiar portrait of Jesus under which are the words, “I never said that. (signed) Jesus”

We cannot listen to Jesus when we talk over him. We cannot listen to Jesus when we put words into his mouth. We cannot listen to Jesus when we presume to speak for him. “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do,” says writer Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, Anchor Books, New York:1995, page 22) I would suggest that one has also created God in one’s own image when it turns out that God thinks the same things one thinks or says the same things one would say. I read a comment on an internet blog recently in which the writer said he grew up in a church where “people would quote the Scriptures, ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ or ‘God helps those who help themselves.'” Neither of those shibboleths are actually from scripture. The first is from Alexander Pope, and the second from Benjamin Franklin. Again, like Archie Bunker, we cannot listen to Jesus when we put words into his mouth, when Jesus seems to say the things we would say.

The voice on the Holy Mountain addressed both the Thomas Jeffersons or Ricky Bobbies and the Archie Bunkers among us. God’s first words, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” address the former. This Jesus is not just a good philosopher; this Jesus is not just the little infant of Christmas. This Jesus is, as Peter said, the Son of the Living God, fully human and fully divine. Take him seriously. The “divine plea” with which the voice ends, “Listen to him,” addresses the latter, the Archie Bunkers. Take his words seriously.

How can we do that? By reading this, the Holy Bible, on a regular (and I would suggest daily) basis. By studying it. By knowing it. By knowing Jesus’ words contained in it. If we are to take the divine admonition at all seriously, studious reading of Scripture is the only way to do so.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the Bible; read it!

Let us pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect, Proper 28, for the Sunday closest to November 16, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 236)

(Note: The first illustration is Transfiguration by contemporary artist James B. Janknegt, whose work may be purchased at Brilliant Corners Art Farm. The second is from Headline T-Shirts.)

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

Jesus the Lens – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year A – March 2, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, March 2, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; and Matthew 17:1-9. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Bible and Magnifying GlassDarmok and Jalad at Tanagra!
Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra . . . .
[silence]
Shaka, when the walls fell.
[silence]

Obviously, there is no one here who was a fan of Star Trek: The Next Generation! “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is a line from an episode of that show entitled Darmok in which Picard, the captain of the Enterprise, and the captain of an alien vessel are marooned on a planet called El-Adrel. The alien race are called the Tamarians and their way of communicating is by making metaphorical references to legends, myths, and incidents in their history.

“Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra” is the alien captain’s way of trying to say that he and Picard, the Tamarians and the humans, though strangers can become friends and allies — the reference is to a story in which two strangers become allies against a common enemy. Picard, of course, does not understand and so the Tamarian captain in frustration says, “Shaka, when the walls fell,” a metaphor for failure.

That episode and the Tamarian way of communicating came to mind as I considered the story of the Transfiguration as told by Matthew in today’s Gospel lesson (and referred to in the epistle lesson, as well). The point of the episode is that we all communicate by way of analogy and metaphor; the fictional Tamarians were simply an extreme case. So is religion. All talk of God, all religious language, is metaphorical.

There are anti-religious writers who fail to understand that. I call them “anti-theists” or “evangelical atheists” — they are so sure of the truth of their Godless vision of the universe that they insist on trying to destroy religious faith, to spread the “truth” of their atheism. When they consider the story of the Transfiguration, they insist that it is a made-up story. They point to the fact that the story combines elements of earlier stories of the Hebrew people and say the Gospel writers were simply inventing something.

And, yes, they are right about the earlier stories. In the Book of Daniel, Daniel tells of seeing a vision of heaven in which one he calls “the Ancient One” is clothed in “clothing [which] was white as snow,” (Dan. 7:9) like Matthew (and Mark and Luke) describe Jesus’ clothing on the Holy Mountain. Daniel tells of seeing one “like a son of man” (a title claimed by Jesus, by the way, even in today’s reading) who he describes this way: “His face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze.” Matthew doesn’t go into such detail, but he describes Jesus’ face as shining like the sun.

Another earlier story is that of Moses receiving the law from God at Sinai, the story we heard this morning. On that mountain, Moses encountered the Shekinah, the glowing cloud of the Lord’s Presence, not unlike the cloud the Gospel describes on the Mount of the Transfiguration.

What happened on that mountain? I really don’t know. I take the Gospelers’ word for it that something important, something incredible happened. I believe they tried to describe it using stories familiar to their people. Like the fictional Tamarians of Star Trek:TNG, they were reaching back into their history to communicate, by metaphor and analogy, the meaning and importance of a present reality. They were not “making it up,” they were describing it in a way they hoped would make sense. They were trying to communicate that something important happened on that mountain, that in some way Jesus was changed and God spoke to them. I believe that what was of most importance is summarized in three small words: “Listen to him.”

Peter in his second letter — and I know there are scholars who doubt that Peter wrote the second letter attributed to him, but for the moment let’s just go with tradition — Peter in his letter relates his experience on the mountain, and I find it interesting that in doing so, he left out those three words: “[Jesus] received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.” Peter set a pattern for the church which has continued for nearly 2,000 years. We fail to heed those three small words; we fail to even remember them — and we do not listen to Jesus.

We listen to Paul in his several letters! We listen to John in his three, and to James, and Jude, and Peter. We listen to John of Patmos in the Book of Revelation. We listen to those who came earlier, to Moses, to those who wrote or edited Leviticus and Deuteronomy, to the Prophets, to David in the Psalms. We listen to all of them . . . but we do not listen to Jesus.

All talk of God, all religious language is metaphorical . . . so let me suggest a couple of metaphors that might help us to do so.

I think it was Brian McClaren who said that the way we read the Bible can be likened to an hour glass, which all of the Old Testament being the sand in the top of the glass, and the writings of the New Testament being the sand pouring through the tiny middle, Jesus being that little hole in the center of the glass. We read all that sand in the top as pointing to Jesus, as prophesying Jesus, as explaining why Jesus was going to come. We read all that sand in the bottom of the glass as pointing back to Jesus, as explaining Jesus, as prophesying his return. We read Jesus through the lens of the Old Testament writers or through the lens of the Epistle authors. We listen to what they tell us about Jesus . . . but we do not listen to Jesus.

We should stop treating Jesus as the central stem of an hour glass to which all Old Testament sand points forward and to which all New Testament sand points back. We should think of Jesus as the lens of a microscope, or a telescope, or just as a magnifying glass. We should read Paul through the lens of Jesus, not vice versa. We should read Revelation through the lens of Jesus, not vice versa. We should read the prophets, the Psalms, Moses, the whole of the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. When a biblical writer has something to say about a particular matter, we should hear what that writer has to say, but we should then critically question that writer’s words by asking, “Did Jesus say anything about that?” We should listen to Jesus.

There are many in our society who purport to speak for the church — truth be told, they purport to speak for Jesus — on a variety of topics. For example, we are told that Jesus is opposed to abortion. But when you question that, when you ask for the Biblical basis of their argument, they will cite Genesis: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27) and then tell you that “when it comes to human dignity, Christ erases distinctions. St. Paul declares, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave or free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). We can likewise say, ‘There is neither born nor unborn.'” This is an actual quotation from an antiabortion website. Notice what was done: Christ, we are told, erases distinctions, but it is Paul who is cited. This is reading Jesus through the lens of Paul; this is listening to Paul, not Jesus.

Did Jesus ever say anything about abortion? No. Never. What did Jesus say? “Love God; love your neighbor as yourself.” Sometimes our neighbor must make very hard, very painful decisions, but never did Jesus suggest we are to make her decisions for her, or to prevent her from making her own decisions, or to question the decision she may make. Quite to the contrary, he said, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.” (Luke 6:37) Listen to him.

We are told that Jesus condemns those who engaged in sexual immorality, but did Jesus do so? On one occasion, he encountered a crowd which was intent on executing (as the law demanded) a woman who had been exposed as an adulterer. What did he do and say? He convinced the crowd to abandon their plans. When the crowd left while he was looking away, Jesus said to the woman, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:10-11) Jesus had a lot to say about sexual immorality, but when dealing with some accused of it, he followed his own rule: Love your neighbor, and do not judge. Listen to him.

We are told that Jesus condemns homosexuality, that gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons should be excluded from ministry, that they should be forbidden to marry the person they love. Did Jesus ever say anything about same-sex relationships? No, never. Leviticus has something to say about, though scholars are in conflict about whether that has any application to committed, loving adult relationships. St. Paul had something to say about, maybe. There is the same doubt about the application of his words to committed, loving adult relationships. There is even some doubt about whether Paul’s words are anything more than a cut-and-paste use of a Greek rhetorical form. But Jesus? Jesus never even said anything about which there could be doubt; about homosexual relationships, Jesus said nothing . . . nothing other than “Love your neighbor, and do not judge.” Listen to him.

We do this over and over again throughout history, whatever the issue of the day may be. Go back about a hundred years; go back to the temperance movement of the early 20th Century. Members of the Church campaigned against “demon rum” on the grounds that Jesus was against drinking. Did Jesus ever say anything about alcoholic beverages? Yes! He said to drink them! And, especially, he said to do so in his memory. Listen to him!

My systematic theology professor, Jim Griffis, was very good at dealing with students who wanted to read Jesus through the lens of other Scripture. He would listen to them cite the Old Testament or Paul or Revelation, and then ask, “What does Jesus say?” “The Gospel,” he would say, “trumps the Bible.” The Gospel of love: Love God; love your neighbor; do not judge. Understand everything else through that critical filter.

Something happened on the mount of the Transfiguration, something so important that those who later wrote about it and preserved it, analogized it to the important stories of their past. Like the Tamarian captain looking back to Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, they looked back to Moses receiving the law at Sinai, to Daniel seeing a vision of heaven.

There is one more similarity between those earlier bible stories and the tale of the Transfiguration. In Daniel’s vision, the one “like a son of man” says to Daniel, “Pay attention to the words that I am going to speak to you.” (Dan. 10:11) The three most important words spoken on the Holy Mountain are “Listen to him!” — Listen to Paul, listen to Moses, listen to John of Patmos, listen to the prophets, listen to David . . . but, most importantly, listen to Jesus and understand all the rest through that lens: “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not judge.”

“This is my son, the beloved; in him I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

Amen.

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

The Example of Balaam – From the Daily Office – July 6, 2012

From the Book of Numbers:

Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. Balak said to Balaam, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but instead you have blessed them these three times. Now be off with you! Go home! I said, ‘I will reward you richly,’ but the Lord has denied you any reward.” And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say'”?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 24:19-13 – July 6, 2012)

We’ve been following the story of Balak and Balaam from the Book of Numbers for a few days, although I’ve not been writing about it here. In truth, I find it a little dull. But Balaam’s words this morning strike me as pertinent to what’s going on in my denomination (the Episcopal Church) in Indianapolis this week: “What the Lord says, that is what I will say.” Balaam will not simply parrot whatever blessing or curse Balak wants; he will say what he understands God to want him to say. ~ A lot of resolutions are being debated at the General Convention and many of them will be referrals to standing or special committees and task forces with instructions for study and report. That’s all well and good, some actions of the church need study and careful consideration before they are taken. But all too often these referrals are not for disinterested and unbiased reflection. Take, for example, the question of whether the church should bless the committed relationships of couples who are of the same sex (“same-sex marriage” as some call it). ~ Before I continue, I need to be on record as believing that the church should offer such blessings, just as we do for committed couples of opposite sexes. ~ It is likely that some committee (the Standing Liturgical Commission, probably) will be asked to study the question of our theology and understanding of marriage. Good. But it will probably, in the same resolution, be tasked (in fact, I think there’s a resolution pretty much saying) to report back with suggested liturgies for such blessings. Bad. The outcome of the theological study is simply presupposed in the task! This isn’t a resolution to study the theology of marriage; it’s a resolution to provide a theological justification for same-sex marriage. ~ I suspect that another issue before the Convention, whether Holy Communion should be open to those who are not yet bapized members of the Christian faith, will result in a similar “study-and-report” referral. ~ Committees and task forces asked to do that should not also be given the job of preparing materials which can only be based on a pre-supposed outcome. When the Convention does so, it stands in the same position as Balak demanding that Balaam utter the blessings and curses of his choosing. Committees and task forces need to be free, like Balaam, to say not what the General Convention presupposes they will say, but what they understand God wants them to say. ~ By the way, Balaam had a donkey who could see angels and who tried to steer him away from danger. Most committees also have an ass or two who can do the same thing; pray God they do their job! ~ (Parenthetical closing remark: I don’t otherwise suggest that our committees emulate the confused, untrustworthy, and idolatrous Balaam, a man whom Peter described as being one who “loved the wages of iniquity” [2 Peter 2:15]. But insofar as he spoke God’s message without bias, go for it!)

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