That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Second Samuel (page 1 of 2)

The Three-Dimensional Kingdom: Sermon for Christ the King (Proper 29B), 22 November 2015

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A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King, (Proper 29B, Track 1, RCL), November 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-19; Revelation 1:4b-8; and John 18:33-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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Christ the KingThe kingdom of God, of which today we celebrate Christ as king, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, dangerous peace.

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1934, quoted in Bethge, Renate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life)

In 1934 the young German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched in sadness as his democratic, educated, and Christian country discarded more and more of its core values. Fear-mongering politicians lured patriotic citizens to ignore their Bibles and the promise and hope of the Prince of Peace, and worship instead at the altar of safety and national security; he witnessed them behave terribly toward foreigners, minorities, the disabled and the mentally ill. Three weeks after Adolf Hitler was proclaimed Der Führer, Bonhoeffer preached the sermon I have just quoted.

Today, as the Christian year draws to a close, we celebrate the universal sovereignty of Christ. We call this last Sunday after Pentecost “Christ the King” and we underscore that Jesus is our Lord. My friend and colleague Kara Slade, who is completing her doctorate in systematic theology at Duke, posted as her Facebook status this morning:

Because Jesus is Lord, your fear is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your bank account is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your preferred political candidate is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your theological platform (and mine) is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, every power and principality of this world is not.

Theologian Daniel Clendenin makes the same point when he writes, “The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless — peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion.”

This morning we are joined by several young men and women, members of our own Episcopal Youth Community and of youth groups of other parishes, who erected cardboard shelters on our church’s front lawn, who spent the night as many homeless do in the cold and rain, and who walked the town square with volunteers from Operation H.O.M.E.S. to raise money for and call attention to the needs of the homeless in our community. Their witness extends beyond our community to the other cities where their other congregations are located, but also beyond our own diocese and state; they witness to plight of people of all ages made homeless by economics, made homeless by ill-health, made homeless by addictions, made homeless by war. They witness to hundreds of thousands in this country and beyond our borders who are refugees from their homes but who, like us, are “no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19)

In worldly terms, Jesus’ kingship during his life was a pretty spectacular failure. He was born in a stable and soon (probably when he was about two years of age) became a refugee himself, living in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by most of his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20) He died, as we heard in the Gospel account this morning, condemned as a political rebel. “Behold,” he says in the form of the Stations of the Cross we often use in this parish, “the poorest king who ever lived. Even my deathbed, this cross, is not my own.”

Yet within less than generation communities would form throughout the ancient Middle East dedicated to the idea that not only was he a king, but that he was and is the very Son of God. Within less than 60 years after his crucifixion, John of Patmos would declare that he is “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”

When we focus on Christ as our king, we celebrate and give thanks for this temporal three-dimensionality; when we give thanks for the universal sovereignty of Christ, who in the words of one of our Ascension hymns we name “the Lord of interstellar space and Conqueror of time,” we see these three tenses of Thanksgiving: the past, the present, and the future. The kingdom over which he is Lord and of which we are all a part always has been, is, and always will be. It is, preached Patrick of Ireland,

. . . greater than all report, better than all praise of it, more manifold than every conceivable glory. The Kingdom of God is so full of light, peace, charity, wisdom, glory, honesty, sweetness, loving-kindness and every unspeakable and unutterable good, that it can neither be described nor envisioned by the mind. . . . . In the eternal Kingdom there shall be life without death, truth without falsehood, and happiness without a shadow of unrest . . . (Sermon for Advent quoted in Ramshaw, Gail, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary)

On this Feast of Christ the King, in a few minutes, we will dedicate our financial commitments to our ministry in Christ’s church and our stewardship of Christ’s kingdom. The pledge cards we have completed and turned in are tokens of our gratitude, signs of our thanks for all “the unspeakable and unutterable good” that God has given us, sacramental of our commitment to care for it and use it to the benefit of others. Our thanksgiving is three-dimensional, evidencing our awareness of God’s abundance through the ages, our sense of his very presence in this moment, and our declaration of faith that God is also yet to come. When we live with that sense of expectation, today makes a difference; our pledges of gratitude and good stewardship make a difference.

When we celebrate Jesus as King, we reach back into the Jewish roots of our faith, into the Hebrew past. We hear King David, the shepherd son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, proclaim, “The God of Israel has spoken . . . to me, . . . he has made with me an everlasting covenant.” We hear the words of the prophets, such as Isaiah, proclaiming through the ages their expectation of the Messiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Isa 11:1-2)

Princeton philosopher Michael Walzer, however, reminds us that the prophetic expectation was not a political one. The prophets, indeed, “disdain” politics. In contrast to Greek philosophers, “the Biblical writers never attach great value to [human] politics as a way of life.” Politics is simply “not recognized by the Biblical writers as a centrally important or humanly fulfilling activity.” Their emphasis was on divine intention, not on human wisdom, The prophets exemplify the Hebrew Bible’s “radical denial of the doctrine of self-help,” of human safety and national security. (Walzer, Michael, In God’s Shadow; Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale:2012, pp 125, 186)

The prophetic emphasis is not one of political security; when Isaiah describes the Child upon whose shoulders authority will rest he names him “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6), and (as quoted above) asserts that he will possess a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. St. Ambrose of Milan said:

When we speak about wisdom, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about peace, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking of Christ.

Neither St. Ambrose, nor Isaiah, nor any Hebrew prophet ever spoke of national security or personal safety. As Bonhoeffer said, “Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. [To give] oneself completely to God’s commandment, [means] wanting no security . . . .” “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” said Jesus (Mk 8:35)

When Jesus says, “I am Alpha and the Omega,” he is reminding us all that our beginning and our ending is in him. No one is self-made. No one is safe apart from him. No one is secure apart from God. Nothing that God loves will ever be lost. No evil will endure. All that God has created he will redeem. The kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus the Son of David, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, forever. And it’s for everyone.

Our annual fund campaign pledges represent our three-dimensional acknowledgement of the fact of Christ’s kingdom, our gratitude for the truth of Christ’s kingdom, and our commitment to be good stewards of that kingdom entrusted to us. Those pledge cards which have already been received are in this basket; I will ask our ushers now to take it and receive any additional cards which you have brought today. If you’ve not turned in a card and haven’t brought a completed card with you this morning, there is a form in your bulletins which you may use. We’ll take a few minutes of silent reflection upon the abundance of God’s kingdom while you do so. At the offertory, we will pray over and bless our pledge cards.

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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.

This is not how it’s supposed to be! – From the Daily Office Lectionary

This is not how it’s supposed to be!

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 15, Year 1 (Pentecost 12, 2015)

2 Samuel 18:33 ~ The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

This verse reports King David’s reaction on learning of the death of his son Absalom. Even though Absalom has rebelled, even though there is “bad blood” between father and son, even though David has every reason to be bitterly disappointed in his offspring and, perhaps, even to rejoice at the end of a threat to his throne, the bond between parent and child, severed by the death of the child, leads to his outpouring of deep sorrow.

“This is not how it’s supposed to be,” is how one parent mourning the loss of her first-born put it. That was my mother speaking about the death of my older brother from brain cancer. She knew well that pain of parental loss; my father also died (in an automobile accident) before his parents and my mother had stood by my grandparents as they mourned their son. (My grandparents experienced that loss again when my uncle, my brother’s only sibling, died of cancer several years later.)

This is not how it’s supposed to be! And, yet, it is again and again and again. I am almost 63 years old; for 59 of my years my country has had troops on battlefields somewhere in the world. (Earlier this year, the Washingtons Blog website detailed the 222 years America has been at war.) Hundreds of thousands of young men and women, and children, uniformed soldiers and civilians, had been killed in those conflicts; numerous children have predeceased their parents. Again and again, fathers and mothers have echoed David’s lament: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!”

This is not how it’s supposed to be!

A Theology of Rape – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Proper 14, Year 1 (Pentecost 11, 2015)

2 Samuel 16:22 ~ So they pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.

I’m having a hard time with Scripture today … I have notes for a sermon for tomorrow, so I’ll be able to mumble my way through some sort of ad libbed homily … but tomorrow’s lessons are not cause of the problem. The cause was this lesson in today’s Daily Office Lectionary in which Absalom attempts to wrest the kingdom of Israel from his father David. Absalom takes control of Jerusalem and then, on the advice of Ahithophel, whose counsel is extolled “as if one consulted the oracle of God,” this happens: to demonstrate his control of the city and his contempt for his father, Absalom’s men “pitched a tent for Absalom upon the roof; and Absalom went in to his father’s concubines in the sight of all Israel.” ~ “Go in to” is a biblical euphemism for sexual intercourse. In other words, Absalom, on the advice of one whose counsel is considered to be like that of God, publicly raped his father’s concubines as part of a military conquest.

This is a week in which many of us have been disgusted by the NY Times report on ISIS’s “theology of rape,” by the Jihadists’ use of women as property, as sex slaves, as rewards for their followers, by their calling rape an act of prayer! So these verses really leapt out at me!

Absalom is not a hero of the Bible. Eventually, his rebellion is put down and he is killed. Nonetheless, this lesson portrays his act with callous nonchalance and praises the man who advised it. I’m disgusted. A theology of rape is not so distant. I’m having a hard time with Scripture today.

Barzillai the Gileadite – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 14, Year 1 (Pentecost 11, 2015)

2 Samuel 19:37 ~ [Barzillai the Gileadite said to David,] “Please let your servant return, so that I may die in my own town, near the graves of my father and my mother.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about retirement recently; I suppose that’s something that happens when you hit the mid-60s in age. Where to settle to enjoy what once were called “the golden years”? One doesn’t really hear that term much any more, does one? Are they no longer considered golden, these years of decline when one is supposed to spend time with one’s grandchildren, puttering in a garden or messing about in a workshop or taking classes at an adult learning center? Is it because, as in the days of Barzillai the Gileadite (who was 80 years old, by the way), we no longer have the time or wherewithal to do those things, because we (like Barzillai) must work until we die because pensions have disappeared in financial crises and medical cost increases have outpaced inflation and despite promises to the contrary our homes have not turned out to be the always-increasing-in-value investments they were supposed to be?

Ah, well . . . . whatever. Where to settle in these remaining years, whatever they may hold, is still an issue. As a society we have long ago abandoned any pretense of a hope of dying “in our own towns, near the graves of our fathers and our mothers.” We have become too mobile for that; in fact, our parents became to mobile for that; in the case of my family, my grandparents became to mobile for that. When I look at my options, my choices of place where I might be buried near the graves of grandparents, parents, or siblings . . . I could chose among seven cities and ten cemeteries!

A contemporary commentator on the American scene whose observations make sense to me is John Howard Kunstler. In his book Too Much Magic, Kuntsler writes:

“Yet another problem with suburbia-related to its unworthiness of affection – was its horrifying mutability. Suburbs changed so dramatically from one year to the next that adults came home to find the places where they grew up unrecognizable, and almost always for the worse, often because some beloved patch of woods or other vestige of original landscape had finally yielded to the bulldozers. Life is precarious enough and there are some things in this world which people need to feel a sense of permanence. Familial love and a place called home probably top the list, and we became a whole nation of souls whose home places were lost or mutilated beyond recognition. This sad condition, so common now, has surely worked even to the detriment of family relations, so that we’ve succeeded in undermining the two elements most crucial to healthy functioning personalities: place and family.” (Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation, Atlantic Monthly Press: 2012, pp. 35-36)

A sense of permanence, a spirituality of place, a place called home, “near the graves of my father and my mother” . . . a mobile society constantly changing its location, both by moving and by altering the landscape, does not have these things and cannot really understand Barzillai the Gileadite and his reluctance to accompany David to Jerusalem. As I approach Barzillai’s age, however, I get a glimmer of understanding and an appreciation of what we are missing.

Pray for Ali Dawabsheh – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 12, Year 1 (Pentecost 9, 2015)

2 Samuel 5:6-8 ~ The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back” – thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

This morning in Jerusalem, Jewish “Settlers” burned a Palestinian home. An 18-month-old toddler was burned to death and three other members of his family were injured. Will the Settlers claim to be acting in the tradition of David? Will the “city of peace” ever know peace? ~ The psalm says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.'” (Ps 122:6-7) Those who love Jerusalem are of many faiths, many traditions; why can’t they (we) find common ground there?

The child’s name was Ali Dawabsheh. Pray for Ali and for his family.

Overflowing Abundance: Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B, 26 July 2015)

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A sermon offered on Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B, Track 1, RCL), July 26, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; and John 6:1-21. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Tabgha Mosaic FloorSo this is a very familiar story, right? Actually, two very familiar stories. We all know about the feeding of the 5,000. All four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – tell it with slightly varying details. We all know about Jesus walking on the water. Three of the four gospels – Mark, Luke, and John – include that tale, again with slightly varying details. We sometimes mix up those variations, but basically the stories are the same so no big deal.

The problem is that we know the stories so well that we don’t know what we don’t know about them. We think we know the whole story, but we don’t! And one of the things we don’t know, as Evie and I discovered when we were in Palestine last summer, is the geography of the feeding of the multitude. So I thought start with a sort of geography lesson, if that’s OK with you? OK?

OK.

I want you, first, to think about what you know about Lake Erie. You know that it’s up there, north of us somewhere. You know that at one end (the western end) are Detroit and Toledo and at the other (the eastern end) is Buffalo. You know that the far shore is a foreign country called Canada, and you know pretty well where the cities and towns are located along the American shore.

So now I want you take Lake Erie and rotate it 90 degrees. Buffalo is now at the lower end; Toledo is at the top; the foreign country called Canada is still on the far shore. If we come down the near shore from Toledo, we’ll come to (among other places) Maumee, Sandusky, Lorain, Cleveland, Ashtabula, Erie.

By rotating Lake Erie, we’ve oriented it in the same way the Sea of Galilee is oriented and, by a strange coincidence, many of the places we know of along the shore of the Sea of Galilee are in relationship to one another in much the same way as places we know along the shore of Lake Erie! So … Bethsaida – you remember Bethsaida, it’s where Jesus healed a blind man and it was the hometown of Philip, Andrew, and Peter – Bethsaida would be about where Detroit is. Capernaum, which Jesus sort of made his home base and where Peter actually seems to have lived, would be about where Toledo is. A place called Tabgha, which is probably where the feeding of the 5,000 took place, would be about where Sandusky is. Gennesaret, which is where Mark says the apostles were headed when they saw Jesus walking on the water, would be about where Cleveland is. Tiberias, a resort city built by Herod Antipas (the king who beheaded John the Baptist), would about where Erie, Pennsylvania, is. Finally, go way away from the lake to Cincinnati, that would be about where Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown would be.

Except … shrink everything by at least a factor of ten, because that’s how much bigger Lake Erie is than the Sea of Galilee; that’s how much bigger Ohio is than the region of Galilee. So, now, Cincinnati/Nazareth, instead of 250 miles from the lake is 25 miles away, and Toledo/Capernaum, instead of being about 40 miles from Sandusky/Tabgha is less than 3 miles away. And the other distances are similarly reduced, but remember . . . they didn’t have cars and interstates; they would have been walking or riding a donkey on dirt paths, or maybe sailing or even rowing a fishing boat on the lake.

So let me tell you about Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, there was a village there and had been for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage. The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called “Mensa Domini” (the Lord’s Table) and also known as the Church of the Primacy of Peter.

A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today – a picture of it is on the front of your bulletin.

The reason I spend so much time on the geography of the place is this: we all know the story of the feeding of the 5,000, but sometimes we think to ourselves, “It probably wasn’t that big a crowd.” We think John and the other evangelists, or whoever first told the story, may have been exaggerating. But consider: it’s only about an hour’s walk from Capernaum to Tabhga, only an hour from Genessaret, only an hour and a half from Chorazin, maybe two hours from Bethsaida or Tiberias, perhaps several hours from Nazareth and more distant towns. But if one had a donkey or a horse, or if one could come over the water by boat, the time would be considerably less. If Jesus and his companions were there for several hours, word could easily have spread and people from all those places and more could have come to see this famous prophet and miraculous healer. Each of those places I’ve named was an important agricultural or fishing site, a residential center, a political center; each had a fairly large population for the time. It’s entirely possible that, hearing that this famous teacher was there, a crowd of thousands could have gathered there, a crowd of thousands who dropped what they were doing and headed out to see, not thinking about supplies or provisions, a crowd of thousands without enough to eat.

So there they are. Jesus has been teaching and healing, and it’s getting late, and people are getting hungry, and there’s nowhere to buy anything. Philip and Andrew are getting worried; they don’t know what a big crowd of hungry people might do, so they talk with Jesus about it. They want him to send the people away. After all, there’s nothing nearby, but (like I said) it would only take these people an hour or two to walk back home or to someplace where food could be found. But Jesus says, “No. They’re here because we’re here; we have to take responsibility for that and feed them.” Andrew says, “We’ve checked the supplies and all we have are these two fishes and five loaves (which, by the way, we didn’t bring; some boy brought them as his lunch, some boy with more smarts than a group of grown men).”

Jesus assures them it will be enough, tells everyone to sit down, blesses the food, and the picnic starts. Sure enough, there is enough. More than enough. Jesus, being environmentally aware, instructs the apostles to pick up after themselves and the crowd, and they gather the leftovers (all four of the gospels tell us) into twelve baskets. The Greek word used is kophinos, which the lexicon tells us is a wicker basket, probably a large one like a hamper. Twelve large hampers of leftovers! This isn’t simply a story about miraculously feeding a big bunch of people with a small amount of food…. this is a story about overfeeding a big bunch of people. This is a story about God’s abundance.

When Evie and I lived in Las Vegas, back before I was ordained, we used to go to a restaurant there called Keller’s. One of the things I liked about Keller’s (besides the really great food and their superb wine cellar) was that if you took home any leftovers, they made it an event. They were proud that you were taking home their food. Instead of a paper sack or styrofoam box, you got a work of art. Someone in the kitchen obviously knew the art of origami, so your bit of leftover chicken breast might come back to you packaged in a graceful silver swan; your second helping of trout, in a beautiful gold fish; your half-a-piece of cheesecake in a gorgeous multi-colored gift box.

I’ll bet that as people left the field at Tabgha that afternoon, they were sent home with leftovers, some more of the bread and fish to see them on their way. I’m pretty certain they didn’t get Keller’s origami packaging, but I like to visualize the scene that way with those thousands of people carrying silver foil swans, gold paper fish, and multi-colored paper gift boxes. Although I’m sure they didn’t have those pretty packages in their hands, they carried something even more precious as they made their way back to Bethsaida (up there about where Detroit would on Lake Erie) or Capernaum (sort of where Toledo is) or Genneserat (kind of where Cleveland is) or the longer journeys to Tiberias (about where Erie would be) or even distant Nazareth (far away like Cincinnati).

They carried the abundant, overflowing grace of God, what Paul called “the riches of [God’s] glory.” They carried the assurance in their hearts that they had been cared for with “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and that they had been “filled with all the fullness of God.” They knew, because they had seen the evidence with their own eyes, tasted it with their own tongues, and carried it away in their own hands, that the power of God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Today, we are going to baptize Tatum E________ K_________; today, we are going to welcome her into the household of God in which that promise of abundance is realized; today, we are going to assure her that, as Mark says of the crowd in his telling of this story, God in Christ Jesus has abundant compassion for her. Whatever may happen in her life, whatever stormy seas she may sail, she has only to look (as the apostles looked from their boat) to see that Jesus is there and he will calm the storm.

These are familiar stories; they are familiar because they are important; they are so important that all four of the gospels tell them. They are important because remind us, they assure us of God’s overflowing, abundant love and grace of which there is always more than enough.

Let us pray:

O God, your Son Jesus Christ fed the crowds out of his copious compassion; he stilled the stormy seas with his plentiful power; and he prepared his disciples for the coming of the Spirit through the abundant grace of his teaching: Make our hearts and minds, and especially Tatum’s heart and mind, ready to receive the overflowing blessings of your Holy Spirit, that we may be filled with your grace and strengthened by your Presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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

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

Neither Hot Nor Cold: A Sermon of Ecclesial Disappointment – 12 July 2015

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A sermon offered on Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10B, Track 1, RCL), July 12, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 6:1-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; and Mark 6:14-29. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. Note: The Revised Common Lectionary provides that the first lesson is 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19.)

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Israel-Palestine MapWhy do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters [New York: Harper & Row, 1982], pp. 40-41.)

I wonder if Ms. Dillard might not have had in mind the episode recounted today in our reading from the Second Book of Samuel. Confession: The Lectionary edited out the verse that describe the death of the priest Uzzah and the circumstances and causes thereof. I put them back in because they explain the sudden reluctance of David to take the Ark of the Covenant into his city, and his three-month delay in doing so. With Uzzah’s death David, as the writer of Second Samuel tells us, got a notion of “what sort of power we so blithely invoke,” of what sort of power he was bringing into Jerusalem, and it frightened him.

After all, what had Uzzah done. Nothing disrespectful of God, that’s for sure. If anything, he saved the Almighty the indignity of the Ark tumbling out of the ox cart and falling to the ground. All he had done was reach out to steady it when it was jostled by the oxen; he was doing only what comes naturally when one is moving a large, heavy object over rough terrain. And for this, for touching the Ark with the most innocent and benign of intentions, he was stricken dead. At first, David was angry with God about that; apparently he cursed up a storm because the place gets renamed “Perez-uzzah” which means “outburst about Uzzah” – could be God’s outburst that killed Uzzah, more likely it’s David’s outburst of anger after Uzzah is dead. Once he vents, however, David becomes frightened; we are told, “David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?'” So, he leaves the Ark right there in the care of a foreigner, Obed-edom the Gittite, for three months. David has realized that he may need a crash helmet when dealing with the power of the Almighty.

And then there’s John the Baptizer. John knew all too well the Power he’s been dealing with; he’d talked directly with God (“The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me,” he claimed – Jn 1:33) and John spoke to earthly power on God’s behalf. He said to the crowds that came out to him, to the scribes and the Pharisee, the priests and the Sadducees, to all who came to him at the River Jordan, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Lk 3:7-9) John knew there was danger, terrible danger when one becomes involved with Almighty God. It was the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews who said it, but John knew well, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:31) Because even if the power of God doesn’t kill you, the ministry demanded of you by God may well put you in harm’s way . . . and that, in the end, is what happened with John.

Speaking truth to power, John publicly denounced Herod Antipas for his sinful, adulterous relationship with his half-brother Philip’s wife Herodias, who also happened to be Antipas’s niece. For that public reproof, John was arrested and held for a time in prison; the Gospel lesson tells us that Herod protected John after his arrest because he feared him! – Even Herod Antipas felt the danger of involvement with the Almighty at second hand, the danger of dealing with God’s anointed prophet. But in the end, tricked by his own foolish behavior, Antipas must order John beheaded; for John the ax is laid not at the foot of the tree, but at the base of his neck. As Ms. Dillard might put it, “The waking god drew John out to where he could never return.”

We, the Episcopal Church, take this dangerous prophetic step out to where we might never return every time we make a statement or take an action and proclaim to the world, “We do this because we are called to do so by our Lord and our God.” I do it every time I step into this pulpit and dare to preach a sermon. You do it every time you take a stand on an issue or behave in a particular way and say, “I do this because I am a Christian, because I am an Episcopalian.” Our church does it when it meets in deliberative council, in vestry meetings, in diocesan conventions, or as we have just done in our triennial General Convention; we do it when we issue public statements on important issues of the day.

We feel like we have done it now in the aftermath of our 78th General Convention because, for example, we have taken the bold step of opening our marriage liturgies to same-sex couples. However, I would suggest to you that that was not a very prophetic step after all. We had already, several years ago, declared that gay and lesbian persons are beloved children of God entitled to the full ministry of and to full inclusion within the body of the faithful. We underscored that a dozen years ago when we approved the election and consecration of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. When we declared last week that same-sex couples could marry in the church, we were only continuing down a path we had already been walking, a path which (frankly) the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and the United States Supreme Court had just walked before us. It’s easy to be prophetic when others have already done so before you.

We feel like we have taken a prophetic stance because 1,500 bishops, deputies, and other Episcopalians marched the streets of Salt Lake City to protest against gun violence and to call for rational handgun licensing laws and for background checks on all gun sales including gun show and private transactions. We feel like we have done so because, a few days after that protest march, the General Convention passed a resolution making that same call; but in all honesty it’s a call we have made before. We have been on record as a church in support of reasonable regulation of gun manufacture, sale, and ownership for nearly 40 years; we have passed resolution after resolution urging registration, licensing, and insuring of handguns, as well as the banning of civilian sale and ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons since at least 1976. And we have not been alone among the churches in doing so. It’s not particularly original or prophetic to do and say again that which you and many others have done and said many, many times.

We feel like we have been prophetic in the House of Bishop’s election of Michael B. Curry of North Carolina to be our Presiding Bishop, our first black Presiding Bishop! But, folks, we have had black bishops in the Episcopal Church for over 140 years since the consecration of James Theodore Holly to be Bishop of Haiti in 1874. Neither God nor the world would be out of line in telling us that Bishop Curry’s election is not particularly prophetic and asking, “What took you so long?”

It’s not that these are not important and vital issues; they are. It’s not that our voice, added to so many others, is not worth raising about these issues; it is. It’s not that we should not be taking a stand on these matters; we should. We should and we have and we will continue to do so, but we are not being particularly prophetic when we do so. We are merely doing what comes naturally moving a large, heavy institution over the rough terrain of difficult issues. Like Uzzah steadying the Ark of the Covenant, it may be dangerous, but it’s not particularly prophetic.

We did have the opportunity to be prophetic, but we failed to take it. A resolution numbered D016 was offered for our consideration. It would have called upon our church and our leadership to

work earnestly and with haste to avoid profiting from the illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and [to] seek to align itself with, and learn from, the good work of our Ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, who have worked for decades in support of our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers and others oppressed by occupation. (Resolution D016 as originally proposed)

It did not call for divestment from Israeli investments. It did not call for the boycotting of products made in the occupied territories. It did not call for sanctions against Israel. It did not call upon us to join the “BDS” movement as it is called – Boycott, Divest, Sanction. It was opposed on the grounds that it did, but in truth it did not.

We could have taken such action; we could have joined BDS although the resolution did not call for it. Alternatively, we could have proclaimed that, instead of doing that, we would work through positive investment and constructive engagement with both Israelis and Palestinians to foster reconciliation and peace. Or, we could simply have done as the resolution sought and undertaken a time of intentional study and discernment as to what our ministry as a church with important ties to the Holy Land might be, how we might try to encourage healing in that broken, wounded, and bleeding place. We could have done any of those things, any of those prophetic things. But do you know what we did?

We ducked the issue. We played it safe. We closed off debate. We failed to act. The House of Bishops rejected Resolution D016 so the House of Deputies never had a chance to consider it and, thus, we did nothing. – We should know better! As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:8b-10)

We know that! We have declared as much in our catechism that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” and that “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” (BCP 1979, page 305) We are a church for whom the ministry of reconciliation should come as naturally as reaching out to steady the cargo on an ox cart came to Uzzah. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we did nothing…. We are a church who believes itself to speak like John the Baptizer prophetically to power on any number of subjects. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we said nothing….

As a church meeting in deliberative assembly and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we did nothing, we said nothing to promote justice, peace, love, and reconciliation in the Holy Land.

When John of Patmos had the vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, he was instructed to deliver a message from Jesus to the church in Laodicea. He was told to write these words to them: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16) With regard to those living in the land where Jesus was born, where he lived and taught and loved and died, where he rose from the dead for our salvation . . . with regard to our brothers and sisters living in that land, our General Convention action (or, really, lack of action) was lukewarm; it was tepid; neither hot nor cold, worthy only to be spit out.

I love my church. I love what we do in our synods and our conventions. I love that we take positions, sometimes unpopular positions. I love that we take risks with power, the kind of risks that Uzzah took, the kind of risks that John the Baptizer took, the kind of risks for which we should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers and holding signal flares. But we failed to do that with regard to the occupation of Palestine and the strife existing between our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters, and I am disappointed in the church I love. As the Rev. Winnie Varghese, a priest from New York who was one of the supporters of Resolution D016, wrote after its rejection: “I will never understand why we would not listen … to our brothers and sisters truly on the ground, the lay and ordained Palestinian Christians who have been displaced; who work for justice; and who ask for our help.” (Huffington Post, July 10, 2015) Nor will I. I will never understand.

Let us pray:

Lord our God, the earth is yours and all that is in it, so we lift up our heads, we open our gates, and we give you glory; the Psalmist asked who could stand in your holy places and answered his own question saying, “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart;” give us clean hands and pure hearts that we may follow through on the promises made at our baptism, promises to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” to “respect the dignity of every human being,” and to “work for justice and peace;” give us grace that we, as the Episcopal Church, may do so in solidarity with those who have dedicated their lives to justice for Palestinians and security for Israel, that we may be either hot or cold, never tepid or lukewarm; give us the strength to do what should come naturally and to speak prophetically in your name; all this we ask through your Son, our Savior, the King of Glory. 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.

Parabolic Poetry, Parabolic Focus – Sermon for Pentecost 3B (14 June 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 14, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; and Mark 4:26-34. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Conic SectionsBefore we tackle today’s lessons from Scripture, we’re going to recall (or perhaps learn for the first time) something from geometry class. First, I want you to envision a cone. You know what a cone is: A cone is a three-dimensional geometric shape that tapers smoothly from a flat base to a point called the apex or vertex; or another way of defining it is the solid object that you get when you rotate a right triangle around one of its two short sides. So, envision one of those.

Now, envision a one-point thick plane slicing through the cone and envision the plane as being exactly parallel to the slope of the cone, or more technically, parallel to a plane which is tangential to the cone’s surface.

Where the plane and the cone intersect, there is now a U-shaped, two-dimensional, mirror-symmetrical curve called a “parabola.” If take that curve, invert it, and rotate it through 360 degrees, we create a “parabolic bowl.” Astronomers mirror-coat such bowls and use them in their telescopes because they reflect light inward to a common point and amplify its intensity; parabolic reflector telescopes make whatever they are looking at clearer to see. Parabolic microphones work the same way with sound.

OK… why am I telling you this?

That curve, a “parabola,” was given its name by Apollonius of Perga, a 3rd Century B.C.E. mathematician, who put together two Greek words: para, meaning “along side,” and ballein, meaning “to throw” or “to place.” The plane which cuts the parabolic curve from the cone is placed (or thrown) alongside (parallel to) the plane tangent to the cone and the curve is created.

The English word parable, which describes these stories of Jesus (and others), is derived from exactly the same original Greek words. Parables are not just cute stories; they are extended metaphors. When someone tells a parable, they are throwing (ballein) one image alongside (para) another as away to illuminate our understanding; like a parabolic mirror or a parabolic microphone, their purpose is to focus our attention so as to lead to greater understanding.

So now we have two parables in today’s gospel, two short stories which are meant to help us understand the kingdom of God. Not “heaven”! Not some mythical place of eternal reward to look forward to after we die, but the kingdom of God which Jesus told us “has come near” and which we pray (some of us) everyday will “come on earth as it is in heaven,” the kingdom of God which is a present, if not yet fully comprehended, reality.

To what can we compare the kingdom of God? Seed scattered (actually “thrown”) by an unobservant and unaware person, seed which takes root and grows when the sower isn’t watching and in ways the sower cannot understand, seed which then produces a crop to the benefit of this ignorant sower. Or, alternatively, to a grain of mustard which also grows in a mysterious way to become a giant bush in which all the birds can make their nests; in fact, the sort of mustard of which Jesus would have been speaking completely takes over the soil in which it is grown – it is an invasive weed whose roots spread in great profusion so that nothing else can grow with it.

Thrown alongside our incomplete picture of the kingdom of God, what can we learn from these parables? What further understanding is parabolically illuminated?

Let’s ponder that question while we turn our attention to today’s Old Testament lesson from the First Book of Samuel. Many commentaries will tell you today’s reading begins the story of David as King of Israel, but that’s not really so. At best, it is the story of David’s first anointing, privately with only his family present, as a potential king in ancient Israel; he will be anointed again, publicly, as king over Judah, in the second chapter of Second Samuel and then again publicly as king over the rest of Israel in the fifth chapter. This isn’t the beginning of David’s story; it is really a tangent, an excursus from Saul’s story, from the story of Saul’s decline and eventual failure as Israel’s first king.

Note the way the lesson begins – “Samuel went to Ramah . . . . ” – and then note the way it ends – “Samuel went to Ramah . . . . ” The words are repeated almost verbatim. In Hebrew literature this repetition indicates a sort of parenthetical addition to a main story. It’s as if the story teller were saying, “O let me fill you in on a little backstory” or “Hang on while I tell you this interesting but unrelated bit of information.” German bible scholars coined a term for this; it’s called a wiederholenden Wiederaufnahme, which simply means “repetitive resumption.” “Samuel went to Ramah” – tell your parenthetical story, then pick up the main story again by repeating – “Samuel went to Ramah.” We find examples like this scattered throughout the Old Testament.
So we have the story of David’s private anointing as just an aside to the larger story of King Saul. Like the parables of the scattered grain and the mustard seed, it is a story of the seemingly insignificant. Samuel expected that Jesse’s eldest son, the tall, good-looking Eliab, was God’s chosen, but that wasn’t so; nor was it to be Abinadab, nor Shammah, nor any of the next three. It was the smallest, the youngest, little David, out keeping the sheep and easily forgotten, who was to be the next king.

In the kingdom of God, the least can be the source of greatness, what is unseen, uncomprehended, and not understood can be the source of a great harvest. The measures and standards of the world where size and good-looks, power and influence, status and position determine outcomes are not those of the kingdom of God. So David is anointed . . . . and then “Samuel went on to Ramah” and the story of Saul continues.

The story of David’s private anointing in his father Jesse’s home is like a little seed planted in the reader’s mind, a little seed planted in Israel’s history. For the rest of the story of Saul, who doesn’t die for another fifteen chapters, as Saul descends into physical, mental, and spiritual illness, as he first calls David as a soothing friend and companion but soon turns against him as his rival and eventual replacement, this little seed of David’s private anointing will take root and grow. He will publicly become king and his kingship will blossom, his kingdom will grow, and under the reign of his son Solomon it will be an earthly empire. Eventually, his descendant Jesus of Nazareth will be born. In God’s kingdom, the seed planted in Jesse’s home will slowly grow until in the incarnation of God in Jesus as the babe of Bethlehem, in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension the kingdom of God will come near and Jesus will reign in heaven and on earth, a kingdom that will never end, growing in ways we cannot see and cannot understand, spreading like a mustard bush, producing a yield ripe for harvest.

To what can we compare the kingdom of God and what parable can we use for it? It grows, in ways we cannot see and cannot comprehend; from small beginnings it spreads its branches until everyone can find shelter in them. In our prayer book office of morning prayer there is a wonderful prayer for mission written by Bishop Charles Henry Brent which begins with these words: “Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of your saving embrace . . . .” I have a friend who dislikes this prayer; it is, he insists, “simplistic transactional theology.” I have to admit that I don’t even know what he means when he says that, but my answer to him is, “It’s not theology; it’s prayer . . . and it’s poetry, parabolic poetry.” The prayer, like a telescope with a parabolic mirror, like a parabolic microphone, like the parables of Jesus, focuses our attention on our place and our mission as followers of Jesus. Like the wide-spreading branches of the mustard bush, Jesus’ arms spread wide inviting all to take shelter.

What began as the small seed of the private anointing of David in the home of Jesse the Bethlehemite has come to fruition in his ancestor Jesus, who (as Paul reminds us) is the “one has died for all . . . so that those who live might live no longer for themselves,” but rather live as “a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Bishop Brent’s prayer for mission concludes with this petition: “So clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you . . . .” We may not see and we may not understand how the seed germinates, how it grows, how “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” appear, but now, and like the sower in the parable, it is time for us to go in with our sickle, with our hands reaching forth in love, because the harvest has ready. 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.

Mary Is No Different: Sermon for Advent 4B – December 21, 2014

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A sermon offered, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 4B, were 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16; Canticle 15 [Luke 1:46-55]; Romans 16:25-27; and Luke 1:26-38. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Annunciation by John CollierThe Episcopal Church is a church of refugees. The majority of Episcopalians were not born into this faith tradition; we came from somewhere else. We are a denomination which attracts refugees from other faith communities, those who’ve had a negative experience somewhere else, or those who can’t stay in their childhood churches because of life circumstances. We often find in our congregations those who were reared in the Roman Catholic tradition but have left that fold because they couldn’t accept the Roman church’s teaching about birth control or abortion, or about the ministry of women in the church, or the several other matters on which we differ with Rome. We also find in Episcopal Church congregations former Roman Catholics who married protestants of one type or another who were unwilling to become Roman Catholic, so we are the church of the marital compromise.

As one of my seminary professors observed, “As long as Methodists keep marrying Roman Catholics, there will be an Episcopal Church.”

I bring this up because today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus on the Virgin Mary in our gospel readings and whenever I talk with Roman Catholics who are interested in joining our branch of the catholic faith, the subject of Mary always comes up. Do we Episcopalians and other Anglicans revere and venerate the Blessed Virgin in the same way the Church of Rome does? When we consider our Advent 4 gospels, it would certainly seem that we do.

In each of the three years of the Lectionary Cycle, we hear a story about Mary and her pregnancy.

In Year A of the Lectionary (last year) we heard of Joseph’s dream in which an angel says to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And we are told that Jospeh “took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

In Year B (this year) we hear, as we just have, the story of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary.

In Year C we will hear of Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth who is “filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaim[s] with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,’” to which Mary replies by singing her famous song of liberation, the Magnificat, which we recited this morning as our Gradual.

So each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we consider Christ’s Blessed Mother and contemplate how she is a model for all Christians. But do we revere this holy woman in the same way as the Roman Catholic tradition. The answer is a fairly resounding, “No.”

There are at least two important medieval doctrines about Mary that the Roman tradition holds but that the Anglican tradition generally rejects, although there are Anglicans who adhere to them. (That’s the thing about being an Anglican. It’s practically impossible to say that there are universally accept doctrines or universally rejected doctrines; ours is such a large tent that nearly every variety of Christian belief has found a home under it. But these two doctrines about Mary are pretty generally not the Anglican norm.)

The first is the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception.” Most non-Roman Catholics think this refers to Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, it does not. It is, instead, the belief that Mary was conceived by her mother (whom tradition names Anne) and her father (whom tradition names Joachim) without the stain of Original Sin. Although found in the writings of some medieval theologians, particularly among the Franciscans, it was rejected by others, notably Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Eventually, however, long after the Reformation, it was made dogma in the Roman tradition. It was not until 1854 that Pope Pius IX decreed “that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, . . . was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin,” and enjoined this belief upon all members of the Roman church. (Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854) While some Anglicans may have accepted this, it is not and never has been a part of official Anglican or Episcopal doctrine.

The point of the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” is to set Mary apart from all other women (and men, for that matter) as a holier and more appropriate “vessel” for the incarnation of the Son of God. We may profess, as we do in one of our eucharistic prayers (Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer – 1979, page 370) that, “in the fullness of time [God] sent [God’s] only Son, born of a woman,” but this doctrine declares that she was a woman like no other. Anglican theology, on the other hand, would hold that that turns the whole importance of Mary upside-down; it is precisely because Mary is like other women that her motherhood of Jesus is to be celebrated.

The second of these doctrines about Mary is that of her “perpetual virginity.” Although this idea has been around since the very beginnings of the church, and probably more Anglicans would hold this belief than would accept the “immaculate conception” idea, I believe most Episcopalians would agree with the reformer John Calvin rejected as “unfounded and altogether absurd” the idea that Mary had made a vow or practice of perpetual virginity. In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he wrote: “She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God.” (Commentary on Luke 1:34, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1) On the basis of the clear evidence of Scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters, Calvin came to the obvious conclusion that Mary had other children. As the 20th Century Anglican New Testament scholar, Canon Leon Morris put it, the “most natural interpretation is that [the un-named ‘brothers of the Lord’] were the children of Joseph and Mary.” (1 Corinthians: Introduction and Commentary, IVP: Leicester, 1958, page 133)

Again the point of this doctrine is to set Mary apart from all other human beings and, again, the Anglican and Episcopal tradition would argue that it is precisely her identity with other human beings, not her difference from us, that makes her so important. Any piety which makes Mary somehow different from you and me misses the point!

Mary is regularly hailed as a model of faith for her acceptance of the role God invites her to play as the mother of Jesus. But what is the very first thing that Gabriel the Angel says to her? “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Before Mary accepts anything, before she hears another word, before she consents to God’s notion, she is greeted as “favored,” as one who enjoys the Presence of God. The Greek here is xaritoó which means “to be graced,” “to be blessed.” Mary is blessed even before she accepts her new role; she is blessed because she perceives and believes that God notices her, that God favors her, that God has blessed her, and that God has great things in store for her even before Gabriel tells her what those things may be!

This is important not because Mary is extraordinary or remarkable, not because she is immaculate or perpetually virginal. This is important for precisely the opposite reason. Mary is venerated not because she is an exception, but rather because she is an example of what can happen when anyone believes that God notices, favors, and blesses us, that God has great things in store for every one of us. You are important and so God notices, favors, and blesses you and, like Mary – like plain ol’ ordinary Mary – you may just change the world!

Some of you may now be sitting out there thinking that can’t possibly be the case. If so, by doing so you simply prove my point!

What happens next in this story? Luke specifically tells us that Mary “was much perplexed by [the angel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Again, if we look at the original Greek we get a much fuller understanding. The word translated here as “perplexed” is dietarachthé. Scholars disagree as to what the root of this adjective might be. Some believe it is diatasso which means “to be puzzled,” while others insist it is diatarasso which mean “to be agitated.”

And Mary’s response to all this puzzlement or agitation is to “ponder,” and here’s where the Greek really gets instructive. The original word is dielogidzeto, which comes from the word dialog. Mary carries on a dialog or debate with herself. Just like any of us, faced with that which puzzles or troubles us, she deliberates over it, facing doubts and uncertainties.

Mary is important not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. (She was even a refugee – after the birth of her Son, she and her family had to flee to Egypt for a time. Church of refugees that we are, Mary would fit right in!)

In the narthex of St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church in McKinney, Texas, is a painting of the Annunciation by contemporary artist John Collier. In it Mary is depicted as a young schoolgirl dressed in a blue and white parochial school uniform; she has dark hair pulled into a simple pony-tail; she is wearing white bobby socks and saddle shoes. The angel Gabriel approaches on the threshold of the front door of a modern tract home; it could be the door of any home here in Medina.

Collier’s painting, in my opinion, is brilliant because it emphasizes not merely Mary’s youth, but her utter lack of exceptionality! She is simply an ordinary person. Mary is an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance and, thus, she is an example for us. She is like us . . . and we can be like her.

I am indebted to my friend and colleague the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie for reminding me of this observation by the 13th Century German mystic Meister Eckhart:

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

Each year on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on Mary, not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. She is like you . . . and you are like her.

Please take a look again at the collect for this morning, the special prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s in the Prayer Book on page 212:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

“By your daily visitation . . . . ” Every morning an angel of the Lord crosses the threshold of your life . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to see that angel. And every morning that angel speaks to you . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to hear that angel. And every morning that angel greets you saying, “Hail! You are graced by the Presence of God” . . . every morning, though most morning you (like me) probably fail to apprehend that greeting. And every morning the angels hold their breath waiting to hear what you (and I) might answer.

Mary is important not because she was conceived immaculately or remained a virgin perpetually. She is important because she is like us and we are like her. It Mary is exceptional, it is because unlike us she saw, and heard, and apprehended, and answered: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In her exceptionality she is exemplary; she is to be venerated and revered because she demonstrates that we, too, can and should see and hear and apprehend and answer, because this is the fullness of time when the Son of Man is to be begotten in us. 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.

Facebook friends with God – From the Daily Office – August 19, 2013

From the Second Book of Samuel:

Now Absalom had set Amasa over the army in the place of Joab. Amasa was the son of a man named Ithra the Ishmaelite, who had married Abigal daughter of Nahash, sister of Zeruiah, Joab’s mother.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 2 Samuel 17:24 (NRSV) – August 19, 2013.)

Social Media IconsReading a verse like this one from the Second Book of Samuel makes me feel like I’m sitting at my in-laws’ kitchen table, or even in my grandmother’s kitchen. Up until very recently, this is the way people connected with other people. I can hear my late father-in-law reminding my wife of someone in the small town where she was born and raised:

“Oh, you know Sally! She was married to Bob, Jim’s brother, and her uncle Fred was your second grade teacher’s (Mrs. Jones’s) husband’s brother-in-law, Bill. Mr. Jones’s sister Margaret was his first wife.”

Often as I listened to conversations like this I would find myself lost in the tangled web of interpersonal relationships, trying desperately to trace the connections between spouses, siblings, cousins, friends-of-the-family, business associates, church members, and the-people-we-don’t-know-but-talk-about that defined a person’s identity in the society of that small town and within my spouse’s extended community of family and friends.

With the advent of the internet, Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, Linked-In, Google+, and the list goes on . . . With the advent of social media and these means of connecting that are at once more direct but more tenuous, more easily understood but less well defined, how do we now understand personal identity or personhood?

Personhood is a social construct that entails the very relationships the writer of Second Samuel sought to portray, the relationships my father-in-law used to recall to my wife who Sally was. The ability to be in those relationships is one way to understand what it means to be a person. Personhood is defined by a human being’s ability to have relationships with other human beings and, from a theological standpoint, to enter into the special relationship human beings have with God.

Contemporary social media now allows me to be in relationship with more people more immediately than has ever been possible in the past. Some years ago in a course in pastoral practice, I read that the greatest number of close interpersonal relationships a clergy person can sustain is about fifty. We may “know” many more people, but the limit on the number of people with whom our face-to-face relationships can be meaningful in any particular sense is about fifty – maybe a little lower for an introvert like myself, possibly a little higher for an extrovert.

But now I have over 800 “friends” on Facebook and “know” maybe a similar number of additional Facebook users through discussion group pages . . . . “Oh, you know Eric! He’s friends with Michael, who’s in that glass collecting Facebook group started by Brad, who follows Sid on Twitter.”

We Christians are supposed to understand God through the metaphor of personhood — the Holy Trinity, a unity of three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). When our understanding of personhood is stretched (and some might say “warped”) by new technologies of relationship, does our concept of God change? How do we understand God and God’s Personhood in this new digital age?

I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. But I know this: I’m not just Facebook friends with God.

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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.

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