That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Second Timothy

Unity, Love, Prayer: Homily for a Celebration of New Ministry – November 18, 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Massillon, Ohio, at the Celebration of New Ministry (Installation) of the Rev. George Baum as their rector.

(The lessons for the service were Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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prayercircleGood evening! For those who don’t know me, I am Eric Funston, a priest of the Episcopal Church and rector of St. Paul’s Parish in Medina, Ohio. For those of you who don’t know why I’m preaching here tonight . . . I wish I could tell you! Usually these ordination or installation homily gigs go to someone with whom the new clergy person has had a, shall we say, formative relationship: a former pastor, a seminary professor or a ministry supervisor, an elder minister under whom the new pastor served a curacy, someone responsible for the priestly formation of the new rector. But that doesn’t describe me . . . I am not responsible for George Baum ~ and that is very probably a good thing!

Seriously, I’m here simply because George and I are friends and colleagues, and he asked me to preach, which I am honored and pleased to do.

An ecumenical friend of mine was asked to do the same, to preach at the installation of a new pastor of his denomination with whom he had not had a mentor relationship, so he sent the soon-to-be-plugged-in clergyman an email asking what sort of church he hoped he’d be joining. The answer was, “I would love to come into a church that was unified, where everyone loved each other, and they all prayed for the pastor.” When my friend shared that reply with our ministerial alliance, we all started laughing. Not because it’s funny, but because it’s so universally true. Every pastor would love to have a parish characterized by unity, love, and prayer.

I didn’t ask George what he might be looking for in a new pastoral call, nor what he might be hoping for from this installation sermon; frankly, I was sort of afraid to do so! Besides, when I even hinted at what I might say tonight he started to (and I quote from his Facebook page) “make a few phone calls for backup preachers.” Nonetheless, I suspect that if I had asked him, he might have said pretty much the same thing, that he would love to have St. Timothy’s Parish be a church that is unified, where everyone loves one another, and where the members pray for the rector.

So, about that first item, unity:

George selected a well-known passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus as our Epistle Lesson tonight. In the three verses which come before the opening sentence of our reading, St. Paul wrote these words which, I think, will also be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)

These verses summarize the primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians, which is the church’s call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) After making this appeal, Paul launches, as we heard, into a celebration of the church’s diversity: some members are apostles, some are prophets, some are evangelists, some are pastors, some are teachers, and so on. He has done this before, as when he reminded the Corinthians that

there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor 12:4-6)

Or when he wrote to the Galatians that though they might have been Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, those differences no longer mattered “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Whatever and whoever we are, we are all given gifts to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13). Paul’s call in this letter is for unity not uniformity, for a unity which embraces and celebrates diversity so that, in the words of our Lord’s prayer to his Father:

. . . [all] may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (Jn 17:22-23)

More than a half-century ago, when I was in junior high school, I saw a made-for-television movie which portrayed the most outrageous future you could imagine, a future in which every home had in it a computer terminal on which the family could talk to their friends and co-workers, could order their groceries, and could even cast their votes. In this impossible-to-imagine future, every citizen would enjoy instant coverage of world news, direct contact with political leaders, immediate access to all sorts of data, and be well-informed. This, of course, would lead to political unity and world peace. Oh … and everyone would have flying cars.

I’m still waiting for that future. We have the computers in our homes but not much else. Perhaps all the rest will come along when the flying cars get here. In the meantime, what our 24/7 instantaneous news cycle and our direct access to data (both true and false) have done is exacerbate our differences. Instead of drawing us closer together, the internet seems to have pushed us apart into competing “bubbles” and “echo chambers.” If the recently concluded election cycle, its outcome, and reactions to that result teach us anything, it is that the church’s witness to unity in diversity is needed now more than ever. And it is within this wider context of division and conflict that this community, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church of Massillon, Ohio, has called the Rev. George Baum to be its rector.

Now, let’s be honest, the church has not always been a paragon of unity, despite Jesus’ prayer and St. Paul’s admonitions. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. But on a recent episode of the NPR show On Being Muslim American social scholar Eboo Patel argued that religious communities must stand together and witness to what he called “diversities of justice.” In this, he echoes the call of Anglican theologian David F. Ford, who has called upon our churches, within themselves and in outreach to others, to form what he labels “improved partnerships of disagreement.” Only if we ourselves are in unity of faith measuring up to the full stature of Christ can we make that witness to the world.

You have called George to be your rector which means that, among other things, you have called him to be a prophet, to be your parish’s and the wider church’s and God’s spokesman to the community around you. In a few minutes, your wardens will present him a set of keys and encourage him to open the doors of this place to all people; shortly after that, George will kneel in the center of the nave and pray for God’s blessing that through his ministry and yours “all the world may be drawn into [God’s] blessed kingdom.” Regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of the economic, political, demographic, or social spectra of difference and disagreement which encourage us to division and conflict, he or she is called to represent your unity in and to the wider world.

Don’t get me wrong, disagreements are fine and leaders in the church should welcome lively discussion of issues because no one person has a monopoly on all wisdom. Disagreement and debate help church leaders to hear all sides of the issues and force them to think matters through. But when all is said and done, when all the disagreements have been aired, and all the points debated, the church community will still be here and it must be united in faith and growing into the full stature of Christ.

The only way we can do that is with the second element of the new pastor’s request, love:

“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

We all know that no matter what may be happening in the larger world, no matter what disagreements or conflicts we may get into in business, or politics, or the church, babies still get born, children still grow up, teens and young adults still go through the changes and passages of life, young men and women still get married . . . and older people do too! People still get sick and people still die . . . and, George, these fine people here have invited you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to share all of that with them. No matter where they or you may stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they are going to invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of our unity in Christ is made most clear. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra; a web of relationship comes into being and fosters and upholds the work to which we all are called. That web is elastic but tough; it is flexible and enduring; it is stronger than any of those one-dimensional spectra could ever be. We give that web the name of “love.”

Good people of St. Timothy’s Parish, please remember that George does not do this ministry alone! Tending to this web of relationship we call “love” is everyone’s job. As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Love is the glue that bonds the church in unity. Love for Christ and love for each other. In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes that he hopes his readers’ hearts will “be encouraged and united in love.” (Col 2:2) The Greek word translated as “united” is sumbibazo. It’s the same verb Paul uses in our Ephesians text this evening, translated here as “joined together,” the way the ligaments and tendons hold the joints of the body together and promote its growth, “building itself up in love.” (Eph 4:16) Remember that love is never an emotion; it is always an action. Love is not something we feel; love is something we do.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:4-8a)

So love each other and love your new rector. As our bishop is fond of saying, “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.”

One of my favorite hymns includes the repeated refrain, “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.” So, George, remember those words of God to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as St. Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:7)

Which brings us, finally, to the third request of the new pastor, to the discipline of prayer.

“You that stand by night in the house of the Lord, lift up your hands and bless the Lord.” (Cf. Ps 134) The Psalmist’s fancy way to say, “Pray!” What more can be said? What more needs to be said? Not much, really . . . but I’m a preacher so it’s my job say what shouldn’t need to be said. Tonight, let’s say it. “Pray!”

Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity. Let me say that again: Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

It’s easy, I’m sure you’ll all agree, to pray for those we like, for those with whom we agree. It’s also pretty easy to pray for people we don’t know; our formal in-church prayer often include prayers for foreign provinces of the Anglican Communion – this Sunday, for example, we are asked to pray for church members in the Falkland Islands and for their bishop William Nigel Stock. I don’t know Bishop Stock or anyone else in the Falklands so I’m perfectly happy to pray for them until the cows come home!

It should be easy to pray for members of our family and of our church, and for our friends, although sometimes we may not like them very much and often we may not agree with them, and that makes it a little harder. And then there are those other people, the ones we really don’t like or with whom on a scale of 1-to-10 we disagree at level 12; for me, I confess, it’s practically impossible to pray for them. But Someone once said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, [and] pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk 6:27-28)

In my counseling with people who are dealing with anger issues, I often suggest to them that they should pray by name for the one with whom they are angry. In every parish I have served, I have insisted that we pray for the president, by name, at every Sunday service: I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Bill Clinton; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for George Bush; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Barack Obama; and I know I will have parishioners who will refuse to pray for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, I will insist that we do so because, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim 2:1-2)

Note what Paul says there. He urges prayer for our leaders not so that they, the ones being prayed for, will be successful, but rather so that we, the ones who are praying, may have the blessings of quiet, peace, godliness, and dignity. Prayer works on the heart of the one who prays. One of the chief purposes of prayer is to transform the heart of the person praying so that it more closely resembles the heart of God. Prayer nourishes us and aligns our wills with God’s will. In this way, prayer heals and strengthens our relationships with the ones for whom we pray.

To be sure, we also believe that prayer benefits the subject of our prayers, as well. Prayer, as an offering of humble dependence, strengthens all within the community which finds its source and harmony in God. Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

In every epistle, Paul begs his churches to pray for him. It is the constant need of every pastor, to feel supported by the prayers of his or her people. So, please, pray for George (even when he disappoints – which he will, occasionally; even when you disagree with him – which you will, occasionally); pray for his family; pray for one another; and pray for the community and the world within which together you begin this new ministry.

So there you have it. The three things every priest wishes to find in his or her parish: unity, love, and prayer. With these as foundation, together with your new rector, you can faithfully respond to Jesus, who says to you, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last.”

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand . . . and every member of St. Timothy’s Parish, I invite you to stand, also . . . I can offer all of you no better charge than that given by the Patron Saint of my parish to the Patron Saint of your parish:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim 6:11-12,14,20)

Do so in unity, with love, holding each other in prayer. Because despite what I said in the jest at the beginning of this sermon, I am responsible for George Baum. We are all responsible to and for one another. So, again, live and minister in unity and with love, and pray for one another.

Amen.

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

An Unpreached Clergy Installation Sermon in the Time of Donald Trump

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A homily which will NOT be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of a neighboring parish in Ohio, at the celebration of the new ministry of the Rev. George ___________ as rector. (I have not disclosed names or locations as they are, frankly, irrelevant to this soon-to-be-unpreached sermon.)

(The lessons on which this sermon is based are Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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Note: When first asked to preach at George’s celebration of new ministry, I penned this sermon. After a few days, I decided to go in a different direction and, using only a few bits and pieces of what I had written here, cobbled together with other material, I crafted another sermon which I will preach. Nonetheless, I believe this homily to have merit and, therefore, publish it here. (I will publish the actual sermon once it has been delivered.)

donald-trump-prune-faceOn the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.

Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.”

“Now, wait,” you’re probably thinking, “none of that has happened here (where we are celebrating), nor in Medina (where my church is), so why are you bringing it up?”

Well, in the three verses which precede the opening sentence of our Epistle Lesson this evening, St. Paul wrote these words which will, I think, be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6)

The primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians is the church’s ministry of reconciliation and our call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) We are all given gifts, as we heard in the portion read tonight, to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (4:13)

And we are to do that in the context of a nation in which threatening notes are left on minister’s cars, public recreation facilities are defaced with messages of racial hatred, students are made to feel unsafe on their college campuses, and churches are tagged with anti-gay or anti-immigrant graffiti, a nation where thousands protest because they cannot accept the outcome of a national election. We are called to be a community of unity (not of uniformity, but of unity), a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict.

It is within this wider context that the community of St. [Swithun’s], has called the Rev. George __________ to be its rector.

In those three verses, which form a sort of explanatory preamble to the first verse we heard read (verse 7), the word “one” is used seven times! It is the drum-beat of a hymn to the church’s unity which crescendos with the oneness of God, the “Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” In the first three chapters of the letter, Paul has identified God as the source of the church’s identity; here, he identifies the oneness of God as the source, foundation, and ultimate goal of the church’s unity and our ministry of reconciliation.

In the Greek, verse 7 (the first verse we heard from the letter) also begins with the word “one.” It’s not possible to translate that parallelism into English, but to fully appreciate Paul’s thrust we might add a couple of words to our translation. We might underscore Paul’s point by rendering it not simply as “each of us was given” but more emphatically as “each one of us was given” a gift of grace for this work. Paul is bringing his notion of oneness back to our individual experience – each one of us experiences God’s grace in the larger context of the church’s ministry and goal of unity and reconciliation.

In an opinion piece published Monday in the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, the provisional bishop of Bethlehem and Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, wrote:

[T]he news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. *** [B]ut before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. (Rowe)

I believe that what Bishop Rowe is saying is an echo of God’s words to Joshua as he took over leadership of the Hebrews from Moses: “Be strong, be courageous, be careful; do not to the right or to the left.” (Josh 1:7) That’s hard work, but God’s message to Joshua is God’s message to us: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)

While no one, at least so far as I am aware, has tagged any churches in this community with anti-gay or anti-immigrant or pro-Trump graffiti, and while no one, at least so far as I am aware, has marched through the streets of this town in protest of the election’s results, I would be willing to bet that this community, and even this parish, has within it both those who voted for Trump and are rejoicing, and those who voted for Clinton and are in grief. This is the reality of human community and of the church; as I said a moment, we are a community of unity not of uniformity, called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of such division and conflict.

I don’t know and don’t really care how any of you voted; I don’t know and don’t really care how Father George voted. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. And regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of those spectra, he or she is called into the midst of them to be pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to the whole of the community.

Because no matter what may be happening in the larger world, babies are still being born, children are still growing up, teens and young adults are still going through the changes and passages of life, young men and women are still getting married, older people are, too! And people are still getting sick and dying . . . and, George, they are counting on you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor through it all. No matter where they or you stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they will invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of reconciliation occurs. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra of opinion; a web of relationship comes into being which fosters and upholds the work of reconciliation to which all are called.

So, George, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as the apostle Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

But, good people of St. [Swithun’s], George does not do this alone! As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

“Who are the ministers of the Church?” asks our Catechism. “The ministers of the Church,” it answers, “are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” The ministry of the laity, it continues

is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP 1979, page 855)

“To carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world . . .” and we are right back where we began: we are called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict. In a world where so many are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming,” we, all of us, are call to “speak[] the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:14-15) George will do that; so must you.

George, as you may know, is named for the Patron Saint of England whose red cross emblazons our Episcopal Church flag and shield. What you may not know is that St. George is also the patron saint of Palestine. A few years ago, my wife and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among the places we visited was the village of Burkin which sits on the boundary between Samaria and Galilee.

There, we visited the tiny Church of St. George, which commemorates the spot on which Jesus healed ten lepers. (Luke 17:12-19) It is the fourth oldest continuously in use worship space in the world! There has been a church on that spot since the early Fourth Century! It is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Our host was Usama, a member of the Greek Orthodox congregation. One could tell that he and the other members of St. George’s Church are very proud of their heritage. Their worship space is immaculate. The silver is polished; the cloth hangings and altar vestments are clean and bright; the icons are dusted. Pride of place is patent in every corner.

The worship space is tiny – our group of eighteen people more than half filled it. It is probably very crowded on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy and at other times of Orthodox worship. This congregation has a membership of 65 people. They are the only Christians in a town of over 7,000 population. Their witness is astounding!

Usama and his wife Neda hosted us to lunch in their home. The tables were filled with tomato and cucumber salad, yoghurt, pita, and chicken and lamb shwarma served on heaping platters of seasoned rice. There was enough to feed a group five times our size.

Several of us had two or three helpings of the delicious food when Usama’s wife, Neda, came around and piled one more serving on everyone’s plate: “Eat,” she said, “how do I know you liked it if you leave some behind?” It was all in good fun, and the graciousness and vibrancy of their hospitality was overwhelming.

We talked with them about the dwindling of their congregation, what it is like to be a Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. Someone in our group asked if they had ever considered leaving Burkin. “No,” Neda replied quickly, “If we left, who would be the church?”

It was a brilliant response, “Who would be the church?” Not ”Who would take care of the church?” Not “Who would polish the silver?” Not “Who would do whatever ….” but “Who would be the church?” Who would be the community of reconciliation in that context of division and conflict?

Usama and Neda and their brothers and sisters in Burkin are called to be that community there; you and George are called to be that community here. So I want to be very clear what it means to be a community of reconciliation in a world of division and conflict. It does not mean to simply make nice and live in an uneasy peace with those with whom we disagree; it does not mean to accept what cannot be accepted; it does not mean to approve what cannot be approved.

Reconciliation does not take place in a vacuum, nor in a fog of niceness; reconciliation can only take place within a context of, and when it incorporates the elements of, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and the healing of relationships.

In the sacramental rite of reconciliation, “evidence of due contrition” must be shown and the Confessor may require that “something to be done as a sign of penitence and [an] act of thanksgiving.” (BCP 1979 page 446) In the invitation to the general confession in our older prayer books and in Rite One of the current Prayer Book, the presider calls on those

. . . who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways. (BCP 1979 page 330).

This is the prophet’s call to change. Standing in the web of reconciliation, addressing one another and those outside our community who stand at different points on the various spectra of politics, economics, and demography, our work of reconciliation is the work of a prophet.

For example, the Old Testament law commands, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) As ministers of reconciliation we are obligated by our baptismal promises to treat resident aliens in this way, to call others to do so, and to resist those who would treat immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities in any other way.

The prophet Micah told us that what is required of us is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) As Christian ministers of reconciliation it is incumbent upon us to do so, to encourage others to do so, and to seek to change systems and practices that do not promote justice and loving kindness.

Jesus was once asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he replied “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39) In fulfillment of these commandments, our ministry of reconciliation requires that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, Page 305) call others to do so, and oppose those who would thwart those goals.

Jesus suggested that the Father blesses those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison, and turns away those who fail to do such things. (See Matt. 25:32-46) Our ministry of reconciliation demands that, like Jesus, we say to those who refuse to do these things “Depart from me, I do not know you,” until they change and do what they can for the least of his brothers and sisters.

When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples drew a sword and cut off someone’s ear, but Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52). Our ministry of reconciliation must include a prophetic echo of Isaiah and Micah calling on the manufacturers, purveyors, and wielders of weapons to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)

You, good people of St. [Swithun’s], have called George to join you in this prophetic ministry of reconciliation; with him you are called to be the church in this place at this time, a community of unity and reconciliation in the larger conflicted and divisive context of this age. To you, Jesus says, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last,” the fruit of the prophetic ministry of reconciliation.

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the clergy person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand, and as friend to friend, presbyter to presbyter, long-winded preacher to long-winded preacher, I can offer no better advice than that given by St. Paul in his first letter to a new pastor, Timothy:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim. 6:11-12,14,20)

Amen.

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

The photograph of President-elect Donald J. Trump is from the Library Grape website.

Thank God, I’m Not Like Him: Sermon for Pentecost 23, Proper 25C, Track 2 (23 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 24C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; and Luke 18:9-14. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860For the past couple of weeks in the Daily Office lectionary and today in the Sunday lectionary we are reading from the Wisdom of Yeshua ben Sira, some times called Sirach, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, one of the books of the Apocrypha, those books recognized by the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches as canonical, but rejected by Protestants. Anglicans steer a middle course and accept them for moral teaching, but not as the basis for religious doctrine. The text is a late example of what is called “wisdom literature,” instruction in ethics and proper social behavior for young men, especially those likely to take a role in governance.

Ben Sira was written early in the 2nd Century before Christ by a Jewish scribe named Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem. The Jewish nation was then under domination of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek-speaking kingdom centered in modern day Syria. Society in Jerusalem was very polarized: powerful vs. weak; rich vs. poor; Jew vs. Gentile. Ben Sira sought to guide his students through socially ambivalent times.

Among the topics he addresses is the proper forms and attitudes of worship. The Seleucid governors had involved themselves in the affairs of the Temple and, therefore, many people (especially the precursors of the Pharisees) believed that Temple worship was comprised and invalid. Furthermore, for many of the city’s wealthy participation in Temple rituals was a matter of show to advance themselves and their agenda; they offered mere lip service to God while oppressing the poor and helpless.

In this social milieu, Ben Sira offered instruction on the nature of worship, sacrifice, and prayer in Chapters 34 and 35 of the book. In Chapter 34 he describes worship that is not acceptable to God:

The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly, nor for a multitude of sacrifices does he forgive sins. Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor. The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a murderer. To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood. When one builds and another tears down, what do they gain but hard work? When one prays and another curses, to whose voice will the Lord listen? If one washes after touching a corpse, and touches it again, what has been gained by washing? So if one fasts for his sins, and goes again and does the same things, who will listen to his prayer? And what has he gained by humbling himself? (Ben Sira 34:23-31)

He follows this up with the advice we heard in our reading today: “Be generous when you worship the Lord, and do not stint the first fruits of your hands. With every gift show a cheerful face, and dedicate your tithe with gladness. Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.” (Ben Sira 35:10-12)

Ben Sira’s wisdom would have been well known to the people of Jesus’ time. Portions of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a nearly complete scroll was discovered at Masada, the Jewish fortress destroyed by the Romans in 73 AD. In addition, there are numerous quotations of the book in the Talmud, and the Anglican scholar Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) cogently argued that Jesus even quoted or paraphrased it on several occasions, including in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus told the parable of two men praying: a Pharisee, who worships strictly in accordance with the law of Moses but whose life may not reflect that, and a tax collector, whose life is criticized by everyone around him but whose worship is as open and sincere as it can be. Jesus’ original audience would have been very familiar with Ben Sira’s advice about worship and would have thought of it as background for the story. They would have known that Jesus was referring back to a concern about hypocritical worship, about worship that is merely for show, about worship coming from a life that does not honor the commandments, a concern dating back many years. They would have known who Jesus was condemning, just like we do! They knew that Jesus was not talking about them, just like we know that Jesus is not talking about us! Thank God that we are not like the bad people who pray with self-righteousness and contempt for others . . . .

Oh . . . wait a minute! You see what Jesus has done? He’s trapped us! He’s tricked us into judging the Pharisee, to regarding him with contempt. And by judging the Pharisee we have become like the Pharisee; in order to get Jesus’ point we have to point to the Pharisee and his sin. By pointing to someone else, to “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even . . . this tax collector,” and to their sins, the Pharisee condemns himself; by pointing to the Pharisee and his sin, we condemn ourselves.

Clever, sneaky preacher, that Jesus! How do we become more like the tax collector and less like the Pharisee? Ben Sira instructed his students to look worship with the eyes and understanding of God, with humility and without partiality.

So here’s an exercise . . . look at the other people all around you in church today. You know most of these people; some of them are in your family; some of them are your friends; you go to breakfast with some of them every Sunday. You may not know others; some are people you see here on Sunday but don’t otherwise socialize with; some may be people you don’t know at all. But about all of them, you do know two things. First, you know that God loves them; God loves every single person in this church today. God made them; God knows them; God loves them.

The second thing you know is that nobody in this church today is perfect. The religious way to say that is that every one of us is a sinner. Each one of us says and does things that hurt others; each one of us says and does things that hurt ourselves; each one of us says and does things that hurt God. Sometimes we do that intentionally; more often we do it negligently. But the simple truth is, whatever the reason for it may be, that we do it.

And here’s a third thing you know, and this you know about yourself . . . that the two things you know about all these people around you in church are also true of you. These are the two central truths of the Christian faith: that we are sinners and that God loves us anyway.

Now I’d like to ask you all to stand, as you may be able.

Raise your right hand, palm cupped up. Receive in that hand the truth that God loves you, that God loves all of us. Now raise your left hand, palm cupped up. Offer from that hand to God the truth that you are not perfect, that you are a sinner. See how your right hand is still holding the first truth; the second doesn’t change it at all. Not about you, not about anyone!

This, by the way, is called the orans position, the ancient position of prayer, standing with one’s hands up-raised, open to God; it has a rich tradition in Jewish and Christian practice, one’s body representing the spirit open to God’s grace.

The Pharisee in the parable failed to be fully open, fully honest with God or with himself. He was willing to raise the one hand to receive God’s blessing, but was unwilling to raise the other, unwilling to admit that he was imperfect, that he was like the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors, that he was like us.

Jesus, clever, sneaky preacher that he is, tricks us into acknowledging that we are like the Pharisee. Like Ben Sira before him, he encourages us to place ourselves fully before God, fully open to God, praying with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

You might say that Jesus is encouraging us to live generously. And that brings us to R____ S_________ who would like to say a few words about our Living Generously Annual Fund Campaign and his personal story of stewardship.

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

Persistent Stewardship: Sermon for Pentecost 22, Proper 24C, Track 2 (16 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 16, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 24C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; and St. Luke 18:1-8. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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unjustjudge2The story of the “unjust judge” has to be one of the most confusing of Jesus’ parables related in any of the Gospels. In every bible study group I have ever been a part of someone will want to know how the “unjust judge” could possibly represent God . . . .

So let me begin my sermon with this assertion: The “unjust judge” is not God! This not a parable about God! God is not in this parable! This is a parable about justice and persistence; this is not a parable about God. God is the addressee of prayers for justice; God is sometimes the object of such prayer; God is sometimes the subject of such prayer. But God is not in this parable about justice and persistence. The “unjust judge” is not God!

I hope I’ve made that clear.

This parable is about persistence and in our lectionary today we are given, in addition, two other readings and a psalm about persistence:

  • The story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with the man, who may have been an angel, who may have been God, is one of persistence, of struggling through the night against unknown odds and not giving up.
  • The admonition of Paul to the young bishop Timothy is to “be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable” and to “always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.”
  • The psalm portrays a persistent God who “keeps watch over Israel [and] shall neither slumber nor sleep,” who “shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”

That this persistent caring God of the Psalms, the Father of Jesus, is not the “unjust judge” is made clear by a question Jesus asks of his hearers: If the “unjust judge” eventually listened to the poor widow, “will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” This is a prophetic question, which is why I did not say this is a parable about prayer.

The cry for justice is heard throughout the Old Testament in the cry, complaint, or appeal of the victims of injustice. It is heard in cry of Abel’s blood from ground in Genesis (4:10). It echoes in the cry of the poor and needy of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18:20; Ezek 16:49). It is the cry of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt (Ex 3:7,10), and the cry of Job against the Lord (Job 19:7). It is heard in the exasperated frustration of Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastses (3:16-4:3). It is sung by David in many of the psalms, “I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the poor and render justice to the needy.” (Ps 140:12)

The poor widow is not our representative; she is not a stand-in for us and our everyday personal petitions or intercessions. She represents the poverty and vulnerability of a people whose life has been shaped in the cruelty of exploitation and the arbitrary abuse of power. In telling this parable of persistence in this way, “Jesus is reading the signs in the wounds of the people. The contours of their devastation shape the structures of his thought, because this is where he belongs and these are the people whose cries he hears.” (William Loader)

So Jesus tells them and us a story which affirms that the God of persistence who watches over our going out and our coming in is a God who cares even though the solution does not come speedily. He tells them and us a story to encourage us to be a “people [who] can sustain the crying [for justice] day and night and not lose heart, [a people who] do not tune out, but live in hope and with a sense of trust that does not make us feel we have to carry the whole world on our shoulders.” (Loader)

This parable is a story in which we find “a glint of God in the gray of corruption [which affirms that] we do not have to be God; we are not alone; faith and hope are possible.” (Loader) And this is the gospel message from which Timothy is admonished to teach, reprove, correct, and train in righteousness “so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

We are, all of us who are members of the church, to be readied for “the performance of gospel-infused good works unto the glory and magnification of God in Jesus Christ,” because the “gospel is not merely about the salvation which we receive through faith in Christ; it is about the [justice and] salvation which we bring to the world through our [persistent] faithfulness to Christ.” (John Frederick)

Like Jacob, we must each of us struggle with the angel as we determine how it is that we will do that, as God encourages and aids us (even by wrestling with us) in making that determination. On that desert night, God challenged and reshaped Jacob so that he would be able to live into his promised destiny as Israel; God challenges and reshapes us in the same way, to be his people, to be persistent in the work of justice and salvation.

This is a work of stewardship. The question with which we must wrestle is not only how will we do this work, but with what resources will we do it? How will we use the riches with which God has blessed us? Prof. Richard Hayes, New Testament scholar at Duke University, in a sermon on this Genesis text reminded his congregation that Jacob is “one who first receives and then finally gives blessings” and that “that is not a bad description of [Christian] ministry.” (Richard Hayes) It’s not a bad description of Christian stewardship, either.

The work of persistently pursuing justice and practicing good stewardship is the core of a life transformed by a relationship with Jesus Christ; it is not peripheral to the gospel. Justice and stewardship are not mere evidences of the gospel. “Rather, gospel works are the necessary result of the gospel, the inseparable and authentic response to the gospel.” (John Frederick)

This week, you will receive your pledge card for 2017. As you consider your financial stewardship and support of St. Paul’s Parish, I encourage you to engage this work with the persistence of the woman confronting the “unjust judge.” I encourage you to wrestle with these questions with the persistence of Jacob who became Israel. I encourage you, as Paul encouraged Timothy, “to continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,” to persistently “carry out your ministry.” And I encourage you to do so without fear, remembering that the Lord “shall keep you safe” and “shall watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.”

Today, parishioner D_______ F____ has offered to share some of his thoughts about financial stewardship with us.

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

(Note: The illustration is by the late Fr. Jim Hasse, SJ, of Claver Jesuit Ministry, Cincinnati, OH.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Open to God — Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25C – October 27, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 27, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 25C: Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; and Luke 18:9-14. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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3rd Century Mural, Woman in Orans PositionWe are straying from our usual lectionary path today because it is one of our Children’s Sundays and we have some younger kids reading the lessons at the 10 a.m. service. So, instead of a long reading from the prophet Joel (RCL Year C, Track 1), we have a brief lesson from the Book of Ben Sira, which is sometimes called Ecclesiasticus. (RCL Year C, Track 2) We thought it would be easier for a child to read.

This is one of the books of the Apocrypha, those books recognized by the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches as canonical, but rejected by Protestants. Anglicans steer a middle course and accept them for moral teaching, but not as the basis for religious doctrine. The text is a late example of what is called “wisdom literature,” instruction in ethics and proper social behavior for young men, especially those likely to take a role in governance.

Ben Sira was written early in the 2nd Century before Christ by a Jewish scribe named Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem. The Jewish nation was then under domination of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek-speaking kingdom centered in modern day Syria. Society in Jerusalem was very polarized: powerful vs. weak; rich vs. poor; Jew vs. Gentile. Ben Sira sought to guide his students through socially ambivalent times.

Among the topics he addresses is the proper forms and attitudes of worship. The Seleucid governors had involved themselves in the affairs of the Temple and, therefore, many people (especially the precursors of the Pharisees) believed that Temple worship was comprised and invalid. Furthermore, for many of the city’s wealthy participation in Temple rituals was a matter of show to advance themselves and their agenda; they offered mere lip service to God while oppressing the poor and helpless.

In this social milieu, Ben Sira offered instruction on the nature of worship, sacrifice, and prayer in Chapters 34 and 35 of the book. In Chapter 34 he describes worship that is not acceptable to God:

The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly, nor for a multitude of sacrifices does he forgive sins. Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor. The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a murderer. To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood. When one builds and another tears down, what do they gain but hard work? When one prays and another curses, to whose voice will the Lord listen? If one washes after touching a corpse, and touches it again, what has been gained by washing? So if one fasts for his sins, and goes again and does the same things, who will listen to his prayer? And what has he gained by humbling himself? (Ben Sira 34:23-31)

He follows this up with the advice we heard in our reading today: “Be generous when you worship the Lord, and do not stint the first fruits of your hands. With every gift show a cheerful face, and dedicate your tithe with gladness. Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.” (Ben Sira 35:10-12)

Ben Sira’s wisdom would have been well known to the people of Jesus’ time. Portions of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a nearly complete scroll was discovered at Masada, the Jewish fortress destroyed by the Romans in 73 AD. In addition, there are numerous quotations of the book in the Talmud, and the Anglican scholar Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) cogently argued that Jesus quoted or paraphrased it on several occasions, including in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

So when Jesus told the parable of two prayers, his original audience would have had Ben Sira’s advice as background; they would have known that Jesus was referring back to a concern about hypocritical worship, about worship that is merely for show, about worship that does not honor the commandments, a concern dating back many years. They would have known who Jesus was condemning, just like we do! They knew that Jesus was not talking about them, just like we know that Jesus is not talking about us! Thank God that we are not like the bad people who pray with self-righteousness and contempt for others . . . .

Oh . . . wait a minute! You see what Jesus has done? He’s trapped us! He’s tricked us into judging the Pharisee, to regarding him with contempt. And by judging the Pharisee we have become like the Pharisee; in order to get Jesus’ point we have to point to the Pharisee and his sin. By pointing to someone else, to “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even . . . this tax collector,” and to their sins, the Pharisee condemns himself; by pointing to the Pharisee and his sin, we condemn ourselves.

Clever, sneaky preacher, that Jesus! How do we become more like the tax collector and less like the Pharisee? Ben Sira instructed his students to look worship with the eyes and understanding of God, with humility and without partiality.

So here’s an exercise . . . look at the other people all around you in church today. You know most of these people; some of them are in your family; some of them are your friends; you go to breakfast with some of them every Sunday. You may not know others; some are people you see here on Sunday but don’t otherwise socialize with; some may be people you don’t know at all. But about all of them, you do know two things. First, you know that God loves them; God loves every single person in this church today. God made them; God knows them; God loves them.

The second thing you know is that nobody in this church today is perfect. The religious way to say that is that every one of us is a sinner. Each one of us says and does things that hurt others; each one of us says and does things that hurt ourselves; each one of us says and does things that hurt God. Sometimes we do that intentionally; more often we do it negligently. But the simple truth is, whatever the reason for it may be, that we do it.

And here’s a third thing you know, and this you know about yourself . . . that the two things you know about all these people around you in church are also true of you. These are the two central truths of the Christian faith: that we are sinners and that God loves us anyway.

Now I’d like to ask you all to stand, as you may be able.

Raise your right hand, palm cupped up. Receive in that hand the truth that God loves you, that God loves all of us. Now raise your left hand, palm cupped up. Offer from that hand to God the truth that you are not perfect, that you are a sinner. See how your right hand is still holding the first truth; the second doesn’t change it at all. Not about you, not about anyone!

This, by the way, is called the orans position, the ancient position of prayer, standing with one’s hands up-raised, open to God; it has a rich tradition in Jewish and Christian practice, one’s body representing the spirit open to God’s grace.

The Pharisee in the parable failed to be fully open, fully honest with God or with himself. He was willing to raise the one hand to receive God’s blessing, but was unwilling to raise the other, unwilling to admit that he was imperfect, that he was like the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors, that he was like us.

Jesus, clever, sneaky preacher that he is, tricks us into acknowledging that we are like the Pharisee. Like Ben Sira before him, he encourages us to place ourselves fully before God, fully open to God, praying with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

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.

As Water to Stone — Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 24C – October 20, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, October 20, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 24C: Jeremiah 31:27-34; Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; and Luke 18:1-8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Water on Stone“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will . . . watch over [the house of Israel and the house of Judah] to build and to plant. * * * I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

Our lesson from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah today comes from a section of that book which scholars call “the Little Book of Consolation” or “the Book of Comfort;” it comprises chapters 30-33 of Jeremiah and is thought to be the work of an editor or group of editors generally referred to as “the Deuteronomist” because it is similar in perspective to the Book of Deuteronomy.

In it Jeremiah’s message to the post-exilic community, a message of hope and restoration, appears to have been re-organized theologically around the idea of restoration and obedience to the Torah. It is a theological reflection upon the fact that, at a time in Israel’s history when God’s People faced their darkest hour since being slaves in Egypt, God’s word to them was one of hope for the future. It voices a basic recognition that God is willing to work with humanity even in the face of its sinful rejection of God. It asserts that God’s choice for sinners is nothing short of forgiveness; “I will forgive,” says God, “with no prerequisites and no preconditions.” God’s forgiveness creates newness in the lives of people; it creates a future which will be enough different from the past that even the hearts of God’s People will be transformed.

Earlier Jeremiah had said, “The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen; with a diamond point it is engraved on the tablet of their hearts . . . .” (17:1) Now in the Book of Comfort, as edited by the Deuteronomist, the Prophet asserts that God will write his instruction, his law, his torah on the human heart with his own finger. So the writing involves an erasure as well: where sin was once written, now God’s own will and desires will be written — on each human heart.

This is a socially radical assertion.

If God’s covenant is written on each heart, all members of the community will stand on equal ground. If God’s covenant is written on each heart, all will be equal in righteousness. It will have a leveling effect, eliminating doubt about who can properly be called “Israel.” No longer will it matter whose ancestors stood at Sinai. The marker of the covenant binding the community together will be internal, an invisible sign that cannot be questioned by genealogy or undermined with accusations of impurity. No one can claim the authority to teach the other because each heart has God’s torah inscribed on it.

How is this going to happen?

Jesus gives us a clue in the parable told in this morning’s reading from Luke’s Gospel, parable about not losing heart.

In this reading, Jesus tells the store of a woman who demands justice; he doesn’t tell us the particulars of her case. We do not know her grievance nor what redress she believes should be hers; those details are not important to Jesus’ story. What is important is only that she has a legitimate complaint and seeks some form of amends.
However, her just cause is thwarted by an unjust judge who will not grant her the judgment. So every day she comes to the court and every day makes her plea: “Grant me justice against my opponent.” Finally, she wears down the unjust judge and he grants her that to which she is entitled. In commenting upon that eventual conclusion, Jesus asks, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

This passage is usually interpreted to mean that we should persistently petition God for the things we want. If we pester God enough, goes this interpretation, we’ll receive whatever it is we are praying for. So there’s the rich man harassing God for greater wealth. There’s the young woman worrying God for a spouse. There’s the cancer patient insisting that God should intervene and heal him. If we are persistent, if we just wear God down, will God fix everything.

Is this really how God works? Is this really what Jesus meant by telling this parable?

If we believe that if we just ask enough, God will make us rich, how does real poverty in our midst answer that belief? If we believe that if we just ask enough, God will give us the desires of our hearts, what does it say when our hearts are broken? If we believe that God will heal our bodies if we only ask enough, what does it mean when our bodies or our loved ones’ bodies waste away?

Do we really believe that is how God works? That in prayer as in business, the squeaky wheel gets the grease?

If you really believe that is what Jesus telling this parable is saying, then I would ask you to reconsider and, especially, to take into account two things. First, Jesus’ assurance that God “will quickly grant justice” where it is warranted and needed. Second, that in his concluding commentary Jesus asks another much more long term question: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

I believe that Jesus is saying something about the transformation of human hearts, hearts often described in the Hebrew Scriptures as “hearts of stone” (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26) or as “hardened” (1 Sam. 6:6; Ps. 95:8; Isa. 63:17). The instrument of that transformation is prayer.

Why do we pray? What is the ultimate goal? Are we, as Oswald Chambers once caricatured most prayer, simply “throw[ing] our petitions at [God’s] throne and dictat[ing] to Him what we want Him to do?” Clearly not!

Through prayer we rein in our overactive, worry-prone, and control-oriented minds. Through prayer we remind ourselves of God’s sovereignty. Through prayer we align ourselves with the Spirit, allowing the Advocate to counsel us. Through prayer we eventually conform our mind to His mind – our will to his will.

One definition of prayer says that it “is the divinely appointed means through which we commune with the living God and advance God’s kingdom.” A life lived in prayer creates a relationship with God which conforms our minds to God’s. Through prayer our hearts are aligned with God’s, so that our lives are lived with the unconditional love which characterizes God’s very self. The more we pray, the more we live into God’s own life.

The Roman poet Ovid, who lived at the time of Christ, wrote “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” The Chinese philosopher Lao Tse wrote that water is patient and takes its time, so when it does carve through stone, the marks it leaves are smooth and natural. “In this world,” he wrote, “there is nothing softer or thinner than water. But to compel the hard and unyielding, it has no equal. That the weak overcomes the strong, that the hard gives way to the gentle — this everyone knows.”

Jesus is making this same point in the parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge. As water is to stone, so prayer is to the human heart.

It is not that our persistent prayer wears down the Judge: we are assured that “he will quickly grant justice.” No, the persistent prayer is like water, the waters of grace, wearing down our harden hearts; through our prayers, conforming our wills to God’s will, our minds to God’s mind, God will remove from our bodies the hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh (Ezek. 36:6), hearts on which God’s torah will be written.

Let us pray:

Grant, Almighty God, that through your grace, with our constant prayer, your Word may be so engraved on the tablets of our hearts, that our wills may be conformed to your will, our minds to your mind, that we may produce the fruit of good living, to the honor and praise of your Name; 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.

The Word of God Is Not Chained: Adapt! – Sermon for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23C – October 13, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 13, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 23C: Jeremiah 29:1,4-7; Psalm 66:1-11; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; and Luke 17:11-19. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Adapt in DictionaryHow do we maintain our established convictions and carry our old confessions into new, uncertain, and sometimes unsettling circumstances? It’s an unavoidable question, one which we answer all the time, even if we aren’t aware that we are doing so. It is the question to which both our Old Testament lesson and our reading from the Pastoral Epistles offer answers and, interestingly but not surprisingly (this is, after all, the Bible), the answers are contradictory.

First, we have the prophet Jeremiah writing to the exiles taken away by the Babylonians. If you were here last week, you remember that early in the 6th Century before Christ, the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, had invaded Judah, sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carted away (as Jeremiah puts it) “the elders, the priests, and the prophets,” in other words the political and religious leaders of the nation.

Now Jeremiah had absolutely no authority to write to them; he was not an official prophet; he was not a part of the establishment. Jeremiah was from a village called Anathoth in the territory of the tribe of Benjamin. He was an illiterate, small-town boy who had come to the city hoping to make it big as a prophet but things hadn’t turned out well. He had tried preaching in the courtyard of the Temple, but “when Jeremiah had finished speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, ‘You shall die!'” (Jer. 26:8) Later, when he attempts preaching again, the city “officials were enraged at Jeremiah, and they beat him and imprisoned him in the house of the secretary Jonathan, for it had been made a prison. Thus Jeremiah was put in the cistern house, in the cells, and remained there many days.” (Jer. 37:5-6) Apparently, he attracted only one follower, a scribe named Baruch who recorded his sermons, wrote down his story, and took his dictation. (See Jer. 36)

Nonetheless, Jeremiah takes it upon himself to write a letter to the exiles. Last week we recited Psalm 137 and you will recall that it was not a particular pleasant piece of literature; it voiced the sorrow and anger of a people who wanted revenge. These would not have been people very open to getting advice from an upstart, small-town prophet, especially if that advice was to “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters….” And even more disturbing would have been his admonition to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf!” Not advice the original exiles would have been likely to want to hear.

But here’s the deal — Jeremiah wasn’t writing to the original exiles. Jeremiah was writing to their children — not children born in captivity, but rather those who had been taken to Babylonia as children or as youths. He is writing to the group sociologists call “the 1.5 generation,” those who emigrated as adolescents or slightly older children; they are the ones who would be getting married and building houses. In our society today, we might call them “the DREAMers.” Studies have shown that such individuals will identify with both their country of origin and the country in which they grow up. They are often bilingual and easily assimilate into the culture of their new country while continuing many of the cultural traditions of the old; in a very real sense they are bi-cultural. It is to this group that Jeremiah writes.

And what Jeremiah writes is something fundamentally new to the Jewish religion. It’s also a complete change of gears for Jeremiah. Initially, he had been something of a firebrand, uttering God’s judgments against the people of Jerusalem, their priests and their leaders, for all their wickedness in forsaking God. (Jer. 1:16) Now he radically changes his message; where he had preached punishment, he offers words of hope; where he had preached destruction, he offers a way forward. In the process of doing so, he introduces a completely new understanding of God’s presence with God’s people always and everywhere.

In the ancient Near East, there was generally a belief that there were many gods. Even the Jews believed this; they were not yet what we would call “monotheists.” Striclty speaking, they were “monolatrous,” i.e. they worshipped one God, but acknowledged that there were others. The people of that world believed that different gods had different physical domains. When one was in the Holy Land, in Israel or Judah, Yahweh was supreme. When you traveled to another land, you entered to another god’s or group of gods’ domain. Most nations had a central temple in which the local deity or deities were believed to live. The Jerusalem played this role for the worshippers of Yahweh; exiled in Babylon, they found the temples of other gods. This was not a land where you worshipped Yahweh; remember Psalm 137’s plea of grief: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” But along comes Jeremiah and tells them to do exactly that! “Pray to the LORD on behalf [of the city where you now live], for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

How do we carry old convictions and confessions into new, uncertain, and sometimes unsettling settings? Jeremiah says to adapt, to assimilate, to build houses, take spouses, have children, but be bi-cultural; do not adopt the religious ways of the culture in which you live. Yahweh is not limited to the lands of Israel and Judah. Jeremiah encourages his readers to accept their role as immigrants in a foreign land while remaining true to the ethical and religious teachings of their heritage. He might have used St. Paul’s words from the Second Letter to Timothy: “The word of God is not chained.” Adapt, that’s what he is saying: “You don’t have the Temple anymore. You can’t offer the sacrifices anymore. You can’t do the Temple liturgy. But you still have the day-by-day rules of living set out in the Law of Moses. You still have the ethical teachings of the prophets. Stick to the ethical teachings while letting go of the Temple rituals; apply the Law and the Prophets in your new circumstances. Adapt!” In a very real sense, we could argue that in Jeremiah’s letter to the 1.5 generation of the Babylonian Exile we see the laying of the foundation of the rabbinic Judaism of Jesus’ time, the rabbinic Judaism that would survive the last destruction of the Temple 600 years later, the rabbinic Judaism with which we are familiar today.

Although Jeremiah might have used St. Paul’s words, “The word of God is not chained,” St. Paul’s message in writing those words was a very different one! Instead of counseling Timothy and his congregation to adapt, Paul is saying, “Don’t change anything!” Warn the congregation, he admonishes Timothy, “that they are to avoid wrangling over words.” They are to hold onto the established conventions; they are to preserve the received tradition; they are to avoid changing any practices or adopting new ideas. St. Paul’s advice is the complete reversal of Jeremiah’s!

And yet, he writes paints this wonderful picture for us, “The word of God is not chained.” He gives us this vision of Truth that is not bound to a historical moment, that is not written once and chiseled in stone or engraved on golden tablets, that is living and ever new. There is a great hymn on this theme that I might have selected for today (if I’d thought about it several weeks ago when I did the music schedule for the end of the year). Written by George Rawson in 1835 and in our hymnal at No. 629, the first two stanzas are these:

We limit not the truth of God
To our poor reach of mind,
By notions of our day and sect,
Crude, partial and confined.
Now let a new and better hope
Within our hearts be stirred:
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.

Who dares to bind by his dull sense
The oracles of heaven,
For all the nations, tongues and climes
And all the ages given!
The universe how much unknown!
That ocean unexplored!
The Lord hath yet more light and truth
To break forth from His Word.

When Jeremiah wrote to the exiles in Babylon and essentially told them that God’s Presence was not limited to Israel or Judah, when he introduced an understanding of God’s protective love as with them always and everywhere, he opened up to them and to us the possibility that God’s love and care not only extends to other lands … but to other people, as well. Jeremiah specifically called upon them to seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent, to pray to the Lord on behalf of the very people who had taken them captive for in their captors’ welfare they would find their own. God’s love is there for everyone in every place at all times, even those people we might not prefer.

And so it is that our gospel this Sunday features the ultimate outsider, a Samaritan leper, as hero. No one could be more hated than a Samaritan in Israel, yet in Luke’s story Jesus doesn’t bother to ask where any of the lepers are from and only when he returns to give thanks is it made clear to us that the only one who demonstrates gratitude is a Samaritan. God’s love is there for everyone in every place at all times, even those people we might not prefer.

How do we carry old convictions and confessions into new, uncertain, and sometimes unsettling settings? We adapt, because “the word of God is not chained.” It is not limited to one country; it is not limited to one people; it is not limited to one religion; it is not limited in time or space; it is not limited by our crude, partial, and confined notions and ideas. The Lord has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word! Thanks be to 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.

One of Those Weeks (Salvation Belongs to Our God) – Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 21, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; and John 10:22-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Etching of the Heavenly Throne RoomIt’s Good Shepherd Sunday . . . the Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season is always Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year, regardless of which of the three years of the Lectionary cycle we are in, we hear some lessons which mention shepherds or lambs, and we recite the 23rd Psalm as the Gradual, and we sing every “Shepherd hymn” in the hymnal. I’ve been preaching Good Shepherd sermons for 25 years, so I pretty much thought this was going to be one of those Sundays when I could just “wing it” and preach extemporaneously.

But it’s not. The events of the past week have made this a Good Shepherd Sunday unlike any that has come before. This Good Shepherd Sunday, as I read the words of the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil,” (Ps. 23:4) I cannot help but be aware of all those who, unknowingly, were in that very place on Monday afternoon; I cannot help but think of Boylston Street, Boston, as “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Today’s Gospel lesson is John the Evangelist’s story of an event that happened before Jesus’ crucifixion, something that happened as he was teaching in the Jerusalem Temple. “The Jews,” which is John’s way of naming the temple authorities (the priests and scribes) gathered around Jesus and put him on the spot. “Are you the Messiah?” they ask, “Tell us plainly.”

Jesus’ answer is to say that he has said as much and that it is plain to those who are his sheep, because his sheep understand what he says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) They hear what I say; they understand my words; and they do what I tell them.

Well, maybe . . . .

Let’s be honest. Understanding Jesus and doing what he says aren’t always very easy. For example, St. Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:36-37) And St. Matthew tells us that he commanded, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44) I know what those words mean, but when it comes to the events of this week, they are not easy to obey.

But . . . OK . . . let’s give it a try. Our prayer book heritage gives us words to pray when we cannot think of the words ourselves, so let’s give this praying for those who hurt us a try using some of those prayers:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 816)

Into your hands, O Lord, we commend Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Savior, praying that he may be redeemed in your sight. Wash him, we pray, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb who was slain to take away the sins of the world; that, whatever defilements he may have contracted in the midst of this earthly life being purged and done away, he may be presented before you pure and without spot; through the merits of Jesus Christ your only Son our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from the BCP 1979, page 488)

O God, whose mercy is everlasting and whose power is infinite; Look down with pity and compassion upon Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; and whether you visit him to test his fortitude or to punish his offences, enable him with your grace to submit himself willingly to your holy will and to your judgment. O Lord, go not far from him or any person whom you have laid in a place of darkness; and seeing that you have not cut him off suddenly, chasten him as a father and grant that he, duly considering your great mercies, may genuinely turn to you with true repentance and sincerity of heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from the Book of Common Prayer of 1789, A Form of Prayer for the Visitation of Prisoners.)

This is what our Shepherd requires of us, that we pray for the repose of the soul of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and for the salvation Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, even though we find it very difficult to do.

When I was still practicing law, I had occasion to defend a dentist whose hobby was sculpting. One of the pieces he showed me was a very nicely done, and in most respects very traditional, Crucifix. What was nontraditional about it was the expression on Jesus’ face; it was contorted in obvious and quite extreme rage.

I asked him about that saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Christ depicted in that way, and I can’t say that I’ve ever conceived of this reading any of the Gospels’ crucifixion stories.” He answered by asking me, “You know in the Gospel according to Luke when Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them . . . . ?’ I’ve always heard that as angry, as Jesus saying to God the Father, ‘You forgive them because, right now, I can’t.'”

If you, like me, are having some difficulty in praying for those two boys, let these prayers be offered in that same spirit. We pray for God to take them, for God to forgive them, because right now, we can’t. We know exactly what Jesus meant but right now, we can’t do it. So we ask our Shepherd to do it for us. Because, as the multitude witnessed by St. John of Patmos cried so clearly, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10)

That’s one of the Good News lessons for today, for this week, I think. Jesus asks us to pray for and forgive those who do us wrong, but if we can’t, he can do it for us. We don’t need the fancy words of prayers out of the prayer book tradition. We just need Jesus’ own words, his words on the cross, “Father, forgive them.” That’s really all we need to say, “Father, forgive them.” Because even if we can’t, he can.

I think the other Good News lesson for this week is in something else Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Yesterday, I was at a diocesan leadership conference and, as you might expect, during the break times, our conversations centered around the events of the week.

A colleague commented at a diocesan meeting this morning, “It’s been one of those weeks.” My first thought was, “One of what weeks? There aren’t very many weeks like this!” The more I thought about it, however, I think maybe every week is like this. Every week people die. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but it’s true. Every week people die. It’s nothing to fear, however. I remember hearing a bishop (it may have been Desmond Tutu) say that being a Christian means (among other things) accepting the fact that you have already died. Certainly that is the witness of scripture: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) And, again, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:2-3) And, again, “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” (2 Tim. 2:11) The very meaning of the Easter Season which we continue to celebrate is that death has been conquered, and that to God’s faithful people “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP 1979, page 382)

And every week people do awful things to other people. Sometimes those things are hugely catastrophic for many people, like the bombs at the marathon finish line. Sometimes those things go unseen by nearly everyone except the one injured, like the bullying that has led so many teens to commit suicide. Such things, awful things happen all the time. But . . . “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:28-29) And, again, “The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” (Psalm 145:14) And, again, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philip. 4:13) The very meaning of the Easter Season which we continue to celebrate is that the power of God overcomes anything, any-awful-thing, the evildoers of this world can throw at us.

Not very long after the bombs exploded in Boston, comedian Patton Oswalt posted a reflection on his Facebook page in which he said:

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem — one human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in a while, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evildoers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

I think that is the reality to which Scripture testifies; I think that is the triumph of Easter — that the good will always outnumber the evil. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

So I guess my colleague was right. It’s been one of those weeks . . . a week when life was changed for some, a week in which the Presence of God helped people get through some really awful stuff, a week when the good outnumbered the bad. It’s been one of those weeks. Every week is. Thanks be to God!

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

What’s This Kingdom of Heaven Thing? – From the Daily Office – April 27, 2012

From Matthew’s Gospel:

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 4:12-17 – April 27, 2012)
 
Christ the KingAnother reading of that proclamation is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To my hearing, this alternative version is a bit more imperative; the kingdom seems a bit more imminent when it is “at hand” rather than simply has “come near.” We used to live in that part of northeastern Kansas known as “tornado alley”. If we said a tornado had “come near” that was as good as saying “It missed us! It didn’t hit us.” On the other had, if someone had said a twister was “at hand”, I would have thought it was coming right at our front door! So . . . theologically I prefer the latter reading, but must confess that personally I breathe a sigh of relief if the kingdom merely has come near. A miss, after all, is as good as a mile, and it gives me time to do this repenting and reforming that Jesus calls for. ~ So what is this “kingdom of heaven”? Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat – it is not something different from the “kingdom of God”. Some try to make a distinction (like the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible towards which I acknowledge great antipathy), but a comparison of the gospels demonstrates that they are the same thing (compare these verses: Matthew 4:17 with Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 5:3 with Luke 6:20; Matthew 13:31 with Mark 4:30-31). ~ This kingdom also is not a place far away or near by. The Greek here is basileia ; the Hebrew for the same concept in the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 103:19) is malkuwth. While both can refer to a physical place, an actual nation state, they are better understood to refer to a condition or fact or authority of sovereignty or dominion; they might better be translated is “rule” or “reign”. This kingdom also is not a time – past or present or future. It isn’t some place or state or condition at which we arrive after death; it isn’t some place or state or condition which will arrive on earth at some future time. So what is it? ~ Well . . . in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees about the signs of the kingdom’s arrival, to which he replies, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21) The Greek here is entos which means (and in other versions is translated literally as) “within you”. Other things the Christian scriptures tell us are found within human beings are the “word of Christ” richly dwelling (Col. 3:16), spiritual gifts (1 Tim. 4:14), and sincere faith (2 Tim. 1:5). The Hebrew scriptures mention peace (e.g., Ps. 12:8), God’s commandments (Prov. 7:1), and “a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek. 36:26). In other words, the kingdom is an internal, spiritual characteristic of human beings characterized by these things. That’s coming about as “near” as you can get! That’s even more imminent than being “at hand.” If it’s within me, within you, within us, right here in the midst of us . . . that’s a matter of some urgency! We’d best be paying attention to it. ~ It is also characterized by the things revealed in the eight “kingdom parables” of Matthew 13, but that is too much to write about in a short meditation on a sunny day. I’ll leave those to the reader’s own contemplation. ~ Just one final note . . . if the kingdom (in all its characteristics) is truly within a person (or within a community), it will be very apparent by that person’s (or community’s) outer actions, his or her (or their) conduct, his or her (or their) relationships with others and the whole of creation. Here, the words of the Letter of James apply: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18) If the kingdom of heaven is truly within, truly come near, truly at hand in the lives of Christ’s followers, then it will be made clear in works of mercy. I think that’s the repentance and reformation Christ encourages here.