That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Titus

Believe! – Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come
To show the way
I believe, I believe
I believe above a storm the smallest prayer
Can still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word
Every time I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe1

Those are the lyrics of a song written the year after I was born and which was very popular in the early 1950s. Frankie Laine, the Four Letterman, Elvis Presley, and many others recorded versions of it. It was even arranged in combination with Gounod’s Ave Marie as a Christmas choral piece.

Continue reading

A Christmas Lamb Chop: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

====================

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are the second set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Christmas in Year A: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; and St. Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

lambchop1I was in the pet supply aisle at Giant Eagle several days ago getting food for the Archbishop (that’s our black cocker spaniel, Lord Dudley of Ballycraic, the Archbishop Canine of Montville) when I found, right in front of the Beneful which is his favorite meal, a bin filled with these: dog toys in the likeness of a lamb dressed for Christmas. And not just any lamb! This is Lamb Chop, the somewhat snarky puppet introduced to the world by the late Shari Lewis in 1957.

As many of you know, this is something I do every year for this Christmas Eve sermon . . . find something to be a sort of “focus object” or trigger for our Christmas Eve meditations. Lamb Chop just seemed perfectly suited. This Christmas toy suggested four poetic associations to me: one is the title given Jesus by John the Baptizer, “the Lamb of God;” a second was a familiar nursery rhyme; the third was a romantic English poem; and the fourth, a song that Lamb Chop sang on the Shari Lewis television show, all of which can help us explore and understand the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.

So, the first thing that comes immediately to mind when we look at a lamb, whether Lamb Chop the puppet dressed up for Christmas or an actual lamb in the fields is the statement made by John the Baptizer in the Gospel of John: “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn 1:29) That seems an odd way to refer to a grown man, which Jesus was at the time.

The 20th-century bible scholar Joachim Jeremias suggested that a way to understand John’s statement is that he probably used the Aramaic word talya. Jeremias says that “lamb” (amnos in the Greek in which the gospel is written) is a translation of this Aramaic word, which can also be translated “boy,” “child” or “servant.” When Jesus was described as the talya of God, Aramaic speakers of the earliest church would have heard “child” of God, or “son” of God, or “servant” of God, or “lamb” of God. When that gospel story was written after Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, the image of the sacrificial lamb of the Hebrew tradition resonated with the author. (See America)

According to some widely accepted Christian theologies, the sacrifice of the cross is the very reason for which Jesus was born. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case; I suspect that God the Father would much rather have had Jesus followed than killed, but certainly God made use of Jesus’ Crucifixion and through it opened for us the way of salvation. In any event, some people think that the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, the second thing called to mind by our Christmas Lamb Chop, is about Jesus’ birth as the sacrificial lamb of God. You know the one:

Mary had a little lamb,
a little lamb, a little lamb
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.

It’s not really about the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus, however. It was written by Sarah Josepha Hale of Sterling, Massachusetts, in 1830, and is said to describe an actual event of a pet lamb visiting the local schoolhouse. (See Wikipedia) Nonetheless, we can learn something about our Christian faith by considering the lamb of that story.

The rhyme continues that the lamb followed Mary and “everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.” Although I don’t believe that the Son of God was born necessarily or primarily to be a sacrifice, I am sure he was born to be followed; I’m certain Christ came into Creation to teach us how to live life God’s Way. He is the Word given to us to lead us to salvation. The little lamb in the nursery rhyme trusted Mary and followed her, and that is what God wants us to do, to trust and follow the Son so that, with the Son, we may live the abundant life of the Kingdom of Heaven that God constantly offers us. This is what makes his birth so important to us and why we celebrate the Incarnation in our many special ways.

So, anyway, I picked up this Christmas Lamb Chop dog toy and the first thing I did was check to see where it was made. I’m very careful not to give the Archbishop, Lord Dudley, anything made overseas. (I’m sure you’ve heard about the toxins found in dog toys and treats made, for example, in China.) Doing so, I thought of another bit of lamb-inspired poetry, one by the English Romantic poet William Blake. You may know it; it is entitled simply The Lamb. It is, in essence, a question asked of a lamb by a child:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake’s poem is a deceptively naive child’s song. Beginning with a descriptive, pastoral stanza, it moves quickly to focus on the abstract spiritual matter of Creation. The child’s guileless but profound question – “Who made thee?” – echoes the deep and timeless question that all human beings have about our origin. It reminds us of the opening lines of John’s Gospel with its abstract account of the Incarnation:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth
(Jn 1:1-3,14)

In Blake’s poem, this profound truth is presented with the naiveté of a child’s puzzle revealing the child’s confidence in a simple and innocent Christian faith. Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:15) Christmas is a time for us all to experience once again our childlike wonder at the simple beauty that is the Incarnation.

But our Christmas dog toy can trick us! We have to beware of oversimplifying the Incarnation. I read recently about “a Christmas display . . . at [a shopping] mall: giant plush bears robed as Mary and Joseph, beaming at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger.” Theologian Fredrica Mathewes-Green, who described this display, said of it,

If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since dispersed. Three jolly bears now convey everything we know or expect to know. It is a scene plump with stupidity. Jesus as a cookie. God as a pet. (Patheos)

This, she says, “is very bad news,” because “a circle of cuddly bears is useless at helping us deal with pain. It cannot help us grasp searing heartbreak.” Neither can a puppet, even a nice Christmas Lamb Chop puppet, but it can serve as a warning and a reminder!

Tracy Dugger, an Episcopal priest in Florida, has written about what she calls “meat puppet theology,”

. . . the idea that our bodies are machines simply being utilized and driven around by our minds. The mind/soul is the control, and the body is subservient. This way of thinking about the mind/body connection is wrong, and leads us into some pretty wrongheaded [ideas]. (The Young Anglican)

“The ultimate example of why bodies are important,” she says, is the simple fact that “JESUS HAD ONE! Jesus was Incarnate. Not only was Jesus, Son of God, begotten by the Holy Spirit, He was knit together in Mary’s womb. Jesus was a man of flesh and blood, as well as God from God, light from light.”

Mathewes-Green puts it this way:

God came down in a suit of skin and bones, and walked and talked and offended people, and finally they tortured him to death. And by that death he destroyed death; he rescued us and gave life everlasting and every other good thing. Into this universe crammed with pain we say that God came down, because he loves us with the kind of love that we can only understand by thinking of how a parent loves. (Patheos)

In an Advent meditation offered earlier this week, Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminded us that parental love and every act of kindness is an action of the body. He wrote: “The Spirit of God animates us, but it all happens in the flesh: every deed of kindness, every act of generosity, every word of encouragement happens in the flesh. Every embodiment of Christ’s grace or truth or love happens in the flesh – or it doesn’t happen.”

Tonight, tomorrow, as we celebrate the Word becoming flesh, we celebrate that bodily parental love . . . the love of mother and father tending their newborn child; the eternal love of the Father sending the Son to redeem us. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary, we celebrate also the truth we recite every Sunday (and this evening) in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father . . .
(BCP 1979, Pg 358)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem once for all time; the Son of God is eternally begotten of the Father and both, as we say in the Creed, for our salvation.

lambchop2Which brings me to the fourth and last bit of poetry our Christmas Lamb Chop brought to mind, which is a song Lamb Chop and Shari Lewis taught their viewers during the 1992 season of the PBS show Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. Some of you may know the song and can sing along:

This is the song that doesn’t end
Yes, it goes on and on my friends
Some people started singing it
Not knowing what it was
And they’ll continue singing it
Forever just because . . .
(Repeat)

There is a contemporary Christmas carol by Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn entitled The Cry of a Tiny Babe which expresses the timelessness and eternality of Jesus’ birth in its refrain:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
(Cry of a Tiny Baby YouTube)

In the last book of the bible, St. John of Patmos recorded his many visions, the last of which was of the Lamb:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. * * * Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 21:22-26,22:3-5)

Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that salvation is a song that doesn’t end, that “redemption rips through the surface of time,” and that our Christmas carols are but a faint echo of the multitude’s song of worship before the throne of the Lamb for ever and ever. Mary had a little lamb, the Lamb of God, the Word made flesh through Whom all things were made, Who came down for our salvation, and Whose song of redemption doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friends.

Merry Christmas!

====================

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

Crossing Borders: A New Passport – Sermon for Christmas Eve, 24 December 2015

====================

A sermon offered on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-20. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

identitycards

Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold
While bones and sinew, blood and cell,
go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed,
Christmas is waiting to be born
In you, in me, in all mankind.
(Howard Thurman, Christmas is Waiting to be Born in The Mood of Christmas, Friends United Press, Richmond, IN:1985, p 21)

As many of you know, I have a tradition of keeping my eye open, while doing my Christmas shopping, for something on a store shelf to use as a physical illustration for this annual event, this sermon on the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Over the years, these illustrative objects have included a pair of Christmas stockings, a Christmas banner with the greeting misspelled, a stuffed frog wearing a Santa hat, and last year’s mechanical dancing dachshund. Finding and using the annual “focus object” has become a source of great fun for me and I hope for the congregations who’ve been subjected to my preaching. This year, however, nothing on the shelves spoke to me.

Maybe that’s because I really didn’t do much in the way of Christmas shopping; I did a lot of driving around but not much buying. And while I drove, I listened (as I usually do in my car) to what’s called “talk radio.” This year, the talk was all about refugees, with some commentators claiming it’s too easy to get into this country and some claiming it’s too hard, and all of them describing the process of “vetting” or doing background checks on immigrants. It made me think of my great-great-grandfather, who came to this country a refugee from the township lands of Donegal in the northern part of Ireland during “an Gorta Mor,” the Great Hunger, the so-called Irish potato famine. He came without a single document, with no proof of identity; he got off a ship in the port of New Orleans, made his way up the Mississippi River, settled in sourthern Indiana, married a German girl, and started the family from whence I came, but left no documentary evidence of any of that. He couldn’t have been “vetted” at all.

This is also the time of year, Christmas always is, when the religious press is filled with articles either claiming that the historical existence of Jesus can’t be proved, or answering claims that the historical existence of Jesus can’t be proved. And everyone agrees that there are very few mentions of Jesus outside of the bible; maybe one in a Roman criminal record and one that amounts to little more than a dismissive footnote in a work by the historian Flavius Josephus. Again, I was reminded of my great-great-grandfather. I know quite a bit about John Henry Funston, but I can’t document any of it. Believe me, I’ve tried! If I were asked to prove his existence from public records, I couldn’t do it. Nonetheless, I know he existed; I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t. I know that Jesus existed; we wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t.

So as I was doing what little shopping I did, listening to talk about “vetting” refugees and contemplating the historical evidence of Jesus (or the lack of thereof), I did finally identify a focus object for tonight . . . or I should say a “focus category” . . . these – my identity papers. My driver’s license, my passport, my bank card, my membership cards for the Bar and various fraternal organizations. You, I’m sure, have a wallet (and perhaps a file or a strong box at home) full of similar papers. Vetting us, proving our existence, moving from place to place, gaining admission to special places, crossing borders from state to state or country to country . . . all these things are easy for us. We have these identity papers.

These papers, especially our driver’s licenses and passports, allow us to do what the refugees cannot, what my great-great-grandfather who had no papers could not do today, what Mary and Joseph could not do today . . . to cross borders and move freely from place to place. And these papers give us a lens through which to appreciate, in a new way, the meaning of Christmas which, once again in our time, “is waiting to be born in you, in me, in all [humankind].”

We heard this evening only a part of the Christmas story – we all know that there is a larger context, more to tell. This is a story that began nine months earlier when the Angel Gabriel surprised a young, teenage girl in the town of Nazareth with the invitation to be the bearer of God’s Child; this is a story that will not end, ever. The angel crossed the border between heaven and earth to make his announcement to Mary, and that set in motion a series of border crossings that is still going on:

  • between the divine and the human when Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived
  • between law and grace when Joseph, who could have canceled their engagement and even had her killed, accepted her pregnancy and his fostering of the Child
  • between the tetrarchy of Samaria and Galilee and that of Judea as the Holy Couple made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem
  • between the Holy Land and countries to the East (and possibly the North and South) when the Magi came to pay homage
  • between Judea and Egypt when the Holy Family became refugees escaping Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and then back again when they returned
  • between Gentile and Jew when Jesus healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter in the region of Tyre, when he spoke with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and when he healed the Roman Centurion’s servant
  • between life and death when Christ was crucified and died, when he was buried, and when rose again
  • between earth and heaven again, between human and divine again when he ascended in the sight of his disciples
  • between the bondage of sin and the freedom of risen life in the Redeemer when you and I were baptized

Borders crossed, barriers removed, reconciliation accomplished.

A couple of years ago a rabbi named Irwin Kula wrote an essay entitled Crossing Borders: Jews and Christmas in America. In it he commented

The majority of Americans, including more than 80 percent of those less than 30 years of age, accept marriage across all types of boundaries, including ethnic and racial. We are creating identities and webs of relationships that do not fit our inherited boxes and labels. And so the fixed ways of dividing “us” and “them” are breaking down and not surprisingly people deeply committed to their own groups and creeds are worried.

***

At their best, our ancient religious traditions know this, which is why they all teach we are one global family . . . .

There are no roadmaps, which, paradoxically is the hallmark of a genuine spiritual journey. But the more people love each other, the more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships, and the more we learn the best of each others insights and wisdom, the more discerning we will be about what we need to bring along with us from our traditions to help create a better world in this next era. (The Wisdom Daily)

Rabbi Kula hits the nail squarely on the head when he speaks of “creating identities and webs of relationship that do not fit inherited boxes.” In the Birth of Jesus, in the life of Jesus, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in our baptism into his never-ending story, the Holy Spirit creates in us new identities and new webs of relationship. We are no longer defined by our driver’s licenses, our credit cards, our passports, and all the rest. Christmas gives us new papers, a new passport!

Christmas is, for those who wish to follow the way of Jesus, an invitation to accept a new identity. For us who live comfortable and safe lives, it is an invitation to become the inn-keeper in the story; to open the way for those who, like Mary and Joseph, come from far away, who seem ragged, marginal, or in transition. They may come from the desert wilderness of Syria or from the rain forests of Central America, but they may also come from the streets of Detroit or Cleveland, or from the wasteland of addiction, the outback of unemployment, the deep darkness of depression and mental illness. They may even be members of our own families:

This is how God finds us, at this very dark time of the year, the winter solstice, when the daylight hours have shrunk to their minimal light. He comes knocking at the door, looking for a haven, for a place to rest and recover. (CNN editorial by Jay Parini)

He comes again, as he comes every Christmas, as he comes every day, seeking to cross the borders, the boundaries, the barriers of our lives, asking us to “strive for justice and peace,” to respect the dignity of every human being,” to welcome again the Babe of Bethlehem who is born in all persons and all times. “Every year at Christmas, he comes to us as a child on the run with his impoverished and terrified parents. He knocks at the door of our house and our hearts. And we let him in – or we turn him away.” (Jay Parini)

Christmas is also an invitation to remember that, as St. Paul put it in his letter to the church in Ephesus, we were all once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But through the Incarnation of Christ, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall” and “created in himself one new humanity,” so that none of us are any “longer strangers and aliens, but . . . citizens with the saints and . . . members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2: 12-19) In the birth of Jesus, in the life of Jesus, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in our baptism into his story, we have a new identity, a new passport.

The voice of the angels to shepherds on the first Christmas Eve proclaimed God’s promise of peace, of borders crossed and barriers breached, not only in First Century Judea, and not only in the future nor only in heaven, but right here on earth today, if we will but live into the Christmas invitation, into our new identity. Last week, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, offered a meditation in which he said that Christmas invites us to take the risk of reaching out to the other and “see[ing] what happens. As Christians we are called to be people who take that first step, who take the risk of kindness because we believe the other person is a gift to us from God, just as we can be a gift to them.” (Facebook Status, 4th Sunday of Advent)

Striking a similar note, the Quaker philosopher Parker Palmer just yesterday offered a reflection reminding us that we are

called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, [we are] asked to embody [our] values and beliefs, [our] identity and integrity, asked to allow good words to take flesh in [us]. Constrained by fear, [we] often fall short. And yet [we] still aspire to walk [our] heart-and-soul talk, however imperfectly. – Christmas is a reminder that [we are] invited to be born time and again in the shape of [our] God-given self – which means embracing the vulnerability of the Christmas story. (On Being)

Christmas is a reminder and an invitation. Christmas is the passport we receive at our baptism empowering us to cross the borders.

I began this sermon with a meditation entitled Christmas Is Waiting to Be Born by the great African-American theologian Howard Thurman from his book The Mood of Christmas. I’d like to close with another from the same book:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
(The Mood of Christmas, p 32)

May Christmas be born in us, and may the Birth of Jesus empower us to cross the borders, to breach the barriers, to overcome the boundaries, and to do the work of Christmas: to “see and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbors as [ourselves].” Amen.

====================

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!

====================

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

The Great Dance with the Christ-about-to-be-Born: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2014

====================

A sermon offered, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Dachshund Plush ToyTonight we gather once again to celebrate a memory, the memory of the birth of Christ, the Christ who is about to be born again as he is every year. We don’t really know if he was born at this time of the year; in fact, most scholars agree he wasn’t. But that doesn’t matter. It isn’t the date that we celebrate; it is his birth, then and in our lives each time we remember.

I have mentioned in this pulpit before my memory of a childhood incident in which my brother, clothed in a cowboy outfit he’d received at Christmas, wondered in a neighborhood bar and, when told that the bar did not serve minors, retorted “I’m not a miner; I’m a cowboy!”

I remember that incident as if it was yesterday. I can see that set of cowboy clothes. I know the bar where it occurred. That memory is as clear as clear can be.

But here’s the weird thing about that memory: That incident happened four years before I was born.

I think probably everyone has memories like that, constructed memories, memories which are ours, but are of events which we did not experience; that’s what it is to be a part of a family, of a community. We share the collective memories of the group and make them our own. Celebrating the Nativity each year at this time is like that, a memory and a future we have made our own because we are part of God’s family.

My first real personal memory is also a Christmas memory. The Christmas I was three years old I got a puppy, a dachshund puppy my father named “Baron.” Baron was probably about ten weeks old and what a mess he made of our Christmas! We had Baron for five years, but when my father passed away and my mother decided that we would move to southern California, Baron had to be given away. Still, one always remembers one’s first dog!

So imagine how delighted I was a few days before Thanksgiving when Evelyn and I went shopping at Aldi and I found this! [Holds up stuffed plush toy dachshund dressed in green Christmas attire] A Christmas dachshund! Like a visit from my first Christmas dog. And imagine my further delight when I squeezed his foot and discovered that he plays this Christmas classic:

[Toy plays truncated version of C+C Music Factory’s Everybody Dance Now]

Everybody dance now
Da da da, Da!
Da da da, Da!
Dance till you can’t dance
Till you can’t dance no more
Get on the floor and get warm
Then come back and upside down
Easy now, let me see ya
Move
(Let your mind)
Move
(Put me online)
The music is my life

Okay, so maybe it’s not so much a Christmas classic . . . . But it did remind me of the Great Dance, a classic metaphor for the actions of God, and how that metaphor can help us to understand and enter into the joy of the God’s Incarnation in the Christ-about-to-be-Born.

This is nothing new, of course; the old Cornish Christmas carol portrays the birth of Christ as an invitation to the Dance.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

The metaphor of the Great Dance portrays the cosmos as rhythmic, trustingly and lovingly attuned to and following the lead of its Creator. The concept of the Great Dance is found throughout human cultures and predates Christianity. It is found in Plato who wrote, “The dance, of all the arts, is the one that most influences the soul. Dancing is divine in its nature and is the gift of the gods.” The Roman poet Lucian wrote of the dance of the heavenly bodies which came into existence at creation. The Hindu God Shiva is called “Lord of the Dance,” and his eternal dance creates, destroys, and recreates all things. The spiritual practices of many tribal cultures involve communal dance. King David, the Second Book of Samuel tells us, “danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14) as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. The last of psalms enjoins us to dance:

Praise [God] with the blast of the ram’s-horn; *
praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance . . . .
(Ps 150:3-4a, BCP Version)

In his book To a Dancing God, theologian Sam Keen, wrote that human flesh “has a natural sense of the sacred.” (Harper & Row, 1970, pg 153) When human flesh dances it joins in patterns and takes on memories and dreams of a future that are not originally its own.

Are you a dancer? Do you and your beloved enjoy a turn on the dance floor from time to time? Do you remember what it was like when you were first learning to dance? Tentatively and awkwardly you took your position on the floor, shuffling your feet not knowing where to put them, raising your arms, hands trembling, feeling like an idiot. Where do your hands go? Where do your feet go? Which way should you look? At first, this strange position with arms outstretched in an awkward formal embrace of your partner, your feet oddly placed on the floor, is a position of vulnerability and humility. But eventually, whatever the form you may have been learning – foxtrot, two-step, waltz, tango, whatever it may have been – eventually you learned it; your body learned it; your body with its “natural sense of the sacred” becomes a part of the Great Dance, remembers the steps and moves that were not originally your own.

Those of you who know me well know that for relaxation I like to read science fiction. It was through science fiction that I was introduced to the great Anglican apologist Clive Staples Lewis. Most people become familiar with Lewis because of the Narnia stories and then move on to read The Screwtape Letters and then possibly Lewis’s Christian apologetics such as Mere Christianity or his memoir Surprised by Joy. My first encounter with Lewis was his science fiction trilogy and in that work was where I first read about the Great Dance.

The story of the trilogy centers on an Oxford Don named Elwin Ransom who, in the first book entitled Out of the Silent Planet, voyages to Mars and discovers that Earth is exiled from the rest of the solar system. Ransom learns of and meets angelic beings called eldila who oversee the solar system on behalf of the Creator (who is called “the Old One”). One of these eldila, a being known as the Bent Oyarsa, has turned (as modern Hollywood would put it) “to the Dark Side” and taken control of earth. In the second book, entitled Perelandra, Ransom journeys to Venus. Near the end of the book, Ransom is shown the Great Dance by the eldila. At first, they describe it to him and then he begins to experience it for himself. This is the way Lewis tells it: one of the eldila says to Ransom –

The Great Dance does not wait to be perfect . . . . We speak not of when it will begin. It has begun from before always. There was no time when we did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance which we dance is at the centre and for the dance all things were made.

Others of the eldila speak of the Dance and then Ransom begins to see it for himself. Lewis describes it this way:

And now, by a transition which he did not notice, it seemed that what had begun as speech was turned into sight, or into something that can be remembered only as if it were seeing. He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity – only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated. He could see also (but the word ‘seeing’ is now plainly inadequate) wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells – peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilisations, arts, sciences, and the like – ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished. The ribbons or cords themselves, in which millions of corpuscles lived and died, were things of some different kind. At first he could not say what: But he knew in the end that most of them were individual entities. If so, the time in which the Great Dance proceeds is very unlike time as we know it. Some of the thinner more delicate cords were beings that we call short-lived: flowers and insects, a fruit or a storm of rain, and once (he thought) a wave of the sea. Others were such things as we also think lasting: crystals, rivers, mountains, or even stars. Far above these in girth and luminosity and flashing with colours from beyond our spectrum were the lines of the personal beings, yet as different from one another in splendour as all of them from the previous class. But not all the cords were individuals: some were universal truths or universal qualities. It did not surprise him then to find that these and the persons were both cords and both stood together as against the mere atoms of generality which live and died in the clashing of their streams: but afterwards, when he came back to earth, he wondered. And by now the thing must have passed together out of the region of sight as we understand it. For he says that the whole solid figure of these enamoured and inter-inanimated circlings was suddenly revealed as the mere superficies of a far vaster pattern in four dimensions, and that figure as the boundary of yet others in other worlds: till suddenly as the movement grew yet swifter, the interweaving yet more ecstatic, the relevance of all to all yet more intense, as dimension was added to dimension and that part of him which could reason and remember was dropped farther and farther behind that part of him which saw, even then, at the very zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard blue burning of the sky, and simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable, pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. He went up into such quietness, a privacy, and a freshness that at the very moment when he stood farthest from our ordinary mode of being he had the sense of stripping off encumbrances and awaking from trance, and coming to himself. (Lewis, C.S., Perelandra, Scribner:NYC, 2003, pp. 183-88)

This, then, is the Dance into which the Christ-to-be-Born invites us.

In a book of the Christian apocrypha called The Acts of St. John, we are told that after the Last Supper Jesus came down from the table and danced a ring dance with his twelve disciples. The picture here is of the disciples united with their Rabbi in the mystery of atonement. Sounding through the dance is the voice of Christ, the Logos, the original Word that was there at the beginning, that came to dwell among us, that will be there at the end, imparting the essence of divine mystery through the Great Dance described so brilliantly by Lewis.

Perhaps because of that dance scene in The Acts of St. John, Christian writers, musicians and poets have repeatedly used the image of the dance. Theologians use the Greek word perichoresis, which means “dancing around,” to describe the way in which the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity relate one to another. In the Trinity’s dance, “each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. [This] creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.” (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Penguin: New York, 2009, p. 215) Creation is a dance with the inner life of the Trinity written all through it and the Christ-about-to-be-Born invites us to join the dance, to share the memories and dreams of God, to be part of the family of God.

Early Fathers of the Church often commented on the dance as a means of worship and of linking the faithful to the angels and blessed souls in Paradise. The Fourth Century bishop, St. Basil of Caesarea wrote, “Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth the ring-dance of the angels . . . . ?” And, although the attribution may be spurious, there is a poem in praise of the dance credited to St. Augustine of Hippo:

I praise the dance,
for it frees people from the heaviness of matter
and binds the isolated to community.
I praise the dance,
which demands everything:
health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.
Dance is a transformation of space,
of time,
of people,
who are in constant danger
of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.
Dancing demands a whole person,
one who is firmly anchored in the center of his life,
who is not obsessed by lust for people and things
and the demon of isolation in his own ego.
Dancing demands a freed person,
one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers.
I praise the dance.
O man, learn to dance,
or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.

“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” sings the Christ-about-to-be-Born in the old Cornish Christmas carol. In a more contemporary song many of you will know, the Christ-about-to-be-Born says:

I danced in the morning when the world was begun.
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.
I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth;
At Bethlehem, I had my birth.
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
For I am the lord of the dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be;
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
(Lord of the Dance by Sydney Carter)

The Christ-about-to-be-Born invites us to join the Great Dance, to share the memories and dreams of God and to be part of the family of God.

Or as Baron the Christmas Puppy would put it [sings]

“Everybody dance now! A-a-a-a-men! A-a-a-a-men! A-a-a-a-men!”

====================

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!

====================

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

What’s the Point? – Sermon for Midnight Mass, Christmas Eve – December 24, 2013

====================

This sermon was preached at Christmas Eve Midnight Mass, December 24, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Christmas II: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; and Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Charlie Brown Christmas DollA few weeks ago, I was shopping at Giant Eagle and I wondered down the seasonal products aisle, which had been rapidly cycling through Halloween, then Thanksgiving, and now Christmas. On one shelf, I spotted something that pulled me up short; I had to have it and I knew that it would influence my Christmas Eve sermon. It was this Charlie Brown Christmas doll.

That same day, a ministry colleague who runs a tongue-in-cheek Facebook group entitled “The Society for the Prevention of Tacky Vestments” posted a picture of a clergy stole — this one — covered with pictures of the Peanuts gang opening presents around a Christmas tree. I knew I had to have it! I asked her where she’d found it and she directed me to an eBay page where I ordered it. It is truly tacky! It’s got all the wrong colors — it’s mostly red, the color of martyrdom — and sends all the wrong messages — it’s crassly commercial; it’s all about the worst of the secular observance of Christmas; it’s got nothing religious on it at all. (It made me sort of wonder: if your Christmas fabric has nothing about Jesus on it, what’s the point of making a stole out of it?) Nonetheless, I had to have it and I knew that, together with Charlie Brown here, it would influence this Christmas Eve sermon. Let me tell you why . . . .

When I was seven years old, about a month or so into the first semester of Second Grade, my mother decided that we (she and I) would take an extended Thanksgiving-through-Christmas holiday with her parents in Long Beach, California. At the time, we were still living in my hometown, Las Vegas, Nevada. My father had died a year and a half before; my older brother was living with our other grandparents in Kansas. So, it was just the two of us.

I guess she had made arrangements with her employer to take an extended leave, and with my school because I was going to have to do reading and arithmetic assignments while we were gone, but that was OK with me. At least I wouldn’t have to go to school and endure the daily routine with Mrs. Dougherty!

So for a little more than a month encompassing those two major holidays, we shared my grandparents’ second floor walk-up a block from the beach and the Nu-Pike amusement park in Long Beach. On the ground floor of the building where they lived were two businesses: a dentist’s office and my grandfather’s barbershop. For some reason, the barbershop was closed! My grandfather had packed up his tools (they were now in a case in the front hall closet of the apartment) and put the business up for sale.

I was later to learn that he had done so because he was suffering with late-stage colon cancer; he was struggling to wrap up his affairs and make sure my grandmother would be provided for after his anticipated death, which came just a few months later in March of the next year. What was an extended holiday vacation for me, was anything but for my mother. She was there to spend a last Christmas with her father, and to help him deal with all the messy reality at the end of human life.

Sometime during the week before Christmas, my grandmother and my mother went off to do some shopping, and my grandfather got it into his head that my hair was too long. (I had hair in those days and it was sort of longish.) So he set a stool in the bathtub, told me to sit on it, draped me with one of his barber’s capes, got his tools from the front hall closet, and went to work. The reason he could no longer barber became painfully obvious as the haircut progressed.

He suffered from recurrent stabbing gut pain because of the cancer, and while he was cutting my hair one of these occurred. He flinched and made a mis-cut with his electric barber sheers. He didn’t cut me, but he did shave a 2-inch stripe up the back of my neck and across the top of my head! There was nothing to be done for it but to shave the rest of my head . . . . so that I ended up looking pretty much the way I look now, without the beard, of course.

A few days later, my brother joined us for the holidays and his first words on seeing me were, “You look just like Charlie Brown!” referring to this character from the Peanuts comic strip which had been our late father’s favorite. For the rest of that holiday week, that’s what he (and everyone else) called me.

Eventually my hair grew back and the haircut was forgotten. But that name stuck, and for the rest of my childhood and youth, my family nickname was “Charlie Brown.” So when I saw these Peanuts-related Christmas things, I knew I had to have them; and I knew that I would preach about them tonight.

The Peanuts franchise proved to be even more durable than my nickname. In 1965 it was the source of one of the most memorable and still best-loved Christmas specials on TV, A Charlie Brown Christmas; in fact, it was rebroadcast by ABC just last Thursday. 48 years after its debut and 13 years after the death of its creator, Charles Schulz, that cartoon Christmas special continues to touch hearts. In part because of its endurance, TV Guide has ranked Peanuts as the 4th greatest television cartoon of all time. (The top three are The Simpsons, The Flintstones, and the original Looney Toons series.)

If you’ve seen the Peanuts Christmas special, you know that there is a point in the story — which revolves around the kids putting on a Christmas play with a subplot involving Charlie Brown’s forlorn-looking little Christmas tree — there is a point in the story when Charlie cries out, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus replies, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about,” and walks out onto the stage where the play is to be performed. He calls for a spot light, and then begins to recite St. Luke’s nativity narrative, the same Gospel story we just heard. He ends with the message of the angels, “Glory to God in the highest and, on earth, peace, goodwill towards men.” As he walks back over to Charlie Brown, he says, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

David Michaelis, in his biography of Charles Schulz entitled Schulz and Peanuts, tells the story behind this. During development meetings early in the production of the special, Schulz “proudly announced” that there would be “one whole minute” of Linus reciting the Gospel. The producer, Bill Melendez, tried to talk him out of it. But Schulz, who was an active “lay preacher” in the Church of God, insisted, “We can’t avoid it — we have to get the passage of St. Luke in there somehow. Bill, if we don’t do it, who will?” Schulz was asking, as I had asked about my Peanuts-inspired stole, “If Jesus isn’t in Christmas, what’s the point?”

Peanuts StoleAnd it seems to me that that question, raised by Peanuts and Charlie Brown, by this doll and that special, by this silly stole that I will never wear again, is one we really need to think about: If Jesus isn’t in Christmas, what’s the point?

Now, I’m not a proponent of the nonsense that Bill O’Reilly and others put out about some mythical “war on Christmas.” There isn’t one. A war on Christmas might actually be a good thing: the history of the church throughout the world, from its founding by the Apostles to the present day, demonstrates that where the church is actively persecuted, where there is a war against the church and its message, the faith is strong and grows. The 2nd Century Church Father Tertullian wrote that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” A real war on Christmas would be a good thing! But there isn’t one.

What there is, I think, is not so much a war on Christmas, as an indifference towards Jesus! There’s plenty of holiday music on the radio and in the stores, but precious little of it mentions Jesus! There are yard displays galore, although there are a lot more Santas, Frosties, Grinches, and elves than baby Jesuses and Holy Families! There are scores of people attending parties, concerts, and special programs, many more at those venues then there are in churches like this. The winter solstice is being celebrated all over the place and the world around us is calling it “Christmas,” while exhibiting a gross indifference to Jesus . . . but if Jesus isn’t in Christmas, what’s the point?

Christmas, as Linus told Charlie Brown and reminded us, ought to be about Jesus being born in a stable in Bethlehem. Born there because the emperor had declared a census, a crucial element in the Roman empire’s system of taxation. In the ancient world, taxes were profoundly oppressive, especially in an economic system filled, as our own increasingly is, with individuals living at the very edge of survival. In a world full of working poor with very little to spare, the insatiable appetites of Roman military might and power, like the insatiable appetites of today’s government-subsidized corporations, cost ordinary people a great deal.

From his very first breath, Jesus’ life was shaped by oppressive power. His very existence was threatened by distant rulers, by Herod who would try to kill him as an infant, and by the Roman empire which would one day work his death, a death he would conquer and in conquering give meaning to his birth and his life.

In a very real sense, Jesus was born homeless. If Jesus were to be born today, he would likely be found in a tent city, under a turnpike overpass, in a city-center shelter, not in the safety of a maternity ward. If Jesus were to be born today, he would be found among those who suffer most but hope for much better, with those who rely on the kindness of strangers, on the goodness of the society around them to survive.

Jesus’ birth, as Linus told Charlie Brown and reminded us, was announced to shepherds. The announcement did not ring in the throne room of Caesar, nor that of Herod, nor even in the city council chambers of Bethlehem. The good news was first heard by powerless, anonymous people in a dirty camp watching their sheep and yearning for something better.

The world around us is indifferent to these realities of Jesus’ birth. The world around us, filled with those who are desperately poor, encourages us to ignore them, to make merry with an abundance of glitz and glamor rather than exhibit a generosity of spirit. The world around us, filled with those who have nowhere to live, encourages us to disregard them, to celebrate consumption and excess rather than the sufficiency of family and faith. The world around us, filled with powerless people whose lives are a mess, encourages to take no notice, to revel in plastic perfection instead of the complicated, beautiful reality of untidy human life.

Sunday evening our Church School children performed their annual Christmas pageant. It was fun and funny. It was lovely and it was sweet. The kids did a good job and everyone had a good time, but as I watched it I was struck by how little of Jesus there was in it. In fact, when it was all over, one of the parents in the audience asked, “But where’s Jesus?” Joseph (who was a 15-year-old boy who stands about 6′ 3″) held up a small doll which had been tucked away out of sight in an over-sized manger crib. It was a funny moment, but it underscored our question: If Jesus isn’t in Christmas, what’s the point?

In Linus’s brief one-minute of Gospel recited in the middle of what was otherwise a cute children’s Christmas cartoon, the Peanuts Christmas special reminded us that Jesus is in Christmas and that at its core Christmas is not a holiday for children! The secular celebration of the winter solstice with its parties, with its gift giving (and receiving), with its glitz and glamor and plastic perfection — that is a holiday for children and for those who act like children. But the commemoration of the poor, homeless, messy birth of Jesus, given meaning by his poor, homeless, messy death, redeemed by his glorious and life-affirming resurrection, this Christmas is a holy day for grown-ups!

A little more than a decade ago, a priest of our church named Fleming Rutledge suggested that the idea that Christmas is entirely for children encourages spiritual immaturity. She wrote:

In these stress-filled times, virtually all of us, as we get older, will seek relief by visiting, in our imaginations, a childhood Christmas of impossible perfection. These longings are powerful and can easily deceive us into grasping for a new toy, new car, new house, new spouse to fill up the empty spaces where unconventional love belongs. Our longings are powerful, our needs bottomless, our cravings insatiable, our follies numberless. For those who cannot or will not look deeply into the human condition, sentiment and nostalgia can masquerade as strategies for coping quite successfully for a while — but because it is all based on illusion and unreality, it cannot be a lasting foundation for generations to come. (For Grown-Ups)

In other words, if Jesus isn’t in Christmas, what’s the point?

In the 4th Century, St. Augustine of Hippo wrote a prayer in his autobiographical Confessions. “You,” he wrote to God, “have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” If we are honest, we all have that deep longing — that sense of something missing in our lives. It comes with maturity and is a sort of nagging feeling that something about us is incomplete. We grown-ups, unlike children, are consciously aware of how fragile life is; we know how limited and unfinished we are. We know that if Jesus isn’t in Christmas, there is no point!

Samuel Wells, the dean of the chapel at Duke University, wrote an article a few years ago about his experience attending a Christmas pageant at a church in Delhi, India, where the parts were all played by adults. (Christmas Is Really for the Grown-Ups) His initial reaction, he said, was to be flabbergasted: “Everyone knows the unique charm of Christmas is lost if adults take it too seriously. I sat there in Delhi and thought, Don’t these people realize that Christmas is really for the children?” (Emphasis his.) But as the play went on his perception changed: “[W]hen you see a nativity play performed by adults in a country like India, . . . you see for a start that Christmas is about suffering people.”

“This is a story,” he wrote, “about political oppression, harsh taxes, displaced people, homelessness, unemployment, vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers. That’s the danger of performing it in a place like Delhi and having it acted out by adults who themselves know the very real possibility of any or all of these realities. We might have to recognize what it’s really about.”

And there’s more. Making note of the biblical account of Elizabeth’s barrenness, Mary’s unplanned pregnancy, Joseph’s confusion and possible humiliation, Wells comments, “The Christmas story’s teeming with personal grief, unresolved longings, uncomfortable secrets, shabby compromises, intense fears, social humiliation, and aching hurts.”

“When you sit in a market square in Delhi and see adults performing the Christmas story in an open-air nativity play. . . . . You see that Christmas is about people struggling, not just politically, but personally. Everywhere you look in the Christmas story you see people clinging on with their fingertips to life, to sanity, to respectability, to hope.”

Then Wells considers the wise men scanning the heavens and making their pilgrimage to Bethlehem; he points to the shepherds shivering on the hillside and, later, to Anna and Simeon waiting in the Temple. “When you see adults performing a nativity play, not for their grandparents’ camera-shots but in order genuinely to inhabit the story and make it their own, you see people not just suffering, not just struggling, but also searching. . . . . The nativity story is full of people searching, people yearning, people wanting to believe there’s more than just appearances and surviving and making a living and staying cheerful.”

When we consider the Christmas narrative as a story for adults, says Wells, it “encourage[s] us to name and explore the edges of our own faith, and commitments, and convictions, and questions.” Christmas as a story for grown ups encourages us to get in touch with the suffering in the story, the discrimination in our own culture, the political oppression in our own world. Christmas encourages us as adults to get in touch with the struggling in the story, the disappointment, distress, and despair in the lives of the Holy Family, the wise men, the shepherds, and all the others, and to recognize their struggle in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. Christmas encourages us grown-ups to get in touch with the searching in the story, with the nagging incompleteness of human life, the unresolved questions of faith, the yearning of people aching for truth, longing for meaning, waiting for hope, reaching out for God.

The adults acting out the Nativity play in India and the Peanuts gang (especially Linus) putting on their Christmas pageant in the television special both underscore the importance of our question: if Jesus isn’t in Christmas, what’s the point?

Christmas is not a holiday entirely for children, but it is a holiday entirely about a Child, the child Jesus who is God Incarnate, the Son of God who chose to become as limited, as fragile, as human as we are.

Charlie Brown’s question, “What’s it all about?” is our question, and Jesus, the Child born in the stable, is our answer. Our lives, with all their nagging incompleteness, are in the hands of a God who became human, who was born poor and homeless, who joined us in all the messiness of human life. The God who comforts us and lifts us up when we can’t lift ourselves up became Jesus, the Child born in a stable and laid in a manger, an infant who could not lift himself up, who needed to be comforted and lifted up by others, and thus inspires us to comfort and lift up others — the ones he would call members of his family: the poor, the homeless, the suffering, the struggling, the searching, the ones who live in the messiness and incompleteness of our world.

Without Jesus in Christmas, there is no point, because Jesus is the point! In the end Jesus is the good news of Christmas: that God, made fully known in Jesus, is with us, in all our suffering, in all our struggling, in all our searching, in all the messy incomplete reality of grown-up human existence.

Linus answering Charlie Brown by reciting that one-minute of Gospel in the middle of what is otherwise simply a cute children’s Christmas cartoon reminds us that Christmas really isn’t for children. It’s for adults.

It’s for you.

====================

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!

====================

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

Honor Upon the Lawgiver – From the Daily Office – July 4, 2013

From the Book of Sirach:

A wise magistrate educates his people,
and the rule of an intelligent person is well ordered.
As the people’s judge is, so are his officials;
as the ruler of the city is, so are all its inhabitants.
An undisciplined king ruins his people,
but a city becomes fit to live in through the understanding of its rulers.
The government of the earth is in the hand of the Lord,
and over it he will raise up the right leader for the time.
Human success is in the hand of the Lord,
and it is he who confers honor upon the lawgiver.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 10:1-5 (NRSV) – July 4, 2013.)

American FlagIndependence Day is one of the few secular holidays to have lessons of its own in both the Eucharistic and Daily Office Lectionaries of the Episcopal Church. There is a set of lessons in the regular Daily Office schedule of readings for today, as well, and I am intrigued that the way the calendar falls this year the Gospel for that set is the unjust trial of Jesus. One could meditate for hours on the meaning to be drawn from that juxtaposition.

However, the reading from the apocryphal book The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach (a book also called “Ecclesiasticus”) has caught my attention because of a recent (and unfortunately repeated) incident at my church. The lines of particular import are: “As the ruler of the city is, so are all its inhabitants;” and “It is [God] who confers honor upon the lawgiver.”

In every form of the Prayers of the People in the American Book of Common Prayer (1979) there is a petition included for our civil leaders. According to the rubric in the service of Holy Communion (page 359 of the BCP), we are bidden to pray for “the Nation and all in authority.” At my church, we do so by name, listing our president, state governor, and city mayor, and conclude with a general petition for other elected legislators, judges, and executive department officials.

At my church, as well, we share leadership of the prayers. A single person reads the major biddings of the various forms, but additional petitions are read by members of the congregation. As worshipers arrive, our ushers and greeters ask if they would like to read a sentence or two of additional intercessions. Most readily agree.

However, from time to time someone will decline to do so and occasionally someone will specifically (and sometimes venomously) refuse to read the petition naming the president. This has only happened since the election of the current incumbent. My heart sinks when I hear these refusals or when I am told about them later. It’s an indication of how poorly I have taught the Christian ethos to this congregation.

“As the ruler of the city is, so are all its inhabitants.” If Jesus ben Sirach is correct, then we should very definitely be praying for our rulers and leaders, for they set the example and the tone for the entire populace. And yet people decline to do so . . . .

My parish is dedicated to St. Paul, the writer of most of the New Testament, and Paul was very clear on the duty Christian folk have with respect to secular authorities and civic leaders. He wrote to the young bishop, Titus of Crete, instructing him to teach his congregation to respect civil rulers:

Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:1-5)

He wrote to the Romans in a similar vein:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. (Romans 13:1-6)

And with regard to praying for our secular leadership, he was very clear in his instructions to another young bishop, Timothy of Ephesus:

First of all, then, 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. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-4)

I quite understand disliking secular authorities; I don’t understand disliking one so much that we refuse to follow the clear mandate of Holy Scripture and the tradition of our church! Anyone who has ever had even the shortest political conversation with me knows that, in my opinion, George W. Bush was the worst president in U.S. history. Nonetheless, every day of his eight years in office I prayed for him by name, twice a day. (I even pray for the vice-president by name and during those years that was an even more difficult thing to do!) I prayed for Bill Clinton even though his sexual pecadillo with Monica Lewinsky was more than a little off-putting. I pray for Barack Obama even though I am very disappointed with many aspects of his performance as president.

The point is that my prayers have nothing to do with my personal dislike or approval of any of these politicians. My prayers have nothing to do with them at all! My prayers have everything to do with me and my discipline as a follower of Jesus Christ. I am pretty sure that Jesus had some personal problem with the political authorities of his day, with Caiaphas the High Priest, with Herod the Tetrarch, with Pilate the Roman governor, and yet he prayed for them: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) As a disciple of Christ, I can do no less than to pray for the civil authorities in power over me!

“As the ruler of the city is, so are all its inhabitants.” If Jesus ben Sirach is correct, and I think he is, our prayer for our leaders is a prayer for ourselves. Any prayer is, in truth, a prayer for ourselves. We do not pray to bring to God’s attention something God has overlooked, nor do we pray to change God’s mind about something, to get God to do what we want. We pray to conform our wills to God’s Will; we pray that we might have what Paul called “the mind of Christ.” (1 Cor. 2:16) We pray that we might be like him who, on the cross, prayed for the civil authorities who hung him there.

On this day especially, let us pray for the Nation and all in authority; let us pray for them by name! For “human success is in the hand of the Lord, and it is he who confers honor upon the lawgiver.”

====================

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!

====================

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

It’s Lent: Say “Good-Bye” – From the Daily Office – February 16, 2013

From the Letter to Titus:

Avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Titus 3:9-11 (NRSV) – February 16, 2013.)

GoodbyeSo, I’ve returned to Paul’s letter to the young bishop Titus. This is a bit from near the end of the letter, Paul’s last piece of advice before turning his attention to personal greetings and a invitation to join him in Nicopolis for the winter.

And it’s actually pretty good advice, as difficult as it may be to put into practice. It sometimes seems that stupid controversies and “unprofitable and worthless” conflicts are the stuff of church life.

Paul’s recommendation to quit after two “admonitions,” two tries at overcoming division, is a bit short of the conflict resolution technique advanced by Jesus, however:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

A bit short of that, but in the same vein. Give it a try, give it another. But don’t waste too much time on this; your energies and your efforts are better spent elsewhere.

The modern church has not learned this, unfortunately. We have spent and still spend too much time trying to satisfy the trouble-makers. We are unwilling to let anyone go; we want everyone to be happy, everyone to stay and be part of a big, happy (but sadly dysfunctional) family. How much better off we, the trouble-makers, and the society in which we minister might be, if we were able to deal with conflict in a healthy way, letting those who are unhappy go (encouraging them, in fact) and find a community in which they could be comfortable.

I think Paul is a bit harsh to condemn them as unprofitable, worthless, perverted, and sinful. Even Jesus is a bit harsh rejecting them as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” But their point is well taken. Those who don’t fit in . . . don’t fit in. Let them go!

Something to consider during Lent . . . are we perpetuating dysfunctional relationships? Are there people in our lives (not just our churches) who would be better off if we could let them go? Are there folk to whom we should simply say, “Good bye”? I suspect there are.

====================

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!

====================

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

Happy Valentine’s Day: Cretans Are Liars! – From the Daily Office – February 14, 2013

From the Letter to Titus:

There are also many rebellious people, idle talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for sordid gain what it is not right to teach. It was one of them, their very own prophet, who said, “Cretans are always liars, vicious brutes, lazy gluttons.” That testimony is true. For this reason rebuke them sharply, so that they may become sound in the faith, not paying attention to Jewish myths or to commandments of those who reject the truth.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Titus 1:10-13b (NRSV) – February 14, 2013.)

Sing of the Cross in Ashes on Purple HeartWell, Happy Valentine’s Day! Doesn’t Paul strike a pleasant note in his admonitions to the young bishop Titus? The ad hominem attack enshrined in Holy Scripture, mixed with a health dose of antisemitism to boot! An ad hominem is considered a logical fallacy because an otherwise potentially valid claim is rejected on the basis of an irrelevant fact about the person presenting the claim. Typically, it involves two steps, both of which Paul demonstrates in this bit of his letter to Titus. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim: “Cretans are always liars.” Second, this personal attack is used as evidence against the argument the person is making. In other words, the ad hominem argument has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X: “Rebellious people are teaching things.”
  2. Person B makes an attack on person A: “They are liars, vicious brutes, and lazy gluttons.”
  3. Therefore A’s claim is false: “Their teachings are ‘Jewish myths’.”

However, the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not have any bearing on the truth or falsehood of the claim they may be making or the quality of the argument they may be advancing: this is why the ad hominem attack is, itself, a fallacy.

Reading these words in the letter to Titus this morning hit me with particularly force because of discussions yesterday of the innovation of “Ashes to Go” – a new practice offered by some in the Episcopal Church (and other traditions, I suppose) of going to public places (street corners, coffee houses, college campuses) and offering the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday outside of the context of the full penitential liturgy. Personally, I don’t approve of the practice, but I do appreciate the arguments of those who champion it.

In some of the discussions, both online and in person, arguments were advanced that those on the con side of “Ashes to Go” were “older clergy” whose only concern (apparently because of their age and concern for their pensions) is preservation of a dying institution while those on the pro side were “younger clergy” who (apparently because of their youth) are open to the Holy Spirit doing something new. On the other side, those “younger clergy” were portrayed as killing the church because they fail to appreciate and respect its traditions and by their actions rob them of meaning, while the “older clergy” are the Spirit-filled defenders of the faith.

Hmmm . . . . . . . The division of the church into “older” and “younger” groups (clergy or otherwise) whose age bracket somehow validates or invalidates their positions feels a lot like an ad hominem sort of argument. In the spirit of Paul’s words to Titus, I could almost hear the disputants saying, “Older clergy are always . . . .” and “Younger clergy are always . . . .”

I don’t know whether “Ashes to Go” is a movement of the Holy Spirit or whether it is simply yet another straw being grasped at by a church striving to be “relevant”. Maybe it’s a little bit of both. I do know that, to me, it feels like what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace”:

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (The Cost of Discipleship)

Whether it is that or not, however, is not dependent on whether the practice is advanced by “younger clergy” or opposed by “older clergy” (and, for the record, there are proponents and opponents on both sides of the age divide, wherever one draws the line).

This Valentine’s Day – this Lent – let’s make the effort to move away from ad hominem arguments, even if they are enshrined in the Pauline text. Let’s listen to one another carefully and address the issues, not the persons.

====================

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!

====================

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