That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Wisdom of Solomon

Cancerous Distortion – Sermon for RCL Proper 11A – July 23, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 11A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Wisdom of Solomon 12:13,16-19; Romans 8:12-25; and St. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Again, this week, we have another familiar parable in our Gospel lesson, the story of the wheat and the weeds. I will come back to it. But first, I’d like to tell you about my older brother who died 24 years ago.

Richard York Funston was born on July 27, 1943; this coming Thursday, he would have been 74 years old. Rick was a very, very smart man; I would even describe him as brilliant. He had a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas, a master’s in the same field from UCLA, and a PhD in political science specializing in constitutional law also from UCLA. He published five books on constitutional law and taught the subject in five universities, ending up as chair of the political science department and vice-president for academic affairs at San Diego State University. Had he lived, I’ve no doubt he would have been president of a major university.

But he did not live beyond his fiftieth birthday; in fact, he didn’t even get to that milestone. In October of 1992 he exhibited the first symptoms of some sort of brain dysfunction and was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke; three months later that diagnosis was proved wrong. He, in fact, was suffering from primary site brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, the same disease with which Senator John McCain has recently been diagnosed.

When Rick was diagnosed, I did some research into the disease and learned that, at that time, it was (and still is) considered incurable and invariable fatal. In 1993, 50% of patients died within six months of diagnosis; almost 100% percent, within two years. I’ve learned from the recent news about Senator McCain that medical science has extended the median survival to 18 months, but that outside life expectancy is still only about three years after diagnosis. Rick died on Father’s Day, June 21, 1993, less than five months after his accurate diagnosis. I spent the week before his death at his bedside.

So, I know all too well what John McCain and his family are facing and what they will be going through, and my heart goes out to them; they will daily be in my prayers. I would not wish what they are going through on anyone.

It’s because of Rick’s influence that I am the political junky that I am. He loved politics and we often discussed and debated the issues and races of the day. I have often wondered what he would make of 21st Century America and our current political climate. One of the things he taught me was to eschew what we have come to call “bubbles,” the self-insulating and self-reinforcing political and social circles in which we hear only those views that accord with our own and acknowledge only those facts which support our beliefs. So I read news reported by a variety of journals and read opinions and editorials written from a variety of points of view. I follow blogs and news-feeds from the Right, from the Center, and from the Left. And that is why I know that some self-identified “conservative Christians” have written that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice” and that “God is punishing him” for his political views. (See Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek, 7/20/2017.)

That is pure, unadulterated . . . nonsense! It’s that sort of offensive rhetoric by self-proclaimed “conservative Christians” that turns people off (and against) religion. What sort of person actually thinks and teaches others that God works that way? A god who did would not be a god to worship; such a god would be worthy only of contempt. Such a god would be one to follow; such god would be one to be fought. If I had even the slightest scintilla of a belief that that’s the way God operated, I’d not only not be a religious person, I’d be an anti-religious crusader. I am sick to death of the twisted, anti-human, distorted muck some people pass off as the Christian faith.

Which brings me back to Jesus and the parable in this morning’s Gospel text.

It is believed by many scholars that, in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds in question are darnel, a type of grass sometimes called “poisonous darnel.” The darnel itself is not poisonous, but it harbors a destructive and deadly fungus called “ergot.” If the infected darnel is harvested along with the wheat or rye, the ergot gets into the good grain and any flour or meal made from it, and the result can be fatal.

The scientific name for darnel is lolium temulentus, the second word being Latin for “drunk.” The French name for darnel is ivraie from the Latin ebriacus meaning “intoxicated.” Both names refer to the drunken, potential deadly nausea caused by eating the infected plant. Ergotism, as the symptoms of eating the fungus are called, is characterized headaches and nausea, convulsions and painful seizures and spasms, hallucinations and psychosis, and tingling and burning in the extremities, sometimes called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, these can also be the symptoms of glioblastoma.

Darnel is common throughout the Middle East and infestations of grain fields are a constant danger. So Jesus’ parable would have struck home forcefully with his original hearers; they knew well what might happen to someone who ate that fungus-infected grain. Later, Jesus explained the allegorical meaning of the parable to the Twelve, “the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one.” (Mt 13:38)

In his commentary on this story, scholar Eugene Boring suggests that “we can surely see, shimmering behind [this parable], the experience of Matthew’s church – and ours, too.” He goes on to write:

It chronically comes as a shock to find that the world, that the family into which we are born, that even the church is not an entirely trustworthy place. The world has places of wonder, but alleys of cruelty, too. Families cause deep pain as well as great joy. The church can be inspiringly courageous one moment and petty and faithless the next. Good mixes in with bad. “Where did these weeds come from?” is a perennial human cry. (Commentary on Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VIII, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1995, pg 311)

Where did these people, these self-proclaimed “conservative Christians,” these poisonous weeds who cancerously distort the Gospel, blaming a devastating disease on some warped notion of “godly justice” come from?

Part of me, the part that still remembers my brother’s suffering, the part of me that sat by his death bed, would like to go root them out, pull them up root, stem, and head like the bad weeds they are, simply exterminate them. But, of course, the other part of me pays heed to the rest of the parable, to the master’s order to his servants to leave the darnels be until the harvest. This is, writes Boring, “a realistic reminder that the servants [which is to say, you and me] do not finally have the ability to get rid of the weeds and that sometimes attempts to pluck up weeds cause more harm than good.” (Ibid.)

Our gradual this morning is not taken from the Book of Psalms, as it usually is. Instead, we have a reminder from the deuterocanonical book entitled “The Wisdom of Solomon” that God, the source of righteousness, does not judge unjustly, that instead God judges with mildness and governs with forbearance. “Through such works,” we say to God as we recite the text, “you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.” (Wis 12:19)

Paul writes in the same spirit in this morning’s epistle lesson. Echoing the parable’s message that the world is “not an entirely trustworthy place,” he writes, “The creation [is] subjected to futility.” (Rom 8:20) But we know that creation, and we ourselves, will one day be freed of that futility:

We know [writes Paul] that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (vv 23-25)

We could hope that our brothers and sisters, those so-called “conservative Christians,” could hear and learn that message. We could hope that they would stop broadcasting the perverse notion that God causes brain cancer, or earthquakes, or hurricanes, or floods, or whatever as punishment for human failings. We could hope that they would recognize what the great theologian Karl Barth stated so simply, that “God is either known by grace or he is not known at all.” (Church Dogmatics, II/1, 27)

We live in an imperfect world and we belong to an imperfect church, and there is very little we can do to change either of those facts; as much as we might wish to rip out and do away with those who distort the Christian message, the poisonous darnels among us, that isn’t our job. “We are given the task of living as faithfully and as obediently as possible, confident that the harvest is sure.” (Boring, op cit) We are to “wait for it with patience.”

But not with passivity! The master’s prohibiting the servants from weeding the field “is not a divine command to ignore injustice in the world, violence in society, or wrong in the church.” (Ibid.) No! We must stand in witness not only against “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but also against other self-identified “Christians” who pervert the Gospel. Whenever we hear or witness such nonsense as suggestions that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice,” we must answer clearly that it is not! We must have the courage of our Christian convictions and proclaim the truth of our faith in the face of such distortion. What we hope these so-called “conservative Christians” hear and recognize and learn, we must say and demonstrate and teach.

In this respect, last week’s opening prayer bears repeating: When we are faced with such twisted falsehood and misrepresentation, O Lord, “grant that [we] may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. Amen.” (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Collect for Proper 10, page 231)

(Note: The illustration is a representation of glioblastoma cancer cells from Glioblastoma multiforme – stereotaxic radiotherapy brings promising results? by Aleksandra Jarocka, MD, and Anna Brzozowska, PhD.)

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

The Armor of God: Sermon for Proper 16B (Pentecost 13, 23 August 2015)

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A sermon offered on Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16B, Track 1, RCL), August 23, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; and John 6:56-69. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Ancient ArmorIn the Education for Ministry program, the first year is spent reading the Old Testament, parts of which can be as dull as dirt! There are those long lists of genealogies, long catalogues of tribes and families, the lengthy and detailed instructions for making and erecting the tabernacle that the Hebrews carried along with them in the desert and, of course, a description of the Temple which Solomon built. In our EfM group, we sort of got into a habit of not reading those parts, of just acknowledging they were there but sort of skipping lightly over them. But it is there, earlier in the First Book of Kings from which our First Lesson is taken, a description of the building in which, in today’s lesson, Solomon places the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon’s Temple (the “First Temple”) was massive; it wasn’t really very big, but it was solid and substantial. It was built of huge blocks of solid stone; it had support beams made of whole cedar trees; it had immense fixtures and columns made of solid bronze and gold. In a word, it was a fortress!

But, as Solomon says in his public prayer in today’s Old Testament lesson, God doesn’t really need a fortress: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Earthly buildings cannot contain God and God certainly has no need of the protection massive stone walls can provide.

No, the Temple was not built for God; the Temple was built for human beings, for the Israelites. It is the place which serves as a focus for their devotion to the Almighty; it is the place where they will offer sacrifices and toward which they will face when they pray. So Solomon beseeches God, “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.” And Solomon goes even further and asks that God also hear the prayers of foreigners: “Likewise . . . when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.”

The Temple was an earthly reminder of God’s Law; it was the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, called the footstool of God by David. In the 28th Chapter of the First Book of Chronicles, David calls his court officers and his designated heir, Solomon, to an assembly and says to them, “I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building.” (v. 2, NRSV) He then gives his plans for the Temple to Solomon. In Psalm 132, the Psalmist (traditionally David) makes a similar reference when he says, “Let us go to God’s dwelling place; let us fall upon our knees before his footstool.” (v. 7, BCP)

The lexicons tell us that uses of this term footstool are metaphorical and symbolic of subjection to God as universal Lord. However, the term always reminds me of my grandmother Edna Funston who was a nurse. She and my grandfather lived only about four blocks from the hospital where she was employed, so she would walk to and from work everyday. After spending her days, like most nurses do, on her feet, she would walk those four blocks and then sit for a while with her feet up, resting them on a footstool that sat in front of her favorite chair. When I hear of God’s footstool, I picture God putting his feet up after a long walk. It reminds me of that passage from the Book of Genesis in which Adam and Eve, having violated God’s instructions by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” and hid themselves. (Gen 3:8) It reminds me also of that passage in the Prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)

The Temple was an earthly reminder of God’s Law which requires God’s people to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Several generations after the Temple was built, God’s people were doing anything but . . . and the Prophet Isaiah portrayed God as less than pleased by that. Isaiah prophesied:

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. (Isa 59:14-17)

Several centuries after Isaiah, the writer of the Book of Wisdom would offer an apocalyptic vision of the last judgment in similar terms:

The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes. (Wis 5:17-20

The Letter to the Ephesians (which claims to have been written by Paul but is generally believed to have been written by one of his disciples shortly after his death, perhaps from notes drafted or dictated by Paul) makes use of these ancient armor and weapon metaphors in a new and startling way.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the audience to whom this letter was initially addressed, the church at Ephesus, a small body of believers living as a minority in a hostile environment. Their commitment to Christ set them conspicuously at odds with their neighbors, perhaps even with some in their own families. They were regarded with suspicion, even considered troublemakers and atheists, by their neighbors because they refused to join in the municipal cult of the hunter goddess Artemis whose worship was an important commercial enterprise for the city. They were regarded as troublemakers and atheists by the Roman empire because they refused to burn incense and pay tribute at the altars to the emperor. It is likely that they had had more than one encounter with the police, who were not merely the police; they were the Roman army.

So when the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians borrows the armor imagery of Isaiah and the Book of Wisdom, although “the concrete details of the armor are biblical, not Roman, the audience probably envisaged the fully armed Roman soldier when they heard these words.” (NIB, Vol. XI, page 460) It is as if someone today were to write to a congregation in (for example) Ferguson, Missouri, and say: “Put on the bulletproof vest of righteousness and the night-vision goggles of truth. Take up the automatic rifle of the Spirit.” And that is how we need to hear these metaphors, too – as shocking and disturbing and counter-cultural. It violated their, and should violate our, expectations of what a comforting pastoral letter should say, and thus their eyes were opened, and our eyes should be, to the darkness of the present reality.

Of course, whether one uses the ancient weapons of the original or modernizes the imagery, the use is metaphorical. As the Letter reminds its initial readers and us, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the [world] powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” This is not a call to armed revolution; it is not a call to man the barricades and overthrow the government. Although this text has been used shamefully and wrongly to justify violence and oppression, it is not a call for the followers of Jesus to become some sort of Christian ISIS.

No! We are not called to actually take up arms. The armor we are to don is that which these metaphors represent: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, holiness, impartial judgment, and the word of God (which is not the Bible, the Word of God is Jesus!). We so by constantly preparing ourselves. Earlier in the Letter, the writer admonished the Ephesians to utilize their gifts as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to build up the church and equip one another for the work of ministry (4:11-12), to sing psalms and hymns together, to pray and give thanks (5:19-20). The same is true for us; “believers [today] must hear sermons, read scripture, talk with other Christians, engage in regular prayer, sing the praises of God, and so on.” (NIB, pg 403) Our formation as members of the Body of Christ, our preparation to withstand the “powers of this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil” must be continuous.

We may skip over the details of its construction because we know that God didn’t need the Temple, but the truth is that the Israelites did. We may choose not read the full description because we know that God doesn’t need a fortress, but the truth is that we do. The Stoic philosopher Seneca taught that the soul of a wise person is fortified by reason and secure virtue. He wrote, “The walls which guard the wise [person] are safe from both flame and assault, they provide no means of entrance, are lofty, impregnable, godlike.” (De Constantia Sapientis [On the Constancy of the Wise Man], 6.8) We need that spiritual fortress!

In the same way, God really has no need of the metaphorical armor and weapons described in Isaiah, the Book of Wisdom, and the Letter to the Ephesians, but we do. Clothed with “the whole armor of God,” we will “be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” and fed with “the bread that came down from heaven . . .[we] will live forever.”

Let us pray:

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, [protected by your armor] from all things that may hurt us [and nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son], that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect 2 [with addition], BCP 1979, pg. 228)

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

Our Chronic Illness, Our Besetting Sin (Eve of St. Alban, 21 June 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Eve of the Feast of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain, June 21, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 31:1-5; 1 John 3:13-16; and Matthew 10:34-42.)

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Heavenly Father,
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Amen.

We are moving away from the Lectionary this morning and are using the propers for the commemoration of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain, whose feast is tomorrow. I hope you’ll forgive me this personal conceit: we are doing so because twenty-four years ago today, on the Eve of St. Alban’s Day 1991, the Right Rev. Stewart Zabriskie, bishop of the Diocese of Nevada and about 30 presbyters of that diocese laid their hands upon me and ordained me a priest in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus promises that one result of following him will be conflict with one’s family: “I have come to set a man against his father,” he said. Those are hard words to hear spoken on Father’s Day (which today also happens to be), but they are words that speak to me because of my family history. I have spoken to you often of my father, York Funston, and of my grandfather, Charles Edgar Funston (known to everyone as “CE”), but you may not have notice that I have never involving both of them. That is because during the time they were both alive during my lifetime they never spoke to one another; I can recall no time when they were ever together.

When my father came home from the Second World War and finished his degree at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, my father and mother moved to southern Nevada. That was in 1947. From that point until he died in 1958, my father never again saw nor did he ever speak to his father. The reason was a very simple one, but one which is deeply imbedded in the culture of this country and is the besetting sin of our society; I believe it may be a chronic disease that is killing country.

My father had been an enlisted man in the US Army artillery. While serving in the European theater, he had become friends with several black service men. That was, I believe, a transformative experience for him. I don’t know what may have happened between my father and grandfather to sever their relationship, but I do know this . . . my grandfather was a racist: until he died in 1977, I never heard my grandfather ever refer to an African American by any term other than “n***er.” That was an attitude and a word my father simply could not and would not tolerate.

When my grandfather died in 1977 it was because he had suffered a stroke. My grandfather suffered that stroke because he, like every other member of our family (myself included) had a chronic disease, high blood pressure. Being a stubborn man, he did nothing about it and eventually that stubbornness caught up with him. He suffered a stroke, became bed ridden, and eventually contracted pneumonia which killed him. His chronic disease weakened him; the opportunistic, acute illness killed him.

The accurate medical term for high blood pressure is “hypertension,” a word which was originally coined in the mid-19th Century to mean, “excessive or extreme emotional tenseness.” That’s what racism is, a hypertension, a chronic disease which is killing American society.

Cartoon from "The New Yorker Magazine" by Christopher Weyant

Cartoon from “The New Yorker Magazine” by Christopher Weyant

On Wednesday night, America witnessed what happens when that chronic illness is augmented by the acute and opportunistic disease of easy unfettered unregulated unrestricted access to firearms. A 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof with a history of racism planned and carried out the murders of nine black men and women worshiping in their church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; four of those who died were pastors of the church, including the senior pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator.

Researcher Timothy Tyson of Duke University has written recently about the killer . . .

[A photograph of Roof shows] a young man wear[ing] Rhodesian and apartheid-era [South African] flags on his jacket. Both countries never existed during his lifetime. Both flags are commonly worn as in-group insignia among politically organized white supremacists.

Dylann Roof told his victims that he came to kill black people because they are “raping our women and taking over our country.” Both claims date back to the white supremacy campaigns of the 1890s . . . . These ideas did not just percolate up inside of his mind; this is not ordinary “bias” or suspicion of people different from him; someone had to teach him these elaborated historical traditions. * * * He gunned down nine people at a historic black church, historic enough that he might well have selected it intentionally; Emanuel AME has been at the center of the civil rights struggle since the early 19th century. * * *

Roof said he wanted to start a race war; this is a common theme among white supremacists and depicted in their favorite book, The Turner Diaries, which also helped inspire Timothy McVeigh to commit the Oklahoma City bombings. He is part of something, . . . something dangerous. America in general and South Carolina in particular are generously sprinkled with white supremacist groups. (From a Facebook Note)

Wednesday’s tragedy, unfortunately, is only one of several recent incidents throughout the nation which have made it clear that racism is a chronic disease that is killing us. It may even be a part of our nation’s DNA. The evil institution of white Europeans owning black African slaves was allowed by our Founders to continue here when our nation was created. Some recognized the iniquity of doing so. Abigail Adams, wife of the first Vice President, once wrote in a letter to her husband, “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”

Many people do not realize that the U.S. Constitution as originally adopted provide that, in determining the proportional representation in House of Representatives, blacks were to be counted as lesser than whites. Specifically, it provided that the number of representatives to which a state was entitled would be “determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” (Art. I, Sec. 2, Cl. 3)

Interestingly, it was not the southern slave owners who inserted that provision, it was northerners. Elbridge Gerry, a deputy from Massachusetts who later became the fifth Vice President of the United States, objected to counting blacks at all arguing, “Why should the blacks, who were property in the South, be in the rule of representation more than the cattle and horses of the North?” I think we can all agree that valuing African Americans as nothing more than cattle or horses, or even as 3/5 of a free white person, is simply wrong; there is no other word for it – it’s wrong! Racism is a chronic disease from which America seems always to have suffered; it is our nation’s original and besetting sin.

Although it is historically wrong to assert that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation,” it is not inaccurate to recognize that most of the Founders were members of the Christian church; many, in fact, were Episcopalians. That Christians should have valued other human beings, black human beings, many of whom were themselves converts to the Christian faith, as of lesser value, as of no more value “than cattle and horses” boggles the mind. It flies in the face of, it is a direct violation of Christ’s new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) As the portion of the First Letter of John read this morning reminds us, “Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.” (1 Jn 3:14b-15) Racism, the hatred of a brother or sister human being simply because their skin color differs from one’s own, is deadly; it is the chronic hypertension that is weakening and killing our country.

When a chronic illness weakens the body, an acute opportunistic infection can bring death. My grandfather’s weakened condition, bedridden from a hypertension-induced stroke, made him a prime target for deadly pneumonia. Weakened by the hypertension of racism, our country is a prime target for the deadly destruction that the acute problem of easy unfettered unregulated unrestricted access to guns can wreak. Now, I know, some will answer me that the right to bear arms is a constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment and I really do not want to get into that argument today; let me just leave the issue with one thought – if the Constitution could be wrong today about the 3/5 valuation of black Americans, could it not also be wrong today about firearm access and ownership?

May I shift gears here and tell you how I spent my day on Friday?

I started the day earlier than usual getting to the office at 7:30 a.m. because I had a 9 o’clock doctor’s appointment and I wanted to be sure the rooms where, later, bicycles would be stowed overnight were ready for that. So I got here, and moved tables and chairs out of the way. Then I worked on the Prayers of the People for today’s services until I had to go my physician’s office. That didn’t take very long, so on the way back to the church I made a pastoral call. When I got back here, I met with a parishioner about pre-planning her and her spouse’s funerals, then I put together some materials for the clergy who will be substituting here while I am at General Convention. By then it was about 1 p.m. so I took the dog home (she’d been with me through all that I just outlined), grabbed a quick bite to eat, and got back here by 2 p.m. to begin receiving the 28 bicycle riders we would be hosting. From then until we sat down to dinner with them I ran several errands getting riders to their lodgings and picking up a few things for the kitchen crew, then I helped set the tables for dinner. After welcoming our guests to supper, I sat down at a table with the bishop expecting to enjoy dinner, only to be informed that a toilet in the ladies’ room was overflowing. I am grateful to my lady-wife, who got a plunger and went to work, but unfortunately things only went from bad to worse. Eventually, I found myself standing in a puddle of rather unsavory water on the phone with our plumber and then with Roto-Rooter arranging a late night service call. So after we broke down the tables and set up the chairs for Free Farmers’ Market, I sat here while the Roto-Rooter man did his job. Eventually he cleared what turned out to be a 75-ft long plug of God-knows-what, and he and I left at around 10:30 pm.

Days like that are not typical for clergy, but they are not uncommon, either. Usually after such a day, I go home tired but feeling pretty good about the life to which I’ve been called and which I’ve lived for 24 years of ordained ministry. The priesthood is a privilege and, no matter how tiring a day may be, it is usually a joyful mystery.

Friday, however, on the way home, I started crying. I got to thinking about Clementa Pinckney who, though very much younger than I, had been a pastor for just about the same amount of time, 23 years in his case. And I got to thinking about his fellow pastors DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Daniel Simmons Sr., and Sharonda Singleton, all of them gunned-down with five of their parishioners at Emanuel AME Church by a hate-filled, 21-year-old, white supremacist. I got to thinking about how I’m sure they had had similar days of ministry, and about how terrible it is that they are not still alive to do those things for their congregation, to visit their parishioners, to help plan funerals and weddings, to bear the frustrations of coordinating activities with bishops, to be burdened by the annoyance of clogged sewer pipes, and to endure the exhaustion of 16-hour days. And the only reason they are not . . . is racism. I believe that, as the Book of Wisdom reminds us, they “are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” and that their witness “will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble” (3:1,7), but we would all so much prefer that Wednesday had never happened.

On the anniversary of my ordination, I would so much prefer to preach about anything else, but the reality of racism cannot be denied, the sin of racism must be confronted. I don’t know if my father ever confronted my grandfather about his racism. I know that I never did and by failing to do so I am as guilty as him. Racism is our nation’s besetting sin and we must repent; it our society’s chronic illness and we must cure it, because it is killing our country.

Let us pray:

Good and gracious God, you created every human being in your image and likeness; we are weary, we are tired, we are sick of the besetting sin of racism that infects our country: we repent of the ways we have participated in or benefited from racial injustice; we ask forgiveness for the ways our nation continues to foster an environment of separation; break through the strongholds of superiority, destroy the dividing lines of racial separation, cure us of the toxic disease of prejudice, forgive us; make your church a model of unity, a beacon of reconciliation, and keep us on the path that leads to your light; through your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

Creation in Salvation – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT Lesson for Saturday in the week of Easter 5
Wisdom 19
6 For the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew,
complying with your commands,
so that your children might be kept unharmed.

Thus the Book of Wisdom describes what happened at the Hebrews’ crossing of the Red Sea: “the whole creation in its nature was fashioned anew.” It made me think ~ Is this what happens in every act of salvation? Even the smallest bit of assistance given by one person to another? Are salvation and creation inextricably linked so that every act of salvation is an act of re-creation, of renewal of the cosmos? I think they may be. (As an Anglican, according to Article VI of the Articles of Religion, I’m not supposed to “apply” the books of the Second Canon “to establish any doctrine,” but I think I could run with this.)

God Is a Nag

Deacon Logo

From the OT Lesson for Friday in the week of Easter 5
Wisdom 16:15 ~ “To escape from your hand is impossible; . . . .”

Words spoken to God
by the author of this book
(by Solomon?)
How perfect!
What a wonderfully
fitting sentiment
on this day!
25 years ago
today,
I was ordained,
made a deacon
by Bishop Stewart Zabriskie,
late bishop of Nevada.
Throughout the process leading to ordination,
through all the screening interviews,
sessions with discernment committees,
meetings with spiritual directors,
conversations with examining chaplains,
seminars with fellow students at seminary,
hiring interviews with rectors
and search committees and vestries,
the same question was asked
over and over again:
“Tell us about your sense of call. . . .”
I should have quoted Wisdom:
“To escape from God’s hand is impossible.”
I did try to escape.
I went through “the process” while in college
and found myself,
for political reasons having to do
with an episcopal election,
rejected.
So after a couple of years alienated
from the Episcopal Church,
I decided
I could be
“comfortable as an active lay person”
in the Anglican tradition.
(I actually said that
to another bishop
who had asked me
to consider training for ordination).
I taught Sunday school,
served on vestries,
was a parish treasurer,
led in the Cursillo community,
became Chancellor of my diocese.
I was fine doing my ministry
from amongst the laity
I said,
every time the question of ordination came up,
and come up it did,
often.
I was fine . . .
until my friend Barry died.
At Barry’s funeral,
I turned to my wife
and said,
“I can’t do this anymore”
and she knew
exactly
what I was saying.
The next day I met with my rector.
He said, “Tell me about your sense of call.”
I could have quoted Wisdom.
I didn’t.
I said, “God is a nag.”
Which pretty much means the same thing.
If God wants you,
you can’t escape;
God is a nag;
God will get you.
Happy 25th Anniversary, God.

Destructive Distractions – From the Daily Office – February 27, 2014

From the First Letter of John:

Little children, keep yourselves from idols.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 5:21 (NRSV) – February 27, 2014.)

Sumerian IdolsLast evening while driving home from the midweek Eucharist, I listened to a program on the local NPR station in which the host and a guest were discussing the internet coverage of news. One of the things mentioned was that the analytics on a British tabloid’s website had demonstrated that a story about Taylor Swift’s legs had garnered more “clicks” and more viewing time than a simultaneously run story about the world-wide affects of global climate change – something on the order of 400% more! The discussion continued with similar examples of stories about Kim Kardashian and her “rear end,” Justin Bieber’s legal problems, and more.

In the course of their conversation, the guest said, “Our idols are a distraction.” Encountering John’s final admonition in his first letter this morning, it occurs to me how “spot on” that comment is theologically. Although some may regard idols as evil, following the thought attributed to Solomon that “the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (Wisd. 14:27), a more accurate description of an idol is that given by the Prophet Jeremiah: “Idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.” (Jer. 10:5) What they can do, however, is distract us and that distraction can be harmful.

This is the point made by Paul in the eighth chapter of his first letter to the church in Corinth in which he discusses the eating of food which has been offered to idols. He starts with the premise that idols are powerless: “we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists'” (v. 4) so there is no real harm in eating such food. But, he says, there are “weak” members of the community who “have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (v. 7) If these less mature members see others eating food sacrificed to an idol and join in, they might because of their “weak consciences” be destroyed. (v. 11) The distraction of idols can be destructive.

And we have many idols to distract us. Taylor Swift and her legs, Kim Kardashian and her derriere, and Justin Bieber and his immature behavior might be obvious entertainment “idols,” but there are other less apparent distractions — sex, money, political power, career, sports, video games, pornography — we could compile a list of hundreds if not thousands of modern idols. “The human heart,” as John Calvin observed, “is a factory of idols.” These idols are distracting and deceptive. They deceive us so that we become preoccupied with them, our attention diverted away from more important pursuits.

From what do they distract us? From the two great commandments: Love of God and love of neighbor. They divert our attention and our energies away from the relationships that truly sustain us. Idols are not evil, but they are distracting. The distraction, as Paul warned, can be destructive. Following the two great commandments, we can gain uncommon blessings. We can find true happiness and achieve inner peace, but we have to be willing to avoid distractions, to keep ourselves from idols.

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

Simple Wisdom from Above – Sermon for Pentecost 17, Proper 20B – September 23, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 23, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 20B: Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1,12-22; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; and Mark 9:30-37.)

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Wisdom Highway SignThe collect for today from The Book of Common Prayer:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

On the positive side, the side of “things heavenly,” there is the “wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” On the negative side, the side of “earthly things,” there is “wisdom [which] does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, [and] devilish;” the story from the Wisdom of Solomon demonstrates what this sort of “negative wisdom” leads to. How do we learn wisdom and how do we learn to choose one sort over the other?

One way, of course, is from our elders. We learn by watching them, by listening to them, by doing what they do. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so good, but as the old saying goes, apples don’t fall far from the tree. For most of us, the ways we do things, the ways we make choices and decisions, the ways we react the world around us are pretty much the same ways our parents or grandparents did. I know I’m not alone in having those moments when I hear myself saying something and then think, “O heavens! When did I turn into my father (or into my mother)?”

But the world changes rapidly and we don’t always find ourselves in situations where the “wisdom of the elders” can be used. We face new contexts and different challenges; we deal with a reality that they never encountered.

My wife’s father passed away a couple of weeks ago and last weekend we were away in Nevada for his memorial service. (Our thanks to the many of you who have expressed your condolences.) Paul was 95-1/2 years old, and as we celebrated his life I thought about the way the world has changed in the almost complete century of his life. The Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, just 14 years (almost to the day) before he was born. Look what has happened to the air transportation and space flight since then. Paul’s entire working life was spent in the telephone communications industry and look what has happened in that business and its offshoots, cell phones, smartphones, the internet, Facebook, and all the rest. The world has changed dramatically in just the span of his life, and the wisdom of the early 20th Century is sometimes woefully inadequate in dealing with the 21st Century.

Sometimes we humans can’t deal with change, particularly when it comes at us rapidly as it has in these past several decades. Our reaction is often to try lock things down, to try to stop the change. But we can’t really do that; the world changes anyway. Wisdom, the right kind of wisdom, the “wisdom from above” as James calls it, recognizes that. It is, he says, “willing to yield.” Earlier in his letter, in fact in its very first words, James writes, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (1:2-3) For James, it is a simple thing: ” Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (4:10)

James understands, and he wants his readers, you and me, to understand that nothing is ever locked down, that change can never be stopped, it can only be embraced; for James this is as true for changes in ourselves as it is for changes in the world. In this letter, James writing to the whole church; unlike Paul’s letters which were written to particular congregations to solve particular problems, James’s epistle is written to all Christians in every place at every time. Therefore, he knows he is writing to people who are in different and widely differing circumstances, to Christians who are at different stages of spiritual maturity. But he is able to address each of us, no matter where along the journey we may be, because even our faith is not locked down.

Conversion to Christ is not a one-time thing; it is an on-going, life-long process. We aren’t brought suddenly in a blinding instance from darkness fully into the light so that everything before some point of conversion is left behind and all ambiguity removed. It just doesn’t work that way. Conversion is an on-going process. Every day we have to leave behind our anxieties about earthly things, and learn again to love things heavenly; every day we have to turn away from the wisdom from below, from envy and selfish ambition, from disorder and wickedness, toward the wisdom from above, toward peaceableness and gentleness, toward simplicity and mercy.
I spend some time each day in prayer and one of my favorite resources is this book, Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community in northeastern England. In it are readings for each day of the year. This was yesterday’s taken from another book entitled Hebridean Altars: The Spirit of an Island Race by a Scots Presbyterian minister named Allistair MacLean:

When the shadows fall upon hill and glen;
and the bird-music is mute;
when the silken dark is a friend;
and the river sings to the stars:
ask yourself, sister,
ask yourself, brother,
the question you alone have power to answer:
O King and Saviour of all,
what is [Your] gift to me?
and do I use it to [Your] pleasing?

That is a wonderfully wise, spiritually simple question to ask everyday, a question which we each are only able to answer for ourselves in prayerful conversation with God: What is God’s gift to me and do I use it to God’s pleasing? It is a question which can help us to turn from earthly things, from envy and ambition and disorder and wickedness, toward heavenly things, toward peace and gentleness and mercy. It is a question which we, God’s children, should ask everyday in prayerful conversation with the Father.

In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, when the disciples are arguing amongst themselves about envy and ambition, Jesus took a little child and put her among them; Jesus took the child in his arms and said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” When Matthew tells this story, Jesus also says, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3-4) In Mark’s Gospel he will say this in another setting, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

As a child, we look to our elders to learn wisdom; as children of God, we look to our Father to learn the wisdom from above. In that way, we receive the kingdom of God; we enter the kingdom of heaven. In today’s reading in Celtic Daily Prayer, also from Hebridean Altars, this is the very image presented, the image of a child reaching up to and being lifted up by the Father:

Often I strain and climb
and struggle to lay hold
of everything I’m certain
You have planned for me.
And nothing happens:
there comes no answer.
Only You reach down to me
just where I am.
When you give me no answer
to my questions,
still I have only to raise my arms
to You, my Father
and then You lift me up.
Then because You are my Father
You speak these words of truth
to my heart:
“You are not an accident.
Even at the moment of your conception,
out of many possibilities,
only certain cells combined,
survived, grew to be you.
You are unique.
You were created for a purpose.
God loves you.”

In our world today, the search for spiritual answers, the search for religious certainty, the attempt to lock things down does more to divide than it does to unite. It is a misguided quest governed more by the wisdom from below than by the wisdom from above. The wisdom from above does not try to lock down an unchangeable certainty, but rather turns daily to God with childlike simplicity to ask, “What is your gift for me today?”

In 1848, in the spirit of James’s epistle and Christ’s metaphor of childlike welcoming and faith, Elder Joseph Brackett of the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, wrote one-verse song describing a simple children’s dance as a paradigm for gaining wisdom. It is entitled Simple Gifts, and these are the words:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

You’ll find this song in the hymnal, Hymn No. 554. Will you stand and sing it with me today and then everyday remember to seek the wisdom from above by asking that simple question of God: “What is your gift to me today, and do I use it to your pleasing?” Shall we sing?

God Did Not Make Death – From the Daily Office – July 2, 2012

Paul wrote:

When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. So what advantage did you then get from the things of which you now are ashamed? The end of those things is death. But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 6:20-23 – July 2, 2012)

I am still thinking of my Sunday sermon from yesterday’s Revised Common Lectionary lessons. We had chosen to follow “track 2” of the Lectionary and so read from the Book of Wisdom: “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living . . . . but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” (Wis. 1:13,2:24) Paul seems to be drawing on exactly the same thought: life is the gift of God, death is the result of the things of sin. As I said yesterday, God is not in the business of death. ~ So why is it that in our modern society the most publicly zealous followers of Jesus, a certain segment of American evangelical Christians, seem to embrace a culture of death? Why do they support capital punishment, get behind exporting war into other countries, applaud when abortion clinics are bombed, and defend our government when intelligence services or military engage in “water-boarding” to gather information? As a political comedian and comentator who also happens to be a Catholic Christian notes, only in America “can you be pro-war, pro-torture, pro-death penalty, pro-land mines, pro-unmanned drones and still call yourself ‘pro-life’.” Well, really, one can’t. Those things aren’t “pro-life” and it’s just hypocrisy to claim that title while promoting a culture of death, a culture that is the result of sin, that is the outcome of the devil’s envy. None of those things are “pro-life” and (in my theological opinion) none can be reconciled with Christian faith. “God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.” Neither should God’s people.

(Note: The accompanying photograph is from Dazzling Design, to which the photograph links. There are some very creative photo images to be found there.)

God Is in the Business of Healing & Life – Sermon for Proper 8B – July 1, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 1, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector. (Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 8B: Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15;2:23-24; Lamentations 3:21-33; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43.)

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The Resurrection of Jairus' Daughter, Emmanuel Benner, 1902Our first reading this morning is from a little book from the Apocrypha called The Book of Wisdom. At one time church tradition ascribed authorship to King Solomon, but it is now believed to have been written sometime in the first or second century before Christ by a Greek-speaking Jew of the Diaspora. It is found in the Greek-language version of Jewish scriptures, not in the Hebrew version, and is therefore not considered as canonical scripture by Jews or by Protestants. Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do accept it, and we Anglicans take a middle course, saying that we read them “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet [we do] not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (Articles of Religion, Art. VI, BCP 1979, pg. 868). Well, here’s an example of life, then:

God did not make death,
And he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome….

God, says this odd little book, created human beings for immortality.

So here’s some “instruction of manners”: when something bad happens to someone, particularly if someone’s loved one dies, if someone has a miscarriage, if someone is diagnosed with a serious illness (like, say, terminal cancer), do not say, “Well, it’s God’s will. We may not understand it, but it’s part of God’s plan.” And if anyone says that to you or to a loved one or to a friend or even to a stranger, tell them they’re wrong. In fact, if it will make you feel better, you tell them to stick it in their ear! Death is not God’s will; it never was and it never will be! “God,” as the Book of Wisdom says clearly, “did not make death.”

But, of course, someone will say to me, “Wait! You’re making a doctrinal statement based on an apocryphal text and we Anglicans are not supposed to do that.”

OK, yes, that’s what I’m doing, but my “doctrinal statement” is not based only on this small portion of Wisdom. We also have Lamentations in the Lectionary texts this morning: “The Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” God is not in the business of causing grief and suffering; the Prophet Ezekiel, as well, assures us God takes no “pleasure in [even] the death of the wicked, [but would] rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23) In other words, God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.

In addition, elsewhere in Scripture, we have the promise of God through the Prophet Isaiah that “he will swallow up death forever,” (Isaiah 25:8) , that the “dead shall live, their corpses shall rise . . . . and the earth will give birth to those long dead,” (26:19), that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth.” (65:17) In that new reality, “no more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed . . . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . . They shall not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain [meaning everywhere].” (65:20,25) In other words, God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.

This is what our Gospel reading today assures us in these two stories of Christ healing two women: the daughter of the synagogue ruler Jairus and the unnamed women who touched him in the market place. Jairus had faith that God’s will for his daughter was healing and so he came to Jesus; the woman with the hemorrhage had faith that God’s will for her was healing and so she thought, “If I could just touch the hem of his garment . . . .” God’s will for us is healing; we just have to have faith in that promise.

Faith, however, does not mean believing the unbelievable; it means holding on to God’s promise, despite whatever present realities call it into question. To the writer of Lamentations, which was written in the 6th Century before Christ at time when the Temple (indeed the whole of Jerusalem) had been destroyed and it seemed all hope was lost, such faith meant holding to the credal and communal memory of what God had done for God’s people in ages past. It meant calling God’s mighty works of healing and strength into the present through prayer and proclamation.

For Jairus and the women in the market place, it meant holding fast to God’s promise that he would bring “recovery and healing” to God’s people, that he would “heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security” (Jer. 33:6), and believing that that promise was made manifest in Jesus of Nazarth. It means the same for us today. It means laying claim to Jesus’ works of healing and strength, and bringing them into the present through prayer and proclamation in the context and community of fellow Christians who support and restore our faith, who recite it with us in the creed, who proclaim it to us in the sermon, who sing it with us in the liturgy and hymns. Even in times when it appears that all is lost, the community of faith helps us to hear the voice of faith saying, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him [God] does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” God is not in the business of causing death! “God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome.” God is in the business of healing and life.

This, of course, just raises a question: what if we have faith and pray for someone who is ill, but the sick person does not get better? What if we pray and pray and despite all of our prayer, the person die? Does that mean that we did not have faith or did not have enough faith?

Well, as another preacher has remarked

. . . that depends. Is God obligated to His creatures to answer all prayers with Yes? Is God no more than a cosmic Coke machine, who must dispense what we want when we put in the proper amount? Or does our God have His own will, His own plan, and His own wisdom, which may transcend ours? Personally, I am more comfortable with the idea that God would override any requests I make, if He deems them not in my best interest. What if I ask for something that will cause me great damage, mistakenly believing, in faith, that I need it? Would it not attribute great cruelty and maliciousness to God if we supposed that He were obligated by some scriptural contract to give me what I ask for, no matter what? (Ken Collins, Faith Healing)

If there is healing in response to prayer, we know that it was God’s will to heal, but if there was no healing in response to prayer, the answer isn’t so simple. Perhaps healing at a later date would do more good. Perhaps the illness, if prolonged, might lead to fruitful introspection and a new spiritual awareness. Perhaps the person’s earthly life, if prolonged, might be a source of pain and misery for that person or another. Sometimes the answer to prayer is “No” and we cannot know why. “We have to give God credit for being smarter and wiser than we are, and we must acknowledge that we cannot always immediately apprehend [God’s] designs.” (Ken Collins, Faith Healing) But we can know this: God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.

As the Book of Wisdom poetically reminds us, “God did not make death . . . but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” One of the great illusions of our time, some would say that is one of Satan’s great lies, is that through our own effort, through our own science, through our own better medicine, we can live forever. It makes us feel that death is wrong. It comes as a surprise, even when we say that we expect it. We are always surprised by death! But in our Gospel story this morning, we learn that Jesus views death differently; Jesus treats death as if it were simply like falling asleep. Last night (assuming your neighbor was not shooting off fireworks prematurely) you went to sleep. This morning you woke up to a new day. “Death,” says Jesus, is like that.” You fall asleep . . . you wake up. In this Gospel story the young girl wakes up. Jesus shows us that death, the devil’s creation, Satan’s great illusion, is not fatal. Death is merely another form of sleep, because God did not make death; God is not in the business of causing death! God created all things so that they might live. God created human beings for immortality. God is in the business of healing and life.

Let us pray:

O merciful Father, you have taught us in the Holy Scriptures that you do not willingly afflict or grieve anyone: Look with compassion upon all who are in pain or sorrow, all who are troubled by illness, all who tend any who are dying; remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, and comfort them with a sense of your goodness; empower us, O Lord, to minister to their needs and to offer support for their faith; that all may be strengthened in times of weakness and have confidence in your loving care; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.