That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Zechariah

Redemption: Drama in Three Acts (Sermon for Palm Sunday, 9 April 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Palm Sunday, April 9, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, with the addition of a reading from the prophet Zechariah: at the Liturgy of the Palms: Zechariah 9:9-12; at the Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and St. Matthew 21:1-11; following the distribution of Communion, St. Matthew 26:14-27:66. Most of these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Redemption is a drama in three acts – three acts and a brief intermission – today the prelude, the overture, an introduction encapsulating the story to be fleshed out as the action proceeds. Jesus and his companions enter the city of Jerusalem from the east while the Roman governor, Pilate, makes his annual procession into the city in pomp and circumstance from the west.

The crowds welcome Jesus, singing “Hosannas” (a Jewish word meaning “Save us, we pray!”). We can perhaps hear a chorus, as in the Greek theater, singing sentiments later put into writing by the English philosopher journalist G.K. Chesterton:

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

Jesus, eschewing pride and showing a different way, enters the city on a donkey.

Later in the week, Act One, Scene One – An upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

In the first act, Jesus shares a Passover meal with his friends. He knows, although they seem not to, that this will be their last formal meal together. At supper he tries to explain to them what he believes is going to happen and how he hopes they’ll remember him. He uses bread and wine to make his point, but they don’t seem to understand. In fact, as the scene ends, they are arguing about their relative ranks! Who among them will be the greatest? The curtain falls on a frustrated rabbi.

Act One, Scene Two – the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

Dinner is over, so Jesus tries something else. Taking on the role of a servant, he kneels down and washes their feet, but they still don’t get it. Later they would begin to understand; later they would re-enact Jesus’ actions and ponder them again and again, trying to more fully understand him. We, too, are pondering; we, too, grope for understanding.

Act One, Scene Three – a garden outside the city walls at Gethsemane.

Depressed and agonizing, feeling he has failed, knowing his actions of the past three years are leading inexorably to a final “showdown” with the political authorities, Jesus prays to be delivered from the inevitable. He asks his closest friends to stay awake with him, but they cannot. Falling asleep as he prays, they abandon him emotionally just as they will abandon him physically. Soldiers enter the scene led by one of Jesus’ own friends, Judas from the village of Kerioth. After a brief struggle in which a servant is injured, Jesus surrenders. His friends scatter and even deny knowing him. We hear the chorus sing more of Chesterton’s words:

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Act Two – another place outside the city, a hill called “the place of a skull.”

Jesus, struggling under the weight of a cross, staggers up the hill from the city to the summit. Once there, he is nailed to the cross he has dragged along the way. The crowd jeers, the soldiers mock, his friends (so few of them now) weep. Speaking from the cross as he dies, “Forgive them…. It is finished.” His friends take his body and seal it in a borrowed tomb. What more is there to do? It certainly seems to be the end. What more could possibly come after the death of the drama’s protagonist?

Intermission – another garden occupied by a sealed tomb.

The characters have all left. The stage is as bare and as silent as a grave. Is this intermission or has the drama concluded? The principal’s death certainly seems to have ended things! The silence of Holy Saturday is profound; it is palpable; it is pregnant with uncertainty. What does all that has come before mean? How can there possibly be anything more after this?

Act Three – the same garden, the tombstone rolled away.

What seemed to be a tragedy at the end of the second act turns out to be a comedy. The tomb is empty! There are angels where there should be mourners! There are only folded linens where there should be a body! Confusion mixes with relief, disbelief encounters faith, death is overcome by life. The joke is on the powers of evil, but what does it all mean? Many who have missed the first two acts of this drama arrive to see the end of the story, but can one truly appreciate the momentous conclusion without having lived through it all? Can one really get the punchline without hearing the whole story?

As the drama ends, Jesus’ friends and others who now believe are moving into the world, a world they will change, a world to which they will bring a message of love and a vision of peace. The chorus sings the last of Chesterton’s verses, a triumphant supplication to the conqueror of death:

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

The story of our Lord’s Resurrection, the story of redemption is a drama in three acts. Today, only the overture . . . don’t miss the whole story!

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

Kingdom Life: Common, Routine, Mundane – Sermon for Palm Sunday 2015

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A sermon offered on Palm Sunday, March 29, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(At the blessing of the Palms, Zechariah 9:9-12 was read. The lessons at the Mass were Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; and Mark 11:1-11. The Passion according to Mark, Mk 14:1-15:47 was read at the conclusion of the service. Other than Zechariah, these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Icon of the Entry Into JerusalemThe four evangelists are traditionally represented by iconic depictions of the emphasis of their gospels. John, whose gospel is the longest and most different of the four tellings of Jesus’ story, is represented by an eagle because he emphasizes the divinity of Christ. Matthew, on the other hand, begins his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy and emphasizes the humanity of the Savior, so he is represented by a man. Luke emphasizes the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission; thus, he is represented by an ox or bull (often winged), the sort of animal offered in the Temple.

Mark, from whose gospel we read today, both the story of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem and the story of his Passion, is represented by a winged lion, an emblem of kingship, because his emphasis is both the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be of lineage of King David and that Jesus’ mission was rather different, the ushering in of the kingdom of God.

Which, I think, gives us an interpretive tool for understanding why Mark tells the story of the “triumphal entry” as he does. John, who (as I said) is most interested in portraying Jesus as divine, blows by this episode in two sentences: basically he says, “There was a crowd; they cheered; Jesus rode a donkey. Now back to the important stuff.” Matthew, who (remember) emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, adds the story of Jesus losing his temper with the money changers and animal merchants in the Temple courtyard. Luke, who is intent on portraying Jesus as the sacrificial Messiah predicted by prophecy, adds a second donkey to the parade (because he apparently misunderstands Zechariah, tells us that Jesus wept over Jerusalem on the way in to town, includes a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees about the stones singing “Hosanna,” follows Matthew in adding the cleansing of the Temple, and concludes the story with Jesus staying in the Temple and teaching while the chief priests figure out how to kill him.

Mark, however…. Mark keeps it simple – not as simple as John, but direct and to the point. But what is his point? In the NRSV translation of Mark 11:1-11 which we read at the blessing of the palms there are 232 words. 144 of them are spent describing the process of locating, procuring, saddling (so to speak), and sitting astride the donkey. Only 67 words actually describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. And 21 words finish the pericope with its anti-climactic ending, “…and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” I find that intriguing.

Now it may seem silly to count words, but this is one of the things bible scholars do. Sometimes, when studying a book or section of the Bible, we can better understand an author’s theme by examining the frequency of word usage. For example, the use of love in the First Letter of John and the repeated use of immediately in Mark’s gospel are enlightening. So noting the number of words invested in telling the different parts of a story can, perhaps, tell us what the author felt important, and Mark seems to think the getting the donkey is roughly twice as important as Jesus actually riding it into the city!

So let’s first look at the lesser important part of the story, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. What’s going on here? In a word, what’s going on here is politics! Jesus is making a huge political statement; first, he is very clearly acting out the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zec 9:9) He is making an acted-out, very visual claim to be the king!

Furthermore, he is doing it in a way that mocks the Roman governor. It was the practice of the governor, at this time Pontius Pilate, to make a show of force at the time of the Passover. Because so many potentially rebellious Jews were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of an historic liberation, the Exodus from Egypt, the Romans feared the possibility of open revolt. So at the beginning of the festival, the governor would come to Jerusalem from his usual residence at the imperial seaport of Caesarea Maritima, entering the city from the west, riding his war stallion or perhaps in a chariot of state, at the head of long column of armed soldiers. Jesus, on the other hand, is approaching from the east, coming up from Jericho and the Jordan valley, over the Mount of Olives through the peasant villages of Bethphage and Bethany. Riding the lowliest of beasts of burden, the least military of animals, Jesus is making the point that the kingdom of Heaven is about something other than regal authority and military might, something other than power elites and superiority over others.
And, I suggest, that’s why Mark spends so many words telling us about the locating, procuring, preparing, and mounting of the donkey.

There is a legendary suggestion that the two unnamed disciples whom Jesus’ sent to get the colt were none other than James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who just before this (at the end of Mark’s Chapter 10, in fact) had come to Jesus and said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (10:37) None of the evangelist tell us the names of the two disciples sent to get the donkey, but wouldn’t that have been a graphic way for Jesus to demonstrate to them that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all?” (10:43-44) It is certainly a clear sign that life in the kingdom is not a glamorous thing; it’s not a life of war stallions and chariots, palaces and fine meals, or relaxing at your ease while others bear the burdens. It is not that sort of life for the king, and it is not that sort of life for his followers.

As Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology, has noted,

The disciples in Mark get a boat ready for Jesus, find out how much food is on hand for the multitude, secure the room and prepare the table for the Last Supper and, of course, chase down a donkey that the Lord needs to enter Jerusalem. Whatever they may have heard when Jesus beckoned, “Follow me,” it has led them into a ministry of handling the gritty details of everyday life. (Donkey Fetchers, in The Christian Century, April 4, 2006, page 18)

Life in the kingdom, where all are servants, is common, routine, mundane, and often exhausting. This, I think, is why Mark makes more of getting the donkey than he does of Jesus’ riding it into Jerusalem. He wants us to understand that life in the kingdom is the life of the king whose faithfulness to his God and to his understanding of his mission required him to take up the cross, the king who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35)

Poet Mary Oliver imagined this story from the point of view of the donkey when she wrote:

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight!

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof, and stepped, as he had to, forward.

(The Poet Thinks about the Donkey, Thirst, Beacon Press, 2007)

The One who rode the donkey also “stepped, as he had to, forward,” into that most common, most routine, most mundane, and most exhausting fact of life. He stepped willingly into death. Therefore,

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
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Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore . . . be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, [however common or routine or mundane or exhausting] because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:54-55,57-58)

Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Monday in Holy Week, BCP 1979, page 220)

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

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

Standing by Jesus – Sermon for Palm Sunday (Year A) – April 13, 2014

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This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; and Matthew 21:1-11. In addition, Zechariah 9:9-12 was read at the Liturgy of the Palms, and the Passion story, Matthew 26:14-27:66, was read at the conclusion of the Mass. Except for the Zechariah text, these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Donkey with Colt

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

That’s one of my favorite pieces of verse, The Donkey, by G.K. Chesterton, in which he captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode.

Matthew’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is somewhat confusing because he pluralizes the donkey. Did you notice that in the reading of the Gospel lesson? “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” Why does Matthew do this (when none of the other Gospel writers do so)? Some have speculated that it is because Matthew wants to tell the story in a way that precisely mirrors the prophecy in Zechariah: as you can see in the Gospel reading, Matthew’s version of Zechariah is that the Messiah will come “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

That argument presupposes, however, that Matthew does not understand Jewish poetry which uses what is called “parallelism” to underscore or highlight a particular idea, saying the same thing in two or more ways, often connected with the conjunction “and”. But Matthew was an educated Jew, so that argument doesn’t float. Others have suggested that Matthew is the first Christian biblical literalist, but that doesn’t hold water either since Matthew’s Gospel is full of metaphor and allegory. No, the likely reason Matthew does this is to present Jesus as the least military, the least kingly, the least imperial of all possible messiahs. Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus the Messiah (and Matthew the Gospel writer)

. . . want two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke also make point of telling us that Jesus approached Jerusalem from the east. They do this be situating us to landmarks: Matthew tells us in today’s lesson that it was “when they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives” that Jesus sent two of the disciples to get the donkey and the colt. This direction of approach is important.

At the time of the Passover, as pilgrims made their way into the city for the ritual observances, the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 (about twice the size of Medina) to well over 200,000 (more than the population of Akron). We know from secular histories that it was the custom for the Roman governor to make a militaristic triumphal entry to Jerusalem — with war horse, chariot, and weapons — each year in the days before Passover to remind the pilgrims that Rome was in charge. Because the Passover is a celebration of liberation from imperial Egypt, imperial Rome was very uneasy about so many people being in town. Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology, according to which the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.

The Roman garrison was on the coast at Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the Great to honor Caesar Augustus, so their approach would have been from the west. So there were two processions into Jerusalem. One — the procession of the Roman army — coming from the west, demonstrating imperial might; the other — those with Jesus — coming from the east, making a clearly anti-imperial witness. Jesus’ subversive donkey ride reminded all those waving Palm branches that Rome was the new Egypt, and the Emperor was the new Pharaoh.

And, obviously, the crowd got it! People began to spread their cloaks on the road for Jesus to ride over like a red carpet; they remembered, perhaps, the story in the Second Book of Kings, which tells how the crowds spread their cloaks on the ground when Jehu was anointed King of Israel. They cut palm branches or other leafy plants as Jews did at other celebrations and festivals and strewed them in Jesus’ path; perhaps they remembered the admonition of Psalm 118: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.” (v. 27) They must have, for they began chanting verses of that psalm:

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord. (Ps 118:25-26)

This is what Hosanna means. Hosanna is not a shout of exultation, though we have made it one; hosanna is a prayer for salvation. The Hebrew is h?shi `?h nn? and it means “Save now, we pray.”

Recognizing Jesus as the “Son of David,” the crowd chanted the words “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and others respond, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

The scene was set for a clash not only with the authorities of the Jewish nation, but with imperial Rome. The first Holy Week had begun. And ever since that first Holy Week, the followers of Jesus have been trying to figure out what to do with it. Sara Miles of St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco says, “it’s kind of confusing: there’s a lot of different stuff going on in Holy Week. You could get whiplash” and she explains:

Think about it. During Holy Week, we wave palms in the air and hail Jesus as king, the long-awaited messiah who’s going to save us from our oppressors, then we change our minds and scream that the oppressors should crucify him; we share a loving last supper with Jesus and he washes our feet, then we sneak out after dinner and betray him. Jesus begs us to stay with him, we promise we will, then we don’t. We abandon him, he’s arrested and beaten; he forgives us, then we run away. Then Jesus is killed; we lay him in the tomb and weep; we go back for him, then he’s gone, then he’s back, and then — wait! — he’s not dead at all.

Spiritual whiplash, indeed!

But necessary whiplash, I’m afraid . . . . If we just skip from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday, without stopping to ponder the days between, Jesus’ last supper with his friends, his night of tormented prayer in the garden, his scourging and crucifixion, the fear and anguish of his disciples, and their confusion on finding the empty tomb, then we will have misunderstood the whole thing. We’ll be lulled into believing that the Christian life is just one triumph after another. We will have failed to appreciate that triumph often comes with suffering and death. Palm Sunday is only the opening act of the drama of redemption; it takes courage and commitment to enter completely into the fullness of the story.

It is so much easier to come for the pomp of Palm Sunday and then go about our business for the week, ignoring Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, before coming back in for the trumpets, the lilies, the bells, and all the rest of the great show on Resurrection Sunday. But this year somebody needs to stand by Jesus. Somebody needs to hang in there with him. Somebody needs to stay at his side as he is humiliated, beaten, mocked, and killed. Holy Week is our annual confrontation with that choice.

The donkey had no choice facing her

One far fierce hour and sweet:
[When] There was a shout about [her] ears,
And palms before [her] feet.

She and her colt had not choice, but we do. If we don’t have the courage to stand by Jesus, who will?

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

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

Salted with Fire – From the Daily Office – April 8, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus said: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 9:49-50 (NRSV) – April 8, 2014.)

Fiery Human FiguresAs Mark constructs his version of the story of Jesus, the Lord has just advised his followers to cut off body parts that might cause them to sin saying it is better to enter Heaven maimed than to be thrown into Hell where “the fire is never quenched.” To this admonition, then, Mark adds this statement about salt.

Has Mark just taken some disparate sayings of Jesus both of which talk of fire and put them together? That’s one theory. Or is Mark accurately relaying a conversation between Jesus and his disciples and, if so, is Jesus suggesting that everyone will be “salted” with hellfire and is he saying that this is a good thing?

The hellfire in question is the fire of Gehenna; the Greek word translated as “hell” in the passage is géennan. This is a reference to the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; thus, it is a metaphor or symbol for wickedness and its destruction.

The “salting” of which Jesus speaks may be simple seasoning, or it may be the use of salt as a food preservative. If the latter understanding applies, Jesus would seem to be saying that everyone will be “preserved” through the purging, the burning away of wickedness and sin. And this makes sense immediately following upon his startling admonition to cut off and dispose of hands, feet, or eyes which might cause one to “stumble.”

A common image for living through troubles and hardships is “going through the fire.” It’s a biblical metaphor drawn from the prophet Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isa 43:2) Another prophet, Zechariah, understood such “walking through fire” to have the purgative and preservative effect to which Jesus seems to be alluding: ” I will put [the remnant of Israel] into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.'” (Zech 13:9)

One of my favorite hymns, How Firm a Foundation, includes a verse based on this prophecy:

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

I believe it is to this “refining by fire” that Jesus’ deceptively simple statement, “Everyone will be salted with fire,” refers. At one time or another, everyone will be “salted” with hellfire, and as troublesome and even painful as that may be at the time, it is a good thing.

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

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

Filthy Clothes – From the Daily Office – December 18, 2013

From the Prophet Zechariah:

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Zech. 3:3-4 (NRSV) – December 18, 2013.)

Dirty ShirtClothing is a common metaphor in Holy Scripture. Clean clothing is often a portrayal of righteousness or forgiveness. Everyone is familiar with the vision of John of Patmos recorded in the Book of Revelation:

One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:13-14)

I’m not aware of any other use of “filthy clothes” to represent sin or guilt, although Paul comes close in his admonition to the Ephesians: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. . . .” (Eph 4:22) The Greek verb translated here as “put away” is the same that would be used to describe the act of removing one’s clothing, airo.

In Zechariah’s vision, angelic attendants remove Joshua’s filthy clothes, but in our lives it is up to us to do it ourselves, to “put away” such things as Paul lists.

There is one week left until the celebration of the Nativity. In that week, getting ready for Christmas, what “filthy clothes” do I need to take off?

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

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

Today Is the Day! Well, Not Really – From the Daily Office – December 25, 2012

From the Prophet Zechariah:

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. Many nations shall join themselves to the Lord on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. The Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem. Be silent, all people, before the Lord; for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Zechariah 2:10-13 (NRSV) – December 25, 2012.)
 
Icon of the Nativity of ChristToday is the day! . . . . Well, not really. We don’t really know the date on which Jesus was born. In our ignorance, we Christians took over a pagan feast and made it our own. The feast of Sol Invictus became to feast of the Nativity. Celebrations of the birth of the conquering sun became the celebration of the birth of the conquering Son (a pun the only works in English).

Atheists and anti-religious types like to throw that fact in our faces and claim that Christianity is just a “made-up faith” (like all religions, they claim). Or, it used to suggest that Christianity is in someway “colonial”, taking over that which rightfully belongs to others. Or, the fact that many modern Christians do not know the history of the Christmas holiday becomes an indictment against all Christians as stupid and uninformed.

If you ask me, that is all a bunch of what my grandmother called pettifogging. The importance of this day lies not in its dating but in what it stands for. We don’t actually celebrate Jesus’ birthday; we celebrate the Nativity, the birth of God among us, the Incarnation of God in all times and in all places. We give thanks for God’s promise and God’s keeping God’s promise to come and dwell in our midst. It doesn’t matter on what particular day the Child in whom that was manifest was born. What matters is that he was born, not when. Before that reality silence and awe are the appropriate response, not pettifogging and bickering over calendars!

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given” wrote Episcopal priest Phillips Brooks in 1868 in the now popular carol O Little Town of Bethlehem. In it we sing this petition, “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born to us today.” That is a prayer for everyday, not simply on this feast of Sol Invictus. Since we don’t know on what particular day Jesus was born, perhaps we should celebrate his birth on every day.

Everyday is the day!

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

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

An Angry Jesus – From the Daily Office – December 1, 2012

From Luke’s Gospel:

As Jesus came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.” Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; and he said, “It is written, “My house shall be a house of prayer’; but you have made it a den of robbers.” Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 19:41-48 (NRSV) – December 1, 2012)
 
Detail from "Christ Cleansing the Temple" by Carl Heinrich Bloch, 1875When I was eight years old, my grandparents gave me an illustrated copy of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. More than 50 years later, I still have it. It is rather small, a little bigger than a standard paper-back novel, and has a zippered leather cover. There are perhaps thirty glossy color plates with (one must admit) mediocre depictions of various biblical events. My favorite has always been the depiction of Jesus cleansing the Temple.

In that picture (not the picture I’ve appended to this post, I’m sorry to say), Jesus stands like some comic-book superhero, eyes blazing with righteous fury, his hair and the skirts of his robe flaring out as if he were some rapidly pirouetting dancer, arms outstretched, cat-o-nine-tails whipping about his head. Tables are crashing to the ground, animals are scattering, and the money changers and merchants are fleeing in terror. You can almost hear the panicked cries of the animals and the men.

Throughout the years, as I would go to Sunday School (not very often) or take confirmation instruction (required at my parochial high school) or attend college classes on “the bible as literature”, I would use that bible and look at those pictures, especially that one. I couldn’t really relate to the wise and gentle Jesus sitting on a hillside rock preaching the Beatitudes, nor to the suffering victim hanging on the cross under a stormy and darkling sky. But I could relate to the superhero furiously chasing the bad guys out of the Temple.

Many years later, I was practicing law as a trial lawyer and serving as the chancellor of my diocese. An older priest of the church during some council or committee meeting, or perhaps during the annual diocesan convention, in support of some position or other on some important issue of the day made the assertion that, “of course, Jesus never lost his temper.” What? thought I. You’ve got to be kidding! I’d grown up with a picture of a very angry Jesus kicking butt in Jerusalem!

But . . . as the years have passed, I have seen his point. Jesus was angry, but Jesus didn’t lose his temper. To be angry, even demonstrably angry is one thing; to lose one’s temper, however, suggests something more. Consider the synonymous descriptions we use: blow a fuse, fly into a rage, hit the roof, hit the ceiling, have a cow, have a fit, go ballistic, fly off the handle, flip one’s wig, flip one’s lid, blow one’s stack, throw a fit, blow up. They all describe a loss of control.

That’s the point, I believe, my older, more seasoned colleague was making. Jesus was angry, but Jesus was not out of control. Luke does not elaborate in his description of the cleansing of the Temple, nor do Mark or Matthew other than to add that he overturned the merchants’ tables. John, however, has a more interesting description:

In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (John 2:14-16)

Jesus was angry, but he was not out of control. He did not “lose his temper”. What he did was deliberate and determined. This was an incident of symbolic prophetic action, like Jeremiah breaking a clay pot, Isaiah walking naked through the city, or Hosea marrying a prostitute. This is Jesus very carefully and very consciously acting out the last verse of the prophecy of Zechariah: “There shall no longer be traders in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day.” (Zech. 14:21)

So, after all these years, even though that superhero picture in my illustrated bible remains my favorite, I think the artist was wrong in his or her depiction of Jesus. If I were going to paint that scene now, everything might be the same except for Jesus’ eyes. I would not paint them flashing with terrible, uncontrolled rage; I would show in them the same kind of disappointed, almost sad, displeasure I sometimes saw in my parents’ eyes. That’s the only sort of anger I can imagine Jesus expressing . . . controlled, deliberate, and so very, very disappointed.

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

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

The Wounds on my Chest – From the Daily Office – November 29, 2012

From the Prophet Zechariah:

On that day, says the Lord of hosts, I will cut off the names of the idols from the land, so that they shall be remembered no more; and also I will remove from the land the prophets and the unclean spirit. And if any prophets appear again, their fathers and mothers who bore them will say to them, “You shall not live, for you speak lies in the name of the Lord”; and their fathers and their mothers who bore them shall pierce them through when they prophesy. On that day the prophets will be ashamed, every one, of their visions when they prophesy; they will not put on a hairy mantle in order to deceive, but each of them will say, “I am no prophet, I am a tiller of the soil; for the land has been my possession since my youth.” And if anyone asks them, “What are these wounds on your chest?” the answer will be “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Zechariah 13:2-6 (NRSV) – November 29, 2012)
 
Chest WoundI know I’ve read this bit of Zechariah before, but I don’t think I’ve ever paid any attention to it. This morning, the image of parents “piercing” their own children who happen to be prophets and that of “the wounds I received in the house of my friends” really hit home! Strife within families and between friends is here the recompense paid by God to false prophets, but it seems to be the lot of the prophet, the priest, or the ardent advocate in any age. I am reminded of Jesus’ quoting Micah to the effect that “your enemies are members of your own household.” (Micah 7:6; cf Matt. 10:35-36 and Luke 12:52-53) Speaking on behalf of God or any god or any cause is never easy; it leads to misunderstanding and conflict – just look at what happened in many families during the recently passed political campaigns.

That strife and that wounding seem to happen most severely when someone is focused on a particular issue of great importance to them to the exclusion of all others. We referred to them as “single-issue voters” during the election. In recent years that single-issue in politics has been abortion, but the phenomenon is not limited to that particular matter.

I have a friend who is particularly dedicated to the cause of marriage equality. He is a faithful member of an Episcopal parish where he regularly worships, but because of the failure of the 2012 General Convention to adopt a rite for marriage of same-sex couples for use across the church without restriction he has vowed to give nothing of his time, talent, or treasure to the Episcopal Church. The issue came up in our conversation because of a church appeal for donations to assist those affected by Hurricane Sandy. He refused, “Not one red cent.”

That refusal felt like a stab in the gut, like a wound on the chest! We, the church, do so many things that are worthwhile and yet, because of his principled stand on that single issue, they are treated as nothing, as worthless, as unworthy of his consideration. He is unwilling to contribute to the support of what I dedicate my life to everyday. I understand why he is doing so; I even share his position on the marriage equality question. And yet I feel wounded by his refusal.

I would have to have a lot more fingers and toes to count all the times this sort of thing has happened in the church through the years over much less serious matters and much less principled positions. People, myself included, get bent out of shape over silly things – the kind music chosen for a service, the type or color of flowers on the altar, you name it – and the next thing you know parishioners are withholding contributions, or not attending worship, or even transferring their membership. Piercings! Gut stabs! Chest wounds!

I do not claim the mantle of prophecy by any stretch of the imagination, but I can surely relate to Zechariah’s oracle! Years ago, when I would bring up these sorts of things with my spiritual director (who was a parish priest of many years experience), he would just look at me with gentle eyes and ask, “And how did they treat Jesus?” In comparison, although they hurt, I guess I can live with the wounds on my chest.

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

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

Happy Birthday, Church! You Were Dry Bones…. – Sermon for Pentecost (Year B) – May 27, 2012

Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost Sunday (Year B): Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 104: 25-35,37; Acts 2:1-21; and John 15:26-27;16:4b-15

What happened one thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine years ago?

If we can believe the calculations of an early medieval monk named Dennis the Short, one thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine years ago today (or thereabouts) the events described in the reading from the Book of Acts took place. On this day, in about the year 33 A.D. the Christian Church was born; the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples and they went out into the streets of Jerusalem proclaiming the gospel of salvation and baptizing thousands of people.

Happy Birthday, Church! Turn to someone near you and wish them “Happy Birthday!” Now turn to someone else near you and say, “O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!” Say to them, “Thus says the Lord God: You are dried up! You are spiritually dehydrated!”

That’s not much of a birthday greeting is it? Doesn’t really seem like a very neighborly thing to say, does it?


But that is precisely the task that was given to the prophet Ezekiel. He was shown a series of visions that he was to communicate to the people of God, to his neighbors and fellow Israelites. In one of those visions, which we heard in our Old Testament reading today, he was taken to a valley and shown a pile of bones and told that these were his neighbors to whom he was to say to them, “You are nothing more than dried up on skeletons right now, and worse than that you are not even skeletons . . . you are disconnected bones. You are so spiritually dried up that even your connective tissues, your sinews, your ligaments and tendons have turned to dust.” So he was given the task to prophesy to the wind, that is to the Spirit, to the breath of God and call that breath to enter into the bones and return them to life.

In another vision, Ezekiel was shown a grand plan for a new temple – he goes on at length recording the measurements of the temple and its furnishings, its grounds and all the land surrounding it. He is shown a river flowing from the temple through all of the lands of the world; in places it is ankle-deep; in other places it is waist-deep; in still others it is deep enough to swim it. The river, he is told, is the river of life, “everything will live where the river goes” (Ezek. 47:9). On the banks of the river are trees, “all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek. 47:12)

Quite a contrast . . . to call the people of God from parched desiccated bones with no life in them to a flood of living water, from spiritual dehydration to abundant life flowing from God’s temple.

Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets make use of water was a sign of God’s purifying Spirit: it was again through Ezekiel that God spoke saying, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you.” (Ezek. 36:25) Speaking through the prophet Isaiah God promised: “I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring. They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams.” (Isa. 44:3-4). It was Zechariah who predicted that on the day of the Lord “living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea; it shall continue in summer as in winter.” (Zech. 14:8). There are so many examples it is not necessary to list them all. The people of First Century Israel knew all this well; their tradition was rich with it. Remember the conversation when Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (John 3:5). Water was and always is the symbol of God who purifies, who gives birth, who gives life, who heals, and who refreshes.

And so on that day in Jerusalem one thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine years ago, when the people in the streets thought the disciples were drunk, Peter spoke up and said, “No. It is not wine! It is the Spirit of God which, like water, has been poured out upon them so that they prophesy and tell you of Jesus.” And, the Book of Acts tells us, Peter and the others told them the story of Jesus, each in their own languages; Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamian, Judeans, Cappadocians, Pontans, Asian, Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians, Libyans, Romans, Cretans, and Arabs all heard the gospel in their own tongues. And the church was born.

Those who heard Peter and the other apostles asked them, “Brothers, what should we do?”

Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” . . . So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. (Acts 2:37-39,40)

That was the task set for the disciples, the same task that was set for Ezekiel – and it is the task set for us. Each and every person in this church today who has been baptized has accepted this same task. Some may have been baptized under the rite of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer in which they (or someone on their behalf) promised to “obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of [their] life” and for them the community prayed that they would “not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified.” Some may have been baptized under the rite of the 1979 prayer book, in which all who participate, both those to be baptized and those who are already members of the church, promise to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” Some may have been baptized under the rites of other Christian traditions that include similar prayers and promises. In any event, the import is the same: the task set before the baptized is that which was set for Ezekiel, that which was set for the disciples in Jerusalem one thousand nine hundred and seventy-nine years ago today.

But is it possible that we are more like the people in the streets of Jerusalem than like the disciples who went out to them? More like the Israelites of Ezekiel’s time than like Ezekiel himself? Is it possible that it is we who are desiccated, dehydrated, dried-up, and dispirited? Are we in need of God’s life-giving, life-renewing, healing water?

If so, then receive it. [Each congregant was given a bottle of water when they entered the church.] I want you to give your bottle of water to someone whom you think might need some spiritual refreshment; and I want you to accept a bottle of water from someone who thinks you might need some spiritual refreshment. Let these bottles of water remind you that you are a source of refreshment to others, and that through others God provides you with spiritual renewal.

Take your bottle of water as a reminder of the prophets’ promise to God’s people, of Jesus’ promise to you: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.” Jesus also reminded us that as we slake our thirst on the living water he gives us, so we then become sources of living water to others. He went on to say, “As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'” (John 7:37-38) Let this bottle of water be a reminder that you are baptized, that you have received the gift of the Holy Spirit, that you promised to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” that you are a prophet of the Most High God and a minister of the Gospel, and let your faith be refreshed, restored, and reinvigorated so that you may be a source of spiritual refreshment to others.

No longer are you dried-up bones! No longer are you spiritually dehydrated! No longer is your breath taken away! No longer are you but dust! God has sent forth his Spirit and you are renewed! Sing to the Lord as long as you live; praise your God while you have your being! Declare God’s glory among the peoples!

Happy Birthday, Church! Happy One Thousand Nine Hundred and Seventy-Ninth Birthday!