That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Celtic (page 2 of 5)

Mystery and Community: Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day – Sermon for May 26, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, May 26, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Trinity (Year C): Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; Canticle 13 (Song of the Three Young Men, 29-34); Romans 5:1-5; and John 16:12-15. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Andrei Rublev Icon of the Holy TrinityI’d like you to take out a pen (there are some in the pew racks if you don’t have one of your own) and on a blank piece of paper, or an empty spot on your service bulletin, I’d like you write down these numbers:

1,016,823
116,516
405,399
36,516
58,209
2,031
4,487
22
3

They are, respectively:

1,016,823 – the estimated number of war dead from the American civil war (the figures, especially for Confederate dead, are notoriously untrustworthy)
116,516 – the number of Americans who died in World War I
405,399 – the number of Americans who died in World War II
36,516 – the number of Americans who died in the Korean conflict
58,209 – the number of Americans who died in Vietnam
2,031 – the number of Americans who so far have died in Afghanistan during our so-called “war on terror”
4,487 – the number of Americans who so far have died in Iraq during our so-called “war on terror”
22 – the average number of U.S. Armed Forces veterans and active duty personnel who commit suicide every day because of combat-related PTSD
3 – the number of Persons in the One, Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity

Today, our church asks us to focus our attention on the last of these numbers. Tomorrow, our country asks us to remember all the others. It is merely fortuitous that the calendar, this year, conflates the Feast of the Blessed Trinity with Memorial Day weekend, but it seems to me that the two speak to us with a united voice drawing our attention to common themes.

Memorial Day has its origins in a proclamation by General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization for Union Civil War veterans. On May 5, 1868, he called for an annual, national “Decoration Day.” It was observed for the first time that year on May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle and because it was the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in most areas of the country. It was observed, that first year, in 27 states. A similar day of remembrance was held in the states of the former Confederacy on June 3, which was the birthday of Jefferson Davis, first and only President of the Confederate States of America. Beginning in the 1880s the name “Memorial Day” began to be used for these commemorations and it gradually became the more common term. For the first hundred years, these holidays were matters of state law, although in 1950 Congress issued a joint resolution requesting the President to issue a proclamation calling for a national observance on May 30 and every year since the presidents have done so. In 1967, by act of Congress, “Memorial Day” was declared the official name and May 30 the official date under Federal law. The following year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day, together with Washington’s birthday, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day, from their traditional dates to specified Mondays in order to create convenient three-day weekends.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, by the way, opposed that change and has publicly stated its position that, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day.” Throughout his career in the Senate, the late Senator from Hawaii Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, annually introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date of May 30. Obviously, his efforts proved unsuccessful.

The Solemnity, or Principal Feast, of the Most Holy Trinity has a somewhat longer history. The Sacramentary of St. Gregory the Great (who was pope from 590 to 604) contained prayers and a Preface for a celebration of the Trinity, but specified no date. Documents from the pontificate of Gregory VII (pope from 1073 to 1085) indicate that by that time an Office of the Holy Trinity was recited on the Sunday after Pentecost in some places, but it was not a universal practice. In 1162, Thomas á Becket (1118–70) was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, and his first act was to proclaim that the day of his consecration should be commemorated as a new festival in honor of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from England throughout the western Catholic world until Pope John XXII in 1334, the last year of his 18-year papacy, ordered the feast observed by the entire Church on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

I want to suggest to you today that these two observances, one secular and one religious, share two common themes, and that this year’s fortuitous coincidence of Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day weekend allows us to explore them. Those themes are community and mystery.

There is a humorous video on YouTube made by a group calling themselves Lutheran Satire in which two Irishman engage St. Patrick in a dialog about analogies for the Holy Trinity. Although at first pronouncing themselves simple and unsophisticated, the two proceed to demonstrate considerable theological acumen as they condemn Patrick as a heretic each time he tries an analogy. The famous water-ice-steam analogy, they condemn as Modalism; the analogy of the sun, with its light and heat, they denounce as Arianism; when Patrick tries to liken the Trinity to a shamrock, they stop him and criticize him for preaching Partialism. Finally, Patrick gives up and asserts:

The Trinity is a mystery which cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the Substance, that we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct Person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is One, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.

The two Irishman, after a moment of stunned silence, respond, “Well, why didn’t you just say that?”

So there you have it: the Trinity is a mystery and every analogy by which we try to explain how God can be one-in-three fails, every attempt to comprehend the unity in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together are one God ends up in heresy, and every sermon about the Doctrine of the Trinity either confuses the heck out of us or bores us to tears.

Therefore, rather than try to explain or comprehend the mystery that is the Trinity, let’s focus instead on the community that is the Trinity: the paradigm and model of all human community. The early Church Fathers explored in their writings how many aspects of our humanity reveal the divine image: our ability to perceive God’s presence; our apparently innate knowledge of the spiritual realm; our intellect; our ability to freely choose; and our capacity to live lives of goodness and love. These characteristics, they taught, belong to every human being and reveal much about God.

In the twentieth-century theologians have explored the concept of human personhood. To be made in the image of God is not to be made in the image of the Father only; it is to be made in the image of the Holy Trinity, to be made in the image of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Human beings are persons intended to be, like the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, in relationship with other persons. This means that participation in community is at the heart of our humanity; our relatedness to other persons is at the very core of who we are. The three Divine Persons are forever united with each other in mutual love. They dwell within one another; they collaborate and share in all their activities; they always act in harmonious accord. This is the model for the ideal human community, the paradigm of corporate human existence.

Human beings are supposed to work together in harmony in ways that preserve and respect the equality and dignity of every person. The English Orthodox bishop and theologian Kallistos Ware put it this way in an article in the journal of the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius:

Each social grouping — family, parish, diocese, church council, school, office, factory, nation — has as its vocation to be transformed by grace into a living icon of [the Holy Trinity], to effect a reconciling harmony between diversity and unity, human freedom and mutual solidarity, after the pattern of the Trinity. (The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity, Sobornost 8, 17-18)

He also wrote in a later essay:

Belief in a God who is three-in-one, whose characteristics are sharing and solidarity, has direct and practical consequences for our Christian attitude toward politics, economics, and social action, and it is our task to work out these consequences in full detail. Each form of community — the family, the school, the workplace, the local eucharistic center, the monastery, the city, the nation — has as its vocation to become, each according to its own modality, a living icon of the Holy Trinity. (The Trinity: Heart of Our Life, in Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue, James S. Cutsinger, ed., InterVarsity:1997, 142)

On Friday, as has been customary in this country since 1950, the president issued a proclamation designating Memorial Day tomorrow as “a day of prayer for permanent peace.” In his proclamation, President Obama said:

On Memorial Day, we remember those we have lost not only for what they fought for, but who they were: proud Americans, often far too young, guided by deep and abiding love for their families, for each other, and for this country. Our debt to them is one we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice and strive to be a Nation equal to their example. On this and every day, we must meet our obligations to families of the fallen; we must uphold our sacred trust with our veterans, our service members, and their loved ones.

Above all, we can honor those we have lost by living up to the ideals they died defending. It is our charge to preserve liberty, to advance justice, and to sow the seeds of peace. With courage and devotion worthy of the heroes we remember today, let us rededicate ourselves to those unending tasks, and prove once more that America’s best days are still ahead. Let us pray the souls of those who died in war rest in eternal peace, and let us keep them and their families close in our hearts, now and forever. (Presidential Proclamation, May 24, 2013)

In other words, Memorial Day, like Trinity Sunday, is a day whose theme is community, the nation as community, the military services as community, the family as community. Bishop Ware’s description of Trinitarian community as embracing “diversity and unity, human freedom and mutual solidarity” could as easily have been used by the president to describe the community which celebrates Memorial Day; President Obama’s words of courage and devotion, sacrifice and trust, justice and eternal peace could as easily have been used to describe the community which is an icon of the Trinity.

There is also a mystery about Memorial Day, and the mystery is this: Why must young men and now young women go to war and die? One of my favorite Celtic folk songs reflects on this mystery. It was written in 1976 by the Scottish folksinger Eric Bogle and originally entitled No Man’s Land, but it is more commonly called The Green Fields of France or Willie McBride. It is the musing of a man stopping by a grave in a World War I cemetery and wondering about the man buried there. These are the last two verses:

Ah the sun now it shines on these green fields of France,
The warm summer breeze makes the red poppies dance,
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds;
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’re no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land,
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
To a whole generation that was butchered and damned.

Ah, young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Did all those who lay here really know why they died?
And did they believe when they answered the call,
Did they really believe that this war would end war?
For the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying were all done in vain,
For, young Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again and again and again and again.

The mystery of Memorial Day is the mystery of war. No one wants it to happen, and yet it does, again, and again, and again, and again . . . The mystery of Memorial Day is . . . why?

The mystery of the Trinity is expressed in that number 3: How can God who is One be Three? It’s a mystery which we cannot comprehend. It can be understood only through faith; it can be lived out only in community.

The mystery of Memorial Day is expressed in those other numbers: 1,016,823 — 116,516 — 405,399 — 36,516 — 58,209 — 2,031 — 4,487 — 22. It’s a mystery we must comprehend and, through our faith and in our communities, bring to an end. Please take home the paper on which you wrote those numbers and tomorrow . . . think about that.

Let us pray:

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the peoples and nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that the community of humankind may become more and more an image of the community of the Holy Trinity; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

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

A Thing of Power – From the Daily Office – April 15, 2013

From the Book of Daniel:

Daniel, who was called Belteshazzar, was severely distressed for a while.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Daniel 4:19a (NRSV) – April 15, 2013.)

Name TagsThis renaming of Daniel by King Nebuchadnezzar intrigues me. Earlier in chapter 4, Nebuchadnezzar explains that Daniel “was named Belteshazzar after the name of my god” apparently because the king believed Daniel to be “endowed with a spirit of the holy gods.” (v. 8)

Daniel is not the only Jew in Babylon to be renamed by the king or on the king’s behalf. In a reading last week we learned that “the palace master gave them other names: Daniel he called Belteshazzar, Hananiah he called Shadrach, Mishael he called Meshach, and Azariah he called Abednego.” (1:7) Why, I wonder, do we remember Daniel by his Hebrew name, but Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego by the names given them by their captors?

Naming is matter of power. The ancients knew this. Ancient myths of East and West tell of the power held in one’s name: it was believed that if one knew someone’s name one held power over that person. This may be why the Babylonians insisted on renaming these Jews.

In the Irish language the word for “name” is ainm – it is pronounced “AH-n’m”. The Irish word for “soul” is anam – it, too, is pronounced “AH-n’m”. It seems to me to be no coincidence that these words are homophones – one’s name is one’s identity; one’s soul is one’s identity. Certain schools of philosophy believe that the soul is the bearer of personal identity. In the language of the Inuit people there is the concept of the soul-name, atiq, which combines naming and identity, as well as family transmission. Names are definitive of who we are.

As children, we are taught to shrug off taunts and insults, “bad names” we called them; we are taught to recite a nursery rhyme – “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Of course, we know only too well that names do hurt and “bad names” hurt children very badly. Even as adults we may continue to be haunted by the taunts we endured as children. (I started wearing glasses even before going to kindergarten and I can still remember being called “Four-eyes” in the earliest grades of elementary school.) When we name someone or something, we do indeed exert power over that person or that thing.

We should treat all names with respect, especially our own, for a name, as the Babylonians knew, is a thing of power.

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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 Whole World is Irish on March 17 – Sermon for the Feast of St. Patrick – March 17, 2013

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 17, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Episcopal Sanctorale Lectionary, Patrick of Ireland: Psalm 97:1-2,7-12; Ezekiel 36:33-38; and Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary. At St. Paul’s Parish, during Lent, we are using the Daily Office of Morning Prayer as our antecommunion; therefore, only these two lessons and the psalm were read. The Epistle lesson, 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12, was not used.)

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Icon of St. Patrick of IrelandIn Ainm an Athar, agus an Mhic, agus an Spioraid Naoimh. Áiméan.

Dia dhaoibh ar maidin, gach duine. Beannachtaí na fheile Padraig oraibh.

That’s more Irish than I’ve spoken in nearly two years! What I said was, “God be with you this morning, everyone. The blessings of the Feast of St. Patrick be with you.” In other words, Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Everyone loves to be Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Even though we Funstons being descendants of Anglican Irish (or as the Irish would say, “Protestants”) did not have much, if anything, to do with the Irish communities of my childhood, we still (like everyone else) enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day. We would go to the parades, see and hear the pipe-and-drum corps, and all the other traditional sorts of things. On the evening news, we would see the reports of parades in other places, especially the big one down Fifth Avenue in New York City. And we would usually have corned beef and cabbage for dinner.

I have no problem with people dressing kilts (which aren’t really Irish, at all), putting green food coloring in beer, eating corned beef and cabbage (which is also not really Irish), or any of the other silly things people do on this day. It’s all part of the fun. Many like to watch Irish-themed movies on St. Patrick’s Day. My favorite is the heartwarming tale of a boxer’s return home in The Quiet Man, but I also like the mythical nonsense of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, or the intense drama of The Field, or the whacky comedy of Waking Ned Devine. Those movies are the only times I hear anyone say, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye” or “Faith and begorrah.” At least, I’ve never heard anyone say those things during any of my trips to Ireland.

The worship committee thought we ought to step away from Lent for a day (because March 17 today falls on Sunday) and celebrate St. Patrick. After all, on March 17, the whole world is Irish . . . but the man we commemorate wasn’t Irish and it would be much truer to his memory if on his feast day all the world tried to be not Irish, but Christian.

Patrick, who was a Romano-Brit (meaning a Roman who lived in Britain) was the son of a minor imperial official named Calpornius, who was also a deacon in the church; his grandfather Potitus was a priest. Around the year 406 A.D., at the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped and made a slave in Ireland to a minor tribal king. After six years, he escaped and returned home to Britain, and then went to Rome. There he was ordained a priest and a bishop and, according to the chronicle of Prosper of Aquitane, was appointed bishop to the Irish by Pope Celestine I; he arrived back in Ireland in 432 A.D. He landed near modern-day Belfast and set up his principal foundation in Armagh, which is now considered the Primatial See of Ireland. He ministered primarily in that part of the country known as Ulster. Patrick was not the first bishop appointed to bring the Christian faith to the people of Ireland. Ciaran and Palladius came before him, but their mission (primarily in Munster and Leinster, further south) did not bear the same fruits as Patrick’s. So today, what we celebrate is not Irish identity or heritage; today, we celebrate the success of a mission to spread the Christian faith.

The choir is going sing a poetic prayer or lorica attributed to Patrick, the famous St. Patrick’s Breastplate, as their anthem. It is attributed to him, but there is disagreement as to whether he actually wrote it. But he did write this prayer:

I give thanks to the one who strengthened me in all things, so that he would not impede me in the course I had undertaken and from the works also which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Rather, I sensed in myself no little strength from him, and my faith passed the test before God and people. (The Confession of St. Patrick)

For St. Patrick it seems the faith which passed the test was deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical. He is credited with using the shamrock, now one of the national emblems of Ireland, as an illustration of the Trinity – three lobes, yet one leaf – although that is probably an 18th Century legend rather than a historical fact. And as you heard, the Gospel lesson for his commemoration is the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Christ’s final words to his apostles before ascending into Heaven. This evangelical, Trinitarian faith — not green beer nor Celtic music nor corned beef and cabbage nor Irish-ness itself — but trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit shared with and commended to everyone around us, this is what we celebrate when we celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick.

I thought perhaps the lesson from Ezekiel was chosen for his feast because, with its “forty shades of green,” Ireland might make one think of the garden of Eden, and in Ireland there are both ruined towns and towns that are inhabited, some of both walled and fortified. But I think rather that it was chosen because, just as the nations around Israel came to know the Lord, the God of Israel, so the nations to which Irish missionaries went came to know the Lord Jesus Christ. What Patrick started in Ireland in 5th Century by the mid 6th Century was spreading to northern Europe, carried there by Irish priests and monks practicing what was called “white martyrdom.” The term comes from a 7th Century Irish sermon called the Cambrai homily:

Now there are three kinds of martyrdom that are counted as a cross to us, namely, white, blue, and red martyrdom.
It is white martyrdom for a man when he separates from everything that he loves for God, although he does not endure fasting and labor thereby.
The blue martyrdom is when through fasting and hard work they control their desires or struggle in penance and repentance.
The red martyrdom is when they endure a cross or destruction for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles when they were persecuted the wicked and taught the law of God. (O. Davis, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist Press: 1999)

The white martyrs left everything dear to them — homes, families, familiar surroundings, even Ireland itself — to spread the Gospel in distant lands; white martyrdom was a pilgrimage on behalf of Christ that might be extended permanently so that they would never again see their homeland. They went first to Scotland and the north of England, but then further afield to Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and even further. Like the man who had brought Christianity to their homeland, they held a deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical faith; and it is that faith which we celebrate when we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

It is that faith we all claim and, when we commemorate Patrick, it is to the spread of that faith that we dedicate ourselves. On the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, a special Litany of Penance is recited in Episcopal Churches. Among the confessions of that Litany we find this petition: “Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us, we confess to you, Lord.” (BCP 1979, page 268)

Let us remember that confession on St. Patrick’s Day and try not so much to be Irish, but try to be better Christians. Let us be like Patrick, who was not Irish, but Christian, and like him let us follow Christ’s Great Commission. If we must be Irish on this day, let us be like those Irish white martyrs of old, and commend the faith that is in us, a faith that is deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical.

Let us remember, also, a petition from the Great Litany which we recited on the First Sunday in Lent four weeks ago:

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good, we beseech thee to hear us, good Lord. (BCP 1979, page 151)

Let us pray:

Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

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

The Ash Wednesday Exhortation – Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent – February 17, 2013

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, February 17, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Lent 1, Year C: Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2,9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; and Luke 4:1-13. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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LentIn The Book of Common Prayer on page 264 you’ll find the beginning of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday. If you were here on that day which marks the beginning of this season we call Lent, or in another church to be marked on your forehead with the cross of ashes, to be reminded of your mortality with the familiar words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” you will also have heard the Lenten admonition which the presiding priest reads at each Ash Wednesday service. It begins at the bottom of that page and comes in the service after the reading of the lessons of the day and the preaching of the sermon.

It seems to me that many of us hear those words, perhaps even read along with them (as is our wont as Episcopalians), but I wonder to what extent we actually think about them, consider them, and internalize them. So this morning, as we enter into the Sundays which are in Lent but not of Lent, I’d like to return to Ash Wednesday and look more closely at, and perhaps offer a few cogent comments about, the Ash Wednesday admonition.

Dear People of God, . . . .

. . . . it starts and let’s just stop there and consider what that means. We hear those words, “the People of God,” often in Scripture, and when we do we usually understand it to mean those people long ago, those folks who lived way back then 2,000 or 3,000 or more years ago and way over there in the deserts of the Middle East in Palestine or Judea or Israel or Syria. “The People of God,” we think, are the Hebrews, those folks who Moses helped get their freedom from Pharaoh in Egypt, the ones to whom Moses is talking in the reading from Deuteronomy this morning. Or, perhaps, we believe “the People of God” are the descendants of Abraham, that “wandering Aramean” whom Moses’ audience was to claim as their ancestor. Or, again, maybe we think of the modern Jews as “the People of God,” the Chosen people with whom God has that special covenant.

But here we are addressed in the liturgy of Ash Wednesday as if we are the People of God! Do we think of ourselves that way? And more specifically, does each of us think of him- or herself individually as a “person of God”?

Did you know that that one of my titles, one of the names of the office of ministry in which I work, actually comes from that term? The word “parson,” which describes a parish priest or village clergyman comes from the old or middle English version of the word “person”. The medieval parish priest was the “person of God,” the “parson,” whose job it was to be in the church praying the liturgical hours, offering the sacrifice of the Mass, looking after the spiritual business of the community so the rest of the people wouldn’t have to! They could get on with the planting of crops, the tilling of fields, the harvesting of produce, the care and feeding of livestock. They could do all the other things of daily life and then go to the pub and have a beer because the “parson,” the “person of God” would have have taken care of the religious stuff, the spiritual stuff for them.

That is not, however, the way it’s supposed to be because no one person is the “person of God” — we are all “people of God;” we are all “persons of God.”

The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection . . .

Now pay close attention to that! The focus of Lent is not Lent! The focus of Lent is “our Lord’s passion and resurrection.” The focus of Lent is Maundy Thursday and Jesus’ agonizing night of prayer in the garden at Gethsemane. The focus of Lent is Good Friday and his terrible, tortured death on the cross of Calvary. The focus of Lent is Holy Saturday and his burial in the borrowed tomb, his descent into hell, his freeing the souls of the dead. The focus of Lent is the empty tomb of Easter morning, his resurrection, his fifty days on earth appearing to, teaching, and sending forth his apostles. The focus of Lent is his Ascension into heaven to be always alive and always with us, our great high priest eternally pleading our case before the Father, elevating our humanity into divinity. Lent is never about Lent! Lent is always looking forward. Lent is always about Easter and beyond.

. . . . and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent . . . .

As many of you know, I was not reared in the Episcopal Church . . . I wasn’t really brought up in any religious tradition. On one side, my mother’s, the family were part of the Campbellite tradition, out of which the Disciples of Christ is the largest current denominational body; they didn’t know from Adam about the church year, about Lent or any other season. On my father’s side they were Methodists in the old Methodist Episcopal (South) mold; no liturgical seasons for them! So we didn’t do this Lent thing. I had Catholic classmates in grade school, of course. I knew they were Catholic because they would show up at school on Ash Wednesday morning having come from Mass with a smudge of ash on their foreheads; they were doing Lent.

But the only thing I knew about “Lent” was that in the sort of English my grandmother spoke it was the past tense of the verb “to lend”. I thought the Roman Catholics were maybe paying back to God something they had borrowed from God. And, you know what? That’s not far from being a good description of what Lent is, in fact, all about. In our lesson from Deuteronomy today that is exactly what Moses instructs the people who are about to enter into the Promised Land, these Hebrews which he has led from captivity in Egypt. They are to remember that everything they have or ever will have has been given to them by God, through no merit of their own; they are to return to God at least some portion, the “first fruits”, of that which God has lent to them.

This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism.

Did you know that back in the beginning, before the Emperor Constantine made Christianity first legal and then the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was a big deal to become a Christian? It was a dangerous thing because it was illegal, and Christians were often blamed for the Empire’s problems and made scapegoats, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. One could not simply walk into a congregation and ask to become a member. You had to be instructed and tested, and often it took as long as three years to complete all the catechesis needed to be accepted into the assembly, to be permitted to undergo the rite of Holy Baptism, which was commonly done only at Easter. And during these forty days of Lent modeled on the forty days of Christ’s tempting in the desert about which we heard in the Gospel lesson, the catechumens underwent their most rigorous training and testing, with mortification of the flesh, denial of even the simplest pleasures, a severely restricted diet (a “fast” in the dietary sense). Only then could they be baptized.

This was a big deal because baptism was considered a sort of death. St. Paul puts it this way in the Letter to Romans (not in the portion we heard today, but in the Sixth Chapter in a passage we read on Easter morning): “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” (Rom. 6:3) The symbolism of Holy Baptism, especially when done in the traditional way by full immersion, is that the water represents the soil of the grave; we are “buried” as we go under the surface and as we come up out of it, we are resurrected: “If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. . . . If we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” (6:6,8)

So Lent was a time for this baptismal preparation, and it was a time that reminded every member of the church of their own baptismal promises, of their own “death” to the world and their new, resurrected life in Christ, of the seriousness of what it meant (and means) to be a Christian.

It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church.

There was no rite of private confession in the early church; that was created by the Irish monks in the 6th Century and eventually spread to the whole church after the 9th Century. Nor was there a general confession in the early liturgies such as we now have in the Anglican form of worship that we enjoy. No, in the early church when a member was guilty of some grave sin they had to confess it before the whole assembly, after which they would be excluded from communion and they would be given some penance, some way to make amends before they would be permitted to return to worship with the congregation.

Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

Of course, the congregation would, as the admonition suggests, realize that not only was the repentant sinner in need of forgiveness; they all were — and we all are. You’ll remember the story of Jesus encountering the rabbis and villagers planning to stone the woman taken in adultery. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he said. (John 8:7) And not one of them did so because they realized, as Lent calls us to realize, that we are all sinners and all stand in need of forgiveness.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.

So this closing invitation to “a holy Lent” just asks us to do a lot of things we hear about every Lent, doesn’t it? Every year someone like me gets up in front of the congregation in every parish and prattles on about things we should do for the next six weeks, which are really things we ought to do year-round, but this time of year we sort of focus on them. We know we’re supposed to “fast” – that means give something up, right?

When people ask me what I’m going to give up for Lent, I always answer, “Chocolate.” It’s easy for me to give that up – I don’t eat chocolate. I should give up . . . I don’t know . . . my Irish whiskey? Good wines? I know! I’ll give up Downton Abbey right after tonight’s episode (the Season 3 finale).

But really, the point of fasting and self-denial is not the “mortification of the flesh.” It isn’t making oneself miserable because we think we ought to join Jesus in his desert misery, his famished hunger as described in today’s gospel lesson. The point of giving something up is to make room in our lives for something else, or to pay over or pay forward that which we give up to the benefit of someone else, or to concentrate on something of spiritual benefit to ourselves.

In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, God questions God’s people about fasting. “Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high,” writes the Prophet. Delivering God’s word, Isaiah tells us that God asks, “Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?” (58:4-5) The answer to these questions is clearly, “No.” The Prophet continues:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (58:6-7)

If I give up whiskey for Lent, the money I save not buying it should be given to World Vision International or to Episcopal Relief and Development or to our own Free Farmers’ Market food pantry. If I do give up Downton Abbey, the time I save should be given to study of Scripture, another of the admonitions of this Ash Wednesday exhortation.

The forty days of Lent are, symbolically, our time with Jesus in the desert, our time to emulate our Lord in his preparation for ministry, our time to face our temptations as he faced his. Note how he did so. Each time the devil would set something wonderful before him – food, or world power, or spiritual superiority – Jesus responded by quoting Scripture. Jesus was sustained, strengthened, and empowered by the words of the Law and the Prophets. How many of us could do that?

The truth is that I couldn’t! I’ve never been able to memorize chapter and verse. If you ask me, “Doesn’t the Bible say something about . . . . ?” my response will be to shrug my shoulders and say, “I don’t know. I’ll look that up.” Don’t get me wrong! I read Scripture all the time, every day in fact. I just don’t have the head to remember it all. That’s what concordances and computer search programs are for! I know what’s in there, I just don’t always know where it is. But just because someone may not have the knack to remember chapter-and-verse is no excuse not to study God’s Word. So I do, and I commend the practice to you, so that, as Paul wrote to the Romans, “The word [will be] near you, on your lips and in your heart.” We are all, as the collect for today confesses, assaulted by many temptations; through study and contemplation of the Bible, we can each find God mighty to save; we can each, like Jesus, be sustained and strengthened and empowered by Scripture.

And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.

And then there is a rubric, a word of instruction, saying, “Silence is then kept for a time.” The rubric is not part of the Ash Wednesday exhortation, but those may be the most important words on the page.

When the exhortation and our tradition ask us to “give something up for Lent,” the purpose is to turn our attention from the distractions of the world around us. At the vestry’s retreat the past couple of days, our facilitator asked us to consider the difference between “doing” and “being”, to consider whether the job of the vestry is to “do things” or rather to “be something”. As part of a clergy study group, I’m currently reading a book entitled Beyond Busyness: Time Wisdom in Ministry. The author’s premise is that being “busy” is a bad thing, that when we are “busy” we are allowing a lot of small distractions take us away from the bigger, more important things one which we should use our time. “Busyness” results from concentrating too much on “doing” and too little on “being”.

Keeping silence for a time helps us turn our attention away from busy doing and toward productive being.

There is a lovely verse from the Psalms. (Don’t ask me which verse in which psalm! Remember, I just can’t recall that stuff.) The verse reads, “Be still, and know that I am God!” (46:10) In those catalogs like National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting send out from time to time, I’ve seen a carved stone plaque of that verse which repeats the verse several times, but in each reiteration leaves off a word or two:

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.

So I leave you with the rubric as, perhaps, the most important admonition of Lent: “Silence is kept for a time.” Be still and know that God is God. . . . . Be still and know that God is. . . . . Be still and know. . . . . Be still. . . . . Be.

Amen.

A Gospel That Makes a Difference – From the Daily Office – January 28, 2013

From the Letter to the Galatians:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 1:6-7 (NRSV) – January 28, 2013.)

Diversity LogoI confess to a certain fondness for the Galatians. I’ve never been a really big fan of Paul the Apostle and I sometimes wistfully wonder how our Christian faith might have developed if he had not been its principal post-Ascension spokesperson. What if the Johanine community that produced the Gospel of John and the three letters that also bear his name had been more prominent? What if James and his insistence on works of mercy because “faith, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17) had been more influential than Paul’s assertion to the Romans that salvation is “by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works” (Romans 11:6)? Well, we’ll never know . . . but apparently the Galatians were listening to someone suggest an alternative to Paul’s understanding of the Christian gospel and, as a result, he wrote them this letter. Anybody that could so upset Paul that he would call them “you foolish Galatians” (Gal. 3:1) gets high marks in my book! That the Galatians were also Celts with whom I, as an Irish-American, share an ethnic heritage gives them additional credit.

But I have to admit that Paul does have a point about “a different gospel” and that “there is [not] another gospel.” What there are are differing interpretations of the gospel, different understandings of its import, different emphases on points of its message. What I really don’t like about what Paul is saying is the implication that his and his interpretation only is correct and that, therefore, anyone who disagrees with him “wants to pervert the gospel of Christ.” I believe it is entirely possible to have disagreement on this things, to have unity without uniformity. In fact, I would say it’s desirable, but here in his letter to the Celts of Asia Minor Paul doesn’t seem to think so.

Elsewhere Paul used the metaphor of the body when he tried to share with the church in Corinth the fundamental importance of unity. In the body metaphor in the 12th chapter of the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul demonstrates how a body is made up of diverse members: “If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.'” (1 Cor. 12:19-21) Unity among diverse elements comes through inclusion of the various members of the body of Christ in deep sharing and mutual responsibility.

Of course, Paul was thinking of varying and diverse roles within the body of a congregation – apostle, evangelist, pastor, catechist, preacher, and so forth. He does not extend the body metaphor to those with differing opinions about the nature of faith, the person of Christ, the doctrine of atonement, the nature of salvation, and so forth. How much more lively might the church be if he had? How much more lively might the church be if we would?

If instead of thinking of the church as a community in which to find “the right answers,” we thought of it as a community in which to explore questions, how much more relevant and helpful to people’s lives might it be? So long as unity is seen as uniformity, we will be stuck trying to find (or convince others of) right answers. But if we can see unity in diversity, we will be able to hear a variety of responses; some responses will be useful for some seekers, and others will be useful for others. None will be “right” and none will be “wrong,” but all will be relevant.

This must be the church’s quest in the 21st Century, unity in diversity which makes the gospel relevant in the lives of all. No longer should we hear anyone address another as “you stupid Galatian!” No longer should we hear anyone condemned as “perverting the gospel.” We are not to preach “a different gospel,” but we are to offer a gospel that, with all its varied emphases and diverse applications, makes a difference.

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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.

We Are All Called to Martyrdom – From the Daily Office – December 26, 2012

From the Book of Acts:

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 7:59-8:3 (NRSV) – December 26, 2012.)
 
Icon of Saint StephenOn the second day of Christmas the church remembers a murder, the martyrdom of Stephen, and our Daily Office lectionary won’t let us forget it. Often the readings of the Daily Office seem to have nothing to do with the season and they seldom are tied to a saint’s commemoration, but today the morning and evening readings tell the whole story in gruesome detail.

Stephen is revered as the church’s first martyr. The word martyr in Greek merely means “witness” but the church (and thus our modern society) uses it to mean someone who has suffered and died for their faith. The Celtic church would identify three kinds of martyrdom, only one of which involves death, so-called “red martyrdom.” The others were “green martyrdom” and “white martyrdom.”

The green martyrs were those who left ordinary society for the life of a hermit on the mountaintops or islands of Ireland following the example of the Egyptian anchorites. Eventually, they merged their individual dwellings into the monastic communities which dominated the Irish church from the 6th through 9th Centuries.

White martyrs went further. They left Ireland altogether as missionaries. The first of these were Columba and his followers who founded the monastery at Iona. Others following their example went into northern Europe and beyond.

The 2nd Century theologian Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is usually understood to mean that through the sacrifice of their lives the “red martyrs” led others to conversion and, on this Feast of Stephen, we see the great example of that in the eventual conversion of Saul, the zealous Jewish persecutor of the church, into Paul, the equally-zealous Christian missionary. But it seems to me that the blood of the green martyrs and the white martyrs, which was not spilled but continued to course through their veins during a life of prayer and service, was equally effective in the conversion of others.

It is not so much the blood of the martyrs but, as the original Greek word says, the witness of the martyrs, the example and testimony of the martyrs of all sorts, red, green, and white, that nurtures the growth of the church. On this second day of Christmas, we should remember that, in some sense, we are all called to martyrdom; we are all called to witness to our faith in the Child whose birth we continue to celebrate.

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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.

Cooperating with Angels – From the Daily Office – November 13, 2012

From the Book of Revelation:

The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Revelation 19:9-10 – November 13, 2012)
 
The Annunciation, fresco by Fra AngelicoPerhaps among the most familiar words from St. John’s apocalypse, “Blessed are they who are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb.” They are used as a fraction anthem or invitation to communion in many churches. But in this brief passage from Revelation, the most powerful image for me today is the angel saying, “I am a fellow-servant with you and your brothers and sisters.”

All too often, I think, we go through our daily lives with no an awareness of, nor gratitude for the work of the holy angels in our midst and on our behalf. Modern Christians, especially Protestants and Anglicans, seem to be a reluctant to acknowledge the angelic ministry or to call upon the angels (or the saints) for help. But angels are God’s first creatures; created to sing God’s praise and glory, they are God’s ministering spirits, sent as messengers to God’s people (as Scripture witnesses again and again) and to assistance us as heirs of salvation. The effectiveness of the angels’ work in our lives depends upon our cooperation; the more we cooperate, the better.

So, how do we do that? How do we cooperate with the angels? At the very foundation of angelic cooperation is regular prayer and contemplation of God and God’s messengers. Openness of spirit and readiness of will are the proper attitudes of our prayer.

In Carmina Gadelica, a large collection of hymns, prayers, charms, poetry and rituals gathered from the people of the Highlands and islands of Scotland in the late 19th century by Alexander Carmichael, one finds this charming blessing, which we have used as a dismissal at church services:

The love and affection of the angels be to you.
The love and affection of the saints be to you.
The love and affection of heaven be to you,
To guard you and to cherish you.

We cooperate best with the angels when we accept their love and affection in the spirit of the Blessed Virgin: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

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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.

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?

The Blessed Wedding at Cana – From the Daily Office Lectionary – August 10, 2012

From John’s Gospel:

Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 2:2-11 – August 10, 2012)

Marriage at Cana by Giotto, 14th centuryA year ago I was in Ireland, camped out in a cottage outside of the village of Banagher, County Offaly, on sabbatical. As my study project, I was translating old Irish hymns into metrical, rhyming English such that they could be sung to the music of the original. The hymns were published in the early 20th Century in a collection titled Dánta Dé Idir Sean agus Nuadh compiled by Uná ní Ógáin. Dánta Dé includes a communion hymn which elaborates on John’s story of the wedding feast; it is entitled The Blessed Wedding at Cana and is attributed to Maighréad ní Annagáin. I found I could not directly translate the hymn, so instead I wrote a poem of my own. Reading this story today, I recall working on that piece and offer it again.

This is my poem inspired by the gospel story and the old Irish hymn:

King of love,
King of glory,
King of graces, guest at a wedding.
With his mother, with his friends,
seated at the marriage feast waiting.
Came the word: “There is a problem!”
Mary told her son to help them.
“What is this to me?” he asked her;
but to servants she was speaking.

“There is no wine
for the feast.
Do as he says, no hesitation.”
Empty vessels standing there
for the rites of purification.
“Fill them,” he says, “with plain water;
and then draw some for the steward.”
“What is this now?” asks the steward,
“Finest wine in the nation!”

Blessed Mary,
Virgin pure,
Mother of God, you knew that even
that your Jesus was the Christ;
that he was the High King of Heaven.
But did you know he would become
the free way for us to our home?
Through baptism buried with him,
we, too, shall all be risen!

O Lord Jesus,
glorious King,
holy savior who bore the Thorn Crown,
you were beaten, crucified,
killed, and buried, layed in the cold ground.
In fulfillment of the promise,
you broke the bars closed against us.
With your own blood you have freed us!
Death is conquered! Life is newfound!

Your own Body
and your Blood
give us sinners true liberation;
Bread of Heaven, Blessed Cup,
holy table, feast of salvation.
Giving blessings beyond measure;
wedding banquet, splendid treasure.
At the marriage feast of the Lamb,
we are God’s new creation!

For those interest in the hymn as Gaeilge, here is the Irish original:

Ag an bpósadh bhí i gCána bhí Rí na ngrás ann i bpearsain,
É féin is Muire Máthair, is nárbh áluinn í an bhainfheis?
Bhí cuideacht ós cionn chláir ann, agun fíon orra i n-easnamh,
‘S an t-uisge bhí h-árthaibh nár bh’áluinn é bhlaiseadh?

A Dhia dhíl, a Íosa, ‘s a Rí ghil na cruinne,
D’iomchuir an choróin spíne is iodhbairt na Croise,
A stolladh is a straoilleadh idir dhaoinibh gan cumann,
Na glasa do sgaoilis, a d’iadhadh n’ár gcoinnibh.

Is ró-bhreágh an stór tá ag Rígh na glóire dúinn i dtaisge,
A chuid fola agus feóla mar lón do na peacaigh’.
Ná cuirigidh bhur ndóchas i n-ór bhuidhe nó i rachmas
Mar is bréagán mar cheó é, seachas glóire na bhFlaitheas.

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

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

You Stupid Celts! – From the Daily Office – June 7, 2012

Paul wrote:

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 3:1-3 – June 7, 2012)

I’m not sure, but those may be my three favorite words in all of Paul’s writings: “You stupid Celts!” That’s what he’s saying here. The Galatians were Celts, distant cousins of the Irish, Welsh, Scots, and Bretons. They all had their origins in the Celtic homelands of the northwestern Alps and migrated to Asia Minor, the islands of Britain and Ireland, and other places. And here Paul calls the Celts of Asia Minor anoetos, a Greek word which means “lacking understanding” and is variously translated as foolish, thoughtless, senseless, or stupid. “You stupid Celts!” ~ It is generally believed that Paul is reacting against the Galatians acceptance of the suggestion of the “Judaizers” that they needed to be circumcised before they could really become Christians. But I wonder . . . . I’ve done a fair amount of study of Celtic spirituality, at least of the western (British Isles) sort; I spent a three-month sabbatical translating ancient Gaelic religious poetry. The western Celtic understanding of Christ’s work was rather different from the Pauline notion. Paul (especially as developed by Augustine but, I think pretty clearly, originally) saw Christ’s salvific work in terms of propitiation and justification: just a few more verses and he will insist to the Galatians “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law.” (v. 13) The Celts, on the other hand, thought in terms of Jesus completing the goodness of creation; they believed much like Origen did that human beings were not so much fallen or cursed by sin as immature and incomplete, striving not for redemption but for perfection. ~ Some of Origen’s views were eventually anathematized as heretical and, though he is viewed as a “Church Father”, he has not been sainted. Later Celtic theologians have suffered the same indignity. The Irishman Johannes Scotus Eriugena believed that all human beings reflect attributes of divinity and that all are capable of progressing toward perfection, a view that Paul would clearly have disputed; Eriugena’s theology was discredited as “Irish porridge” and “an invention of the devil.” The Culdee monk Pelagius (who was probably a Breton rather than Irish) taught that humans do not have inherent sinfulness, but rather have a natural sanctity and the moral capacity to choose to live a holy life; Pelagius, too, was condemned as a heretic. ~ I sometimes wonder if this pervasive western Celtic belief in the essential goodness of humankind and in the progressive divinization or completion of creation might have been shared by their eastern cousins in Galatia. If so, it might have been this which led them to be more accepting of the Judaizer’s suggestions; after all, if the Christian goal is divinization and if circumcision put the Chosen People closer to God, perhaps it ought to be considered. No wonder Paul, who didn’t believe human beings could do anything to contribute to their own sanctification, thought them stupid and foolish! How different might the Christian church today be if the views of the Galatians, Pelagius, Eriugena, and other Celts had prevailed? One will never know. ~ I do know this, however. Those Celtic views ought to be heard and considered. None of us fully knows the mind of God and the views and thoughts of all should be valued as we struggle together to understand. They may be my favorite words of Paul, but not because they are particularly beneficial; indeed, they are not. The church today would be much better off and a much more congenial society if no one ever said or wrote anything like, “You stupid Celts!”

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