That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Christmas (page 2 of 7)

Superbloom: Sermon for Advent 3 – 11 December 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016, 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 for Advent 3 in Year A: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; and St. Matthew 11:2-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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01-death-valley-super-bloomMost of the time when we hear this story of John’s disciples coming to Jesus we focus on John’s question – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11:3) – and on Jesus’ answer to it which is neither a “yes” nor a “no” but a pointing to the evidence – “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5).

But the lesson adds a second conversation, one that happens after John’s followers leave. Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them a question, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” (Mt 11:7)

Whenever I read this gospel and encounter that question (especially when I read it in one of the translations that renders it as “What did you go out into the desert to see?”) I remember my childhood and early adult life in southern Nevada, where we would often “go out into the desert to see” something. Today’s prophecy from the Book of Isaiah – “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa 35:1-2) – reminds of those times when we would go out to see the wild flowers in bloom.

There is a phenomenon that occurs only rarely in the desert when there is sufficient rain, a blossoming of the wild flowers called a “superbloom.” You may have seen the news of a superbloom in Death Valley last year, in the fall of 2015. It’s an amazing sight to see! The desert bursts with color as thousands of plants come to life; coaxed to blossom by the rains, the flowers create intricate tapestries, the blues and purples of desert lavender, sand verbena, and Arizona lupine, the red of the California poppies, the brilliant orange of the Mariposa lily, and the yellow explosion of a stand of Palo Verde trees in full bloom. It is truly a vision worthy of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom!” It is what we would go out into the wilderness to see.

Most of the time, though, we go out into the desert and we see . . . wilderness, a “reed shaken in the wind,” as Jesus says (Mat 11:7). We go out into the wilderness with our expectations of wild flowers in blossom, of superblooms carpeting the desert with color, and we are disappointed. We miss the truly remarkable splendor of the “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains” that “repeat the sounding joy” of God’s creation. (I. Watts, Joy to the World) We dismiss the gray-greens of cactus and sage, failing to see that there’s “not a plant or flower below but makes [God’s] glories known.” (I. Watts, I Sing the Mighty Power) We fail to see the stark native beauty of the wilderness for what it is because it doesn’t meet our superbloom expectations.

That was the problem for John, and it was the problem for the religious authorities whom John opposed. They looked at Jesus but did not see; this Galilean peasant messiah was not what they expected and so John sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” If we are honest – and the point of the season of Advent is to call us to that sort of honesty – there are times we have seen and heard the work of God but called it something else, not recognizing it for what is. Like the Romans, like the religious authorities, like John the Baptize sitting weary in prison, we mistake what we see. Somehow, it just doesn’t match what we had in mind.

There is a danger during Advent – while we are preparing for the annual celebration of the winter solstice that we call “Christmas”, while we are hosting teas and attending office parties and going to school Christmas plays – there is a danger that we will create the Jesus we want, and miss the Jesus who really is. As Methodist campus minister Deborah Lewis at the University of Virginia notes, we can be confused by and miss “God’s willful, wily, wonderful ways of showing up in the world.” She advises us:

Don’t get carried away in your waiting, in your anticipation. Keep alert and keep paying attention. We’re called not to create and conjure the Prince of Peace but to recognize and welcome him when he arrives, when we see and hear what he’s doing. In the remaining weeks of Advent and when you go home to family and friends and a Christmas you’ve been expecting for a while now, remember what it was you came to see. Remember that wilderness vision and pay attention to how it might look and sound as it is revealed in new places and people. (Deborah Lewis)

Advent, as I said, calls us to be honest. It calls us, as Jesus called his first followers, to “keep awake, for [we] do not know on what day [our] Lord is coming.” (Mat 24:42) It calls us to “beware [and] keep alert, for [we] do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:33) We must be alert to the many cultural messages which obscure the Truth of Jesus Christ, cultural messages which lead us to expect something other than the Truth that Jesus offers. “Advent calls us to be honest about the values and beliefs that we hold because of cultural convenience, rather than the values and beliefs [of] our faith.” (Roman Catholic Bishop Paul D. Etienne)

So for the next couple of weeks, keep awake, be alert, be honest. Look to the wilderness beyond the teas, the office parties, and the Christmas plays. Look to the wilderness beyond the decorated trees, the colorful lights, and the blow-up displays in the neighbors’ yards. Look to the wilderness.

Look for God in works of mercy, healing, hope . . . .
Look for God in those who strive for justice and peace . . . .
Look for God in those who mourn and suffer . . . .
Look for God in your own heart. Go there. Into the wilderness. Follow the leading star of your longing for a closer relationship with God, a closer walk with Christ. There is where you hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. There you begin to see.
Three times Jesus asks the gathered crown: What then did you go out to see? Ask yourself the same question this week, and not only at church, but at any time or place: what did I come here to see?
Ask yourself the same question . . . .
(The Rev. Dr. Matthew Calkins)

Answer honestly and you will see the superbloom of God’s Presence!

Note: The illustration is from the article Marveling at the Super Bloom in the March 2016 issue of Vogue Magazine.

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

Building a Modern Creche: A Poem – 2 December 2016

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Building a Modern Creche

Let’s build a new creche
a new nativity scene
that’s built with
elements
of our lives
reflecting our modern world.

The Incarnate God
can’t be born
in a stable
no one has stables any longer
(well, some do, most don’t).
What do we have instead?
Garages . . . God will born in a garage.

No! That won’t do!
Nobody would send
a pregnant young girl
to spend a night in a garage!
A homeless shelter, maybe
A charity hospital, maybe
What would Joseph try to do
in modern America?

He’d go to a church:
“Please, pastor, we’re on the road.
My wife is pregnant.
We need some money for a motel.”
A voucher, they’d get a voucher,
for the local cheap motel
the Super 8 Motel 6 Ameristar
Interstate Inn with free cable
and maybe wifi.
That’s where God would be born,
in a seedy highway motel.

And for our Christ Child
what baby doll shall we use?
Black brown yellow red white?
That would be too particular,
wouldn’t it? It would make
the Holy Infant
too much like some
not enough like others
maybe we need a non-human thing,
a metaphoric Baby Jesus?

I know! The toy from
the dog food aisle
a plush green googly-eyed frog
in a Santa hat!
That’s not too particular
no one could claim
such a Holy Infant
looked too much
or too little like
anyone!
So it will be
green googly-eyed
Santa froggy Jesus!

And Mary, who to be Mary?
Everyday I drive past a
young woman who makes
a Christmas appearance
every year
in this little town of ours.
A plywood Lucy van Pelt.
Eight feet tall if she’s an inch
and holding a Christmas wreath.
Eternally young but worn a bit
with age
she has stood in that yard
every year for more
than a decade.
A perfect blend of childhood
innocence and world-weary
wisdom in a cartoon Mary
for our creche,
that’s plywood Lucy van Pelt.

And her husband, the foster father?
If I drive the other route to work
another neighbor’s yard
displays a nylon blow-up
snowman who wavers
and leans and then gets
a spine and stands straight
only to slump again with
uncertainty not at all sure
what he’s doing where he is.
Joseph, anxious Joseph,
wanting to do the right thing
but needing the windy support
of the Spirit to buck him up
like the snowman’s
electric fan spine.
We have our Joseph!

So now plywood Lucy Mary
and blow-up Snowman Joseph
lay their newborn
green googly-eyed froggy
Santa Jesus
into his make-shift crib
his manger . . . .

No, wait again! This isn’t a stable!
No mangers at Super 8 Motel 6
Ameristar Interstate Inn.
What can they use?
What can they find?
A cardboard box
the copy paper carton from the office
the one that holds the registration
forms and receipts from
the local print shop.
That will do!
And diaper our Holy Child
in the thread-bare barely absorbant
motel bathroom towels
too small for an adult
but fine to swaddle
God Incarnate in
googly-eyed froggy splendor.

Our creche is complete.
The Holy Family awaits
the modern-day shepherds
the night workers:
the 24-hour convenience store
graveyard-shift cashiers,
the midnight linemen
keeping the power lines up
and working in wind
and snow and ice,
the waitress at the Waffle House
both hoping for and dreading
the next customer.
“Glory!” they will think they hear
“Glory!” angels will cry trying
to get their attention.
“Tidings of great joy!”
they will endeavor to push
through the jade and jaundice
of darkened spirits,
and plywood Lucy Mary
and blow-up Snowman Joseph
and froggy Santa Jesus
will wait, and wait, and wait,
hoping that eventually
the waiting
will be fruitful

Maybe some kings or the like
will show up.
Not Melchior, Caspar, or Balthazar.
Perhaps our wise people will be
Barak, or Donald, or Hillary,
or Vladimir, or Bibi, or Angela,
or Bashir, or Xinping, or . . .
who knows?
And perhaps not,
perhaps in a modern nativity
there are no wise men,
no wise women seeking
the newborn froggy
Incarnate God,
there is only
the Holy Family
while somewhere nearby
late night workers
are not sure they have heard
“Glory!” and
wonder what wisdom is
and if anyone possesses it.

= 2 December 2016
C. Eric Funston

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

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

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

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identitycards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borders crossed, barriers removed, reconciliation accomplished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imperfection Incarnate – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Imperfection Incarnate

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (2 December 2015)

Psalm 119:1 ~ Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.

The Old Testament can be so unforgiving! Who is “blameless”? What human being can attain such perfection? I wrote the following reflection on perfection for the December issue of our parish newsletter.

A few weeks ago, my wife Evie and I went to the movies! We saw Bridge of Spies (which I strongly recommend, by the way) and several promotional “trailers” for up-coming movies, one of which is playing in the local theater as I write this reflection.

The movie is a holiday comedy starring Diane Keaton and entitled Love the Coopers; I know nothing about this movie and hadn’t heard of it until seeing the trailer. As the promo begins, we see Keaton in a department store speaking to someone and saying, “It’s the only time of the year when we’re all together! I want the perfect Christmas!”

As soon as I heard those words, I turned to Evie and said, “O my God! She’s my mother!”

I love my late mother and miss her dearly, but if she had one besetting sin it was holiday perfectionism. Whatever the holiday – New Year, Easter, Fourth of July, end-of-summer Labor Day, Thanksgiving, or Christmas – these were times for the family to gather and the festivities had to be perfect! And . . . of course . . . they never were. The holiday wasn’t perfect, Mother was disappointed, and her disappointment made the imperfection worse. Especially at Christmas.

Thank God that perfection is not what Christmas is all about! If it were, there would be nothing at all to celebrated because, in all honesty, it would be a dismal failure for all of us. Quite to the contrary, Christmas is about imperfection, about weakness, about foolishness.

If the Incarnation was all about perfection, the Word of God would have arrived as Someone like the Greek god Apollo, riding in a flaming chariot, bedazzling humankind with Sun-like brilliance. If the Incarnation was all about strength, the Savior would have come as Someone like Hercules, wrestling serpents and conquering lions. If the Incarnation was all about human wisdom, the Lord might have appeared as Someone like the lady Athena, the Greek goddess who sprang fully formed from the brow of Zeus.

Instead, the Word of God arrived not in a shining chariot but in a dirty stable; the Savior came not as a strongman but was a weak newborn; the Lord appeared not uttering words of wisdom but unable even to communicate for himself. Foolishness indeed. Imperfection incarnate.

“Love came down at Christmas,” wrote Christina Rossetti and though it isn’t usually associated with Christmas, her verse makes me think of St. Paul’s First Letter to the church in Corinth: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” (1 Cor. 13:4-8) Love does not insist on perfection or strength or wisdom; love accepts and works through those human frailties, not against them.

As the infant born in Bethlehem grew and became a man, his life was filled with what we might call imperfections. He soon became a refugee in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20)

Love came down at Christmas to be a refugee, rejected and homeless. Christmas is about love, not perfection:

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Forgive yourself and others whatever imperfections there may be. The Incarnation is about love, not blameless perfection!

May your Advent preparations and Christmas festivities, imperfect though they will be, be filled with love!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Mary Is No Different: Sermon for Advent 4B – December 21, 2014

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A sermon offered, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 4B, were 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16; Canticle 15 [Luke 1:46-55]; Romans 16:25-27; and Luke 1:26-38. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Annunciation by John CollierThe Episcopal Church is a church of refugees. The majority of Episcopalians were not born into this faith tradition; we came from somewhere else. We are a denomination which attracts refugees from other faith communities, those who’ve had a negative experience somewhere else, or those who can’t stay in their childhood churches because of life circumstances. We often find in our congregations those who were reared in the Roman Catholic tradition but have left that fold because they couldn’t accept the Roman church’s teaching about birth control or abortion, or about the ministry of women in the church, or the several other matters on which we differ with Rome. We also find in Episcopal Church congregations former Roman Catholics who married protestants of one type or another who were unwilling to become Roman Catholic, so we are the church of the marital compromise.

As one of my seminary professors observed, “As long as Methodists keep marrying Roman Catholics, there will be an Episcopal Church.”

I bring this up because today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus on the Virgin Mary in our gospel readings and whenever I talk with Roman Catholics who are interested in joining our branch of the catholic faith, the subject of Mary always comes up. Do we Episcopalians and other Anglicans revere and venerate the Blessed Virgin in the same way the Church of Rome does? When we consider our Advent 4 gospels, it would certainly seem that we do.

In each of the three years of the Lectionary Cycle, we hear a story about Mary and her pregnancy.

In Year A of the Lectionary (last year) we heard of Joseph’s dream in which an angel says to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And we are told that Jospeh “took [Mary] as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”

In Year B (this year) we hear, as we just have, the story of the angel Gabriel’s Annunciation to Mary.

In Year C we will hear of Mary’s Visitation to her cousin Elizabeth who is “filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaim[s] with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,’” to which Mary replies by singing her famous song of liberation, the Magnificat, which we recited this morning as our Gradual.

So each year on the Fourth Sunday of Advent we consider Christ’s Blessed Mother and contemplate how she is a model for all Christians. But do we revere this holy woman in the same way as the Roman Catholic tradition. The answer is a fairly resounding, “No.”

There are at least two important medieval doctrines about Mary that the Roman tradition holds but that the Anglican tradition generally rejects, although there are Anglicans who adhere to them. (That’s the thing about being an Anglican. It’s practically impossible to say that there are universally accept doctrines or universally rejected doctrines; ours is such a large tent that nearly every variety of Christian belief has found a home under it. But these two doctrines about Mary are pretty generally not the Anglican norm.)

The first is the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception.” Most non-Roman Catholics think this refers to Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. However, it does not. It is, instead, the belief that Mary was conceived by her mother (whom tradition names Anne) and her father (whom tradition names Joachim) without the stain of Original Sin. Although found in the writings of some medieval theologians, particularly among the Franciscans, it was rejected by others, notably Bernard of Clairvaux, Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. Eventually, however, long after the Reformation, it was made dogma in the Roman tradition. It was not until 1854 that Pope Pius IX decreed “that the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the first instant of her conception, by a singular privilege and grace of the Omnipotent God, . . . was preserved immaculate from all stain of original sin,” and enjoined this belief upon all members of the Roman church. (Ineffabilis Deus, December 8, 1854) While some Anglicans may have accepted this, it is not and never has been a part of official Anglican or Episcopal doctrine.

The point of the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” is to set Mary apart from all other women (and men, for that matter) as a holier and more appropriate “vessel” for the incarnation of the Son of God. We may profess, as we do in one of our eucharistic prayers (Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer – 1979, page 370) that, “in the fullness of time [God] sent [God’s] only Son, born of a woman,” but this doctrine declares that she was a woman like no other. Anglican theology, on the other hand, would hold that that turns the whole importance of Mary upside-down; it is precisely because Mary is like other women that her motherhood of Jesus is to be celebrated.

The second of these doctrines about Mary is that of her “perpetual virginity.” Although this idea has been around since the very beginnings of the church, and probably more Anglicans would hold this belief than would accept the “immaculate conception” idea, I believe most Episcopalians would agree with the reformer John Calvin rejected as “unfounded and altogether absurd” the idea that Mary had made a vow or practice of perpetual virginity. In his commentary on Luke’s Gospel, he wrote: “She would, in that case, have committed treachery by allowing herself to be united to a husband, and would have poured contempt on the holy covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without mockery of God.” (Commentary on Luke 1:34, Harmony of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Vol. 1) On the basis of the clear evidence of Scripture that Jesus had brothers and sisters, Calvin came to the obvious conclusion that Mary had other children. As the 20th Century Anglican New Testament scholar, Canon Leon Morris put it, the “most natural interpretation is that [the un-named ‘brothers of the Lord’] were the children of Joseph and Mary.” (1 Corinthians: Introduction and Commentary, IVP: Leicester, 1958, page 133)

Again the point of this doctrine is to set Mary apart from all other human beings and, again, the Anglican and Episcopal tradition would argue that it is precisely her identity with other human beings, not her difference from us, that makes her so important. Any piety which makes Mary somehow different from you and me misses the point!

Mary is regularly hailed as a model of faith for her acceptance of the role God invites her to play as the mother of Jesus. But what is the very first thing that Gabriel the Angel says to her? “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Before Mary accepts anything, before she hears another word, before she consents to God’s notion, she is greeted as “favored,” as one who enjoys the Presence of God. The Greek here is xaritoó which means “to be graced,” “to be blessed.” Mary is blessed even before she accepts her new role; she is blessed because she perceives and believes that God notices her, that God favors her, that God has blessed her, and that God has great things in store for her even before Gabriel tells her what those things may be!

This is important not because Mary is extraordinary or remarkable, not because she is immaculate or perpetually virginal. This is important for precisely the opposite reason. Mary is venerated not because she is an exception, but rather because she is an example of what can happen when anyone believes that God notices, favors, and blesses us, that God has great things in store for every one of us. You are important and so God notices, favors, and blesses you and, like Mary – like plain ol’ ordinary Mary – you may just change the world!

Some of you may now be sitting out there thinking that can’t possibly be the case. If so, by doing so you simply prove my point!

What happens next in this story? Luke specifically tells us that Mary “was much perplexed by [the angel’s] words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” Again, if we look at the original Greek we get a much fuller understanding. The word translated here as “perplexed” is dietarachthé. Scholars disagree as to what the root of this adjective might be. Some believe it is diatasso which means “to be puzzled,” while others insist it is diatarasso which mean “to be agitated.”

And Mary’s response to all this puzzlement or agitation is to “ponder,” and here’s where the Greek really gets instructive. The original word is dielogidzeto, which comes from the word dialog. Mary carries on a dialog or debate with herself. Just like any of us, faced with that which puzzles or troubles us, she deliberates over it, facing doubts and uncertainties.

Mary is important not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. (She was even a refugee – after the birth of her Son, she and her family had to flee to Egypt for a time. Church of refugees that we are, Mary would fit right in!)

In the narthex of St. Gabriel Roman Catholic Church in McKinney, Texas, is a painting of the Annunciation by contemporary artist John Collier. In it Mary is depicted as a young schoolgirl dressed in a blue and white parochial school uniform; she has dark hair pulled into a simple pony-tail; she is wearing white bobby socks and saddle shoes. The angel Gabriel approaches on the threshold of the front door of a modern tract home; it could be the door of any home here in Medina.

Collier’s painting, in my opinion, is brilliant because it emphasizes not merely Mary’s youth, but her utter lack of exceptionality! She is simply an ordinary person. Mary is an ordinary person in an extraordinary circumstance and, thus, she is an example for us. She is like us . . . and we can be like her.

I am indebted to my friend and colleague the Rev. Suzanne Guthrie for reminding me of this observation by the 13th Century German mystic Meister Eckhart:

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

Each year on this, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we focus our attention on Mary, not because she is exceptional, but rather because she is just like us. She is like you . . . and you are like her.

Please take a look again at the collect for this morning, the special prayer for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. It’s in the Prayer Book on page 212:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

“By your daily visitation . . . . ” Every morning an angel of the Lord crosses the threshold of your life . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to see that angel. And every morning that angel speaks to you . . . every morning, though most mornings you (like me) probably fail to hear that angel. And every morning that angel greets you saying, “Hail! You are graced by the Presence of God” . . . every morning, though most morning you (like me) probably fail to apprehend that greeting. And every morning the angels hold their breath waiting to hear what you (and I) might answer.

Mary is important not because she was conceived immaculately or remained a virgin perpetually. She is important because she is like us and we are like her. It Mary is exceptional, it is because unlike us she saw, and heard, and apprehended, and answered: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” In her exceptionality she is exemplary; she is to be venerated and revered because she demonstrates that we, too, can and should see and hear and apprehend and answer, because this is the fullness of time when the Son of Man is to be begotten in us. 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.

Clergy Saturday Before Christmas – December 20, 2014

Cluttered DeskI’m sitting in my office in the basement of the church building. So far as I know, I’m the only person here.

The food pantry volunteers have cleaned up and put away the tables, boxes, and other accoutrements of their ministry. The hundred or so client families have been sent away with bags of groceries, frozen chickens, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and all the rest of what they need not only for a Christmas dinner but for a week or two of everyday meals.

The ladies and gentlemen of the altar guild have done their duties. The altar is set with its veiled chalice; the credence table is laden with extra communion vessels, cruets of water and wine, the wooden and silver basins to receive the alms of worshipers.

The sexton has come and gone. The rack of parishioner name tags has been rolled into place in the entryway. The parish hall is set for coffee hour.

All is ready for the last Sunday before Christmas. All, that is,
except the sermon.

I’m sitting in my office in the basement of the church building trying to make sense of notes I’ve written myself over the course of the past two weeks, notes about Mary, notes about pregnancy, notes about the unexpected and the impossible, all of which I thought would somehow work themselves into a great sermon. And hopefully later today they will.

But right now, sitting here in my office in the basement of the church building, that isn’t happening.

What’s happening is that I’m dealing with my annual attack of Christmas blues. What’s happening is that I’m weeping like a baby remembering all the people who aren’t here, all the people (dead and living) who won’t be gathering for a Funston family Christmas.

What’s happening is that I am once again facing the reality of being a clergyman at Christmas, an aging, nearing-retirement clergyman with lots of memories of Christmases on which there was no gathering of the family.

Clergy (this should be no surprise to anyone, but I think it is to many) work at Christmas time. There’s no taking off a few days to visit parents and grandparents. There’s no traveling to some special family place.

So my children have very few memories of Christmas with grandparents, and none of Christmases at their grandparents’ homes; there are no stories to tell of sledding with Grampa or working in the kitchen with Gramma, no recollections of opening presents around a grandparental Christmas tree, of feasts at a grandparental dining table.

Most of my ordained life I’ve spent as the only ordained person in my congregation, which means that whatever Christmas services are offered, I’ve been the officiant or presider. So if there is to be a late afternoon service for tots and toddlers, an early evening service for families, and a “midnight mass” for the traditionalists, I’m the one who does them, energetically as if each were the only service of the holiday.

That means Christmas morning finds me wiped out, sleeping in, in no mood for fun-and-game, and with no interest in any sort of meal that takes any effort to prepare. I suspect that my children’s memories of Christmas morning are probably not happy ones.

I’m sorry, kids. I wish I’d done better by you. I wish I’d figured out how to get those plum corporate parish jobs with lots of clergy on staff so that we could have taken, occasionally, a Christmas away. I wish I’d figure out how to not spend my resources on my job and to have more energy for you. There are many times I’ve wished I could have ignored God’s nagging and said “No!” to God’s call to this ordained life. But that wasn’t possible.

So I am sitting here in my office in the basement of the church building. I have to make sense of these notes about Mary and pregnancy and the unexpected . . . and then I have to make sense of this other pile of notes about Jesus and birth and celebration.

Come, Holy Spirit, come!
And from your celestial home
Shed a ray of light divine!

. . . especially in this office in the basement of the church building.

A Theology of Gift Giving – Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas – January 5, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Second Sunday of Christmas, January 5, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Christmas 2A: Jeremiah 31:7-14; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Psalm 84; and Matthew 2:1-12. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Gifts of the Wise MenVery recently in the church office mail there was this small envelope addressed to me personally — the address has been typed out on a separate sheet of paper, cut therefrom, and glued onto the envelope. There is no return address and the postmark is a Cleveland, OH, cancelation. Inside there was no personal note of any kind, just a page torn from the last quarter’s Forward Day by Day devotional. One side, as you can see, has been scribbled all over; clearly not the side I am supposed to read. The other is the meditation for October 30, 2013, which begins:

Have you ever suffered because you sat through a really boring, abstract, incoherent, and disconnected sermon? Most of us have. Believe it or not, some people report that after enduring something like that, they decide never to go back to that particular church or any church at all. Sermons can make or break some people’s relationship with the church.

(The entire meditation can be read at Forward Day by Day.)

I have to be honest — my first reaction on receiving this was to think, “Well, that’s not something I wanted to get!” And immediately I was reminded of one Christmas when our children were quite young.

Our family tradition is to wait until Christmas morning to open our packages, so even if we’d been to the Midnight Mass we would rise early to see what Santa had brought. On the Christmas I recalled, our daughter rushed down the stairs from her second-floor room to the tree set up in our first-floor den and tore open the largest of her gifts, ripping to shreds the wrapping paper with obvious excitement. However, when she saw what was under the wrapping her expression changed to disappointment and she cried out, “That’s not what I wanted!” I don’t remember what she had wanted; I don’t even remember what we had given her. But I remember that reaction.

It got me to thinking about the reasons we give things to one another, the how of it and the why of it. What is the “theology of gift giving?” The gifts of the wise men to the Christ-child help us to explore that question.

The first element of such a theology would be the recognition that the giving of gifts is perfectly acceptable! There are some who teach that it is not, but we have plenty of examples in Scripture including, of course, the very story we are told in today’s gospel reading of the visitation of the Magi. More basically, we have God’s own example starting with the gift of life to plants, animals, and human beings as described in the Creation stories and exhibited most clearly in God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ. Generosity and charity are fundamental to an active Christian faith. Giving is the very thing that defines our belief: God-made-human gave himself entirely so that we might be free to give ourselves entirely back to God. As James said, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” (James 1:17, NRSV) Gift-giving, in a sense, is the purpose of the Incarnation, so it is something strongly encouraged.

The second element of a theology of gift giving is that giving gifts allows us to be ministers of grace, the free and undeserved help of God. The gifts of the wise men were symbolic: the hymn “We Three Kings” lays out in verse what these are. Gold is a symbol of kingship, frankincense (used for incense in worship) is a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) is a symbol of death. (By the way, did you know that that hymn is quintessentially Episcopalian? It was written by John J. Hopkins in 1857 for a Christmas pageant at General Theological Seminary, the Episcopal Church divinity school in New York City.) In other words, they are symbolic of the full grace and mercy of God incarnate in Jesus. Every gift we receive, especially those from God but really from anyone, is a demonstration of God’s grace because, after all, grace is undeserved. How many times have you opened a present and sat there with the gift still in the box, looking at the giver with eyes and thinking to yourself, “What done to deserve this?” That question, of course, is rhetorical. The answer is “Nothing.” Gift giving is a form of grace by which we imitate the behavior of God and model the character of God.

The third element of a theology of gift giving is that it give us opportunity to display the love of God. “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver,” wrote Paul to the Corinthians. (2 Cor. 9:7, ESV) And, of course, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” (John 3:16, NRSV) Every gift should be a reflection of that love. If a gift is a real gift it is given with no thought of return. It’s not about starting an endless series of gift exchanges. It’s not about buttering someone up. It’s not about impressing someone or trying to get someone to do something for you. A real gift is an act of unconditional love, with no demands, no hints, no requirements of any return. Love, as Paul reminds us in the First Letter to the Corinthians,

is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. (1 Cor. 13:4-6)

Our gift-giving character should be one of genuine love. By giving a gift, we are symbolically recalling the gift of Christ for our salvation because “God so loved the world.”
The final element of a theology of gift giving, the element to which the first three point, is that it is relational. When the Magi encountered the Christ-child, they worshiped him: “On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage.” Worship is an expression of relationship at its deepest. However we define the word worship, it has its center in how we relate to God; it is the very reason, Scripture tells us, that we were created.

As I think I’ve mentioned before, one of my favorite poets is the African American James Weldon Johnson. At funerals, I often use one the poems from his collection God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse. Another poem in that book is entitled The Creation; it explores this truth of our creation. The poem begins —

And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
“I’m lonely —
I’ll make me a world.”

The poem continues, as Genesis does, detailing the creation of earth, the seas, the plants, the animals . . . and then goes on —

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And He looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”

Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life,

And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

“Like a mammy bending over her baby . . . .” We are created for relationship — relationship with God and relationship with each other. Like the gift giving of the Magi, that’s what our gift giving to one another is all about. It is a tangible expression of relationship; although gifts are given out of love with no expectation of reciprocation, they do provoke a response. They are relational, and in the way we relate to each other, especially in our giving of gifts to each other, we exhibit how we relate to God.

I’ll be honest. I was upset by this anonymous gift. But in the end I’m grateful for it because it is a reminder of this most important element of the theology of gift giving, this relational aspect. After that rather brutal opening paragraph, the Forward Day by Day meditation examines what it calls “Jesus’ methodology” of preaching by story-telling and then concludes, “In spite of all of our media gadgets, communications systems, and technological tools, we still need to truly perceive, listen, and understand.”

My mentor, the late Fr. Karl Spatz, taught me to think of a sermon as a conversation and as a gift. A sermon is not a lecture and it has many participants. Preaching is grounded in community, and like gift giving is relational. Preaching is not me or any clergy person standing in the pulpit telling you what we think that you should hear. A sermon is an exploration of the things we all struggle to understand, the troubles we all have to deal with, the things we all try to do better, the joys we all celebrate. A sermon is a priest’s prayerful and considered reflection upon these things, offered humbly as a gift to the gathered community. The congregation’s part in the conversation is to receive the gift and, as the meditation says, make the effort “to truly perceive, listen, and understand.” That may sometimes mean that we continue the conversation at a later time, perhaps through notes like this one — but we can only really continue the conversation that if I know who you are . . . .

When all is said and done, any gift giving (including any preaching) is an imperfect thing. It is an imperfect thing that seeks the perfection of the one true gift, the gift of Jesus for the salvation of the world. 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.

Technical Support – From the Daily Office – January 4, 2013

From the Psalter:

Restore us then, O God our Savior;
let your anger depart from us.
Will you be displeased with us for ever?
will you prolong your anger from age to age?
Will you not give us life again,
that your people may rejoice in you?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 85:3-6 (BCP Version) – January 4, 2014.)

Help KeyLate yesterday I created and posted a “meme” on Facebook and then put it on this blog as well . . . a picture of a sack lunch with words from the early 1970s humor piece entitled The Deterioriata: “

Gracefully surrender the things of youth:
The birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan . . .
And let not the sands of time
Get in your lunch.

I edited the posting this morning to include the whole text of The Deteriorata. It’s a parody. It’s humor. It’s not the way I actually see the universe functioning. Let’s make that clear. But another part of the piece strikes awfully close to home:

Therefore, make peace with your god
Whatever you conceive him to be —
Hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.
With all its hopes, dreams, promises, and urban renewal
The world continues to deteriorate.

There is ample evidence that the world does continue to deteriorate, even more so than when that piece was written in 1972 as a part of a National Lampoon comedy record! Economic injustice and wealth inequality, increased pollution and anthropogenic climate change, wars and civil wars . . . you can complete the list. So perhaps making peace with one’s god is a good idea.

And that’s the line that gets to me this morning, the bit about “whatever you conceive him to be.”

And the line (or, actually, the word) that got my attention in the morning psalm is “Restore…”

Here’s why.

For several hours yesterday and this morning, when I would try to access this site (a family domain I set up several years ago and host with a company whose servers and technical support staff are in . . . God knows where), I could not do so. I would get strange error messages. It would tell me that the “resource limit” had been exceeded; it would claim there was a “database error;” it would give me an HTTP 500 error saying that it had “encountered an unexpected condition that prevents fulfilling the request by the client;” it would give me an HTTP 404 error – “Page not found!”

My only recourse when these things happen is to go to my hosting company’s website and complete a “support ticket” detailing the error received and saying something very much like “Restore us then, O hosting company.”

Before reading the Daily Office this morning, I checked the weather. In our area we are experiencing very cold winter temperatures and in this morning’s prediction there was a “Winter Wind Chill Watch” for the next few days. Beginning early Monday morning and continuing through mid-day on Tuesday, there are predicted temperatures at Zero Degrees Fahrenheit or below, blowing snow showers (winds of 20-25 mph), and wind chills of -25 to -40 . . . . Not being a fan of cold, snowy winters in the first place, the Psalm’s plea, “Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us” seemed to me particularly appropriate; bad winter weather will screw up a whole lot of plans that I have made!

But then I had to pull myself up short and ask myself, “How are you conceiving God to be? Hairy thunderer, cosmic muffin, universal weatherman, celestial technical support department?” All might be good metaphors to help us understand the divine in bible study, but as with any metaphor they are of limited use in most circumstances, and especially in these.

Faced with glitches and bugs in the programs we’ve tried to write for our own lives, what do we do? Call on God as some sort of master IT technician to come fix them? Or do we knuckle down and do the hard work of reading through the code line-by-line and fixing things ourselves, relying on the tools and skills that God has already given us.

In my own life, I’m trying to do the latter, but I must confess that every once in a while I really do just want to throw up my hands and submit a “support ticket” to the heavenly technician, and then gripe about how slowly he gets around to fixing things: “Will you be displeased with us for ever?”

No, better not to call on technical support; best to work things out for ourselves and with the help and support of our communities to the extent we can. And we will find out that that extends really pretty far!

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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.

Chaotic Disorderliness – From the Daily Office – January 3, 2014

From the First Book of Kings:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him . . . .

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Kings 19:11-13 (NRSV) – January 3, 2014.)

The Crowning by Sara StarIt’s almost over . . . nine ballerinas or lady ballroom champions or something are supposed to show up to join the eight milkmaids who came yesterday; then, ten leaping lords are to show up tomorrow. I’m not sure why the dancers are scheduled to get here before the musicians, but the pipers and the drummers won’t get here until the end. In any event, the familiar carol promises that the end of Christmas will be even more noisy and confusing than its beginning.

Thinking of Elijah standing at the mouth of his cave through all the turbulence of storm and temblor and conflagration, but not perceiving God until the “sound of sheer silence,” I am reminded again of how odd I find our (basically) northern European fantasies of the birth of Jesus to be. I sometimes wonder what “first world” Christianity would be like if we’d never developed the notion that the Savior was born on a quiet, snowy night.

We did, though, and church congregations play that up in spades! And, I must confess, my own parish and our liturgical planning for Christmas Eve and the Christ Mass of Christmas Day went right along.

At the Midnight Mass, as a sequence hymn, we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem with that line, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . . .” The Choir sang an anthem version of the Christina Rossetti — Gustav Holst hymn In the Bleak Midwinter with its gorgeous portrayal of a dark winter night:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

And we finished off with the lights dimmed, the candles flickering, and everyone singing Silent Night! We bought right into it! More than likely it’s completely wrong, but we did it anyway.

I think passages like this story of Elijah encourage us to envision the Nativity of Jesus as this peaceful, very-quiet-if-not-silent, nighttime event; this story and others make dark silence the normative setting for God’s interaction with humans. There’s Samuel’s late night call from God (1 Sam. 3:1-18). There are the Josephs (Jacob’s son and Jesus’ foster father) who both received dream messages while sleeping (Gen. 37:5-10; Matt. 1:18-25). There is Jacob who encountered God at night at Peniel, although wrestling with God through the night could hardly have been a silent affair (Gen. 32:24-30).

We’re also fooled by the Magi being led by a star. “There’s a star? Must have been at night,” we think, but the Magi were astrologers whose lives and actions, not just their travel plans, were “led” by the stars and constellations regardless of the time of day (Matt. 2:1-12). (Let’s not even mention the fact that the wholesale slaughter of the Holy Innocents suggests that their visit was several months, if not a couple of years, later so the star is completely irrelevant to Jesus’ actual birth!) And we’re told by Luke that shepherds were in the area keeping watch over the flocks “by night” when the angel told them of the birth, but the angel’s message is, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-20, emphasis added) Couldn’t the birth have been earlier? During daylight hours, perhaps? To be honest, there is just no indication when the actual birth of Jesus took place.

And that “when” is bigger than time of day! There’s no indication of what time of year, either. As we all know (since the anti-religious crowd loves to tell us every year, just in case we don’t already know or had forgotten since they told us last year), the December 25 date of Christmas was originally the Roman feast of Saturnalia simply taken over by the church. When someone tries to disprove the Christian story by telling me this, my standard response is “So what?” We don’t celebrate the birthday of Jesus; we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God. We can and do that all the time; it doesn’t matter what day of the year we choose to do so in a particular and special way.

Except that we get this cold, bleak, quiet, silent, peaceful, midwinter, snow-on-snow, everyone-bundle-up northern European picture of Jesus’ birth.

I’ve attended births; I was present when both our children were born in the comfort of hospital birthing centers. Neither was quiet, silent, or peaceful! There was panting, grunting, crying, exclamations, excited utterances, anxiety, frustration, elation . . . and my wife was making noise, too! I can’t imagine that the biblical delivery in a stable would have been any less raucous! I’d be surprised if, with the farm animals provoked by all the goings on, Joseph excited, and Mary in the throes of childbirth (and possibly the owner of the stable and members of his family coming and going), it wasn’t a very noisy place!

I am thoroughly convinced that God was present in all the fuss and noise of my children’s births, so I am just as sure that God was present in all the fuss and noise of God’s own Son’s birth! I am pretty certain that God is present in the fuss and noise of all human affairs. So I would not be surprised, therefore, if the Deuteronomic historian responsible for redacting the First Book of Kings and recording this story of Elijah in the cave was just wrong. Perhaps it would have been accurate to say that Elijah did not perceive God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but I think it is simply inaccurate to say that “the Lord was not in” any or all of those. God is with us in all the noisy, chaotic disorderliness of life.

I don’t have a clue what the Christian faith would be like if it were grounded by a more realistic narrative of Jesus’ birth, but I do know that God is there in the midst of turmoil, in the midst of chaos, in all the cacophony of human existence. That’s the truth the Christian faith teaches. So bring on the dancing ladies, the leaping lords, the pipers, and the drummers! Enough of this sheer silence! God’s twelve-day party is nearly over; let’s make the most of it!

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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.

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