That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Epiphany (page 1 of 2)

Transfiguration and Multiverse – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year B, February 11, 2018

Preachers often focus on Peter’s unthinking outburst offering to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such booths would concretize his all-to-human desire to experience continually the radiance of God. Life, however, is not like that; it’s not all mountaintop highs. Life is full of ups and downs, both high mountaintops and low valleys.

My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below, what our lectionary reading leaves out. If we read further in Mark’s Gospel we find (as Paul Harvey might have said) the rest of the story:

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Discerning Prophets – Sermon for Epiphany 4, RCL Year B, January 28, 2018

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”[1] So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.

And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”[2] The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.

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To See the Divine Image – Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018

Christmas is now done. It ended Friday on Twelfth Night. I am sure than none of you, good Anglican traditionalists that we all are, put away any of your decorations before then, but have by now put them all away.

Yesterday, of course, was the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember especially the visitation of the Magi. We don’t know exactly when they visited the Holy Family, but most scholars seem certain that it was a lot more than 13 days after Jesus’ birth! More likely, it was about two years. We’ve left the Creche in place this morning and you’ll notice that the Wise Men have made their way from the table at the rear of the Nave up the Epistle side aisle, have visited Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, and are now heading back down the Gospel side aisle, returning to “their own country (as Matthew tells us) by another road.”1

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Listen to Him! – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, 26 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 26, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 2; 2 Peter 1:16-21; St. Matthew 17:1-9. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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transfiguration_wLGHere we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.

Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?” (Mt 16:15; cf Mk 8:29; Lk 9:20) Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

Then they had an argument. Jesus congratulated Peter for his astute answer and then tried to explain to him and the others what that would mean predicting his own death in Jerusalem. Peter, headstrong and outspoken, had contradicted Jesus and vowed that they would never let that happen. That’s when Jesus called him “Satan” and told Peter to stop obstructing him. “Get behind me,” he said. (Mt 16:23) Then he told the rest of them that to be his disciple would mean suffering and probably death. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mt 16:25)

So nearly a week has passed now and here on the Holy Mountain (traditionally believed to be Mt. Tabor about six miles east of Nazareth) Peter, James, and John behold what John would later refer to as Jesus’ “glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Peter would report that they had been “eyewitnesses of [Christ’s] majesty” when “he received honor and glory from God the Father.” (2 Pet 1:16-17) In some way, Jesus was transfigured, a word that describes a change in outward form or appearance, usually implying exaltation or glorification. Whatever it was that happened, these disciples would come to understand that Peter’s answer a week before, that Jesus was “the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), meant much more than they had thought. In the Judaism of their time, it could refer to anyone of particularly noteworthy piety which the disciples believed their rabbi Jesus to be. (See Jewish Encyclopedia, “Son of God”)

Jesus instructed them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead,” and at sometime they must have told the story to someone, else we would not find it in the Gospels. And in the story they told not only of Jesus’ change in appearance, but of the voice from Heaven, a voice which spoke even as Peter was talking about building monuments to what was happening. As bible scholar David Lose describes the scene,

There is Peter, falling all over himself looking for something to do, when the voice from heaven literally interrupts him, saying (almost!), “Would you shut up already, and just listen to him!” (Dear Working Preacher, 2011)

I find it both amusing and disappointing that when Peter writes his second letter and describes the voice and what was said, he leaves off those last three words, “Listen to him.” It is so like Peter, and so like the church which he represents, to ignore and even forget those three words that Professor Warren Carter of Brite Divinity School has characterized as a “divine plea.” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) As the priest-blogger who calls himself “the Listening Hermit” says,

[This] is something the disciples, and the church they founded, is not good at. We are unable to really listen to Jesus. (Listening Hermit, emphasis in original.)

I believe those three words spoken by God to Peter, James, and John, and through them to us, may be the most important divine admonition in the whole of the New Testament, perhaps in all of Holy Scripture. “Listen to him!”

It has occurred to me that there are two ways in which we don’t listen fully to Jesus. One way is that although we may know what it is that he said, we don’t hear it as coming from Jesus the Son of God. The other way is that although we may recognize Jesus as the Lord of creation, we don’t hear his words.

The first way to fail to listen to Jesus is represented by Thomas Jefferson. As you may know, Jefferson was an Episcopalian, a vestryman in his Virginia parish, and very well versed in Scripture. But he was also a free-thinker who really didn’t believe in the divinity of Jesus, so he edited the New Testament, apparently using a pen knife to cut out and rearrange the portions he liked best to produce a text more to his own taste.

Jefferson produced [an] 84-page volume . . . bound it in red leather and titled it The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. * * * [He] elected to not include related miraculous events, such as the feeding of the multitudes with only two fish and five loaves of barley bread; he eschewed anything that he perceived as “contrary to reason.” (Smithsonian Magazine, January 2012)

Basically what he did was take out anything that suggested Jesus’ divinity, reducing the Son of God to nothing more than a philosopher. When the words of Jesus are not those of God but merely those of a man, no matter how morally upright and impressive he may be, we do not hear them with the same import; the words of a mere man, no matter how moral and inspiring he may be, simply do not carry the same weight as the words of God. If we take Jefferson’s approach, we do not “listen to him.”

That first way is also represented by someone rather less imposing than Mr. Jefferson, and that is the title character of the Will Farrell movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. If you saw the movie you will remember the Thanksgiving Dinner scene in which Ricky Bobby offers the table grace which he begins with these words, “Dear Lord baby Jesus . . . .” After he is interrupted by his friend Cal, he begins again, “Dear Lord baby Jesus . . . .” at which point his wife Carley interrupts him saying, “You know, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don’t always have to call him, ‘Baby.’ It’s a bit odd and off-putting to pray to a baby.” And Ricky responds, “Well, I like the Christmas Jesus best.” At that point, the offering of prayer is abandoned and the family begins a discussion of what image of Jesus each prefers. When Ricky does finally get back to the prayer, he addresses our Lord as: “Dear tiny Jesus in your golden-fleece diapers . . . Dear, 8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant and so cuddly, but still omnipotent . . . .” (MovieWavs.com)

Obviously that’s completely overblown and played for laughs, but it drives home the point that we cannot hear Jesus’ words, we cannot “listen to him,” when we conceive of him only through our own preferences and inclinations as embodying nothing more than our own likes and dislikes. This is no different from Jefferson hacking away at the New Testament; Jesus as “8-pound, 6-ounce, newborn infant . . . [although] still omnipotent” (or whatever our preferred, self-made image may be) is no more to be taken seriously than is Jesus the moral philosopher.

The other way we don’t listen to Jesus takes his divinity and authority seriously, but not his actual words. More often than not this sort of not listening takes the form of talking over Jesus or of putting words into his mouth. The “poster child” for this sort of not listening is Archie Bunker, the pater familias from the old television show All in the Family. If you recall the show, you will remember any number of scenes in which Archie respond to a situation by saying, “As the Good Book says . . . .” and then offer some mangled word of wisdom that was like nothing ever written in Scripture. Among my favorite religious Bunkerisms were “Let the one without sin become a rolling stone” and “Patience is a virgin.”

Screenshot 2017-02-25 21.02.08The world is full of Archie Bunkers who will say, “Jesus said this” or “Jesus said that” – who will tell you flat out that Jesus is firmly against abortion (about which he said nothing) or that Jesus doesn’t like gays or lesbians (homosexuality being something else he never mentioned). I recently purchased this t-shirt and, believe, me there are places where and people with whom I would dearly love to wear it. If you are unable to see it clearly or read what says, it bears a familiar portrait of Jesus under which are the words, “I never said that. (signed) Jesus”

We cannot listen to Jesus when we talk over him. We cannot listen to Jesus when we put words into his mouth. We cannot listen to Jesus when we presume to speak for him. “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do,” says writer Anne Lamott (Bird by Bird, Anchor Books, New York:1995, page 22) I would suggest that one has also created God in one’s own image when it turns out that God thinks the same things one thinks or says the same things one would say. I read a comment on an internet blog recently in which the writer said he grew up in a church where “people would quote the Scriptures, ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ or ‘God helps those who help themselves.'” Neither of those shibboleths are actually from scripture. The first is from Alexander Pope, and the second from Benjamin Franklin. Again, like Archie Bunker, we cannot listen to Jesus when we put words into his mouth, when Jesus seems to say the things we would say.

The voice on the Holy Mountain addressed both the Thomas Jeffersons or Ricky Bobbies and the Archie Bunkers among us. God’s first words, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” address the former. This Jesus is not just a good philosopher; this Jesus is not just the little infant of Christmas. This Jesus is, as Peter said, the Son of the Living God, fully human and fully divine. Take him seriously. The “divine plea” with which the voice ends, “Listen to him,” addresses the latter, the Archie Bunkers. Take his words seriously.

How can we do that? By reading this, the Holy Bible, on a regular (and I would suggest daily) basis. By studying it. By knowing it. By knowing Jesus’ words contained in it. If we are to take the divine admonition at all seriously, studious reading of Scripture is the only way to do so.

“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” This is the Bible; read it!

Let us pray:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect, Proper 28, for the Sunday closest to November 16, The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, page 236)

(Note: The first illustration is Transfiguration by contemporary artist James B. Janknegt, whose work may be purchased at Brilliant Corners Art Farm. The second is from Headline T-Shirts.)

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

Be Holy, Be Perfect – Sermon for Epiphany 7, 19 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; and St. Matthew 5:38-48. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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pinkperfectionWhen the Prayers of the People are offered later in this service you will hear a name you’ve never heard before, and you will hear that the person named was buried in our memory garden this week, and you will wonder, “Who is Indra?” (“Indra” is not the child’s real name.)

Indra was born on February 1, 2017. And Indra died on February 1, 2017. Whether she was stillborn or expired a few minutes after her birth is unknown. Indra suffered Turner Syndrome and was born in her parents’ automobile as they were driving to the Emergency Room. In any event, she was not living when they got to the hospital.

Because of her father’s cultural traditions, the family was not involved in her burial and do not know the whereabouts of her ashes. Only the funeral director and I were present. It was the shortest, simplest funeral I’ve ever conducted, but in many ways it was perhaps the saddest and hardest burial I have done in 27 years of ordained ministry.

I was going to start this sermon with the declaration that being a priest is hard, but then I was asked to handle Indra’s burial and I thought perhaps that telling you about her and her funeral would illustrate that better than my simply whining to you about how hard it is to be priest.

It’s not this stuff, this Sunday stuff, that is hard. This is easy. Just follow the Prayer Book, follow the Lectionary, choose some hymns that fit the lessons, ask David to pick some other music, say a few words about Scripture, and share some Bread and some Wine. That’s easy.

And funerals and weddings are usually pretty much the same. Just follow the recipe; like cooking, it all pretty much takes care of itself.

But, sometimes, it’s not. Funerals usually aren’t hard, but Indrah’s fast, simple, no-family-to-deal-with burial was incredibly hard.

Sitting with someone in hospital who is facing their death is hard; sitting with a family whose loved one is facing death is even harder. Counseling two people getting married is hard; counseling two people getting divorced is harder. Getting over being angry with God is hard; helping someone else get over being angry with God is harder.

I don’t really know how handles those situations. I don’t really know how to do this stuff and I’m never sure I’ve done it right. If putting together a Sunday service is like cooking, this sort of stuff is more like baking. I was tempted to say there are no rule books for this sort of thing, but the truth is that there are lots books. There are lots of recipes. There are too many, in fact, and they seem to all give contradictory advice.

I say it’s like baking because I am always looking for the secret to flaky pie crusts or to a successful soufflé. One of my grandmothers swore by using lard in her crusts; the other used butter. My mother said to use vinegar in the dough, but my aunt insisted that ice water was the trick. And as hard as making a good pie crust is, baking a soufflé is even worse. Follow the recipe, but get the slightest thing just a wee bit “off” and what might have been a glorious dessert is a hopeless disaster, and more often than not, you have no idea what you did wrong.

Some of being a priest, a lot of being a priest actually, is like making pie crust or baking a souffle. Do it right – everything is great. Do the slightest thing wrong – it’s a complete mess. And constantly live in fear of that slight, wrong thing.

I think the priests in Solomon’s Temple had it easier. They had Leviticus. Most of us aren’t very familiar with Leviticus. It is, for the most part, a book of rules, of very detailed rules. So we don’t read it in church very much.

We Episcopalians are fond of saying that our worship is among the most biblical of all Christian denominations. We are often criticized for not taking the Bible more seriously and those not familiar with our liturgy accuse us of ignoring it. When that happens, we often fire back that our Prayer Book is about 80% scriptural and that we read through the Bible using a Lectionary so that (and I’ve heard clergy say this) “we read all of the Bible in three years.”

Except that’s not true. We don’t read all those genealogies. There are some of the Psalms that we don’t consider appropriate for Sunday worship, although we do read them in the Daily Offices. And there’s Leviticus from which we read, I think, only two short lessons in the whole three years of the Lectionary cycle. Today is one of those two times. Nonetheless, it is a book worth knowing and knowing about. I commend it to you; it is especially good for reading late at night when you can’t get to sleep . . . .

Very briefly, this is what you’ll find in Leviticus. First, there are six chapters on various kinds of offerings and sacrifices, then two chapters instructing priests how to handle all the different sorts of offerings and sacrifices. This is followed by four chapters on the history of the Aaronic priesthood.

Next are five chapters on uncleanness with which the Temple priests were expected to deal, unclean animals, the uncleanliness of women caused by childbirth, various unclean diseases (such as leprosy) and how the priests were to cleans them, if possible, and (my favorite) unclean bodily discharges. (Maybe the Temple priests didn’t have it easier, after all. I’m quite happy that you don’t come to me with your unclean diseases, your weeping ulcerous sores, and your other bodily discharges! That would be really hard . . . .)

After the uncleanness chapters, there is one chapter detailing the Day of Atonement.

Then comes something scholars call “the Holiness Code,” ten chapters for the not-priests, for the people of God. Ten chapters of practical rules for living a righteous life. One of them, from which we heard today, concerns neighborliness and begins with this admonition, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Do you know why I became a priest? Yes, I had that sense of call and went through the discernment “process” and all of that (twice, actually, but that’s another story). But . . . really . . . when I look back on it, I realize that I left my life as a trial lawyer and went into the ordained ministry because, as hard as it is, it’s easier than being a lay person. As hard as it sometimes is to be a priest, to be a “professional Christian” in the church, it’s harder still to be a lay Christian in the world.

There are no good rule books for priests, or too many contradictory rule books, but there are expectations and there are permissions. There is a stereotype and there are prescribed situations. There is “safety within the walls” of the church, within the set of circumstances in which a priest finds him- or herself.

That’s not true in the world. In the the wide open, free wheeling, anything-can-come-at-you-world where you not-priests have to do your ministry, you have the much harder job.

You can tell that just by look at the Book of Leviticus: there are five chapters of rules for priests, but there are ten for the not-priests! The people of God have twice as much to do as the priests of God.

And you can tell it just by reading the Catechism of the Episcopal Church (it’s in the Prayer Book back around page 845 or so, in that part of the book no one ever seems to open). It asks there who the ministers of the Church are and answers that it’s everyone: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. The ministry of priests, it says, is to “share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 856)

That’s a piece of cake when you compare it to the ministry of the laity. According to the Catechism, your job, oh People of God, is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [you] may be; and, according to the gifts given [you], to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take [your] place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” (BCP, page 855) Now that is hard work!

The Jewish bible scholar and rabbi Jacob Milgrom said that the point of the Book of Leviticus is that holiness is not the responsibility of priests alone. In this book, and especially in the Holiness Code, “the domain of the sacred expands, embracing the entire land, not just the sanctuary, and all of Israel, not just the priesthood.” Israel, he said, attains holiness and priests strive to sustain it. (Milgrom, J., Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, Fortress Press, Minneapolis:2004, pp 175, 178)

Although priests are not allowed by the rules in Leviticus to make any mistake, attaining holiness takes a lot more work than sustaining it. What we priests do in the sanctuary merely sustains holiness; what the People of God do in the world, that is how holiness is attained. That’s much, much harder!

It takes love … It takes loving even people we don’t really like, even people we can’t stand! Indeed, the word used in Hebrew text is not exactly “neighbor;” it is not limited to those who are geographically nearby. The Hebrew word is more akin to “fellow” and seems to be much more expansive. Thus, when a lawyer questions Jesus about the Law, Jesus is able to cite the rule from Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and then illustrate it with a story involving someone from another country, a hated foreigner, the Good Samaritan. (See Luke 10:25–37)

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus quotes (or, actually, misquotes) the same verse from Leviticus, adding words that aren’t in the original: “You have heard that it was said,” he says, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” (Mt 5:43)

Now to be fair to Jesus, he doesn’t actually say he’s quoting Leviticus, just “you have heard it said.” That last bit about hating enemies could just be a rabbinic gloss; it could just be folk wisdom. In any event, it was (and is) the way people act. Jesus acknowledges human nature by beginning this bit of the Sermon on the Mount (and that’s what this is, the end of the first chapter of that long sermon) with commentary on what’s called “the lex talionis,” that eye-for-an-eye rule. But the lex talionis isn’t about enemies; that’s a rule of justice not of war. “An eye for an eye” deals with retribution toward a neighbor who has violated social norms. Jesus dispenses with that (saying, basically, don’t follow the lex talionis, don’t seek retribution or revenge) and now moves beyond it; he leaves the neighborhood, so to speak.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Love those whom you fear, even those you think might kill you, even the hated foreigner.” He’s saying that “enemy” is not really a separate class, that the world isn’t divided into neighbors and enemies. Although some people would like to do that, although some people have always done that (it’s human nature, after all), the world isn’t carved up that way. Jesus is saying (I think) that “enemies” are simply a class of “neighbors;” that enemies and neighbors are all “fellows;” that the division – neighbors here, enemies there, those we’re unsure about in some holding pen over there – doesn’t hold water.

And then, echoing Leviticus’ “Holiness Code,” especially the first verses of the neighborliness rules of Chapter 19 – “Be Holy because God is holy” – Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)

That’s heavy stuff! And remember the Leviticus command and Jesus’ admonition are not directed to the priests; these are directives for the whole People of God, for the laity.

It’s hard work . . . but as Kathryn Schifferdecker, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says these verses are as much promise as command:

“You shall be holy.” It is both command and promise. And to believe that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living out in our day-to-day lives genuine love for God and for our neighbors. (Working Preacher)

You will be holy. You will be perfect. It’s a promise – so act on the promise; live as if you believe the promise. And keep this in mind, “holiness” is just another way to say “wholeness” and “perfection” is just another way to say “completion.” The promise of holiness is an instruction to strive for wholeness; the promise of perfection is a command to work toward completion.

What Leviticus and Jesus ask of us is that we be fully human, that we be as whole and complete a human being as each of us can be. And the way we do that is to love our neighbor, even the neighbor who seems to be our enemy, even the neighbor of whom we are afraid, even the neighbor we think may kill us.

When I was kid, I helped my stepdad restore old homes. I think my parents invented to the practice of “flipping,” buying old fixer-uppers, rehabbing them, and then selling them hopefully at a profit. From the time I was about 10 years old until I went away to college, we lived and fixed up in a different house every year. The last thing we would do was to paint the interiors. My stepdad encouraged me to do that very neatly and carefully because, he would say (and I had no idea that he was referencing scripture), “Paint covers a multitude of sins.”

He was parodying the First Letter of Peter, “Love covers a multitude of sins (4:8).” Peter goes on to say, “Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (v. 10).” Just be human, be yourself, be the best you you can be, loving your neighbor and using whatever gifts you have been given. I know that’s hard; it’s really hard. But with the help and grace of God, you can do it.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is a promise more than it is a command. With the help and grace of God you will be holy; you will be perfect.

And the glorious thing is – the Gospel truth is – that through the grace of God you already are!

Amen!

(Note: The illustration is Camelia Japonica, “Pink Perfection,” a camellia cutlivar dating from the late 18th Century; it was one of the most popular flowers of the Victorian Age.)

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

Truth, Justice, and the American Way: A Sermon for Epiphany 4, Year A, 29 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 4th Sunday after the Epiphany, January 29, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 15; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; and St. Matthew 5:1-12. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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supermannationaloriginsHave you ever had the experience of a long-forgotten memory rushing back upon you and just knocking you for a loop? Something like an odor or a song or a picture brings it back and the details hit you like a sledge hammer. That happened to me on Monday evening.

We were watching a biography of Rachel Carson, author of the book Silent Spring, on PBS. It was very well done. The program opened a floodgate of memory of my childhood; what did it was a segment in the show in which film of atomic bomb explosions was shown. I remembered two occasions when my father and I, with others, went out into the Nevada desert to see the mushroom clouds. The first was in the summer of 1957 when I was 4-1/2 years old: my dad, my brother, and I went to the test site at the invitation of a physics professor colleague of my father (my dad was an accountant, but he also taught math and accountancy at what was then called Nevada Southern University). The second in December of that same year, after I had started kindergarten and my class, together with several others from John S. Park Elementary School in Las Vegas, went to the test site on field trip and my father, who was self-employed and could take time to do those things, went along as a chaperone.

All the details of those excursions into the Nevada desert, and seeing those glowing clouds rise miles and miles away to the northeast from where we were watching, and my father’s reaction to them, all came rushing back.

After both of those experiences, I can remember my dad for a few weeks being what my grandmother would have called “cranky.” Things around our house got chaotic. The person who was supposed to be the adult in charge got mean and spiteful, and did things that were erratic and made no sense. My dad, the person who was supposed to be the adult in charge, just seemed to be angry and crazy all the time.

I suspect that what he was was drunk, and I suspect he was drunk because he was scared to death of nuclear war. My dad was a decorated combat veteran of World War II who had been badly wounded in the Battle of the Bulge; he’d been awarded both the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star for heroism. He was in constant pain during the short period of my life that he was a part of it. I know now, but didn’t know then, that he was an alcoholic who self-medicated his pain and his fear with booze. In March 1958, he drove away from our house after a drunken argument with my mother and never came back; he killed himself in a single-vehicle roll-over accident on the highway between Las Vegas and Kingman, Arizona. The family guesswork is that he was trying to drive back to my grandparents’ home, his childhood home, in Kansas.

Why do I share those memories with you this morning? I suppose it is because whenever I read the words, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them . . . .” (Mt 5:1-2) what I envision is something very like the desert hillside from which we viewed those atomic bomb blasts. And when I read St. Paul writing to the Corinthians that God “will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning [he] will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19) and that “God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (v. 25), it is those mushroom clouds that metaphorically come to mind.

But I have another childhood memory which is also excited by these lessons, and that is sitting down in front of our small, black-and-white television every week and hearing these words:

Yes, it’s Superman . . . strange visitor from another planet, who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Superman . . . who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands, and who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way!

I couldn’t help but remember that famous opening sequence each time I sat down this week to consider the words of the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Truth, justice, kindness, humility . . . Biblical values that all seem to be jumbled together with the American way in my Superman-TV-program-educated mind, or at least I feel like they should be . . . and I am too often confronted with the reality that they are not.

This week, one thing I noticed particularly about the Superman intro that I’d not considered before is that it isn’t in the Superman persona, that incredible being who could stand right next to an exploding atomic bomb without being injured, that the alien immigrant Kal-El “fights [the] never-ending battle for truth, justice, and the American way.” No, it is in the guise of “mild-mannered reporter” Clark Kent that the refugee from the destroyed planet Krypton does so! It is the journalist character, not the superhero, “who speaks the truth from his heart” and upon whose tongue there is no guile!

So I have these two memories that rush into my consciousness when I read and consider these lessons, images of nuclear explosions and memories of my angry, alcoholic father, mythic superheroes, and “mild-mannered reporters” fighting “never-ending battles.” They color my understanding of these Scriptures and, yet, I must admit that they also clash with them for there is nothing here about war, about anger, about fighting, about battles. If anything, they seem to be quite the opposite!

The beatitudes, these statements of blessedness which we find here in Matthew and in a rather different form in Luke’s gospel, for example, raise for us the question, “Are they a programmatic outline for the church’s social justice ministry or are they simply words of comfort and encouragement for Jesus’ down-trodden original audience?” In his essay on Luke’s gospel, Southern Baptist scholar Robert H. Stein argues for the second; he writes:

Are the beatitudes to be interpreted as requirements for entering God’s kingdom or as eschatological pronouncements of blessing upon believers? In other words, are the beatitudes an evangelistic exhortation for salvation or pastoral words of comfort and encouragement, a kind of congratulation, to those who already possess faith? For several reasons they should be understood as the latter. (Stein, Robert H., Luke, The New American Commentary, Vol 24, B&H Publishing: Nashville, 1991, page 199)

On the other hand, Lutheran seminary professor Karoline Lewis takes the opposite position. “The Beatitudes,” she writes, “are not just blessings but a call to action.”

[T]he Beatitudes are a call to action to point out just who Jesus really is. Perhaps not the Jesus you want. Perhaps the Jesus who likely rubs you the wrong way. Perhaps the Jesus that tells you the truth about yourself. The Jesus who reminds you, at the most inconvenient times and places, what the Kingdom of Heaven is all about.
The Beatitudes are a call to action to be church, a call to action to make Jesus present and visible and manifest when the world tries desperately to silence those who speak the truth . . . . (Lewis, Righteous Living)

I wonder if they might be neither . . . or, perhaps, both, in the same way that nuclear energy can be both destructive weapon in the form of an atomic bomb and source of constructive power as in an electrical power plant, or in the same way that Kal-El can be both the mighty indestructible “man of steel” and the mild-mannered journalistic champion of truth. Perhaps the beatitudes are nothing more nor less than Jesus’ instruction to his disciples on how to recognize blessedness. “Not how to become blessed, or even to bless each other, but rather to recognize who is already blessed by God.” (Lose, Recognizing Blessing) Their blessings are spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness, desire for righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking, and persecution.

Several years ago, a Disciples of Christ pastor and professor named Lance Pape wondered, “To which of these blessings do our national leaders refer when they insist that ‘God Bless[es] America!'” And he answered his own question:

To none of these, for our national creed is one of optimism (not mourning), confidence (not poverty of spirit), and abundance (not hunger or thirst of any kind), and it is in service of such things that we invoke and assume the blessing of God. And so we live by those other beatitudes:

  • Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.
  • Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.
  • Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.

If we are honest, we must admit that the world Jesus asserts as fact, is not the world we have made for ourselves. (Pape, Working Preacher Commentary on Matthew 5:1-12)

In the world we have made for ourselves we see the bombs, the anger, the war, and we look for the “man of steel” to save us, to fly in singing “Here I come to save the day” (although I do know that’s a different superhero) and then taking us away to some kingdom of heaven in the sky. We know better, though, don’t we?

When Jesus teaches us to recognize blessedness in the Beatitudes, he teaches us to “recognize that God’s kingdom isn’t a place far away but is found whenever we honor each other as God’s children, bear each other’s burdens, bind each other’s wounds, and meet each other’s needs.” (Lose, Op. Cit.) He teaches us, as the Prophet Micah taught the ancient Israelites, “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with [our] God” (Micah 6:8). He teaches us, as the Psalmist taught in the liturgy of the ancient Temple, to lead a blameless life, to do what is right, to speak the truth from his heart, to have no guile upon our tongues, to do no evil to our friend, to heap no contempt upon our neighbors, and to reject what is wicked when we see it (Ps 15). That is the Christian way. And child of the atomic 1950s and devotee of television’s Superman that I am, I still believe it is, or at least it should be, the American way.

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

A Bicentennial Epiphany: Sermon at Evensong – 6 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector and which inaugurated at the service its Year of Celebration marking the parish’s bicentennial.

(The lessons for the day are the Episcopal Church’s Daily Office Lectionary, Year 1: Psalms 96 & 100;
Isaiah 52:7-10; and St. Matthew 12:14-21.)

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St Paul's Church -- December 2013We are here tonight for two reasons. First, because this is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the major feasts of the Christian Church and one we too often ignore, and second, because this is the inaugural event of our Year of Celebration during which we will mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of this parish.

Epiphany is one of those weird Greek-based words that is so weakly translated into English that we misunderstand its power. Generally, the word is translated as “manifestation” and by it we refer to the manifestation of God in Christ Jesus. In the western church, this Feast of the Epiphany has come to focus on the visitation of the Magi – in some places it is even called “Three Kings Day” or just “Kings Day” – and it is followed by a season of Ordinary Time during which other “manifestations” of Christ are the focus of the weekly gospel lessons: his baptism by John with the descent of the Spirit and the voice of the Father, his first miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana, the calling of the Twelve, and so forth. In the eastern church, it is called the Theophany, usually translated as “manifestation of God,” and it is the principal feast of the Incarnation in the eastern tradition where the focus is primarily on either Jesus’ birth or his baptism.

These words epiphany or theophany, however, mean so much more than what is suggested by the translation “manifestation.” They are compound words made up of, in the first case, the preposition epi– meaning “on” or “onto,” and in the second case, theo meaning “god,” combined with phanos,

… a word familiar to [us] from the English ‘fantasy’ and ‘fantastic’ and all that is suggested by the ‘light shows’ with which modern electronics have made [us] familiar – the word epiphany speaks to [us] of showing forth, breaking through, letting light shine forth. * * * This is a time to look up and out, to shine forth, to witness to something quite literally spectacular and that, of course, is the presence in our midst of the Light of the World. [1]

So that is one reason we gather to celebrate this evening, to celebrate the fantastic, spectacular manifestation of God in Christ, the Epiphany of our Lord!

You may wonder why, if this is Three Kings Day, none of our lessons mentioned the visitation of the Magi: we heard neither Psalm 72, which speaks of the kings of Tarshish, of the isles, of Arabia, and of Saba paying tribute and offering gifts, nor Matthew’s story of the wise men from the East bearing myrrh, frankincense, and gold. Instead, we have Isaiah’s prophecy praising the beauty of messengers’ feet and another story from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus heals a crowd of people but then “order[s] them not to make him known.”

The simplest answer, of course, is that those lessons about kings and wise men are reserved for the celebration of the Eucharist, while the lessons we have heard are part of the daily rotation of Scripture for use at the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, the latter of which being the service we are offering tonight.

The more complicated, or perhaps deeper, answer is that tonight’s lessons remind us of the ministry of God’s People, a ministry of epiphany described in our Catechism as “represent[ing] Christ and his Church” and “bear[ing] witness to him wherever [we] may be.”[2] For that is what those beautiful footed messengers of Isaiah’s did with their proclamation of God’s reign and his comfort for a people in ruins, and it is what those people in Matthew’s gospel story did despite Jesus’ pleading with them not to do so; they manifested God, proclaimed God to those around them.

Which brings us to the second reason we gather this evening, to remember the founding of this parish and begin our year of celebration during which we will, in a number of ways, commemorate the first 200 years of the life of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, and look forward to our third century of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this community.

So let us look back for moment some 200 years ago . . . rather let’s look back 241 years ago for the story of our congregation really has its beginnings in the origins of our republic. Had the Revolution of 1776 not happened, we very likely would not be here today. You know the story, of course, how some American colonists came to the reluctant conclusion that their government, the King, his ministers, and the parliament in London, England, were acting in tyrannical ways and that they were unlikely to change their behavior; how those American colonists decided that the only remedy was to rebel, over throw that government’s dominion in the thirteen colonies, and establish a new sort of local government; and how, against the odds and nearly everyone’s expectations, they succeeded.

You know all of that, but did you know that 32 of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence where members of the Church of England? That’s nearly 60% of the Founders who were Anglicans like you and me! And did you know that their chaplain, the chaplain of the Continental Congress which adopted that Declaration was the rector of a parish in Philadelphia, a man named William White?

Those men, those Anglicans, were reared in a religious tradition of public service, schooled in a theology of society, a peculiar worldview which teaches that the point of one’s life is not to locate oneself in some particular position of privilege, but rather to contribute to the transformation of the social order. Because of their Anglican ethos, they believed that the nation, whether it be the old Mother Country or the new nation they were conceiving, should reflect the merciful purposes of God: the comfort among the ruins of which Isaiah’s beautiful-footed messengers spoke, the healing of the sick which Matthew describes in this evening’s gospel, God’s everlasting mercy about which our Psalm sings today.

When they acted to sever their civil and political society from England, which they believed had fallen away from that tradition and that theology, they also severed their religious lives from the Church which had taught them that worldview. This was a serious matter for these men who were, many of them, vestrymen and leaders in their parishes. They belonged to a church which had preserved the ancient three-fold model of Holy Orders – bishops, priests, and deacons – which had preserved the traditional seven Sacraments – which believed with the ancient theologian Ignatius of Antioch in the centrality of the Eucharist and the unique role of the bishop in preserving the unity of the church. It was a serious matter because there were no Anglican bishops in North America, neither in what would become the United States nor in the still-loyal-to-Britain colonies of Canada.

After the Revolutionary War was ended and the new country was established, many of these men therefore turned their attention to the organization of Anglican Christianity in the new nation. In 1782, William White wrote a pamphlet entitled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, in which he proposed a structure very similar to that which eventually came to be.

It is said that William White was the chief architect of our new kind of Anglican polity, a uniquely American, democratic way of being church. “Hierarchical rule [would be replaced] with egalitarian, democratic government,”[3] and bishops would be elected by majority vote of the laity and the clergy to be “servants of the Church and not its lords.”[4]

In 1784, the churches in Connecticut elected Samuel Seabury who sailed off for the United Kingdom and was eventually ordained a bishop by the Scottish Episcopal Church; he returned to Connecticut in August of 1785. In September 1785, the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held in Philadelphia, but it was a meeting only of the House of Deputies made up of lay and presbyteral representatives, Bishop Seabury not being in attendance; Mr. White presided.

In 1786, the churches in New York elected Samuel Provoost, who had fought in the Revolution and had succeeded William White as Chaplain of Congress, and the churches in Pennsylvania elected Mr. White. A year later, first Provoost and then White were ordained bishops at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. In 1789, what is considered to be the third General Convention was held; it was the first in which a House of Bishops would meet. Bishop White presided, making him both the first President of the House of Deputies and the first Presiding Bishop. He later surrendered the chair to Bishop Seabury who served until his death about two-and-a-half years later; Seabury was succeeded by Provoost who also served for about two and a half years. He was then succeeded in 1795 by Bishop White, who thereby became not only the first Presiding Bishop but also the fourth. He served in that office for almost 41 years until his death in 1836!

During Presiding Bishop White’s tenure, some important things happened. Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803 as the 17th State. Medina County was created in 1812.

In 1814, at the XIth General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Rector of St. Peter’s Church in Plymouth, Connecticut, made an impassioned plea for the funding of mission activity and church planting in Ohio. His name was Roger Searle. Thereafter, with the blessing and support of the Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hobart, and of Presiding Bishop White, Searle left Connecticut and began planting churches in northeastern Ohio. In March of 1817, he met with a group of people living in the village of Weymouth who decided to organize themselves as the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina County; some of them may have been old enough to have been members of the Church of England before the Revolution. A month later, they built a small log cabin to serve as their church on Sundays and as a schoolhouse for the children of Weymouth during the week. That was the beginning of our parish!

On January 5, 1818, representatives of St. Paul’s, Medina would join with other Ohio congregations to adopt the constitution of the Episcopal Church and formally organized the Diocese of Ohio, the first diocese formed outside the borders of the thirteen original states. Although some hoped that Mr. Searle might be the first bishop of the new diocese, he supported the Rev. Philander Chase, who was elected as Ohio’s first bishop and consecrated to that office in 1819.

What they started here was a congregation and a diocese of the Episcopal Church, a manifestation (if you will) of that unique form of American Anglicanism championed by Bishop White, a way of being Christian that former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has described as “holding together in tension polarities that some [might be] eager to resolve,” a sort of “both/and” thinking and living “that keeps our hearts pumping and mission thriving. [T]he kind of tension that drives some of us crazy – what’s more important? – justice or mercy? inclusion or orthodoxy? ministry grounded in bishops or in baptism?” Our American Anglican way of following Christ takes “the long view [that] says that if we insist on resolving the tension we’ll miss a gift of the Spirit, for truth is always larger than one end of the polarity. Tension is where the Spirit speaks. Truth has something to do with that ongoing work of the Spirit, and it can only breathe in living beings capable of change and growth.”[5]

We are indebted to Presiding Bishop White, to Bishop Hobart, to the Rev. Mr. Searle, and to the men and women who formed that first congregation of St. Paul’s Church in Weymouth 200 years ago. They bequeathed to us that sometimes tense, but living and breathing, changing and growing, Anglican sort of Christian faith which emphasizes reason in religion; which advocates an alliance of religion and science supporting scientific developments and believing that true philosophy can never hurt sound divinity; which seeks to make the church as inclusive as possible by providing toleration for dissent; and which teaches that constraining inquiry and the freedom of the believer is neither necessary nor salutary. It is a Christian witness which insists on a practical, public morality which comforts those whose lives are in ruins, heals those who are sick, feeds those who are hungry, shelters those who are homeless, and embraces the Gospel with the innocence of the children it educates. This is the legacy bequeathed to us by White and Searle and those Weymouth Episcopalians two centuries ago.

For 200 years this parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, has been an epiphany, shining forth in our peculiar American Anglican way, and witnessing to that fantastic, spectacular truth that present in our midst is the Light of the World.

As we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ tonight, we look forward to continuing that ministry, “represent[ing] Christ and his Church” and “bear[ing] witness to him” into the next century. May God continue to bless us abundantly as we do. Amen.

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

Notes:

[1] Byron, William J., SJ, Epiphany, The Word Proclaimed: A Homily for Every Sunday of the Year – Year A (Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ, 2013).

[2] American BCP 1979, Page 855.

[3] Podmore, Colin, A Tale of Two Churches, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, Vol. 8:2, pp 124-54, 2008.

[4] Gundrum, James R., The General Convention: Understood Authority or Ecclesiastical Chaos, Arrington Lectures, University of the South, 1982.

[5] Closing Sermon, General Convention 2009.

Abundant Grace (Cana, Weddings & Primates) – Sermon for Epiphany 2, 17 January 2016

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; and St. John 2:1-11. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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As I begin this sermon today, I would like to call your attention to two verses of Psalm 36 which we all recited together just a few minutes ago:

6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O Lord.
***
8 They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.

God’s righteousness extends to all of humankind and beyond; it extends to all of created life, all the “beasts” whom God saves together with human beings. All humans, all of creation “feast upon the abundance of God’s house” and “drink from the river of God’s delights.” I want you to fix that notion, that fundamental Christian belief firmly in your minds.

I have to confess to you that sometimes when I am preparing a sermon I ignore one or sometimes two of the lessons set out in the Lectionary and which are read in church. This week I gave a lot of thought to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian church and to Paul’s partial list of the abundant varieties of gifts, but I pretty much ignored Isaiah’s prophecy. I read it, but actually forgot about, forgot even what it said, as I was researching for this homily. As a result, during the 8 a.m. service I actually started laughing as the Isaiah lesson was read:

You shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
(Isa 62:4-5)

I should have paid more attention to Isaiah and his metaphor of marriage, for “marriage” is the word of the week, at least in Anglican Communion circles.

I’ll come back to that, but first I want to explore briefly the gospel story from John today, the familiar story of Jesus’ first act of power in John’s gospel, the changing of water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is such a rich story with so much to explore. For example, we could spend hours discussing the relationship between Jesus and his mother, a principal player in the story who is never named: John never calls her “Mary,” just “the mother of Jesus.” The dynamic between Jesus and Mom is fascinating! One of my clergy colleagues in our discussion group remarked, “I could never have talked to my mother like that! If I had . . . I can’t imagine!” But we don’t have time for that exploration this morning, so let’s move on.

A commentator on this gospel did the calculations about the amount of wine involved here. John tells us there were six stone jars filled with clean water (it would have to be clean water if it was for the Jewish ritual of washing hands, face, and feet before eating, which is what John means when he says “the rites of purification”). Obviously some had been used, for Jesus has the servants refill the vessels to the brim. So there is about 180 gallons of water there which become 180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine! It turns out to be nearly 1,000 bottles. A bottle of really good wine these days can run over $100, maybe as high as $150. That’s $150,000 worth wine Jesus gave this couple for a wedding present. Talk about God’s abundance!

Now let’s think about Galilee and this village of Cana. From our perspective 2,000 years removed, we hear about Galilee or look at a map of “The Holy Land at the Time of Jesus” and we tend to think about the whole place as “Jewish territory.” But in Jesus time, that wasn’t so. Judea was Jewish territory (albeit Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire) but Galilee wasn’t. It was a much more culturally and ethnically mixed place. It was Gentile territory. It was where the Samaritans, whom the Jews didn’t particularly like, lived. It was where the land trade routes passed, where traders of all nations were constantly on the move and where some of them had settled. It was where brigands and thieves and highwaymen who preyed on the trade caravans hung out; Herod the Great twice sent his army into the Galilee to clear out that criminal element. And, of course, like Judea it was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, so there were Roman soldiers stationed there.

Cana was a small village in this (I suppose we could say) cosmopolitan, ethnically mixed region. We don’t really know where this village was located. Archaeologists and bible scholars think it could have been one of four different places. A couple of them are just ruins these days, but in Jesus’ time they were all functioning villages. None, however, was very large – all probably had populations of less than 1,500 people, certainly not more than 2,000, and their populations would have included all that mix of people, as well as the Jews who lived there. And the Jews themselves were not a monolithic group. They were divided into what we might call “denominations” or better “political parties.” There were the Sadducees and the Pharisees about whom we read in the New Testament; there might have been Essenes, although they tended to separate themselves out of the settled towns but there might have been Essene sympathizers; there might have been Zealots, radicalized Jews who wanted to cleans their lands of Gentiles; and there were probably just ordinary, everyday Jews not aligned with any of these groups, people just getting on with life. They and their Gentile neighbors lived together, traded together, socialized, and went about the business of getting on.

When there was a major event in the life of a village family, like a wedding, perhaps the religious part of it would involve only the family and their co-religionists, but the celebration after? What we would think of as the reception? That would involve everybody; that was a major village-wide social event. We tend to think of wedding banquets as starting after the ceremony and ending sometime late in the evening after the couple has departed for their wedding night and their honeymoon. Not so in First Century Palestine. Back then wedding feasts could last five, six, seven days!

John’s story of this wedding feast begins in our translation with the words, “On the third day there was a wedding . . . . ” and that has puzzled commentators for generations. On the third day of what? What is John talking about? Some Greek scholars suggest that what this really means is “On the third day of the wedding feast . . . .” Folks had been partying, eating, drinking, and by the third day, they’d consumed all the wine. So Jesus steps in and with abundant grace provides more than sufficient wine so that this mixed community of Sadduceic Jews and Pharisaic Jews, of Essene Jews and Zealot Jews, of Jews and Gentiles, and maybe even some Roman soldiers thrown in, this mixed bag of people could continue to celebrate and have a good time celebrating a wedding.

So . . . about that Anglican Communion news. It’s about weddings. Specifically, it’s about same-sex weddings. At last summer’s General Convention, the governing body of the Episcopal Church, after doing nearly 40 years of theological study and reflection, decided that the sacrament of Holy Wedlock could be offered to same-sex couples. And because of that, something was done by the assembled chief pastors, the Primates, of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion who met in Canterbury this past week.

Exactly what that “something” is is unclear. It’s especially unclear if one read the headlines in the secular press and that’s in large part because the secular news agencies have never really understood the vague, sort of ghostly nature of the Anglican Communion. It’s a there-but-not-there sort of thing. It exists, but it’s very hard to describe. As a result we saw a variety of headlines describing what happened.

The most outrageous of them was found on the website of Katehon.com (which describes itself as an international geopolitical think tank); their headline read, “Anglicans Excommunicate the Episcopalians.” Well, no. That’s not what happened; nobody excommunicated anybody. Other headlines used less sensational terms: “suspend,” “sanction,” “punish.” None of them accurate. The Archbishop of Canterbury got into a verbal sparring match with some reporters when he insisted that the appropriate word was “consequences” and a reporter insisted that what had happened was a “sanction.” Specifically what Archbishop Welby said is:

We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion. (Church Times)

So how did we arrive at this and what does it all mean? To answer that, I think it might be helpful to briefly summarize the vague thing that is the Anglican Communion. As I said, it’s an international family of 38 national or provincial churches, nearly all of whom trace their liturgical and structural heritage, their leadership models, and their theology to the English reformation and the Church of England. Most them were established either through the spread of the British Empire or through missionary activity from England or, in some cases, from the American Episcopal church. Each of them is independent and self-governing; none of them can dictate to any other of them how to organize itself, how to govern itself, or how to offer its worship, sacraments, and teaching within its own provincial boundaries. These 38 independent provincial churches are, we like to say, linked by bonds of affection and respect, and mutual and cooperative ministry. Over the years, however, it has been helpful to think in terms of, and to create, what have come to be known as “instruments of unity.”

Historically, the first of these is the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the present incumbent nor any individual occupant of that See, but the See itself. As the Primate of the first Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the primus inter pares, the first among equals of the 38 chief pastors of the provincial churches; it is he who convenes two other of the “instruments of unity.” In historical order the first of these is the Lambeth Conference, the first of which was convened in 1867.

This is a decennial (every ten year) conference of diocesan bishops who meet to discuss matters of mutual interest: theology, church order, social justice. (They also have tea with the queen.) After a couple of weeks of meetings, they issue reports about what they have discussed; they do not legislate and they have no power to do so. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference has no juridical or hierarchical authority over any member province; their reports are merely summaries of their talks, sometimes evincing agreement on particular matters.

The third “instrument of unity” is called the Anglican Consultative Council, created in 1971. The Council is made up of elected representatives of the provinces, both lay and ordained, and meets every three years. It’s steering committee meets more often. It’s self-defined role is

to facilitate the co-operative work of the churches of the Anglican Communion, exchange information between the Provinces and churches, and help to co-ordinate common action. It advises on the organisation and structures of the Communion, and seeks to develop common policies with respect to the world mission of the Church, including ecumenical matters. (Anglican Communion)

Like the other “instruments of unity,” the ACC has no legislative or executive authority over any member province.

The most recently created of the “instruments of unity” is the Primates’ Meeting. It was established in 1978 by Donald Coggan, the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” (Anglican Communion) The Primates have met every other year since then, and sometimes more often as invited by Canterbury.

We often hear our Communion compared to the Roman Catholic Church, but the comparison is inapt. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope. The Primates’ Meeting is not a college of cardinals. The Lambeth Conference is not a Vatican council. And the Anglican Consultative Council is not a curia. Again, I emphasize that none of these “instruments of unity,” including the Primates’ Meeting, have authority to dictate, legislate, or impose rulings upon any member province.

But that is what the Primates’ Meeting has attempted to do with these “consequences” for our action with regard to the full inclusion of our gay and lesbian members in the sacramental life of the church. What they have done is asked (they used the verb “require” but they really don’t have the authority to require) that for a period of three years no member of the Episcopal Church sit on any international ecumenical body representing the Anglican Communion in its relationship with other Christian bodies. We will still be active in such ecumenical endeavors in our own province, just not on the international stage. They have also asked that we, the Episcopal Church, during those three years, not participate in any inter-Anglican committees dealing with matters of theology or polity.

They’ve done so, as I said, because we have taken the steps of ordaining qualified LGBT members of the church and of sacramentally blessing the unions of same-sex couples. We did so not because of the pressures of secular society or culture. We did so because in 1978 and again in 1988, with rather prescient foresight, the Lambeth Conference adopted a resolution encouraging – remember that conference cannot legislate, it can only recommend – encouraging the member provinces of the Anglican Communion to reflect theologically on the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church. Specifically, it said:

This Conference: 1. Reaffirms the statement of the Lambeth Conference of 1978 on homosexuality, recognising the continuing need in the next decade for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” 2. Urges such study and reflection to take account of biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies, and the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our Communion. 3. Calls each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation. (Resolution 64 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference)

We did that work and we came first to the conclusion that we needed to honest and open and acknowledge that we (and, in fact, the whole of Christianity) has been ordaining gay men and (when permitted) lesbian women for a long time, but in a closed and closeted way; we needed to be up-front with the world about that. And we now are. As many of you recall, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of the first openly gay, partnered man as a bishop in 2003, the Rt Rev. Gene Robinson, now-retired Bishop of New Hampshire.

Then over the past decade we have studied the question of same-sex marriage and, at this summer’s General Convention, made the (admittedly) major decision to offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. It is for doing the work requested of us by one “instrument of unity,” that another “instrument of unity” has imposed “consequences.” And I’m OK with that. The rest of the Anglican Communion is still working on the assessment the 1978 Lambeth Conference encouraged us to undertake. Some provinces, such as the Canadian church, the churches in New Zealand, Australia, and Southern Africa, perhaps even the Church of England will, I believe, come to the same place we have come in the not-too-distant future. Other provinces may be further behind. But we are on the forefront, on the cutting edge of what is (I believe) a matter of both social justice and grace and, as I have elsewhere commented about this, when did justice, or the gospel, ever come without a price?

As I reflected on these consequences of our church’s decision in favor of inclusivity in light of today’s lessons, I kept coming back to two things . . . First, the Psalm and those verses which remind us that God’s salvation is boundless, encompassing “both man and beast,” and that all drink from the abundant river of God’s delights. The “consequences” imposed by the Primates’ Meeting, it seems to me, are at odds with that vision of God. Second, I remembered the mixed bag of guests likely to have been at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee and I remarked upon the fact that John gives us no information about how Jesus responded to his invitation. Did he ask, “Who else is invited?” Did he make sure that only people who lived up to some standard of purity would be amongst those with whom he would be dining and drinking? I kind of doubt it. Certainly, after converting 180 gallons of water into enough wine for everyone to continue partying for a few more days, he placed no restrictions on which of the guests might enjoy it.

God’s abundant blessings are given without restriction, overflowing and excessive, and available to everyone.

One additional thought . . . and I know this may seem to come from out of left field . . . but do you remember what the Episcopal Church teaches is the standard of giving for church members? Of course, you do! It’s the tithe, based on the practice required in the Law of Moses. Various verses in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus required the ancient Jews to deliver the first tenth of their produce, of their crops and of their newborn livestock, to the Temple. But what would happen if a faithful Jew lived too far from the Temple? Suppose he lived in Alexandria or Cairo, in Damascus or Tehran, in Oslo or Tokyo. What was he to do? Any ideas?

[Suggestions of store-housing or giving to the poor.]

Those are good suggestions, but they’re wrong. Here is what the 14th Chapter of Deuteronomy says:

If, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. (Deut. 14:24-26)

This is our God. A God who encourages us to enter into joyous fellowship, who shares abundant grace with all of creation, who invites – indeed, commands! – everyone to party. Everyone!

That is the theology we, the Episcopal Church, have arrived at: that everyone is invited to share the grace of God. For that, we have suffered consequences. But despite the sensationalist and grossly inaccurate headlines: we are still Anglicans. We are the most traditional of Anglicans!

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.

Just Like Adam; Just Like Jesus – Sermon for 1 Epiphany (10 January 2016)

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A sermon offered on the First Sunday after Epiphany (The Baptism of our Lord), January 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17,21-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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James B. Janknegt, Baptism of JesusWe’ve heard this Gospel story before. We all know what happens (at least in the Synoptic Gospels) after Jesus is baptized: a voice is heard from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22) and then Jesus goes into the desert for forty days of retreat where he grapples with temptations.

As Matthew and Mark tell the story, they move immediately from the baptism to the desert. But Luke, who tells of the baptism near the end of Chapter 3 and of the desert retreat at the beginning of Chapter 4 of his Gospel, does something unexpected. After the portion we heard this morning, right after the voice of God is heard declaring the Sonship of Jesus, right at the end of Chapter 3, he adds these verses which (for obvious reasons) are almost never read in worship services:

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. (Lk 3:23-38)

Why does he do that? Mark doesn’t even bother to give a genealogy and Matthew (who gives us a slightly different list of Jesus’ ancestors) put his genealogy right at the beginning in Chapter 1. So why, do you suppose, does Luke give us a genealogy and plop it down here at the end of the story of Jesus’ baptism, interrupting the narrative flow from baptism to desert to temptation? And why does he call Adam “son of God”?

I posed that question in an online clergy discussion group and some of my colleagues’ responses are these:

“All are ‘sons (and daughters) of God.’ The question is to what degree is Jesus uniquely so? A reboot… a second Adam? (That is, of course, a Biblical concept.) A ‘new’ first born? But we all share that heritage – to what degree? Is the giving of the Spirit in fact a third Genesis of sorts?”

“I always thought Luke’s point in tracing Jesus to Adam, rather than to David or Abraham, was to state that Jesus is universal savior, identified as he is as Son of Adam, rather than (merely) Son of David or son of Abraham.”

“It’s the Creation narrative Lite for Gentile readers — the point being that God is the source of all life.

Those are all good answers and they encapsulate pretty much the scholarly and traditional understandings of why Luke plops the genealogy down in this place, between baptism and temptation: Jesus, only begotten son of God, is contrasted with Adam, the first created son of God, and we as created children of God descended from Adam and as adopted children of God baptized into Jesus share in the nature of both!

We definitely share in the nature of Adam and others listed in this genealogy. Phil Ryken, the president Wheaton College who has recently gotten some bad press for his (in my opinion) wrong decision to discharge a professor who suggested that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, has been quoted as writing this about the men listed in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus:

They were guilty of the same kinds of sins as we are. All these men were sinners. It’s nice to think that our ancestors were noble and good, and that they did something heroic. This is one of the reasons people like to study their family trees. Whether they were heroic or not, the people who came before us were just as deeply flawed as we are. We can infer this from the mere fact that they were human beings, but we can also prove it from the pages of the Bible. Consider some of the skeletons in the family closet as recorded in the Old Testament: Terah, the father of Abraham, was an idolater; Abraham was a liar; Jacob was a cheater and a thief; Judah traded slaves and consorted with prostitutes; David was a murderer and an adulterer. We usually remember these men as heroes, but they were also scoundrels, all the way back to Adam. At the tap root of the family tree, like any genealogy, the one in Luke’s Gospel records a long line of sinners. (Citation unknown; quoted in a sermon published on line.)

I think Dr. Ryken was wrong about firing the professor, but I think he’s right about human nature and “the skeletons in [our] family closet.” Just like these ancestors of Jesus, we all are people who make mistakes, make bad decisions (like wrongfully discharging an instructor), do bad things; we share in the nature of Adam.

My friend Mark Sandlin, an ordained Presbyterian elder in North Carolina, yesterday posted online a part of his sermon for today. He is saying to his congregation:

The Jewish and Christian religious stories are stories underlined with the constant reality of seeking out something, searching for something. Adam and Eve seek out knowledge. Noah seeks shelter from the storm. Abraham and Sarah seek out the unknown land God sends them to. Joseph seeks to understand the king’s dreams and bring his family back together. Moses seeks to bring his people to the promised land. David seeks to become the leader God clearly believes he is. The prophets seek to bring the people of God back to God’s ways. Jesus seeks to show us what love looks like and teach us God’s ways. Paul seeks to grow the church in the ways of God. We are seekers. It is our story. We cannot escape it. We should not try. We Christians are seekers. Always have been. Always will be. It’s in our ancestral DNA. (Posted on Mark’s Facebook page)

Mark might disagree with me if I were to say that he and Dr. Ryken are saying the same thing, but the truth is that often in our seeking, we seek in the wrong places, or we seek the wrong things, and we end up making the bad decisions and mistakes Dr. Ryken describes Jesus’ forebears making. Again, it’s that human nature that we all share with Adam as created children of God.

But from the earliest days of the church, it has been the Christian understanding that we also share in the nature of Jesus. In the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 130–202) said that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.” (Against Heresies, Book V, Preface) His contemporary, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) taught that Christians are “children of the Most High” because, in the beginning human beings “were made like God, free from suffering and death” and, therefore, “deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest.” (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 124)

Justin was quoting Psalm 82 in calling us “children of the Most High,” but he might have been quoting our Psalm from today, which (unfortunately) the Prayer Book mistranslates. In the first verse of our gradual for today, Psalm 29, the psalmist commands, “Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” The Hebrew words translated here as “you gods” are “bene Elohim,” more correctly translated as “sons (or children) of the Almighty.” Psalm 29 is believed to be derived from a very early liturgical hymn extolling the Canaanite god Baal or a similar ancient Near Eastern “storm deity,” and thus addressed originally to “heavenly beings” or lesser gods, but we might understand it to be addressed to us, to those whom God describes in today’s reading from Isaiah:

Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth –
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
(Isa. 43:6-7)

We were created for glory, descendants of Adam formed by and made children of God, and our original created goodness is renewed by Jesus in whom we are adopted children of the Most High. No wonder that “in the temple of the Lord all are crying, ‘Glory!’ ”

This, I believe, is why Luke interrupts the flow of action in his telling of the Gospel story, why unlike Mark and Matthew, he doesn’t move directly from baptism to temptation. He finishes the story of Jesus’ baptism and then adds, almost as an explanatory footnote, “O, by the way, this is who this guy is. He’s a human being, just like you; descended from a bunch of fallible, flawed human beings, just like you; a descendent of Adam, the original created son of God, just like you.” Only after offering us that reassurance does Luke go on to tell us about the forty days in the desert, a story in which we learn that there’s something about Jesus that isn’t just like us, that he is able to resist temptation. And the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say on radio) is that through his faithfulness and through our faith in him, we can become (by adoption) just like him. Telling the story in this way – baptism-genealogy-temptation – is Luke’s way of saying that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”

Thus, it is Luke’s way of underscoring the central message of the Gospel, which we hear in our readings today in the Old Testament lesson: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” (Isa. 43:1) If we had to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ into one phrase, it would have to be, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s what Gabriel said to Mary (Lk 1:30); it’s what the angel said to Joseph (Mt 1:20); it’s what the angels said to the shepherds in Bethlehem (Lk 2:10); it’s the first word the angel spoke on Easter morning: “Don’t be afraid” (Mt 28:5). It is what the risen Christ said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.” (Mt. 28:10,20)

It’s one thing to say it, however, and it’s another thing to believe it. That, too, is part of the human nature we’ve inherited from Adam; we know all about our ancestors, people like Abraham the liar, Jacob the cheat, and David the adulterer; we know all about how badly they screwed up, and we’re afraid we might do it, too. But remember the words of God, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isa 43:1) Remember that we share not only Adam’s nature, but Jesus’ nature as well.

A well-known theologian once confessed that he was plagued many nights by a terrible dream. He dreamed that he was traveling in some distant city, and he ran into someone with whom he had gone to high school. In the bad dream, the person would say, “Henri, Henri, haven’t seen you in years. What have you done with your life?” This question always felt like judgment. He’d done some good things in his life, but there had also been some troubles and struggles. And when the old schoolmate in the dream would say, “What have you done with your life?” he wouldn’t know what to say, how to account for his life. Then one night he had another dream. He dreamed that he died and went to heaven. He was waiting outside the throne room of God, waiting to stand before almighty God, and he shivered with fear. He just knew that God would be surrounded with fire and smoke and would speak with a deep voice saying, “Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?” But, then, in the dream, when the door to God’s throne room opened, the room was filled with light. From the room he could hear God speaking to him in a gentle voice saying, “Henri, it’s good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I’d love to see your slides.” (Note: this story has been used by many preachers; I’ve not been able to find an original source.)

I think there is truth in that dream. I think that’s exactly what will happen, that God will say to each one of us, “It’s good to see you! You are my child. I hear you’ve had a rough trip, but I’m pleased with you and I’d love to see your pictures.”

So, don’t be afraid. God has redeemed you; God has called you by name; you are God’s. Just like “. . . Nathan, son of David, son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, son of Amminadab . . .” and all the rest of them. Just like Adam. And just like Jesus. 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.

I Wish I Knew Her Name: Simon’s Mother-in-Law – Sermon for Epiphany V, February 8, 2015

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A sermon offered on the Fifth Sunday after Epiphany, February 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Isaiah 40:21-31; Psalm 147:1-12,21c; 1 Corinthians 9:16-23; and Mark 1:29-39 . These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Rembrandt, 1660, Healing of Peter's Mother-in-LawAfter I did my first sermon-prep read through of this morning’s gospel I thought, “There are two stories here.” Then I thought, “No, there are three.” And then I realized that there are really more stories here than I can count.

Mark, of course, is interested in telling only one story, Jesus’ story, and so he gives us these glimpses into the lives of others only insofar as they serve to move his main story along.

We haven’t even reached the end of Chapter One yet and already Jesus has been baptized in a river, heard the voice of God, spent forty days in the wilderness tempted by Satan and waited on by angels, recruited four disciples, taught in a synagogue, cast out a demon, and (in today’s bit) healed a woman in a private home, gone back out into the wilderness to pray, and then traveled throughout the region preaching in more synagogues and casting our more demons.

And Mark has told us all of that in only 39 sentences. Mark probably would have failed a creative writing class and definitely would have failed a journalism class! He hasn’t even come close to answering those all important questions known to every reporter and every novelist on the planet: Who? What? When? Where? How? and Why? He hasn’t come close to answering them because he doesn’t care; unless those are questions about Jesus, Mark simply isn’t interested in them.

But I am! I would like to know some details. I’m like Karoline Lewis, Associate Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, who in writing about Simon’s mother-in-law repeatedly makes the parenthetical observation, “I so wish she had a name!” I would love to know her name. In fact, not only would I like to know who she is, I’d like to know what she’s doing there! Why is she in Simon’s household at all?

Is she there because she’s widowed and, bound by the law of Moses to be dependent on some man, has no male relatives other than her daughter’s husband to rely on for support? Is she there because Simon’s widowed and needs her help to raise his children? (Are there any children to raise?) Why is Simon’s mother-in-law the one who (after arising from her sickbed) performs the duties of hostess which normally would be those of a wife or an elder daughter? For that matter, why was she sick in the first place? What was actually wrong with her? There are more stories here than I can count because Mark hasn’t told them, because he hasn’t answered any of these questions.

Mark isn’t interested in answering the questions; the answers aren’t necessary to moving his story of Jesus along, but they would help me in understanding my story of Jesus. I know I’m not very much like Jesus, though I try to be; I am, however, a lot like those other people, like Simon or his mother-in-law or that man in the synagogue we heard about last week. If I could know more about how they related to and followed Jesus, it would help me as I stumble along trying to do the same.

I wish we knew more about the nameless Mrs. Simon’s mother (I wish Simon’s wife had a name!) because it would help me understand this statement: “The fever left her, and she began to serve them.” I read that statement and my 1960s-70s college student, sexual revolution, women’s liberation, gender equality heart just goes all cold and still, and I think, “Really? The first thing an elderly woman does on being relieved of sickness is get up and cook for the men?” But, you see, that’s my story, not Mark’s; that’s me reading into the text, instead of setting aside my preconceptions and letting the text read out to me. If I read the text carefully and in the context of the whole story of Jesus (as told by Mark’s and the other gospel writers), my gender-equality objections may not entirely fade away, but at least they are answered.

Here’s how . . . .

First, there’s the way Jesus seems to have refused to countenance the position of women in First Century Jewish society. In the Palestine of Jesus’ day, women were subservient men; they had no rights of their own; they could not own property; they were completely dependent upon the eldest male member of their family (which is one reason why Simon’s mother-in-law may have been living in his household). But we should remember that Jesus would have none of that! Jesus spoke openly with women when that was absolutely contrary to the norms of his culture as, for example, when he converse with the woman at Jacob’s well in Sychar (Jn 4) or when he prevented a crowd from stoning the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:3-11). Jesus believed that a woman had as much right to study Torah with him as a man might, as when (over her sister’s objection) he permitted Mary of Bethany to sit at his “feet and listen to what he was saying.” (Lk 10:38-42) Jesus allowed women to whom he was not related to touch him, as when (in the home of another Simon) he allowed a woman known to be a sinner to bathe and anoint his feet (Lk 7), or when Mary of Bethany did the same just before his crucifixion (Jn 12:3). Would Jesus, who seemed to value women as the equals of men, have allowed an elderly woman to wait on him in a subservient manner? I wouldn’t think so.

Second, there’s that word “serve.” In this passage the translation of the Greek original is not incorrect, but it’s a certainly a loaded one! A 21st Century Christian American like myself hears inequality in that word “serve;” I hear a disparity in social position between the one who serves, the servant, and the one who is served, the master. I cannot shake the sense that the one serving is subservient, and that is especially so when reading Holy Scripture in English translation.

There are a couple of Greek words we should learn here; they both are interpreted as meaning “to serve” in modern translations of the New Testament. One is douleuo; its root is doulos, a noun meaning “slave.” One who serves in the since of douleuo serves as a slave serves. Jesus frequently uses this as a metaphor for the Christian life. When, for example, he said, “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master,” it is this word doulos that he uses; not simply “servant,” but “slave.” (Mt 10:24) And again, when he instructs the Twelve that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” it is this word doulos, “slave,” that he uses. (Mk 9:35) And when he reminds us all that “no slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth,” it is again this word doulos, “slave,” and this kind of servitude – slavery – that he describes. (Lk 16:13)

And that is what we hear, what we understand when we read this word “serve” in English translation. We hear it here: Simon’s mother-in-law rose from her sickbed and like a subservient slave she waited on these men. Except she didn’t! That’s not what the Greek says even though that’s how we hear it when the second of the Greek words is translated as “serve” and that word, used in this passage, is diakoneo. As a noun, the word is diakonos. The verb means “to minister;” the noun we is the root of our word “deacon.” This is not the servile submission of a slave. When Mark, or any of the gospel writers, uses this term, something very different is intended: this is the willing ministration of one equal to another.

It is instructive to look at other instances where Mark uses the word diakoneo; this author uses the word only four times! The first is when Jesus is in the desert for forty days and Mark tells us that “the angels waited on him.” (Mk 1:13) The second is in today’s gospel reading. The third is when Jesus tells his disciples, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” (Mk 10:45) The last is when Mark describes those who were present at Christ’s crucifixion: “There were also women looking on from a distance; among them were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. These used to follow him and provided for him when he was in Galilee; and there were many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem.” (Mk 15:40-41) In that last, the word translated “provided for” is diakoneo. This then is the sort of “serving” Simon’s mother-in-law does: ministering to Jesus and his disciples in the manner of the angels, serving as Jesus himself came to serve, providing for Jesus and the others as the women at the cross had provided for him.

Episcopal nun and priest, Suzanne Guthrie, writes, “Something more than healing occurs when Jesus ‘grasps’ her. The word used is the same as the word for Jesus’ resurrection – he ‘raises her up’. She embodies the Easter mystery of resurrection and the Pentecost mystery of apostleship – of service. …. She’s a mother of the church. A deacon. A template of holiness.” (Edge of the Enclosure)

Cuban theologian Ofelia Ortega observes, “This woman gets up and turns the Sabbath into a paschal day of service to others. Jesus does not command her. She is the one that assumes the initiative and awaits the consequences, discovering the value of mutual service above the sacredness of the Sabbath.” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 1)

This is the story Mark does not tell. Mark is interested only in moving forward his tale of Jesus, his life and ministry, his death and resurrection, so he does not give us any details about other stories that he considers tangential. If we want to learn from those other stories, we have to ferret out the details ourselves; we have to read Mark’s brief mention of other people along the way within the larger contexts of Mark’s whole story and the gospel story as told by others. When we read the story of Simon’s mother-in-law in this way, we find much more than the story of a subservient First Century woman merely doing what was expected of her. We learn from and are called to emulate the ministry of a woman many scholars have called “the first deacon of the church,” who rose restored from her sickbed, made well and whole by Son of God, and offered herself in service to others.

As Professor Lewis said, “I so wish I knew her name.” Amen.

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

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