That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Evangelism (page 2 of 5)

Meeting Together – From the Daily Office – January 31, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 10:23-25 (NRSV) – January 31, 2014.)

Social Media Cartoon by NakedpastorAttendance is down. No one in the church really needs to be told this, although church ministry pundits have been making a good living for the last couple of decades reporting on it and diagnosing the reasons for it.

A recent New York Times op-ed piece pointing it out (and repeating a lot of old complaints that supposedly explain it) has been reprinted and shared electronically a lot the past few weeks; I must have seen it posted on Facebook at least twenty times.

It’s not news, however. Over the past several years (for a few decades, in fact) attendance figures in all mainline churches have been falling. Some congregations have bucked the trend, but even they are beginning to notice that fewer people are filling the pews, chairs, couches, or whatever seating alternative is provided.

For a while, the various denominations looked inward for the problem. My own Episcopal Church went through a period of fairly rapid change starting in the 1970s — prayer book revision, ordination of women, acceptance of LGBT persons, ordination of LGBT persons — which erupted in internal conflict. Episcopal pundits pointed to each of these developments, or to the conflict that arose over them, or to the allegedly heretical theology behind them and blamed these interiorities for declining memberships and lower attendance.

Being of a fairly ecumenical bent, I read the press from other denominations. During the same period of time the other American mainline churches were experiencing the same sort of decline and — guess what? — their denominational press was laying the blame at the feet of whatever their particular conflict du jour might have been.

Then along came a secular sociologist, Robert Putnam, who pointed out that it was happening across the board . . . and not only among churches! Fraternal and public service organizations, social clubs, and even bowling leagues were all experiencing the same sort of decline. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone graphically demonstrates the congruence of membership growth-and-decline curves for all organizations that depend on and sustain what he calls “social capital.” Every church leader should read it!

Unfazed, the church growth-and-decline “experts” are at it again, this time laying the blame at the feet of age cohorts. The ecclesial blogosphere is rife with punditry blaming the Boomers, Gen-X, Gen-Y, or Millennials. And for every such essay there are a dozen or more answering pieces explaining why it isn’t “my generation’s” fault! It seems like everyone in the church is singing this old song by The Who from nearly 50 years ago:

People try to put us down
(Backbeat line: Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
I hope I die before I get old

My generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don’t you all fade away
Don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation

My generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don’t you all fade away
And don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation

My generation
This is my generation, baby
My, my, my, my generation
My, my, my, my generation

People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
Yeah, I hope I die before I get old

My generation
This is my generation, baby
My, my, my, my generation
My, my, my, my generation

Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(My generation)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(My generation)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(Is my generation baby)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(This is my generation)

Somehow, somewhere someone is going to knock this off! Active church people have to stop pointing the finger of blame and start working with one another on solutions. We’ve had enough punditry diagnosing (or misdiagnosing) the causes — now we need to work on reframing the Christian message for a new generation that hasn’t heard it. In the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews we have to “meet together . . . encouraging one another.”

What “meet together” means in the 21st Century is another issue, however. With social media of all the various sorts, and newer versions developing nearly every day, and existing versions being tweaked and modified — Facebook seems to change hour by hour — it’s an on-going, and never-ending struggle to keep up and figure that out. But “meeting together” probably no longer means (as a colleague puts it) “butts in the pews.” “Average Sunday attendance” may have become a meaningless metric (if it ever was one).

There is value, of course, in face-to-face meeting, in getting to know one another as physical beings, in joining together in (what another colleague once called) “meat space;” for those of us for whom sharing the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is of paramount importance, it’s imperative! But if that isn’t happening on Sunday morning, let’s accept that it isn’t, move on, and find new and different ways to be church, new and different ways to mark and follow the admonition in Hebrews. It’s time for the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, blame-calling, and excuse-making to end, and for creative solutions to begin. It’s time for us to meet together . . . somewhere, sometime . . . and encourage one another!

(The social media cartoon is by David Hayward aka Nakedpastor.)

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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.

Different Strokes – From the Daily Office – January 27, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

But Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 8:5 (NRSV) – January 27, 2014.)

A cartoon showed up on Facebook this morning:

Who's a good boy? Canine preacher

It immediately brought to mind a cartoon from years ago, which I posted in answer to my friend who offered the first; I captioned it with a question — “Another denomination?”

Hellfire & Dalmatians - Canine preacher

And then the writer to the Letter to the Hebrews comes along in the Daily Office readings with his suggestion that the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus has created “a better covenant” than that made by God with the Hebrews at Sinai. He even goes so far as to say, in a few verses that God “has made the first one obsolete. And what is obsolete and growing old will soon disappear.” (v. 13) I don’t actually believe that’s so, as history has shown that Judaism is not likely to disappear. But what this has me thinking about is denominationalism and our tendency to think that our way of being Christian, whatever it may be, is better than some other way of being Christian.

Back in the 1970s we had a saying — “Different strokes for different folks” — which I’ve always thought a good reason for there to be differing expressions of the faith. I grew up in a multi-denominational household: my mother was reared in the Disciples of Christ; my father was a Methodist; my step-father was Baptist who had converted to Roman Catholicism; my brother joined the Missouri Synod Lutherans and then married a member of the United Church of Canada. And nearly all of them, by the time I became an Episcopalian, were non-practicing. So none of those traditions seemed any “better” than the others; they were simply different.

Yesterday we held the annual meeting of our parish. We heard reports from staff and program leaders about the past year and plans for the coming year; we elected members of the governing board; we appointed representatives to our larger judicatory; we received a budget. Then we held a worship service – the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, shared a meal, and went home. We did all these things the way Episcopalians do them. We could have done them the way Baptists or Lutherans or Methodists do them, but we didn’t. Because we’re Episcopalians. Our way isn’t “better;” it’s simply different.

From time to time members of our evangelism and growth teams will suggest that we do something like the big evangelical non-denominational church down the street or in another town. Usually the reason is because that church is bigger than we are, so they must be “doing something right.” The implication is that what that bigger church is doing is “better.” Maybe it is . . . but it may just be that it’s different.

The unfortunate problem with denominationalism is that sort of judgmentalism about which denomination, which way of being Christian, is “better” always seems to creep into the conversation! We need to remember that old saw from the 1970s — “Different strokes for different folks” — and recognize that not everyone is fed by our particular style of worship, governance, fellowship, or theology. For some, the church which emphasizes “Who’s a good dog? Who wants a cookie?” feeds their spirit; for others, the church which preaches “He said unto them ‘No, No'” makes more sense. Neither is better; they’re simply different.

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

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

The Neighbors Can See In! — Sermon for the Annual Parish Meeting — January 26, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Patronal Feast Sunday of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector. It was the Sunday of the Annual Parish Meeting and, as part of the service, a newly built Gallery addition to the parish’s fellowship hall was dedicated.

(The lessons for the day were for the Conversion of St. Paul from the Episcopal Church’s sanctoral calendar: Acts 26:9-21; Galatians 1:11-24; Psalm 67; and Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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St Paul's Church -- December 2013

A few decades ago when I was studying law I was introduced to the term “officious intermeddler.” In law, an officious intermeddler is someone who, on their own and without any authority either by invitation or pre-existing legal duty, interjects himself into the affairs of another, and then seeks some sort of recompense for doing so. That pretty much describes young Saul of Tarsus and at least his initial quest to rid Judaism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He was simply a rabbinic student, not any sort of priest or religious official when he began his crusade against Peter and James and the others. I don’t think he was doing it for money, but I do think he might have been looking for a pay-off in the form a religious reputation; if he was successful, he would become a powerful rabbi among the Jewish the people.

Saul was born and raised in the Greek city of Tarsus and apparently received a good education both in orthodox Judaism and in Greek philosophy; Tarsus was a center of Stoic teaching and we see a good deal of Stoicism in the letters he wrote after becoming a Christian missionary. While still fairly young, Saul was sent to Jerusalem to receive rabbinic instruction at the Hillel school under Gamaliel, one of the most noted rabbis in Jewish history. This would have exposed the young rabbinic student to a broad range of classical literature, philosophy, and ethics. Not a lot more is known of his background before he decided to make a name for himself dealing with the pesky proclaimers of what he considered to be a pernicious heresy.

Until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were simply one of many subsets of Judaism; there were few, if any, Gentile followers of Jesus and those Gentiles who wanted to be a part of the new group were required to convert to Judaism before being allowed to join the Jesus group. Judaism at the time was much like Christianity is today; there were different “schools,” similar to our denominations.

We are familiar from the Gospel stories with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, two of the competing versions of the faith; we may also be familiar with the Essenes who were part of the mix. In addition, influential rabbis had their groups of followers: John the Baptizer had had his disciples; Gamaliel had his; perhaps Nicodemus, who became a secret follower of Jesus, had his own school; and, of course, Jesus had had his. On the major feasts and liturgical days, all Jews would observe the Temple rituals together, but for their sabbath observance and instruction they would go to the synagogue which adhered to the school they found most convincing, or where their rabbi taught. They recognized each other as Jews; they just didn’t agree on some particulars. No big deal. And, usually, when their rabbi passed away, their group disbanded.

Except for the disciples of Jesus, those people who followed what they called “the Way.” Their rabbi was dead; the whole city had seen him crucified. But unlike the followers of other dead rabbis, these people didn’t disband; they claimed that their rabbi was still alive and they still met to proclaim his teachings. They even went so far as to suggest that he was divine; they were claiming that he had ushered in a new kingdom of God. In the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, some sought to have them kicked out of the temple, but Saul’s own teacher, Gamaliel, defended them. The Book of Acts reports his words to the Sanhedrin:

Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God! (Acts 5:35-39)

Apparently Saul did not agree with his teacher. He became an officious intermeddler, a self-appointed — that’s really what “officious” means — a self-appointed policeman protecting the purity of the Temple; he was going to get that Jesus crowd kicked out. In his letter to the Galatians he would confess that prior to his conversion he “was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” (Gal. 1:13) It is in the description of the martyrdom of the first deacon, Stephen, that we first encounter Saul in the New Testament. We don’t know whether Saul was an instigator of the events that led to Stephen’s death, but we know that he was there.

The 7th Chapter of Acts tells us that Stephen preached a sermon in the presence of the Temple council, an admittedly rather inflammatory homily, after which “with a loud shout [those present] rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:57-58) We are told that “Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 8:1) Saul didn’t take part, really; he just stood at the road side looking on.

After that, Saul became more and more openly and actively involved in the persecution of the Jesus movement, “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3) Eventually, this officious intermeddler received his remuneration — recognition and ratification of his activities by the high priest from whom he sought, and received, letters of warrant empowering him to go to Damascus, “arrest any who belonged to the Way, men or women, [and] bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:2) It was while journeying to Damascus that the events he described to King Agrippa in the reading we heard this morning occurred. It was while on that road to Damascus that the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which he had been unable to see, was revealed to him. As he wrote to the Galatians, God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” But in the experience, we are told in Acts, something like scales covered his eyes as if symbolizing the blindness of heart he had suffered, and until he learned the fullness of the Gospel he was unable to see.

I will return to Saul and his conversion in a moment, but before I do I want to review a little bit of our parish history. So for the moment, let’s put Saul aside but keep in mind his story, especially those scales that eventually fell from his eyes.

We are beginning the 197th year of the life of St. Paul’s Parish. Founded in 1817 in Weymouth, the congregation moved to this location in the 1830s. After about 50 years in a wooden Greek revival structure, in 1884 the congregation built the stone church in which we are worshiping today. When weather permitted they would gather for after church fellowship on the lawn, fully open to their neighbors’ view and could invite the neighbors to take part.

In 1903, they built the Parish House in which our present day Parish Hall, kitchen, and dining room are located. It was a separate structure with one of those wide and inviting Victorian front porches. When the congregation gathered after church for fellowship, education, or other activities, they came and went through the front doors of the church, onto that veranda, and in and out the front door of the Parish House, again fully visible to their neighbors whom they continued to invite to participate.

Another fifty or so years later, the congregation built Canterbury House and linked it together with the Parish House and the church building with the concourse that came to be known simply as “the hallway.” The hallway replaced the Victorian veranda with fortress-like stone wall; it cut off the neighbors’ view of the congregation’s comings and goings, and blocked the neighbors’ appreciation of the church’s fellowship and other activities. The hallway incorporated a new entryway off the driveway leading to a parking lot that was built at the rear of the church property, and it was through those doors (and other doors at the rear of the Parish House) that members began entering the church building. The front doors of the Parish House and the church building fell into disuse, and the parishioners stopped invited the neighbors.

If anything was going on inside the Episcopal Church, you couldn’t tell it from the street. Stained glass windows on the church building, opaqued windows on the hallway, that imposing stone wall, and a set of large red doors which could not be opened from the outside blocked the public’s view of whatever it was the Episcopalians were doing.

Interestingly enough, the Episcopalians couldn’t see out, either. But until the new Gallery was built, and the sunshine and view of the street let in, we had failed to notice that! We were simply unaware that when we were inside this church’s physical plant we were visually cut off from the world around us; we just didn’t notice. We sat at here at the road side, but we were disconnected from the world going by on the major trafficway outside.

To be sure, there was plenty going on inside the church. Things were booming. It was the 1960s and the World War II and Korean War generations were coming to church, raising their children, participating in church clubs, holding fundraisers, even reaching out in overseas mission. The Episcopal Church was an active place . . . you just couldn’t tell it from the street.

And that story was true for the Episcopal Church as a whole, as a national institution, as well. We were pretty much a self-contained and self-reliant denomination. Someone not born into the Episcopal Church might occasionally wander through our doors, become fascinated with our peculiar style of being Christian, and join us, but we didn’t go out and encourage that sort of thing. Billy Graham and people like him might go out and evangelize and try to convert people, but that just wasn’t our style. We were doing quite well behind our stone walls and opaque windows, and our understanding of evangelism was that it was something other people did. After all, as one grand dame of the era is supposed to have put it, “Everyone who should be an Episcopalian already is one.” The world outside the Episcopal Church didn’t know much about us, and we were fine with that.

Then came the 1970s and things began to change. Social change was in the air both in the secular world and in the church. It was not comfortable. Women started suggesting that some of them might have a call to ordained ministry, and some of our best theologians supported them and agreed; behind our stone walls and opaque windows we were fighting like cats and dogs about it. The outside world only got a glimpse of it when a few very angry people threw open the red doors and stormed out, proclaiming themselves to be the only real Anglican Christians and the rest of us heretics, doomed to Hell. We got a lot of press, but not the kind of attention we really wanted. As soon as we could, we closed the red doors and regained our composure behind our stone walls.

But then, not very many years later, the General Convention approved a new Prayer Book. The process of revision had been going on for nearly 20 years but most of us hadn’t been paying attention. When the new book was approved in 1976 and then ratified in 1979 it seemed to many that the church was being completely overturned. The outside world got another glimpse of us when some more very angry people threw open the red doors and stormed out, proclaiming that they used the only real Anglican Prayer Book and that the rest of us were heretics, damned to Hell. Again, we got a lot of press, but once again it was not the kind of attention we really wanted. As soon as we could, we got back behind our stone walls.

Things were quiet for a while, but then the people of the Diocese of New Hampshire decided to elect their Archdeacon to be their Bishop and, horror of horrors, it turned out (they had known all along) he was a homosexual living in a committed, long-term relationship with another man. All hell broke loose behind our stone stone walls and opaque windows as we dealt with that. The arguing got so loud that the neighbors could hear us and, again, a group of very angry people threw open the red doors and stormed out, proclaiming themselves to be the only real Anglican Christians and the rest of us heretics, definitely headed straight to Hell. Again, we got a lot of press, and again we tried to regain our composure behind our stone walls. But we couldn’t because, finally, we started noticing something.

We noticed that the church was getting smaller. Fewer people were attending. Fewer children were enrolling in Sunday School. Fewer teens were coming to EYC meetings. Fewer dollars were getting deposited into the bank. And we decided, because we had gotten out of the habit of looking outside, that it was because of something we had done — it was because we ordained women; it was because we’d changed the Prayer Book; it was because we had a gay bishop. We were wrong, however. If we hadn’t been shut up behind our stone walls and opaque windows, we might have noted that the same thing — lower attendance, fewer children, fewer teens, less income — was happening to the Lutherans, and the Methodists, and the Presbyterians, and also to non-church groups like the Masons, and the Elks, and local bowling leagues. There was a societal change going on and, unable to see out through our stone walls and opaque windows, we couldn’t see it. We couldn’t figure out why the church was leaking membership because we weren’t looking in the right place.

And while all of that was going on . . . every time it rained there was water pouring into the church basement. Every time there was a heavy snow and it melted, there was water pouring into the basement. We got used to seeing buckets in the entryway and water stains on the basement ceiling because we couldn’t figure out where the leak was and we couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Physically, as well as metaphorically, we couldn’t figure out why the church was leaking.

We’ve learned a thing or two in the Episcopal Church in the last decade. We’ve learned that the church fails to grow not because of our internal failures; it fails to grow because of our external failures. The church has failed to grow because we have sequestered ourselves behind stone walls and opaque windows, and have failed to engage with our neighbors, who cannot see what we are doing and to whom we have not been paying attention. Out of this have come movements and experiments to get our denomination back out, on the other side of our stone walls, back into public engagement.

We are seeing new ministries such as “Church Without Walls,” an experiment in the Jacksonville, Florida, which calls people from all walks of life into partnership with “the least of these.” “Church Without Walls” describes itself as “a community of presence made up of individuals looking for the spiritual companionship and connection that give meaning to life.” The community seeks to welcome everyone — the homeless and the affluent, the addicted and those in recovery, the churched and the un-churched, the spiritual but not religious, the believer, the doubter and the seeker. They are grounded in the reality that “by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy.” (Description from the Diocese of Florida website.) And similar communities are being created in San Jose, California; Springfield, Pennsylvania; Bentonville, Arkansas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and elsewhere.

We are seeing experiments in public liturgy such as “Ashes to Go” — an effort to give people an opportunity to receive the mark of repentance and encourage them to give thought to their spiritual lives without requiring them to attend a full Ash Wednesday service. The first such public imposition of ashes was offered by the cathedral in Chicago, Illinois, and has since been offered in a variety of locations throughout the country, including some places here in Ohio.

What the Episcopal Church has learned through these and other programs is that we have to tear down the stone walls and break out the opaqued windows that have separated us from our neighbors. When we do that and the church again engages with the world around it, the leaking stops; the church begins to grow again. Like Saul, after the scales fell his eyes when he was baptized and took the name Paul, by which we know him better, we have seen the truth and know that we, too, are “to open [the eyes of those around us] so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus].” (Acts 26:18)

And here we are in a congregation that has quite literally removed its stone wall and its opaqued windows, whose neighbors can now see clearly what is going on in the Episcopal Church, and who can see our neighbors even when we are inside our building. We have opened ourselves to engagement with the world around us. We are not a “Church Without Walls,” but we have become a church that lives in glass house . . . the neighbors can see in and we’d better make sure that what they see is good stuff!

If you have picked up a copy of the 2014 Annual Journal, you will see some interesting data. We are at the beginning a new period of growth. For 2013 we have a mixed bag of membership statistics: 21 new members joined the congregation by baptism, confirmation, reception or transfer; we had larger congregations for both Easter and Christmas services; we had more Sunday services. On the other hand, our average attendance is down slightly. The task before us is to grow both in membership and active commitment. The foundation is here. For 2014, we have a 7% increase in the number of pledging households; total pledging is up (compared to last year) by over 4%. We have a committed membership.

Our outreach to the community is strong. The Free Farmers’ Market, our food pantry, assisted 5,333 individuals during the past year, distributing nearly 50,000 pounds of food. The volunteer effort to accomplish that is phenomenal, and all members of the coordinating committee and all the volunteer workers are to be commended. Our support of the regional Battered Women’s Shelter expanded this year as, in addition to the regular monthly collection of supplies, our new Lenten Rose Chapter of the Daughters of the King oversaw a special drive for personal hygiene items and, through the effort of our Senior Warden, we provided several dozen stuffed toys to the children sheltered there. Our youth group also continued their annual tradition of making and giving away teddy bears to needy children at Christmas time.

Outreach of a different sort is exercised in the monthly Brown Bag Concert program which is entering its seventh year. Our music director is to be commended for the excellent work she does in recruiting performers and hosting our guests at those events. Because of the construction of the new Gallery, we did not hold any “Fridays at St. Paul’s Concerts,” but we are looking forward to the return of that program as early as this coming May when the chamber ensemble of the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing in this sanctuary.

Fellowship continues with the men’s breakfasts, the Episcopal Church Women, the new Daughters of the King chapter, the Sunday morning breakfast group, and the return this month of the Foyer Group dinner program. Christian education for children and youth is going strong with Godly Play and the Episcopal Youth Community; many of our EYC members are recognized leaders in the diocesan youth programs and are to be commended for that. Many of them are not here today because they have spent the weekend in training to lead the next “Happening” retreat for young people. For adults we have a regular weekly bible study and, starting last September, an Education for Ministry seminar group going strong.

By nearly every measure, this is a vibrant and lively parish. This church is no longer leaking! It is not leaking rain water into the basement; it is not leaking membership. Both the literal and the figurative stone walls have fallen away, like the scales that fell from St. Paul’s eyes, and the vibrancy and life of this parish is visible for all to see and for all to be invited into.

We were blinded and confused by our stone walls and our opaque windows, whether figurative or literal, but in the end, we know that we are called, as Paul was, to share the wonderful news that the risen Jesus, the Son of God, is Messiah and his kingdom is here now. Our experience of engaging in the Inviting the Future Project and building our beautiful new Gallery, is our “ Damascus Road ” experience. A new day for St. Paul’s Parish is shining through the windows of the Gallery and our calling is to insure that the neighbors — who can see us once again, just as they could in 1884 and in 1903 and in every year up to 1960, and (more importantly) whom we can now see — our calling is to insure that they can see the kingdom of God shining out, that they are invited to come into it.

Let us pray:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany)

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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.

Extraordinarily Ordinary – From the Daily Office – January 25, 2014

From the Gospel of John:

Many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I have ever done.” So when the Samaritans came to him, they asked him to stay with them; and he stayed there for two days. And many more believed because of his word. They said to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 4:39-42 (NRSV) – January 25, 2014.)

Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well by GuercinoThese few verses are the end of the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well which led to his two-day sojourn in the Samaritan city of Sychar. Whenever I have heard this story preached (and, I confess, when I have preached it myself), the emphasis seems always to be on the Lord’s daring to speak with a woman, and a Samaritan woman, at that! The focus is his unconventionality, his willingness to step outside the Law, and his abrogation of ethnic and sexual norms. We are told how extraordinary this encounter was.

What strikes me this morning is how very ordinary it really was. The water remains water. The woman is not saved from an angry, legalistic mob. No one is healed; no one walks on water; no large crowds are fed. The dead are not returned to life. Despite its radical breaking of boundaries, this is a very boring story with a remarkable ending: two people meet, they talk, one of them talks to other people, the other people talk to the second person, and many people come to faith and belief as a result.

Immediately after this event, Jesus returned to his home territory, to Cana in Gallilee, and complained of a royal official, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” (John 4:48) And even if there are “signs and wonders,” belief may not result. In John’s telling of the events of Holy Week he says of one crowd which Jesus confonts, “Although he had performed so many signs in their presence, they did not believe in him.” (John 12:37) The contrast between faith which depends on miracles (and may not come even when they are accomplished) and faith which comes from simple conversation is striking and instructive.

It’s also reassuring. It means that a simple person like me, unable to convert water to wine or to heal with a touch, can nonetheless effectively communicate the word of Lord. It means that anyone can do so; if an unremarkable (and, in fact, semi-outcast) woman can bring many to belief simply by telling her story, then anyone can. We don’t need a flashy show of signs of power; we just need to tell our story with integrity and authenticity.

For all its radical social message, the story of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at Sychar is simply the story of two people talking. It is extraordinarily ordinary.

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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.

Hell can go to Hell! – From the Daily Office – January 21, 2014

From the Gospel of John:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 3:16-17 (NRSV) – January 21, 2014.)

Outsourcing Abuse MemeMaking the rounds of Facebook these days is an anti-religious meme which basically equates religious teaching to child abuse. It says:

If parents constantly told their children:

“We will love you forever . . . as long as you do what we tell you to do and never disagree with our views. But if you disobey , we will make sure to torment you until the grinding of your own teeth makes you cry; we will lock you up in a dark place where you’ll be strangled by snakes, and we will see that you burn in a lake of fire.”

We would recognize it as child abuse.

So why do we keep thinking that, by outsourcing the job to a deity, it becomes something else?

There’s nothing in the meme which specifically mentions Christianity, but because members of our faith so often evangelize by fear, by threatening Hellfire and damnation on those who fail to convert, I’m fairly confident that we can assume the Christian faith to be the target. I wish it weren’t so and I wish I weren’t so sympathetic to the producers of the meme! But, let’s face it, there’s a good deal of really awful theology and really bad evangelism out there.

The truth, however, is that an awful lot (nearly all, in fact) of the mythology of Hell is not found in Holy Scripture. The English word Hell is derived from an ancient Germanic word (hel), which in Norse mythology named a place of eternal punishment. When the Greek Hades (used in the New Testament to name the place of dead) and the Hebrew terms Gehenna or Sheol (used in the Old Testament for the same purpose) were translated into English using this Germanic word, that resulted in a transfer of the pagan concept into Christian theology and its vocabulary.

Then along came poets like Milton and Dante and added all sorts of wonderful, fantastic, and clearly non-biblical imagery to the popular imagination — and, voila! — a full-blown picture of Hell featuring brimstone, lakes of fire, and tormenting demons ruled over by the fallen angel Lucifer, and inhabited by poor human souls condemned to an eternity of pain. One must admit that segments of the church have made full use of this as a scare-tactic mechanism to encourage conversions and to keep the faithful in line, but it was and is wrong to do so. Neither the New Testament Hades nor Old Testament Gehenna had any attached meaning of eternal torment; the Greek signified the place where all the dead, the good, the bad and the indifferent, were thought to go, while the Hebrew terms signified a place of disposal, a place of ending.

It is true that Jesus used imagery of an after-life fire to describe the punishment of unrighteous, but the implication is of annihilation and destruction, not eternal punishment. (See, for example, Matthew 13.) His parables, such as the tale of Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16), cannot be the basis of a theology of eternal torment; parables are metaphoric or analogic teaching tools of limited application and to stretch them beyond their immediate point is to misunderstand and misuse them.

This is especially so when we have his own direct testimony in the Gospel of John. Because of signs displayed in the crowds of many sporting events, many people are familiar with John 3:16 — “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” And many of us were required to memorize this verse in Sunday School. Few, however, know or memorize the next verse — “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

Two things must be observed and emphasized about how these verses describe the mission of the Christ. First, in verse 16 the alternatives are not an eternal life of joy versus an eternal life of punishment; the alternatives are “perishing” (i.e., annihilation and ending) or “eternal life.” Second, the purpose of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension is not to condemn but to save.

The meme, so far as it goes, is accurate. There is way too much bad theology threatening people with Hellfire and damnation; to my way of thinking, any such theology is too much. But the meme is as wrong as those who promulgate the pagan mythology of Hell as a part of the Christian faith. It isn’t and we need to expunge it from our theology and from our vocabulary.

In a word, Hell can go to Hell!

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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.

Gimmicks Distract – From the Daily Office – January 11, 2014

From the Psalter:

Hallelujah!
Praise God in his holy temple;
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the blast of the ram’s-horn; *
praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe.
Praise him with resounding cymbals;
praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
Let everything that has breath
praise the Lord.
Hallelujah!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalme 150 (BCP Version) – January 11, 2014.)

Clown Presiding at CommunionThe musical Godspell debuted in 1971 (my junior year in college); in it, Christ is portrayed as a clown. Whether it was an expression of or the catalyst for the phenomenon of offering clown eucharists as an edgy, avant-garde presentation of the Christian Mysteries, I really don’t know. The two are inextricably linked in my memory.

And . . . to be honest, I never cared for either. And . . . being further honest, that may be because I have never like clowns. I find them creepy. On the other hand, a bishop of whom I was very fond and for whom I had great respect, loved Clown Eucharists. He had a set of clown-decorated vestments made; he offered a clown eucharist at least once each year (often at diocesan convention) throughout his episcopate. They may have resonated for him because, unlike me, he loved clowns.

But I didn’t (and don’t) and so the clown eucharist was, for me, a distraction. I couldn’t get passed the gimmick, the clown images and the circus music, to the Christ at the center of mass. The clown gimmick, not the foolishness of God to which it was supposedly pointing, took over and seemed to be the point of the whole thing.

Some years later, when the music of U2 became popular and new generation were finding spiritual meaning in the band’s lyrics, someone put together a celebration of the Holy Mysteries in which that music played a part — the major part — it was the only music — and promoted the event as a U2charist.

“Right,” I thought. “The clown eucharist in a new guise.” Again, for me, the gimmick (the U2 music) distracts from the principal focus. I attended a U2charist and, for me, all I heard was the band’s music; I didn’t hear the gospel. That’s not to say it wasn’t there; it may have been. I just couldn’t hear it through the distraction of the soundtrack.

Since then I have heard of (but not attended) celebrations of Holy Communion in which the music was all from the Beatles canon, or all “oldies” from the 1960s, or all Broadway show tunes . . . and I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been other similar “thematic” eucharists. All, I think, the descendants of the clown masses of the 1970s — attempts to package the Christian Mysteries in edgy and avant-garde ways to present them to a target audience, to sneak the gospel message in under the guise of entertainment.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Let me hasten to say that I think entertainment is fine. If clowns float your boat, go the circus! If you like the music of U2 (and I do), listen to it! If you like Broadway musicals (and I do), go to the theater! And if you find something of spiritual import in those entertainments (and I do), great! Make use of it in your spiritual life and, even, in church services and celebrations.

The last of the psalms encourages the people of God to make use of many forms of entertainment, symbolized by musical instruments — trumpets and horns (the ram’s horn), stringed instruments, percussion, wood winds — and dance, in their worship. So I believe it’s fine to make use of clowns, to use of U2’s music, to sing the Beatles’ lyrics, to offer the tunes from Broadway shows as part of the liturgy.

But when these things become the reason for the service, when we name the service for the clowns or the bands or the theater district, the tool meant to be used for praising God has become the object of praise. The psalm says, “Praise God with strings and pipe,” not “Praise the strings and pipe;” “Praise God with resounding cymbals,” not “Praise the cymbals.”

Others, I am quite certain, will have found the U2charists a path to God. Other, I know, will have found in the Beatles mass and in the Broadway eucharists the truth of the gospel. After all, that bishop whom I really did love found Christ in clowns no matter how creepy I may have found them!

But for me, these feel “gimmicky” — one or two Beatles songs might be used to good effect, but nothing but Beatles music through the whole service? Not so much. U2’s Gloria could certainly stand as a liturgical piece, but all U2 music throughout the mass? Too much of a good thing. I’m not sure that I can say anything positive about clowns . . . but someone might, perhaps. My point is that themed eucharists like these, in which the theme predominates, feel like gimmicks. It feels to me like we have stopped praising God with the clowns and have started praising the clowns; the gimmick distracts. Praise God with the gimmick, but don’t praise the gimmick!

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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!

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

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

Parking & Pancakes – From the Daily Office – December 27, 2013

From the Prophet Isaiah:

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
I am the first and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let them proclaim it,
let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.
Do not fear, or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Isaiah 44:6-8 (NRSV) – December 27, 2013.)

PancakesI took yesterday “off” and stayed away from church-related things. I read the Daily Office, of course, and thought about St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr. I even thought about writing one of these meditations, but never got around to it. I really did nothing “religious” . . . until dinner time when I had a previously scheduled a meeting with a small group of parishioners.

We met at a local sports bar for burgers and beer, and a discussion of how to get the church out of the church and into the marketplace. Some weeks ago, one of the group had had the idea of promoting our church by offering a place to park and a breakfast to those who might attend the town’s winter festival, which is held on the town square a block from the church building and is coming up in about six weeks. “Parking and Pancakes,” he called it. Another noted that making our restrooms available might be just as big a draw, so we considered (and dismissed) retitling it “Parking, Pancakes, and Peeing.”

We kicked around the various logistical elements of the idea, handed out action assignments and report-back deadlines, used our smart-phones to get data pertinent to our discussion, ate our burgers, drank our beers, and went on our ways.

This morning I am struck by the pertinence of Isaiah’s declaration (on God’s behalf), “You are my witnesses!” and its follow-up question, “Is there any god besides me?” In a society which is increasingly religiously pluralistic and increasingly non-religious, I am heartened that at least a few members of the church are beginning to understand the role of each member, and the whole of the church community, as “witness.” We can no longer sit at the side of the road and expect passers-by to turn into our drive and knock on our door. We must go out and testify; we must open the doors of the church, stand in the road, and beckon the worn and the weary to come in for respite. Because the answer to the follow up question is no longer that proposed by Isaiah (or by God?), “There is no other rock . . . . ” There are plenty of other rocks, other gods.

Some of those other rocks are, indeed, gods – or at least religious in nature. Within not-very-many miles of our small Ohio county-town church one can find a Hindu temple, a Moslem mosque, and a Buddhist ashram. Though there is no synagogue in town, there are several within a reasonable drive. I have no interest in trying to convince the members of these faiths that they should become part of mine; they are already, in their way, in touch with the divine.

There are the “gods,” however, from which we should like to turn their followers. The gods of money, status, acquisition . . . the gods of alcohol, addiction, self-destruction . . . the gods that promise (but do not deliver) immediate satisfaction, a temporary filling of the void in human lives, the void that only the divine can fill. These gods are incredibly attractive and once a person is in their thrall getting away can be incredibly difficult, almost impossible. It takes the help of a witness, perhaps even a witness who has “been there and done that.”

That is why last night’s little meeting over burgers and beer was so important. I don’t give a damn about “growing the church.” I care very much about spreading the Good News, about helping people find a solid rock on which to ground their lives. If parking and pancakes and giving people a place to pee can do that, I’m all for it.

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

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

Creating Community – From the Daily Office – November 21, 2013

From the Matthew’s Gospel:

Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 18:5 (NRSV) – November 21, 2013.)

Creating CommunityI’m following a thread on a friend’s Facebook page about the future of the “institutional church,” by which I think the various participants mean their several denominations. (We are Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., all of whom seem primarily to identify as Christians and only secondarily with the variety of polities, theologies, liturgical styles, and so forth we each prefer.) I suggested in the discussion that creating institutions is in the very nature of human beings; we create them, criticize them, tear them down, reform them, and recreate them, but we never escape from them. Another participant in response said, “I do not create community.”

“Really?” I thought as I read that. Then what is Jesus talking about when he bids us to welcome others? What is it that we are about when we enter a church fellowship? The other continued, “Community is right in front of us.” Now, that’s true. But do we not “create” a new community when we join that which pre-exists us? When we welcome the child in Christ’s name, we so alter the existing community that it is no longer the same, it is something new. It can never go back to, never again simply that which it was.

“See,” says the Lord, “I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5) We and our welcome are the tools which God uses to create new communities out of the old.

In that thread, I said, “I don’t despair of the institutional church; I believe it is in a state of flux and reform, but it will survive. We may not recognize it were we to come back in a 100 years or so, but it will be here.” Whether it will be Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Congregational or Methodist is anyone’s guess, but it will definitely be community created by human beings empowered by God and used for God’s purpose of making all things new.

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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.

What Is A Church Building? – Sermon for a Ground Breaking on the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9C) – July 7, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 7, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector. The worship that morning included breaking ground on an expansion of the church’s parish hall.

The lessons were taken partially from the readings suggested in the rubrics of The Book of Occasional Services for a ground breaking liturgy and partially from the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 7 (Proper 9, Year C). The Old Testament reading was Genesis 28:10-17; the Gradual was Psalm 132:1-9. The epistle was Galatians 6:1-16; the gospel lesson was Luke 10:1-11,16-20. The latter two lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.

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Church Interior with Superimposed Question MarkWhat is a church building? It’s a holy place. It’s a place where people gather to worship. It’s a place where people encounter God. It’s a place where God’s people enjoy one another’s company. It’s a place where people get married, where babies are baptized, where funerals are held, where memories are made and lives remembered. It’s a place where the stories of faith are told and retold. It’s a place we teach and it’s a place where we learn.

Our reading from Genesis this morning is a small part of the story of Jacob, the son of Isaac who will later be called “Israel.” Jacob is the least likely of patriarchs. Of all the biblical patriarchs, he is the most enigmatic. He never exhibits either the awesome faith of Abraham or the level-headedness of Isaac. He is, in fact, a scoundrel. He’s tricked his father and cheated his brother out of the blessing of the first-born; his character emerges through a series of deceptions, intrigues, and conflicts. He will wrestle with God and be given the name “Israel,” the name that will identify his descendants for the rest of time. He must be taught by God; he has some learning to do.

In the story we heard today, he is on the run. He is afraid of his brother, whom he has cheated, so he has taken off. His father has told him to flee to Haran (his grandfather Abraham’s original home) and there find a wife. Along the way, he camps near a town called Luz and has this dream that we have all heard of before, the vision of a ladder on which angels are traveling back and forth between heaven and Earth. He learns that, like Moses before him, he is standing on holy ground. He says, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven,” and so he renames it, Bethel, “House of God.” A lot of sermons have been preached about Jacob and his character flaws, or about this vision and what the angels coming and going might mean.

But, today, what I want to call to our attention is what God says to Jacob: “Your offspring [God says] shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.”

The descendants of Jacob would go forth from that place to spread blessing to all the corners of the earth – to west, to east, to north, to south. They would go out from that place to change the world.

I’m particularly fond of an Orthodox Jewish translation of this text: “Your seed shall be as the dust of the earth; and you shall burst forth to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south; and in you and in your seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” I love that image – Jacob and his descendants would not, could not stay in that awesome place; they could not stay in the house of God or at the gate of heaven. They had to leave, to spread from the Holy Land, to “burst forth” bringing a transformation to the world that would be explosive and dramatic.

We are not gathered in a desert wilderness. We have not gone to sleep on holy stones. We have not seen angels climbing to rocks to heaven . . . but we have gathered in a church building, a place that for many for generations has been an awesome place, a house of God, and a gate of heaven, a place where children have been blessed, where children have been told the stories of God, the stories of Jesus, where hymns of joy have been sung. We are gathered in this place to reaffirm our commitment that heritage and that ministry, to renew this place and to renew the ministry done here.

But like Bethel where Jacob camped for the night, this is not a place to stay; it is a place to leave. It’s a place from which the people of God are sent into the world.

Church buildings are centers of ministry, places of assembly, where God’s people gather to worship, to hear the good news, and to be transformed, not for themselves but in order to be sent back out into the world, to “burst forth” and change the world. Jesus’ last words to his followers were, “Go . . . and make disciples!” (Matt. 28:19)

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus gives his followers their marching orders. “The Lord appointed seventy [followers] and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Some commentators suggest that seventy disciples were chosen because in rabbinic tradition, seventy represents the total number of nations in the world. Just as the children of Jacob were to spread to every corner of the earth, the disciples of Jesus are to go to every nation in the world. As the descendants of Israel are to be a blessing to others, the disciples of Jesus are to go into the world and announce that “the kingdom of God has come near.”

Church buildings, worship spaces and fellowship halls, are the bases from which the church is sent out to do that, as the disciples in today’s reading from Luke were sent out by Jesus. The Rev. Edward Markquart, pastor of Grace Lutheran Church in Seattle, Washington, writes this about our gospel lesson today:

What happened is that those disciples first went to a village or town. Those first disciples planted a church, and then went to a second village or town, and planted a church. They went to a third village or town and planted another church. They … whoops. We have to go back to that first village or town and look more carefully. We have to go back to that first village, because before the disciples went onto the second village, they left a group of people in that village who were committed to Jesus Christ. The Greek word is “laos.” They were called the “laos,” which means, “the laity,” “the people,” “the people of God.” The Apostles always left common and ordinary townspeople and villagers whose hearts were on fire, whose tongues were on fire, who hadn’t gone to the seminary, who hadn’t seen Jesus face to face, who hadn’t talked with him in the flesh. These were not the Apostles. These were not the twelve disciples. These were the people of God in each village who spread the Gospel from house to house, and neighbor to neighbor and friend to friend and family to family. That’s the way it always is. That fundamental principle is always true; it is the laity, the people of God, who become inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are the ones, not the twelve, not the Apostles, not the pastors. It is the laity, the people of God, who go about winning souls to Jesus Christ and nurturing those souls into maturity. (Sermons from Seattle)

Church buildings don’t change the world. They may be awesome; they may be houses of God; they may be gates of heaven. But by themselves, they don’t win people to Jesus, nurture souls to maturity, or change the world. Church buildings are meant to be the bases from which the people of God do that. Church buildings are meant to be places of life, living, breathing, growing, exciting places of life. Church buildings are meant to be centers of ministry, places of assembly, where God’s people gather to worship, to hear the good news, to celebrate the meaning of life, and to be transformed, and then “burst forth,” back out into the world to share that life and transform the lives of others.

We have broken ground today on our Inviting the Future project; after four years of visioning and planning, we have, at last, begun this project to improve this center of ministry, not as a monument to ourselves, but as a place from which we might better serve the world, that we might “burst forth” and tell the world that the kingdom of God is at hand.

Poet and priest Sheila Nelson-McJilton, offers a poetic retelling of our Old Testament reading in her poem Who Sleep on Holy Stones: A Meditation on Genesis 28:10-17.

Bearer of curse and blessing,
I left home to stumble into the desert,
Exhausted and empty
I watch fierce sun set over silent stones.
Stars ascend toward midnight,
The wind moans through desert canyons,
And clouds drift across a full moon like shimmering angels.
Broken and empty I come to you, O Lord God.
In a desert midnight,
There is no smell of blessed fields
No grain
No wine
No fatness of earth
No sweet dew of heaven.
Alone I sleep on holy stones,
Under stars that blaze fierce and countless as dust.
The wind moans high above me, through desert canyons.
Clouds veil the moon.
Strong shining faces of angels appear.
Michael Gabriel Raphael
Lean down to earth.
Their glittering swords carve stones into steps to heaven.
Angels descend in silence to gaze into my face.
Angels ascend in silence to bear my deceit away.
Then in a shimmering celestial dance
Of turning wings,
Swirling wings
They sweep aside clouds.
I see a heavenly host as countless as dust.
I hear a heavenly host, their voices joined by joyous stars.
Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth . . . peace.
Their alleluias echoing high above desert canyons,
The Holy One descends from the gate of heaven
To stand beside my stone pillow.
To wrap my empty fears
In an eternal mantle of blessing.
To hallow the ground on which I sleep.
Michael veils the moon with his wings
And the only light I see is God.
I left home, soul that raged with wild emptiness
And in this desert wilderness, angels carve holy names for sleep.
They dance a path between me and You, O Lord God.
You have found me, broken and empty,
On holy stones that ascend to the very gates of heaven,
And you have not cursed me.
In a desert midnight, I know the smell of blessed fields, grain.
I will tell of you, O Lord God,
To laughing children who bless my tent,
To strong children who become tribes as countless as dust.
I will tell them of desert midnights filled with blazing stars
Of fierce angels who carve holy stones
And dance with glittering swords among clouds
Of hymns sung by joyous stars over Bethel
And over Bethlehem.
(from Anglican Theological Review, Winter, 2000)

What is a church building? A church building is a place to leave. From this place, this improved place, this living, breathing and growing place, we will leave. We will “burst forth” to tell in story and in song, in words and in deeds, in actions and in ministries, of the love of God. We will tell of God to laughing children, to strong children, to hungry children, to mourning children, to children in need, to all of God’s children; we will tell them of desert midnights and blazing stars; we will tell them that the kingdom of God has come near!

As we do so, let us never forget the prayer which has guided us throughout this project, a prayer written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu adapted from an original by Sir Francis Drake.

Let us pray:

Disturb us, O Lord
when we are too well-pleased with ourselves
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, O Lord
when with the abundance of things we possess,
we have lost our thirst for the water of life
when, having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity
and in our efforts to build a new earth,
we have allowed our vision of Heaven to grow dim.
Stir us, O Lord
to dare more boldly, to venture into wider seas
where storms show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes
and invited the brave to follow,
our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

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

Humility and Interfaith Dialogue – From the Daily Office – June 4, 2013

From the Book of Deuteronomy:

You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 12:2-3 (NRSV) – June 4, 2013.)

A Smashed AltarOK. I’ll acknowledge and admit that there may have been good reason for Moses to lay down this law for his people as they were preparing to enter the Promised Land. He was concerned that they maintain their identity as the Hebrews, the People of the God of Sinai, and if they had taken on the gods or worship of the people they were conquering that might have been difficult. That he put these words into the mouth of God, however, is very problematic. It was a disservice to later generations and it has played havoc with ecumenical and interfaith relations in the modern era.

“Wait,” someone will say, “these are God’s words, not Moses’s.” So it says. So it says. Moses claims his words are God’s and we have no reason say otherwise. Except . . . . we have the later revelation of God incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ. We should read the text of the Hebrew Scriptures using our understanding of the Gospel and our relationship with Jesus as a lens or filter; Jesus should be our starting point for reading the text.

Brian McLaren suggests that we use a “a Christo-focal reading,” in which “Jesus becomes . . . the catalytic agent in a chemical reaction or the central variable in a mathematical equation. When Jesus is the focal point of the story, he is the climax, the hero, the summit, the surprise, the shock, the revelation that gives all that precedes and all that follows profound and ultimate meaning.” As one of my seminary professors used to say, “The gospel trumps the bible.”

When we apply such a lens, such a “Christo-focal” reading, when we allow the gospel to trump the bible, does the utter and complete destruction of another people’s religious tradition seem like a godly admonition? Is this what we expect of the God who, incarnate in Jesus, healed the daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman and the servant of a Roman Centurion, who praised that same Centurion for faith greater than any he had seen in Israel, and who preached his gospel and worked his wonders among the Greek-speaking Gentile population of the Decapolis? Is this what we expect of the God who commissioned and empowered his apostle Paul to walk the streets of Athens viewing the temples of its citizens whom he would later praise as “extremely religious?”

I think not. I’m willing to give God the benefit of the doubt and conclude that these are Moses’s words, and to give Moses the benefit of the doubt that there was good reason for this strategy at the time of the Hebrews’ conquest of the Promised Land.

But today we must have a different attitude toward other faiths! In a paper presented to a symposium on pluralism sponsored by the National Council of Churches, Professor Damayanthi M.A. Niles calls upon Christians to develop a theology “that values and takes plurality seriously.” Such a theology, he argues, would “allow Christians to celebrate and participate in the diversity around us and to add our own particular stories, enriching the story of God’s work in the world.” It would also help Christians to hear “the weaker and marginalized voices often silenced in the name of an artificial unity.” He suggests that as Christians enter into interfaith dialogue we will discover that other religious traditions have appropriated Christ and the Christian story in their own terms. Responding to the ways other faiths may interpret Christian ideas will give us unique opportunities to restate our own understanding of who Christ is. This could not happen if the altars, pillars, sacred poles, the icons, and the images of other faiths are destroyed.

On the first anniversary of 9/11, my friend and colleague Pierre Whalon, bishop of the Convocation of American Churches in Europe, wrote that “the present global situation requires interfaith dialogue.” In an essay entitled The Question of Other Faiths he concluded:

Engaging people of other faiths is therefore not to be done as an exercise in the superiority of Christianity. Not only does our chequered history give the lie to any such claims—they are also fundamentally incompatible with being Christian. It is not in our strength but our weakness that we may speak of Christ to others. He demands not pride, not an imparting of our imagined riches, but an admission of our own poverty before God and others.

No one can go to war who is coming from this position of servanthood. On the contrary. In the strange reversal that characterizes the action of the Spirit, those who seek to be warrior-conquerors are weak, and the ones who cling to the powerless Jesus are the truly strong. This provides us with a coherent position from which to address others that avoids the hollow claims of Christian superiority, the unselfconscious arrogance of universalism, or the belittling of the grounds of Christian faith.

There is a single word that describes this attitude, which was attributed to Jesus himself: humility. It does not come naturally to us anymore than to other people. But without it, we are no followers of Christ, and we therefore have nothing to say to, and learn from, people of other faiths.

More than a decade later there is no less urgency, no less a need for humility and interfaith dialogue. And absolutely no need to “break down their altars, smash their pillars, burn their sacred poles with fire, and hew down the idols of their gods, and thus blot out their name from their places!” Even if that admonition is in the Bible!

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

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

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