That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Friends (page 2 of 6)

Priest as Pal – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Friday in the week of Trinity Sunday
Deuteronomy 26
1 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it,
2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.
3 You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

Moses today gives us a different metaphor or two for the priesthood. He begins with the picture of priest-as-produce-manager, the receiver of baskets of fruits, grains, and vegetables which are to be placed before the altar of the Lord. Today’s pericope then ends with the priest-as-party-planner: “Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate….” (v 11) ~ I must say that these are more inviting roles than those that American Christianity has assigned the clergy: priest as principal prayer, priest as preacher, priest as pastor, priest as purveyor of religious solemnity. I get so dreadfully bored with all the seriousness put on the modern priesthood. ~ I visited a lady in the hospital this week. I was with her for about 45 minutes. She’s not a parishioner; she lives in another town and goes to another church and has another pastor. Thank God! She’s just an old friend and we spent most of our time laughing. She didn’t expect me to pray with her; she didn’t ask for an anointing; she didn’t share her diagnosis, prognosis, fears, or hopes; she just shared her friendship! It was a refreshing experience: priest as pal. It would be so nice if that happened more often.

Friendship – From the Daily Office – October 21, 2014

From Ecclesiasticus:

When you gain friends, gain them through testing, and do not trust them hastily.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 6:7 (NRSV) – October 21, 2014)

My wife and I don’t like to admit it, but as we each have started our seventh decade on this planet we best do so . . . we have each made really bad decisions about trusting people we believed to be friends. We’ve had confidences betrayed; we’ve lost fairly large amounts of money in what turned out to be . . . if not scams, at least unscrupulous business deals. So ben Sira’s advice rings true.

On the other hand, we’ve had a great six decades, more than half of them together, with some lovely friends, with people we still think of fondly and even occasionally still hear from. Some of those people, if we’d followed this advice, we would never have been allowed closer than the other side of locked bars!

What’s better – to go through life constantly wary and on guard, or to be open to friendship and risk occasionally being hurt? I suppose that’s a question each individual must answer for him- or herself.

Jesus risked friendship. It may have brought him bickering from James and John, betrayal from Judas, denial from Peter, but it also brought him the love of devotion of Mary and Martha and, apparently, countless others.

My wife and I have to admit it; we’ve made some bad decisions about trusting people. I’m afraid we will do so again. But we also have some really great friends. I hope we will continue to make others. We’ve chosen to try and be like Jesus, after all.

truefriends

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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.

Blind to Community – Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A) – March 30, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; and John 9:1-41. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Jesus Heals the Man Born BlindTwo weeks ago our Gospel lesson was the story of Nicodemus with whom Jesus discussed birth. Jesus talked about being born anew, being born of spirit, but Nicodemus could only think of physical birth and talked about crawling back into his mother’s womb. The words were all about birth, but the lesson wasn’t really about birth, at all. It was, as we all know, about a new life in Christ, about becoming a new person through the power of God.

Last week, we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus asked her for a drink and they talked about water. Jesus said that he could supply living water and that whoever drank it would never be thirsty and would live forever; she thought he was talking about physical water, so she asked for some so that she wouldn’t have to come to the well everyday. The words were all about water, but the lesson wasn’t really about water, at all. It was, as we all know, about sustaining the life of begun in new birth, about the constant refreshment of one’s spirit through the power of God.

Today, we have the story of the man born blind whom Jesus cures by applying a poultice of mud made with dust and spittle. The disciples want to know why he is blind: is it because he sinned or because his parents sinned. The people who knew the man as a blind beggar want to know if it’s really him: they don’t recognize him when he comes back to them sighted. The Pharisees want to know if any law was broken when his sight was restored: it happened on a sabbath and the healing might have constituted work. The words are all about blindness and sight, but . . . guess what? . . . the lesson isn’t really about sight or blindness, at all. So what’s this story about?

Let’s leave that question for a moment and remember what day this is, why it is we have flowers on the altar in the middle of Lent, why (if we had them) we would be using rose colored vestments today, and why (if we were the Crawleys of Downton Abbey) the servants would be away today. The answer to all those questions is that today is Mid-Lent, the fourth Sunday of the season, sometimes called Laetare Sunday or Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday.

That Latin name (which means “Rejoicing Sundy”) comes from the practice of the medieval church which used, on Fourth Lent, an opening sentence derived from the Prophet Isaiah to begin the Mass

Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam . . . .

Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her . . . .

With this admonition to “rejoice,” the sobriety of Lent was lessened which was liturgically symbolized by replacing the penitential purple or violet vestments with rose colored garb for the clergy. Of interest to us in connection with our Gospel lesson, however, is the second admonition of the medieval introit: “Come together all you who love her.” Keep that in mind.

The name “Mothering Sunday” may come from the traditional epistle lesson read on this Sunday prior to the advent of the new lectionaries. In the English church, that lesson came from the Letter to the Galatians in which St. Paul refers to Jerusalem as “our mother” (Gal. 4:26). Perhaps because of that lesson, a tradition began in the early Renaissance (if not earlier) of people returning to their mother church, either the place where they were raised or the cathedral of their diocese. This was a particularly British and Irish tradition, but it was also observed in some places in continental Europe. Those who made the trek were commonly said to have gone “a-mothering,” hence the name Mothering Sunday. As the tradition continued, it became a custom of the aristocracy to give the day to their domestic servants as a day off to visit their mother church, and their own mothers and families. It also became a tradition for children to pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or to give to their mothers, so we have flowers in church. Visiting one’s place and family of origin, then, is another hint, I think, to the meaning of today’s Gospel lesson.

Because of the gathering of families on Mothering Sunday, the Lenten fast was relaxed and it became known as “Refreshment Sunday.” There are special baked treats made for this day called “Simnel Cakes” and “Mothering Buns.” The first is an almond paste and candied fruit bread similar to, but not as heavy as, fruitcake. The second are sweet rolls topped with white icing and multi-colored sprinkles known in England as “the hundreds and thousands.” It’s believed that both traditions, like others I’ve mentioned, stem from a biblical passage traditionally used on this Sunday, in this case the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-14). Another old name for this day is “the Sunday of the Five Loaves” which these cakes represent.

A last “fun fact” about the Fourth Sunday in Lent. There is, for example, a very peculiar English custom associated with it called “clipping the church.” The word “clipping,” however, has nothing to do with cutting or with coupons in the newspaper; it is apparently from the an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning to clasp or to embrace. In “clipping the church,” the congregation form a ring around their church building and, holding hands, embrace it. If the weather were better (and the building smaller), I’d suggest we do that! (Apparently, “clipping the church” is also done on Shrove Tuesday and on the Monday of Easter week. I’m not sure why it’s ever done!)

So what do all these traditions of the Fourth Sunday in Lent have in common: an introit admonishing those who love Jerusalem to gather together; a tradition of return home and gathering with one’s family; special cakes commemorating the feeding of 5,000 people on a hillside in the Holy Land; and the members of a congregation holding hands and embracing their church building. If I were to suggest one word to name the commonality, it would be “community.” And I want to suggest to you that community is what the story of the healing of the man blind from birth is all about, although everyone in the story (other than Jesus) is unable to appreciate that, just as Nicodemus did not appreciate that the conversation about birth was not about birth and the Samaritan woman did not understand that the discussion of water was not about water.

So it’s about community in a sort of negative way . . . when the blind man is healed he goes back home to his neighborhood, and what happens?

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking . . . . (Jn. 9:8-10)

They don’t even recognize him! Without the defining characteristic of his handicap, they can’t relate to him; they don’t even know who he is! Some community, huh?

And then, once he convinces them that he is who he says he is, what do they do? They question the process and the procedure and the legality of the healing. They take him to the Pharisees, to whom he has to give a detailed explanation of the mud, and even with that the Pharisees suggest that he’s lying to them, or that his parents were lying, that he wasn’t ever really blind: “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them.” (Jn 9:18) And when they are finally convinced that he was blind and has been given his sight, they say it isn’t legal because Jesus did it on the Sabbath. And, in the end, this poor man, whose healing should be a source of rejoicing and celebration, is not embraced by his community; he is expelled! “And they drove him out.” (Jn. 9:34)

It’s really quite sad. This miraculous thing happens in their midst — “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind” (Jn. 9:32) — and not a single one of them praises God for the healing. No one says, “Hallelujah!” No one congratulates the man who now has his sight! No one, not even his parents, says, “That’s great! We’re pleased.” The eyes of one man were opened . . . but because those around him could not see the wonder there was nothing but turmoil. Some community, huh?

In this awful way, this negative way, this story is not about blindness; it’s not about sight. It’s about community or, really, the failure of community. It underscores by their pronounced absence the terrible important of all the things the old medieval and renaissance traditions of this Fourth Sunday of Lent emphasize: gathering with family, rejoicing with friends, embracing the church, being in community.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, open our eyes that we may see you in our families, in our churches, in our communities, in the lives of all our sisters and brothers; open our minds that we may understand their sorrows and their pain, their hopes and their dreams, their triumphs and their joys; open our hearts to give generously of ourselves; grant us wisdom to respond effectively to the needs of your people with grace and compassion, to their blessings with thanksgiving and delight; give us the courage to speak your words of life, peace, love, mercy, gratitude, and human community; through him with whom in the company of the Holy Spirit you form the community we call the Trinity, 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.

No Words – From the Daily Office – March 29, 2014

From the First Letter to the Corinthians:

No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Corinthians 10:13 (NRSV) – March 29, 2014.)

Tear on CheekA couple of months ago, a friend mine published a list of the ten things Christians can’t say while following Jesus. One of those things was “God never gives us more than we can handle.” My friend explained, “Ever tried saying this to a person contemplating suicide? No? Well, of course not. Why? Because it is just wrong. It’s wrong for the reason that #10 (Everything happens for a reason) is wrong and it’s wrong because factual circumstances of living prove that sometimes this life does bring with it more than we can handle.”

And here is Paul, in Paul’s own verbose inimitable way, saying exactly that, or is he? I’ll admit that I first read Paul as saying what my friend says Christians can’t say, but on reflection I think Paul is rather more nuanced than that. “God will not let you be tested beyond your strength” does not (as the thing we can’t say does) suggest that it is God doing the testing; further, Paul adds that God provides us additional strength (“the way out”) that should allow us to endure the testing.

The issue for us is whether we are able to recognize and take advantage of that “way out.”

I’ve known too many people who couldn’t, family members and friends who when faced with the trials and tribulations of life couldn’t handle them and simply cracked, became broken people. My father, who killed himself in a single-car motor vehicle accident while driving drunk, was probably one of them. My mother, who weathered that event and pulled herself and her children up out poverty into relative economic comfort, was not, although in retrospect I believe she waged a life-long battle with depression. How is one person able to contend with what life throws at us and one not?

Paul assures us that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” In other words, we all face the same trials; they are part of life, part of being human. They are not something “God gives us” to test us; God doesn’t give them to us at all. Some might not buy Paul’s assurances, but I think what he is saying is that the differences are of degree not kind, or perhaps that the differences have to do with our differing abilities and willingnesses to tap into “the way out” provided all of us by God.

Something I learned early in my ministry is that “the way out” has nothing to do with words, teaching, talking, writing, reading, or any of that. It has nothing to do with anyone hearing or anyone else saying “the right words.” Sometimes there are no right words. “The way out” has to do with human companionship, presence, and community.

When I was first ordained a deacon, a family in my congregation lost a teenage daughter to sudden and tragic death in a car accident. I couldn’t reach them by telephone when I first heard the news to I went to the family home thinking I could at least leave a note on the door. I found the parents just arriving home from the hospital. I had no idea what to say so I said virtually nothing; we simply sat together an wept. I felt like a complete pastoral failure; I had offered nothing that would “make it all make sense.” But several weeks later the girl’s mother sent me a short note thanking me for being there; specifically, she thanked me for not saying anything, for just being there to share their grief.

When Paul says that “no testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone,” he is reminding us of the centrality of human community. When he says that God “will provide the way out,” that is what he is again referring to. God doesn’t send the test, the trial, or the tribulation. God, indeed, does not give us more than we can handle; he doesn’t give us these things at all! They are not from God. But the people around us, who weep with us when there are no words, who support us through the troubles, they are.

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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.

New Worlds – From the Daily Office – March 3, 2014

From the Psalter:

The Lord is a friend to those who fear him
and will show them his covenant.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 24:13 (BCP Version) – March 3, 2014.)

Face to Face Silhouettes“Each friend,” wrote Anais Nin, “represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” If a new world is born of merely human friendships, it is certainly true of a friendship with God! When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” he was describing the friendship of God, that friendship which births a new world in us. (2 Cor. 5:17)

In the Episcopal Church, one of the options for the beginning of a funeral is the anthem set out at pages 491-92 of The Book of Common Prayer, which includes these lines adapted from the Book of Job:

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

The promise of today’s psalm is that God’s friendship is for the present, not something for which we must wait until “the last,” until God raises us up in the general resurrection.

The literature of friendship is vast and I’m not going to add much to it in a few lines of morning meditation. Nonetheless, it seems to me that the most important aspect of a true friendship is intimacy. I recall reading somewhere about the difference between “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships (which make up the majority of friendships enjoyed by adult men) and “face-to-face” friendships (which are the sort most people say they want more of). The difference is found in responding to the ubiquitous question, “How are you?”

Shoulder-to-shoulder friends don’t expect — and cannot really handle — any answer other than “Fine!” Face-to-face friends expect an honest answer. God is a face-to-face friend. When God asks “How are you?” (which, by the way, God asks every morning) God expects a real response, an honest answer, the truth. When the psalmist wrote that God is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” he was describing the friendship of God, and when (in the same psalm) he quoted God, “Be still, then, and know that I am God,” he was describing that intimacy which is the heart of face-to-face friendship. (Ps. 46:1 and 11)

Out of that intimacy, out of that friendship with God new worlds are born, everything becomes new. Today.

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

Between Me and Thee – From the Daily Office – February 19, 2014

From the Book of Genesis:

So Jacob took a stone, and set it up as a pillar. And Jacob said to his kinsfolk, “Gather stones,” and they took stones, and made a heap; and they ate there by the heap. Laban called it Jegar-sahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed. Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other. If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 31:45-50 (NRSV) – February 19, 2014.)

Mizpah Pendant“The Lord watch between me and thee. . . . ” Years ago (several more than forty) I graduated from high school at the tender age of 16 and announced to my parents that I was getting married.

Rather than get their knickers in a twist and forbid it, they conspired with my older brother (a college professor) and his wife (also a college professor) to send me away for a good, long while. My brother and sister-in-law were on their way to Europe for three months of sabbatical study, and I was given the opportunity to go with them.

As I was leaving for that long summer trip, my girlfriend (she wasn’t yet my fiancée) gave me a medallion that was styled to look like one half of a broken coin. I was to wear that half and she would wear the other. When the two halves were put together, the word MIZPAH and this entreaty of Laban’s were inscribed across the whole.

Long story short . . . by the end of my summer-long absence, she had formed another relationship and I had no interest in trying to “win her back” or in getting married to her or anyone.

When I read this story, I think of her, even though that prayer’s implied petition for reunion and resumption of our relationship was not realized. When I think of her, a song which became popular many years after that summer comes to mind, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover by Paul Simon:

You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just get yourself free
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free

Of course, although Laban is not Jacob’s lover, “slipping out the back” is exactly what Jacob tried to do in leaving Laban’s household, and “making a new plan” is exactly what our summer apart led my former girlfriend and me to do. But it seems to me that we never really finish our relationships; they never really end. We may leave one another’s presence; we may never see one another again; but the relationship, once established, endures.

A few thousand years later and humankind is still remembering and learning from the relationship between Jacob and Laban; nearly a half-century later I can still see my former girlfriend’s face in memory and hear her voice. There may be fifty ways to leave a relationship, but the relationship doesn’t end; it is transformed. It becomes a relationship of absence, and that makes it a relationship of untold, unrealized, and unrealizable possibilities. What might have happened if . . . ? Another lyric comes to mind:

Once upon a time
Once when you were mine
I remember skies
Reflected in your eyes
I wonder where you are
I wonder if you
Think about me
Once upon a time
In your wildest dreams

The Moody Blues got it right. Those “what if” musings are all “once upon a times” and “wildest dreams.” (The title of the song is In Your Wildest Dreams.) It is best to let them go, to focus on current, active relationships, and to consign those long-passed, transformed-but-not-ended relationships to God’s care. “The Lord watch between me and thee . . . .”

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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.

Like the Sofa She Sits – A Sonnet

Old Sofa

Like the Sofa She Sits

Like the sofa she sits in memory
The well-worn couch in the thrift store window
Our lives intersected I had hoped we would be
Familiar agreeable comfort grown old
Constant in love though we drifted apart
Shabbily restful the promise of peace
Given to wandering affairs of the heart
Now put on display and seeking release
I stare through glass and think about calling
I could make an offer I could seek a bargain
But I know I won’t do it there’s no point pretending
It’s a thing of the past and there’s really no reason
The old davenport, the long-parted lover
We simply were not made for each other

(By C. Eric Funston)

Euripides on Friends and Relatives

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Euripides (c. 480 – 406 BC) was an Athenian playwright, a great dramatist known for tragedies with very unhappy endings. Some of his plays are so tragic that they have been described as “almost unbearable,” and Aristotle called him “the most tragic of poets.” Apparently, however, he had a comic side, as well.

Euripides on Friends and Relatives

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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.

There Is a Balm in Gilead: The True Riches of Community — Sermon for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20C — September 22, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 22, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 18 (Proper 20, Year C): Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; and Luke 16:1-13. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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CommunityAs you know, we now have an Education for Ministry seminar group working in this parish. Eight of us began meeting two weeks ago and we will have our first working session tomorrow night. One of the things that EFM encourages students to do is explore their personal spiritual autobiographies using a variety of formats and tools, and then share as much of that autobiography with the seminar group as they are comfortable doing. Each of the four years begins with the sharing of spiritual autobiographies, and the seminar group’s mentor or facilitator is asked to lead off.

So in addition to reading and re-reading these scriptures this past week, I’ve also been reviewing my life. The theme for EFM spiritual autobiographies this year is “Living Faithfully in Your World” and we are asked to consider a number of “worlds” or “contexts” in which we live, one of which is (obviously) family. We are asked, “Who are the people of importance in that world?” and “What events do you remember?” and “What stands out for you as you remember moving through different stages of your life?”

I don’t intend to give you this morning the spiritual autobiography that I will be sharing with the EFM group tomorrow, but as I read Jesus telling the Parable of the Manager that Luke relates in today’s Gospel lesson, I realized that money has played an interesting role in my personal spiritual development. So, if I may, I’d like to share with you three stories from my life which have impacted my understanding of what money is because that has direct bearing on what I understand Jesus to be saying in this story.

The first story has to do with my father’s death when I was 5-1/2 years old. The death of a parent, as you either know through personal experience and can pretty accurately imagine, is a real world-changing event for anyone. In my life it meant an almost complete change of lifestyle because, although my father was a very successful accountant in Las Vegas, Nevada, he was, apparently, not very good at managing his own accounts. My mother discovered that he was so heavily in debt that there was, quite literally, nothing in his estate. She had to sell our home and move us into an inexpensive two-bedroom apartment which she could only afford by taking in a lodger. She and I shared one bedroom, and another woman (who provided childcare when necessary, in exchange for reduced rent) took the other. She had to sell her car (a Cadillac Coupe de Ville my father had given her) and buy a used Nash Rambler stationwagon. As a WW2 veteran, my father was covered by a $10,000 life insurance policy, the proceeds of which paid for his funeral and the lawyer’s fee for handling his estate and settling his debts. My mother (and thus her children, my brother and I) inherited nothing from my father.

But my mother was an incredibly resourceful and talented woman who went to work, supported her children, saved and invested, and in a few years time was doing quite well for herself. She remarried, and she and my step-father purchased several homes over the years, amassed a reasonable amount of wealth, and lived comfortably.

The second story is that in 1971, my maternal grandmother, a widow, suffered a stroke and my mother and step-father invited her and my bachelor uncle who lived with her to live with them. Two years later, Grammy suffered a second, massive stroke and passed away. Shortly before her death, she advised my mother that she, my mother, had demonstrated that she could take care of herself so my grandmother had decided to leave all of her estate (which included my late grandfather’s, as well) to my uncle . . . my uncle who did not work, had never worked (although fully capable of doing so), and had never contributed the upkeep or expenses of the household. My mother’s reward for pulling herself and her children up out of poverty was to be disinherited.

The third story happened a decade later when my widowed paternal grandmother died. This happened while I was in law school. Evelyn and I were married by then, and she and I together with my mother and step-father, my brother and my sister-in-law, all traveled to Denver for her funeral and for the reading of her will. As it turned out, she (on instructions of my late grandfather which she felt unable to disobey even after he died) had also disinherited our family because my grandparents way back in 1940 had disapproved of my parents’ marriage. Never mind that there had been grandchildren who (in the case of my brother) had lived with our grandparents for six years while in high school and junior college, or who (in my own case) had spent nearly every summer for ten years with them. Those things didn’t matter. We were disinherited. Since the day my grandmother’s will was read, no one from my side of the family has had any contact with my aunt (who received the entire estate) or any of my cousins.

What I believe about money as a result of these three events is this: Money is an incredibly powerful symbol. It can be used to create and sustain relationships, or it can be used to destroy them. It can be used to help others, or it can be used to wound and hurt them. But money, in and of itself, has no intrinsic meaning or value. Think for a moment, to what do we assign value? Our money is nothing more than bits of paper and scraps of metal which are of far less actual value than we say they represent. Do we value gold or silver? When you get right down to it, they are nothing more than rocks. Do we value our homes? They are only brick and wood and mortar. Our Car? Our boat? Our books? Our clothing? Our other possessions? These are the things that our opening collect this morning describes as “things that are passing away.” Giving value to these sorts of things, and there many things we treasure, is giving value to that which in reality has no value.

There is an ancient term for giving value to that which has no value; it is called idolatry. It was the idolatry of the ancient Jews that caused Jeremiah to cry out on God’s behalf, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.” Giving value to that which has no value had hurt God’s “poor people,” so God mourned and was dismayed. Through the prophet God asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”

What is the remedy for idolatry? What treatment is there for giving value to that which has no value?

This is what today’s Gospel lesson answers. I’m sure you’ve heard this parable before; I know that many of you have read it in Bible study groups; you’ve probably heard other sermons about it. And you’ve probably been as stumped by it as are all the scholars and commentators and preachers who’ve ever dealt with it. I’m stumped by it. One of the things I’ve often wondered about it, as perhaps you have, is “Who is God in this parable?” and “Who am I in this parable?” Is God the master? Is God the manager? Is God one of the debtors? Who is God? And who are we?

Reading this parable this week in the context of doing my EFM spiritual autobiography and remembering those three events of death and inheritance, I came to the realization that those are the wrong questions! Parables aren’t necessarily allegories of God-and-me, and this one especially so. God isn’t in this parable; we might be but God certainly is not! If we want to make sense of the parables we have to read them in context. We have to consider where they appear in the narrative. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John weren’t just compiling collections of things Jesus said without regard to when and where and to whom and why they were said. The gospel writers were authors of narratives and we have to look at the whole narrative, not just a little piece lifted out of its context.

This parable only makes sense if we take note of who was listening to it in Luke’s larger story: some disciples, some tax collectors, and some scoffing, sniping scribes and Pharisees whom Luke describes as “lovers of money, [who] heard all this, and . . . ridiculed [Jesus].” (v. 14) Immediately before telling this tale, Jesus has told the two tales of loss (a lost sheep and a lost coin) that we heard last week, and the tale we call “the story of the Prodigal Son.” Immediately after telling this tale, Jesus reminds the scoffing Pharisees that “what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God,” (v. 15) and proceeds to tell them the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Luke, as the gospel writer, positions this parable told to lovers of money in the middle of a series of stories about possessions and wealth.

This is not a story about God! It’s a story about money! It’s a story about what Jesus calls (in the original Greek) tou mamona te adikia, “the mammon of unrighteousness,” translated in our New Revised Version reading as “dishonest wealth.”

What do you suppose he means by such a term?

Preacher and author John Ortberg tells a story about the first nice piece of furniture he and his wife bought back in the 1980s. At the time they had three children ages four, two, and six-months. Because of its color, the new sofa became known as “the mauve sofa.” This nice new sofa replaced an old couch they had called the “yaya couch” because Ortberg would play a game with the kids bounce on the couch as they called out together “Yaya!”

Well, you know what happened when they replaced the old yaya couch with the new mauve sofa. Suddenly new rules went into effect. “Do not eat on the mauve sofa. Do not bounce on the mauve sofa. Do not play on the mauve sofa. Do not sit on the mauve sofa. Do not even breathe near the mauve sofa. You may play and sit on the rest of the furniture, but on the day you do anything to the mauve sofa you shall surely die!”

One day, Ortberg’s wife found a red stain on the mauve sofa. The family was assembled. “Children,” said Mom, “look at this stain. This red stain will not come out! Now we are going to stay here until someone tells me who spilled something red on this sofa.” The wide-eyed and fearful children stood silently: no one confessed. They knew it meant death to the culprit.

Ortberg finishes his story saying, “Now that was many years ago. I still remember the old yaya couch and the mauve sofa. I have many happy memories of that yaya couch, bouncing the children, wrestling and playing together. The only memory I have of the mauve sofa was the day I ate a jelly donut on it and spilled the filling.”

Let’s be honest. Wealth changes things, and it changes us. Wealth, as Jesus said, is dishonest, and frankly it makes us dishonest.

A few months ago, Time Magazine ran an article entitled How Money Makes You Lie and Cheat. It reported on a study undertaken by some Harvard and University of Utah professors of business ethics. “[Three hundred] students were randomly assigned to think about either money or about nothing in particular by descrambling sentences; the money-related sentences included phrases such as ‘She spends money liberally’ while those unrelated to cash included ‘She walked on grass.’” In follow-up tests, “those who reconstructed the money-related sentences were far more likely to say they would do things like steal a ream of paper from the office copy machine than those who worked with the unrelated sentences. [and] Students cued to consider money told twice as many lies.”

The lead researcher commented that “small and unnoticeable reminders of money can produce lying, cheating, and essentially stealing 10 minutes later,” and that “[Money cues] trigger . . . decision [making through] a cost/benefit analysis and the significance is that we’re not considering other things like moral issues.” In the report of the study itself, the researchers conclude that “the mere presence of money, an often taken-for-granted and easily overlooked feature of our daily lives, can serve as a prompt for immoral behavior.” (Science Direct)

This is what Jesus is talking about when he asks, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” This is why he draws a distinction between “dishonest wealth” and “true riches,” and why he tells us, “You cannot serve God and wealth.” True riches are our relationships — with our parents and our children, with our grandparents and our grandchildren, with our spouses, with our friends, with everyone around us, with God; these are what our opening collect describes as “things heavenly,” the things that shall endure, to which we hope to hold fast. And relationships that are affected by, possibly disrupted by, maybe even destroyed by money and what we do with it. Jesus encourages us, as a remedy for idolatry, to learn from the “children of this age.” What he encourages us to learn is to “make friends for ourselves” by means of the “dishonest wealth” so that those new friends might “welcome us into the eternal homes.” Instead of using “dishonest wealth” in ways that break relationship or exploit others, we are to use money to form relationships. Like the manager in the story, we are to form friendships that are reciprocal and egalitarian, relationships that release people from debt, relationships that enrich the lives of those within them. These are the true riches.

When my mother and my step-father made their estate plan, they insisted that their wealth be shared equally among their children and their children’s children. My brother and his family, my step-sister and her family, me and my family — we were treated equally and we received equal shares, because what mattered was not the wealth; what mattered was the relationship.

In telling the Parable of the Manager, Jesus is not teaching about God; Jesus is teaching about money and about us. We are, all of us, managers of wealth entrusted to us by God. We have been entrusted with wealth and, like the manager in the story, we must decide what are we going to use it for. The love of things, of money, of possessions? Do we treat that with which we’ve been entrusted as if we owned it ourselves? Or do we use it for God’s purposes, to create relationships and to sustain community? In the end it’s not a story about business ethics, but about a deeper level of motivation: what do I care about? What do I really care about? What true riches do I really care about?

There is a balm in Gilead. There is a remedy for idolatry. There is a treatment for giving value to that which has no value. The health of God’s poor people is restored by friendship, by relationship, by the true riches of community.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us all that we possess: Grant us grace that we may honor you with our wealth and possessions, and, remembering the account which we must one day give, may be faithful stewards of your bounty, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from The Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 827)

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

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