That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Israel (page 1 of 5)

Whose Image Is This? – Sermon for Proper 24A, Pentecost 20 (October 22, 2017)

As I pondered our scriptures for today I was struck by how different, how utterly foreign, one might most accurately use the word “alien,” the social landscape of the bible is from our own. We, children of a post-Enlightenment Constitution which makes a clear delineation, almost a compartmentalization, between the civic and the religious, simply cannot quickly envision the extent to which those areas of human existence were entangled and intertwined for those who wrote and whose lives are described in both the Old and New Testaments. I tried to think of an easy metaphor to help illustrate the difference between our worldview and that of either the ancient wandering Hebrews represented by Moses in the lesson from Exodus or of the first Century Palestinians and Romans characterized by Jesus, the temple authorities, and Paul.

The best I could come up with was this. First, as a representation of our viewpoint, consider a mixture of water and vegetable oil which, as I’m sure you know, is no mixture at all. The oil will float on the water and no amount of mixing, shaking, or stirring will make them blend; the oil may disperse in small globules throughout the water, it may even emulsify temporarily, but eventually (without the aid of a stabilizer) the oil will separate from the water. In our constitutional society, religious institutions and political entities are supposed to be like that; just as there is a surface tension barrier between the two liquids, the Constitution (in Mr. Jefferson’s memorable phrase) erects a “wall of separation between church and state.”1

Continue reading

Good Soil? – Sermon for RCL Proper 10A – July 16, 2017

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

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 10A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; and St. Matthew 13:1-9,18-23. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

This is an old and familiar story, a comfortable story if you will … the parable of the sower. We’ve all heard it before and we know what it means; we know the four types of soil and we know where we fit into the picture the story paints. It helps that Jesus takes the time to explain it to his disciples (there are some verses edited out of our lectionary version of the Gospel lesson so as we heard it this morning this isn’t clear, but the situation is that Jesus tells the parable in public to the crowds on the beach near Capernaum, then later offers the explanation in private to the Twelve).

The parable, Jesus says, represents the variety of responses to the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Although we call it the parable of the sower, Jesus focuses his explanation on the types of soil into which the sower’s seed is cast. That “soil,” Jesus explains, is the human heart. In ancient Israel, the heart was thought to be the seat of personality; in one’s heart was where a person knew things, thought, decided, exercised one’s will, and acted; it was the center of human commitment; it directed one’s way of life.

The seed that falls on the path, said Jesus, represents those who hear the good news but do not understand it. Because of the hardness or dullness of their hearts, the evil one, who resists God’s purposes snatches it away. It is not clear, in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation, why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than is God’s word, but then that is not the point of the parable. That, perhaps, is a teaching Jesus meant to leave for another day.

The second response to the word of God is that of the person who readily receives it but does not endure as a disciple. This sort is represented by the seed that falls on the rocky ground and sprouts quickly but dies under harsh conditions. The presence of “trouble or persecution [that] arises on account of the word,” which Jesus has promised as the inevitable result of discipleship, causes the person to fall away. Because the values of God’s kingdom threaten and are at odds with dominant culture’s values and structures, the world “strikes back” and this sort of person cannot resist or survive the onslaught.

The seed that fall among the thorns and is choked by the weeds represents the third sort of response. This person, says Jesus, is the who hears but “the cares of the world and lure of wealth choke the word” so that it cannot flourish and bear fruit. Concerns of daily life or the lure of material gain and worldly success prevent God’s rule from breaking through and nourishing new life. As a result, the good news yields nothing.

And then there is the seed sown on good soil, those who hear and understand the word. We know who these good people are, don’t we? These are those like ourselves, whose hearts are pure and who embrace the good news, who fight off the devil, who endure difficulty and persecution, who do not define themselves in terms of worldly success and wealth. Right? These are the good people who are the good soil where the seed of God’s grace sprouts and grows and bears fruit.

Well, not really. For the past few weeks we have been reading the stories of the first family to hear the word of God’s reign, the first family to be invited into a kingdom covenant with God: Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and now today we hear about their sons Esau and Jacob. This family represents the soil in which the good news of God’s love was first planted eventually bore the fruit of the People of Israel.

Yes, eventually Abraham trusted in the Lord and it was accounted to him as righteousness, but initially Abraham and Sarah did not trust the Lord, so they used and then discarded Hagar the handmaiden, nearly killing her and Ishmael her son after Sarah finally birthed a son of her own, and that son, Isaac, Abraham also came close to killing. As for Isaac, about the only active things he is seen doing in the whole story of the family other than tending sheep, weeping when his mother dies, and then eventually burying his father, is move the family to Gerar during a time of famine and, in doing so, lie to King Abimilech about who Rebekah is. Otherwise, Isaac is portrayed as excessively passive. He allowed himself to be nearly sacrificed with no word of complaint; he accepted a wife selected for him by his father’s slave; and late in life he is cheated and hoodwinked by his wife and her favored son. And that son, Jacob, is a trickster and a cheat.

We learn in our Old Testament lesson today that Jacob and his brother Esau were twins who wrestled in their mother Rebekah’s womb, causing her great distress. Esau is born hairy and red, characteristics that link him to the people of Edom, whom tradition claims to be his descendants.

Esau turns out to be strong, comfortable in the wilderness, and skillful at hunting. Jacob is the second-born of the twins, but he is destined to be the ancestor of the 12 Israelite tribes. He is smooth-skinned and fair. When the twins are born, Jacob comes out with his hand around his brother’s foot. This detail foreshadows that Jacob will upset Esau’s status as the firstborn son and subvert the social customs and expectations that would favor the elder son.

His name, Jacob or “Ya’aqov” in Hebrew, is believed to be derived from the word ‘aqav, meaning “heel,” or from the similar word ‘aqov meaning “to trick” or “to cheat.” If the latter, today’s story of his bargaining for the firstborn’s birthright certainly illustrates its appropriateness. If the former, it is a pun which “works in English as well as in Hebrew. Jacob is indeed something of a ‘heel.’ He is a trickster, a man who schemes and plots, always looking for the advantage; in these chapters [of the Abrahamic family story], the advantage particularly over his twin brother Esau.” (Schifferdecker, Working Preacher, 2017)

Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is only half of the story of the cheating of Esau. On the cover of our bulletins this morning is a painting by an unknown artist of the 17th Century. It’s interesting to me that it purports to illustrate the story we heard this morning, but includes in it not only Esau and Jacob, but also Rebekah. Rebekah is not described in the text as being present, but in the painting she is artistically the most significant figure; she is the one on whom most of the light falls. This is because the artist is conflating this part of the story, in which Jacob firstborn’s birthright, with its conclusion, in which Rebekah (who scripture says favored Jacob) aids her younger son in tricking Isaac into giving him also the firstborn’s blessing. Jacob is not the only trickster and cheat in the family.

My point is that this family, from Abraham and Sarah through Isaac and Rebekah to Jacob, are not really people we would describe as pure in heart, or as those who endure difficulty and hardship with forbearance and fortitude, or as those we would expect to fight off the devil. But, nonetheless, they are the “good soil” in which the kingdom of heaven took root, eventually flourished, and produced the People of God.

So who are those folks whom Jesus, generations later, would call “the good soil”? “Who are those ‘who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit’ and yield an abundant harvest? In Matthew’s story it seems they are the least likely ones. Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’ (21:31-32). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous bear fruit by serving the ‘least of these,’ and even they are surprised to find that they have been serving Jesus (25:34-40).” (Johnson, Working Preacher, 2011)

Here’s the thing about soil – it isn’t good on its own. The soil that is beaten down under foot along the path can’t, by its own effort, become good soil. The soil that is rocky and shallow cannot make itself deep and rich. The soil that is thorny and choked with weeds can’t clear itself of those unwanted plants. And the soil that is good can’t claim that it is good by its own virtue.

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs, the first step is to admit that one is powerless over ones addiction, over the thing or things that have made a mess of one’s life. The second step is to accept the reality of a Higher Power, and the third is to turn one’s will and life over to God. I often think that in the New Testament there are three people whom Jesus either talks about or encounters who exemplify these steps. One is the tax collector who went to the temple to pray a simple prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13) The second is the widow who also went to the temple and who “out of her poverty [contributed] everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:44) The third is the woman denounced as a sinner who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. (Lk 7:38)

These people are the powerless soil, the “good soil,” in which the word of God, the good news of the kingdom of heaven, takes root and grows. The soil is not good by any worldly definition of “good”. These are not people who are pure in heart; these are not people who have lived blameless lives; these are not people who respected for their faith, their position in the community (secular or religious), or their success (by whatever measure may be applied).

The soil is good not by any virtue of its own, but because the sower cares for and works with the soil, and then sows abundantly. Abraham and Sarah are not very good people; they treated Hagar and Ishmael and even Isaac very badly, yet Scripture tells us that Abraham trusted in the Lord and it was accounted to him as righteousness. Isaac was a passive man victimized and cheated by his own family, yet he redug his father’s wells and received God’s blessing. Rebekah and her second-born son Jacob coveted and eventually received the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, but only because they cheated his brother and hoodwinked his father. They were not particularly good! None of them! As portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham and his family were deeply flawed human beings, yet they were the recipients of the Covenant. It took generations of the Lord’s attention and care for the descendants of Abraham to bear fruit.

And Jesus put his effort into disciples who looked similarly unpromising. “He squandered his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts.” (Johnson, Working Preacher, 2011) Yet his work with and among such as these yielded the fruit of the Church.

God’s work with the Abrahamic family, Jesus’ work with the outcasts of his generation, was like that of which the Psalmist sings:

You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous;
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain,
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
(Ps 65:9-11; BCP 1979, page 673)

The parable of the sower is an old story, a comfortable story, and we know where we fit into it. Or perhaps we don’t. We like to think we’re the “good soil,” but we are more likely the trampled down ground of the path, the rocky soil, or the patch filled with thorns and weeds. If we would be good soil, we must admit that we cannot do so of your own accord.

As the story of the first family invited into covenant with God makes clear, the soil is not good of its own virtue; it is the work of the sower that makes it good. The seed does not flourish because of the soil. The soil flourishes because of the seed.

(Note: The illustration is “Jacob offers a dish of lentels to Esau for the birthright” by an unknown 17th century artist after Gioacchino Assereto (1600 – 1649), it hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.)

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

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

Life or Death; Lawfulness or Sinfulness: Sermon for 6 Epiphany, 12 February 2017

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

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Sirach 15:15-20 (or, alternatively, Deuteronomy 30:15-20); Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and St. Matthew 5:21-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

Moses_Pleading_with_IsraelThe Book of Deuteronomy tells us that when the long Exodus journey of the People of the Hebrews ended, just before they were to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses delivered a farewell address. He was not going to be going into the new land with them.

You may remember that God had been angered by the first generation of wandering Hebrews, what Jesus might have called an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mk 8:38), who had grumbled against God, had wanted to turn back, and who had eventually been so disobedient that they had fashioned an idol (the Golden Calf) and worshiped it instead of Yahweh, their deliverer.

Furthermore, even when they worshiped and followed God, they didn’t trust God. Not believing God’s promise of the land into which they were to come, they sent spies ahead of them. This angered God, so that God had decreed that none of those who had left Egypt would enter the Holy Land (Numbers, Ch. 14). The Psalmist quotes God:

They put me to the test,
though they had seen my works.
Forty years long I detested that generation and said,
“This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
So I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter into my rest.” (Ps 95:9-11)

So Moses was the last of these and, in addition, he himself had been told by God that he would not enter the Promised Land because he and his brother Aaron had doubted God at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. God had said to him and to Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Num 20:12)

So at the brink of their entry, probably near Moab in the valley of Beth-Peor where he would be buried in an unmarked tomb, Moses gathered the children and grandchildren of the original Hebrews and summarized all that God had done for them and all that God required of them saying, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”(Deut 30:15). Follow the laws of God, have life and prosperity; disobey the commandments, death and adversity.

Throughout the discourse, Moses does an interesting thing that we can’t follow in the English translation; he intermixes the use of the plural “you” and the singular “you.” By doing so, he seems to be saying that the obligation to do good, to follow the commandments is both a communal and an individual responsibility. As a whole, the People of God must do these things, but it isn’t sufficient that they do it only as a community. The individual member can’t rely on his or her neighbor to do it for them; he or she can’t rely on the community’s leadership to do it for them. Each member of the community must do it for themselves; the individual needs the support of the community to undertake and accomplish this individual responsibility, but the individual can’t let it slide and just rely on the community to take up his or her slack, so to speak.

Also throughout the course of his speech, Moses makes it clear that though God places this choice of good or bad, life or death, prosperity or adversity, obedience or waywardness before God’s people, God does not underwrite or endorse both equally. In fact, God endorses only one. So, at the end of his address, Moses offers his own advice: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Dt 30:19-20).

Choose life! I can imagine Moses raising a glass and giving this counsel in the form of the great Jewish toast “l’Chaim!” – “To life!” And given what was at stake, Moses adds, “Hold fast to God,” basically saying, “And don’t mess it up!”)

Several generations later, around 200-175 BC, Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem, a Jewish scribe, echoed Moses’ admonition as he wrote a text which is in the canon of writings called “the wisdom literature.” This body of literature constitutes basically a course of education for young men training for what we might call “the civil service.” The sons of the class equivalent to the “minor aristocracy” of England would be trained to function in the courts of kings throughout the ancient middle east using these writings. We heard this author’s advice to these young men in today’s reading from the Book of Sirach.

The author’s name is Simon, and he is identified as the son of Yeshua, who was the son of Eliezer, who was the son of Sirach, but some for reason we call the book by his grandfather’s, or rather his great-grandfather’s name. I suppose we do that because we think grandfathers are wiser than their sons or grandsons, although I don’t think I’ve convinced my son of that. This book is part of the Christian scriptures we call “the Apocrypha.” It is recognized as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. The Jews don’t recognize it as scripture because it is known only in a Greek translation discovered in Egypt; if there was a Hebrew language original (which one would assume since a scribe from Jerusalem wrote it), it has been lost to history. And since the Jews don’t accept it, the Protestants won’t recognize it, either.

Of course, we Anglicans take our usual middle way . . . we won’t based doctrine on it, but we will use it for the teaching of ethics and morality, which is pretty much the way this book has been used by the church through the ages. Another name for the text is “Liber Ecclesiasticus” or “Book of the Church” because it was used throughout the middle ages to teach clergy.

In any event, Simon the son of Yeshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Sirach, offers advice to the trainee courtiers not at all dissimilar to that offered by Moses to the Hebrews: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:15-17).

Simon the Scribe is a very canny fellow. He uses a metaphor for the choice of life or death, lawfulness or sinfulness; God, he says, “has placed before you fire and water.” At first glance that seems a pretty solid and clear metaphor, destructive fire versus life-giving water; but the metaphor is not all that clear. It’s really rather ambiguous. In some circumstances, yes, fire is destructive and death-dealing, but if you’re freezing to death in a winter storm, fire can be life-preserving; in some circumstances, yes, water is sustaining of life, but if you’re drowning in the sea the last thing you want is more water. Which, then, represents death and which life? One’s choices, Simon the Scribe seems to be saying, are not always clear cut and unambiguous.

And, like Moses, Simon reminds his readers that although the choices may be set before one by God, God does not underwrite or endorse both alternatives. God, he says, has a clear preference: “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin. ” (v. 20)

So Moses and Simon the Scribe offer their audiences, both their original audiences and us, this counsel that we have some big, important choices to made: life or death, prosperity or adversity, ethical conduct or sinful behavior. The choice may sometimes be ambiguous, but these are really big matters. And along comes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and complicates things by telling us that our choices aren’t just about the big stuff. “You’ve heard the commandment,” he says, “‘Thou shalt not murder.’ Well, you’re just as guilty if you think badly of another, if you insult a brother or sister, if you argue with another member of the community. You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Well, even if you just think about about it, you’re guilty!” Remember when Jimmy Carter got into public hot water by confessing in that quaint King James language that despite his long and faithful marriage to Rosalyn he had “lusted in his heart” after other women? (Oh, for the day’s when just that was sufficient to get a candidate or politician into trouble…. )

Jesus extended Moses’ admonition and Simon the Scribe’s advice even further. Yes, there are important choices to be made. Yes, they are sometimes ambiguous. And, guess what? They come at us every day, every hour, in everything we do. Not just in the big things, but in the little everyday minutiae of human existence.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not very often I have to decide not to kill someone (only about once a week), but every day I have to decide whether let a zinger of an insult fly or bite my tongue and hold it back, whether to vent my anger over some upset or just shrug it off and let go of it. It’s not very often that I have to decide whether or not to commit adultery; in fact, never (no one seems to think I’m that attractive). But all through the day I have to make . . . we all have to make . . . these ethical and moral decisions. We have to make our choices, daily, and then stick to them as best we can. As Jesus admonishes us, let our decisions to be “Yes, yes” or “no, no.”

Interestingly, in the koine Greek in which the author of our Gospel lesson wrote, he recorded Jesus doing what the Hebrews scripture recorded Moses doing: mixing plural “yous” with singular “yous” in his discourse. Like Moses, Jesus underscores what we all know to be the truth – that none of us can do this on our own, that we have to have the support of our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our fellow church members.

There is a story in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapters 27 & 28) about something that happened after the children of the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. Joshua the son of Nun, who was Moses’ assistant and took over leadership when Moses died, was directed to Moses to lead them into the valley of Shechem, the place where Jacob’s well is. Somehow I seem to recall that there were about 40,000 of them at the time, and Joshua divided them by tribes, sending half of them to the summit of Mount Gerizim and half of them to the summit of Mount Ebal on the other side of the valley. And those on Mt. Gerizim recited the blessings of keeping the Law, while those on Mt. Ebal recited the curses that came with disobedience.

I have this vision of Joshua reading the commandments, not just the “big ten” that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai on the stone tablets, but the other 603 mitzvoth (or “statutes”) that got added to them and as he would read each one, the folks on Mt. Gerizim would shout “Obey this law and you will be blessed” and those on Mt. Ebal would shout “Disobey and you will be cursed.” Can you imagine how 20,000 voices shouting on one side of valley and another 20,000 voices shouting in response on the other side would have echoed throughout the land? Those voices also would have echoed down through time as a reminder that obedience is a communal thing, but also a personal thing, an individual obligation in which one is support by the community.

But even that is not enough. We humans individually are unable to stay in the narrow way and we are also unable to do so as communities, as churches, as nations. As our opening collect says, “in our weakness we can do nothing good without you” (BCP 1979, pg 216) and as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). If we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice; but we can only stay the course if we are aided by our community and upheld by God.

Today and every day, the choice is before us, good or evil, obedience or sinfulness, life or death. Choose life! – l’Chaim – and rely on God (don’t mess it up)!

Amen!

(Illustration: Moses Pleading with Israel, an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company.)

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

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

Swords into Ploughshares, But No Rapture: Sermon for Advent 1, 27 November 2016

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

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for Advent 1 in Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; and St. Matthew 24:36-44. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

swordsploughsharesrockefeller“Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt 24:40-42) You probably have friends who have told you these verses from Matthew’s Gospel describe something called “the Rapture.” You may have read the Left Behind books or seen the movies. So you may think you have a handle on what these verses mean and why they are offered to us as we begin our Advent preparation to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s Incarnation and to look forward to his return, his “Second Coming.”

Well… just hold that thought for a moment and let’s explore the first reading before we get back to it.

This is such a great passage from the Prophet Isaiah that we have this morning. It’s got those wonderful verses that are carved into the wall of the broad plaza across the street from the United Nations building in New York City:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4, NRSV)

It’s got all that wonderful imagery of the nations of the world streaming toward the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, at peace with one another. It’s a wonderful, wonderful vision.

We keep waiting for it, don’t we?

Isaiah saw this vision during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah about 750 years before Jesus’ time. Isaiah promulgated what is known as “Zion theology,” a religious understanding of Jerusalem as the center of the world and the Temple as the center of Jerusalem. The Lord will come to it and its mount, Holy Zion, will be the most prominent mountain. The nations will all come to Jerusalem to learn divine teaching. Yahweh, enthroned in the Temple, will mediate and end all international conflict. The waging of war will cease.

Of course, none of that has ever happened, but for nearly eight centuries after Isaiah the son of Amoz this was the belief and hope of Israel, of all Jews. The realities of this text exist in the realms of promise, hope, and faith.

Or at least they did until about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here’s a little First Century history lesson:

Jesus was born sometime around the year we might think of as “Zero” – in truth, we think he was born about the year now designated 4 B.C. (The calendar designations we use were developed by a man named Dionysus Exiguus – Dennis the Short – around the year 525 A.D. Dennis made a couple of miscalculations and so our calendar is just a bit off; it really doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus.) He lived to about his mid-thirties; the most popular dating of the crucifixion is April 3 of the year 33 A.D.

The Gospels were written several years after Jesus’ Ascension. Folks apparently thought it would be a good idea to get things written down because the original followers of Jesus were dying off. So Mark’s gospel was compiled a few years before 70 A.D., perhaps in the mid-60s. Matthew’s gospel is believed to have come next, about 80 A.D., perhaps as late as 90 A.D. Luke wrote his gospel and the Book of Acts at about the same time. John’s gospel comes along about the year 100 A.D.

These dates are important because of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Around the year 64 A.D. the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled against the then-ruling Roman Procurator, a man named Gessius Florius, who had tried to take the Temple treasury for his own use. They succeeded in expelling Florius from the city, but only after nearly 4,000 Jews had been killed. Then they got into a battle amongst themselves. There was essentially a civil war between the forces of Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, who claimed to be king, and Eliezer ben-Hananiah, who was the high priest.

This division between the Jews allowed the Roman Procurator of Syria Cestius Gallius to lay siege to the city for four years between 66 and 70 A.D. and basically starve the Jews. In the late summer of 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus Flavius successfully breached the city walls and destroyed the city and the Temple. The contemporary Jewish historian Joseph ben Matityahu reported that more than a million Jews were killed.

That is when the Zion theology of Isaiah took a nearly fatal blow. There was no longer a Temple to which (as the Psalmist put it)

the tribes [could] go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord. (Ps 122:4, BCP 1979 Version)

This was also the background, the context within which Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels were written. When the authors set about to record the story of Jesus, they look back to view him through the smoke of burning Jerusalem, across the rubble of the destroyed Temple.

Thus, they remembered things that Jesus had said about the Temple’s destruction. They remembered things that Jesus had said about his own probable death. They remembered and interpreted and wrote about many things in light of what was happening and had happened in the world around them. Of course they did! They were just as human as you and me, and the way they saw things and understood things and reported things was influenced by their experiences.

“The impact of this catastrophe cannot be overestimated. The loss of the war was itself devastating. The loss of the city of Jerusalem, the symbolic unifier of the Jewish people and the physical link to the memories that make Jews distinctively Jewish, tying them together all the way back to David, who ruled from this city, this loss shook the people deeply.” (Prof. Richard W. Swanson) Including the followers of Jesus, who at that time still thought of themselves as Jews.

Which brings us back to those verses from today’s gospel reading . . . that much cited and much misinterpreted text! When they remembered Jesus saying, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matt 24:40-41), the evangelists didn’t think he was talking about something that would happen in some future when he would return. They believed, probably correctly, that he was talking about something that had already happened to them and to their families and to their country. They had lived through a devastating and now inescapable loss. As a result of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which they had 800 years of regarding as the center of the universe, “every extended family [had] lost many members.” (Swanson)

In Luke’s version of this story, by the way, the disciples ask a follow-up question: Jesus says, “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” (Lk 17:34-35) Then his followers ask, “Where, Lord?” and Jesus them to look for the ones taken “Where the corpse is,” where “the vultures will gather.” The authors of the gospels were not looking forward to this happening; they had already been through it. (See Benjamin Corey)

It wasn’t until a crazy Irish Anglican priest named John Darby took these verses out of context and mashed it together with something Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about being “caught up in the clouds together with [the risen dead] to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4:17), and stirred it all together with some crazy imagery from the Book of Revelation, that we get the notion of a “rapture.” That “pointless [and] weird theology has . . . produced some strange bumper stickers (In case of Rapture this car will be driverless, etc.), and bad movies (you know which ones), [but] it is not what these words are about.” (Swanson)

These words are about hope even in the worst possible of circumstances. As Professor Arland Hultgren of Luther Seminary says:

The message of Christ’s return is not meant to frighten us. It is to give us hope. ~ The Christ who is to come is the Christ who once lived among us on earth, and who is known in the gospel story as the friend and healer of those in need. Moreover, living in hope, expecting Christ’s return, is integral to the Christian faith, for by it we insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already. (Hultgren)

There is another prophet whose words convey this message, the Prophet Habakkuk who shouted his intent to praise the Lord even when everything had gone bad. He wrote:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Hab 3:17-19a)

This is the hope of Advent, the hope that lets us believe, indeed lets us know with certainty that although Jerusalem may be destroyed, although the Temple may be in ruins, although war may rage around us, still there will be a time when

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4)

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man [who will usher in that time of peace] is coming at an unexpected hour.” Amen.

Note: The illustration is “Swords into Plowshares” by Lee Oscar Lawrie at the International Building, Rockefeller Center, NYC, NY.

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

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

True Worship: Sermon for Pentecost 21, Proper 23C (9 October 2016)

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

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 23C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; and St. Luke 17:11-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

leper-medieval-manuscriptFor ten months, since the First Sunday of Advent 2015, we have been in Lectionary Year C, during which we’ve been following texts from the Gospel according to Luke. Luke’s Gospel , after telling of his birth and infancy, sets out Jesus’ original mission statement, which he adopted from the Prophet Isaiah and proclaimed in his hometown synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)

Throughout the year, Luke has given us profound glimpses of God’s grace alive in the world of 1st Century Palestine, encouraging us to open our eyes and respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This sort of awakening and response to grace forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

In July of 2014, Evelyn and I were privileged to visit the place where the healing of the ten lepers is said to have happened. A tradition stretching back nearly 2,000 years tells us that it was in the village of Burqin and the Christian church which stands there today is believed to be sited on the longest continually used place of Christian worship in the world.

In the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us that this place is in “the region between Samaria and Galilee.” I have to assume that Luke was ignorant of Palestinian geography. There is no such “region.” At best, there is a line on the map, a border, between Samaria and Galilee, nothing more. If Jesus was “passing through” such a region, he was simply stepping over an imaginary line separating one human-defined locale from the next. In the modern world, he might have been going through a checkpoint. There’s a wonderful word for doing that, for being in that in-between place, in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other – liminality. It is derived from the Latin word for “threshold.”

The village of Burqin is located almost exactly halfway between Nazareth in Galilee and Sychar (now called Nablus), the Samaritan city where Jesus spoke with the woman at Jacob’s Well. Today, it is a village of about 6,000 people; fewer than 100 of them are Christian, and all of those are members of the Greek Orthodox congregation that worships at that longest-used church in all the world.

When we visited there, we were treated to lunch in the home of church leaders Usama and Nadya. During our conversations with them, one of our party asked Nadya if they felt uncomfortable living as such a tiny minority among so many Muslims and if she had ever considered leaving. “These are our neighbors and friends; they are our families,” she replied, “why would we ever leave?” She told us how they visited in each other’s homes, watched each other’s children, and celebrated each other’s holidays. And then she said, “Besides, if we left, who would be the church?”

I was struck then and continue to be amazed at the wisdom of her answer, at her choice of verb: “Who would be the church?” In that liminal place, that small group of Christians is constantly in that in-between place. Visiting, working with, celebrating with, being family with their overwhelmingly numerous Muslim neighbors, they cross over and through so many thresholds; they are constantly in spiritual motion yet grounded in that longest-used place of worship.

Their stewardship of that place is phenomenal, by the way. It must rank as the most lovingly cared for and tended church I have ever entered! Not a speck of dust, not a single cobweb, not a trace of tarnish on any of the numerous silver lamps, candlesticks, icon covers, and other objects of devotion, not a thread torn or hanging loose from the linens or tapestries. It was clear that, like the Samaritan leper who was healed there, the members of that community returned again and again to give thanks through their loving stewardship of God’s gifts.

That’s one thing about this story that grabs my attention and excites my imagination, that it takes place in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other, that it is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

It is that sort of story in the other particular that grabs my attention, as well. This other thing is something that I’ve never seen touched on in any commentary on this text, and that is the way in which their disease unites the ten lepers. Although Luke as narrator and Jesus as character in the story comment on the citizenship or race of only the one leper, the implication is that the others are Jews. One commentator has suggested that the Samaritan turned back from going to the Temple to present himself to a Jewish priest because he would have been unwelcomed there, but the others continued on suggesting that they were Jews for whom there was no similar problem. If that is so, then for the ten the shared experience of leprosy had bound them together and had overcome the traditional enmity between Jew and Samaritan.

I’d never thought of that before but now, every day, I show up at a cancer center where I converse with two men I would never before have interacted with. The man who gets his radiation treatment before me drives a Cadillac on which there are two bumper stickers. One reads, “Hillary for Prison 2016” and the other bears only the word “Trump.” In other circumstances, I would be very unlikely to converse with this man. But, thrown together by the common malady of prostate cancer, I know that he is also 64 years old, that he has two daughters and that both are married, and that he has three grandchildren. I know his name. He and I wish one another well every day, even though we know that our political views are wildly disparate. The man who comes after me rides a Harley; he has bushy, unkempt grey beard and tattoos on his arms; he wears “muscle shirts” and grubby jeans and his wallet is attached to his belt loop by several inches of heavy stainless steel chain. In other circumstances, I would be equally unlikely to talk with him. But I know particulars of his life also and we greet one another as friends.

We three will move on from this experience when the linear accelerator has done its thing and we are “cured” of the cancer. Like the ten lepers, our small community of shared disease will break up, but none of us will ever be the same; I will remember them and I hope they will remember me. In some sense, we will remain a community.

That is what the ten lepers were and what they remained even as they moved off on that spiritual journey from one state to another, from leprosy to wholeness; they were a community. I suggest to you that they are an icon of the church. We are all of us, both individually and together, on a journey from some form of “leprosy”, a journey from some illness of spirit, a journey to wholeness and salvation. That iconic community returned a tenth, a tithe (if you will) of its substance to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, falling prostrate at his feet, and giving thanks. (The other nine, also, would offer thanksgivings if they went, as instructed, to the Temple priests: the Law required a thank offering of two male lambs, a ewe, a measure of fine flour, and a measure of oil.) Thus, in this sense also, this is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. David Lose, the Lutheran seminary professor whose writings I like so much, says of this story:

All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in … and it made all the difference.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper has something for which to be thankful, praising God with a loud voice.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper changes direction, veering from his course toward a priest to first return to Jesus.
In this light, this story serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend? (Lose. Emphasis in original.)

After the Samaritan saw that he was healed, the rest of his response is characterized by four actions: he turned back, he praised God, he prostrated himself in worship, and he gave thanks. This, again, is Luke encouraging us to open our eyes and giving us an example of how we ought to respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This is true worship, a road map for our response to God’s activity in our world: returning, praising, worshiping, and giving in thanks.

Echoing Luther, Prof. Lose asks, “What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living? It is the tenth leper turning back. For now as then, seeing makes all the difference.” It is the sort of awakening and response to grace that forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

And now I would like to invite parishioner ____________ to share some thoughts about his spiritual journey and thanksgiving.

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

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.

Community Choice: Sermon for Pentecost 14, RCL Proper 16C (21 August 2016)

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

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 16C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; and St. Luke 13:10-17. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

borderwallOur reading from the Book of Isaiah today is the second half of chapter 58, a chapter which begins with God ordering the prophet to “Shout out,” to “do not hold back,” to “lift up [his] voice like a trumpet” with God’s answer to a question asked by the people of Jerusalem: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:1,3a)

God’s answer is simple: “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. [Y]ou fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (vv. 3b-4)

The rest of the chapter, including the portion we heard today, is simply an expansion on that answer including (in this reading) God’s promise that a change of civic behavior, a change in the ruling elite’s treatment of the poor will be answered with prosperity for all. They had to choose what kind of community they were going to be. That was an important lesson for the ruling class to learn; it is an important lesson for us to learn. To fully understand the importance of this lesson, however, requires some placement of this prophecy in historical context.

The Book of Isaiah is not the work of a single prophet. Based on internal evidence and other historical data, scholars believe that in contains the oracles of at least three prophets or schools of prophets. The first, sometimes called “Proto-Isaiah,” comprises chapters 1 through 39. This writer lived and worked in Jerusalem before the Babylonian Exile. Chapters 40 through 54 are believed to have been written during the Exile recording the prophecies of the second or “Deutero-Isaiah.” The last of the book, chapters 55-66, contains short oracles of several post-Exilic prophets who are collectively known as third or “Trito-Isaiah.”

These “Third Isaiah” prophets were at work during the rebuilding of the Temple under the direction of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor, whose names we know as the titles of the history books which tell that story. Professor Brian Jones of Wartburg college describes the social milieu of the time in this was:

Rebuilding the temple and the city was moving slowly, perhaps stalled completely. Leadership within the community was contested. Divisions and violent quarreling hindered progress in both physical and social restoration. Drought and food shortages exacerbated the social strife and made rebuilding difficult. Economic and social inequity – homelessness, hunger, lack of clothing – threatened the stability and identity of the returned community. (Jones, Working Preacher Commentary)

In addition, there was conflict between the returnees and those who had never left. The returnees disagreed about how welcoming their community should be to the locals who had remained; the leaders (particularly Ezra) were not welcoming at all.

Ezra and Nehemiah took an exclusivist position, regarding those who had remained and intermarried with other peoples to be less than Jewish. For example, “one of the first measures Ezra took was to make an ultimatum forcing all Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives or at least have the women convert. Whoever refused would be excluded from the community.” (Jewish History, Ezra and Nehemiah) Ezra focused the people’s attention on rebuilding the Temple; Nehemiah focused on building a wall around Jerusalem. These, they believed, would bind the people as a nation and strengthen them to stand against their neighbors, friend and foe alike.

Others, however, promoted an inclusive viewpoint. For example, the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of a non-Jewish Moabite woman who married into Israel and became an ancestor of King David, was written during this period. The “Third Isaiah” prophets were of this viewpoint; they argued, as our reading makes clear, that welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, and meeting the needs of the afflicted were more important than building walls and, in the long run, would lay a foundation of prosperity for many generations.

Of course, Ezra and Nehemiah were in charge so the Temple and the wall were built, but the prophets turned out to be correct. The Temple and the wall did bind the people together, but Israel as a nation was never restored to the glory of the Davidic kingdom and for most of the next three hundred years was under the control of foreign empires ending, in Jesus’ time, with the Romans.

What Ezra and Nehemiah and their successors did accomplish was the creation of a relatively united and ritually pure Judaic religion, a faith which bound the people one to another and to their God. They might have minor disagreements about the relative importance of the festivals and sacrifices of the Temple as opposed to the rules and rituals of daily life, the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, but in the end they were all Jews sharing one religion.

This was the religion into which Jesus was born, about which he taught, and the reform of which he sought. Our lesson from Luke’s Gospel today is a story of his effort to accomplish that reform.

As was his Sabbath custom, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, the local religious meeting hall; Luke doesn’t tell us what village or town he was in, but somewhere in the region of Galilee. As he was teaching, a woman who was (the Greek tells us) “bent over double,” apparently with considerable curvature of her spine, entered. He called her to him and said, “You are freed,” not cured, freed, and laid his hand on her; she then stood up straight. Actually, was the Greek says is that “she was straightened.” It doesn’t say that Jesus straightened her, or that she straightened herself, simply that “she was straightened.” By what? By freedom and into freedom.

Of course, this astonishing event raises a commotion. The “leader of the synagogue,” a direct spiritual descendant of Ezra and Nehemiah, objects. Jesus, he argues, has violated the rules; he has done work (assuming that healing someone is work) on the Sabbath. Jesus answers in true rabbinic fashion employing what is known as arguing from the lesser to the greater. He reminds the leader and those around them that it is not a violation of the law to free a farm animal on the Sabbath so that it may drink; if this, the lesser thing, is permitted, then it must also be true that to free a Jewish woman, a “daughter of Abraham,” from her ailment, the greater thing, is also permitted.

Many commentaries make not of the fact that this woman, by reason of her spinal curvature, her being bent over double could never have looked anyone in the eye, could not have seen the horizon, could only look at her feet and the few feet of ground that lay before her. She was cut off from the world around her. The leader of the synagogue and other spiritual descendants of Ezra and Nehemiah were similar blinded by their rules and traditions.

The rules of the Sabbath on which the synagogue ruler bases his objection are not to be found in the Law of Moses; they are not in the Torah. Instead, these are the mitzvoth d’rabbanan, the man-made laws intended by the rabbis to be a fence or wall around the Torah, lesser (but just as strenuously enforced) ritual rules that insured one did not break a commandment of the Scriptures.

Although this gospel story is often presented as just one more of Jesus’ healing miracles, I suggest to you that it is much, much more. It is a story of liberation, not only of the woman herself, but of all those who were present and all those, like ourselves, who have heard it through the ages. In this story, Jesus frees them and us from the bondage of inflexible rules, from the walls we have built around our hearts and our spirits.

The leader of the synagogue and generations of tradition had made the ritual observance of the Sabbath more important than the people for whom the Sabbath was meant. Sabbath (the Hebrew word literally means “rest”) was intended to give the people of God freedom from the demands of everyday life; it was to be a time of rest, relaxation, and refreshment. But in trying to guard that time of liberation, the rabbis had built their wall of rules, their “fence around the Torah,” rituals which were more restrictive, more demanding than the strictures of daily life. It is not in this text but in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), but that is certainly the message of this story. The Sabbath is no reason to refuse healing and liberation to a “daughter of Abraham.” As St. James would later write to the church, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26)

We often focus too much on the “keeping unstained” and too little on the care of the poor. That was the problem the Third Isaiah oracles sought to address, the focus on the wall of security around the city and on the purity of the temple. A Quaker preacher in North Carolina has written about our Isaiah lesson as follows:

If ever there was an unambiguous prophetic signpost for the people of Israel that would show them the way to a restored relationship with Yahweh, Isaiah’s message in Chapter 58:10 was it: “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…”

While so many of the Old Testament prophets’ messages are filled with jeremiads of doom and gloom, this positive passage is exceptional in that it holds out the conditional promise of personal and community restoration and reconciliation, expressed poetically as a “watered garden” (v.11). The condition was clear: first the Israelites had to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and treat their neighbors as they would themselves like to be treated. The power of this poetic passage speaks volumes for the spirit of love, compassion, and neighborliness which God expects God’s people to demonstrate as they go about feeding the hungry in their communities. The hungry were not to be subject to a “means” test, speak only one official language, or show documents to prove they were not “illegal” before they were to be fed. They were to be fed simply because they were hungry.

God does not say here, “The poor you have with you always, so relax, take your time, pay your bills, balance your budget, play the lottery, fill up the SUV, take a vacation, and, if there are any crumbs left on the table, offer pennies to the hungry.” Rather, God clearly gives feeding the hungry top priority on the daily agenda of God’s people rather than fighting terrorism and protecting one’s job security, life insurance, college savings program, or retirement investment.

The bottom line in this text from Isaiah is not maximization of profits, but feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. (Ed King, Member, Chapel Hill Friends Meeting)

As for the Third Isaiah prophets, so too for Jesus. “God’s time,” writes Lutheran pastor Amy Lindeman Allen about the gospel story, “is a time that, no matter when it is observed (and, for Jesus and the synagogue leader, this would have been a Saturday) and no matter how it is observed in the particulars, it is always and only about life.” This story demonstrates that for Jesus, Sabbath is “always about God’s people and their well-being, and not simply about the ‘rules’ and the way we wish things ought to be.” (Political Theology)

These stories today are coupled with a frankly strange bit of prose cut out of the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer of the letter contrasts two mountains, Sinai where the Law was given and Zion to which those finding freedom in Christ are invited. The first place is “ominous for the eye and the ear with burning fire, darkness, gloom, windstorm, [and the] noise of trumpets.” (Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) The second is a place of life and light, of festivity, of angels, and of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” The author of Hebrews encourages us to accept the invitation, “See that you do not refuse!” We are being offered a kingdom, a community that cannot be shaken, a community where the finger is not pointed, where evil is not spoken, where the hungry are fed, the afflicted cared for, the stranger welcomed, where bones are made strong, where backs are straightened and youth is renewed.

These lessons today are about our communities, religious and secular, local and national, and the role and function of our laws, our rules, and our traditions; they test our claims about what could and should be practiced within our communities, and about who is allowed within our walls. They ask us, and demand that we answer. What kind of community – what kind of church, what kind of city, what kind of state, what kind of nation – do we want to be? An exclusive community encircled by walls and bound by restrictive rules, or an unshakeable inclusive community of life and light and freedom. The choice is ours. Amen.

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

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.

Complexity Is Not An Excuse: Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 10C (10 July 2016)

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

A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 10C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; and St. Luke 10:25-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

The Second Continental Congress voting for independenceLast Monday, we celebrated our country’s 240th birthday in a way that is quite different from other celebrations of what we might call “national identity days” around the world.

The French, for example, will have a similar celebration later this week on July 14, Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Paris prison by armed revolutionaries.

England celebrates a major holiday in November called “Guy Fawkes Day” –

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

The day commemorates the attempt, the failed attempt to blow up the Parliament.

The Soviet Union celebrated May Day as a great “international workers’ holiday;” it commemorated the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886 when police shot and killed four striking laborers.

Russia now celebrates a large national holiday on May 9 called “Victory Day” which commemorates the defeat of Germany in World War II.

Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, which commemorates the date on which a radical priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo led an armed assault on the jail in the small town of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato.

Each of these national days commemorates an act of violence: the storming of a jail, a war, a riot, an attempted bombing. Our “national identity day,” on the other hand, celebrates something different: July 4 is not the anniversary of “the shot heard around the world” when our war for self-government started, nor is it the anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown where we finally defeated the British and won our independence.

What we celebrated on Monday is simply the anniversary of a vote taken in the Second Continental Congress. That’s all that happened on July 4, 1776. The delegates to the Congress voted to accept the text of the Declaration of Independence. They didn’t even sign it on that day; they just voted to accept it. What we celebrated on Monday is the ability of people to work together democratically, to overcome division and disagreement, and to reach wise decisions through conversation, compromise, and consensus, securing freedom and liberty for all.

What we, as a nation, have endured during the rest of this week is something else . . . .

In our gospel lesson today, a lawyer approaches Jesus with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, in good rabbinic (or Socratic) form, responds with a question, “What do you read in the Law?” The lawyer answers, “Love God . . . and love your neighbor.” Jesus tells him he has answered correctly and seems to be ending the conversation, but the lawyer persists, as lawyers are wont to do, asking, “But who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus changes the nature of the conversation. It is no longer a law school question-and-answer session. Instead, Jesus tells a story . . . a story which we no longer hear with the jarring surprise and astonishment undoubtedly experienced by Jesus’ first audience. We no longer hear the word “Samaritan” as they did, and this parable is part of the reason why.

I have a friend who is the business manager for a charity in Kansas City called “Samaritan’s Purse.” It’s a great name. It calls this very story to mind, and it illustrates precisely what the word “Samaritan” means to us: it means someone who aids or assists another, particularly another who is in a crisis. But that is not what it would have meant to the lawyer who questioned Jesus or to those who overheard their conversation.

The Samaritans were and are (there still are Samaritans living in Palestine today) a group whose ethnic and religious roots are the same as the Jews. Both groups claim to be descendants of Abraham and Isaac; Jews claim descent through Judah; Samaritans claim descent through the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Samaritans claim to be the true preservers of the ancient Hebrew religion; Jews make that claim for themselves, and Samaritans as syncretists and heretics who are, moreover, racially impure.

That latter claim derives from the time of the Babylonian Exile during which the exiled Jews claimed to have maintained racial purity while they accused Samaritans, who remained in Palestine, of having intermarried with Assyrian immigrants producing a mixed-breed “race” inferior to the Jews. The Jews of Jesus’ time refused even to acknowledge Samaritans as a “tribe” or a “nation”; they called them a “herd”. Jews made fun of the name of a principal Samaritan city, Shechem, referring to it instead as “Sychar,” a word which may have meant either “drunkenness” or “falsehood.” (See Sychar in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, online) “A widely current proverb, which is recorded in the Talmud, said that ‘a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.’” (See Korb, Scott, Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, Riverhead Books:New York, 2011, pp 138-40)

This then is how Jesus’ first audience, the lawyer and the bystanders, and Luke’s first readers would have heard this parable: it is a story about someone receiving aid from a member of an inferior race characterized by drunkenness and lying, from whom receiving even the simplest gift makes one accursed and impure. This is a story about racial division and about love and neighborliness reaching across an almost unbridgeable ethnic and religious separation.

And it directly addresses the terrible things that have happened in our nation during this week after the Fourth of July, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, and the deaths of five police officers at the hands of a troubled sniper.

The Old Testament lesson today is from Moses’ farewell discourse to the Hebrews, the ancestors of both the Jews and the Samaritans, as they are ending their long journey out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land of liberation and freedom. Moses reminds them that “God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings” if you just obey the law (that’s a collective “you,” by the way; a promise to the community, not to any one individual). This is the same law that Jesus and the lawyer have agreed is summarized in two short admonitions: “love God” and “love your neighbor.” And then Moses pauses and asks the Hebrews a rhetorical question: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you . . . ?” It is not, he reminds them, far away: “The word is very near to you,” he says, “it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Mark Labberton, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, summarizes and paraphrases Moses’ words in this way: “Get on with doing with you already know to do. Stop with the excuses, already! Give up waiting for someone else from somewhere else to come and do what in fact you already know to do in your heart and mind.” And then Labberton comments: “We hate that. We say we just want to know what to do, but we don’t. We prefer a good excuse. Moses says that excuses, however, are not a viable, defensible option. He should know. We would rather whine about needing to wait for more insight. We would rather lose ourselves in alleged complexity.” (The Art of Deflection) But complexity is not an excuse! In any event, it’s not complex! As Jesus says, it’s as simple as “Love God. Love your neighbor.”

From the fall of 1966 through the spring of 1969, I was a cadet in the Army ROTC at St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kansas. Among the many things that we were taught in that program was how to use and take care of a variety of weapons, including the M-16, a rifle we are now more familiar with in its civilian variant, the AR-15. A couple of times each academic year we were required to demonstrate our proficiency with the weapon, which meant not only firing it at gradable targets, but also showing that we could disassemble it and put it back together within regulation time, blindfolded. The weapon is a complex piece of equipment; it has a lot of parts. But once you learn the rules, the steps of disassembly and reassembly, it’s simple to do. I haven’t touched that (or any) weapon in 47 years, but I’m pretty sure I could still take one apart and put it back together because I learned the rules by heart; they are etched in my mind even nearly a half-century later. I always qualified as a sharpshooter or better, and never failed the disassembly-reassembly test. Complexity is not an excuse.

The events of the past week, the week after the Fourth of July, scream “Complexity!” at us. There are so many parts that we must address. Like the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles of First Century Palestine, we live in a racially, ethnically, religiously, and economically divided society, and we are terrified by it . . . some more than others. My heart broke this week as I watched Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile the man who was shot dead in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, tell a reporter, “I always told him, ‘Whatever you do, when you get stopped by the police: comply. comply, comply, comply. Comply – that’s the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police.” (NY Daily News) This is what is known in the black community as “the talk.”

Reporter Jazmine Hughes in article entitled What Black Parents Tell Their Sons About the Police wrote:

Every black male I’ve ever met has had this talk, and it’s likely that I’ll have to give it one day too. There are so many things I need to tell my future son, already, before I’ve birthed him; so many innocuous, trite thoughts that may not make a single difference. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t try to break up a fight. Don’t talk back to cops. Don’t ask for help. But they’re all variations of a single theme: Don’t give them an excuse to kill you.

I wonder if Samaritan parents, whose sons were looked down upon by the surrounding Jewish community as drunks, liars, and animals as unclean and accursed as swine, felt similarly compelled to lecture their children; I wonder of the Good Samaritan had gotten “the talk.”

I cannot imagine what it must be like for parents to feel they have to say such things to their sons, and it is certainly not my place to tell those parents they are wrong the believe that. Frankly, I don’t believe they are wrong but, even if I did, the law written on our hearts does not call on us to argue with our neighbor; it calls us to love our neighbor. If we believe our neighbor misperceives us, we must answer what we think is a wrong perception not with corrective argument, but with corrective love.

The racial divide which separates neighbor from neighbor is not the only issue the events of the past week have illuminated, although it is the one most directly addressed by Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel. There are other issues highlighted by the terrible coincidence that in Dallas a troubled combat veteran of the Gulf wars shot and killed, among others, two other veterans of the same conflict. Micah Johnson, the sniper, had served in Afghanistan; Patrick Zamarippa, one of the dead officers, was a Navy veteran of the Iraq war, and Brent Thompson, another of those killed, was a police operations instructor who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These facts raise issues about the militarization of our police forces, the mental and emotional care (or lack of it) given our veterans, and the ease with which troubled persons (like vets possibly suffering from PTSD) can obtain weapons; these are all among the problems leading to last week’s events. The situation is complex but, Moses reminded the Hebrews, complexity is not an excuse.

My friend the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, who teaches theology at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, wrote on Facebook on Friday:

We need to address gun culture in this country. We need to address racism in this country. We need to change police culture and tactics in this country. We need to build bridges between police and the communities they police. And we need to mourn, lament, pray, prophesy, and preach. We need to do the work that needs doing for ourselves, our children, and our society. No matter who is against us and this work, though the forces of hell array against us, we must do this work or none of us shall survive. (Facebook status, July 8, 2016)

And our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, addressing the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada on Friday said:

Just in the last week, a child of God was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; just in the last week, a child of God was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota; and just last night, [in Dallas, Texas] children of God were killed. * * * Enough is enough. * * * Our culture, our society, our world, is begging us, “Show us another way.” (Anglican Journal)

In this week after the Fourth of July, that other way is what we celebrated on the Fourth of July . . . working together, overcoming division and disagreement, and reaching wise decisions through conversation, compromise, and consensus, securing freedom and liberty for all. That other way is the way described by the questioning lawyer and illustrated by Jesus’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “[L]ove the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

The issues we must tackle are many and complex but, as Moses reminded the Hebrews, complexity is not an excuse; we must do this work or none of us shall survive.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.

Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 1979, page 815)

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

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.

What is Jesus up to? – Sermon for Palm Sunday (Yr C) – 20 March 2016

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

A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Palm Sunday, March 20, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are as follows:
At the Blessing and Distribution of the Palms: Zechariah 9:9-12 and Psalm 118:1-2,19-29
At the Eucharist: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; Psalm 31:9-16; and St. Luke 19:28-40
At the Reading of the Passion Narrative following Communion: St. Luke 22:14-23:56
Most of these lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

Jesus Triumphal EntryWhat is Jesus up to? Why is he doing this?

Many of us are old enough to remember when the musicals Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar made their first appearances. I wasn’t that big a fan of Godspell, but I really liked Superstar … and one of my favorite songs from it is Hosanna sung as Jesus enters Jerusalem, the scene which today specifically commemorates.

In Superstar, as in the Bible, as Jesus makes his way into the city, the crowds sing “Hosanna”. Unlike the biblical text, the hosannas sung in Superstar are a refrain for a duet, a musical conversation between Caiaphas, the high priest, and Jesus. In each iteration of the refrain, one line is changed. The first time, the crowd sings “Hey, JC, JC, won’t you smile at me.” The second time, “Hey JC, JC you’re alright by me.” The third, “Hey JC, JC won’t you fight for me?” And finally, “Hey JC, JC won’t you die for me?” These one-line changes in the hosanna refrain foreshadow the progress of Holy Week and the events leading to Good Friday and the cross. There’s a sermon in that, but not the one I want to offer you today.

Today, I want to focus not on what the crowd is singing but on what Jesus is saying by what he does and what he says. Listen to the words Caiaphas says to Jesus in the Superstar song:

Tell the rabble to be quiet,
we anticipate a riot.
This common crowd,
is much too loud.
Tell the mob who sing your song
that they are fools and they are wrong.
They are a curse.
They should disperse.

Tim Rice, the lyricist of Superstar, is elaborating here on the Lukan text: “Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.'” (Luke does not identify the speaker as the high priest Caiaphas; that is artistic license on the playwrights’ part.) Jesus’ reply, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out,” is rendered by lyricist Rice in this way:

Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.
If every tongue were stilled
The noise would still continue.
The rocks and stone themselves would start to sing.

This conversation gives us a clue as to Jesus’ intent, his motive for doing what he did on that day riding into Jerusalem.

Way back in Jewish history, Joshua the son of Nun, the successor of Moses, when he led the people of Israel into the promised land swore them to their covenant with God and he had his men set up a stone monument as a testimony to the covenant. He said to the people, “See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God.” (Josh. 24:27) Later, the prophet Habakkuk condemned the ruling classes, the conquerors of nations who, in his colorful and disturbing words, “build towns by bloodshed.” (Hab 2:12) In his prophecy, Habakkuk proclaimed: “The very stones will cry out from the wall, and the plaster will respond from the woodwork.” (Hab 2:13)

Jesus was recalling these ancient words, the covenant promise of Joshua and the justice prophecy of Habakkuk, when he said to the complaining Pharisees, “The stones would shout out.” They claimed to be the guardians of the covenant and they were the ruling class of their day, trained in the Law of Moses and the history of their people, and they knew what Jesus was saying.

They knew, too, what Jesus had done riding into the city on a donkey’s colt. He was acting out the prophecy of Zechariah: “Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” Jesus was making a bold statement of his identity, a claim that could not be ignored. He was staking his claim on the kingship of Israel, on the role of the one who sits in judgment of the injustice against which the stones cry out and the plaster on the walls responds. He was telling them in no uncertain terms that they, the ruling class of his day, had built their empire by bloodshed.

That is what Jesus was up to then . . . and it is what Jesus is up to now! When the church re-enacts this drama each year, when we read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, when we wave our palms and sing our hosannas, we who “are the body of Christ and individually members of it” are making the same prophetic claim. We are saying to the ruling elites of our day that the rules by which they profit and benefit are unjust, that the society over which they preside is an empire built by bloodshed, that the stones are crying out from the wall, and the plaster is responding from the woodwork, that God’s creation is bearing witness against them.

And in one of those twists of meaning that God frequently pulls on us, we recognize that even as we “are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” even as we are both Jesus riding into Jerusalem and the crowds, the stones, crying out for justice . . . we are also the ruling elites against whom we cry. It is our own unjust acts, our own oppression of others, our own sinful exploitations that we are prophetically protesting.

If we do not understand that, if we do not appreciate that that is what we are saying and doing, then our Palm Sunday liturgy is hollow and meaningless. If what we are doing is not a reiteration of Jesus’ message, not a repetition of the prophecy he enacted and proclaimed, then what we are doing is a mockery of his life, his ministry, and his self-sacrifice. If in our waving of palms and singing of hosannas we are not proclaiming his gospel, if we are not announcing “good news to the poor . . . release to the captives . . . recovery of sight to the blind [and freedom to] the oppressed” (Lk 4:18), then all that we do today and during this Holy Week is nothing more than a burlesque, a charade, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth, Act V, Scene V)

But . . . but . . . I do not believe that it is. I believe that what we do bears witness to the truth of the gospel story, that what we do makes a difference in the world in which we live. I believe that what we do proclaims to the powers of this world the almighty power of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I believe that when we wave our palms and sing our hosannas we are, like the prophet Isaiah, standing up and saying, “Who will contend with [us]? Let us stand up together. Who are [our] adversaries? Let them confront [us]. It is the Lord God who helps [us]; who will declare [us] guilty?” (Is 50:9)

We are proclaiming to the powers of this world, even (or even especially) those that reside within us, that they are defeated, that “in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17) We are saying, “Our God reigns!” and that “in Christ God [has] reconcile[ed] the world to himself.” (2 Cor. 5:18)

That’s what Jesus is up to! That’s what we are up to!

At the end of the Hosanna! song in Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus sings to the crowd:

Sing me your songs,
But not for me alone.
Sing out for yourselves,
For you are bless-ed.
There is not one of you
Who cannot win the kingdom.
The slow, the suffering,
The quick, the dead.

So wave your palms! Sing your hosannas! Be the stones who cry out judgment against the ruling elites! Be the plaster that answers from the woodwork! Be ambassadors for Christ! Be the voices of God’s ministry of reconciliation! Be the righteousness of God! (2 Cor 5) For there is not one of you who cannot win the kingdom! Amen!

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

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.

Transfiguration and Conversation: Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (7 February 2016)

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

A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, and St. Luke 9:28-43a. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

mttaborchurchAs many of you know, Evie and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the holy places of Palestine summer before last and one of the sites we visited was Mt. Tabor, the traditional “Holy Mountain” on which the Transfiguration is believed to have taken place.

Mt. Tabor is quite tall and quite steep. It is what’s called an inselberg or isolated “island mountain” rising nearly 2,000 feet above the Kfar Tavor plain which it dominates. To get to the top, you have to get out of your large tour coach and board smaller (and quite dilapidated) eight-passenger mini-vans piloted by maniacal Bedouins who drive you at break-neck speeds up a road with several sharp switch-back turns to the Franciscan monastery and church at the summit. (Making that ascent “transfigured” Jesus in my mind’s eye from the rather scrawny figure we often see on crucifixes into a very fit, muscular mountaineer! He and his disciples must have been in really good shape to make that climb!)

The Church of the Transfiguration is one of several in the Holy Land built for the Franciscans by the early 20th Century architect Antonio Barluzzi, who accomplished there what Peter sought to do in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel. As one comes to the entrance of the church, before actually entering the main church, one finds to one’s left a separate chapel dedicated to Moses, and to one’s right, a chapel dedicated to Elijah. There is no direct communication between the chapels and the main church. As much as I admire the architecture of Barluzzi, and think some of his churches in Palestine are wonderful, I think he got this one wrong, because I have come to believe that communication is what the Transfiguration is all about. Before I get to that, however, I need to talk about time and eternity, for they form the backdrop of the communication in question.

I have, a few times in the past several months, shared with you the poetry of an English priest named Malcolm Guite, and want to do so again this morning. This is his sonnet entitled Transfiguration:

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
(Transfiguration: a glimpse of light before Lent)

I love Guite’s first two lines: “For that one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet . . . .”

In the ancient Greek language and in the Greek of the New Testament, there are two words both translated into English as “time.” The first is chronos; this is measurable time with, as one writer has put it, “the future passing through the present and so becoming the past.” This word is the root of such English words as chronic, chronicle, and chronology. Chronos is characterized by the itemized, studied measurement of time. The word is used 54 times in the New Testament. When Luke, for example, uses it, it is in the context of measurable time, as when he says a traveler went away for a “long time” (Lk 20:9). Interestingly, when Satan tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time,” it is this measurable form of time that Luke names (Lk 4:5).

Perhaps picking up on Luke’s implication, Fr. Patrick Reardon, an Orthodox pastor and theologian, has said of chronos:

Because it is made up of some things that don’t exist anymore [the past] and other things that don’t yet exist [the future], [chronos] is a true image of non-existence, a veritable icon of death. In fact, only dead time can be measured. Moreover, chronos is, in this respect, rather ghoulish. Even dead, it continues to feed on us. We may speak of “killing time,” but it invariably ends up killing us. Chronos is, therefore, an image of everlasting death, what the Bible calls the “bottomless pit,” or hell. What is hell but the reign of death in ongoing, unending sequence? (Orthodoxy Today)

The alternative to measurable time, chronos, is kairos, a word used 81 times in the New Testament, almost always to refer to “the proper time,” to signify a chosen moment as when, in Luke’s gospel, the angel of the annunciation tells Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, that events will be “fulfilled in their proper time.” (Lk 1:20) Kairos is “time as a moment, time as occasion, time as qualitative rather than quantitative, time as significant rather than dimensional.” (Reardon) Kairos is always a “now.” Says Fr. Reardon:

Kairos, because it is present, is an icon of eternal life. To experience the now, after all, one must be alive. The dead know nothing of now. Therefore, the now, the kairos, is an icon of the life of heaven. Indeed, eternal life is an everlasting now, in which there is no sequence, no before and after.

It is to kairos, to eternity, that Guite refers, I believe, when he describes the Transfiguration taking place in “one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet.”

In the Transfiguration, eternity irrupts into time. The Lutheran Greek scholar Rob Myallis reminds us that the Greek for “brilliant” “has tucked within it the word ‘astra’ [as in] ‘astronomy.’ Jesus is bright like the stars. Interestingly, the only other place this word appears in the whole Bible is [in the Greek Septuagint translations of] Ezekial and Daniel, perhaps a reminder that transfiguration has an eschatological bent – it is the future breaking in and not simply the past catching up!” (Lectionary Greek)

What Peter and James and John saw on that mountain top, what we are privileged to see with them through the evangelists’ reports, is a vision of the climax of history, of the end of chronos time, and in its place a vision of the eternal now of kairos. Eternity, longed for by prophets, seers, and visionaries, is realized in the Transfiguration of Jesus. Heaven and earth meet in the Transfiguration; past, present, and future meet without dissolving the distinction between them.

Baptist theologian Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible says, “The transfiguration is like a composite of the whole Gospel tradition. In one scene we hear echoes of the baptism of Jesus, Jesus’ passion predictions, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and prophets, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his ascension and future coming.” (Vol. IX, p 207) From his birth and baptism to his ascension and his expected return, Jesus’ Incarnation is summed up in the Transfiguration which allowed his disciples, and allows us, to see him clearly.

The pieces all fall into place in this remarkable moment of kairos when the past, present, and future meet. In that moment, eternity irrupts into time, kairos overwhelms chronos, and past, present, and future are crystal clear. Little wonder the disciples are bedazzled by star-bright brilliance!

And what happens in this moment of eternity is a conversation. Luke, adding to the stories of Matthew and Mark who also report the Transfiguration, is very careful to tell us that this event took place in the context of prayer. In the very first sentence of his tale he says, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Prayer, as we all know, is conversation with God. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, often used the Spanish word conversar to describe prayer. Conversar means “to converse,” “to talk with.” Its simplest meaning in English is sincere talk between persons, the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the other person. It is in this conversational context that the Transfiguration takes place.

It is exemplified by the appearance of Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus discusses his departure. It is often said that they represent the Law and the prophets and their fulfillment in Jesus. Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, however, suggests otherwise. In her footnotes to Luke in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, she says this is unlikely, that instead they probably represent the elect, all the righteous people of God. (p. 120) They are human beings in intimate conversation with God Incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

How often do we imagine prayer to be nothing more than us talking to God? We who are formed in the Anglican tradition of “common prayer,” of saying together words from a book, often fall into this trap. I know a lot of Episcopal clergy who freeze up when asked to pray in public without a Prayer Book close at hand: “I don’t know how to pray extemporaneously; I don’t know the words to say,” they will explain in moments of candor. But if our prayer is truly to be the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the one with whom we are conversing, then our prayer should be at least as much listening as it is speaking. If God were to say nine words to us, what would they be? I suspect they would be the same ones said to Peter and James and John, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

We cannot all have experiences like the Transfiguration in our prayer lives, nor should we expect to do so. But the Transfiguration challenges us to seek something higher in prayer than speaking mere words in the hope that God might possibly somehow listen to us. Our daily prayer should include not so much talking and more listening, more communicating in hopes of hearing, of sensing, of knowing the powerful presence of God in our lives.

And that is where Peter got it wrong when he blurted out, not knowing what he was saying, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That is where Antonio Barluzzi, brilliant architect that he was, got it wrong when he realized Peter’s ambition and built those chapels, separate and apart and not communicating with the nave of the Church of the Transfiguration. If the Transfiguration teaches anything, it is that dramatic experiences of Christ’s glory, glimpses of eternity, instances of kairos come in the dynamic reality of communication. Experiences of the glory of God are only possible if lived together, in community. Nobody, not even Jesus, could shine alone! The Transfiguration shows that it is only when we are together that God’s radiance can light ours and others lives. It is only in the intimacy of holy conversation with God and with one another that we find that “one moment, ‘in and out of time’,” that place “where all moments meet,” where we get “that glimpse of how things really are.”

Amen.

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

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.

Your Kingdom Come: First of a Series – Sermon for Advent 1 (29 November 2015)

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

A sermon offered on the First Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; and Luke 21:25-36. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

sunandmoonPerhaps you’ve heard about the recent advertisement that the Church of England wants to run in cinemas in the United Kingdom. It’s part of a campaign which includes the Church’s new website called justpray.uk (not to be confused with justpray.org) and which was conceived to encourage the British simply to offer prayer everyday. The website includes instructions and suggested short prayers. The advertisement is a video of a several people saying the Lord’s Prayer, each person or group shown says or sings a word or phrase of the prayer beginning with his Grace, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, and including people of different races and ages in a variety of settings.

It’s just 54 seconds of the Lord’s Prayer. The advertisement was to begin running this week. The trade organization for United Kingdom cinemas, however, has declared the Lord’s Prayer unsuitable for screening. They believe it carries the risk of upsetting or offending audiences. This, in a country which, unlike the United States, is officially Christian, a country which has an established church and whose head of state is also the temporal head of that established Christian church.

Now, let it be admitted that I’m a liberal when it comes to freedom of speech and freedom of commerce, and part of my liberal-ness means that I believe it’s entirely within a cinema owner’s rights to decline to screen anything he or she determines not to screen, including advertisements, including religious advertisements, including religious advertisements by the established church. On the other hand, as a churchman, I believe it is the church’s duty, not merely its right, to teach about prayer, to teach the Lord’s Prayer, in every place possible. In this instance, these two sets of rights and obligations come into direct conflict and, as much I applaud the CofE’s effort, I have to side with the cinema owners. The have the right to decline to show the advert and, furthermore, they are correct: the Lord’s Prayer is offensive!

As one British commentator put it, “The Lord’s Prayer is not mild, inoffensive, vanilla, listless, nominal, wishy-washy or wallpapery. If you don’t worship the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ, in fact, it is deeply subversive, upsetting and offensive, from the first phrase to the last.” (Wilson, Andrew, The Lord’s Prayer Advert Has Been Banned For Being Offensive – Which It Is)

I think it was Mae West who said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” and Oscar Wilde once quipped, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” This kerfuffle over the justpray.uk advert is getting the Church of England and the Lord’s Prayer talked about in Britain, probably more so than if the ad had run without objection from the trade association! That can’t be anything other than a good thing.

Interestingly, I had decided, before the English advertising issue cropped up this week, to do a sermon series for this Advent season about the Lord’s Prayer, because I do believe we need to understand it better. It’s become, for many of us, such a matter of rote memory that we say the words without really engaging with them. So for Advent, we’ll be using the second translation of the prayer, the so-called “contemporary” version, which is actually truer to the text of the prayer as Matthew and Luke record it in their gospels. Using words that are other than . . . slightly different from . . . those our automatic brains and mouths are used to saying will call them to our attention.

So let’s begin with some history about the Lord’s Prayer. First, of all, it’s not really “the Lord’s Prayer.” It’s not a prayer that we have any record of Jesus saying; it is the prayer Jesus taught his followers to say – it might better be called “the Disciple’s Prayer.” In the oldest Anglican prayer books, the presiding priest introduced the prayer saying, “As our Saviour Christ hath commanded and taught us, we are bold to say . . . .” Bishop N.T. Wright points out that this introduction stresses that the prayer is “a command and its use [is] a daring, trembling, holy boldness,” but he notes that it is also “an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself.” (The Lord’s Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer, in Longenecker, R.L., ed., Into God’s Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids:2001, p 132)

As I mentioned earlier, the Lord’s Prayer is found in two of the Gospels, Matthew and Luke. However, their two versions are not identical, nor is either the same as the liturgical form familiar to us, either the one we are more used to or the newer form added in the 1979 Prayer Book. Here is Matthew’s version (as translated in the NRSV):

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
(Matt 6:9b-13a)

And this is Luke’s (from the same translation):

Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
(Luke 11:2b-4)

As you can see, they are very different. Luke’s is shorter, having no mention of the doing of God’s will, nor any petition for rescue from “the evil one.” Matthew’s addresses God more familiarly as “our” Father, but distances God by specifically placing God “in heaven;” Matthew’s version thus witnesses to both the immanence and the transcendence of deity. There are differences in verb tenses and slight differences in emphases; for example, Matthew’s prayer petitions for bread “this day,” while Luke’s asks for bread “each day.” Most strikingly, perhaps, are the petitions for forgiveness: Matthew’s seeks forgiveness of “debts,” while Luke’s seeks absolution of “sins.” The differing English words reflect the use of two different Greek words for transgressions, which I will discuss in a later sermon. And, I suppose, most surprising to many Christians is that neither Matthew nor Luke include what is known as “the power-and-glory clause,” the concluding doxology that rolls so easily from our tongues; that doxology was added in a late First Century church text called The Didache, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles.”

We know from archaeological evidence that the Lord’s Prayer was being said regularly by Jewish Christians in their synagogues as early as 70AD and from The Didache that the Lord’s Prayer was part of Gentile Christian practice, as well. In fact, The Didache enjoins the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (with the doxology which it adds) three times each day!

Two significant early church theologians, Origen and Tertullian, both taught “that the Lord’s prayer is a sketch or an outline for prayer. Origen, for example, says concerning this prayer: ‘And first of all we must note that Matthew and Luke might seem to most people to have recorded the same prayer, providing a pattern of how to pray.’ Origen summarizes what an outline on prayer should be: praise, thanksgiving, confession and petition. The prayer should be concluded with a doxology. Likewise, Tertullian indicates that the Lord’s prayer embraces ‘the characteristic functions of prayer, the honor of God and the petitions of man.’” (Kistemaker, S.J., The Lord’s Prayer in the First Century, in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, V. 21, No. 4, Dec. 1978, 327-28, citations omitted.)

So, now, let’s take a look at this prayer, its opening words of praise and its first petition: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”

Right off the bat, Jesus invites (or, as the old Prayer Book said, commands) us to enter into the same “intimate, familial approach to the Creator” which characterized his own spirituality. (Wright) It gives us a sense of identity; it tells us who we are in relationship to God. As the bishop who ordained me like to say, “It tells us not only who we are, but whose we are.” We are not disconnect bits of matter existing in time and space separated from all other bits of matter; it asserts that humanity is not fragmented, but related one to another in that same intimate and familial way that Jesus and the Father are related. “We are created and loved and called into friendship with God who is our father and into community with our fellow human beings who are therefore our sisters and brothers,” wrote Dr. Steven Croft in an essay answering the cinema owners. “Only someone who has found this new identity can stand against the advertising culture which night and day seduces us to define who we are by what we spend.” (Seven Reasons to Ban the Lord’s Prayer)

But this isn’t any old father. This Father is “in heaven” and his name is “hallowed.” This is a typically Jewish affirmation of the holiness of God; in fact, to the most devout of Jews the Name of God is so holy that they will not even attempt to pronounce it. Whenever they encounter it in Scripture, they substitute the Hebrew word haShem, which means “the Name.” We Christians are not so reticent to name God, but in Jesus’ Jewish tradition we hallow God’s name. As the privilege to address God as “our Father” reminds us of God’s immanence, God’s intimate closeness with us, so the hallowing of God’s Name reminds us that God is transcendent: God is above, other than, and distinct from all that God has made.

The first petition of the prayer is “Your kingdom come.” This petition is the very heart of the season of Advent which we begin today; the longing desire and expectation for the final coming of the kingdom of God – “We await his coming in glory,” as we will affirm in our Eucharistic prayer this morning. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that “there will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations . . .” (Lk 21:25) These will, he says, be signs that the kingdom of God is near. In Mark’s Gospel a couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus’ warning, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” (Mk 13:7) These are signs that the kingdom is near, but they are not signs of its coming; they are, instead, the signs of endings – the ending of the kingdom of division, the ending of the kingdom of hatred, the ending of the kingdom where children go hungry, the ending of the kingdom where airliners are bombed out of the sky, the ending of the kingdom where restaurant patrons and concert goers are blown up, the ending of the kingdom where men with guns shoot up women’s health care clinics – “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.” (Lk 21:10-11) But these are not the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray; we do not pray for the coming of a kingdom of distress, a kingdom of war, a kingdom of destruction or famine or plague.

The signs of the coming of the kingdom of God are those Jesus commended to messengers from John the Baptist who came asking “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus told them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Lk 7:19,22) These are the signs of the kingdom for whose coming we pray: light and healing and good news. The kingdom whose coming we await is characterized by the cardinal virtues: “Faith, hope, and love . . . these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13) We pray for the coming of a kingdom of faith, a kingdom of hope, a kingdom of love . . . most of all for a kingdom of love.

Which brings us to the next petition and last that we will consider today: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” “The will of God, to which the law gives expression,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is that men should defeat their enemies by loving them.” (The Cost of Discipleship, Touchstone, New York:1995, p 147) Love is the will of God. Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment might be. His answer was, “Love” – “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Mt 22:37-40)

Love is the will of God for which we pray; love is the will of God which we are commanded to do. “All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness,” declared the Psalmist. The will of God for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer is that we be given the grace and power walk those paths.

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your Name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Amen.

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

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.

Older posts