That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Jerusalem (page 1 of 4)

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

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May Be Compared – Sermon for Proper 23A (Pentecost 19), October 15, 2017

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king . . . .”

This is an ugly parable that Matthew reports in today’s gospel. It is similar to a parable that is related in Luke’s gospel, but Matthew adds details that challenge us deeply, even to the core of our faith, to the center of our being as Christians. When Luke tells the story the host inviting his neighbors to dinner is not a king; he’s just “someone.” (Lk 14:15) When Luke’s host sends his servant to tell the intended guests that all is ready, they offer only excuses; no one “makes light” of the occasion and no one seizes, mistreats, or kills the slaves. (Mt 22:5-6) Luke’s host gets angry, but only Matthew’s king sends an army “destroy the murderers and burn their city.” (Mt 22:7) Both hosts send the slaves back out to invite others from the streets and highways; Luke’s dinner host adds an instruction specifically to invite “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” (Lk 14:21) In both stories the banquet hall is filled, but only in Matthew’s story is there the judgment, not mentioned in Luke’s, that the substitute guests include “both good and bad.” (Mt 22:10) And, finally, Matthew’s Jesus adds the detail about the man present without the proper wedding garment who is thrown into the “outer darkness” (Mt 22:13) and that final warning, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” (Mt 22:14)

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How To Be Good: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017

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

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit who empowered the disciples to proclaim the Good News to peoples from many lands speaking many tongues: we now pray for those in many lands speaking many languages who have been hurt or killed by terrorist violence in the past fortnight in: London (England), Kabul (Afghanistan), Mosel (Iraq), Minya (Egypt), Khost (Afghanistan), Mastung (Pakistan), Gao (Mali), Borno State (Nigeria), Raqqa (Syria), Mogadishu (Somalia), rural Colombia, Manila (Philippines), Baghdad (Iraq), Basra (Iraq), Portland (Oregon, USA) and Manchester (England). May God grant eternal rest to the departed, healing to the injured, and comfort to those in grief. And since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies, we pray also for those who have committed these violent acts, and for those who may be contemplating additional violence. May God change their hearts and shed abroad the gift of peace throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs (13:14). The word translated there as “teaching” is Torah, the Hebrew name for the Law of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The biblical tradition tells us that seven weeks after the Passover the Hebrews camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, met God, and returned with the Torah inscribed on stone tablets. Therefore, the Jews celebrate on the fiftieth day after Passover the feast called Shavuot, which literally means “the feast of weeks.” It is also called “the feast of the giving of the Law” and “the feast of first fruits” because it also became a celebration of the barley harvest and a time of prayer for the success of the wheat harvest; it was a time when the tithe of the barley harvest, the first ten percent of the grain was brought to the Levites in obedience to the Torah’s requirement: “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)

When worship became centered on the Jerusalem Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot became a pilgrimage feast, one of the three annual festivals on which every male Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, which explains why there were so many people “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) in the streets of Jerusalem when the disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went out to proclaim the Good News. They were the Jews of the Diaspora and for many of them, Greek rather than Hebrew was the language in which they read Scripture and worshiped, and they called this feast “Pentecost,” a word which means “fiftieth day.” They had returned to Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Passover to offer their tithes at the Temple in gratitude for the giving of the Law.

A rabbi of the time famously described the Torah as a “disciplinarian” or “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:22). Writing in Greek, the word he used was paidagogos, a word describing someone in Greek society, usually a family slave, who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of growing boys. In other words, the paidagogos’ obligation was to teach the boys to be good. This was the purpose of the Law given at Mt. Sinai. A modern rabbi writes that one should immerse oneself in the Torah

to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a Godly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within . . . you, [until God’s] thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are [God’s]. (Tzvi Freeman, What Is Torah?)

That is what we as Christians believe happened in the event described by Luke in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, a sharing of the Holy Spirit of God until God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts and they had no alternative but to speak them to the world around them.

That First Century rabbi of whom I spoke was none other than our own parish Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Galatians. He would continue to say that with the coming Christ we are freed from the discipline of the schoolmaster, and instead are led by the Holy Spirit to bear the “fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Another word that describes this fruit is “virtue,” which St. Augustine of Hippo defined as “a good habit consonant with our nature.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Virtue)

The “fruit of the Spirit” should not be confused with the gifts of the Spirit. In the epistle reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul details many of the gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in other tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, 1 Cor. 12:8-10), one of which seems to have been exhibited by the disciples, the ability to speak in other languages. While these gifts are important for a variety of reasons, what is most important about them is that they are, Paul says, “given . . . for the common good.” (v. 7)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his listeners to be good, to do good to all, to enemies as well as friends, saying:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:37-38)

To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, echoing the words the Book of Proverbs applied to the Torah, Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the water of life which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) And in today’s gospel lesson in a similar metaphor, he says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38) This is what Pentecost is all about; this is what happened that morning in Jerusalem; the disciples were given a share of the Holy Spirit of God until, as that contemporary rabbi said, God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts, until the Torah of the wise became a fountain of life and flowed out of them like living water to the world around them.

So the Law was given to teach us to be good and the Holy Spirit empowers us to be good, but how do we actually be good?

An author whose poetry has often graced the pages of The Christian Century, a magazine to which I have subscribed for many years, offered an answer to that question a few years ago. His name was Brian Doyle; he lived in Portland, Oregon, taught at the University of Portland, and edited Portland Magazine. He died a week ago from the same sort of brain cancer which killed my own brother several years ago, so I took particular note of his passing. At his requiem day before yesterday at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, mourners were given a copy of an essay he wrote and published in his 2013 book The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press, Chicago:2013). The essay is entitled How to Be Good. I would like to read part of it to you now:

First, pick up your wet towel and at least, for heavenssake, hang it up to dry. And wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn’t have to be shining and spotless, that would be fussy and false, but at least don’t leave little mounds of your neck hairs like dead insects for your partner and children to find. At least do that. It’s the little things; they aren’t little. You knew that. I am just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from the street, where it fell broken and almost unrecognizable, and she saw it as a holy being and she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn’t little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and was thus holy beyond our ken. Or in the morning, when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say thank you to the harried girl with the Geelong Cats logo tattooed on her forehead. At least look her in the eye and be gentle. Christ liveth in her, remember? Old Saint Paul said that, and who are we to gainsay the testy little gnarled genius? And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving, yes, you are peeved, and yes, he could be chasing down murderers, but be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault, you could have checked the scores later, and for another, Christ liveth in him. Also in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man under the clock at Flinders Street Station, and in the foulmouthed man at the footy, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation and have detested since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful vulgar elephantine couch to yet another of his shabby flats, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so and who could blame you? But Christ liveth in him. Speak hard words into your closet and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch, for the ninth blessed time, and do not credit yourself with good works, for you too are a package of small sins and cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta, but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the kids’ team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear and give them away. Sell the old machinery and turn it into food for those who starve. Express gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write the minister and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is care for the bruised among us, not pose on television. Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter but we know that they matter. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like sharp swords against the squirm of despair and violence. The Church is you. Christ liveth in you. Do not cloak Him but let Him be about His business, which is using the tools the Creator gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love given and granted; savor that and disburse that which is not important. Use less, slow down, write small notes. All the way to heaven is heaven, said old Catherine of Siena, and who are we to gainsay that slight smiling genius? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance. If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out in the open. Try to forgive even that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I do not know how that can be so but it is so. You and I know that. I am only reminding us. Be who only you are. Rise to what you dream. Do not cease with joy. That is the nature of the gift we were given. It is the most amazing and extraordinary and confusing and complicated gift that ever was. Never take it for granted, not for an instant, not for the seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness and generosity and kindness and mercy. Also humor. Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what He said could happen if we loved well. He did not mean loving only the people you know. He meant every idiot and liar and thief and blowhard and even your cousin. I do not know how that could be so, but I know it is so. So do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Ready? (Page 15)

On this fiftieth day, this feast of the first fruits, this day of bringing our tithes and offerings of thanksgiving before God, this celebration of the giving of the Torah and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the church, let us begin again to be good, and let goodness be in us like the Torah of the wise, a spring gushing up to eternal life, running over, and flowing out, a river into the world around us, so that “justice [may] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us begin again to be good, you and me, today! Ready?

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

Daily Habits: Sermon for Holy Name Day, 1 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, January 1, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are the second set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Holy Name Day in Year A: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; and St. Luke 2:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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holy_name_picToday on the secular calendar is New Year’s Day, but that’s not true in the church. We celebrated a new church year several weeks ago on the First Sunday of Advent. In the church, January 1, being eight days after the Feast of the Incarnation, is the day on which we celebrate Jesus’ Jewishness. We call it, these days, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus; it was formerly called the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ because that is what Luke’s Gospel tells us was done. It was a very Jewish thing to do.

We sometimes forget (and there are people who would like to completely ignore) that Jesus was a Jew, a very devout and observant Jew. Apparently his parents were, as well. They had him circumcised on his eighth day of life in accordance with Leviticus 12:3. The ceremony is called a “bris milah” (which means “Covenant of Circumcision”):

While the circumcision is performed, the child is held by a person called a sandek. In English, this is often referred to as a godfather. It is an honor to be a sandek for a bris. The sandek is usually a grandparent or the family rabbi. Traditionally, a chair (often an ornate one) is set aside for Elijah, who is said to preside over all circumcisions. Various blessings are recited, including one over wine, and a drop of wine is placed in the child’s mouth. The child is then given a formal Hebrew name.

It is not necessary to have a minyan for a bris, but it is desirable if feasible. (Judaism 101)

It’s kind of disappointing that Luke doesn’t tell us who the sendak was or whether there was a minyan or (if there was) who the ten men were.

Luke does tell us that later, thirty-three days to be exact, Mary and Joseph took the child to the Jerusalem Temple where they made the mandatory sacrifice of two pigeons, since they were too poor to afford a lamb. We celebrate this event on February 2 in a feast called by some churches the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and by others the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. Luke tells us also that every year Mary and Joseph would go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover; it was on one of these trips when Jesus was 12 years old that he was inadvertently left behind and was later found in learned conversation with the doctors of the Law. Luke tells us all of these things in the second chapter of his gospel.

What Luke, and to a lesser extent the other gospels, demonstrate is that Jesus came from a very devoted and observant Jewish family and that he himself continued that pattern throughout his life. He regularly attended synagogue services on the Sabbath. He prayed frequently. He commended observance of the Law and declared that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, [would] pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Mt 5:18; cf Lk 16:17) In his devotion to his Jewish faith, what Jesus modeled and taught was the regular practice of religion, the cultivation of a habit of religious observance, a life of spiritual discipline.

But, we might think, Jesus was and is God! One would think that if anyone could take a pass on spiritual discipline, it would be God. However, as Paul writes in our selection from the letter to the Philippians this morning, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself.” (Philip 2:7-8) Part of his human humility was this habit of regular religious and spiritual practice.

Our gradual this morning speaks of human existence in terms that seem somewhat at odds with a sense of human humility:

What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?
You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;
You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet . . . . (Ps 8:5-7, BCP Version)

Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the character Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2, of that play:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

I have always been certain that Shakespeare was glossing on Psalm 8.

The psalm, in our Prayer Book version, speaks of human mastery over creation; the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this as “dominion.” The Hebrew word is mashal, which is sometimes translated as “authority.”

Presbyterian pastor and theologian Matthew Stith argues that our dominion or authority over the creation should “look like the loving stewardship,” though it seldom has (Stith). Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb makes the same point when she writes:

To be human is to be responsible for our fellow creatures, and we must take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness. * * * [A]t the same time that Psalm 8 recognizes our dominion, it also reminds us of our humility. We are each still that awestruck person gazing in wonderment at the stars. We bear the image of God; we are not God. Our finitude and fallibility must be kept in mind as we exercise our responsibility. We are also reminded that we are a part of the creation over which God has granted us dominion. We do not stand apart from our fellow creatures, but we stand with them. (Webb)

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare’s Hamlet does not stop where I ended quoting the character. Instead, he tells Guildenstern and Rosencrantz that “Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither” declaring humankind to be nothing more than the “quintessence of dust.”

And, yet, this is dust which God blesses. God instructed Moses to teach his brother Aaron the priest a particular blessing, one we heard in our reading from the Book of Numbers, one which I’m sure is familiar to all of us:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Num 6:24-26)

This blessing is taught as part of the instructions for the Hebrews’ preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai where they have been camped for almost a year. This blessing is designated for their journey from Sinai to the land of promise; it was to be said daily throughout their journey.

Terence E. Fretheim, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, tells us that the climactic word of the benediction, shalom, has wide-ranging connotations. Citing Professor Dennis Olson’s commentary on the Book of Numbers, Fretheim says the richness of the word includes “prosperity (Psalm 37:11; Proverbs 3:2), longevity, happiness in a family (Psalm 128:6), safety, security (Psalm 4:9; 122:6-8), good health (Psalm 38:4), friendship (Jeremiah 38:22), and general well-being.” (Fretheim, quoting Olson, Numbers, [Louisville: John Knox, 1996] 42-43)

That the Aaronic blessing was to be said over the Jewish people daily brings us back to the teaching and model of Jesus put before us by Luke the Evangelist: a devout and observant Jew who cultivated the daily habit of spiritual and religious practice. Today, in this Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, we celebrate his Jewishness, his daily devotion to his faith. Today, as we celebrate our secular New Year, let us resolve to follow his example and renew in the coming year our own daily devotion to God. As you do so, everyday

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Amen!

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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

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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.)

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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.

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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)

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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.)

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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.

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

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

Between Two Fires – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter – 10 April 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and St. John 21:1-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpg/1200px-Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpgIn Jerusalem, just outside the walled Old City to the south is a church built on the place where the house of Caiaphas, the high priest who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion, is believed to have been. The church is named St. Peter in Gallicantu; the name is from the Latin meaning, “St. Peter where the rooster crowed.” It is a reference, of course, to Peter’s three denials of Christ in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

In the interior of the church, in niches on either side of the altar, are two icons. One depicts that episode which gives the church its name; the other, the story which we heard in today’s gospel lesson. The icons are similar in that they both depict Peter and Jesus on either side of a charcoal fire.

In the first, the fire is quite small and several other people are gathered around it. Jesus and Peter are in the foreground. Jesus is bound and looking directly at Peter; Peter’s eyes, on the other hand, are downcast and he is holding up one hand, palm toward Jesus as if to fend him off. The icon is captioned in Latin “Non novi illum” (Lk 22:57) – “I do not know him.”

In the second, the fire is much larger and is accompanied by baskets of fish and bread. There are no other people around the fire; the other disciples are still in the boat some distance off shore. Jesus, again, is looking directly at Peter. Peter, in this picture, is looking directly at Jesus and holding his hand out to Jesus to receive a shepherd’s staff which Jesus is handing to him. This icon is also captioned, again in Latin, “Domine tu omnia scis tu scis quia amo te” (Jn 21:17) – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Some bible scholars believe that Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is an add-on, that the original text of this gospel ended with the statement at the end of Chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (vv 30-31) These scholars argue, and I think we have to admit, that that sounds pretty much like a definitive conclusion to the book. Thus, they argue that Chapter 21 from which we have heard today is either an afterthought that John felt compelled to add or the work of a second author, a false John who was apparently unsatisfied with the original text. However, I would suggest that Chapter 21 is neither an afterthought of John’s nor the forged addition of another: it is connected to the main body of John’s gospel by those charcoal fires and the number three.

Non novi illumOn that awful night, as all was being lost and his rabbi was being tried, mocked, and ultimately killed, Peter stood at that first charcoal fire and denied Jesus three times. As John tells the story in Chapter 18, Judas led the authorities to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was then taken away to Caiaphas’s courtyard and Peter, who had sworn that he would never deny Jesus, followed. The maid who watched the gate to the courtyard saw Peter and said to him, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

Peter replied, “No, I’m not.”

John then tells us, “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.” (Jn 18:18) There and here in today’s story in Chapter 21 are the only two places in all of the New Testament that fires are specifically described as being a “charcoal fire.” John is very deliberately contrasting these two scenes in his gospel.

A bit later, those with whom Peter was standing and keeping warm by the fire asked him if he were one of Jesus’ disciples; he replied, “No, I am not.” (Jn 18:25) And immediately another person asked Peter the same question and again Peter replied, “No.”

Just then, while Peter was still standing next to the charcoal fire in the courtyard, is when the crowed, confirming Jesus’ earlier word to Peter that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster’s call. Luke’s account tells us that at that moment, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Lk 22:61) That was when Peter realized what he had done and he was devastated: this is the moment depicted in the first icon in the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.

Peter left that first charcoal fire a broken man, weeping bitterly, and all alone. Eventually, he would re-connect with his fellow disciples. Eventually, with them, he would witness the empty tomb and encounter the Resurrected Jesus. Eventually, with Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, and two others John does not name, he would go fishing. Eventually, he would come to this beach and to the second charcoal fire.

Domine tu omnia scisLooking at Peter across this charcoal fire after their breakfast of grilled fish, Jesus would begin a conversation of three questions and three answers: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15)

What Jesus is asking is if Peter loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus. That is, after all, what Peter had said at dinner that night when he said that even if the others deserted Jesus he would never do that. But that, of course, is exactly what he did and more; he denied even knowing Jesus. So it must have been difficult for Peter to have this conversation at this charcoal fire remembering what happened at that charcoal fire.

Nonetheless, he answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” In words that can only be taken as a clear sign of forgiveness as much as they are of empowerment and commissioning, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.” But that doesn’t end the conversation!

Jesus asked Peter a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter must have wondered, and certainly we wonder, why Jesus would ask him the same question. Again, he answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” and again Jesus commissioned him, “Tend my sheep.”

And then, yet again, Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John changes the Greek verb here from agápe used in the first two questions to philía, naming in some circumstances a different sort of love, but whether that has any theological significance is a matter of debate. For us, today, it does not, but we should be aware of that change.)

John tells us that this third time, the question stings Peter. Says John, “Peter felt hurt . . . and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'” (v 17) And again, Jesus commissioned Peter, “Feed my sheep” but this time with a warning saying, in essence, “It will be dangerous and you will suffer at the hands of others.”

Jesus then ended the conversation with a simple, “Follow me,” an invitation ripe with forgiveness; whatever had happened at that first charcoal fire, it is put behind them; it does not matter. The three denials have been wiped away by three declarations of love and three commissions to service. All that matters now is that Peter follow his Master and live out the task he has been given.

The second icon illustrates this as Jesus passes the pastoral staff, the shepherd’s crook, to Peter who reaches out to receive it.

In Section IV of T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding the poet writes that we will all be “consumed by either fire or fire:”

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

The two charcoal fires of John’s Gospel, the two charcoal fires in the Gallicantu icons, show us the two fires of Elliot’s poem: the destructive fire of denial, or the life-giving, nourishing fire of resurrection, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The genius of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is that it is in the space between these fires, between the two icons, between these two stories in John’s Gospel that the people’s worship takes place, that our lives as the people of God are lived, wearing that “intolerable shirt of flame which human power cannot remove.”

What that placement of worship between those two icons says is that Peter represents all of us, that in a sense we are all Peters. All of us have committed ourselves, like Simon Peter, to follow Jesus. That commitment was made at our baptism and again at our confirmation; it has been reaffirmed again and again, as it was on Easter morning in the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, as it was last week when we joined in baptizing Anthony Jon and Laura May on whose behalf the promises of that covenant were made for the first time. But, just like Peter, we have all of us betrayed that covenant, broken those promises, and denied the Lord we have sworn to follow. But then comes that gentle but supreme act of absolution, uttered from the cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)

The image of the charcoal fires in the Gospel of John becomes an image of that divine mercy. One moment we’re warming ourselves at the fire of denial, potentially destroyed by the poor decisions we make, decisions that break our covenant promises. The next moment we’re with Jesus as he feeds us at the fire of mercy and forgiveness. The Lord is faithful to us even when we have not been faithful to him, and it is through his faith that we are healed and restored, and eventually, like him and with him, risen to new life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

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

An Ordinary Olive Grove – Sermon for Maundy Thursday, 24 March 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, March 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and St. John 13:1-17,31b-35. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Gethsemane Olive TreesThey have had their dinner during which, predicting his death, Jesus has instructed them to share bread and wine again and again in his memory. Jesus has washed their feet. He has given them his New Commandment, “Love one another.” Now, dinner ended, it is time for a stroll in the garden.

In 2014, when Evelyn and I were privileged to visit Jerusalem and spend some time in the Garden of Gethsemane, what struck me most (and I admit that this entirely pedestrian and not the least bit spiritual) was how very similar the trees there were the olive trees she and I had in our front yard when we lived in Las Vegas! And as I have contemplated our experience with olive trees, it has struck me how appropriate that location was, how illustrative and instructive it is that Jesus prayed amongst olive trees.

The first thing that I can tell you from experience is that olive trees are messy! They are a broad-leafed evergreen, which means they are constantly shedding leaves. The olive leaf is only about an inch or two long and about a half-inch wide. They have a lovely glossy deep green color on top, and a pale silvery green underside. They are tough and very stiff, especially as they dry out. This makes them impossible to rake up! Our life with olive trees was a constant battle with cleaning up leaves that didn’t want to be cleaned up. Furthermore, at the beginning of the growing season, the olive blossoms produce huge amounts of yellow-tan pollen that blows all over everything, and then the blossoms themselves fall off. We had a large in-ground pool in Las Vegas; keeping it clear of olive leaves, olive pollen, and olive blossoms was simply impossible! And, finally, there is the fruit itself. Olives seem to have a hard time holding on to their fruit; it drops about as often as leaves. I guess in commercial groves enough must stay on the tree to make their cultivation financially viable, but our ornamental trees seemed to lose more fruit to the wind than there was left on the tree to harvest.

And isn’t that what life is like. It’s messy! Jesus praying amidst the messy olives of Gethsemane reminds us that Jesus meets us in the messiness of life, that he redeems messy human life. There is not a single person on this earth, and never has been, whose life is not in same way a mess. Every one of us has problems, some worse than others; we all struggle with issues and circumstances. Some of them we share with each other and we get one another’s help, but some of them scared us so badly that we keep them to ourselves. We put on a brave face and we smile through them and meanwhile the messiness eats us up inside . . .

So we go someplace by ourselves and throw ourselves on the ground and pray, “God, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me….” (Mt 26:39) The truth is that that is the very place where God meets us: in the messiness of life, in the brokenness of life, in the painful chaos that we cannot, on our own, make orderly, and neat, and fixed. If you read the Bible, if you really read the stories of the Old and New Testament, that’s when God shows up in people’s lives; at the worst possible time, when everything is breaking down and going to pot, that’s when God shows up.

That’s what was happening that night in Jesus’ closest companions’ lives. They had “hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Lk 24:21), but after they made that great entry into Jerusalem everything had changed and gone from bad to worse, and at dinner instead of talk of overthrowing the oppressors and taking the throne he had spoken of betrayal and death and sacrifice. Instead of proclaiming a “new world order,” he’d gotten down on his knees and washed away the dirt from their feet. Not in their political dreams of revolution, but in the messiness that they had walked through, in the messiness they had tracked into the Passover Feast, that was where Jesus met them.

The messiness of the olive grove in which Jesus prayed reminds us of that: that God meets us in the messiness of life.

Olives are also long-lived. They aren’t the longest lived of trees. Those are the bristlecone pines (pinus longaeva) of my native state, Nevada. In my college years, as I have mentioned a time or two before, a common pastime of my friend group was backpacking and wilderness camping. During the late spring and summer months, one of our favorite places to go was an area called the Mammoth Lakes region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. On the inland side of the Sierras in that area is a subsidiary range on the California-Nevada border called the White Mountains. This is the location of the oldest living tree on earth. The US Forestry Service claims that in the White Mountain forest there is a bristlecone pine that is over 5,070 years of age. They will not identify the particular tree, but they do acknowledge that it is in the southern part of the White Mountain range. That is exactly the area where we used to hike and camp, so it’s possible that I have sat beside that elder-statesman tree. I always marvel at old trees and what they must have witnessed!

I felt that way amongst the old olive trees at Gethsemane. But while the domestic olive tree (olea europea) can live for hundreds of years, they do not live as long as bristlecone pines. None of the trees currently in the Garden of Gethsemane were there at the time of Jesus. The eight oldest olive trees in the grove (which, by the way, what it was and is, a grove not a garden) have been analyzed and the scientists who did so say they date from the early 12th Century. They are genetically identical; they share the same DNA. They appear to have been cultivated from a single parent tree which, in the 12th Century, was reputed to have witnessed events of Holy Thursday night. Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Franciscan Custos of the Holy Land, has suggested that that 12th Century cultivation of these eight trees was “a deliberate attempt to pass on a precious heritage for future generations.” (Reuters news article, October 19, 2012)
In any event, Jesus at prayer amongst the long-lived olive trees reminds us of the promise that he will make to his disciples after his Resurrection: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20) Indeed, it is true that God has been and always will be yearning to be with us. As one of our Eucharistic prayers puts, “Again and again, [God] called us to return. Through prophets and sages [God] revealed [God’s] righteous Law.” (Eucharistic Prayer C, Book of Common Prayer 1979, p 370)

The longevity of the olive trees under whose branches Jesus prayed reminds us of that: that God has always been there, has always wanted to be in relationship with us, and in Jesus has promised to be with us always, longer than the life of the olive, longer than the life of the bristlecone pine, longer than we can imagine.

The third thing we know about olives is that they are nutritious. Dozens of health-protective nutrients have been identified in olives. The high monounsaturated fat content of olives has been associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. They are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants. Studies show that they may protect against osteoporosis and cancer. Olives are good food.

Many years ago I read an interview with the abbess of a Zen Buddhist convent in Tokyo. The interview had to do with the convent’s reputation not only for spiritual nourishment, but for very good food as well. Abbess Koei Hoshino said in that interview, “We receive three graces from food. First, we become healthy in mind and body; second, we have the ability to be thankful for all things, and to maintain that state of mind; third, we are able to work for others with our mind and body. We will be able to give to others. Those are the virtues we receive.” (T. King, The Spiral Path, Yes International:1992, p 161) A Christian monastic, Brother Peter Reinhart makes a similar point: “Food is not only a basic human need, it is also a sacred symbol: God in a multitude of forms and bodies. It is a focal point of fellowship and celebration.” (Sacramental Magic in a Small-Town Cafe, Running Press:1994, p xxii)

When we end our Eucharist this evening, we will go into the Parish Hall for a short time of fellowship, a simple meal recalling the Passover meal Jesus shared with his friends. We share simple foods: bread, cheese, wine, fruit, olives. We do not presume to call our meal a Passover feast; we give it a different name: The Agape Meal. Agape is one of the Greek words translated into English as “love”, so the meal is sometimes called a “love feast.” Scholars tell us that in early Christian practice a similar meal was nearly always shared whenever the faith community gathered for the Eucharist; the two rituals when hand-in-hand. A core tradition in the early church, the Agape Meal explicitly recalls not only the Last Supper, but all the meals Jesus shared with his friends and disciples, including the post-resurrection meals recounted in the Gospels of Luke and John. “It is a focal point of fellowship and celebration.”

The fruit of the olive trees amongst which Jesus prayed reminds us of that, of the Christian sacramental view in which ordinary things – ordinary food shared with ordinary people – can be instruments of grace embracing us in God’s immediacy, God’s intimacy in our lives.

On Maundy Thursday, Jesus took ordinary food, the bread and wine of a meal, and instituted the Holy Eucharistic. He took an ordinary towel and a basin of water and commanded his disciples, “Love one another as I have loved you.” He prayed in an ordinary grove of trees and reminded us that God comes to us in all the messy ordinariness of life, always and forever, and with immediate and intimate grace.

Amen.

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

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

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

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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.)

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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!

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

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

Era of Delusion – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Era of Delusion

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Monday in the week of Proper 26, Year 1 (Pentecost 23, 2015)

Nehemiah 6:8 ~ Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind.”

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, enemies of Nehemiah and opponents of the rebuilding of Jerusalme, wrote to Nehemiah and tried by various means to end his efforts. Finally, Sanballat wrote warning Nehemiah that he would write to King Artaxerxes of Persia, Nehemiah’s patron, that Nehemiah was planning to set himself up as a rival king. It is in response to that threat that Nehemiah writes this letter.

Today, the national news services reported that representatives of the campaigns of several of the presidential candidates vying for one of our two major party’s nomination had met about the format and conduct of debates. The candidates, it is said, are unhappy about the way earlier debates, hosted by their party’s national committee and moderated by reporters from different news services, have been handled. Their complaint (in my opinion) boils down to the simple fact that they don’t like the questions they have been asked and the challenges the news people have made, some of them sounding occasionally like, “No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind.”

We live in an era of delusion. Candidates make things up; one candidate made the statistically outrageous claim that 92% of job losses during the current president’s first term were suffered by women (never mind that the cause of those losses were the policies of the former president elected from her party). When challenged, she refused to justify her claim, later making the absurd defense that the numbers might have been wrong when she claimed them but had been right an earlier time, and finally today acknowledging that they were erroneous all along. Her initial defense, however, was that she and her questioner simply had a difference of opinion.

This is a frequently heard defense when challenges are made to factually inaccurate claims, that it is all just a matter of belief or interpretation and that one is entitled to one’s own opinion. The often heard retort to that is, “Yes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” You are not entitled to go around “inventing them out of your own mind.” Someone who does that is delusional and not fit to lead or govern.

Sanballat, who was a Samaritan, was never able to defeat Nehemiah. He is believed to have retreated to a village at the base of Mt. Gerizim and to be the Samaritan leader responsible for the building of the Samaritan temple on that mountain. It is this temple to which the Samaritan woman at the well, with whom Jesus converses in John’s gospel, refers.

From the time of the exiles return up to Jesus’ time and even into our own times, there has been “bad blood” between Jews and Samaritans. There are many reasons for that and not a few of them can be laid at the feet of the Jews. But among them are the simply untrue assertions of Sanballat, the things invented out of his own mind. This is what happens when people refuse to acknowledge and agree on facts, on the reality which jointly confronts them. Opinions may differ, but facts are facts; if we cannot agree on the facts, there is no foundation for mutual trust, no foundation for reconciliation.

In our era of delusion, with politicians and their supporters inventing things out of their own minds, is there any hope for mutual trust, for mutual governance and shared leadership . . . or are we doomed to generations, to centuries of our Nehemiahs battling with their Sanballats?

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