That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Law (page 2 of 10)

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

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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.)

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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.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Facts, Opinions, Beliefs: Truth and the Role of the Clergy

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A “Rector’s Reflection” by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston to be published in the February 2017 issue of The Epistle, the monthly newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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Introduction

moynihanIn a New York Times editorial, Frank Bruni said:

[O]ne of the fundamental challenges will be to respond to [President Trump], his abettors and his agenda in the most tactically prudent way and not just the most emotionally satisfying one. To rant less and organize more. To resist taunts and stick with facts. To answer invective with intelligence.

And to show, in the process, that there are two very different sets of values here, manifest in two very distinct modes of discourse. (The Wrong Way to Take On Trump, January 24, 2017)

In recent conversations (and, truth be told, in conversations stretching back years) about politics, about religion, about a number of things, I have found this to be true. That one must bite one’s tongue (sometimes to the point of blood) and bridle one’s temper (also to the point of bleeding) so that one does not participate in devolving the discussion into the depths of a donnybrook.

It has seemed to me most recently that a way to avoid this (the devolution, not the alliteration) is to have in mind a clear differentiation of fact, opinion, and belief. For example, I recognized some time ago that I could not discuss economics and governmental finance with a clergy colleague (not in my diocese) with whom I’ve been friends for many years. He has completely accepted the veracity of the theories of Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, the economists behind the so-called Austrian school of economics. It is their thinking that underlies that darling of the conservative Right, “trickle-down” or “supply-side” economics.

My friend, and so many on that side of the political spectrum, hold to these theories despite the fact that they are not only unproven, they demonstrably disproven. The governmental policies based on them – tax cuts for the wealthy which were supposed to create thousands of jobs but did not, austerity policies which were to rescue failing economies such as Greece but did not, and their new incarnation in the notion of privatization of education (a favorite idea of Secretary-designate of Education DeVos) and of infrastructure (likely to be an element of the Trump administration plan) – have not worked in this or any other country in which they have been implemented.

Nonetheless, my friend and many conservative Republicans continue to hold, with an almost religious fervor, a bed-rock reliance on the Austrian school theories, policies, and programs; they are, for them, absolutely true. It seems to me, however, that they are “true” not in the sense that facts are “true,” but in the manner in which “beliefs” are “true.” They certainly hold them with a strength with which one would not hold a mere opinion. And, it seems to me, that there are many other notions held by those on both right and left which are of this nature.

As a clergyman who believes most firmly that Jesus meant what he said when speaking to “the Jews who had believed in him” saying, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free,” (Jn 8:31-32), and who believes it is my duty not only to proclaim truth as I understand it, but also to teach my congregants to discern truth for themselves, and also as one who agrees with Mr. Bruni, I have written (lightly and engagingly, I hope) the following essay as my “Rector’s Reflection” for the upcoming issue of our parish newsletter. In it, I try to distinguish between fact, opinion, and belief, and conclude with some ways (strategies, if you will) in which to engage in conversation that respect (or, at least, understand) the distinctions between them.

Rector’s Reflection: Facts, Opinions, Beliefs (February 2017 parish newsletter, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio)

A short while ago I was in a conversation in which I stated a fact (see below) but to which the person I was talking with responded, “Well, that’s just your opinion.” No, I replied, it’s a verifiable scientific fact.

The conversation reminded me of the several I have had over the years with avowed atheists who have labeled my belief in God as an “opinion.” No, I reply, it’s a belief. My free-thinking friends seem not to appreciate the difference. So, too, the person with whom I was recently speaking did not seem to be aware of the difference between a fact and an opinion.

When a high presidential adviser a few days ago used the term “alternative facts” in a news interview, these conversations and this confusion about what is a fact, what is an opinion, and what is a belief came immediately to mind.

I’m not an academically trained philosopher, although I’ve taken my share (maybe more than my share) of philosophy courses in college and graduate school. I’m also not an academic theologian; I’m more a practical, arm-chair theologian sitting with (as Karl Barth might have said) the Bible in one hand, the newspaper (or, actually, my laptop computer) in the other, and trying to make sense of both armed with a little bit more than the usual amount of theological book learning. So what I’m about to write is a matter of considered and educated opinion.

It’s also something a work in progress. What I am about to write is what I think about these subjects today (January 25, 2017, by the way); I invite you to explore them with me and maybe both of us will think something rather different a month or a year or a decade from now.

So . . . there are these three things: facts, opinions, and beliefs. This is what I understand them to be.

A fact is (and this is straight from a dictionary) “something that actually exists; reality; truth.” I’m going to steer away from the last word in the definition for a moment, but I will come back to it. A fact actually exists in reality. It is something empirically and objectively provable. Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen; that’s a fact. The earth orbits the sun; that’s a fact. I was born on September 29, 1952; that’s a fact. Everyone can agree on facts.

An opinion is defined in the dictionary as “a judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty; a personal view, attitude, or appraisal.” I have edited that definition to take out the suggestion that “opinion” and “belief” are equivalent (see below). I come from a legal background in which “opinion” also means the judgment of a court which carries the force of law, making such opinions almost as solidly grounded as facts. In the course of my practice in healthcare law, I also came to rely on physicians’ medical opinions which almost carry the weight of beliefs (see below). Most of our opinions, however, are somewhere in between; they are grounded on facts, colored by our beliefs, and should represent our considered judgment about the nature of reality. Fish is generally inedible; that’s my opinion. The music of composer Olivier Messiaen is unendurable; again, my opinion. Curling is a fascinating sport; another opinion. Despite the origin of the word, opinions are certainly not flights of fantasy to be dismissed simply as “your opinion” and worthy of no consideration; opinions on matters great and small, as personal appraisals of our reality, are the way we navigate through life!

A belief is, according to the dictionary I’m looking at, “something believed; an opinion,” and the illustration given is “a belief that the earth is flat.” I’m going to flatly reject that definition and suggest that the acceptance of the notion that the earth is flat is not a “belief” nor is it an “opinion;” it is a rejection of scientifically verifiable fact; it is a delusion. So what is a belief? The dictionary also defines it to be “confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof; confidence; faith; trust.” This is an acceptable definition, particularly those last two words!

I always keep in mind that “belief” is related linguistically to the word “beloved.” The Latin word for “opinion” was opinio which carries with it a hint of unreality. I recall reading a book on Hispanic fiction which equated opinions with “the organizing principles of private fantasy” and Thomas More, author of Utopia, created the word existimation to translate it in regard to one’s self-conceived reputation. On the other hand, the Latin word for “belief” was fides (usually translated as “faith”) or confidentia (usually translated as “confidence”), while the Latin verb “to believe” is credere, meaning “to rely on” and is related (like “beloved”) to the word for “heart”: in other words, what we believe is what we stake our hearts upon. For this reason, I do not equate “opinions” with “beliefs.”

Beliefs to the believer are as fundamentally certain as facts. Beliefs are not scientifically or historically verifiable like facts, but to the one who holds them they are just as true. This is why I steered away from using the word “truth” in regard to defining “fact.” Facts are one form of truth; beliefs are another. In post-modern thought, beliefs are the truths which may differ amongst persons. Facts are objective truths on which all may agree; beliefs are subjective truths on which we may differ; neither is likely to be changed by argument. Opinions, however, may be.

Beliefs and facts share the characteristic that they are subject to disproof. For centuries human beings held as fact the notion that the sun revolved around the earth; that was an objectively observable, verifiable phenomenon everyone saw every day. But that “fact” was disputed by the ancient astronomer Aristarchus in about 270 BCE and by Nicolaus Copernicus in the 16th Century; both stricter observation and mathematics proved the “fact” to be false. Were one to accept still the notion that the earth is the center of the universe, that idea would not be a fact; it would not be a belief; it would not be an opinion. It would be a delusion.

In our conversations, let us resolve to accept objectively verifiable facts; where we are wrong about facts, we must be willing to accept correction. Let us also resolve to be respectful of one another’s beliefs remembering that these are matters of heart-invested trust. As to opinions, let us be gracious when challenged; let’s remember the title of that book written by the great theologian Snoopy, Has It Ever Occurred to You that You Might Be Wrong?

I am sure that there will be many conversations with family, friends, fellow Christians, and others in which these admonitions will be tested! Keep in mind the British motivational poster from World War II, “Keep Calm and Carry On”!

Afterward

Given what I had to say above about my clergy friend’s acceptance of the Austrian school economic theories, you’ve probably figured out that I hold his “beliefs” to be delusions. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that those who are deluded about that and many other things now hold the reins of government in this country. This is why I strongly, and fearfully, believe that Mr. Bruni was correct in his New York Times editorial when he concluded that if the level of public discourse is allowed to pass into derangement, “Trump may be victorious in more than setting newly coarse terms for our political debate. He may indeed win on many fronts, over many years.” (Ibid.)

The ministry of clergy in all traditions to proclaim the truth as we understand it and to teach our people to discern it for themselves has become even more important and urgent.

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

Get Up! Get Dressed! Go to Work! – Annual Meeting Sermon, January 22, 2017

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A homily offered on January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the 200th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are those for the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle: Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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the-conversion-of-st-paul-1528May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. (Ps. 67:1) Amen.

Have you ever been knocked off a horse? I have. Twice. Once when I was 11 and again when I was 24. Different circumstances and if you promise not to laugh, I’ll tell you about them when we have our luncheon after the business meeting. In both instances, however, one element was the same: landing flat on my back, having the wind knocked out of me, and being stunned not quite to unconsciousness. Both times it was a startling and uncomfortable experience.

The story of Paul’s conversion is told not once but four times in the pages of the New Testament; three times in the Book of Acts and once in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Although not mentioned in any of those descriptions, artists often depict Paul falling from a horse or donkey. When I read or hear the story, therefore, I have some sympathy for Paul. In addition to being knocked flat on his back, having the wind knocked out of him, and being mentally stunned, his incident included a blinding light, an encounter with a living rabbi he was convinced was dead, and the voice of God, and it was followed by three days of blindness. Now that’s an experience!

Now this is homily is supposed to be both a sermon and the rector’s report for the 200th Annual Meeting of the parish. Were I to focus on the second purpose, I could give you a lot of history – but I did that at our Bicentennial Choral Evensong on the Feast of the Epiphany, so I won’t do that. I could give you a summary of all the good things and some of the not-so-good things that have happened in the last year – but you can read the various ministry reports and the financial statements in the Annual Journal for yourselves. I could tell you about all the wonderful things planned for the coming year – but, again, you have the Annual Journal in your hands with the bicentennial event calendar and the 2017 Budget, so there you have it.

A rector’s report would merely repeat things you already know or have available to you in that Journal. So this will be more of a homily and less of a report, more (I hope) of a proclamation of a theology for the future and much less a review of the past. I am convinced that God is merciful to us, does bless us, illumines the way with the light of his countenance, and comes to us every day. Perhaps God does not come to us as dramatically as the Risen Lord came to Paul . . . or perhaps he does and we just don’t recognize it. We may be getting knocked off our horses regularly and we may simply be too oblivious to notice.

A canon of Durham Cathedral a few years ago preaching on these same texts said:

The experience of a light, of falling, an involuntary act of submission doubtless sending him into great fear and shock, was further heightened by a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s reply uses the divine title “Lord”, “Who are you, Lord?” He recognizes that this is something from heaven, while being unsure of exactly who it is that is speaking. The response was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Of course, those words are moving words; Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his disciples; in persecuting them, Saul was persecuting him. It is a narrative illustration of the kind of mystical theology that Paul was later to develop in his letters; through faith and baptism we are mystically joined to Christ, incorporated in him – we become his body; he indwells us and we indwell him. (St Paul’s Conversion, the Rev. Canon David Kennedy, Durham Cathedral, Church of England)

This is an everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over, just like being knocked from a horse. I am reminded of the observation of Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row 1982), makes this point in an oft-quote observation:

Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Dillard, Annie, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Harper & Row, New York:1982, pp 40-41.)

Every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, after the presider has said Jesus’ words over the bread and wine – “This is my Body” – “This is my Blood” – we are invited to affirm the powerful everyday-ness and everyday power of Jesus’ presence, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:”

Christ has died.
Christ is risen
Christ will come again (BCP 1979, p 363)

These words remind us that Jesus is here with us now:

The person Jesus and his story are now.
The forgiveness and hope he offers are now.
The invitation and the expectation for us to change and to grow through his love and presence are with us are now.
The renewal, vision and hope that transformed Paul from bigotry and narrow-mindedness are open to us now.
But, only if we have the faith and the courage to respond: to get up and follow Jesus. (Sermon at All Saints, the Rev. Alan Wynne, Parish of Poplar, Church of England)

You know . . . the getting up part is really important! Getting knocked of the horse isn’t the whole of Paul’s conversion; it was just the beginning. In Paul’s own description of his conversion in our reading from Galatians we can see that it took some time; including going into retreat in the Arabian desert and then a three-year delay before he went to Jerusalem to meet the original apostles. In the early church, entry into the worshiping community replicated Paul’s experience. The training for baptism, called “catechesis,” often took years, typically three, before someone was “exposed to the very real risks and challenges of full membership of the Christian faith” and admitted to full participation in the mysteries of the Holy Communion and full responsibility for the mission and ministry of the church. As English priest David Rowett says,

Conversion isn’t some once-and-for-all process, over in a blinding flash, not even for the Pharisee from Tarsus. It is a life-long process of deepening and learning which may begin in one moment – with or without a donkey – but then requires working out throughout the rest of our lives, and in the company of other pilgrims. (Conversion of St Paul, the Rev. David Rowett, St Mary’s Church, Barton-on-Humber, Church of England)

Our conversion is an on-going and everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over. Like Paul, however, we couldn’t just lie there stunned. Jesus would say to us as he said to Paul . . . indeed, Jesus does say to us, “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus promised his first twelve followers that they would be handed over to councils, flogged in religious institutions, and dragged before secular rulers, but he told them not to worry about making a defense because, in words similar to those he would say to Paul on the Damascus Road, “What you are to say will be given to you at that time.”

I think it helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to in both stories. Talking to the Twelve he is not talking to the stained-glass saints they have become; he is talking to hide-bound, conservative, Law-abiding Jews. He is talking to Peter who, even after spending all that time with Jesus and going through the events of Jesus’ trial, execution, burial, and resurrection, would say, “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” and would refuse to eat with Gentile Christians. He is talking to Thomas who is portrayed as a skeptic, a doubter, and something of a pessimist. He is talking to Simon the Zealot, who may have been a member of that Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to Rome and pagan practices. And on the road to Damascus, he is addressing Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee set upon the path of persecuting and, indeed, destroying the fledgling Christian church.

Jesus in both the Gospel lesson and in the story from Acts is speaking to men who exhibit an attitude we still see in the church and in our society today – it is nothing new – an attitude characterized by bigotry, zeal, closed-mindedness, tunnel vision, intolerance, and exclusivity. “In varying degrees it may be present in each one of us:

our lack of openness to new ideas;
our total certainty that in all matters of faith, morality or ritual we are right and others are wrong;
the ease with which we judge or condemn those who see things differently;
the way we cling uncritically to the traditions and practices of the past;
our failure to see God’s continuing presence and work in creation;
our desire to contain God in our pockets and limit him to our shrines where he can be controlled and we can be cosy and unchallenged;
the way we call Jesus “Lord” and ignore the most basic of his teachings about love and respect for others.” (Alan Wynne, op. cit.)

When we discussed this Gospel passage during our bible study time at Monday’s last meeting of the 2016 Vestry, someone suggested that Jesus seems to be foreshadowing what would happen later to himself. While that is true, he is also, by forecasting this experience, demonstrating his authority and intimacy with God. His words assure the Twelve and us that:

Opposition is not a sign of failure or that Jesus was not trustworthy as a leader. And
Paradoxically, getting arrested is the only way you will have a chance to speak to the elites, so use it to testify. And [again]
Don’t worry about what you will say – God’s Spirit will speak through you. (Holy Textures, the Rev. David Ewart, United Church of Canada)

Quite a while after the event in today’s Gospel lesson, “the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt 18:1-4)

In the last sermon he ever preached, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of this story:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness . . . . It means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant. (Drum Major Instinct, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached February 4, 1968)

You can be that servant. You are that servant. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you.”

Two hundred years ago a few men and women living in Weymouth, Ohio, heard God speaking to them and founded this parish. In Annie Dillard’s words, the waking god drew them out to where they could never return. They got up because they heard the call of Jesus telling them what they had to do, and here we are as a result. I firmly believe that everyday Jesus is still speaking to his Church – to you and to me – still knocking us off of our horses and then saying “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

On Friday morning, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President. You may feel that’s a good thing; you may feel that’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is a fact; it is reality. He and his party colleagues in the congress will change the spending priorities of our government; this is the way our democratic system works. Already his administration has announced plans to cut funding to and to cancel a variety of government programs including some which support the arts and humanities, some which fund educational endeavors, some which fund housing projects, some which fund health care, some which fund food assistance programs. You may feel that this budget-cutting is a good thing; you may feel that it’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is reality.

We can all agree on reality – that there are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. And this reality means that if there are fewer government-funded programs to do these things, charities and charitable institutions, such as churches, church-run schools, nonprofit hospitals and clinics, volunteer food banks, and the like, are very likely to be called upon to take up new ministries to replace what is no longer being done by government-funded agencies. Whether we think this a good thing or a bad thing, it is reality. It is as real as being knocked off a horse, and like Paul we – the church – can’t just lay there. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” There are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. “And the king will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:40)

During this last week, two lessons in the Lectionary have stood out for me: one is the Old Testament lesson for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (that’s next Sunday and, yes, clergy do read ahead) and the other is yesterday’s Epistle lesson for the Daily Office. They speak to me, and I hope to you, about what it is we have to get up and do. The first is this from the Prophet Micah:

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

The other is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Stand . . . and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:14-17)

Two hundred years ago, that small band of Episcopalians in Weymouth got up because there was work to be done. Now it is our turn. Every day it is our turn. Get up! Get dressed! There is work to be done. And we have been told what we have to do.

We stand at the beginning of a new century for our parish, at the beginning of a new administration for our country. We pray for the new President and we pray for ourselves. May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is The Conversion Of St Paul by Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, a/k/a Parmigianino, (1527-1528). It hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.)

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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.

A Saintly Obligation: Sermon for All Saints Sunday – November 6, 2016 (RCL Year A)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 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 All Saints Day in Year C: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; and St. Luke 6:20-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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un-rockwell-mos-largeTuesday was the Feast of All Saints (which we are commemorating today, as is permitted by tradition, by translating the feast to the following Sunday). Traditionally, All Saints Day (or All Saints Sunday) commemorates the departed members of the Christian church who are believed to have attained heaven (it is not limited to those officially canonized by a church hierarchy).

It recognizes the reality that:

Our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. *** Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors – the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night . . . and the visions of our [sages], and is written in the hearts of our people. (Chief Seattle, Native American)

It looks to and gives thanks for the example of those who knew that “it is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends but to befriend one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion.” (M.K. Gandhi, Hindu) And it is underscored by the Christian community’s certainty “that in the religion of Love there are no believers and unbelievers. Love embraces all.” (Rumi, Sufi Muslim)

It is a Christian holy day, but I have just described it in three quotes from notable sages none of whom were Christians. The description of our ancestors as sacred and of religion as written on the hearts of the people is from Chief Seattle, the 19th Century leader of Suquamish and Duwamish nations of the northwest, a man who followed the religion of his ancestors. The observation about befriending one’s enemies is from Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, a Hindu from India. And the statement about the religion of love is from Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, a 13th Century Muslim Sufi mystic and poet.

I quote from these three men because I’ve come to believe that in our commemoration of all the saints, we should include those who are recognized as “holy” or “saintly” in other religious traditions, as well. There is, I believe, nothing in what these saintly men said that could be disagreed with by anyone of any differing religious or philosophical background. Nonetheless, I am sure that there are some (perhaps many) who would reject their words entirely, with little or no thought, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction simply because they were not Christian, despite the wisdom, morality, and generosity of spirit which they displayed.

Such is the world and the nation in which we celebrate All Saints Day this year, two days before the voters of the United States will select a new chief executive for our country. We are a society divided, polarized, and given to knee-jerk reactions. It is in this context that our Lectionary today asks us to read a consider a portion of the Book of Daniel, the only piece of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Scriptures, a book which focuses the reader’s attention on “the relationship between earthly and heavenly rule, emphasizing that the sovereign authority of earthly [rulers] depends upon the will of God.” (Portier-Young)

In the vision shown to Daniel, God gave sovereignty to “one like a Son of Man,” one like a human being in response to the suffering of God’s people under the domination of the Persian, Median, Macedonian, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic empires. Professor Anathea Portier-Young of Duke Divinity School argues that in so doing, God sought to free the oppressed from political domination, state terror, and persecution, to empower them to exercise authority and participate willingly in the political systems in which they live, and to inaugurate just rule on earth as in heaven. (Ibid.)

The culmination of Daniel’s vision is the handing of the earthly over to “the holy ones of the Most High.” Historically, these “holy ones” may have been understood as divine beings, but from the perspective of the Christian Gospel, the “holy ones of God” are those good people who were deeply engagement in the power struggles of their day and time, those divided, polarized, and knee-jerk reactive struggles that threatened to change to course of history. (Davidson) The “holy ones of the Most High” are those who, in the midst of a highly troubled and dangerous world, know that God is present and that God is more powerful than all the unjust empires and political systems human beings can devise. The saints, of whatever religious tradition, know that God loves and nourishes us, and gives us hope and meaning, life and salvation, gives us “the kingdom [to] possess . . . for ever – for ever and ever.” (Gaiser)

In our context, we have been given not a kingdom, but a participative democracy in which we have the same obligation as the saints of old to be deeply engaged in the struggle for justice to which Jesus calls us in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, the blessings and woes from the Sermon on the Plain. We are to remember the poor and the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated, reviled, and excluded. We are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. We are to follow what has come to be called “the Golden Rule:” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” These are not merely good ideas to be followed sometimes; they are moral imperatives which are to inform every activity of our lives, including our participation – wisely, morally, and with generosity of spirit – in the democracy we have been given.

As I wrote in our parish newsletter this month, I believe that voting is more than a privilege, more than a right; it is, I believe, an ethical, moral obligation. It is, for me as a Christian, an exercise in stewardship. We have been given this country and its governance by our forebears – and even, if Daniel’s vision is true (and I believe it is), by God – and we have the obligation to participate in its democratic processes, preserve it, and pass it on to our children, grandchildren, and more distant descendants.

We have heard too much cynicism in this election season. We have been told again and again how the candidates nominated by our two major parties are both deeply disliked and deeply distrusted by the electorate. On November 1, All Saints Day itself, the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper reported that 60 per cent of likely voters view Mrs. Clinton negatively and a similar percentage dislike Mr. Trump. In a pastoral letter to his flock last weekend, the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Oklahoma, wrote, “Our major party candidates are both deeply flawed.” (Patheos)

Well, I have some news for the Archbishop: that is just the way people, all people, are. He might just as well have written, “Our major party candidates are both human beings.” When the Roman Catholic Church began the process to canonize Pope John Paul II as a Capital-S Saint, the popular Jesuit author James Martin wrote an article responding to those who objected because they felt the late pope was insufficiently perfect to warrant it. Martin wrote of the saints:

[E]ven after their decisions to amend their lives, the saints remained stubbornly imperfect. In other words: human. And the history of sinful saints begins right at the start of Christianity. St. Peter, traditionally described as the “first pope,” denied knowing Jesus three times before the Crucifixion.

After cataloguing the indiscretions of several well-known saints, Martin commented:

All these men and women were holy, striving to devote their lives to God. They were also human. And they knew it, too. Of all people, the saints were the most cognizant of their flawed humanity, which served as a reminder of their reliance on God. (Slate)

Yes, our candidates are deeply flawed human beings. But to slightly misquote Jesus, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first ballot.” (See John 8:7)

I believe Archbishop Coakley was correct in writing that “what we most need is a renewed commitment to the pursuit of virtue, to seek the good and adhere to the truth as inscribed in our hearts by our Creator” and that “[v]oting is a moral act. It ought to be guided by prayer and an evaluation not only of the political, but also the moral implications of our decisions.” (Patheos)

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle writes of the church and the Christian faith being “an inheritance” for which the saints are to praise God. As I have said, I believe this nation and our participative democracy are likewise an inheritance. As Paul prayed for the Ephesians, so I pray for all of us, especially this week, that God may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, and that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us. None of us, not our candidates, not our neighbors, not our fellow voters, and especially not ourselves . . . none of us is perfect; we are all deeply flawed human beings. But we are also saints like the saints of old whom we commemorate today and like them we have been given the kingdom, on earth as in heaven, to possess and to participate in for ever – for ever and ever.

It is a saintly obligation. May we exercise it wisely, morally, and will generosity of spirit.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP Page 822)

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

Thank God, I’m Not Like Him: Sermon for Pentecost 23, Proper 25C, Track 2 (23 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 23, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 24C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; and Luke 18:9-14. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Woodcut for Die Bibel in Bildern, 1860For the past couple of weeks in the Daily Office lectionary and today in the Sunday lectionary we are reading from the Wisdom of Yeshua ben Sira, some times called Sirach, sometimes called Ecclesiasticus, one of the books of the Apocrypha, those books recognized by the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches as canonical, but rejected by Protestants. Anglicans steer a middle course and accept them for moral teaching, but not as the basis for religious doctrine. The text is a late example of what is called “wisdom literature,” instruction in ethics and proper social behavior for young men, especially those likely to take a role in governance.

Ben Sira was written early in the 2nd Century before Christ by a Jewish scribe named Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem. The Jewish nation was then under domination of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek-speaking kingdom centered in modern day Syria. Society in Jerusalem was very polarized: powerful vs. weak; rich vs. poor; Jew vs. Gentile. Ben Sira sought to guide his students through socially ambivalent times.

Among the topics he addresses is the proper forms and attitudes of worship. The Seleucid governors had involved themselves in the affairs of the Temple and, therefore, many people (especially the precursors of the Pharisees) believed that Temple worship was comprised and invalid. Furthermore, for many of the city’s wealthy participation in Temple rituals was a matter of show to advance themselves and their agenda; they offered mere lip service to God while oppressing the poor and helpless.

In this social milieu, Ben Sira offered instruction on the nature of worship, sacrifice, and prayer in Chapters 34 and 35 of the book. In Chapter 34 he describes worship that is not acceptable to God:

The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly, nor for a multitude of sacrifices does he forgive sins. Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor. The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a murderer. To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood. When one builds and another tears down, what do they gain but hard work? When one prays and another curses, to whose voice will the Lord listen? If one washes after touching a corpse, and touches it again, what has been gained by washing? So if one fasts for his sins, and goes again and does the same things, who will listen to his prayer? And what has he gained by humbling himself? (Ben Sira 34:23-31)

He follows this up with the advice we heard in our reading today: “Be generous when you worship the Lord, and do not stint the first fruits of your hands. With every gift show a cheerful face, and dedicate your tithe with gladness. Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.” (Ben Sira 35:10-12)

Ben Sira’s wisdom would have been well known to the people of Jesus’ time. Portions of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a nearly complete scroll was discovered at Masada, the Jewish fortress destroyed by the Romans in 73 AD. In addition, there are numerous quotations of the book in the Talmud, and the Anglican scholar Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) cogently argued that Jesus even quoted or paraphrased it on several occasions, including in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus told the parable of two men praying: a Pharisee, who worships strictly in accordance with the law of Moses but whose life may not reflect that, and a tax collector, whose life is criticized by everyone around him but whose worship is as open and sincere as it can be. Jesus’ original audience would have been very familiar with Ben Sira’s advice about worship and would have thought of it as background for the story. They would have known that Jesus was referring back to a concern about hypocritical worship, about worship that is merely for show, about worship coming from a life that does not honor the commandments, a concern dating back many years. They would have known who Jesus was condemning, just like we do! They knew that Jesus was not talking about them, just like we know that Jesus is not talking about us! Thank God that we are not like the bad people who pray with self-righteousness and contempt for others . . . .

Oh . . . wait a minute! You see what Jesus has done? He’s trapped us! He’s tricked us into judging the Pharisee, to regarding him with contempt. And by judging the Pharisee we have become like the Pharisee; in order to get Jesus’ point we have to point to the Pharisee and his sin. By pointing to someone else, to “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even . . . this tax collector,” and to their sins, the Pharisee condemns himself; by pointing to the Pharisee and his sin, we condemn ourselves.

Clever, sneaky preacher, that Jesus! How do we become more like the tax collector and less like the Pharisee? Ben Sira instructed his students to look worship with the eyes and understanding of God, with humility and without partiality.

So here’s an exercise . . . look at the other people all around you in church today. You know most of these people; some of them are in your family; some of them are your friends; you go to breakfast with some of them every Sunday. You may not know others; some are people you see here on Sunday but don’t otherwise socialize with; some may be people you don’t know at all. But about all of them, you do know two things. First, you know that God loves them; God loves every single person in this church today. God made them; God knows them; God loves them.

The second thing you know is that nobody in this church today is perfect. The religious way to say that is that every one of us is a sinner. Each one of us says and does things that hurt others; each one of us says and does things that hurt ourselves; each one of us says and does things that hurt God. Sometimes we do that intentionally; more often we do it negligently. But the simple truth is, whatever the reason for it may be, that we do it.

And here’s a third thing you know, and this you know about yourself . . . that the two things you know about all these people around you in church are also true of you. These are the two central truths of the Christian faith: that we are sinners and that God loves us anyway.

Now I’d like to ask you all to stand, as you may be able.

Raise your right hand, palm cupped up. Receive in that hand the truth that God loves you, that God loves all of us. Now raise your left hand, palm cupped up. Offer from that hand to God the truth that you are not perfect, that you are a sinner. See how your right hand is still holding the first truth; the second doesn’t change it at all. Not about you, not about anyone!

This, by the way, is called the orans position, the ancient position of prayer, standing with one’s hands up-raised, open to God; it has a rich tradition in Jewish and Christian practice, one’s body representing the spirit open to God’s grace.

The Pharisee in the parable failed to be fully open, fully honest with God or with himself. He was willing to raise the one hand to receive God’s blessing, but was unwilling to raise the other, unwilling to admit that he was imperfect, that he was like the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors, that he was like us.

Jesus, clever, sneaky preacher that he is, tricks us into acknowledging that we are like the Pharisee. Like Ben Sira before him, he encourages us to place ourselves fully before God, fully open to God, praying with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

You might say that Jesus is encouraging us to live generously. And that brings us to R____ S_________ who would like to say a few words about our Living Generously Annual Fund Campaign and his personal story of stewardship.

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

Labor Sunday: Sermon for Pentecost 16, RCP Proper 18C (4 September 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 4, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 18C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1; Philemon 1-21; and St. Luke 14:25-33. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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labor-sabbath“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. * * * None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

Jesus just doesn’t make it easy, does he? He doesn’t make it easy to preach this Gospel of his; he doesn’t make it easy to life this life of his! He just doesn’t.

And then there’s Paul! Sending a slave back to his owner, a slave who apparently ran away and owes his owner something. And Paul doesn’t even say to the slave owner, “Set him free.” He sort of hints at it, I guess, but he doesn’t come right out and say it! He doesn’t make this any easier.

And, of course, there’s Moses: “I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” One way or the other, black or white, yes or no, no grays, no (as my mother would have said) “ifs, ands, or buts,” no compromises, no negotiations. Take it or leave it. Decide.

They don’t make it easy.

So let’s just ignore them, OK. It’s Labor Day weekend, so let’s just not work that hard.

Labor Day, as you already know because you read the parish’s weekly email update on Friday, was created by Congress in 1894 as a “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday of September and has remained so for 122 years. In 1909, the American Federation of Labor adopted a resolution calling on churches to observe “Labor Sunday” on the day before Labor Day, and nearly every denomination including our own did so. The prior year the Federal Council of Churches had adopted the “Social Creed of the Churches” which called for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life,” a living wage, abatement of poverty, and numerous worker protections, including arbitration, shortened workdays, safer conditions, the abolition of child labor, regulation of women’s labor, and assistance to elderly and incapacitated workers. “Labor Sunday” fit right in with those lofty social goals.

Observance of Labor Sunday waned in the 1960s; today (to the best of my knowledge) it is an official observance only in the United Church of Christ. We, however, have paid homage to this heritage when we sang the hymn Divine Companion as our Sequence a few moments ago. It was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1909 as a “Hymn of Labor” and set to the American folk hymn melody Pleading Savior which dates from before the Civil War. Let me read again Van Dyke’s lyrics:

Jesus, thou divine Companion,
by thy lowly human birth
thou hast come to join the workers,
burden-bearers of the earth.
Thou, the carpenter of Nazareth,
toiling for thy daily food,
by thy patience and thy courage,
thou hast taught us toil is good.

Where the many toil together,
there art thou among thine own;
where the solitary labor,
thou art there with them alone;
thou, the peace that passeth knowledge,
dwellest in the daily strife;
thou, the Bread of heaven, art broken
in the sacrament of life.

Every task, however simple,
sets the soul that does it free;
every deed of human kindness
done in love is done to thee.
Jesus, thou divine Companion,
help us all to work our best;
bless us in our daily labor,
lead us to our Sabbath rest.
(Episcopal Hymnal 1982, No. 586)

So, I guess if we really mean it – if St. Augustine is right that the one who sings his prayer prays twice – and we expect Jesus to lead us, then I guess we really are going to have to take up our cross. We are going to have to figure out what Jesus meant when he demanded that we hate our families and our possessions. We are going to have to wrestle with whatever it was Paul was up to with Philemon and Onesimus; and we are going to have to make that decision between “life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

Deuteronomy is the last of the five books of the Law, the Torah. It is said to be Moses’ farewell discourse to the Hebrews whom he has led across the desert to the Holy Land, which they (but not he) are about to enter. He is here addressing the entire people of God. But he is not speaking to them collectively; he uses the second person singular “you” in this text. He is here speaking of a personal, not community, decision, one each person must make for him- or herself. In the words of Woodie Guthrie:

You gotta walk that lonesome valley,
You gotta walk it by yourself,
Nobody here can walk it for you,
You gotta walk it by yourself.

Moses’ advice to the Hebrews, to each individual Hebrew, is “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.” Lutheran bible scholar Terrence Fretheim says of this text:

Two possible futures are laid out in this text: life and death (Deuteronomy 30:15; 30:19). Note that the future is not laid out in absolute certainty — as if God knows that future in detail and could describe it to the people right now. The future is noted in terms of possibilities. What Israel says and does will give shape to that future, but what that shape will be is not determined in advance; that future remains open to what happens within the relationship, even for God. (Working Preaching Commentary)

Fretheim points out that it is worth noting that Deuteronomy does not say how the Hebrews responded to Moses. The story is open-ended. The book, and thus the Torah, ends with uncertainty regarding what Israel’s response is or will be. Thus, this personal decision is an open-ended question not only for the Hebrews but for us today; each and every reader, every person who hears Moses read, is called to provide an response.

And that is basically what Jesus is recalling to his listeners; he is reminding the large crowd of Israelites following him on the road and he is reminding us of the stark reality of the choice Moses had set out for them and for us centuries before. He has phrased it differently, using rabbinic hyperbole, but the choice is the same: life or death; following the way of God or the way of the world symbolized by “father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters” and all of one’s possessions.

We, and I’m sure Jesus’ first listeners, are shocked by this language of “hate.” We cannot help but think of the fifth Commandment: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exod. 20:12; BCP 1979, Pg. 350) and this hardly seems consonant. We are naturally affectionate toward our parents, our siblings, and our children. But Greek scholar D. Mark Davis points out that in many instances in the Bible, in both Old and New Testaments, “hate” is used without the emotional content we habitually invest in it. Davis writes:

This use of “hate,” where there are two possibilities and one must choose decisively, seems to be the dynamic at work in our text. The full commitment to one possibility means the severance of commitment to another possibility. (Left Behind and Loving It: Holy Hating)

What is demanded by Jesus is not enmity and malice, but rather detachment. How is this to be acted out? Davis suggests:

[T]his call to discipleship is radical, implying that those who follow Jesus are not going to be making decisions based on “what’s best for me,” or even “what’s best for our marriage/family/children.” It may mean living in that “dangerous neighborhood” or attending a less achieving school, because a gracious presence is needed there. It may mean living more simply because one’s resources can be used better for others. It may mean making unpopular choices despite the protests of one’s family. This is real and critical engagement that Jesus is talking about, a stark contrast to the typical depiction of “the happy Christian home” where one’s faith is demonstrated by how committed on is to providing every possible advantage to one’s own. That kind of choosing, it seems to me, has to be cast in the strongest language possible, because we will domesticate the gospel and make it a matter of enhancing ourselves and our families until we hear this kind of extreme language and let it shake us. (Ibid.)

Using parallel structure, Jesus offers a second metaphor to explain his expectations: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Again, we must wrestle with what this means, especially because it is so often twisted by the popular expression, “It’s my cross to bear,” making it almost equivalent to another popular expression which twists Paul’s complaint of “a thorn in my flesh.” (2 Cor 12:7) But as seminary professor Karoline Lewis reminds us, carrying the cross “cannot only be located in suffering and sacrifice when the biblical witness suggests otherwise.” (Dear Working Preacher: Carrying the Cross) In terms echoing Mark Davis’ interpretation of what it means to “hate” our families, Lewis says:

[C]arrying your cross is a choice and ironically, it is a choice for life and not death. But here is the challenge. We tend toward saying the cross is a choice for life because it leads to resurrection. Yes. And no. Yes, this is what God has done – undone death for the sake of life forever. But no, if that reality has no bearing on your present. (Ibid.)

Thus, to “carry the cross”

. . . could mean to carry the burdens of those from whom Jesus releases burdens. It could mean to carry the ministry of Jesus forward by seeing those whom the world overlooks. It could mean favoring and regarding the marginalized, even when that action might lead to your own oppression. (Ibid.)

It might mean defending equal rights and complete justice for all people in all stations of life, a living wage, abatement of poverty, worker protections, arbitration, shortened workdays, safer working conditions, the abolition of child labor, protection of voting rights, and assistance to the elderly and incapacitated, even if that might lead to higher taxes.

And that is the reality that Paul lays before Philemon in his letter returning the slave Onesimus to his household. Paul addresses Philemon as a “dear friend and co-worker,” as a leader of a church group that meets in his home, as someone filled with “love for all the saints and . . . faith toward the Lord Jesus.” And then like Moses addressing each of the Hebrews individually, like Jesus addressing the Israelites following him on the road, Paul says to Philemon, “You have a choice to make.” In his case, of course, the choice is whether to free Onesimus.

The traditional understanding of the situation addressed in this letter is that Onesimus (whose name means “Useful,” by the way) had run away, had somehow come into Paul’s service during Paul’s imprisonment, and was now being sent back to his owner. The letter doesn’t actually describe the situation that way, but verse 18 (“If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account.”) is taken to support that view. Another interpretation of the text, however, is that Philemon had sent Onesimus to Paul for a period of time and Paul, honoring that time limit, is returning him: “I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you,” writes the apostle.

In any event, Onesimus is a slave who, like his master, has become “a beloved brother … in the Lord.” Onesimus in his conversion, in his “transformation is a vivid embodiment of the gospel. He is a walking reminder of the power of the good news.” (Eric Barreto, Commentary)

According to seminary professor Eric Barreto,

For Paul, what happens in these Christian communities [like the one that meet is Philemon’s home] is a matter of life and death. His letters are not just doctrinal. He’s not just concerned with ideas, with the right Christological or theological or eschatological perspective. Paul is a pastor, remember. He cares for these communities because these communities are seeds of the resurrection, sites where the resurrected life can already flourish, places of resistance to an empire that would place us in rank according to social status. (Ibid.)

And so he places before Philemon a choice, not unlike the decision Moses laid before the Hebrews, not unlike the choice Jesus gave those folks following him on the road. It no longer matters who Onesimus’ or Philemon’s father or mother may have been, who their children or their siblings are. It no longer matters what they possess; what matters is who possesses them. They have both been baptized into the Body of Christ; they are both belong to the Lord of life.

Professor Fretheim pointed out that we are not told what decision the Hebrews made and so their choice becomes an open-ended question. Likewise, we are not told what the people on the road with Jesus chose, nor do we know what Philemon decided to do. In each story, the choice is the same – life or death – and each story calls us to make the same choice.

For generations, the Jews have had a toast: “L’Chaim!” It simply means “To Life!” Every time I read this letter, I can almost see Paul putting down his pen as he finishes writing, reaching for his cup, lifting it up to the absent Philemon, and offering the toast unspoken in the letter itself: “L’Chaim! Choose life! Take up your cross! Set Onesimus free!”

Every task, however simple,
sets the soul that does it free;
every deed of human kindness
done in love is done to thee.
Jesus, thou divine Companion,
help us all to work our best;
bless us in our daily labor,
lead us to our Sabbath rest.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (BCP 1979, Pg. 261)

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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.

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.

Division Happens: Sermon for Pentecost 13, RCL Proper 14C (14 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 15C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; St. Luke 12:49-56. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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division-sign-clip-art-divide-clipart-t48bPp-clipartIn philosophy and theology there is an exercise named by the Greek word deiknumi. The word simply translated means “occurrence” or “evidence,” but in philosophy it refers to a “thought experiment,” a sort of meditation or exploration of a hypothesis about what might happen if certain facts are true or certain situations experienced. It’s particularly useful if those situations cannot be replicated in a laboratory or if the facts are in the past or future and cannot be presently experienced. St. Paul uses the word only once in his epistles: in the last verse of chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, he uses the verbal form when he admonishes his readers to “strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you [deiknuo, ‘I will give you evidence of’] a still more excellent way.” It is the introduction to his famous treatise on agape, divine love, a thought experiment (if you will) about the best expression, the “still more excellent” expression of the greatest of the virtues.

Today I would like to do a thought experiment with you, actually three short experiments, in which I will ask you to envision some interpersonal interactions to test the hypothesis of Jesus that his message, which he claimed was the message of God recorded in the Law and the Prophets, would bring division.

So make yourselves comfortable and, if it helps, close your eyes and envision yourself a 16-year-old high school student completing your secondary education at a church-affiliated institution which includes the study of religion in its curriculum. You have just completed a course in which you studied the creation myths of Genesis, the notion that all of humankind is descended from a single pair of proto-parents, Adam and Eve, or later from one family, that of Noah, after all other people were wiped out by a universal flood. Your class has explored what this means in a world divided by nations and cultures, into races and ethnic groups, and you have come to believe that all human beings are related one to another and to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Suppose also that you come from a family with some of its roots deep in the antebellum South and that your grandmother, a proud inheritor of those origins, employs an African-American maid whom she regularly refers to as her “house nigger.” Imagine that you start a conversation with Grammy about your new biblically based understanding of race relations . . . .

Now let’s have you imagine yourself a few years older, your early twenties. You are working your way through college or graduate school in the housekeeping department of a Southern California hospital and many of your coworkers are Mexican-American. So, too, is the pastor of your church which is culturally diverse and makes an effort to model its life and ministry on Jesus’ acceptance of the Syro-Phoenician woman who came seeking healing for her daughter, the Samaritan woman with whom he talked at Jacob’s well, the Roman centurion who asked that his servant be healed, Levi the outcast tax collector, and the woman sinner who anointed his feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee. At work, your supervisor who, like you, is of northern European ancestry, often talks with you about the other housekeepers and janitors calling them “wet backs” and “spics.” You confront her about that language and ask her not to use it when conversing with you . . . .

Finally, you are in your late thirties, a practicing attorney, a partner in a prestigious law firm. You are also a vestry member and a Sunday School teacher in your church. You’ve just spent several weeks studying the biblical concepts of debt and ownership in your adult Sunday School class. Coincidentally, your law firm is considering taking on a potentially very lucrative book of business from a pay-day lender. You attend a meeting with several of your partners and representatives of potential client. As you listen to the lender’s representative talk of interest rates and profit margins and enforcement of loan contracts, you remember the words of Deuteronomy: “You shall not charge interest on loans . . . , interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” (Dt 23:19) You hear, too, Jesus saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Mt 6:19) After the potential client leaves, you tell your partners that you can’t vote in favor of taking on the pay-day loan business . . . .

Well . . . I’m sure you can play out the rest of those scenarios for yourselves, that you can see that the “thought experiment” suggests that Jesus’ hypothesis that the message of biblical faith brings dissent is correct. But, indeed, Jesus was not stating a hypothesis; he was making a bald-faced assertion of fact.

Jesus said that he came to bring not peace, but division: “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” This makes us uncomfortable, I know; it’s not what we want to hear from Jesus, but division “is a part of the biblical tradition and [it] is not foreign to Christian tradition. . . . Sadly, religious divisions are . . . seen within the church today, which is divided along racial, political, class, and denominational lines. * * * [W]e might say that Christianity offers the prospect of unity, [but] this reality cannot be forced upon a free people. As a result there will inevitably be division in churches and even families.” (Richard A. Davis, The Politics of Unity, Division, and Discernment) It has ever been so.

The prophet Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping” prophet because of the way his message was rejected by the people and his many laments about that rejection, such as we hear in today’s lesson when, speaking for God, he cries, “How long?” The people of Israel, particularly the leaders of the people, during Jeremiah’s time did not want to hear messages that recalled them to the Law of Moses. They wanted to hear (as one commentator, Alphonetta Wines, put it) “feel good” sermons; they wanted to hear that they were the chosen race, the People of God, the one’s favored by the Almighty who would never let anything bad happen to them. Ms. Wines writes:

Much like people today who only want to hear “feel good” sermons, people of his day preferred false hopes presented by false prophets dreaming about a short road to peace. While even in the worst of circumstances God’s word includes a word of hope and restoration, the word spoken by these “dreamers” was no word from God. God does sometimes communicate through dreams, but this is not one of those times. No more than wishful thinking, these pipedreams gave people false hopes and an unrealistic view of what lay ahead. (Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher Commentary)

Jeremiah dissents! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” he asks on God’s behalf, “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” His question reminds the people that their relationship with God is not one-way; it’s not all just God doing for them. This is a covenant relationship with obligations on both sides; their faith in Yahweh should be a belief upon which they stake their lives and, thus, should determine how they live their lives. If that covenant obligation was not met, not only would God not extend God’s protection, God would instead exact punishment. Jeremiah’s dissent from these “feel good” pronouncements was not a welcome message; it caused division.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews follows on last week’s lesson in which the writer defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He has gone on to recount stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and his family, and Moses as examples of ancestors who held such faith; today he adds many others all of whom “were commended for their faith, [even though they] did not receive what was promised.” They all “trusted God even if they could not fully imagine what God’s promises would entail.” (Amy Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) For the author of Hebrews, as for Jeremiah, “faith comprises not only mental assent, but indicates that belief upon which you stake your life, this life and the next.” (Ibid.) In other words, faith and belief have behavioral consequences! The covenant is not one-way! There are obligations! And when you start practicing the faith, as did the heroes described by the author of Hebrews, there is division as promised by Jesus. It is inevitable.

John Wesley, the Anglican priest responsible for the birth of the Methodist movement and eventually the Methodist Church, insisted that inward holiness must lead to outward holiness, that a heart transformed by faith must be evidenced in a life transformed. Our discipleship is dependent on, formed by, and flows out of our Christian character. It is evidenced both by works of piety, that is to say corporate worship and private devotion, and works of mercy which embody our love for our neighbor. Such works of piety and mercy are the means through which the Holy Spirit empowers our growth; they are means of grace. And it is to the purifying fire of grace that Jesus calls us.

Jesus called his first hearers hypocrites because they could interpret the weather, but could not read the signs of the “present time,” the needs of the society around them for the works to which their covenant with God obligated them. “Jesus demands attention to one’s time and place. For this reason, there is something deeply incarnational and worldly about Jesus’ expectation of his listeners. This is not looking to the sky for God, but analyzing [and responding to] the here and now.” (Davis)

And when one does so, division happens:

The division of which Jesus speaks is a result of the purifying fire he bears. The kingdom of God he proclaims represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness (hence the import of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, 11:4), not by fear but by courage (“be not afraid” in 1:13, 30, 2:10, 5:11, 8:50, 12:4, 7, 32,), and not by power but by humility (see Mary’s song, 1:46-55). Yet those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family. (David Lose, Working Preacher Commentary)

Our expectation of the peace, harmony, and unity notwithstanding, we must understand that division will happen.

When it does, we must have faith to see that God is “at work in all realities, and that division is not the problem.” Instead of our own naive expectations, instead of our wishful thinking, our pipedreams, and our false hopes, we should hear Jesus’ talk about division which points “to a broken reality for Christianity no matter how hard we work toward unity. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point: that human togetherness is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.” (Erick J. Thompson, Working Preacher Commentary)

We must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” including our fear of and our concern about division, and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” remembering our covenant obligations, our works of piety and our works of mercy.

As you might have guessed, the three deiknumoi, the “thought experiments” with which we began are drawn from my own life experience. Each of them did, as you might also have guessed, cause some division and conflict. But in each of them, also, the division was eventually overcome. My grandmother and I reconciled and she came to (and was one of the oldest people to attend) Evelyn’s and my wedding. My supervisor and I continued to work together and became good friends, and she stopped calling Mexican-Americans by derogatory terms (at least at work). And, after some loud and heated discussion, my partners eventually agreed with me and we did not take on the pay-day lender’s work. Yes, trying to live according the principles of our faith, living up to the obligation to offer not only works of piety in the church but also works of mercy in the world, can (and Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson that it will) bring division. But division can be – and the gospel’s promise is that it will be – overcome by love. Remember what St. Paul wrote in his deiknumi in the First Letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor. 13:4-8a)

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.

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