That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Lent (page 2 of 6)

Act Two: Do You Love Me? – Good Friday 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Good Friday, April 14, 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: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:16-25; Psalm 22; and St. John 18:1-19:42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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On Palm Sunday, I suggested that we think of Holy Week and Easter as a three-act drama beginning with an Overture on Palm Sunday. Last night, we took part in the first act. The analogy of the Three Holy Days (or “Triduum”) to a play breaks down if we think of ourselves as the “audience.” We are not the audience.

The audience of worship is God. The one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is the audience. We, all of us, are the actors. We, all of us, are the cast.

So, here we are . . . . the second act . . . .

In the first act of the drama of redemption, Love tried to teach his lesson through bread and wine, through water and basin, through garden prayer, and through willing surrender to corrupt authority. The Body and Blood symbolically broken, the Body washing other bodies, the Blood sweated out in agonized prayer, these did not suffice and so, betrayed and exhausted, he surrendered. Whether or not he knew what would ultimately happen is irrelevant. He could do nothing else – if he were to remain faithful to his God, faithful to his values, faithful to his principles, faithful to his mission, he could do nothing else. And so now, in the second act, the incarnate Creator is prisoner to Destruction, now Life is condemned to death by Death.

In the beginning he had been tempted by riches, by power, by idolization; all these had been offered in the desert. Now how great the temptation must have been to simply give up! Poet Denise Levertov ponders this allure in her poem Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.
(In The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected poems on religious themes [New Directions Books: 1997])

In this second act of the drama of redemption, it is faith and will which prevail, the faith and will of Jesus who did not step back, who did not give in to the human longing to simply cease.

In this second act of the drama all that has gone before is recapitulated; all that we saw in yesterday’s first act, the supper in the upper room, the act of servanthood taught there, the agonized prayer in the garden, the willing surrender to unjust authority, and more. Not just yesterday’s first act, but all that has gone before from our first act of defiance in the first garden. Poet Ross Miller reminds us of that bond in his brief verse entitled Tau

That dreadful beam
that Jesu bore
knot made from pine
but ancient tree
that bore a bitter fruit

That pole on which it hung
he hung
knot made from pine
undying tree of life
that bears forever fruit

Take and eat – the Serpent cried
You shall not die
You shall be
like God
We bit
The Servant took those twisted words
held them on the knotted wood
Take and eat – the Servant cries
You shall not die
You shall be
like me
(Found in 2012 at Stations of the Cross (www.stations.org.nz) a no-longer-working site)

We shall be like him! It is here on the cross in this second act that the promise of the Incarnation, the guarantee of the Nativity is made good. Then we sang

Great little One! whose all-embracing birth
Lifts Earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to Earth.
(In The Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by Shepherds, Richard Crashaw [1613-49])

Here on the cross, indeed, God “gathers up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10) And here on the cross, in an act of faithfulness and will, he died. Here on the cross, in this final fact of human existence, truly “God became man so that man might become a god.” (St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione)

But his death, we know, cannot be the end of the story. This is only the second act of a three-act drama. So his body must be taken down; it must be dealt with in the appropriate way.
Composer Jimmy Owens paints the picture in his cantata No Other Lamb:

They took Him down,
His poor dead body,
and prepared Him for His burial.

They took Him down,
His poor pale body
drained of life, ashen, and stained
with its own life-blood.

His healing hands, now pierced and still;
Serving hands, that broke five loaves
to feed five thousand;
Holy hands, often folded in fervent prayer;
Poor gentle hands, now pierced and still.

His poor torn feet, now bloodied and cold;
Feet that walked weary miles
to bring good news to broken hearts
Feet once washed in penitent’s tears;
Poor torn feet, now bloodied and cold.

His kingly head, made for a crown,
now crowned – with thorns.
His poor kingly head, crowned with thorns.

His gentle breast, now pierced by
spear-thrust, quiet and still;
His poor loving breast.

His piercing eyes, now dark and blind;
Eyes of compassion, warming the soul;
Fiery eyes, burning at sin;
Tender eyes, beckoning sinners;
His piercing eyes, now dark and blind.

His matchless voice, fountain of the Father’s
thoughts, stopped –
and stilled – to speak no more.
Silence now, where once had flowed
Wisdom and comfort, Spirit and life;
His matchless voice; stilled, to speak no more.

They took Him down,
His poor dead body,
and prepared Him for his burial.
(They Took Him Down in No Other Lamb [Lillenas Publishing Co.])

And so the second act comes to a close, the body is laid in a tomb and as the rock is rolled to seal it, the now-torn curtain descends. We are left in the darkness of our hearts to contemplate our place in this drama. With poet Luci Shaw we realize that we just may be Judas or Peter….

because we are all
betrayers, taking
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace
to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
clearly enough
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask each again
do you love me?
(Judas, Peter in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation [Regent College Publishing, 1997])

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

Redemption: Drama in Three Acts (Sermon for Palm Sunday, 9 April 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Palm Sunday, April 9, 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, with the addition of a reading from the prophet Zechariah: at the Liturgy of the Palms: Zechariah 9:9-12; at the Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and St. Matthew 21:1-11; following the distribution of Communion, St. Matthew 26:14-27:66. Most of these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Redemption is a drama in three acts – three acts and a brief intermission – today the prelude, the overture, an introduction encapsulating the story to be fleshed out as the action proceeds. Jesus and his companions enter the city of Jerusalem from the east while the Roman governor, Pilate, makes his annual procession into the city in pomp and circumstance from the west.

The crowds welcome Jesus, singing “Hosannas” (a Jewish word meaning “Save us, we pray!”). We can perhaps hear a chorus, as in the Greek theater, singing sentiments later put into writing by the English philosopher journalist G.K. Chesterton:

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

Jesus, eschewing pride and showing a different way, enters the city on a donkey.

Later in the week, Act One, Scene One – An upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

In the first act, Jesus shares a Passover meal with his friends. He knows, although they seem not to, that this will be their last formal meal together. At supper he tries to explain to them what he believes is going to happen and how he hopes they’ll remember him. He uses bread and wine to make his point, but they don’t seem to understand. In fact, as the scene ends, they are arguing about their relative ranks! Who among them will be the greatest? The curtain falls on a frustrated rabbi.

Act One, Scene Two – the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

Dinner is over, so Jesus tries something else. Taking on the role of a servant, he kneels down and washes their feet, but they still don’t get it. Later they would begin to understand; later they would re-enact Jesus’ actions and ponder them again and again, trying to more fully understand him. We, too, are pondering; we, too, grope for understanding.

Act One, Scene Three – a garden outside the city walls at Gethsemane.

Depressed and agonizing, feeling he has failed, knowing his actions of the past three years are leading inexorably to a final “showdown” with the political authorities, Jesus prays to be delivered from the inevitable. He asks his closest friends to stay awake with him, but they cannot. Falling asleep as he prays, they abandon him emotionally just as they will abandon him physically. Soldiers enter the scene led by one of Jesus’ own friends, Judas from the village of Kerioth. After a brief struggle in which a servant is injured, Jesus surrenders. His friends scatter and even deny knowing him. We hear the chorus sing more of Chesterton’s words:

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Act Two – another place outside the city, a hill called “the place of a skull.”

Jesus, struggling under the weight of a cross, staggers up the hill from the city to the summit. Once there, he is nailed to the cross he has dragged along the way. The crowd jeers, the soldiers mock, his friends (so few of them now) weep. Speaking from the cross as he dies, “Forgive them…. It is finished.” His friends take his body and seal it in a borrowed tomb. What more is there to do? It certainly seems to be the end. What more could possibly come after the death of the drama’s protagonist?

Intermission – another garden occupied by a sealed tomb.

The characters have all left. The stage is as bare and as silent as a grave. Is this intermission or has the drama concluded? The principal’s death certainly seems to have ended things! The silence of Holy Saturday is profound; it is palpable; it is pregnant with uncertainty. What does all that has come before mean? How can there possibly be anything more after this?

Act Three – the same garden, the tombstone rolled away.

What seemed to be a tragedy at the end of the second act turns out to be a comedy. The tomb is empty! There are angels where there should be mourners! There are only folded linens where there should be a body! Confusion mixes with relief, disbelief encounters faith, death is overcome by life. The joke is on the powers of evil, but what does it all mean? Many who have missed the first two acts of this drama arrive to see the end of the story, but can one truly appreciate the momentous conclusion without having lived through it all? Can one really get the punchline without hearing the whole story?

As the drama ends, Jesus’ friends and others who now believe are moving into the world, a world they will change, a world to which they will bring a message of love and a vision of peace. The chorus sings the last of Chesterton’s verses, a triumphant supplication to the conqueror of death:

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

The story of our Lord’s Resurrection, the story of redemption is a drama in three acts. Today, only the overture . . . don’t miss the whole story!

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

We Were There: Sermon for Lent 2 (RCL Year A) – 12 March 2017

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A homily offered by Mr. Donald Romanik, President of the Episcopal Church Foundation, on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 12, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio. Mr. Romnanik led a Vestry Retreat for the Parish the previous two days and graciously agreed to preach the sermon for our congregation on Sunday morning.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Genesis 12:1-4a; Psalm 121; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; and St. John 3:1-17. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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We-Were-There-at-Pearl-HarborWhen I was child in my tween years, I spent a lot of time at the Public Library checking out stacks of books, with that wonderful musty library smell, to read under the big oak tree in our back yard on hot summer days. As I was a U.S. history buff both then and now, I gravitated toward a series of children’s books whose titles began with the phrase – “we were there”. For example, We Were There at Lexington and Concord, We Were There at Battle of Gettysburg and my favorite – We Were There at Pearl Harbor. The books had the same two characters – a boy and a girl around my age at the time, who happened to be living right in the middle of these key historic events. They often performed semi-heroic acts and were usually honored or congratulated by some famous person at the end of the book.

In addition to making these historic events come more alive, I was intrigued by the idea of actually being present during important times in human history and trying to imagine what I would see, say or do had I been there. I also engaged in this same exercise with bible stories, especially those involving Jesus. What would it be like to be living in first century Palestine and experience Jesus first hand? Which characters in the New Testament did I most identify with? And it was not just about being present during the most significant events in the life of Christ – his birth, death or resurrection. Sometimes I would just want to follow him along the way and watch him preach, teach and heal. And unlike the two protagonists in the “We were there” series, I didn’t even have to do or say anything – just be an innocent bystander or a proverbial fly on the wall.

Today’s Gospel passage would be a good time for me to be a fly on the wall in order to overhear the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. Like much of the Gospel of John, this passage is not about the action, it’s about the dialogue and Jesus has the principal speaking part. Furthermore, there isn’t a lot to see because it’s dark since Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night. So let’s set the scene and try to think about what we would hear and experience had we been there.

So far in John’s narrative, after being heralded by John the Baptist, Jesus does two main things – turning water into wine at the wedding feast and driving the moneychangers out of the temple in Jerusalem right before the Passover. Both of these events illustrate how God was acting out God’s purpose in the world in the person of Jesus – the wine as a symbol of God’s abundance and grace and the temple event suggesting that animal sacrifices were no longer necessary because human salvation was now assured through the cross and resurrection. It is with this background and in this context that Nicodemus comes to see Jesus.

In addition to dialogue, John is a master of dramatic setting and vivid imagery. Note that Nicodemus arrives at night with all of its connotations of darkness and secrecy. Nicodemus begins his encounter with a bold affirmation that clearly Jesus must have been sent by God as evidenced by his God-like actions and signs. In a somewhat typical John-like non-sequitur, Jesus responds with a pronouncement that no person can see or experience the kingdom unless being born from above, or, in some translations, born again. This is followed by back and forth interactions, confusion on part of Nicodemus on the difference between spirit and flesh, and Jesus’ somewhat glib comment that a Jewish leader and a learned scholar should be much more knowledgeable and astute. But Nicodemus’s apparent ignorance or naiveté provides Jesus with the perfect opportunity to proclaim the bold reality that the Son of Man has come from heaven to be lifted up as a sign that God loves the world and that whoever believes will have eternal life. Jesus invokes the image of Moses lifting up the serpent in the desert and portends his own lifting up on the cross at Calvary. We then hear one of the most famous and beloved passages in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

All we know of Nicodemus in the Bible is contained in the Gospel of John. Nicodemus is described as a Pharisee, that group of Jews who were fastidious in keeping the letter of the law and often opposed Jesus throughout his ministry, especially when they felt he did not share their legalistic and ideological purity. Jesus criticized Pharisees on several occasions especially for their blatant hypocrisy. Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem which was the final court of appeals for matters relating to Jewish law and tradition. It was the Sanhedrin that condemned Jesus to death but ultimately needed the approval of Pilate since the death penalty was beyond their jurisdiction under Roman law.

John reports that Nicodemus came to speak to Jesus at night. Some scholars speculate that since he was a Jewish leader and official, Nicodemus was afraid, or at least embarrassed, to be seen with Jesus in broad daylight. But given his position on the Sanhedrin, wasn’t it perfectly appropriate for Nicodemus to question Jesus in order to assess his theological credentials? No one should have been able to question Nicodemus’ authority or motivation for being there although his opening comment that Jesus must have been sent from God could have raised a few eyebrows back at the temple. Clearly, Nicodemus was as least curious about Jesus if not somewhat intrigued by and attracted to his ministry. Interestingly, after this incredible explanation by Jesus of his role as the Son of Man who came to reveal and demonstrate God’s love and the promise of new life, Nicodemus has no response. In fact, he simply disappears from the scene and presumably goes back to his former role as a member of the establishment – not yet ready to accept Jesus or to make a commitment to follow him and embrace his message of love. Perhaps after this encounter Nicodemus decided that he just wasn’t as curious or interested in Jesus as he thought he would be. As innocent bystanders and flies on the wall, all we are left with at the end of this passage is Jesus’ incredibly profound words.

Nicodemus reappears at two later points in John’s Gospel. In Chapter 7 he is sitting as a member of the Sanhedrin – that official body that condemns Jesus to die and offers a somewhat half-hearted defense that Jesus should at least have the right to defend himself and respond to the charges against him. In Chapter 20, however, Nicodemus accompanies Joseph of Arimathea, another secret follower of Jesus, and contributes an exorbitant quantity of spices for Jesus’ ritual burial. Can we assume that by the time of the crucifixion Nicodemus finally gets it and accepts Jesus as his Lord? Does Nicodemus finally have the conversion experience of being born from above and now able to experience God’s kingdom of love?

This passage from John’s Gospel is often used by fundamentalist, evangelical Christians to support their belief in the necessity of an actual and affirmative conversion experience – being born again – in order to be a true follower of Christ. But I think this approach sells these words of Jesus short and oversimplifies the concept of conversion. I’m sure there may be some people who truly have a dramatic experience of being born again into a new life in Christ. For most of us, including our friend Nicodemus, the process of discipleship moves much more slowly, and, may take an entire lifetime in order to be truly realized.

Let’s look at these famous words of Jesus once again – “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Jesus did not say that God was responding to the pleas of anguish from humankind or was acting from a sense of justice, power or expectation. God does not ask the world whether it wants to be loved. God just goes ahead and loves, and not only loves, but gives his only beloved Son over to death. God’s sending Jesus to our broken world was an act of unconditional love – plain and simple. God loves us whether we like it or not. In light of this love, however, we are called to accept it, embrace it and share it with others or, in the alternative, run away screaming. For it is virtually impossible to remain neutral or ambiguous in light of such Godly extravagance and abundance.

Notwithstanding a vivid imagination and my “we were there” reading memories from childhood, I was not present at Lexington and Concord, the Battle of Gettysburg or at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. But, while I was not present with Nicodemus when he had his conversation with Jesus at night, attempted to defend him at his trial and helped prepare him for burial after his brutal passion and death, I feel that I and all of us have a lot in common with this famous Pharisee.

Ultimately, like Nicodemus, we have to choose to be followers of Christ fully mindful that the process is not easy, predictable, linear or quick. And that’s why we have Lent. Lent provides us with an incredible opportunity to step back, take a deep breath, appreciate God’s unconditional love and contemplate God’s ultimate act of redemption. What we learn from Nicodemus this morning is that being born from above takes time. And what we learn from Jesus’ interaction with Nicodemus is that God is infinitely patient, does not expect us to be perfect, loves us unconditionally and is waiting for us with open arms – dramatically symbolized by the open arms of Jesus on the cross. Amen.

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Donald Romanik is the President of the Episcopal Church Foundation.

Shortcut: Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, Year A (5 March 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday in Lent, March 5, 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: Genesis 2:15-17;3:1-7; Psalm 32; Romans 5:12-19; and St. Matthew 4:1-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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shortcutsThe First Sunday in Lent … that’s today. That means we get the story of Jesus being chased into the desert by the Holy Spirit after his baptism by John in the River Jordan, the story of Jesus being accosted in the desert by the Tempter (whom Matthew in our Gospel text today also names “the devil” – in Greek the word is diabolos meaning “accuser”), the story of Jesus refusing to give into the three temptations. We always get some version of this story on the First Sunday in Lent. And this year the Lectionary gives us a double-whammy of temptation by linking that familiar gospel tale with the equally family story of Eve and the serpent and the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the so-called “apple.”

Temptation writ large . . . and in reading these stories again and again over the week, I kept coming back to a single question, “What exactly is temptation?”

My colleague David Henson, in the on-going online dialog we clergy seem to have about preaching and the lessons given us to preach about, was addressing the dualistic nature of the gospel lesson, how it can be wrongly understood to suggest that God and the Tempter are equals. He rightly observed that the story of Christ’s temptations can encourage us to think that there

. . . are two powerful deities – God and Satan, good and evil – commanding from the two opposing fronts of heaven and hell and warring against each other for the territory of earth and for the soul of humankind. (The Rev. David Henson, Facebook posting, March 4, 2017)

And he correctly pointed out that that would be a gross distortion of the Christian understanding of God and creation. The Tempter, the Accuser, Satan, the Devil, the wily old serpent, is not God’s equal! In the course of that discussion, David said that one reason this story can encourage that incorrect dualistic thinking is that

. . . ultimately it makes folks profoundly uncomfortable to consider Jesus being tempted — really, really, really — wanting these things, really feeling the seductive call of comfort, power, and security.

We don’t want to think of the Savior of the world, the Incarnate Son of God, as temptable.

David’s comments, however, really stirred up for me this question about what temptation really is.

Another clergy friend, Nurya Love Parish, is an Episcopal priest who like me was born and raised in Las Vegas and who, also like me, was wasn’t raised in the church. She wrote in an article in a recent issue of The Christian Century that the three temptations offered to Jesus “stand for pride, power, and possession.” She said that when she first realized that, having read it in another essay during her pre-Christian life,

I didn’t know much about Jesus, the devil, or that desert, but I knew pride. I knew the desire for power; I knew the wish for possessions. I was familiar with all of them, from painful experience.

All of a sudden the story wasn’t just about Jesus; it was about me, too. And not just me: it was about all humanity. I knew from the history books and the newspapers that we all struggle with pride, power, and possession. People and nations fight, kill, and die over who is worthy of respect, who gets control, and who owns what. The more I thought about it, the more these three simple words seemed to be at the heart of the human experience. (Living by the Word)

When I read what Nurya wrote, I thought it was spot on, and I still do, but it occurred to me that pride, power, and possession don’t really help us, or at least they don’t help me, to understand today’s other temptation story, the tale of Eve (and Adam) and the serpent and the so-called “apple.” If the temptations of Christ represent pride, power, and possession, what does the temptation of the proto-parents in Eden represent?

Well, in the midst of contemplating that, I was also doing my reading for the Education for Ministry seminar group that I participate in each week at the Cathedral, and in this week’s readings I was reminded of the theological focus of our study this year, the idea of “deification” or (to give it its technical Greek name) theosis.

Way back in the Second Century, the Bishop of Lyons in what is now France, a man named Irenaeus, wrote a book entitled Against All Heresies (Adversus omnes Haereses) in which he said, “The sure and true Teacher, the Word of God, Jesus Christ our Lord, on account of his immense love was made what we are, so that we might become what he is.” A later bishop, Athanasius of Alexandria, about 150 years later wrote, “God became human that humans might become God.” (De Incarnatione) What these ancient writers are saying is that the ultimate end of human beings is union with the divine. This is what is meant by “deification” or theosis.

You will remember, I’m sure, the words of Genesis in which the creation of humankind is described, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.” (Gen 1:27) The Russian Orthodox theologian Paul Evdokimov says that our creation in the image of God predestines us to theosis. Our creation in God’s image gives us a built-in longing to be united with our Creator, an innate desire for deification.

The the late-17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote about this longing in this way:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself. (Pensées VII[425])

Pascal’s formulation has been summarized by the often-heard comment that we human beings have a “God-shaped hole” in us.

So it seems to me that the temptation of Eve (and Adam) is the attempt to take a shortcut to the human destiny of deification. This is what the wily serpent promises her, “You will not die; . . . when you eat of [the fruit] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Gen 3:4-5) You will have taken a shortcut to theosis!

Shortcuts are also what the Tempter offers to Jesus.

Have you ever baked bread? I used to bake bread every week. Back in my college days, I lived in a house with six other guys, nine dogs, and a cat. We shared the cooking responsibilities (well, the guys did – the dogs and the cat, not so much). I took on the task of making our breads. I loved to bake bread; there is something intensely satisfying about it. It’s a process: the measuring, the mixing, letting the dough rise, punching it down to rise again, forming and proofing the loaves, and then the oven . . . and what comes out! It’s heaven! I love it. I wish I had the time to do it now. The Accuser’s suggestion that Jesus turn stones into bread is a shortcut temptation; forget the process, skip the work and the effort, go straight to that wonderful stuff that comes out of the oven.

The proposal that he throw himself off the pinnacle of the Temple in a show of religious power is another temptation to shortcut. Do that, make a big splashy show of being divine, and you won’t have to go through the laborious, frustrating, and frankly painful process of calling, teaching, and leading disciples. The idea that Jesus might accept political domination of the world is nothing more than the temptation to shortcut the process of being and setting a moral example, of being and showing the love and life of God in human form.

Just as, for Eve (and Adam) the temptation to eat the fruit was a temptation to shortcut the long process of learning and growing into unity and community with their God, into theosis or deification, for the Son of God the Devil’s offerings of power, pride, and possession were temptations to shortcut the process of being incarnate, of taking part in those things which my friend Nurya correctly tagged as being “at the heart of the human experience.”

So it occurred to me that that is what temptation is. That there is really only one temptation – the shortcut. That every temptation boils down to what we in the modern world have come to call “instant gratification.”

I don’t spend all my reading time on the Bible, on Education for Ministry, or on theology. I actually do take time to read for fun and currently my leisure reading is a collection of novellas by the famous science fiction writer Ursula Leguin. They have been gathered into a single volume entitled The Found and the Lost. One of the stories is a first-person narrative called A Woman’s Liberation and tells the tale of woman raised in slavery who gains freedom and becomes a scholar. At one point, describing her education, she writes,

What I loved to learn was history. I had grown up without any history. There was nothing [where I lived] but the way things were. Nobody knew anything about any time when things had been different. Nobody knew there was any place where things might be different. We were enslaved by the present time. (Ursula Leguin, The Found and the Lost, Saga Press, New York:2016, page 389)

This is what the temptations of Eve (and Adam) and of Jesus represent: entrapment in a dead-end present where the process of growth, like the yeast in the bread, like the gathering of a community of disciples, like human development into theosis, is cut short.

To be sure, Jesus told us to live in the present. “Do not worry about tomorrow,” he said, “for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Mat 6:34) But the reason he gave that instruction was clear: he said, “Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or What will we wear?’ For . . . your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mat 6:31-33) Do not be enslaved by the present time; do not live in a dead-end present where you have filled your “God-shaped hole” with instant gratification because of worry over pride, power, and possession.

Live in an open-ended present where things might be different, an open-ended present that leads to the kingdom of God and his righteousness, an open-ended present that leads to deification.

So . . . I think that’s the answer to my question, “What is temptation?” Temptation is a shortcut that leads to entrapment in a dead-end present. This is why Lent is a season, a process that begins with the story of Jesus’ temptation. It reminds us to live in the open-ended present where the yeast can rise, where the community can form, where becoming is as important as being.

God became human . . . and refused the temptation to shortcut that process . . . that humans might become gods . . . despite Eve’s (and Adam’s) giving into the temptation to shortcut that process. Live into that process; live in the open-ended present, the open-ended Presence of God. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Standing on Holy Ground (Sermon for Lent 3, RCL Year C) – 28 February 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday in Lent, February 28, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; and St. Luke 13:1-9. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Moses and the Burning Bush by Marc ChagallMoses is told to remove his sandals as he stands before the Burning Bush: “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex 3:5)

Draw away the covering that has protected you. Clear away the barrier between yourself and the earth so that your bare feet may touch and sink and take root in this holy ground. Let this living soil coat your skin. Dig in, feel your way, and find your balance here upon this mountain, so that its life becomes your life, its fire your fire, its sacred sand and loam and rock the ground of your seeing, speaking, and calling. (Anathea Portier-Young, Assoc Prof, Old Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC)

Those of us taking part in the Growing a Rule of Life Lenten study program were asked, in the second week, to consider the “soil” in which our spiritual life is rooted, to think about the people, institutions, situations, and circumstances that form the ground out which the person we are has grown. I didn’t think of it as I was working through that exercise, but perhaps we ought to have thought of metaphorically “removing our sandals” as Moses is instructed to do, of digging our toes into that rich, holy soil of our pasts in which we are planted and from which we draw much of what sustains us.

This is the metaphor that Jesus uses today when he is confronted by some of his followers about the problem known to theologians as “theodicy,” the problem so aptly put in the title of Rabbi Harold Kushner’s popular book of a few decades ago: “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (When Bad Things Happen to Good People)

Let’s back up a few verses and situate ourselves with Jesus and his followers. He has been teaching them about God’s grace (reminding them of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field), about the need for realistic preparation (telling the parable of the foolish rich man who built barns to store his excess not realizing he would soon parish and lose everything, as well as the story of the unfaithful servant caught unawares by the unexpected return of his employer), and about the divisive nature of the gospel (admonishing them that his disciples are likely to find themselves at odds with members of their own families). He has finished this series of teachings with a pointed remark about his listeners’ lack of understanding: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Lk 12:56-57)

Apparently some of them, trying to assert their theological savvy, bring up an incident involving some Galileans who were killed while at worship in the Temple. We don’t actually have any history of this episode, but scholars surmise that these pilgrims were, perhaps, accused of some insurrection and that Pilate had sent troops into the Temple precincts who killed them as they were making their sacrifices thus “mingling” their blood with that of the animals they had offered. Such cruelty and desecration would not have been out of character for Pilate. In any event, these people bring this episode up with Jesus as if to demonstrate their understanding of sin and divine retribution.

Gary Larsen cartoonSome years ago the cartoonist Gary Larson published a cartoon of an old white-bearded judgmental God sitting at his computer terminal watching the live-streaming video of some feckless and unsuspecting sinner walk under a piano suspended from a crane while God’s finger is poised over a button on the keyboard labeled “Smite”. This seems to be the God these folk are describing to Jesus, a bookkeeper god who keeps a running tally of the good things and bad things we may do and then at some arbitrary point pushes the “Smite” button and puts paid to our cosmic account. This is the god of those who ask “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” when something bad happens to them. This is the god of those who say “Everything happens for a reason” when something bad happens to someone else. This is the picture of God that Jesus rejects utterly and completely.

Probably to his listeners’ surprise, Jesus does not congratulate them on their understanding. Instead, he challenges them. “What?” he asks, “Do you think those people cut down in the Temple were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” And he ups the ante by mentioning another story that might have been running in the current edition of the local equivalent of the Medina County Gazette, the local tragedy of eighteen people killed with an old and poorly-constructed stone tower fell on them. “What about them?” he asks, “Were they any less righteous than all other Jerusalemites?”

And he answers his own questions, “No, they weren’t. They were no worse than anyone else and, guess what, you’re no better.” If there were bumper stickers in ancient Israel, Jesus might have quoted one that has been popular in our country for several years: in two words it says, sort of, “Stuff happens.” That is Jesus’ message to his listeners, the consoling news that when bad stuff happens, it is not punishment for our sins or for anyone else’s. Of course, that carries with it the corollary that when good stuff happens, it is not a reward for our righteousness. Stuff – good, bad, and indifferent stuff – just happens. And we need to be ready for it . . . that, I think, is the meaning of Jesus’ less-than-consoling follow-up comment: “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Is Jesus threatening them or us with a suddenly collapsing roof or homicidal security forces? I don’t think so. Rather, he is encouraging us, as he had in the conversation which led up to this discussion, to prepare, to repent, to get ready, else like those who died in the Temple or under the falling tower, we will die (in the words of the Great Litany) “suddenly and unprepared.” We will die, not because of our sinfulness, but still mired in it, still not ready for whatever it is that will come after. “Stuff happens; be ready for it,” is Jesus’ message.

The consolation Jesus offers is in the parable of the fig tree which he then adds. It’s a parable we are all familiar with and one which, I’m sure, we’ve heard interpreted in the way in which Professor R. Alan Culpepper summarizes the teaching of many Christian interpreters who “have been quick to see allegorical meanings in the parable. The fig tree and the vineyard represent Israel, the owner is God, the gardener is Jesus, and the three years refer to the period of Jesus’ ministry.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon:Nashville, 1995, Vol. IX, p 271) In fact, I found just such an interpretation in the commentary of a Baptist theologian who wrote:

We can surmise that the barren fig tree represents the people of God, including Jesus’ listeners, who are not bearing the fruit of repentance. *** God is frustrated with the lack of repentance that characterizes his people, and he is losing patience with them. Jesus may take on the role of the gardener who urges forbearance and one more chance for change and growth. His presence among them, including his teachings and miraculous works, are like the extra attention the gardener gives to the tree by digging around its base and spreading manure to nourish the soil and the roots. However, even the gardener recognizes time is limited. (Dr. Angela Reed, Asst Prof, Practical Theology, George W. Truett Theological Seminary, Waco, TX)

That’s certainly the sort of understanding of this parable that I learned in Sunday school, and if we divorce it from its context, if we don’t take into account the conversation that preceded it, that interpretation sort of makes sense. But Jesus’ has just finished telling us that God doesn’t operate that way, that God doesn’t cut down fruitless trees, that God doesn’t crush unproductive vines, that God doesn’t keep accounts and pay back sinfulness or lack of righteousness with calamities as punishment. So, I don’t think that allegorical reading makes any sense.

So who might the owner, the gardener, and the tree be . . . ?

When Lent began, we were reminded of this claim of ownership: “And the devil said to [Jesus], ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please.’” (Lk 4:6) Now, granted, the devil is “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44) and we can’t trust a thing he says, but the author of the Second Letter to the Corinthians seems to confirm Satan’s claim when he calls him “the god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers.” (2 Cor 4:4)

There’s your vineyard owner: Satan. It’s Satan, not God, who is the bookkeeper. It was that wily old serpent in the Garden who suggested to Adam and Eve that it wasn’t fair that only God should have the knowledge of good and evil, that they should balance things out by eating the fruit and becoming like God. It was Satan, going to and fro in the world, who argued that Job would answer calamities with curses, balance books between him and God. It is Satan who convinces humankind that the universe should make sense, or . . . if you don’t need that personification of evil, it’s our own human desire for the cosmos to balance on scales of our own creation. We want the world to make sense on our terms. Cancer kills innocent children and we demand that there be a reason for that: it’s not comfortable to face the chaotic and unpredictable reality that “Stuff happens.” Religious fanatics bomb innocent civilians out of their homes and the world is awash in refugees and we want someone to pay the price. Playground bullies grow up to be successful real estate tycoons and powerful politicians, and we want that to make sense.

We long for a universe in which the cosmic spreadsheet tallies up the good and adds up the bad and somehow comes out at least balanced or, preferably, maybe a little bit to the good. It is our own sense of fairness, our own need for equilibrium that owns the garden. But a world of equilibrium, where everything balances according to our human sense of fairness or good bookkeeping would not be the natural world. At best, it would be a mechanistic cosmos, a machine churning out rewards and retributions, a universe fit for automata but not for flesh-and-blood human beings. I was reminded recently of a poem by D.H. Lawrence entitled The Healing:

I am not a mechanism; an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds deep to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
And patience, and a certain difficult repentance,
Long difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
Which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.

We are all ill from wounds to the soul and we have all sanctified that same mistake: the self-destructive mistake of yearning for and trying to create the balance-sheet world of “fairness.” To paraphrase cartoonist Walt Kelly’s Pogo the possum, “We have met the bookkeeper, and he is us.”

We are the ones who would chop down the fruitless tree and uproot the unproductive vine. The tragedy is that we are also the tree! Standing there with our account books in hand, it is our own lives over which we stand in judgment: “Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Everything happens for a reason!” So disappointed are we in the stuff that happens (or doesn’t happen) that we are so often ready to uproot everything, chop it all down, start over in hopes that next time the accounts will show a profit, or at least be in balance. That’s when God the gardener steps in and says to the garden owner in us, “Hold on! Give it another year.” That’s when God says to the tree in us, “Take off your sandals; you are standing on holy ground. Dig your toes into the soil of your life. I’ll add some things here to nourish you: people who love you, a church community that supports you, a natural environment to sustain you. Take root; be nurtured; bear fruit!”

That’s when we realize that, indeed, our souls thirst for God, our flesh faints for God, that we have been like trees in a barren and dry land where there is no water. (Ps 63:1) But, with our shoes removed, our toes digging into the soil of God’s holy place, finding our balance upon God’s holy mountain, we realize that, in the midst of all the stuff that happens, the great I AM, God who is who God is, the Lord, the God of our ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, will be with us, not just for a year or three years, but for all generations. (Ex 3:15) “God is faithful, and he will . . . provide the way [for us] to endure.” (1 Cor 10:13) In the midst of all the stuff that happens, God will dig into the soil of our lives, and put nutrients on our roots, and we will bear fruit.

“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex 3:5) 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.

Beloved Insecurity (Sermon for Lent I, RCL Year C) – 14 February 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday in Lent, February 14, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8b-13; and St. Luke 4:1-13. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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417px-Temptation_of_Christ

If you would enter
into the wilderness,
do not begin
without a blessing.

Do not leave
without hearing
who you are:
Beloved,
named by the One
who has traveled this path
before you.

Do not go
without letting it echo
in your ears,
and if you find
it is hard
to let it into your heart,
do not despair.
That is what
this journey is for.

I cannot promise
this blessing will free you
from danger,
from fear,
from hunger
or thirst,
from the scorching
of sun
or the fall
of the night.

But I can tell you
that on this path
there will be help.

I can tell you
that on this way
there will be rest.

I can tell you
that you will know
the strange graces
that come to our aid
only on a road
such as this,
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:

Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

That is the poem Beloved Is Where We Begin by Jan Richardson from her collection of verse entitled Circle of Grace. It speaks to us of the gospel story we have just heard; it speaks to us as we begin our Lenten journey. We know the story – we know that this “whispered name” is what Jesus heard right before, “full of the Spirit,” he was led into the desert: “You are my Son, my Beloved. In you I am well pleased.”

Today’s Old Testament lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy was clearly chosen to make the connection between the Hebrews’ forty years of wandering and Jesus’ forty days in the desert, between their celebration by feasting and his time of fasting. In Year A of the Lectionary cycle, however, we are asked to consider Genesis 3 and the “fall” of Adam and Eve, their giving into the serpent’s temptation to eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. I suspect that, when most of us think of temptation, it is that story we most often recall.

You may remember a few weeks ago, when we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism, that I read you the genealogy which Luke places between that story and this tale of his time in the desert. That Luke closed the baptism story and introduces the temptations by tracing Jesus’ descent from Adam, suggests that Luke is thinking of the Garden of Eden story, as well. Perhaps Luke is making the point that, like the temptation of Adam and Eve, the temptations put before Jesus had very little to do with a power grab by Satan and almost everything to do with playing on human feelings of insecurity and mistrust.

This is also true, however, of the Hebrews’ forty-years journey through the wilderness of Sinai. They, too, faced desert insecurities during those four decades and those temptations were parallel to those offered Jesus. Like Adam and Eve, the first temptation offered Jesus is one of food, playing human insecurity around nourishment and food, both physical and spiritual. The wandering Hebrews, too, faced that anxiety. Remember that they complained of Moses: “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Ex 16:3)

The second temptation of Jesus, the offer of lordship over all the kingdoms of the earth, is less about being a ruler and more about simply being recognized; it is the insecurity of identity, of being known to one’s fellow human beings. In the wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites again railed against Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3) They were afraid that they would all parish and that no one would remember them, that their existence and their identity would be forgotten.

The third temptation addresses the human insecurity of support, the human need for reassurance that God cares. “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from the pinnacle of the Temple; surely God will command his angels will save you!” says Satan. The Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai, when Moses was delayed for 40 days and 40 nights, began to feel that same insecurity; they begged Aaron to make them a god. He did, a Golden Calf, before which they danced and felt reassured. (Ex 32)

Forty days and nights on the mountain, forty years on the desert journey, forty days in the desert . . . Why the forty days? I’ve read that whenever we see “forty” in the Holy Scriptures what it is really saying to us is “this lasts as long as it takes for us to figure this thing out.” It means “as long as it takes for you to hear that word, ‘Beloved,’” “as long as it takes for you to know that the one who loves you will not abandon you, will not leave you without nourishment, will not let you cease to be as if you had never existed, will not fail to care for you and support you.” As long as it takes.

The 17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal described human beings as having what he called a “God-shaped hole,” not a flaw, but rather a natural yearning, “the empty print and trace” of a true happiness that once was there, an “infinite abyss” that can only be filled by God. (Pensees, 10:148) Similarly, St. Augustine of Hippo, the 4th Century African bishop, in the first lines of his Confessions, wrote that “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in God.” (1.1.1) Based on such insights, Lutheran theologian David Lose has suggested that before there was “original sin” there is “original insecurity.” He writes, “Adam and Eve are tempted to overcome that original insecurity not through their relationship with God but through the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, fruit that in that moment looks to be shaped just like their hole.” The Hebrews in the desert of Sinai thought that the soup kettles and stew pots of Egypt would fill the hole, or that water from a desert spring would fill the hole, or that a Golden Calf cast from their earrings and necklaces would fill the hole. Satan tried to convince Jesus that bread made from stones, or rulership of the world’s nations, or the ability to fly like Superman, held up by the angels, would fill that hole.

Over and over again in human life, the devil attempts to sow mistrust: you may go hungry; you may not be recognized and appreciated; you cannot trust God to sustain and care for you. In the wilderness, Jesus replies with Scripture, not because life’s challenges can be answered by remembering or quoting Bible verses but because Jesus finds in Scripture, as we can, the words to give voice to his trust in the Father. At the core of each reply is Jesus’ absolute trust in God for spiritual and physical nourishment, for identity and ministry, for support and care.

And where does Jesus find that? Just where the Hebrews ultimately found it. For them, the nourishment, identity, and support were not, ultimately, found in a homeland; they were found where God had put them, in their hearts. Looking for security outside themselves, they failed to see it inside. Over and over again the security they longed for was offered to them, well before they entered the Promised Land. Manna falling from the sky, miraculous springs of water opening to assuage their thirst, rules to live by offered on Mt. Sinai – these weren’t just sign-posts pointing to the promise. They were and are the promise! The Hebrews were looking for a home, a Promised Land which would sustain and support them. But they had that all along. God was their home, their sustenance, their support.

Unlike the Israelites, Jesus knew that all along. Luke drops this short phrase into the story – “full of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and, thus, able to respond with steadfast sureness and faith when tempted by the Devil. Every one of us knows how hard it is to resist temptation; the world (if not the Devil) plays on our insecurities all the time! Jesus being filled with the Holy Spirit in the desert was not an isolated or special thing, a temporary truth for him alone; it is a promise for us. It is a promise that has been for all of God’s People since the beginning and will always be, for Adam and Eve, for Moses and the Israelites, for you, and for me.

That insecure, yearning hole in the middle of our existence is already filled, we just need to realize that! For the next forty days, or the next forty years, or as long as it takes, we need to come to the recognition that that “God-shaped hole” is already “filled with the Holy Spirit,” that the Lord has always been our refuge, to come to the knowledge that the Most High has always been our habitation, to understand that we are filled with the Holy Spirit, and to know those

strange graces
that come to our aid . . . .
that fly to meet us
bearing comfort
and strength,
that come alongside us
for no other cause
than to lean themselves
toward our ear
and with their
curious insistence
whisper our name:
Beloved.
Beloved.
Beloved.

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.

Washing Away RFRA: Sermon for Maundy Thursday – 2 April 2015

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A sermon offered on Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26, and John 13:1-17,31b-35 [all of Ch. 13 was read]. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Foot WashingEvery year on Maundy Thursday in the Episcopal Church we do this thing: we gather for Eucharist and we hear these lessons – the story of the Passover from the Book of Exodus, St. Paul’s retelling of the institution narrative of the Eucharist, and St. John’s story of the Last Supper in which he focuses not on the meal but on Jesus’ act of humility and service during the meal (probably quite early in the evening) of washing the feet of the others present.

In many parishes the liturgy of this evening will include a formal washing of the feet of selected participants by the presiding priest and others. You may have seen pictures or video of the Pope doing so in the Vatican’s celebration of this feast. We’ve broadened that practice to allow any who wish to follow Jesus’ example to do so during the Agape Feast. There are foot washing stations in the Parish Hall for that purpose.

Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet? Tradition (as I just mentioned) tells us that it was to display and model humility and servanthood. In First Century Palestine, sandals were the most common form of footwear. Walking the dusty desert roads made one’s feet filthy; it was imperative that that be washed before a communal meal. In those days, people didn’t sit on chairs to eat at a table. Instead, they reclined at low tables; feet were very much in evidence. When Jesus rose from the table and began to wash the others’ feet, he was doing the work of the lowliest of servants. The disciples must have been stunned by this act of self-effacement and condescension. The humility expressed by this action with towel and basin foreshadowed Jesus’ ultimate act of humility on the cross.

Although the Lectionary only requires that we read certain verses of Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel, I
chose to read the entire chapter because I think tonight we need to remember exactly whose feet Jesus washed. When we read only that he washed “the disciples’ feet” we can gloss over and forget that John makes it very plain that among that group were two who, to our modern minds, clearly did not deserve the honor: Judas, who would betray him, and Peter, who would deny him. And John also makes it very clear that Jesus knew that both of them would do what they ultimately did.

I think it is important that we note that in particular this year, this Holy Week because for the past several days we have all heard a great deal about something called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, something that was passed 25 years ago by the federal government and versions of which have been adopted in several states, most recently next door to us to the west in the State of Indiana. The law recently passed in Indiana, though it bears the same name as the federal act, is not the same as the federal law. During the past 25 years various state and federal courts have interpreted and to some extent limited the application of the federal or similar state laws, and so later-enacted versions have tried to answer and overcome those judicial limitations, Indiana’s (and now a nearly-identical act in Arkansas) being the broadest.

The impetus for these laws, of course, is the growing legal acceptance of marriage equality, the movement to allow same-sex couples to contract civil marriage in the same way as opposite-sex couples. Indeed, Professor Garrett Epps, who teaches Constitutional Law at the University of Baltimore, has said of the Indiana law that it is clear that its purpose is

. . . to be used as a means of excluding gays and same-sex couples from accessing employment, housing, and public accommodations on the same terms as other people. True, there is no actual language that says, All businesses wishing to discriminate in employment, housing, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, please check this “religious objection” box. But, as Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” (What Makes Indiana’s Religious-Freedom Law Different?, The Atlantic, March 30, 2015)

And the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son and heir of the Dr. Billy Graham, specifically extolled the Indiana act as “a religious freedom bill that would protect [Christian] business owners who want to decline to provide services for same-sex marriages.” (Facebook posting, March 25, 2015, 10:39 am)

And that is why I think it important that we specifically name Judas and Peter as being among those before whom Jesus knelt in abject humility and washed their feet. Presumably those ‘Christians (about whom Mr. Graham spoke) [want] to live out their faith’ and follow Jesus Christ by refusing to serve those whose actions they find offensive. The problem with that is that Jesus didn’t refuse to serve those whose actions were not only offensive to him; their actions were downright fatal to him! He didn’t refuse to serve them; he knelt in humility and washed their feet!

In answer to Mr. Graham, another Baptist preacher, the Rev. Russ Dean, co-pastor of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, wrote these words in Baptist News Global:

Mr. Graham opposes same-sex marriage. Maybe he also thinks women should stay home with their kids, and not work outside the home. Some Christians believe this, too. Maybe Indiana should also defend an employer’s right to decline employing young mothers? Whose religious views will we defend? Whose won’t we defend? And where will it stop?

Religious freedom is one of the principles that defines the genius of America – but only a secular state can actually defend that principle for all of its citizens. Otherwise, we might have Indiana defending conservative Christian views and another state defending liberal Christian views; one state defending Sharia law and another writing the codes of Leviticus into the law books in favor of a Jewish majority.

What this means, of course, is that some Christian business owners may have to break the law to defend their religious convictions. (Some Christian business owners did just that when Jim Crow was the law of the land.) But when Christians, or adherents of any religion, go into business, the secular law of the land rules. I have no doubt that in the coming months gay marriage will be the law of the entire land, so some Christian business owners will have a decision to make: uphold the law, or defend their understanding of one religious conviction — and suffer the consequence of breaking that law.

But let the government keep its hands out of religion. When the day comes that Christians have no other way to motivate religious conviction than through legislation, secular government will be the least of our worries. (Why do so many Christians think we need government to prop up Jesus?, Baptist News Global, April 1, 2015)

My purpose tonight is not to debate the merits or demerits of marriage equality; like the Rev. Mr. Dean, I believe that in the not-too-distant future same-sex marriages will be legal throughout the country, but whether that is or is not the case is irrelevant at the moment. What is relevant is how we as followers of Jesus Christ relate to and interact with those who are different from us in whatever way and for whatever reason, so different that, in fact, we find them or their actions offensive. What is relevant is this: do we respond to them with arrogance and condescension, enacting laws that some have gone so far as to call “a license to discriminate,” or do we embrace them in humility and love, kneeling down to wash their feet? Do we try to motivate religious conviction by enacting secular legislation or do we do so the way Jesus did, by example?

“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asked Judas and Peter. “If I . . . have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . . If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Judas failed utterly and committed suicide when he realized it; Peter failed, as well, but was forgiven and eventually taught the church “that God shows no partiality” and that “everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” (Acts 10:34,43)

We call this day “Maundy Thursday” from an old English word meaning “commandment” because, after demonstrating what it means by washing their feet, Jesus admonished the Twelve, and through them admonishes us: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

May the world know that we are his disciples because, in everything we do, we do not stand in arrogance and condescension, but rather we kneel in humility and love before others, even those who differ greatly from us, even those who offend us.

Steve Garnaas-Holmes, United Methodist pastor and poet, recently published this poetic prayer with which I will close:

Lord, what was it like to wash Judas’ feet,
on your knees, with such tender kindness?
An act of love, not irony.

What is it like to so humbly serve me,
to kneel at the feet of my failure and betrayals,
to welcome and wash and soothe me
as if I am your master?
Pure love, without demand.

Give me this love, this gentle humility,
to wash the feet of those who oppose me,
to treat them with tender kindness,
to seek always to be closer to you,
on your knees below us all,
serving in perfect love.
(Found at the poet’s Unfolding Light blog)

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.

Kingdom Life: Common, Routine, Mundane – Sermon for Palm Sunday 2015

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

(At the blessing of the Palms, Zechariah 9:9-12 was read. The lessons at the Mass were Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; and Mark 11:1-11. The Passion according to Mark, Mk 14:1-15:47 was read at the conclusion of the service. Other than Zechariah, these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Icon of the Entry Into JerusalemThe four evangelists are traditionally represented by iconic depictions of the emphasis of their gospels. John, whose gospel is the longest and most different of the four tellings of Jesus’ story, is represented by an eagle because he emphasizes the divinity of Christ. Matthew, on the other hand, begins his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy and emphasizes the humanity of the Savior, so he is represented by a man. Luke emphasizes the sacrificial nature of Jesus’ ministry and mission; thus, he is represented by an ox or bull (often winged), the sort of animal offered in the Temple.

Mark, from whose gospel we read today, both the story of Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem and the story of his Passion, is represented by a winged lion, an emblem of kingship, because his emphasis is both the Jewish expectation that the Messiah would be of lineage of King David and that Jesus’ mission was rather different, the ushering in of the kingdom of God.

Which, I think, gives us an interpretive tool for understanding why Mark tells the story of the “triumphal entry” as he does. John, who (as I said) is most interested in portraying Jesus as divine, blows by this episode in two sentences: basically he says, “There was a crowd; they cheered; Jesus rode a donkey. Now back to the important stuff.” Matthew, who (remember) emphasizes Jesus’ humanity, adds the story of Jesus losing his temper with the money changers and animal merchants in the Temple courtyard. Luke, who is intent on portraying Jesus as the sacrificial Messiah predicted by prophecy, adds a second donkey to the parade (because he apparently misunderstands Zechariah, tells us that Jesus wept over Jerusalem on the way in to town, includes a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees about the stones singing “Hosanna,” follows Matthew in adding the cleansing of the Temple, and concludes the story with Jesus staying in the Temple and teaching while the chief priests figure out how to kill him.

Mark, however…. Mark keeps it simple – not as simple as John, but direct and to the point. But what is his point? In the NRSV translation of Mark 11:1-11 which we read at the blessing of the palms there are 232 words. 144 of them are spent describing the process of locating, procuring, saddling (so to speak), and sitting astride the donkey. Only 67 words actually describe Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. And 21 words finish the pericope with its anti-climactic ending, “…and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” I find that intriguing.

Now it may seem silly to count words, but this is one of the things bible scholars do. Sometimes, when studying a book or section of the Bible, we can better understand an author’s theme by examining the frequency of word usage. For example, the use of love in the First Letter of John and the repeated use of immediately in Mark’s gospel are enlightening. So noting the number of words invested in telling the different parts of a story can, perhaps, tell us what the author felt important, and Mark seems to think the getting the donkey is roughly twice as important as Jesus actually riding it into the city!

So let’s first look at the lesser important part of the story, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. What’s going on here? In a word, what’s going on here is politics! Jesus is making a huge political statement; first, he is very clearly acting out the prophecy of Zechariah: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zec 9:9) He is making an acted-out, very visual claim to be the king!

Furthermore, he is doing it in a way that mocks the Roman governor. It was the practice of the governor, at this time Pontius Pilate, to make a show of force at the time of the Passover. Because so many potentially rebellious Jews were gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of an historic liberation, the Exodus from Egypt, the Romans feared the possibility of open revolt. So at the beginning of the festival, the governor would come to Jerusalem from his usual residence at the imperial seaport of Caesarea Maritima, entering the city from the west, riding his war stallion or perhaps in a chariot of state, at the head of long column of armed soldiers. Jesus, on the other hand, is approaching from the east, coming up from Jericho and the Jordan valley, over the Mount of Olives through the peasant villages of Bethphage and Bethany. Riding the lowliest of beasts of burden, the least military of animals, Jesus is making the point that the kingdom of Heaven is about something other than regal authority and military might, something other than power elites and superiority over others.
And, I suggest, that’s why Mark spends so many words telling us about the locating, procuring, preparing, and mounting of the donkey.

There is a legendary suggestion that the two unnamed disciples whom Jesus’ sent to get the colt were none other than James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who just before this (at the end of Mark’s Chapter 10, in fact) had come to Jesus and said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” (10:37) None of the evangelist tell us the names of the two disciples sent to get the donkey, but wouldn’t that have been a graphic way for Jesus to demonstrate to them that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all?” (10:43-44) It is certainly a clear sign that life in the kingdom is not a glamorous thing; it’s not a life of war stallions and chariots, palaces and fine meals, or relaxing at your ease while others bear the burdens. It is not that sort of life for the king, and it is not that sort of life for his followers.

As Tom Long, who teaches preaching at Candler School of Theology, has noted,

The disciples in Mark get a boat ready for Jesus, find out how much food is on hand for the multitude, secure the room and prepare the table for the Last Supper and, of course, chase down a donkey that the Lord needs to enter Jerusalem. Whatever they may have heard when Jesus beckoned, “Follow me,” it has led them into a ministry of handling the gritty details of everyday life. (Donkey Fetchers, in The Christian Century, April 4, 2006, page 18)

Life in the kingdom, where all are servants, is common, routine, mundane, and often exhausting. This, I think, is why Mark makes more of getting the donkey than he does of Jesus’ riding it into Jerusalem. He wants us to understand that life in the kingdom is the life of the king whose faithfulness to his God and to his understanding of his mission required him to take up the cross, the king who said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mk 8:34-35)

Poet Mary Oliver imagined this story from the point of view of the donkey when she wrote:

On the outskirts of Jerusalem
the donkey waited.
Not especially brave, or filled with understanding,
he stood and waited.

How horses, turned out into the meadow,
leap with delight!
How doves, released from their cages,
clatter away, splashed with sunlight!

But the donkey, tied to a tree as usual, waited.
Then he let himself be led away.
Then he let the stranger mount.

Never had he seen such crowds!
And I wonder if he at all imagined what was to happen.
Still, he was what he had always been: small, dark, obedient.

I hope, finally, he felt brave.
I hope, finally, he loved the man who rode so lightly upon him,
as he lifted one dusty hoof, and stepped, as he had to, forward.

(The Poet Thinks about the Donkey, Thirst, Beacon Press, 2007)

The One who rode the donkey also “stepped, as he had to, forward,” into that most common, most routine, most mundane, and most exhausting fact of life. He stepped willingly into death. Therefore,

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”
***
Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore . . . be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, [however common or routine or mundane or exhausting] because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor 15:54-55,57-58)

Let us pray:

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other that the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for Monday in Holy Week, BCP 1979, page 220)

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

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

The Ten Predictions: Hear the Music & Dance – Sermon for Lent 3, 2015

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A sermon offered on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Exodus 20:1-17; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; and John 2:13-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Dancing FeetToday is the Third Sunday in Lent but, being March 8, it is also the day set aside on the calendar (both that of the Church of England and that of the Episcopal Church) for us to remember a hero of the Anglican tradition, a World War I chaplain named Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy. In 1914 he became the vicar of St. Paul’s, Worcester, UK, but a short while later, on the outbreak of war, Kennedy volunteered as a chaplain to the armed forces. He gained the nickname “Woodbine Willie,” for his practice of giving out Woodbine brand cigarettes to soldiers. In 1917, he won the United Kingdom’s Military Cross for bravery at Messines Ridge.

He was, additionally, a poet and an author of Christian social critique. We will sing one of his poems as our offertory presentation hymn this morning. (Not Here for High and Holy Things, Hymn No. 9, in the Episcopal Church’s Hymnal 1982.) Among his works of social criticism is one entitled Democracy and the Dog Collar published in 1921. It is an imagined conversation between a representative of “Organized Religion” and one from “Organized Labour” which was just then getting a strong foothold in Britain. In the introductory chapter, he wrote these words:

God is the great politician. He is out to build a City — the new Jerusalem — and He has to work through subordinates and trust them. We are all His subordinates, some of us knaves and some of us fools (perhaps most of us rum mixtures of the two), but we are all He has got to work with and we all must play our part, we must all be politicians. That’s the essence of Democracy, and with all my heart I believe that the City of God is to be a democracy. It would be tidier, more efficient, and less noisy if it were to be built as an autocracy or an oligarchy; but from what I can make out, God is not out for tidiness (if He is He has scored a failure so far, for this world is about the untidiest place I have ever been in — save us, what a muddle it all is!), or efficiency or silence, God is out for life. That is why He is a democrat, and would rather see a world of fat-headed, blundering, vicious fools that are free than a world of strong, silent super-men that are slaves. If you want to save your soul alive you have got to be a politician — a builder of the City of God — there is no other way. (pp 4-5)

I want neither to endorse nor to debate Studdert-Kennedy’s politics, but I do want to say that I think he is absolutely correct when he says that every Christian must be a politician and, a little later in the book, when he writes, “We cannot have any truck with this travesty of Christ’s truth which would bid His servants save their souls and leave their brothers to be damned. Christianity has to do with politics, in fact it is politics — the politics of God.” (p. 6) What I understand him to mean by that is that Christianity, indeed religion in general, is all relationship. The term “politics” at its most basic means “the complex or aggregate of relationships of people in society.”

Today, we have had a reading from Exodus in which we heard that familiar list of ten items popularly and traditionally known to Christians as “The Ten Commandments.” To Jews, however, they are known as Aseret ha-Dibrot, a phrase more accurately translated as “the Ten Sayings,” or “the Ten Statements,” or “the Ten Declarations,” or “the Ten Words,” but not as “the Ten Commandments,” which would be Aseret ha-Mitzvot. These Ten Declarations form the very basic politics, the basic societal relationships of the Judaism from which our faith sprung and which our Lord famously summarized in this manner:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets. (Mt 22:37-40, quoted in The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 319)

Now, traditionally these “Commandments” are considered to be what is called “apodictic law,” which means that which is “absolutely certain or necessary.” The Decalogue (another name for the Ten Commandments, a Greek word meaning Ten Laws) is seen to be the basic foundation upon which was built the more detailed instructions of the whole Mosaic Law that follows in Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Those 613 detailed mandates, or mitzvot, are the Law Jesus referred to as “hanging” on the two Great Commandments.

Tom Long, a Presbyterian seminary professor, once wrote of the Decalogue:

In the popular religious consciousness, the Ten Commandments have somehow become burdens, weights and heavy obligations. For many, the commandments are encumbrances placed on personal behavior. Most people cannot name all ten, but they are persuaded that at the center of each one is a finger-wagging “thou shalt not.” For others, the commandments are heavy yokes to be publicly placed on the necks of a rebellious society. (Dancing the Decalogue)

But as I was studying the Scriptures for this sermon, I learned two things about these passage from Exodus: one that I had known and forgotten, and one I’d never known before.

The former is that the articles of the Decalogue are numbered differently among the religious traditions. Jews number the Ten Sayings differently from Christians and – among Christians – Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Lutherans number them differently than do Anglicans, the Reformed Churches, and other Protestants. That really is a minor matter inasmuch as we all eventually get to the same bottom line, except for this – Jews separately enumerate the first several words of what we historically call “the first commandment” and make it an introductory comment to the entire set.

Take a look at page 350 in The Book of Common Prayer 1979. This is the contemporary English version of the Decalogue (there is a Jacobean English version beginning on page 317). Notice the way it begins: “Hear the commandments of God to his people:” and then follows what we have always taken to be the first commandment: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of bondage. You shall have no other gods but me.” In the Jewish understanding, that first sentence is not part of the first commandment. And, truly, it is not a commandment at all; rather, it is the statement of a relationship out of which all that follows flows.

God first establishes God’s relationship with the People; what follows is a description of the behavior of a free people, people whom God has freed “out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” As Tom Long puts it, “Understanding the Decalogue as a set of burdens overlooks something essential, namely that they are prefaced not by an order – ‘Here are ten rules. Obey them!’ – but instead by a breathtaking announcement of freedom.” These people may be, as Studdert-Kennedy remarked, “fat-headed, blundering, vicious fools,” but they are free and in their freedom, if they are in this right relationship with God, this is how they will behave: they will worship God and no other; they will keep the Sabbath; they will honor their elders; they will not commit murder or adultery; and so forth.

The second thing I learned is that at least some, if not all, of the so-called commandments are stated in a Hebraic verb form called “the infinitive absolute.” There’s nothing quite like it in English grammar. It is a verb form that, while it can be used for mandates and instructions, is most often used for prophecies!

Putting these two learnings together, I have come to the conclusion that these “ten words” are better thought of, not as “ten commandments,” but as the “ten predictions.” It’s not a case of “because I am your God you will do this” but rather “because I am your God you will do this.” God does not give the law as a means to salvation; the “ten words” are not conditions precedent, which is what commandments are: “If you do these things, then God will be your God” (and if you don’t . . . well, then, watch out!) They are, rather, statements of what happens simply because God is our God; they are predictions of what naturally follows from that relationship. The relationship comes first and this manner of life is the outcome. Lutheran theologian James Arne Nestingen has said that the Ten Commandments are “gifts of redemption, a gracious bequeathal given in the course of release from bondage,” (Word & World) or as my friend and colleague Peggy Blanchard said, “The Decalogue is not a prescription but a description.”

If the ten articles of Exodus 20 are “laws,” they are more like the laws of nature than like statutes. They are statements of the uniformities and regularities in the world, descriptions of the way the world is, principles which govern the phenomena of existence. Add two to two and you get four. Drop an object from a tall building and it will accelerate toward the ground at a rate of 9.8 meters per second squared.

Our saint-of-the-day, Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy, in another of his books wrote:

A man cannot act right unless he believes right, because men always act according to their belief. A man may not act according to the belief he professes, but he will always act according to the belief he really holds — he cannot help it. * * * A man must always act upon his neighbour according to his master-passion — his real belief. He must always love his neighbour as he loves his God. That your love of your neighbour depends for its force on the love of your God is not a Christian dogma but a law of social life, as the law of gravity is of natural life, just as universal and just as inevitable. (Lies!, 1919, pp. 109, 111)

Love God, love your neighbor, “on these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.” Be in a right relationship with your God and you will behave as described in Exodus 20; it is “a law of social life, as the law of gravity is of natural life, just as universal and just as inevitable.”

To quote Tom Long one last time, “The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.” Remember what the Psalmist wrote:

The law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure and gives wisdom to the innocent.
The statutes of the Lord are just and rejoice the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear and gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:7-8, BCP Version)

Be in that right relationship with God and you will be revived, you will be given wisdom, your heart will rejoice, you will catch the wind of God’s Spirit and soar; hear the music of the good news and you will dance. Amen.

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

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