That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Lent (page 2 of 5)

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

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

What Is Lent All About? – Sermon for Lent 1, 2015

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A sermon offered on the First Sunday in Lent, February 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; and Mark 1:9-15. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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God the Father and Holy SpiritWhat is Lent all about?

Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.” Similarly, an interdenominational Lenten devotional refers to Lent as a “journey [on which] you seek – and find – God.”

That’s one way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast” — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.

Let’s look at Mark’s spare and barebones description of it all again. It’s a short Gospel text, so let’s read it in full one more time:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

OK. It doesn’t seem to me that Jesus needed to look for God! God is always there (which is the promise of the story of the rainbow in today’s Genesis reading) and the presence of God is very apparent in these first few lines of this Gospel story. The Holy Spirit (the Third Person of the Trinity) doesn’t just make a polite visit here; she’s not just gliding in here or fluttering by. No! The heavens, Mark says, were “torn apart” and the Spirit (in the form of a dove) came diving done like some eagle homing in on its prey! And there’s a bit of a mistranslation here, as well; the English translation we read says the Spirit descended “on” Jesus but the Greek makes more sense if we read it as saying that the Spirit came down into Jesus.

This really is an active, even violent description, that Mark has laid out for us. Jesus doesn’t just emerge from the water like someone stepping carefully out of a swimming pool; the Greek is “euthus anabainon” – Jesus “immediately ascended” out of the water; like a whale breaching the surface of the sea. And the Spirit, having torn the heaven’s apart, “katabainon eis auton“, dives down into Jesus. Rapid movement up is met with rapid movement down, a collision of the Son and the Spirit. This dove dove deep into Jesus; Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit.

And, of course, God the Father (First Person of the Trinity) is right there as well, fairly shouting, “You’re my son! I love you! I’m please as punch with you!” Jesus doesn’t need to go on any journey to find this God; he doesn’t need any time to get to know this God any better!

So what happens next?

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

Mark continues his energetic, and here overtly violent, description of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit. There’s a sense here that Jesus is not a willing volunteer; the Spirit is making no polite suggestion that Jesus go spend a few days in the desert so that he can know “the presence of God in everyday life.” No! Jesus is prodded, herded, pushed, forced, driven out into the rough country to cozy up to the wild beasts.

Why? What was he to do out there?

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Peiradzomenos hupo tou satana” reads the Greek: literally, “he was tested by the tempter.” Our English translation eliminates the definite article that is clearly there in the Greek, “the satan,” the tempter, and then capitalizes “satan” thus personalizing this tempter and, in fact, makes us think of the Devil of later Christian poetic mythology. But who else might the tempter have been?

“Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming on their changeful potency,” wrote William Shakespeare in the play Troilus and Cressida (Troilus speaking to Cressida and Aeneas, Act IV, scene 4). “The devil tempts us not — ’tis we tempt him….” wrote George Eliot in her 19th Century novel Felix Holt, the Radical.

Could it be that the temptations Jesus faced were those he put before himself? We certainly put enough temptations in front of ourselves; we are, more often than not, our own tempters. Could it be that Jesus’ tempter was his own human self? Scripture reminds us (and the Lenten preface of our Eucharistic prayer repeats) that in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Could it be that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to confront himself, to learn about himself?

If Lent is not a journey to find God, could it be journey to find ourselves? It could indeed! Lent, it has been said, is a period of self-discovery in which we encounter the parts of ourselves we don’t want to discover. If Jesus was made to spend time in the desert to learn about himself, then such self-discovery during this season surely would be, as Gregory’s great Lenten hymn proclaims, a reminder that “though frail we be, in [God’s] own image were we made.” Lent is a time to find ourselves, a time to reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. This is surely what those forty days in the desert were for Jesus, as Mark demonstrates when he concludes this brief story with these words:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

At the end of his 40 days with the wild beasts, Jesus knew who he was and what he was about. What can we do, then, to experience a similar self-revelation? How can we reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are to get there?

What we can do is to engage in a Lenten discipline, a rule-of-life for these 40 days. I plan to adopt a program set out several years ago by a famous bishop of Rome. It is known as “the daily decalogue of Pope John XXIII.” I plan to use it as a Lenten spiritual exercise to be renewed and lived out each day. As its name implies, it has ten parts:

  1. Only for today, I will seek to live the live-long day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
  2. Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
  3. Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
  4. Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
  5. Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
  6. Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
  7. Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
  8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
  9. Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
  10. Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.

I hope that through this daily wilderness exercise of prayer, fasting, and discipline I will find myself, even those parts of me that I don’t want to discover.

May your Lent, too, be a wilderness time of self-discovery. Remember, you don’t need to look for God; God is always there. This Lent, look for yourself. 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.

Life Is A Banquet And Most Poor Suckers Are Starving To Death: Sermon for Ash Wednesday 2015

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A sermon offered on the Day of Ashes, Wednesday, February 18, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Joel 2:1-2,12-17; Psalm 103 or 103:8-14; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6,16-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Banquet“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!”

When I began contemplating a sermon for the beginning of Lent, that famous aphorism by Auntie Mame, a line from the movie of that name spoken by the character to her nephew Patrick, came to immediately to mind and, as I am sure you may be, I was more than a bit surprised. “What,” I thought, “is that all about? What is the Spirit trying to tell me about Lent, what would the Spirit have me tell you about Lent, with that statement which seems so antithetical to everything we have been taught about Lent?”

We have been taught – haven’t we? – that Lent is about “giving up” something enjoyable? In fact, in a few minutes, I’m going to read the Prayer Book’s Ash Wednesday exhortation and remind you that the next six weeks are intended to be (at least in part) a season of “fasting and self-denial.” (BCP p. 265) So what do we do?

Well, I went online (as I often do) to see what people are claiming to be “giving up” this year. Here’s a partial list: red meat, coffee, wine (that’s a big one), alcohol of all kinds, chocolate (another big one), white sugar, cakes and cookies, desserts in general, potato chips, yeast bread, cheese danish, pizza, soda pop, ice cream, and the list goes on and on.

Is that really what this season is about, though? If Mame is correct and life is a banquet, if our faith is correct and this banquet is provided by God the Father who, Isaiah prophesied, intends to “make for all peoples a feast of rich food [and] well-aged wines” (Is 25:6), and if the Father is truly represented by Jesus of Nazareth who said, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10), is turning our backs on food really what this season is about?

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not. If this season of Lent is about giving something up, it’s not about putting on a show of fasting and self-privation, otherwise Jesus would not have said what he said in today’s Gospel lesson about giving of our resources as alms for the poor in a secret way, about praying in private, and about washing our faces and looking content rather than deprived when we do (in fact) fast from foods.

This is a season when we are called to fast, but not from coffee, or wine, or cheese danish, or pizza, although those foods people listed may be symbolic of what this season is all about. We are to fast, as Isaiah said, from injustice, from oppression, from seeing others go hungry and doing nothing about it, from pointing the finger, and from speaking evil. These are the things about which we should weep and mourn, these are the things from which we should fast, rending (as Joel said) our hearts and not our garments. We should fast from these things because they are what prevent us and the other poor suckers from enjoying that banquet, the things that cause us and the other poor suckers to starve to death while God spreads that feast of rich food and well-aged wines.

My colleague in ordained ministry, Lutheran pastor Phil Ressler has put together a list of forty things he suggests we fast from during this season of Lent. I could not improve on his suggestions and so I want to just read Pastor Ressler’s list (and his comments) to you and add my own homiletic endorsement:

  1. Fear of Failure – You don’t succeed without experiencing failure. Just make sure you fail forward.
  2. Your Comfort Zone – It’s outside our comfort zones where new discoveries are made.
  3. Feelings of Unworthiness – You are fearfully and wonderfully made by your creator. (see Psalm 139:14)
  4. Impatience – God’s timing is the perfect timing.
  5. Retirement – As long as you are still breathing, you are here for a reason. You have a purpose to influence others for Christ. Our work is not always tied to a paycheck.
  6. People Pleasing – I can’t please everyone anyways. There is only one I need to strive to please.
  7. Comparison – I have my own unique contribution to make and there is no one else like me.
  8. Blame – I am not going to pass the buck. I will take responsibility for my actions.
  9. Guilt – I am loved by Jesus and he has forgiven my sins. Today is a new day and the past is behind.
  10. Over commitment – Do less better and accomplish more.
  11. Lack of Counsel – Wise decisions are rarely made in a vacuum.
  12. Impurity – Live lives pure and without blemish.
  13. Entitlement – The world does not owe me anything. God does not owe me anything. I live in humility and grace.
  14. Apathy – Life is too short not to care.
  15. Hatred – Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).
  16. Negativity – I will put the best construction on everything when it comes to other people. I will also minimize my contact with people who are negative and toxic.
  17. The Spirit of Poverty – Believe that with God there is always more than enough and never a lack.
  18. Going Through the Motions – The more you invest yourself, the more you will get back.
  19. Complaint – Instead of contributing to the problem, be the solution.
  20. The Pursuit of Happiness – God wants something greater and more lasting than happiness. It is called joy.
  21. Bitterness – The only person I am hurting by holding on to this is myself.
  22. Distraction – Life is filled with distractions that will take our eyes off the prize.
  23. Giving up – God never gives up on us.
  24. Mediocrity – If you are going to do something, then give it all you got.
  25. Destructive Speech – Encourage one another and all the more as you see the day approaching (see Hebrews 10:25).
  26. Busyness – It is a badge of honor to be busy. But that does not always translate to abundance.
  27. Loneliness – With Jesus I am never alone. He is with me wherever I go.
  28. Disunity – If two of you agree on earth about anything, it will be done for them by the Heavenly Father (see Matthew 18:19).
  29. The Quick Fix – Rarely does true transformation happen overnight.
  30. Worry – God is in control and worrying will not help.
  31. Idolizing – Don’t assign anyone a standard they cannot live up to.
  32. Resistance to Change – Change is certain. It is not if we will change, but how we will change.
  33. Pride – Blessed are the humble.
  34. Small View of God – Don’t tell God how big your problem is, tell your problem how big your God is.
  35. Envy – I am blessed. My value is not found in my possessions, but in my relationship with my Heavenly Father.
  36. Ungratefulness – You have been blessed in a way greater than you realize.
  37. Selfish Ambition – God has a mission for me that is bigger than me.
  38. Self-Sufficiency – Jesus is my strength. I can do all things through him (see Philippians 4:13).
  39. Sorrow – Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in the morning (Psalm 30:5b).
  40. My Life – Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life (John 12:25).

(See Pastor Ressler’s parish website and the original list here.)

I’m going to come back to this list in a minute, but I want to return briefly to Isaiah’s prophesy of God’s great feast. What sorts of foods do you suppose will be set on that banquet table? There is at least one category of foods I’m sure will not be there.

Among nutritionists today one often hears the term “empty calories.” Many of the foods and beverages we Americans like to eat and drink contain these empty calories. In general, they are calories from solid fats and unnecessary sugars added to our diet. These ingredients add calories to the food but few or no nutrients.

Solid fats, by the way, are fats that are solid at room temperature. There are natural solid fats like butter, beef fat, and shortening. There are also unnatural solid fats, such as hydrogenated vegetable oils, that added when convenience foods are processed by food companies or when they are prepared by fast food restaurants. Unnecessary the sugars are sugars and syrups that are added when foods or beverages are processed or prepared.

God’s banquet table, God’s feast of rich foods and well-aged wines, does not – I’m pretty sure – contain any empty calories.

But there are areas in our country where empty calories are nearly the only thing that the residents have available. The USDA refers to these areas as “food deserts” and on the department’s website we find this description:

Food deserts are defined as urban neighborhoods and rural towns without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. Instead of supermarkets and grocery stores, these communities may have no food access or are served only by fast food restaurants and convenience stores that offer few healthy, affordable food options. The lack of access contributes to a poor diet and can lead to higher levels of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease. (USDA website)

The foods and beverages predominantly available in those areas, and to all of us no matter where we live, the foods that provide the most empty calories for Americans include the following: cakes, cookies, pastries, donuts, soda pop, energy drinks, sports drinks, sugared fruit drinks, processed cheese, pizza, ice cream, and processed red meat products such as sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and ribs.

Did you notice something about that list? It’s practically the same as the list of things people said they were giving up for Lent! It is, perhaps, a good thing to give these things up because they prevent us from enjoying the healthier foods and beverages set out on God’s banquet table! The abundant life promised by Christ and for which Lent is to prepare us is a life of health and vitality, not a life filled with empty calories, and this is true both physically and spiritually!

Which brings me back to Pastor Ressler’s list. I suggest to you that the things on his list are the empty calories of our spiritual and emotional lives, and just as the empty calories of our physical life lead to physical diseases the empty calories of complaining, mediocrity, busyness, people pleasing, resistance to change, pride, worry, and all the others lead to spiritual illness and emotional malaise. They prevent us from enjoying God’s abundant banquet of joy, love, hope, and peace.

Auntie Mame was right, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.” This Lent give up being one of those “poor suckers,” fast from the things that may be causing your soul to starve.

Give up those empty emotional and spiritual calories, and God will “redeem your life from the grave and crown you with mercy and loving-kindness; he [will] satisf[y] you with good things, and your youth [will be] renewed like an eagle’s.” (Ps. 103:4-5)

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.

Standing by Jesus – Sermon for Palm Sunday (Year A) – April 13, 2014

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This sermon was preached on Palm Sunday, April 13, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Isaiah 50:4-9a; Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11; and Matthew 21:1-11. In addition, Zechariah 9:9-12 was read at the Liturgy of the Palms, and the Passion story, Matthew 26:14-27:66, was read at the conclusion of the Mass. Except for the Zechariah text, these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Donkey with Colt

When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born;

With monstrous head and sickening cry
And ears like errant wings,
The devil’s walking parody
On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.

That’s one of my favorite pieces of verse, The Donkey, by G.K. Chesterton, in which he captures Palm Sunday from the perspective of the donkey that Jesus rode.

Matthew’s version of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is somewhat confusing because he pluralizes the donkey. Did you notice that in the reading of the Gospel lesson? “The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the donkey and the colt, and put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.” Why does Matthew do this (when none of the other Gospel writers do so)? Some have speculated that it is because Matthew wants to tell the story in a way that precisely mirrors the prophecy in Zechariah: as you can see in the Gospel reading, Matthew’s version of Zechariah is that the Messiah will come “mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

That argument presupposes, however, that Matthew does not understand Jewish poetry which uses what is called “parallelism” to underscore or highlight a particular idea, saying the same thing in two or more ways, often connected with the conjunction “and”. But Matthew was an educated Jew, so that argument doesn’t float. Others have suggested that Matthew is the first Christian biblical literalist, but that doesn’t hold water either since Matthew’s Gospel is full of metaphor and allegory. No, the likely reason Matthew does this is to present Jesus as the least military, the least kingly, the least imperial of all possible messiahs. Bible scholar John Dominic Crossan points out that Jesus the Messiah (and Matthew the Gospel writer)

. . . want two animals, a donkey with her little colt beside her, and that Jesus rides “them” in the sense of having them both as part of his demonstration’s highly visible symbolism. In other words, Jesus does not ride a stallion or a mare, a mule or a male donkey, and not even a female donkey. He rides the most unmilitary mount imaginable: a female nursing donkey with her little colt trotting along beside her.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke also make point of telling us that Jesus approached Jerusalem from the east. They do this be situating us to landmarks: Matthew tells us in today’s lesson that it was “when they had come near Jerusalem and had reached Bethphage, at the Mount of Olives” that Jesus sent two of the disciples to get the donkey and the colt. This direction of approach is important.

At the time of the Passover, as pilgrims made their way into the city for the ritual observances, the population of Jerusalem would swell from around 50,000 (about twice the size of Medina) to well over 200,000 (more than the population of Akron). We know from secular histories that it was the custom for the Roman governor to make a militaristic triumphal entry to Jerusalem — with war horse, chariot, and weapons — each year in the days before Passover to remind the pilgrims that Rome was in charge. Because the Passover is a celebration of liberation from imperial Egypt, imperial Rome was very uneasy about so many people being in town. Pilate’s procession displayed not only imperial power, but also Roman imperial theology, according to which the emperor was not simply the ruler of Rome, but the Son of God.

The Roman garrison was on the coast at Caesarea Maritima, a city built by Herod the Great to honor Caesar Augustus, so their approach would have been from the west. So there were two processions into Jerusalem. One — the procession of the Roman army — coming from the west, demonstrating imperial might; the other — those with Jesus — coming from the east, making a clearly anti-imperial witness. Jesus’ subversive donkey ride reminded all those waving Palm branches that Rome was the new Egypt, and the Emperor was the new Pharaoh.

And, obviously, the crowd got it! People began to spread their cloaks on the road for Jesus to ride over like a red carpet; they remembered, perhaps, the story in the Second Book of Kings, which tells how the crowds spread their cloaks on the ground when Jehu was anointed King of Israel. They cut palm branches or other leafy plants as Jews did at other celebrations and festivals and strewed them in Jesus’ path; perhaps they remembered the admonition of Psalm 118: “The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.” (v. 27) They must have, for they began chanting verses of that psalm:

Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
We bless you from the house of the Lord. (Ps 118:25-26)

This is what Hosanna means. Hosanna is not a shout of exultation, though we have made it one; hosanna is a prayer for salvation. The Hebrew is h?shi `?h nn? and it means “Save now, we pray.”

Recognizing Jesus as the “Son of David,” the crowd chanted the words “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” and others respond, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!”

The scene was set for a clash not only with the authorities of the Jewish nation, but with imperial Rome. The first Holy Week had begun. And ever since that first Holy Week, the followers of Jesus have been trying to figure out what to do with it. Sara Miles of St Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco says, “it’s kind of confusing: there’s a lot of different stuff going on in Holy Week. You could get whiplash” and she explains:

Think about it. During Holy Week, we wave palms in the air and hail Jesus as king, the long-awaited messiah who’s going to save us from our oppressors, then we change our minds and scream that the oppressors should crucify him; we share a loving last supper with Jesus and he washes our feet, then we sneak out after dinner and betray him. Jesus begs us to stay with him, we promise we will, then we don’t. We abandon him, he’s arrested and beaten; he forgives us, then we run away. Then Jesus is killed; we lay him in the tomb and weep; we go back for him, then he’s gone, then he’s back, and then — wait! — he’s not dead at all.

Spiritual whiplash, indeed!

But necessary whiplash, I’m afraid . . . . If we just skip from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday, without stopping to ponder the days between, Jesus’ last supper with his friends, his night of tormented prayer in the garden, his scourging and crucifixion, the fear and anguish of his disciples, and their confusion on finding the empty tomb, then we will have misunderstood the whole thing. We’ll be lulled into believing that the Christian life is just one triumph after another. We will have failed to appreciate that triumph often comes with suffering and death. Palm Sunday is only the opening act of the drama of redemption; it takes courage and commitment to enter completely into the fullness of the story.

It is so much easier to come for the pomp of Palm Sunday and then go about our business for the week, ignoring Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, before coming back in for the trumpets, the lilies, the bells, and all the rest of the great show on Resurrection Sunday. But this year somebody needs to stand by Jesus. Somebody needs to hang in there with him. Somebody needs to stay at his side as he is humiliated, beaten, mocked, and killed. Holy Week is our annual confrontation with that choice.

The donkey had no choice facing her

One far fierce hour and sweet:
[When] There was a shout about [her] ears,
And palms before [her] feet.

She and her colt had not choice, but we do. If we don’t have the courage to stand by Jesus, who will?

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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.

Salted with Fire – From the Daily Office – April 8, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus said: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 9:49-50 (NRSV) – April 8, 2014.)

Fiery Human FiguresAs Mark constructs his version of the story of Jesus, the Lord has just advised his followers to cut off body parts that might cause them to sin saying it is better to enter Heaven maimed than to be thrown into Hell where “the fire is never quenched.” To this admonition, then, Mark adds this statement about salt.

Has Mark just taken some disparate sayings of Jesus both of which talk of fire and put them together? That’s one theory. Or is Mark accurately relaying a conversation between Jesus and his disciples and, if so, is Jesus suggesting that everyone will be “salted” with hellfire and is he saying that this is a good thing?

The hellfire in question is the fire of Gehenna; the Greek word translated as “hell” in the passage is géennan. This is a reference to the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; thus, it is a metaphor or symbol for wickedness and its destruction.

The “salting” of which Jesus speaks may be simple seasoning, or it may be the use of salt as a food preservative. If the latter understanding applies, Jesus would seem to be saying that everyone will be “preserved” through the purging, the burning away of wickedness and sin. And this makes sense immediately following upon his startling admonition to cut off and dispose of hands, feet, or eyes which might cause one to “stumble.”

A common image for living through troubles and hardships is “going through the fire.” It’s a biblical metaphor drawn from the prophet Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isa 43:2) Another prophet, Zechariah, understood such “walking through fire” to have the purgative and preservative effect to which Jesus seems to be alluding: ” I will put [the remnant of Israel] into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.'” (Zech 13:9)

One of my favorite hymns, How Firm a Foundation, includes a verse based on this prophecy:

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

I believe it is to this “refining by fire” that Jesus’ deceptively simple statement, “Everyone will be salted with fire,” refers. At one time or another, everyone will be “salted” with hellfire, and as troublesome and even painful as that may be at the time, it is a good thing.

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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.

A Present, Close, Immediate Reality – Sermon for Lent 5A – April 6, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; and John 11:1-45. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Valley of Dry BonesLet’s just do a bit of bible study today. I think we’ll see a common theme in the three lessons.

First, the very familiar prophetic vision of the “valley of dry bones” from the Book of Ezekiel. Scholars date this prophecy to about 587 BCE. Ezekiel was one of those taken into exile by the Babylonians ten years earlier in 597 BCE. The Babylonians had laid siege to Jerusalem for almost two years, creating conditions of famine, disease, and despair. They destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon. This is how the Babylonian conquest is described in the Second Book of Kings, from the paraphrase entitled The Message:

[In] the ninth year and tenth month of Zedekiah’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar set out for Jerusalem immediately with a full army. He set up camp and sealed off the city by building siege mounds around it. The city was under siege for nineteen months (until the eleventh year of Zedekiah). By the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, on the ninth day of the month, the famine was so bad that there wasn’t so much as a crumb of bread for anyone. Then there was a breakthrough. At night, under cover of darkness, the entire army escaped through an opening in the wall (it was the gate between the two walls above the King’s Garden). They slipped through the lines of the Babylonians who surrounded the city and headed for the Jordan on the Arabah Valley road. But the Babylonians were in pursuit of the king and they caught up with him in the Plains of Jericho. By then Zedekiah’s army had deserted and was scattered. The Babylonians took Zedekiah prisoner and marched him off to the king of Babylon at Riblah, then tried and sentenced him on the spot. Zedekiah’s sons were executed right before his eyes; the summary murder of his sons was the last thing he saw, for they then blinded him. Securely handcuffed, he was hauled off to Babylon. In the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, on the seventh day of the fifth month, Nebuzaradan, the king of Babylon’s chief deputy, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned The Temple of God to the ground, went on to the royal palace, and then finished off the city — burned the whole place down. (2 Kgs 25:1-9)

Ezekiel, a young apprentice priest, experienced this. The religious institution he served, the Jerusalem Temple, was destroyed and he was reduced from a prominent position as a priest in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile. God then pegged him to become a prophet to the exile community; he tells us in the very first sentence of his book that he “was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and [he] saw visions of God.” (Ezek 1:1)

But not only did Ezekiel experience this historical trauma common to all the exiles to a greater or lesser extent, he experienced deep personal loss as well: his wife died and God commanded him not to mourn her. Again, I am reading from The Message:

God’s Message came to me: “Son of man, I’m about to take from you the delight of your life — a real blow, I know. But, please, no tears. Keep your grief to yourself. No public mourning. Get dressed as usual and go about your work – none of the usual funeral rituals.” I preached to the people in the morning. That evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I’d been told. (Ezek 24:15-17)

God’s command for him not to mourn her was to serve as an example for the exile community not to mourn the loss of the Temple.

I don’t know about you, but if I had to endure what Ezekiel and his contemporaries went through I would be a deeply depressed person! I would sink into the depths of despair. And that is what the exiles did. The psalms speak eloquently of their desperation: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.” (Ps 137:1; BCP version) Other psalms speak for the exiles in their sadness, their weariness settling deep within them. Psalm 31, for example:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble;
my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.
For my life is wasted with grief, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails me because of affliction, and my bones are consumed.
(Ps 31:9-10, BCP version)

Or Psalm 102:

Incline your ear to me;
when I call, make haste to answer me,
For my days drift away like smoke, *
and my bones are hot as burning coals.
My heart is smitten like grass and withered, *
so that I forget to eat my bread.
Because of the voice of my groaning *
I am but skin and bones.
(Ps 102:2-5; BCP version)

Or Psalm 6:

Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; *
heal me, Lord, for my bones are racked.
My spirit shakes with terror; *
how long, O Lord, how long?
(Ps 6:2-3; BCP version)

In these psalms and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, the reference to “bones” is an idiomatic way of referring to one’s deepest self, a way for a person or a community to refer to its most essential self. And so we have Ezekiel’s vision of “dry bones,” a vision of the soul of the exile community. “Mortal,” says God, “these bones are the whole house of Israel.”

Since the dry bones represent the living exiles, we can see that this vision is not concerned with death; death here is a metaphor for the soul-deep desperation, the despair of the exiles. The exiles, bereft of their nation, their city, and (most importantly) their Temple, fear that God has abandoned them. Ezekiel speaks to this hopelessness with a startlingly simple metaphor of divine presence, the immediate closeness of breath, the pervading presence of wind. In just fourteen verses, the Hebrew word ruach occurs nine times, translated as “breath” in verses 5, 6, 8, and 10), as “wind” in verse 9, or as God’s own spirit in verse 14. The prophet’s repetitive use of the word drums the point of the message into his hearers’ consciousness: God’s spirit is the key. With God’s spirit, anything is possible. And God’s spirit is as close as the wind, as close as one’s own breath; there is no place on earth, no instant in time, and no situation of sin that can separate God’s people from God’s spirit. Not the loss of one’s country, one’s city, one’s Temple, even one’s beloved spouse; nothing! God’s spirit is always and everywhere present.

Which brings us to the Epistle lesson taken from the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. “To set the mind on the flesh is death,” writes Paul, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Rom. 8:6) We need first to understand that Paul’s use of “flesh” is not a reference to the physical body. The body is ethically neutral for Paul; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. There certainly is nothing wrong with having a body. When Paul writes about the body, he uses the Greek word soma.

In this passage, however, he uses the word sarx, which means “flesh,” as in meat. Paul uses the word in Romans in two ways. First, he uses it to describe physical descent between ancestor and descendant. In the opening greetings of the letter, Paul identifies Jesus as a descendant of David “according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3) and later himself as a Jew because of “Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh.” (4:1) In this sense, it is largely neutral, but in this sense also it can be negative. For Paul salvation or righteousness before God is not an honor due a particular blood line or a family heritage; it is not by the flesh but by the spirit of God that the followers of Jesus, the members of the community of faith receive life and peace.

In the second way in which Paul uses sarx or “flesh,” Paul is influenced by the dualism of his age which considered the flesh to be imperfect because it is capable of deterioration. Under that philosophical influence, Paul assigns to flesh negative characteristics such as death, hostility to God, and an incapacity to live according to God’s law. When a person’s focus in life is on the flesh and its appetites, that is a focus on death because the flesh does not last. “But,” Paul reassures his readers, “you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Notice that, like Ezekiel’s message to the exiles in Babylon, Paul’s message is one for the present; not a promise of a future relationship with God, but an assurance of a present one.

Paul believes that this relationship with God is a present reality; it is not a something that exists somewhere else or that is coming in the future. Paul is certain that it is real, it is here, and it is now; because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ this new reality is here today. Throughout the rest of this Chapter 8 he will develop his argument that we are currently children of the Father, that we are currently brothers and sisters of Christ, that we currently possess the gifts of the Spirit, and that we are currently enjoy the real and present love of God. He concludes this chapter asking:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? * * * No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35,37-39)

For Paul and for us, God is everywhere and always present.

And so we come to the Gospel lesson — another familiar story from the Gospel of John — the raising of Lazarus, a story about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus, what it means to love him and be loved by him. Lazarus is identified by his sisters to Jesus as “he whom you love,” (v. 3) and then John underscores this by telling us that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” So in the way Jesus related to this Bethany family we get a clue of what it is to be in relationship with him. And what we learn, perhaps distressingly, is that doesn’t mean that one is protected from bad stuff. John’s Gospel makes this painfully obvious, for in this Gospel, love is linked inextricably to death.

Remember that what is perhaps the best known verse of Christian scripture is from this Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . . ” (Jn 3:16) And it is in John’s Gospel that Jesus says, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13) So it is with this family; that they love Jesus and he loves them does not mean that bad things, including death, do not happen. Lazarus dies.

And in John’s story, Jesus does not prevent it, nor even arrive until afterward. He is met on the road by Lazarus’ sister Martha who confronts him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 21) In response, Jesus assures her that “your brother will rise again.” (v. 23), but she hears only the promise of a future resurrection: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (v. 24) And Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (v. 25) Note, if you will, the verb: Jesus’ reply is in the present tense — “I am . . . .”

The resurrection is not a distant promise; it is not a guarantee of salvation in the future; it is not about an eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven. In the next few chapters of John’s Gospel we will encounter Lazarus reclining at the table with Jesus, sharing food and fellowship. (Jn 13:28) His new relationship with Jesus is intimate and close; it is here and now. For Lazarus and for us, the resurrection is not a future with Jesus; it is a present with Jesus. Jesus is present with Lazarus and his sisters; he is present with us, and through him God is glorified even in that which feels irredeemably bad and painful.

Being in relationship with Jesus, loving him and being loved by him, does not mean that unpleasant things do not happen. It means that when they do, he faces them, even death and grief, with us. It means learning that, in spite of the worst the world can do, the worst that flesh can be subject to, even death and the finality of the grave, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Nothing is ever so dead that it keeps him from being that in himself and for us. In John, the resurrection is not a future hope; it is the abundant life which is always here, always now. Nothing, as Paul reminded the Romans, not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [can] separate us” from it. It is, as Ezekiel prophesied to the exiles, as close as the wind, as close as one’s own breath; it is always and everywhere present.

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.

Gathered – From the Daily Office – April 1, 2014

From the Genesis:

When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 49:33 (NRSV) – April 1, 2014.)

Pine Box CoffinHe has kicked the bucket, cashed in his chips, shuffled off this mortal coil, gone the way of all flesh, croaked, gone home, passed away, turned up his toes, ridden the pale horse, fallen off his perch, taken his last bow, entered larger life, joined the choir invisible.

We have so many idioms and euphemisms for the simple reality of death. I suppose that is because death is frightening, although if we take our Christian faith seriously it should not be.

The epistle lesson for the Easter vigil is always a short reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans in which the Apostle reminds us that “we have died with Christ, [and] we believe that we will also live with him.” (Rom. 6:8) There really is nothing to fear. Still, we avoid even mentioning death by using all these idioms and euphemisms (and many more).

As these turns of phrase go, none is quite so lovely as this verse in Genesis describing the death of Israel (Jacob): “He was gathered to his people.” I find something about that very comforting; I’ve never been a big fan of the “going home” euphemism which it resembles (even though there is biblical warrant for it), but I find this image of joining earlier generations inviting. Perhaps that is because of the fond memories I have of childhood family reunions.

In a former parish, I had a congregant who frequently would turn the discussion in bible study or adult education classes to the question of life after death. “I just want to know what happens when I die,” she would say. “Martha,” I would answer, “I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet.”

I don’t know, but I do have faith that our Book of Common Prayer is accurate when it says (in the Preface to the Eucharist to be said at a requiem), “to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP 1979, page 381) One of the collects in the Burial Office includes this petition: “Give us faith to see in death the gate of eternal life, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we are reunited with those who have gone before.” (page 493) Until, the writers of Genesis might have said, we are gathered to our people.

Lent begins with a reminder of our mortality: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” Here in the middle of the season we find another, but rather more comforting, reminder: you are a part of a people and to your people you shall be gathered.

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

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

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