That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Marriage (page 1 of 3)

A Meditation on Mortality (for the parish newsletter)

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston in the July 2016 issue of “The Epistle,” the newsletter of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

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firefliesThe week of the summer solstice was an interesting one in the Funston household.

The night of the solstice there was what is known as a “strawberry moon,” a phenomenon which only occurs when a full moon coincides with the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, longest day of the year. The moon takes on an amber or pinkish glow which astronomers explain is caused by the setting sun’s positioning, affecting the angle at which the sun’s rays pass through Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, the apparent coloration of the moon.

The name “strawberry moon” was given by the Native American Algonquin tribes of northern Michigan and Canada. They believed that a full moon in June signified that it was time to start picking fruits, including strawberries. It is also known as the Rose, Hot, or Honey Moon (the latter being the origin of the name given a newly married couple’s post-wedding get-away). The last time there was a “strawberry moon” was during the so-called “summer of love” in 1967.

Biblically, the summer solstice and the nearest full moon are associated with punishment and death. It was taught by the rabbis in their commentaries on Scripture that this was the time when Moses disobeyed God and was told he could not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Hebrews, but would die instead.

I made note of the “strawberry moon” as I took Dudley for his last walk of the evening before going to bed. I also noticed a large number of fireflies winking in the trees and lawns of our neighborhood. Fireflies always remind me of two things: summers spent with my grandparents in Winfield, Kansas, during the 1950s, and burying my late brother in 1993, also in Winfield which was his home town. The night after his burial in late June, the fireflies were more numerous and more active than I had ever seen them before, nor have I ever seen that many since!

So the “strawberry moon” and the fireflies were, in a sense, a reminder of mortality. The next day, I was scheduled to visit a urologist at the request of my primary care physician. The reason: elevated prostate specific antigen levels in my blood. “Not a big deal,” I thought. I have always had a high PSA level. However, after taking my history, asking a lot of personal questions, and conducting an examination, the urologist told me that I have the classic signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and referred me for a biopsy. That will happen later this month.

“Still,” I thought, “No big deal.” Prostate cancer is slow growing and can often be left untreated without any real impact on a man’s health. However, given my family history of various sorts of cancers, it’s a matter of some (though not a lot of) concern.

I thought that would be the big medical news of the day until late that night. I had gone to bed and was sound asleep when Evie woke me up gasping for breath and obviously very anxious. We headed for the hospital where, eventually, it was discovered that she had two pulmonary emboli, blood clots, in her left lung. (See note below.)

That was yesterday. As I write, she is still in the hospital and will be for a few days while the doctors try to determine how and why she developed these clots.

So in the course of 24 hours, we have both been reminded of our own mortality and, I have to say, I think we’re taking it rather well. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about how we modern human beings face the reality of our own mortality (Facing Your Own Mortality, 9 Oct 1988).

The article contrasted a 60-year-old woman “stricken by two life-threatening ailments – insulin-dependent diabetes and breast cancer” – with a man in his 60s, a doctor “crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The woman, the author wrote, “stares death down every day. Despite the odds against her, she accepts the possibility of her imminent death with astonishing serenity. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not ask, as many patients do, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she thought, ‘Why not me? Rather than crying about your affliction, you have to live every minute you have as a gift.’”

The man, on the other hand, was described as “unable to overcome his anger at being crippled.” He “refused to acknowledge his encroaching impairment. He became hostile toward those around him. As his condition forced him to give up his practice, his anger often exploded. His wife, his full-time caretaker, bears the brunt of his fury. She has confided to friends with great sadness that she awaits the time when both of them will be released from the prison of terminal illness.”

What is it that makes it possible for some of us to face our own deaths with equanimity while others become anxious and angry? I believe the answer is faith, not necessarily the Christian (or even religious) faith, but that sense that life has meaning and that there is a greater purpose in the universe than simply our own meagre existence.

As I write on June 23 for the July issue of The Epistle, today’s Daily Office Lectionary texts included a selection from the Letter to the Romans in which Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, be-cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3b-5) That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith, the sure and certain hope that (as Paul writes later in the same letter) “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

I used to have a congregant (in another parish) who frequently asked me, “What will happen when I die?” I would answer her, “Martha, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know because I haven’t been there yet; I don’t care because there’s not much I can do about it.” Jesus asked his followers, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) He clearly didn’t think so, for his follow up instruction was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It is that attitude of faith, to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, that I think allows some to face death with calmness and composure. I commend it to you.

Live for today! Enjoy the summer!

(Note: Yesterday, the day after this was written, I was told by the attending physician that Evie had “a lot of clots, so many clots” in both her lungs. He said that if I hadn’t brought her to the emergency room on Wednesday night, but had opted to wait until morning, she would probably have died. So, take it from me, don’t dismiss even a little unexplained shortness of breath! – Return to Text)

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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 Wedding Homily – Sunday, 15 May 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Blessing of the Civil Marriage of Christopher William White and Robert William Powell, May 15, 2016, to the people assembled at First Congregational Church, 91 South Main Street, Sunderland, MA.

(The lessons for the service were: the poem who are you, little i by e.e. cummings; an excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams; and a portion of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–10, NRSV). These lessons are set out below after the sermon.)

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marriagestoleWhy are we here? Well, for a wedding, of course. But, more specifically, you may be wondering why an old Episcopal priest from Ohio is here in an 18th Century Puritan meeting house trying to do 21st Century Anglo-Catholic ritual. The short answer is that Chris asked me to. Chris was my music director at St Paul’s Church in Medina, Ohio, when he was a student at Oberlin (which his mother reminded me yesterday was just a few weeks ago), and we’ve been friends ever since.

The long answer to why we are all here is that we love these two men, that we wish them well, that we want to support them in this endeavor called “marriage,” and that we are asking God to bless them today and throughout their life together which (we hope) will be for life.

We’ve been treated to some readings, not all from Scripture, which they have chosen and which speak to them and to us about this thing they are doing.

First, that delightful little poem by e.e. cummings, who are you little, i – a bit of verse which reminds us of the magic of childhood which we sometimes seem to lose as we age. Cummings reminds us that it is never lost, but that it does often get buried under the pressures of adult life, and as anyone who is married will tell us, there are few adult demands more pressing than those of marriage. Chris and Rob have each just promised “to love [the other], comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health,” and to be faithful to him for life. Those are heavy promises, heavy obligations; they can weigh us down and bury the “little, i”. Another poet, Mary Oliver, has an answer to that concern which I will share with you in a moment.

Then we heard that wonderful excerpt from everyone’s favorite childhood book, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit in which the Skin Horse observes that love is what makes us real and that people with hard edges or sharp corners, or break easily, seldom become real, and in which we see the Rabbit become real as his hair is loved off, his tail becomes unsewn, and the pink is kissed off his nose.

Chris and Rob have paired these readings with the Beatitudes, Jesus’ list of people who are blessed not because of anything they do but because of who they are. This is not Jesus’ social program; he’s not laying out a course of conduct by which we can earn blessedness. It occurred to me as I went over these three readings that what Jesus is doing is describing people whose “little, i” has not been buried (or, if it was buried at one time, it has been dug up again); he describing those who either never had sharp edges, or whose sharp edges have been softened and worn away, whose hair has been loved off by others, who have been hugged by others so tightly that their joints are loose and shabby, whom people have kissed so often that the pink has rubbed off their noses. And he is here promising that the reward for being loved like that is blessedness, what the Skin Horse calls “reality.” That is what we hope for Rob and for Chris when we ask God to bless them in this thing, this relationship we call “marriage.”

Marriage in the eyes of the State is a contract; two people make mutual promises and if they fail live up to those promises, the law will take action. If one or both of them later decide they don’t want to honor the contract, they have to go to court to be relieved of its obligations. In the eyes of the church, however, marriage is much more – it is what we call a “sacrament.” A sacrament, we say, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

So what is the outward and visible sign of marriage? When I ask that question in confirmation classes, the most common answer is “the rings.” Good answer, but not exactly right.

I’m wearing stole which has on it three symbols connected with marriage. The interlocked rings, a funny looking thing that looks like a capitol-P with a crossbar, and palm branch. Although the rings are not the outward and visible sign, on this stole they represent that sign, which is the couple themselves. The sacramental sign of marriage is the two people who live together in the sacramental relationship; they symbolize the grace of human companionship, the possibility of love and peace between individuals so deep and so profound that they (in Jesus’ words) “become one flesh.” They are living symbols of the hope and possibility that all humanity can do that as a world-wide community. In the Skin Horse’s word, they make it real.

But they do not do that as a couple alone, they do that with through the grace and empowerment of God; thus, the second symbol, which isn’t a P-with-a-crossbar. This symbol is a stylized combination of the Greek letter Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the word “Christ”. It reminds us that God a part of, a party to, and a partner in every marriage. In token of that reality, Chris and Rob will share the sacrament of the Eucharist today, another sacrament reminding us of Jesus’ words “Remember, I am with you to the end of the ages.”

The third emblem on my stole is a palm branch. Some of you will remember the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem which the church celebrates every year on the day called “Palm Sunday.” The people along his path from the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, and into the Holy City spread his path with branches of palm and waved branches as they sang “Hosanna!” and wished him well. On this stole, this palm branch represents the crowds who support Chris and Rob; in other words, you and all the people you represent! A marriage does not exist in a vacuum; it is a social contract, a sacrament, a way of life lived out in the context of a community and the married couple rely upon that community. Each of these men will not be able to live up to that promise to love, comfort, honor, keep and be faithful to the other unless you help them do it. That’s why we began this service not just with their vows, but with yours. You were asked: “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” and you answered loudly and whole-heartedly, “We will!” They are going to rely on that promise . . . a lot!

So, I suggested that e.e. cummings’ concern about our buried “little, i” has been answered by another poet, Mary Oliver. I will close with her answer, the poem “I worried.”

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Chris . . . Rob . . . your “little, i” (like all of ours) is in constant danger of being buried under the concerns of life, none of which are heavier than the promises you have made to be responsible in love to and for one other special person. But you have not made those promises alone; you have the grace and support of God, and you have the love and support of this community of family and friends. So don’t let that heaviness bury you . . . just love one another through rheumatism and lockjaw and dementia and hair being rubbed off and the pink being kissed away; just get up every day and go out into the morning and sing.

The Readings:

who are you, little i by e.e. cummings

who are you, little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window; at the gold

of November sunset

(and feeling: that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)

From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe… But very soon he grew to like it, for the Boy used to talk to him, and made nice tunnels for him under the bedclothes that he said were like the burrows the real rabbits lived in. And they had splendid games together, in whispers… And when the Boy dropped off to sleep, the Rabbit would snuggle down close under his little warm chin and dream, with the Boy’s hands clasped close round him all night long.

And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy-so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.

And one night Nana grumbled as she cleaned the rabbit off with a corner of her apron. “You must have your old Bunny!” she said. “Fancy all that fuss!”

The Boy sat up in bed and stretched out his hands. “Give me my Bunny!” he said. “You mustn’t say that…. He’s REAL!

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10, NRSV)

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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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.

Claim the Openness! Claim the Kingdom! – A Reflection on April, Politics, and Marriage

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector, in the April 2016 edition of the parish newsletter, St. Paul’s Epistle.

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wedding-rings1It’s April! When did that happen?

The Anglo-Saxons called April êastre-monaþ. (That funny looking letter at the end is called a “thorn” and is pronounced like “th”.) This literally means “easter month” and April was called this because it was sacred to the goddess Eostre. According the Venerable Bede (a very early English historian) this is why in the English language we call the feast and season of Christ’s Resurrection “Easter” rather than some variation of the Latin word for “Passover” which is most common among European languages. Of course, this is one of those oddball years when Easter did not, in fact, fall during the month of April.

In 1980, however, Easter fell on April 6. Why would I know this? Because Evelyn and I were married during April, 1980. On Saturday, April 12, in fact. It was the Saturday after Easter Sunday. For some reason, we had wanted to get married on March 15. Thirty-six years later I cannot for the life of me remember why we wanted to get married on the Ides of March, but that was the date. I went to see my parish priest, Fr. Karl Spatz, about that and he just looked at me with an expression of distaste: “That’s during Lent,” he said. “You don’t want to get married during Lent.” He was (and I wasn’t yet) a very high church Anglo-Catholic. So, we got married on the first available Saturday after Easter Sunday.

Here’s a good thing about getting married on Saturday in Easter Week: the Easter flowers and lilies are still really lovely and in full bloom. We had a lovely wedding and we’ve had a lovely marriage and I’m very grateful for it all. Fr. Karl was probably right to encourage us to not get married during Lent; Easter Season was a much better choice.

Easter and April are good times for just about anything. Although we English speakers gave the Anglo-Saxon name to the Feast of the Resurrection, we took the Romans’ name for this month. Etymologists tell us that Aprilis, the original Latin name, is derived from a word meaning “opening,” probably in reference to the opening of leaf and flower buds. To me, however, it suggests Christ’s open tomb.

This time of Resurrection and rebirth is also a time of opening. Opening ourselves to the world around us; opening ourselves to the graces and blessings that come from God the Father. The former news reporter Jon Katz, who writes a blog about living on a farm and raising dogs, and who has written numerous books about dogs, is also a poet. One of his pieces is entitled Open Up, Open Up:

I don’t want to live a small life,
open your eyes,
open your mind,
open your heart.
I have just come from the Dahlia garden,
the first Dahlia kissing me with its blood red mouth,
the wind-winged clouds roaring overhead,
exciting me,
sending me hurtling along, thinking I might perhaps catch a ride,
feel the wind in my face, but no,
the clouds rushed away, places to go.
So I carry these dreams only to you,
One of the last gifts I can ever bring to anyone
in this world filled with love and hope and risk and fear,
so do look at me, listen to me.
Open your soul, let it breathe,
Open your life, open your heart.
I don’t want to live a small life,
of warning and fear.

I don’t want to live that sort of life, either, but it has seemed to me, especially in the current presidential election cycle, that that is exactly the sort of life forced onto all of us by the world in which we live. Palpably since September 11, 2001, we have lived a life “of warning and fear.” That’s nearly a quarter of my life. It’s half of my children’s lives. And it’s the entire lifetime of all of our Sunday School children and many of our youth group members.

Thank God we’ve gotten rid of the color-coded threat-level gauges the government at one time encouraged every news service to broadcast, but even without those the world of warning and fear prevails. Much of this arises, I think, from the clash of personal rights and privileges in a society which has become increasingly and destructively individualistic. A former bishop of mine once remarked that it is a small step from insisting on one’s rights to insisting on being right, from insisting on being right to insisting on being in control, and that being in control is not meant for any of us who claim to follow Jesus.

Consider these admonitions:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Jesus in Luke 9:23)

“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.” (Jesus in Mark 8:35)

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Paul writing in Philippians 2:3)

For the sake of openness to one another, we are not to insist on our own individual rights, but rather concern ourselves with the needs and well-being of others. Were we to do that, there would be no need for warnings and fears. We have been assured of that by God himself who constantly in both Old and New Testaments, through prophets, through apostles, through Jesus himself sends the same message:

“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid . . . .'” (Exodus 20:20)

“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread . . . .” (Deut. 31:6)

“The Lord is at my side, therefore I will not fear.” (Psalm 118:6, BCP)

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!'” (Isaiah 35:5)

“Do not fear, only believe.” (Jesus in Mark 5:36)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Jesus in Luke 12:32)

“So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?'” (Letter to the Hebrews 13:6)

When Evie and I got married, the current Book of Common Prayer had been fully official for less than a year (it was ratified by the 66th General Convention in September of 1979). Its marriage vows, however, were and are ancient and revered. We promised, as all marrying couples promise, to take one another as spouses “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” In a word, we committed, as do all married couples, to be open to one another in all circumstances.

Like all sacraments, the sacrament of marriage is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The outward and visible sign in marriage is the couple, the two people themselves, and the inward and spiritual grace they are a sign of is exactly the sort of God-empowered interpersonal openness that conquers warnings and fears. If two people can live together in this way, says this sacramental sign, then so can all people.

We’ve been able to do it for 36 years. For that I am grateful to God . . . and especially grateful to Evelyn. In this month of Resurrection, rebirth, and openness, I encourage you to think on that (and on all married couples who have done likewise) and realize the promise of the sacrament’s grace, the promise of openness: God’s promise that none of us needs to “live a small life, of warning and fear.”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

It’s April! Claim the openness! Claim the kingdom!

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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.

Abundant Grace (Cana, Weddings & Primates) – Sermon for Epiphany 2, 17 January 2016

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; and St. John 2:1-11. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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As I begin this sermon today, I would like to call your attention to two verses of Psalm 36 which we all recited together just a few minutes ago:

6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O Lord.
***
8 They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.

God’s righteousness extends to all of humankind and beyond; it extends to all of created life, all the “beasts” whom God saves together with human beings. All humans, all of creation “feast upon the abundance of God’s house” and “drink from the river of God’s delights.” I want you to fix that notion, that fundamental Christian belief firmly in your minds.

I have to confess to you that sometimes when I am preparing a sermon I ignore one or sometimes two of the lessons set out in the Lectionary and which are read in church. This week I gave a lot of thought to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian church and to Paul’s partial list of the abundant varieties of gifts, but I pretty much ignored Isaiah’s prophecy. I read it, but actually forgot about, forgot even what it said, as I was researching for this homily. As a result, during the 8 a.m. service I actually started laughing as the Isaiah lesson was read:

You shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
(Isa 62:4-5)

I should have paid more attention to Isaiah and his metaphor of marriage, for “marriage” is the word of the week, at least in Anglican Communion circles.

I’ll come back to that, but first I want to explore briefly the gospel story from John today, the familiar story of Jesus’ first act of power in John’s gospel, the changing of water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is such a rich story with so much to explore. For example, we could spend hours discussing the relationship between Jesus and his mother, a principal player in the story who is never named: John never calls her “Mary,” just “the mother of Jesus.” The dynamic between Jesus and Mom is fascinating! One of my clergy colleagues in our discussion group remarked, “I could never have talked to my mother like that! If I had . . . I can’t imagine!” But we don’t have time for that exploration this morning, so let’s move on.

A commentator on this gospel did the calculations about the amount of wine involved here. John tells us there were six stone jars filled with clean water (it would have to be clean water if it was for the Jewish ritual of washing hands, face, and feet before eating, which is what John means when he says “the rites of purification”). Obviously some had been used, for Jesus has the servants refill the vessels to the brim. So there is about 180 gallons of water there which become 180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine! It turns out to be nearly 1,000 bottles. A bottle of really good wine these days can run over $100, maybe as high as $150. That’s $150,000 worth wine Jesus gave this couple for a wedding present. Talk about God’s abundance!

Now let’s think about Galilee and this village of Cana. From our perspective 2,000 years removed, we hear about Galilee or look at a map of “The Holy Land at the Time of Jesus” and we tend to think about the whole place as “Jewish territory.” But in Jesus time, that wasn’t so. Judea was Jewish territory (albeit Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire) but Galilee wasn’t. It was a much more culturally and ethnically mixed place. It was Gentile territory. It was where the Samaritans, whom the Jews didn’t particularly like, lived. It was where the land trade routes passed, where traders of all nations were constantly on the move and where some of them had settled. It was where brigands and thieves and highwaymen who preyed on the trade caravans hung out; Herod the Great twice sent his army into the Galilee to clear out that criminal element. And, of course, like Judea it was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, so there were Roman soldiers stationed there.

Cana was a small village in this (I suppose we could say) cosmopolitan, ethnically mixed region. We don’t really know where this village was located. Archaeologists and bible scholars think it could have been one of four different places. A couple of them are just ruins these days, but in Jesus’ time they were all functioning villages. None, however, was very large – all probably had populations of less than 1,500 people, certainly not more than 2,000, and their populations would have included all that mix of people, as well as the Jews who lived there. And the Jews themselves were not a monolithic group. They were divided into what we might call “denominations” or better “political parties.” There were the Sadducees and the Pharisees about whom we read in the New Testament; there might have been Essenes, although they tended to separate themselves out of the settled towns but there might have been Essene sympathizers; there might have been Zealots, radicalized Jews who wanted to cleans their lands of Gentiles; and there were probably just ordinary, everyday Jews not aligned with any of these groups, people just getting on with life. They and their Gentile neighbors lived together, traded together, socialized, and went about the business of getting on.

When there was a major event in the life of a village family, like a wedding, perhaps the religious part of it would involve only the family and their co-religionists, but the celebration after? What we would think of as the reception? That would involve everybody; that was a major village-wide social event. We tend to think of wedding banquets as starting after the ceremony and ending sometime late in the evening after the couple has departed for their wedding night and their honeymoon. Not so in First Century Palestine. Back then wedding feasts could last five, six, seven days!

John’s story of this wedding feast begins in our translation with the words, “On the third day there was a wedding . . . . ” and that has puzzled commentators for generations. On the third day of what? What is John talking about? Some Greek scholars suggest that what this really means is “On the third day of the wedding feast . . . .” Folks had been partying, eating, drinking, and by the third day, they’d consumed all the wine. So Jesus steps in and with abundant grace provides more than sufficient wine so that this mixed community of Sadduceic Jews and Pharisaic Jews, of Essene Jews and Zealot Jews, of Jews and Gentiles, and maybe even some Roman soldiers thrown in, this mixed bag of people could continue to celebrate and have a good time celebrating a wedding.

So . . . about that Anglican Communion news. It’s about weddings. Specifically, it’s about same-sex weddings. At last summer’s General Convention, the governing body of the Episcopal Church, after doing nearly 40 years of theological study and reflection, decided that the sacrament of Holy Wedlock could be offered to same-sex couples. And because of that, something was done by the assembled chief pastors, the Primates, of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion who met in Canterbury this past week.

Exactly what that “something” is is unclear. It’s especially unclear if one read the headlines in the secular press and that’s in large part because the secular news agencies have never really understood the vague, sort of ghostly nature of the Anglican Communion. It’s a there-but-not-there sort of thing. It exists, but it’s very hard to describe. As a result we saw a variety of headlines describing what happened.

The most outrageous of them was found on the website of Katehon.com (which describes itself as an international geopolitical think tank); their headline read, “Anglicans Excommunicate the Episcopalians.” Well, no. That’s not what happened; nobody excommunicated anybody. Other headlines used less sensational terms: “suspend,” “sanction,” “punish.” None of them accurate. The Archbishop of Canterbury got into a verbal sparring match with some reporters when he insisted that the appropriate word was “consequences” and a reporter insisted that what had happened was a “sanction.” Specifically what Archbishop Welby said is:

We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion. (Church Times)

So how did we arrive at this and what does it all mean? To answer that, I think it might be helpful to briefly summarize the vague thing that is the Anglican Communion. As I said, it’s an international family of 38 national or provincial churches, nearly all of whom trace their liturgical and structural heritage, their leadership models, and their theology to the English reformation and the Church of England. Most them were established either through the spread of the British Empire or through missionary activity from England or, in some cases, from the American Episcopal church. Each of them is independent and self-governing; none of them can dictate to any other of them how to organize itself, how to govern itself, or how to offer its worship, sacraments, and teaching within its own provincial boundaries. These 38 independent provincial churches are, we like to say, linked by bonds of affection and respect, and mutual and cooperative ministry. Over the years, however, it has been helpful to think in terms of, and to create, what have come to be known as “instruments of unity.”

Historically, the first of these is the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the present incumbent nor any individual occupant of that See, but the See itself. As the Primate of the first Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the primus inter pares, the first among equals of the 38 chief pastors of the provincial churches; it is he who convenes two other of the “instruments of unity.” In historical order the first of these is the Lambeth Conference, the first of which was convened in 1867.

This is a decennial (every ten year) conference of diocesan bishops who meet to discuss matters of mutual interest: theology, church order, social justice. (They also have tea with the queen.) After a couple of weeks of meetings, they issue reports about what they have discussed; they do not legislate and they have no power to do so. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference has no juridical or hierarchical authority over any member province; their reports are merely summaries of their talks, sometimes evincing agreement on particular matters.

The third “instrument of unity” is called the Anglican Consultative Council, created in 1971. The Council is made up of elected representatives of the provinces, both lay and ordained, and meets every three years. It’s steering committee meets more often. It’s self-defined role is

to facilitate the co-operative work of the churches of the Anglican Communion, exchange information between the Provinces and churches, and help to co-ordinate common action. It advises on the organisation and structures of the Communion, and seeks to develop common policies with respect to the world mission of the Church, including ecumenical matters. (Anglican Communion)

Like the other “instruments of unity,” the ACC has no legislative or executive authority over any member province.

The most recently created of the “instruments of unity” is the Primates’ Meeting. It was established in 1978 by Donald Coggan, the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” (Anglican Communion) The Primates have met every other year since then, and sometimes more often as invited by Canterbury.

We often hear our Communion compared to the Roman Catholic Church, but the comparison is inapt. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope. The Primates’ Meeting is not a college of cardinals. The Lambeth Conference is not a Vatican council. And the Anglican Consultative Council is not a curia. Again, I emphasize that none of these “instruments of unity,” including the Primates’ Meeting, have authority to dictate, legislate, or impose rulings upon any member province.

But that is what the Primates’ Meeting has attempted to do with these “consequences” for our action with regard to the full inclusion of our gay and lesbian members in the sacramental life of the church. What they have done is asked (they used the verb “require” but they really don’t have the authority to require) that for a period of three years no member of the Episcopal Church sit on any international ecumenical body representing the Anglican Communion in its relationship with other Christian bodies. We will still be active in such ecumenical endeavors in our own province, just not on the international stage. They have also asked that we, the Episcopal Church, during those three years, not participate in any inter-Anglican committees dealing with matters of theology or polity.

They’ve done so, as I said, because we have taken the steps of ordaining qualified LGBT members of the church and of sacramentally blessing the unions of same-sex couples. We did so not because of the pressures of secular society or culture. We did so because in 1978 and again in 1988, with rather prescient foresight, the Lambeth Conference adopted a resolution encouraging – remember that conference cannot legislate, it can only recommend – encouraging the member provinces of the Anglican Communion to reflect theologically on the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church. Specifically, it said:

This Conference: 1. Reaffirms the statement of the Lambeth Conference of 1978 on homosexuality, recognising the continuing need in the next decade for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” 2. Urges such study and reflection to take account of biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies, and the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our Communion. 3. Calls each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation. (Resolution 64 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference)

We did that work and we came first to the conclusion that we needed to honest and open and acknowledge that we (and, in fact, the whole of Christianity) has been ordaining gay men and (when permitted) lesbian women for a long time, but in a closed and closeted way; we needed to be up-front with the world about that. And we now are. As many of you recall, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of the first openly gay, partnered man as a bishop in 2003, the Rt Rev. Gene Robinson, now-retired Bishop of New Hampshire.

Then over the past decade we have studied the question of same-sex marriage and, at this summer’s General Convention, made the (admittedly) major decision to offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. It is for doing the work requested of us by one “instrument of unity,” that another “instrument of unity” has imposed “consequences.” And I’m OK with that. The rest of the Anglican Communion is still working on the assessment the 1978 Lambeth Conference encouraged us to undertake. Some provinces, such as the Canadian church, the churches in New Zealand, Australia, and Southern Africa, perhaps even the Church of England will, I believe, come to the same place we have come in the not-too-distant future. Other provinces may be further behind. But we are on the forefront, on the cutting edge of what is (I believe) a matter of both social justice and grace and, as I have elsewhere commented about this, when did justice, or the gospel, ever come without a price?

As I reflected on these consequences of our church’s decision in favor of inclusivity in light of today’s lessons, I kept coming back to two things . . . First, the Psalm and those verses which remind us that God’s salvation is boundless, encompassing “both man and beast,” and that all drink from the abundant river of God’s delights. The “consequences” imposed by the Primates’ Meeting, it seems to me, are at odds with that vision of God. Second, I remembered the mixed bag of guests likely to have been at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee and I remarked upon the fact that John gives us no information about how Jesus responded to his invitation. Did he ask, “Who else is invited?” Did he make sure that only people who lived up to some standard of purity would be amongst those with whom he would be dining and drinking? I kind of doubt it. Certainly, after converting 180 gallons of water into enough wine for everyone to continue partying for a few more days, he placed no restrictions on which of the guests might enjoy it.

God’s abundant blessings are given without restriction, overflowing and excessive, and available to everyone.

One additional thought . . . and I know this may seem to come from out of left field . . . but do you remember what the Episcopal Church teaches is the standard of giving for church members? Of course, you do! It’s the tithe, based on the practice required in the Law of Moses. Various verses in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus required the ancient Jews to deliver the first tenth of their produce, of their crops and of their newborn livestock, to the Temple. But what would happen if a faithful Jew lived too far from the Temple? Suppose he lived in Alexandria or Cairo, in Damascus or Tehran, in Oslo or Tokyo. What was he to do? Any ideas?

[Suggestions of store-housing or giving to the poor.]

Those are good suggestions, but they’re wrong. Here is what the 14th Chapter of Deuteronomy says:

If, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. (Deut. 14:24-26)

This is our God. A God who encourages us to enter into joyous fellowship, who shares abundant grace with all of creation, who invites – indeed, commands! – everyone to party. Everyone!

That is the theology we, the Episcopal Church, have arrived at: that everyone is invited to share the grace of God. For that, we have suffered consequences. But despite the sensationalist and grossly inaccurate headlines: we are still Anglicans. We are the most traditional of Anglicans!

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.

Liturgy Done Well – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Liturgy Done Well

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Advent 1, Year 2 (4 December 2015)

Matthew 22:2 ~ “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son.”

Jesus goes on from this statement to tale a rather weird and disturbing parable about wedding guests who refuse to attend because of more pressing business, of a host so outraged that he sends soldiers to murder the invited guests and sends slaves into the streets to drag in the uninvited, and of a dragooned and thus unprepared attendee who thrown into prison because of his attire. In these days of mass murders, of hostage takings and political kidnappings, of violence done in the name of disagreement . . . that parable is not something I want to touch in any way!

So . . . I’ll just stick with the basic opening metaphor of “kingdom of heaven is like a wedding banquet.” I can deal with that. It’s a nice analogy that makes sense. It tells me what that other analog for the kingdom of heaven, corporate worship, should be like.

Wedding banquets: food, drink, music, dancing, people having a good time, love and commitment on display and celebrated, gifts given and received, speeches filled with remembrance and silly jokes, toasts and blessings wishing all well into the future . . . What’s not to like about wedding banquets?

A few weeks ago, I received a letter from someone I believe to be a fellow Christian, but a co-religionist of a different ethic and a different aesthetic, who told me that God does not like liturgy. Citing Isaiah’s condemnation of the Temple worship of faithless Israel – “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them (Isa 1:14) – he suggested that God does not applaud our liturgy, but is instead sickened by it.

I rather doubt that. The God Incarnate who enjoyed weddings and even catered wedding banquets (remember Cana of Galilee?) knew what he was saying when he drew his analogy. If the kingdom of God is like a wedding feast, then worship should include food, drink, music, dance, remembrance, jokes, blessings, and gifts, and when liturgy is done well, it does!

I believe that that makes God glad.

More Prophets, Fewer Fools – From the Daily Office Lectionary

More prophets, fewer fools.

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 19, Year 1 (Pentecost 16, 2015)

1 Kings 22:8a ~ The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.”

Ahab was unhappy that the prophet Micaiah would not, like the other prophets, play his Yes-Man. He did not like being contradicted. Who does? Who likes to have his plans criticized or his closely held beliefs mocked and held up to scorn?

Medieval and Renaissance English monarchs had jesters or “licensed fools” whose job was not precisely that of the prophets, but whose function was both to amuse and criticize the king or queen and his or her ministers with subtle mockery. Sometimes the mockery has too subtle; Queen Elizabeth I is said to have disciplined her jester for being insufficiently severe. Sometimes it was not subtle enough; Charles I threw his jester out of court for insulting too many influential people.

The office of jester disappeared with the English civil war. Apparently the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell did not have much of a sense of humor; he did not suffer fools gladly. Politics has been the poorer ever since.

Which brings us to the present day, which has seen a rebirth of the office of fool or jester, but with a not-so-subtle twist – the office of supreme executive and the office of fool seem to be merging into one, or at least the current crop of candidates so suggests.

Politics appears as poor as ever. We could do with more prophets and fewer fools.

There’s always an “only” – From the Daily Office Lectionary

There’s always an “only” . . . .

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 16, Year 1 (Pentecost 13, 2015)

1 Kings 3:3 ~ Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.

Yessireebob! The Deuteronomic historians responsible for the Books of Kings loved Solomon . . . except for that one little thing: he didn’t restrict his worship to the Jerusalem Temple (which he built) and he married all those foreign wives with their foreign gods (and maybe – hint, hint, nudge, nudge – participated in their religious activities).

Those historians are a lot like . . . well . . . everyone. There always seems to be an “only” or an “except” or a “but” – often unspoken – annexed to every human word of praise or expression of love. As a parish priest, I preside at weddings from time to time (really pretty frequently) and, under the rules of the Episcopal Church, I cannot do so unless the couple has undertaken a course of premarital counseling with me. I use a testing instrument (“It’s NOT a test!” I tell every couple, but it really is – it doesn’t test their compatibility or likelihood of success; it tests their communication) which each partner completes separately; it allows each, through indications of his or her level of agreement with several statements, to express any “excepts,” any “onlies,” and any “buts” in ways which are non-threatening to his or her partner. They don’t even realize that that is what they are doing, but I do. I see it in the scoring of the instrument. We deal with it, to some extent, in the course of the counseling.

To love unconditionally, with no “onlies” and no “excepts,” with “no ifs, ands, or buts” as my late mother liked to say, is not a human capacity. The Deuteronomic historians were incapable of it. The couples I counsel in advance of their nuptials are incapable of it. You are incapable of it. I am incapable of it.

God, on the other hand . . .

I have a bumper sticker on my car which reads “God Loves You. No Exceptions.” Yesterday, I took my car to the local dealer for service. As I pulled into the garage, another customer, a woman whom I would guess to be in her late 40s or early 50s, greeted me and said, “I love your bumper sticker.” I thanked her and chatted about the PR campaign of my diocese which produced the stickers and about my church. I gave her my card and invited her to join us on Sunday. It was one of those great, unplanned encounters when one can do that. We had a great conversation.

I love the opportunity to talk with people like that woman, only . . . I don’t really expect her to show up on Sunday. See? There’s always an “only”.

Thirsty: A Walking Tour of Jerusalem – From the Daily Office – June 26, 2014

From the Book of Numbers:

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 20:2-5 (NRSV) – June 27, 2014)

We have nearly come to the end of our second day in Israel, which has actually been our first full day. We began with what was described to us as a typical Palestinian breakfast — cheeses, pita, hummus, olives, pickled baby eggplant, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, and a sautéed mixture of green olives, grape tomatoes, and mushrooms. There was also labneh, a salted yogurt cheese with herbs (in this case, I think it was a combination of basil and mint). It was all very different from our standard breakfast fare, and all very good.

Next on the agenda was a video of a 60-Minutes report from last year about Christians in the Holy Land. There a fewer of them than there used to be. Why that is so is an issue for debate. The Israeli government asserts that it is because of Muslim violence; the Christians we have met say that’s not true. That it is because of Israeli government policies. Perhaps the best analysis was the man who said that Christianity and the Christian community in this land are being lost through “collateral damage” in the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (who are mostly Muslim).

After that we began a walking tour of Jerusalem. St. George’s Cathedral Close is outside the Old City about a mile at the intersection of two roads which both lead to gates of the Old City: Nablus Road and Salah Eddin Street. Nablus Road leads north from the Damascus Gate; Salad Eddin Street leads north-northwest from Herod’s Gate; they cross at St. George’s Cathedral.

We walked our the “back gate” of the close (which is the front gate of St. George’s College) south through a business district (mostly the businesses were closed because it is Friday – the Muslim weekly holy day – and because today is the start of Ramadan – the Muslim holy month). Before getting to Herod’s Gate, we turned on Sultan Sulayman Road and walked west, across the street from the Old City walls. We entered the Old City through Damascus Gate and down “the Cardo,” the main north-south artery through the city.

Nearly every “street” (they are all foot traffic paths) through the city is a suq (marketplace) with stores hawking a variety of products; they are noisy, crowded, exciting, vibrant, and very alive places. Everyone seems to be quite friendly, but one suspects everyone is trying to lure you in for a sale.

It was a very hot day – temperatures are in the 90s (Fahr.) – and this is arid, high desert. We were cautioned many times to drink water. And so this episode of the Hebrews complaining to Moses and Aaron about their lack of water, today’s Old Testament lesson for the Daily Office, seemed a fitting introductory scripture for my summary of our activities. Every place where we could find a bit of shade and every entry into a building was welcome; every time we made a stop, I pulled my water bottle from my backpack and took a drink. Returning to our rooms, Evie and I each bought a 1.5 liter bottle of water and we downed them pretty quickly. The metaphor of water as God’s grace makes so much sense in a desert environment like this, and our thirst for rehydration is a reminder of our thirst for God.

The most striking thing of the day for me was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As I mentioned to our pilgrimage group during our sharing at Compline this evening, there was one part of that visit that made a huge impression. The church which was once one large space built by the Emperor Constantine’s mother St. Helena has been torn apart and subdivided by centuries of sectarian difference. It is now divided up into spaces claimed by Armenian Christians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (here called “the Latins”), Syrian Christians, and others. The only space jointly used is the actual Holy Tomb itself.

At set times during the day, each group holds prayers, and throughout the day deacons from each of the traditions come by to cense the Tomb. While I waited for others in our group, I watched the Roman, Armenian, and Greek deacons each come and do their ministry, each make the offering of incense, each swinging their thuribles in distinct ways. I was impressed with the way each went about this job with dedication, devotion, and singularity of purpose, unfazed by the crowds and the chaos of tourists and pilgrims. But I was also saddened by the fact that, because of the same sectarian division that had carved up the once magnificent space into smaller chapels, they could not do their ministry together. What could be a model for peace and reconciliation in this land which sorely needs it was yet another example of human division.

A fun thing for me today happened at the Western Wall. After I had gone to the wall and offered my prayers, impressed by the thousands and thousands of prayers written on slips of paper that pilgrims (perhaps of many faiths) had tucked into the joints and cracks in the stone, I was standing waiting to rejoin my wife. Two women came up to me and started asking me something in Hebrew! I could only shrug and say, “I’m sorry.” Then the younger, in what I believe to be an Israeli accent, said to me, “O, you’re not from here! You’re not a Jewish boy!” I admitted that I was not, but thanked her for calling me a boy!

A final impression of the day — Compline this evening with our group. As we began, a loudspeaker from a nearby mosque was broadcasting the sound of verses of the Holy Qur’an being chanted, and then more of the traditional Ramadan fireworks sounded. Our prayers were added to these manifestations of praise of God. Meanwhile, the sabbath of the Jews was underway. In this dry, arid land where water is life, three major world faiths come together in prayer, perhaps involuntarily, perhaps with tension, certainly with division, and clearly in this place with enmity . . . and yet at that moment, we were all united like different herds of thirsty animals coming together at a desert oasis or at a spring in time of drought. We ought to be able to learn from this!

And that is my prayer for the people of Israel and Palestine as Ramadan begins, that peace and reconciliation might come to this place and that, at long last, as the Psalmist once wrote, “Jerusalem . . . [will be] at unity with itself.” (Ps. 122:3, BCP Version)

Photos from our day can be found in this Facebook gallery:

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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.

Lust and Sepulchres – From the Daily Office – May 16, 2014

From Matthew’s Gospel:

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 5:27-28 (NRSV) – May 16, 2014)

Private MausoleumIt has been almost 40 years since presidential candidate Jimmy Carter admitted to Playboy magazine, “I’ve looked on many women with lust. I’ve committed adultery in my heart many times. God knows I will do this and forgives me.” Caused quite a stir and, some say, marked the beginning of the erosion of presidential privacy, the start of an era of leadership toxicity in American politics when partisan reporters feel free to reveal any fact or rumor, no matter how irrelevant, if it will hurt a politician of the opposite party or position. I’m not sure that that’s the case; a good argument can be made that the current polarized, hyper-partisan atmosphere started building during the Nixon, or even Johnson, years. That, however, is not what I’m thinking about this morning.

I’m thinking about the impossibility of Jesus’ hyperbolic morality! To be honest, I think Mr. Carter was overstating the “looking with lust” thing. As I understand the Greek used here, epithumeo, what Jesus is talking about is passionate, heated, covetous desire. I can’t imagine that just looking at someone other than one’s life partner, appreciating their attractiveness, and acknowledging one’s own attraction (even with a little wistful wondering….) would rise to the level of “lust.” If it does, then I guess we’re all in trouble, because no one can live up to such a standard.

That Jesus is being hyperbolic is made clear by the fact that he goes on to counsel his followers to cut off their hands and pluck out their eyes if those members cause them to sin! I mean — come on, folks! — does anyone not suffering from a mental illness think Jesus was doing anything more than making a rhetorical point? I certainly don’t. But his rhetorical point, hyperbolic though it may be, needs to be taken seriously.

Thoughts and attitudes are as important as actions, for even if they do not directly control our actions they give them flavor and nuance. A husband may not often be “lustful” towards other women, one may never be unfaithful, but a regular habit of giving thought to the notion is a form of disrespect for one’s wife and may lead to more outright, more visible, and more damaging forms of disrespect. Further, such a regular habit and the attitude from which it springs cheapen the intimacy between spouses. Motives and motivations, and their authenticity, give substance and meaning to our actions; spousal intimacy that is not truly respectful of the spouse has little substance or meaning.

One of my favorite of Jesus’ similes is spoken to the scribes and the Pharisees later in Matthew’s Gospel, and I like it best in the Authorized translation: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men’s bones, and of all uncleanness.” (Mt 23:27, KJV) When inner motivation and outward action are not in harmony, when the action is inauthentic because the motivation dishonest, the action . . . no, the actor is a “whited sepulchre,” lovely in outward appearance but filled with rot.

I believe that Jesus’ hyperbolic language about lust makes the same point, and it applies not just to marriages, but to all human interactions and relationships. It may be hyperbole and it may be (indeed, it is) impossible to live up to it. Nonetheless, we must examine our thoughts and attitudes, our motives and motivations; we must look inside and work on our mindset so that our outward actions are authentic. Why? Well, one reason, as Jesus will shortly remind his listeners in a different context, is that our Father “who is in secret . . . sees in secret.” (Mt 6) A more important reason, however, is that anything less violates the second of the two great commandments: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mt 22:39)

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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.

Questions from the Press – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent – Year A – March 23, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; and John 4:5-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Russian Icon: Woman at the Well and ZacchaeusFour interesting things happened this week. The first was our monthly Brown Bag Concert. During the construction of our Gallery addition to the Parish Hall, the attendance at the concerts had dropped off. Tuesday’s was the first since construction has been completed and we were unsure what sort of turn out we would see. Well, as it happened, we had over 100 people in this church for that concert! What a great thing!

The second thing was the death of Fred Phelps on Wednesday, March 19. The so-called Reverend Mr. Phelps was the so-called pastor of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church. I say “so-called” so many times because I believe Mr. Phelps was essentially self-ordained, and he founded the Westboro congregation which, despite its name, is not recognized by any national or regional Baptist convention. If you don’t recognize those names, Fred Phelps and his congregation are the people who show up with picket signs at the funerals of servicemen and other notable people, picket signs which read “God Hates [Homosexuals]” (only they use a much viler term on their signs). There’s a meme floating around the internet that reads, “Live your life in such a way that Fred Phelps will picket your funeral.” I recommend that.

In the days surrounding his death, my gay and lesbian friends were having quite a discussion of whether anyone should picket his funeral. Another Facebook meme answered that question: it was a cartoon of God saying, “I give you a new commandment: you shall not stoop to Fred Phelps’ level.” That’s where I came down on the question. We pray for the repose of Mr. Phelps’ soul, as we do for anyone who died; we pray that he find in death the peace he seemed not to find in life and which he denied to so many.

His death nearly coincided with what would have been the 86th birthday of another Fred, Fred Rogers, the man who assured children that everyday “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” What a contrast these two Freds present: the man who invited everyone to be his neighbor and the man who wanted almost no one to be his. I had a little vision when I heard of Fred Phelps’ death that he had arrived at the Pearly Gates to be greeted by Fred Rogers saying, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, Fred, and everybody’s here!”

The third thing was our “St. Patrick’s Last Gasp” Irish Festival yesterday. It was a great party and a smashing success. Ray and I were trying to figure out how many people actually attended and we think that, at the highest point, we probably had more than 250 people in this building – here in the church, in the parish hall, in the dining room – if we’d had 25% more people, we couldn’t have moved. That’s a great problem to have!

The fourth interesting thing that happened was that our diocesan communications office contacted me and asked if I would be one of seven Episcopal clergy in the Cleveland metropolitan area to answer some questions posed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Sure,” I said and set about answering their questions. After doing so, I thought I ought to share my answers with you so you won’t be surprised when you open the paper someday soon and see what your rector is quoted as saying . . . because although their questions start innocently enough, they escalate rather quickly to address some thorny issues in our tradition and in our society.

I will get to addressing today’s Gospel lesson, trust me, but I want to share those answers with you first. So here they are . . . .

What is my favorite Easter tradition?

My favorite tradition is the Great Vigil of Easter celebrated as an evening service on Saturday evening or as a sunrise service on Resurrection Sunday. At St. Paul’s, Medina, we celebrate the Vigil in even numbered years on Resurrection Eve Saturday evening, and in odd numbered years on Sunday at sunrise. This year is our Saturday evening year and the service will begin after sundown at 8 p.m. Beginning the service in the dark with the lighting of the new fire, processing the Paschal Candle through the dark church, the church coming to light as other candles are lighted one from another, and finally the sanctuary fully lighted as the cry of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” is sounded, the sun just rising (when we do it at sunrise), and the bells ringing . . . all of that brings me great joy. It speaks to me more clearly of the Light of Christ than any other tradition we observe at Easter or at any time during the church year. Of course, the Sunday morning Festival Eucharist (which will start at 10 a.m.) is great fun, as well!

How do I feel about the way Easter is celebrated in popular/secular culture?

I think the secular traditions of Easter (bunnies, eggs, new bonnets, a new set of dress clothes for the kids, lots of candy) are fine. They are celebrations of the new life of springtime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of calling our church celebration “Easter” and more often refer to it as “Resurrection Sunday” or “Resurrection Season,” so the term “Easter” actually speaks more to me of the secular festivities than of church observance, but the popular Easter traditions and the Christian celebration of Christ’s Resurrection all celebrate the joy of life returning. Human beings in all religious traditions (and those in none) have been celebrating springtime for millennia, and all that we do is good fun and spiritually uplifting. I don’t think the popular traditions detract from the religious significance at all.

What is the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion (including the Church of England)?

The Episcopal Church is one of the many churches around the world which trace their lineage to Christ and the Apostles through the historic Church of England, a family of churches called “the Anglican Communion.” The U.S. Episcopal Church is the second such offshoot of the Church of England; the Scottish Episcopal Church, which ordained our first bishop, was the first. As Anglicans, we are a part of a reformed catholic tradition which separated from the Roman Catholic Church as a political act during the reign of England’s King Henry VIII, not as a result of theological reform or protest. The Episcopal Church is the only Anglican church in the United States officially recognized as such by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, and the Anglican Consultative Council (our international “instruments of unity”).

What does it mean for the Episcopal Church to allow gay & lesbian weddings when the state of Ohio does not legally recognize these unions?

In considering this question, I think we should make a distinction between the civil contract of marriage, which is a creature of law defined by state statutes and constitutions, and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, which is the church’s blessing of a committed, loving relationship of two adult persons. Currently, the Episcopal Church does not offer this sacramental blessing to same-sex couples; we offer a service of blessing and life-long commitment. A study group has been appointed by our highest governing body, the General Convention, to reflect upon our theology of matrimony and make recommendations as to whether the sacrament can and should be extended to same-sex couples; I believe that it should.

Although state law (wrongly, in my opinion) currently denies same-sex couples the right to form the civil contract, that law cannot prohibit the church from offering its blessing to anyone or for any purpose; that would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Therefore, the church is free to and does offer a service of blessing to couples who wish to make solemn vows of life-long commitment one to the other. The church’s blessing does not (and should not be understood to) constitute the formation of the legal contract of marriage. When in a traditional wedding ceremony the husband and wife make their promises, in the Episcopal Church, the first part of the service before the reading of Scripture and the making of the religious vows, is the formation of the contract; after that is done, Scripture is read, prayers are offered, and the religious vows are made and sanctified during the sacramental service of blessing.

By the way, I don’t like to use the term “gay wedding” or “lesbian wedding” because the wedding or commitment ceremony is just that, a ceremony, regardless of the gender or sexual orientations of the persons involved; the couple may be both of the same sex or of opposite sexes, but the nature of the commitments they make to each other in the religious vows — to rely upon God, to love and support one another, to care for each other, and so forth — are the same, neither gay nor lesbian nor straight.

What does “God loves you. No exceptions.” mean to me in a culture that’s spiritual but not religious or with little to no religious affiliation?

Well, I think the statement speaks for itself and would mean the same thing whether the surrounding culture were highly religious or completely secular; God’s love for everyone is not culture dependent. As a statement of belief of the Episcopal Church in this diocese, it means that everyone is welcome. As a former Presiding Bishop of our church once said, “There will be no outcasts in this church,” meaning no one is excluded from participating in our worship, our educational programs, or the social life of the church community. A few weeks ago we put up on our church sign this invitation: “You can belong before you believe.” There is welcome here for the “spiritual but not religious,” the unaffiliated, the disaffiliated, the questioner, the doubter . . . everyone. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we love exploring the questions and we offer a safe place for those with questions to do so. Although he’s not an Episcopalian, the author Brian McLaren speaks for our tradition when he writes in one of his books that the church should offer responses to questions, not answers; answers cut off conversation, while responses invite further discussion. The Episcopal Church offers responses. We think that’s what God does, too; God responds.

Considering the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well

Which brings us to today’s Gospel reading, a very long reading setting out the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in any of the four Gospels. It’s amazing that Jesus had this conversation at all. First of all, he is speaking with a Samaritan. The Samaritans were the descendants of those who were left behind when the important families of Jerusalem and the country were taken into exile in Babylon. Those who got to stay in Israel had intermarried with the surrounding Canaanite peoples and continued to worship God according to the first four Books of Moses; they built a temple on Mt. Gerizim not far from the city of Sychar where this conversation took place and offered their sacrifices there. When the exiles returned and restored the temple in Jerusalem, they launched a campaign of “racial purity” demanding that those with “foreign” wives divorce them; adding the Book of Deuteronomy to the Scriptures, they also insisted that sacrifices could only be made at the Jerusalem temple. The Samaritans rejected these demands and “bad blood” existed between the two groups. By Jesus’ time, there was real hatred and enmity between them; John is a master of understatement when he says, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

Not only was Jesus’ conversational partner a Samaritan, she was a woman! If we accept the Gospel’s naming of Jesus as a Rabbi, he was breaking all sorts of laws and traditions by conversing with a woman, even if she were a good and faithful Jew. Rabbis simply did not speak to any woman to whom they were not related; it just wasn’t done. And this particular woman, apart from being a Samaritan, was also a woman of (shall we say) besmirched reputation. She had been through five failed relationships and had entered into yet another with a man not her husband (how Jesus knows this I’m not sure, but he knows it).

So this poor woman was everything Jesus should have had nothing to do with, and yet there he is carrying on a conversation as if they were old friends. No wonder the disciples were astonished when they returned.

A fifth interesting thing happened this week. I was introduced to a Russian Orthodox icon depicting this Gospel story, and the interesting thing about it is that the icon writer chose to depict not only this story, but also the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, you remember, was the Jewish tax collector who climbed a tree so that he could get a look at Jesus as he walked through a crowd in the Jewish city of Jericho. (Luke 19:1-27) Just as with the woman at the well, Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus. And he didn’t just talk to him; he walked up to the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down because I’m going to have dinner with you.”

Now, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, a lacky of the hated Roman occupiers of Israel. We all, I’m sure, have our opinions of the agents of the I.R.S. and as we get closer to April 15, that opinion is probably going to get pretty bad. But whatever we may think of contemporary revenue agents, what the Jews thought of Jewish tax collectors was a thousand times worse. They were collaborators working with oppressive Roman Empire which had invaded and occupied the Jewish nation. They were given what was for practical purposes a license to steal. The Roman authorities would tell them what they were to collect, but they could take more and did; they excess was what they lived on. So they were as hated and as outcast among their own people as a Samaritan would have been.

I believe that is the reason the Russian iconographer depicted the two stories on the same panel; he was illustrating that for Jesus there were no outcasts. For God incarnate in Jesus, there are no outcasts. Despite what Fred Phelps may have taught in his church, the Gospel story we heard this morning and the story of Zacchaeus demonstrate that God hates no one. As that diocesan bumper sticker and billboard about which the Plain Dealer asked says, “God loves everyone. No exceptions.” In Christ’s church, in this church there will be no outcasts. Ever.

Amen.

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

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

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