That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Politics (page 2 of 19)

Not Sheep, Not Slaves: Sermon for Easter 4, 7 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; and St. John 10:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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It’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter and that means it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And that means that clergy throughout the church have, for the last week, been scratching their heads thinking, “This again? What can I do this time with the sheep-and-shepherd simile?” But, I’m not among them. For three days this past week, the clergy of this diocese have been in conference with our bishop, with a retired seminary president, and with a retired cathedral dean exploring exactly what we understand our ordinations to the diaconate and to the presbyterate to mean. That has kind of taken my attention off the “Good Shepherd” metaphor.

In addition, tomorrow will be the twenty-seventh anniversary of the day the Bishop of Nevada laid his hands on my head and said:

Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Eric; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your Church. (BCP 1979, Ordination of a Deacon, page 545)

I suppose the clergy conference and tomorrow’s anniversary may be why, as I studied today’s lessons, it is verses 19 through 21 of the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter, the words “For to this you have been called . . .,” that caught my attention rather than anything in the Gospel text, and focused my thoughts on Peter’s admonitions to patient endurance of wrongful suffering. Of course, Peter’s instructions are not particularly addressed to the clergy. The way in which our Lectionary is edited, the implication is that they are addressed to Christians in general and, in a broad and inchoate sort of way, they are.

In next Sunday’s epistle reading, we will be treated to some of the verses that precede today’s lesson; we will hear verses 2 through 10 in which Peter will address us as “newborn infants,” describe us as “living stones” being built into a “spiritual building,” and assure us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] God’s own people.” What we did not hear today and will not hear next week and, in fact, never hear read in church on a Sunday as an official Lectionary reading are verses 11 through 18:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

And only then, after these introductory verses, does the selection we heard read today begin with a word edited out of our reading, “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly . . . .” As true as those words may be, they are not addressed to you or to me; they are specifically addressed to aliens, exiles, and slaves. They are addressed to the marginalized and the oppressed; they are addressed to those who must endure injustice because they are powerless to do anything else. These are words of comfort to those who cannot escape oppression, a reminder of St. Paul’s words that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” (Rom 5:3-5) Certainly, we can learn from Peter’s words, but they are not addressed to us. We are not aliens, exiles, and slaves; we are not the marginalized or the oppressed; and we are not powerless.

The patient endurance of unjust suffering is not the life to which I was called as a deacon or as a priest, nor to which you have been called as a follower of Christ. As people who have power, and we do have power, we are called to do something about unjust suffering not simply endure it stoically or heroically.

I keep reading editorials and news analyses which assert that the outcome of the most recent US presidential election, the so-called “Brexit” vote of the electorate in the UK, and the rise of nationalist parties in Holland, France, and elsewhere in the European Union are the result of people rising up against an elite political class with regard to whom they have felt powerless. Well, I can’t speak to the situation in other countries, but I can call “Nonsense” on that assertion here in our own country. You and I and every other eligible voter in the United States are not powerless with respect to our elected politicians! We just aren’t!

What many voters in our country are is apathetic! What many voters in our country are is ill-informed! What many voters in our country are is disengaged! That’s not powerlessness; that’s surrender. Do you know what the percentage of eligible voters who actually bother to cast a ballot is? On average over the last 100 years, the turnout of registered, eligible voters in presidential elections is just over 55%. Expressed differently, that means that 45% of those who could have voted . . . didn’t. And the turnout in non-presidential elections is even worse. We are not a people without power; we are a people who have failed to exercise the power we have been given. We are not slaves patiently enduring unjust oppression; we are empowered people who have surrendered to political usurpation! When we do not exercise the power we are given, we “go astray like sheep.”

But, as Peter writes, we “have returned to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls.” (1 Pet 2:25) We are followers of Jesus Christ who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them.” (Jn 10:3) Jesus who told us that on the last, great day, in his role as our shepherd, “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . ” and to those who have truly followed him he will say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mt 25:32,35-36)

In some metaphorical ways, we may be like sheep, but in truth we are not sheep. We are followers of Jesus Christ and, unlike sheep, we have the power to do all those things, the social power, the economic power, and the political power. We can, as our Free Farmers’ Market volunteers do, roll up our sleeves and distribute food to the hungry; as our Lay Eucharistic Visitors do, take time from our Sunday afternoons to call on sick and shut-in parishioners; as our greeters do, stand at the church door and welcome those unfamiliar to us. We can, as many of us do, give of our wealth to the church, to charities (such as the American Cancer Society, the SPCA, Let’s Make a Difference, Hospice of the Western Reserve, Project Learn, and many others), and to public institutions (such as PBS and NPR, the Medina Schools Foundation, and our universities’ and colleges’ alumni associations and foundations). And we can, as so few of our fellow citizens do, vote, participate in the political process informed by our Christian faith!

On that day 27 years ago tomorrow, the Bishop of Nevada said to me as every bishop says to those who stand before him or her to be ordained deacon:

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself. (BCP, page 543)

We are not aliens, or exiles, or slaves; we are residents, and citizens, and politically empowered voters in one of the greatest nations on Earth. We have the political power to serve Christ himself ensuring that our country responds to “the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world,” that it serves the helpless, feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger, houses the homeless, clothes the naked, and cares for the sick. If we truly follow Christ and live up to our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, Holy Baptism, page 305), neither we nor anyone in our country need ever endure unjust suffering.

The idea that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” is attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, the liberator of India, but he was not alone in expressing that sentiment. The anti-Nazi German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often quoted as saying, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Author Pearl S. Buck wrote, “[T]he test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” (My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, Pocket Books, New York:1954, page 337) And Vice-President Hubert Humphrey said:

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped. (Remarks at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, Nov 1, 1977, Congressional Record, Nov 4, 1977, vol 123, p. 37287.)

The Book of Acts tells us that the earliest Christians devoted themselves to the fellowship and teachings of Christ and his apostles, that they ordered their small society so that any who had need were provided for, and that (as a result) they had the goodwill of all the people. Some of them were slaves, but we are not. We are neither sheep nor slaves, but we can follow the example of those early Christians and order our society so that the needy are cared for. We have the power, and we have made the promise, to do that.

In that service 27 years ago, as in every ordination service, the bishop offered this prayer:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord . . . . (BCP, page 540)

It is through us, the followers of Jesus Christ, not as sheep nor as slaves, but as socially, economically, and politically empowered citizens of this great nation, that God accomplishes these things in our place and in our time.

“Truly I tell you,” the Good Shepherd will say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

Amen.

(The illustration is “The Good Shepherd” (1975) by Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996), a stencil print in the Mingei style.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Introduction

moynihanIn a New York Times editorial, Frank Bruni said:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afterward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Praying for Presidents: Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year A – 15 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and St. John 1:29-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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prayer-in-church“The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” (Isa. 49:1b) What a powerful statement that is that the prophet makes in today’s reading. We name this prophet Isaiah; scholars name him Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. We don’t really know his name . . . but God did! God named him before he was born. Gave him personhood and human identity.

In many ancient and pre-scientific cultures names hold a very special significance; this was so in the near-Eastern cultures from which our Bible comes at the time of Second Isaiah and right down to and after the time of Jesus. Far from merely identifying a person, names in ancient Jewish culture revealed a person’s essential character and, it was believed, their destiny. So it is that this same Second Isaiah prophesies the name of the messiah, Immanuel – “God with us” (Isa 7:14), and the angel of the Annunciation instructs Joseph to name Mary’s child Jesus – “God saves” (Matt 1:21). Jesus does this with Simon in today’s Gospel lesson when he tells him: “You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” (Jn 1:42) This name, Cephas or Peter, means “rock” and Simon Peter did, indeed, become a rock anchoring the fledgling Christian church after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

Furthermore, it was believed that to know a person’s name was to have a certain power over that person. This is why the name of God is never spoken by devout Jews; indeed, it is never read even when written in Scripture. We Anglicans have continued that tradition even into our Prayer Book and our service bulletins; if you look at today’s Gradual, Psalm 67, in the Book of Common Prayer, and as we have reprinted it in today’s bulletin, you will see that the word “LORD” is printed in all upper-case letters.

The reason for this is that Jews developed the idea that God’s name was so holy that it could not be uttered. When Jews read from the Hebrew Scriptures and get to the name of God, written only with four consonants and no vowels, “YHWH,” they will not try to pronounce it as “Yahweh;” instead, they will say “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” The Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer continues this tradition.

When the Old Testament was translated into English, the translators continued to signify the holiness of God’s name: when they came to “YHWH” in the Hebrew text, they wrote “LORD” instead. If you look through the Authorized Version of the Old Testament you will see this done many times – over 6000 times in fact. In every case, the original Hebrew says “YHWH,” but it is translated “LORD.”

In the Gospel lesson today, John the Baptizer names Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) If ever there was a naming which revealed a destiny, that was it. Names have power. To know and to use someone’s name, or to refuse to use someone’s name, is always an act of power: sometimes an act of domination; sometimes an act of submission; sometimes an act of collaboration; and sometimes an act of dismissal.

Rabbi Andrew Davids, head of the Beit Rabban Jewish School in New York, commenting on the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, writes:

God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, [the biblical creation story] affirms that humans – created in the image of God – may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming. The power to name can be experienced in our everyday lives; for example, nothing grabs the attention of a misbehaving child more effectively than a parent – the bestower of the child’s names – calling him [or her] by . . . first, middle, and last names.

The rabbis caution us, however, to use the power of our voices and our words wisely. We must make certain that we use the divine gift of naming in a moral, appropriate, and thoughtful manner. (The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming)

In a commentary on that event recorded in Genesis when Jacob wrestles with the Angel of God and gets his named changed to Israel (“one who wrestles with God and prevails”), David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, challenged preachers to challenge their congregations about names. He wrote:

The task before us . . . Working Preacher, is to invite our people to confess their names. Whether silently or by writing them down on a paper, ask them first to answer this one question: Who are you? Really. What is your name? What is it that others call you? More importantly, what is it that you call yourself? What is that name you can scarce speak for fear or shame? Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal? (Working Preacher Commentary, October 14, 2013)

And he continues, “Names, as we know, can limit us, hurt us, even kill. But so also can they heal and make alive. And so a part of what [the church does each week], is to invite people to come and be reminded once again of our true name and new identity so that we may go out into the world as new persons, as God’s own beloved child.”

One of the things that happens when human beings are angry with one another is that we stop using names; by doing so, we deprive the other of personhood. One of the greatest offenses you can give a person is to not use their name. It’s dehumanizing. It takes away that precious gift that God gave to Second Isaiah even before he was born! So, in my pastoral counseling with persons dealing with anger issues, one of the first things I suggest to them is to pray for the person with whom they are angry by name. Nothing elaborate, just a simple prayer; something as simple as, “Lord, I pray for [fill in the blank].” Doing so does not endorse the person’s behavior or validate what it is about them that has angered you, but it does create an intimacy which can defuse the anger. Praying for the person by name, naming the person, brings them into your sphere of being.

One of the saints of our church, Dr. James DeKoven, a priest who taught Church history at Nashotah House seminary in Wisconsin in the 19th Century, wrote that prayer brings the one for whom we pray present to us “in the deep, hidden bonds” that link persons together. (From a letter written just before his death, March 1879.) Although he was writing of prayer for deceased loved ones, I believe his observation is true of prayers for the living, as well.

I bring this up because an event is about to happen which has caused some consternation and debate in our denomination and in others. It is something that we have already addressed in this congregation and which we will not change so long as I am the rector and the one charged by tradition and canon with making liturgical decisions.

When I came to St. Paul’s Parish in the summer of 2003, although the President of the United States was being prayed for in the generic manner set out in the standard forms of the Prayer Book, George W. Bush (who was then the president) was not being named. I began to name him and to instruct prayer leaders to do so. Some people not of Mr. Bush’s political persuasion objected. When he left office and Barack Obama was elected, we began praying for him by name. Some people not of Mr. Obama’s political persuasion objected. When we started distributing the sheets with the additional petitions to be read by members of the congregation, some people refused to read the petition including Mr. Obama’s name. Now that Donald Trump has been elected and we have added his name as president-elect, some people have refused to read that petition.

On Friday, Mr. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Some of us are pleased as punch about that. Some of us are appalled. Most of us are somewhere in between. And many are debating about whether or not to pray for him by name. What an incredibly silly thing to argue about! And what a terrible thing to do, to refuse to pray for someone by name.

In St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, he writes:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus . . . . (1 Tim. 2:1-5)

In this parish on Sunday morning, as a congregation, will pray for the president and “all who are in high positions” by name. To do otherwise is to deprive them personhood, to dehumanize them, and in doing that we dehumanize ourselves.

In our Gospel lesson today, when the Baptizer named Jesus the Lamb of God, two of John’s disciples took off following Jesus. They asked him what to us sounds like an impertinent, but really quite inessential, question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (Jn 1:38)

[T]he English obscures the significance of the phrase. The Greek verb is meno: abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains (meno) upon him (John 1:32). After Jesus provides bread enough to satisfy a crowd, with plenty left over, he cautions the people to work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (John 6:27). He promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10). Wherever Jesus stays (meno), people have the opportunity to believe (John 4:40; 10:40). (Audrey West, Working Preacher Commentary, January 15, 2017)

The Lord abides; the Lord endures: earthly rulers do not. The Psalms remind us:

It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in flesh.
It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in rulers. (Ps 118:8-9)

and again

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them. (Ps 146:2)

Presidents come and presidents go; Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” endures. (The dude abides!) “He will . . . strengthen [us] to the end.” (1 Cor 1:8) So we rely on the Lord . . . and we pray for presidents.

By name.

Amen.

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

Our Immigrant Lord: For the Parish Newsletter, December 2016

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

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thirstednot-jesusindesert2A few years ago I read an essay about the trials and tribulations of relocation, particularly from region to region within our country. In it the author made the comment that when relocating to the South, there were two invariably asked questions of the newcomer: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” These, he said, are quintessentially Southern inquiries which serve to position the interrogated in a place’s social network and milieu. The assumptions, of course, are that no one would relocate to a town where they did not have “people” (i.e., family members) and that everyone goes to church somewhere.

I’m not sure, after making several regional locations myself, that those are only Southern questions. They seem to be universally asked, in one form or another, of newcomers to every American community. In fact, they may be quintessentially human questions asked around the world!

In 2005, when Evelyn and I made our first trip to Ireland, one of my goals was to find distant relatives, members of the Funston clan whose ancestors had stayed there when my great-great-grandfather had come to America. So we visited the places I believed he might have come from, the Funston township lands of Counties Donegal, Tyrone, and Fermanagh. During our stay in the city of Donegal we happened to visit a woolen goods store run by a delightful man named Sean McGinty. We entered the shop just as Sean was closing up for the day and he graciously stayed open so we could peruse his sweaters, tweeds, and other goods. Of course, that meant he was going to be late to dinner . . . and, as a result, his wife Mary came looking for him.

We’d been in conversation with Sean before Mary arrived and told him of my search for Funstons. He said he thought there might be some living in Pettigo, a small village on the border of County Donegal and County Fermanagh. When Mary came into the shop, he drew her into our conversation and asked her, “Mary, you’re from Pettigo. Were there any Funstons living there?” She thought for a moment and then replied, “Aye! But they weren’t our people.” I knew immediately what she meant: they weren’t members of the Catholic Church. And that would have been right! My ancestor was a member of the Anglican Church of Ireland and his descendants are still Anglicans!

So there were those same two concerns: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” They are the questions still being asked of newcomers to our communities wherever we may be, whether we are in the South of the United States, in Ohio, or somewhere in Europe. As so many people are on the move because of war, political unrest, and economic necessity, as so many are labeled “immigrant” and “refugee,” they are increasingly divisive and exclusive questions.

“Who are your people?” . . . “Where do you worship?” . . . What is your ethnic background? . . . What is your religion? . . . Instead of being asked to position the newcomer within the social milieu of his or her new home, the questions and their answers too often lead to the erection of social barriers, sometimes even physical walls. Instead of being welcoming questions of inclusion, they are the defensive or belligerent interrogations of exclusion.

Recently in the Christian press, particularly those journals which cater to a more conservative audience, there has been a lot of discussion about the assertion that Jesus was an immigrant and refugee. It is a common enough hermeneutic drawn from the story of the Holy Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt as related in Matthew’s Gospel: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matt 23:13 NRSV) It occurred to me that it may be a useful reminder that the Son of God was an immigrant from the very start, that he was not and is not a native resident of our world; he is from elsewhere, from heaven, from the very Throne of God.

As Dr. John Marshall, a Southern Baptist minister in Missouri, recently wrote: “Our Savior was an immigrant. He left His home in Heaven to become a stranger in the very world He created. There was no room for Him in the Bethlehem inn (Lk 2:7). He came to His own people, but they received Him not (Jn 1:11).” (Marshall) As we prepare once again to welcome him in the annual celebration of his Incarnation, we do well to remember that and to remember that he remained an immigrant and a refugee throughout his life.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, a land dominated by the Roman empire through a client ruler named Herod the Great. Apparently Mary, Joseph, and Jesus remained there for a couple of years before fleeing to Egypt where they lived until Herod died about four to six years after that. When they left Egypt, they returned not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth in Galilee, which was under the rule of Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. Jesus grew up, then, as a resident of Galilee; when he undertook his ministry to Jerusalem (which is in Judea), although he was returning to the country of his birth, he was an immigrant into Judea.

Judea, by the way, during Jesus’ life and ministry was ruled not by a local king but directly by the Romans. Herod the Great was succeeded by his son Archelaus, who had the title of “Ethnarch of Judea.” Archelaus died less than ten years after succeeding his father. After his death, a series of Roman governors or “Prefects” ruled, the last of whom during Jesus’ life was Pontius Pilate.

In truth, Jesus spent most of his time on the move. Both Matthew and Luke report him saying to a potential follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20; Lk 9:58) Jesus was not a settled person and, interestingly enough, neither are his followers (us) supposed to be. This goes back to the Jewish roots of our faith, a reminder of which is found in the Torah’s instructions for eating the Passover feast: “You shall eat it [with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (Ex 12:11) We are always to be ready to be on the move.

Our parish patron, St. Paul, takes up this theme in his letters. He reminded the Philippians that we are not to set our mind on earthly things because “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philip 3:19-20) And he promised the Ephesians that we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19) Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon expanded on this notion in their book Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989), arguing that today the church is not “a service club within a generally Christian culture,” but rather “a colony within an alien society.” (pg. 115)

How might this inform and shape our Advent preparations and our Christmas celebrations? What if we understood that we are not getting ready to welcome Jesus into our settled existence, our cozy homes and our warm hearths, our abundant feasts and our lovely dining rooms? Rather, we should be preparing for our immigrant Lord Jesus to invite us to join him on the road, to eat with him hastily consumed meals wearing our sandals and holding our walking sticks, to sleep with him in places where we have no place to put our heads. What might we do differently to get ready for the anniversary of his Incarnation and for his promised return? What might we do differently for all who, like him, are refugees and immigrants?

Who are our people? The people of God whoever they are and wherever they may be, temporarily settled in “a colony within an alien society” or on the road. Where do we worship? Wherever we find our Lord, in church, in a refugee camp, in places we cannot even imagine. Every year Advent and Christmas challenge us with what Hauerwas and Willimon call “the greatest challenge facing the church in any age” which is to be “a living, breathing, witnessing colony of truth.”

May that challenge be our blessing in 2016! May each of us, and all of us together, be living, breathing witnesses to the Truth!

(Note: The image is a digital painting by an internet blogger calling himself Horseman. I could find no further information about it or him.)
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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.

Faith Leaders Call on Congress to reject Mr. Trump’s Cabinet of Bigotry

Faith Leaders Call on Congress to reject Mr. Trump’s Cabinet of Bigotry

Note: This is a Google Document which you can join in signing by clicking the above title.

Dear Members of Congress,

As a community of faith, we stand firmly and morally opposed to the dangerous and divisive voices that President-elect Trump is elevating into positions of great power. White supremacy has no place in the West Wing or any other rung of leadership.

We object not only to one individual, but to a clear pattern that Mr. Trump is building a cabinet founded on bigotry and a racial ideology that degrades religious minorities, immigrants and people of color.

Senator Jeff Sessions has a long history of bigoted comments towards people of color and civil rights organizations, including the NAACP and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. In 1984 Sen. Sessions tried to prosecute three Alabama civil rights workers for their voter registration work. This politically motivated case not only failed, but also led to Congress rejecting him as unfit for judicial office. It is an outrage for Sessions to oversee the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.

Steve Bannon, formerly led the far-right website Breitbart News, which has ceaselessly promoted racist, sexist, anti-Semitic and homophobic rhetoric that degrades the human dignity of millions of Americans.

Kris Kobach, a member of Mr. Trump’s transition team, has a horrifying record on civil rights and has advanced policies that disenfranchise people of color and discriminate against immigrants, and has called for a registry that would single out Muslims and other religious minorities.

While we respect Michael Flynn’s military service, he has called Islam ‘a Cancer’ and used social media to stoke fears of Jews and Muslims. National security experts know that such divisive fear-fueled rhetoric only leads to senseless hate crimes here in America, and needlessly puts at risk our men and women in uniform.

As proud Americans committed to defending the Bill of Rights and freedom of religion, we oppose putting in powerful positions these individuals who have stoked truly dangerous bigotry.

All of our faith traditions teach us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. After a painful and contentious election, the future of our nation rests in our ability to unite and work collaboratively for the common good of all people. But we cannot coalesce around these ambassadors of hatred, bigotry and intimidation.

We are a country founded on the principle that all people are created equal. As the future of our nation is shaped by its new president, we must cling strongly to those values that make our nation great — liberty, justice and freedom for all.

In the coming days, our prayer is that you call on President-elect Trump to reject these white supremacists and appoint advisers who understand that forging a more tolerant, united and inclusive America is the best way forward. We urge you not to remain silent at such a time as this for through your silence you suggest agreement.

Click here to sign this document.

God Reigns: Sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, 20 November 2016

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

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for All Saints Day in Year C: Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46 or Canticle 16 (Luke 1: 68-79); Colossians 1:11-20; and St. Luke 23:33-43 These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Christ the KingIt’s the last Sunday of the Christian year, sort of a New Year’s Eve for the church. We call it “the Feast of Christ the King” and we celebrate it by remembering his enthronement. As Pope Francis reminded the faithful in his Palm Sunday homily a few years ago, “It is precisely here that his kingship shines forth in godly fashion: his royal throne is the wood of the Cross!” (Francis)

My friend Malcolm Guite, a priest of the Church of England and a remarkable poet, has written a lovely sonnet for this feast:

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

Each year on Christ the King Sunday we read some part of the crucifixion story. As we do so, I wish I could think in the terms of Malcolm’s beautiful poem, but I seldom do. This year, for example, we get the story of Jesus’ surprisingly calm conversation with the thief crucified next to him; these three men hanging in agony on crosses carry on a remarkably clear and lucid discussion. It’s probably my own sinful nature or my warped sense of humor or my attention deficit disorder or something, but I cannot read this gospel lesson with flashing to the crucifixion scene at the end of Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” in which a chorus of two or three dozen crucified men, led by Eric Idle, address the lead character (who is also crucified) in song:

Cheer up, Brian. You know what they say.
Some things in life are bad.
They can really make you mad.
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle,
Don’t grumble. Give a whistle.
And this’ll help things turn out for the best.
And…
Always look on the bright side of life.

If life seems jolly rotten,
There’s something you’ve forgotten,
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.
When you’re feeling in the dumps,
Don’t be silly chumps.
Just purse your lips and whistle. That’s the thing.
And…
Always look on the bright side of life.

A few stanzas later, the chorus sneaks in the line “Always look on the bright side of death.”

That scene, indeed the whole movie, is disrespectful, sacrilegious, and very funny . . . and in that particular scene it is theologically profound. Because that is precisely the meaning of Jesus’ words to the thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” That is precisely the meaning the Christian faith, that beyond the darkness of death, beyond the darkness of the tomb, there is a brighter side, there is paradise and resurrection. On the other side of human decisions that sometimes produce bad consequences or unacceptable results, whether intended or not, there is the reign of God.

Growing up, as most of us have, in a constitutional democracy without a monarch, our basic idea of kingship today is probably somewhere between Disney and Queen Elizabeth of England, somewhere between fairytale and figurehead. Today, we probably conceive of kingship as a life of luxury were everything goes well and people write books (or tabloid headlines) about you.

Well, Jesus, Christ the King, is not that sort of monarch (or ruler or president or whatever). Instead, he is something utterly different, a king who ushers in an entirely new order – a world characterized by new life, hope, grace, and above all love – the kind of love that never wearies pointing to and inviting beyond the darkness to the brighter side, to paradise and resurrection.

That seems to be a message a lot of people need to hear today; it’s the message that we as the church need to speak to our society loudly and clearly because many people are frightened by the outcome of our presidential election. And many other people are taking its result as permission to do some very unpleasant things.

On the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.

Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Disruptive responses are not limited to those on the so-called “alt-right” side of things, however. Thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.” And there have been reports of violence and destruction of property associated with some of these marches.

We, as the church of Christ the King, need to say to both sides, “Enough!” We need to remind everyone that, regardless of what side they may have been on in the election or what side they believe they are on now, on the other side of every human decision, every human decision, including elections, there is the bright side, the reign of God, paradise and resurrection. In 1930, Archbishop William Temple preached at the opening of the seventh Lambeth Conference, assuring his colleagues:

While we deliberate, God reigns;
When we decide wisely, God reigns;
When we decide foolishly, God reigns;
When we serve God in humble loyalty, God reigns;
When we serve God self-assertively, God reigns;
When we rebel and seek to withhold our service, God reigns –
the Alpha and the Omega, which is, and which was,
and which is to come, the Almighty.
We decide however we decide . . .
but Almighty God will always reign!

That is the meaning of this day and that must always be the message of the church: “Our God, the God who said, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ reigns!” Amen.

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

An Unpreached Clergy Installation Sermon in the Time of Donald Trump

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A homily which will NOT be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of a neighboring parish in Ohio, at the celebration of the new ministry of the Rev. George ___________ as rector. (I have not disclosed names or locations as they are, frankly, irrelevant to this soon-to-be-unpreached sermon.)

(The lessons on which this sermon is based are Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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Note: When first asked to preach at George’s celebration of new ministry, I penned this sermon. After a few days, I decided to go in a different direction and, using only a few bits and pieces of what I had written here, cobbled together with other material, I crafted another sermon which I will preach. Nonetheless, I believe this homily to have merit and, therefore, publish it here. (I will publish the actual sermon once it has been delivered.)

donald-trump-prune-faceOn the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.

Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.”

“Now, wait,” you’re probably thinking, “none of that has happened here (where we are celebrating), nor in Medina (where my church is), so why are you bringing it up?”

Well, in the three verses which precede the opening sentence of our Epistle Lesson this evening, St. Paul wrote these words which will, I think, be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6)

The primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians is the church’s ministry of reconciliation and our call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) We are all given gifts, as we heard in the portion read tonight, to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (4:13)

And we are to do that in the context of a nation in which threatening notes are left on minister’s cars, public recreation facilities are defaced with messages of racial hatred, students are made to feel unsafe on their college campuses, and churches are tagged with anti-gay or anti-immigrant graffiti, a nation where thousands protest because they cannot accept the outcome of a national election. We are called to be a community of unity (not of uniformity, but of unity), a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict.

It is within this wider context that the community of St. [Swithun’s], has called the Rev. George __________ to be its rector.

In those three verses, which form a sort of explanatory preamble to the first verse we heard read (verse 7), the word “one” is used seven times! It is the drum-beat of a hymn to the church’s unity which crescendos with the oneness of God, the “Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” In the first three chapters of the letter, Paul has identified God as the source of the church’s identity; here, he identifies the oneness of God as the source, foundation, and ultimate goal of the church’s unity and our ministry of reconciliation.

In the Greek, verse 7 (the first verse we heard from the letter) also begins with the word “one.” It’s not possible to translate that parallelism into English, but to fully appreciate Paul’s thrust we might add a couple of words to our translation. We might underscore Paul’s point by rendering it not simply as “each of us was given” but more emphatically as “each one of us was given” a gift of grace for this work. Paul is bringing his notion of oneness back to our individual experience – each one of us experiences God’s grace in the larger context of the church’s ministry and goal of unity and reconciliation.

In an opinion piece published Monday in the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, the provisional bishop of Bethlehem and Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, wrote:

[T]he news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. *** [B]ut before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. (Rowe)

I believe that what Bishop Rowe is saying is an echo of God’s words to Joshua as he took over leadership of the Hebrews from Moses: “Be strong, be courageous, be careful; do not to the right or to the left.” (Josh 1:7) That’s hard work, but God’s message to Joshua is God’s message to us: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)

While no one, at least so far as I am aware, has tagged any churches in this community with anti-gay or anti-immigrant or pro-Trump graffiti, and while no one, at least so far as I am aware, has marched through the streets of this town in protest of the election’s results, I would be willing to bet that this community, and even this parish, has within it both those who voted for Trump and are rejoicing, and those who voted for Clinton and are in grief. This is the reality of human community and of the church; as I said a moment, we are a community of unity not of uniformity, called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of such division and conflict.

I don’t know and don’t really care how any of you voted; I don’t know and don’t really care how Father George voted. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. And regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of those spectra, he or she is called into the midst of them to be pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to the whole of the community.

Because no matter what may be happening in the larger world, babies are still being born, children are still growing up, teens and young adults are still going through the changes and passages of life, young men and women are still getting married, older people are, too! And people are still getting sick and dying . . . and, George, they are counting on you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor through it all. No matter where they or you stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they will invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of reconciliation occurs. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra of opinion; a web of relationship comes into being which fosters and upholds the work of reconciliation to which all are called.

So, George, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as the apostle Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

But, good people of St. [Swithun’s], George does not do this alone! As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

“Who are the ministers of the Church?” asks our Catechism. “The ministers of the Church,” it answers, “are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” The ministry of the laity, it continues

is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP 1979, page 855)

“To carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world . . .” and we are right back where we began: we are called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict. In a world where so many are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming,” we, all of us, are call to “speak[] the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:14-15) George will do that; so must you.

George, as you may know, is named for the Patron Saint of England whose red cross emblazons our Episcopal Church flag and shield. What you may not know is that St. George is also the patron saint of Palestine. A few years ago, my wife and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among the places we visited was the village of Burkin which sits on the boundary between Samaria and Galilee.

There, we visited the tiny Church of St. George, which commemorates the spot on which Jesus healed ten lepers. (Luke 17:12-19) It is the fourth oldest continuously in use worship space in the world! There has been a church on that spot since the early Fourth Century! It is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Our host was Usama, a member of the Greek Orthodox congregation. One could tell that he and the other members of St. George’s Church are very proud of their heritage. Their worship space is immaculate. The silver is polished; the cloth hangings and altar vestments are clean and bright; the icons are dusted. Pride of place is patent in every corner.

The worship space is tiny – our group of eighteen people more than half filled it. It is probably very crowded on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy and at other times of Orthodox worship. This congregation has a membership of 65 people. They are the only Christians in a town of over 7,000 population. Their witness is astounding!

Usama and his wife Neda hosted us to lunch in their home. The tables were filled with tomato and cucumber salad, yoghurt, pita, and chicken and lamb shwarma served on heaping platters of seasoned rice. There was enough to feed a group five times our size.

Several of us had two or three helpings of the delicious food when Usama’s wife, Neda, came around and piled one more serving on everyone’s plate: “Eat,” she said, “how do I know you liked it if you leave some behind?” It was all in good fun, and the graciousness and vibrancy of their hospitality was overwhelming.

We talked with them about the dwindling of their congregation, what it is like to be a Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. Someone in our group asked if they had ever considered leaving Burkin. “No,” Neda replied quickly, “If we left, who would be the church?”

It was a brilliant response, “Who would be the church?” Not ”Who would take care of the church?” Not “Who would polish the silver?” Not “Who would do whatever ….” but “Who would be the church?” Who would be the community of reconciliation in that context of division and conflict?

Usama and Neda and their brothers and sisters in Burkin are called to be that community there; you and George are called to be that community here. So I want to be very clear what it means to be a community of reconciliation in a world of division and conflict. It does not mean to simply make nice and live in an uneasy peace with those with whom we disagree; it does not mean to accept what cannot be accepted; it does not mean to approve what cannot be approved.

Reconciliation does not take place in a vacuum, nor in a fog of niceness; reconciliation can only take place within a context of, and when it incorporates the elements of, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and the healing of relationships.

In the sacramental rite of reconciliation, “evidence of due contrition” must be shown and the Confessor may require that “something to be done as a sign of penitence and [an] act of thanksgiving.” (BCP 1979 page 446) In the invitation to the general confession in our older prayer books and in Rite One of the current Prayer Book, the presider calls on those

. . . who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways. (BCP 1979 page 330).

This is the prophet’s call to change. Standing in the web of reconciliation, addressing one another and those outside our community who stand at different points on the various spectra of politics, economics, and demography, our work of reconciliation is the work of a prophet.

For example, the Old Testament law commands, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) As ministers of reconciliation we are obligated by our baptismal promises to treat resident aliens in this way, to call others to do so, and to resist those who would treat immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities in any other way.

The prophet Micah told us that what is required of us is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) As Christian ministers of reconciliation it is incumbent upon us to do so, to encourage others to do so, and to seek to change systems and practices that do not promote justice and loving kindness.

Jesus was once asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he replied “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39) In fulfillment of these commandments, our ministry of reconciliation requires that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, Page 305) call others to do so, and oppose those who would thwart those goals.

Jesus suggested that the Father blesses those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison, and turns away those who fail to do such things. (See Matt. 25:32-46) Our ministry of reconciliation demands that, like Jesus, we say to those who refuse to do these things “Depart from me, I do not know you,” until they change and do what they can for the least of his brothers and sisters.

When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples drew a sword and cut off someone’s ear, but Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52). Our ministry of reconciliation must include a prophetic echo of Isaiah and Micah calling on the manufacturers, purveyors, and wielders of weapons to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)

You, good people of St. [Swithun’s], have called George to join you in this prophetic ministry of reconciliation; with him you are called to be the church in this place at this time, a community of unity and reconciliation in the larger conflicted and divisive context of this age. To you, Jesus says, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last,” the fruit of the prophetic ministry of reconciliation.

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the clergy person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand, and as friend to friend, presbyter to presbyter, long-winded preacher to long-winded preacher, I can offer no better advice than that given by St. Paul in his first letter to a new pastor, Timothy:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim. 6:11-12,14,20)

Amen.

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

The photograph of President-elect Donald J. Trump is from the Library Grape website.

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

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary for All Saints Day in Year C: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; and St. Luke 6:20-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

It recognizes the reality that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray:

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

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

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