That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Sacraments (page 2 of 10)

“Squirrel!” – Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2017

During my three days away taking the Education for Ministry training I needed to continue my certification as an EfM mentor this past week, I was reminded of an old story about children’s sermons:

A pastor was giving his children’s message at the beginning of a church service. For this part of the worship, he would gather all the children around him and give a brief lesson before dismissing them to Sunday school.

On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson on industry and preparation. He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees . . . (pause) . . . and eats nuts . . . (pause) . . . .”

No hands went up. “And it is gray . . . (pause) . . . and has a long bushy tail . . . (pause) . . .”

The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch . . . (pause) . . . and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited . . . (pause) . . . .”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

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Stand-Up Jesus and the M&M – Sermon for RCL Proper 12A – July 30, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 12A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; and St. Matthew 13:31-33,44-52. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Have you ever had a friend try to tell you about going to see a stand-up comedian’s show? When I lived in Las Vegas, this happened fairly often in my workplace. Someone would go to see the late Robin Williams, or Jon Stewart (before he took over the Daily Show), or any of several who made regular appearances on the Strip, and then on Monday morning over coffee they would try to tell us how funny the show was.

Jokes with punchlines, if my co-worker had a good memory and reasonable sense of comedic timing, could be pretty funny. But one-liners . . . not so much. One-liners are pretty much a you-had-to-be-there sort of thing; funny at the time and in the context, but they lose something in the retelling.

This section of Matthew’s Gospel always feels to me like that’s what the author is trying to do here. Just before the bit that we read this morning, Matthew has told the longer stories we heard last Sunday and the week before, the agricultural parables of the sower and of the wheat and weeds, together with their explanatory punchlines. Now he launches into the one-liners that Jesus told: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure, like a net, like a peanut M&M, like an Oktoberfest, like plaster that fell into a pipe organ. (OK, the last three aren’t from Jesus, but they could have been.)

These quick parables are offered in rapid-fire, quick succession, without explanation and without time for the reader or hearer to ponder or respond to them. That pondering and response comes later, if it comes at all.

Last week, Philip Yancey, a widely-respected and prolific Christian author, currently an editor-at-large at the magazine Christianity Today, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, entitled “The Death of Reading Is Threatening the Soul” (Washington Post, 7/21/2017) He began it with these words:

I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life.

“I used to read three books a week,” he said. But these days that is practically impossible for him, as it may be for many of us. “The Internet and social media have trained [our] brain[s] to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.” These rapid, one-liner parables seem almost designed for the social media age; nearly all of them in today’s reading can be trimmed and edited into the 140-character limit of a Twitter tweet (a couple don’t even need to be edited).

But these are not tweets! They need to be taken and understood in context; it’s just that the context isn’t supplied by the surrounding text, in this case Matthew’s gospel, as it is with most short quotations. The context of these short parables is the same as the context of one-liners in a comedy routine that fall flat when someone tries to tell them in the office on Monday morning; the context is in the moment of the telling and the hearing, and for us in the modern world reading Matthew’s re-telling of the one-liners, for us who are not sitting on the Galilean hillside in the moment of telling, our own hearing is the most important element.

Philip Yancey’s op-ed article was a plea to modern Christians to do the “hard work of focused concentration on reading.” He drew on the findings of modern neuroscience that it “actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” What Yancey (drawing on the work of writer Sven Birkets) calls “deep reading” “requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace;” this is what is needed to build the context for hearing the parables of Jesus. Says Yancey:

Modern culture presents formidable obstacles to the nurture of both spirituality and creativity. As a writer of faith in the age of social media, I host a Facebook page and a website and write an occasional blog. Thirty years ago I got a lot of letters from readers, and they did not expect an answer for a week or more. Now I get emails, and if they don’t hear back in two days they write again, “Did you get my email?” The tyranny of the urgent crowds in around me.

If I yield to that tyranny, my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places.

A wandering, creative mind, a mind filled with the products of deep reading rather than cluttered by the superficial demands of “the tyranny of the urgent,” is the context in which the rapid-fire, quick-delivery parables in today’s Gospel become capable of understanding.

“What then are we to say about these things?” asks Paul in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. He is, of course, referring to what he had earlier called “the sufferings of this present time,” (v. 18) not to Jesus’ parables. The question, however, applies equally. What are we to say about these parables? How can we say anything if we do not understand them? And how are we to understand them if we have not equipped our minds with the deep reading and varied experience needed to provide the context for our hearing? “Let anyone with ears hear,” says Jesus at the end of many parables; developing our imaginations and our creativity through study and experience is the way we grow those ears. It is the way we give context to these tweet-like one-liners that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, or a net, or a peanut M&M. (You thought I’d forgotten to come back to that, didn’t you?)

Notice that I didn’t say “reading of Scripture” or “Bible study” is how we grow those ears and develop that context. Reading the Bible is great, but the background to Jesus’ parables, the background to life is much broader than one small collection of 66 (Protestant canon), or 73 (Roman Catholic numbering), or 78 (Easter Orthodox reckoning) varied pieces of literature. I think everyone should read the Bible, but spiritual growth requires the building of a contextual foundation, and that requires reading more than the Bible and experience far beyond the walls of the church.

Our psalm today (Psalm 128) is a paean to family life, to the building of a posterity, to the work of insuring peace for all of God’s people through the faithfulness of the family. It speaks to the idea of work which, like deep reading, takes concentration, and time, and a slower pace. It took Jacob fourteen years of work just to marry his two wives, Leah and Rachel, to begin the family that was the foundation of the People of God; his story works well as a metaphor for the work of building the context for understanding God’s Word. The alternative psalm provided in the Revised Common Lectionary is a selection of verses from Psalm 105 including the admonition to “search for the Lord and his strength; [to] continually seek his face; [and to] remember the marvels he has done.” (vv. 4-5a) Deep reading of all sorts of literature, of science, of fiction, of poetry, of the daily newspaper . . . and experience in many and varied areas of life are among the places and the ways in which we can do that.

So Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a lot of things: a mustard seed, yeast, a pearl of great value, a treasure hidden in a field, a net cast into the sea. And then he asked his closest disciples, “Do you understand these things?” He did not tell them what the parables meant; he simply asked if they knew. “Yes,” they answered. To which he replied, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” He expected his disciples to have that experience and background, to have done the hard work of building a contextual foundation for understanding and interpreting the metaphors. He asks us the same question and expects of us the same foundation.

I could stand here and tell you what I think is the meaning of seed, yeast, pearl, or net, and I’ve done so many times over the past decade and a half. Do you remember? Probably not. Because the meaning of the metaphors is found only in context and the context for these bullet-point, tweet-like, one-liner-stand-up-routine parables is your own life, your own imagination, your own deep-reading developed creativity. “What then are we to say about these things?” is a question for you to answer.

And when we have each answered it, when we have wrestled with Jesus’ analogies for the kingdom of heaven, we can begin to develop our own.

“The kingdom of heaven is like an Oktoberfest a church congregation offered to the community.” It is an opportunity for the church to invite its neighbors and the residents of its city to enjoy themselves for an afternoon and an evening, to experience good food (maybe a little beer or wine), good company, good music (we hope), and good fellowship. It brings to our community a foretaste of that great party God has promised to everyone through the Prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Is 25:6) We believe and hope that our Oktoberfest, like the St. Nicholas Tea and St. Patrick’s Last Gasp, will be among those “intangible elements” which “significantly contribute to making place and to giving spirit,” which give “give meaning, value, emotion and mystery to” our common life in the City of Medina. (See International Counsel on Monuments and Sites, Quebec Declaration, 4 Oct 2008)

“The kingdom of heaven is like plaster that fell into a pipe organ.” It presented us with the reality of our stewardship of this building and this instrument; it encouraged us to find our own capacity to make music and sing God’s praise even when deprived of our traditional accompaniment. It prompted someone with no current connection to this parish but with fond memories of the organ to make a major donation to its restoration. Plaster falling into the organ reminds us of Psalmist’s encouragement, “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.” (Ps 47:6) The plaster falling into the organ declares with J.S. Bach, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” (Quoted in Wilbur, G., Glory and Honor: The Musical and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, Cumberland House, Nashville:2005, p. 1)

“The kingdom of heaven is like a peanut M&M.” I’m still working on that one. I believe it’s a good metaphor, though. The hard candy shell, the rich milk chocolate, the salty kernel at the center; they all speak to me of the spiritual discoveries of the faith.

“Therefore,” said Jesus, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Be like those scribes. Read deeply, experience life, do the hard work of becoming Christian leaders who can mine the wisdom of the ages, both the old and the new, both the religious and the secular, and proclaim the Gospel in context to the people around you. It requires study; it requires imagination and creativity; it requires deep reading and contemplation. But in the end, at the heart of it all, there is great reward; there is understanding, in our own context, of mustard seeds, and yeast, and nets, and pearls, and hidden treasures . . . like the peanut at the center of the M&M.

Amen.

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

Once to Every Man & Nation – Sermon for Proper 9A – July 9, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 9A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; and St. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was a lawyer, poet, college professor, and diplomat in the middle of the 19th Century. He graduated from Harvard College at the age of 19 in 1838, and was called to the Bar two years later in 1840. In 1855, he succeeded his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Harvard. He is best remembered as one of the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who gained popularity in the first half of the 19th-Century.

Lowell’s political opinions often found expression in his poetry, and the old hymn we know as Once to Every Man and Nation is a part of one example. The words are originally from a much longer poem entitled The Present Crisis published in The Boston Courier in 1845 in protest of the impending U.S. war with Mexico. Some of Lowell’s words were rearranged by Garrett Horder, set to the hymn tune Ebenezer, and published in Horder’s Hymns Supplemental to Existing Collections in 1896.

I can’t help but think of the hymn’s opening lines, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,” every time I prepare for a baptism, every time I sit down to consider the lessons of the day in light of the once-in-a-life-time event they will accompany. Today, we have another part of the patriarchal story when Abraham’s unnamed servant – we’ll call him Eliezer, the name given Abraham’s servant in another part of Genesis – is sent on an important errand, to find a wife for Isaac. It is really the transition in Genesis from Abraham’s story to that of his son Isaac. The story itself subtly notes this transition when, at the beginning, Eliezer refers to Abraham as his master and then, at the end, names Isaac as his master.

It’s a long story and I won’t go through it in detail (after all, you just heard most of it read to you – there are some verses left out, but we won’t worry about those). The important thing to remember is that this is a story about making a decision – in fact, it is about many decision: Abraham decides to get a spouse for his son, but decides she must not come from among the Canaanite people among whom they live; he decides she must come from his relatives in his former home of Haran; Eliezer decides on a method by which he will discern the identity of the future bride and seeks God’s guidance; Rebekah, who comes to the well and does the thing Eliezer decided would be his sign, decides to accept the proposal that she travel to a foreign country and marry a man she has never met; Isaac decides to accept Rebekah as his wife and, the text tells us, “he loved her.” (Gen 24:67)

In his commentary on Genesis in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Lutheran scholar Terence Fretheim underscores the importance of human decision-making illustrated in this story. Taking issue with another author, Prof. Fretheim says,

One should not say that “the success or failure of the commission depends on whether God grants success or not.” Although success may well depend on God, the activity of human beings may occasion failure even though God intends success. * * * The author presents no claim that lack of success would mean that God had withheld kindness; it could simply result from human decision making. Divine providence does not mean that the future is somehow predetermined or that human decision making can never frustrate the divine designs. (Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994, pg pg 510)

Eliezer the servant is the figure in this drama whose decision tree is most obvious. “Given a difficult task, he does what he can and he leaves the rest to God. He travels to the homeland of [Abraham’s] family; he takes his stand at a likely place to meet young women; and then he prays. . . . [H]e watches and waits to discern God’s will. When the sign is fulfilled, [Eliezer] is quick to praise God for God’s faithfulness and [loving kindness]. Finally, he bears witness to others of that divine faithfulness.” (Working Preacher 2017)

Katherine Schifferedecker of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes:

We could do worse than follow the example of Abraham’s servant when called to a particular task. Prepare. Pray. Wait. Watch for signs of God’s faithfulness. Then be quick to praise God and to witness to others of God’s faithfulness. Oh, and be generous. Generosity marks the actions of both Rebekah and the servant. (Working Preacher 2017)

But we must acknowledge with Prof. Freitheim that not every decision leads to a happy and successful outcome; failure and difficulty are also potential results of our decisions. We also have to turn Prof. Fretheim’s observation around and note that, while lack of success may not mean that God has withheld kindness, success does not necessarily mean that an enterprise or a decision has God’s blessing.

Lowell’s words as edited into a hymn by Horder continue:

. . . . to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
[Before] her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside.
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

These lines speak of defending truth when falsehood seems to rule. That they were written in 1845 illustrates how history, even if it doesn’t exactly repeat itself, seems to follow recurring themes. As Mark Twain is often reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And that is particularly true in our personal lives, as St. Paul writes in that portion of the letter to the Romans that we hear this morning:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. * * * I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. (Rom 7:15,21)

The hymn speaks of making the decision to “side with truth” as leading to the sharing of a “wretched crust,” implying that taking the opposite side leads to fame, profit, and prosperity. The brave person chooses to take the side of truth alone, while a coward waits to see what the crowd may do.

Important, once-in-a-lifetime decisions are difficult to make and keep on one’s own (as Paul clearly suggests). This is why no one is ever baptized without sponsors and why, since the theological reappraisal of the sacrament of Baptism that led to the changes in the service of baptism incorporated in our current Book of Common Prayer, baptisms are not done privately but as part of the public worship of the whole People of God. The decision to be baptized is a momentous and once-in-a-lifetime choice, and it is a difficult one to maintain throughout life without help and support.

Today we welcome Braylen into the Household of God through this sacrament. As I wrote in our weekly e-mail newsletter, Baptism is the basis of our entire Christian life; it is the gateway to life in the Spirit and the doorway through which we access the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as children of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church, and share in the church’s mission.

Braylen is only 10 weeks! That’s a lot for 10-week-old person to absorb! This, as I said, is why children (and adults) have baptismal sponsors, also called “Godparents.” Godparents at baptism make big promises to encourage their Godchild to grow in faith and commit to helping them understand how to live their life in a Christian way.

Godparents do not play a special role just on the day of a child’s baptism. To be a Godfather or Godmother is a life-long commitment which will involve special times and treats, but much more as well. Godparents are expected to:

  • Give time to their Godchild to talk to about the bigger questions of life – questions about hope, faith and love.
  • Model and encourage their Godchild to develop Christian values – being kind and compassionate towards others, being generous towards others in need with time or money and standing against things in the world that cause injustice and suffering.
  • Pray for their Godchild through the ups and downs of life and throughout their faith journey.
  • Show their Godchild by example how to make good choices in life, for themselves and for others.
  • Help their Godchild to learn more about the Christian faith, through the church and in other ways. Godparents should go to church with their Godchild, talk with them about the Bible, and help them learn how to pray.

Being a Godparent is a demanding role. If you are a Godparent, may you be blessed as you shepherd your Godchild through life. But all of us should remember that Godparents also do not make these decisions or take on these obligations alone. The entire Christian community joins with them. At every Baptism everyone in attendance is asked: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” And all answer, “We will.” (BCP 1979, pg 303) Then all present join the candidate and the sponsors in affirming the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

. . . continues the third verse of the hymn. Baptism is the first step up those “new Calvaries . . . with the cross that turns not back;” it is the beginning of that trek “upward still and onward . . . keep[ing] abreast of truth.” It is not a trek undertaken alone. “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” (S. Baring-Gould, Onward Christian Soldiers, #562, The Hymnal 1982) It is a trek in which we join “the glorious company of apostles . . . the noble fellowship of prophets . . . the white-robed army of martyrs” by whose light we take journey. (Te Deum, BCP 1979, Morning Prayer, pg 95)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus compares the leadership of the then-present generation, the so-called “wise and intelligent,” to children in a market place. Some of the children want to engage in a game of a make-believe wedding; others among them want to play at a pretend funeral. They cannot make a decision. Jesus offers an alternative to both, a simpler way hidden from wise but open to “infants:” “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:29-30)

This is not an offer of a life of ease, but rather a life delivered from the artificial burdens imposed upon us by the expectations of religious society. It is not a summons to be idle, but a call to learn a new way of understanding and living in accord with God’s will. It is, as Australian theologian William Loader says, “a call to lightness of being [in] contrast with the serious calls of those who interpret scripture as demand and stricture.” (First Thoughts)

“It is not that Jesus invites us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery.” (Working Preacher 2011) Our hymn’s last verse acknowledges the dangers of taking the side of truth:

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

The decision to take Christ’s yoke is the decision to live with “Jesus under God’s gracious and merciful reign, free from the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself, free to rest deeply and securely in God’s grace.” (Working Preacher 2011) This is the decision which Braylen, through his parents and Godparents, is making today; it is the decision which he will be invited to affirm later in the Sacrament of Confirmation; it is the decision which we all make everyday.

In the last stanza of his original poem, James Russell Lowell exhorts his readers to be pilgrims, to launch our own Mayflower, and to steer boldly into the future. Today, we welcome Braylen into the Household of God to be a pilgrim with us and we set his course into God’s future, upward and onward, abreast to and yoked with the Truth. May his parents’ and Godparents’ decision lead to a life of love for Braylen as Eliezer’s decision to chose Rebekah lead to a life of love for Isaac. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is “Rebekah and Eliezer at the Well” by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–1674). It hangs in the National Gallery, London, UK)

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

Knight of Faith & the Dark Night of the Soul – Sermon for Proper 8A – July 2, 2017

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

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 8A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; and St. Matthew 10:40-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The great Anglican preacher Herbert O’Driscoll begins his reflections on our Old Testament lesson, the story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, truthfully the near-murder of Isaac, with these words:

No one approaches this passage without feeling the great weight of it. It exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers. (The Word Among Us: Year A, Volume 3, Anglican Book Centre, Toronto:1999, pg 35)

In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that “darkness and mystery,” those thousands of unanswerable questions, are really fundamental the nature of our relationship with God. (Our opening prayer at each Eucharist, the so-called Collect for Purity, is the opening prayer of The Cloud of Unknowing.) The book takes the form, in part, of a conversation between student and master. The student asks how one can think about God, and the master replies that a human being cannot actually do this:

[O]f all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love . . . . “ (The Cloud of Unknowing, Evelyn Underhill, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 31)

The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem which he did not title but which has come to be called The Dark Night of the Soul. The first verse, as translated by A.Z. Foreman, a linguist at the University of Chicago, is this:

Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose
(Poems in Found Translation)

St. John of the Cross, who published his poem with a couple of expository essays, said of the first stanza:

In this first stanza the soul relates the way and manner which it followed in going forth, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, and in dying to them all and to itself, by means of true mortification, in order to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation, which causes passively in the soul the negation of itself and of all things referred to above.

And this going forth it says here that it was able to accomplish in the strength and ardour which love for its Spouse gave to it for that purpose in the dark contemplation aforementioned. Herein it extols the great happiness which it found in journeying to God through this night with such signal success that none of the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh, . . . could hinder it; inasmuch as the aforementioned night of purgative contemplation lulled to sleep and mortified, in the house of its sensuality, all the passions and desires with respect to their mischievous desires and motions. (St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, E. Allison Peers, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 16)

In contemplating this bizarre story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, we are forced to approach God with the same sense that the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. We must read this and take it in through our love of God because we cannot make sense of this intellectually; if we try, we may end up not loving God because this God who seems to demand human sacrifice is not lovable.

Better folk than I have tried to make sense of this over the many centuries, the millennia since the story made its way into the foundational religious literature of Judaism and Christianity. Let me tell you about some of their attempts.

Although tradition says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), biblical scholars identified four “sources” or schools of authors for it. The earliest source is called the “Yahwist” because this writer (there may be more than one, but I’ll refer to each source as a single person just for ease of expression) habitually refers to God by that name; it is believed that the Yahwist was associated with Jerusalem during the united kingdom of Israel sometime before the year 950 BCE. The second source is called the “Elohist;” he won’t use God’s Name but substitutes the word “Elohim” (meaning “Lord God”). The Elohist is next historically, believed to be associated with the norther kingdom around the year 850 BCE. The third source is the “Deuteronomist,” so called because he is the author of Deuteronomy and some of the historical texts outside of the Pentateuch. The Deuteronomist is believed to have written during the reign of Josiah in the southern kingdom of Judah around the year 625 BCE. The last is the “Priestly” source, sometimes called the “Redactor.” He is believed to have taken the other three, edited them together and additional material of his own, about the year 500 BCE shortly after the Babylonian Exile.

I tell you all that because one of the ways scholars have tried to make sense of this story of Abraham and Isaac is to argue that it’s a mash-up, that the Redactor has taken an early Yawhist story, mixed it up with some bits from the Elohist, and added some bits of his own to create a story which emphasizes the obedience and submission of Abraham at the expense of the story’s depiction of the Almighty. The emphasis is on Abraham’s trust, not on God’s demand. “Abraham does not simply obey; he obeys because he trusts. He could have obeyed because he was ordered to do so; if God commands, he had better respond. But [the text] makes clear that he obeys because he trusts God, that God will be faithful and will act in his best interests.” (Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994, pg 499).

Another way faithful people have sought to make sense of the story is by adding to it themselves. In the rabbinic tradition there is the practice of authoring what are called midrashim. This is a genre of rabbinic literature which seeks to flesh out the characters of the Bible. The midrashic authors often sought to provide a sort of back story for the biblical characters. The sages invented these stories to explain the motivations of God and human characters, imagining their inner lives. Midrashim take roughly sketched biblical characters and fill in the blanks, making the biblical sketches into human figures with whom we can more easily identify. Some of the most famous midrashim have become so imbedded in the tradition that many people do not even realize they aren’t found in the Bible. (The pious legends of Joseph, Mary, and other saints are a similar sort literature.)

The opening words of today’s text, “After these things,” apparently can be understood in the Hebrew as meaning “after these words,” so the midrashic rabbis, wondering what that might mean developed some explanatory scenarios. One midrash on this text suggests that God and Satan had a bet about Abraham much like their wager about Job, i.e., will the righteous man, Abraham, kill his son when asked? Another imagines Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s older son born to Hagar the slave woman, arguing about whose circumcision is “better” – Ishmael’s because was done when he was a teenager and therefore able to refuse, or Isaac’s completed when he was an infant only eight days old. Isaac says he is willing to sacrifice every member of his body to God, and God thus tests Isaac through his order to Abraham. Another midrashic gloss on the story tells us that Isaac at the time of this incident was 37 years old and a willing participant in his near-sacrifice, not an innocent and unsuspecting child. Changing or trying to understand the story through editing, revision, and addition is a venerable tradition.

But the story pretty much stands “as is” in our biblical canon and although it is fun to imagine these back-stories, when we rely on them we don’t rely on Scripture. We rely, instead, on our own imaginations. The text remains stark and troubling, dark and unfathomable.

The 19th Century Danish Theologian Søren Kierkegaard in looking at this story called Abraham a “knight of faith.” A knight of faith is a person willing to make a move of resignation in which demonstrable love of God predominates over worldly happiness. The knight of faith does this in solitude, as Abraham does. Despite the fact that he loves his son, Abraham’s love of God is greater, so he resigns himself to giving up Isaac at God’s command, and he moves to do so without discussing his actions with Sarah or with anyone else. This is what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Seventh-Day Adventist writer Jason Hines describes it this way:

When God asks us to do something that defies social convention or that seems out of the ordinary, if we decide to do it, it seems that we feel the need to justify our decisions to others. It is a human trait – we don’t want to seem crazy for doing whatever thing God just led us to do. However, the knight of faith realizes that the walk of faith is not always a group activity. Therefore there is no need to justify the action.” (Jason Hines, The Knight of Faith, Spectrum Magazine, April 25, 2013, online)

For the knight of faith, the ultimate deciding factor is not the ethical norm, but his individual relationship to God. To fulfill the telos – God’s ultimate purpose – Abraham’s faith in God is called upon to set aside normal canons of ethics and humanity. Here, the knight of faith encounters the dark night of the soul: Abraham, in John of the Cross’s words, “in order to attain to living the . . . life of love with God” must “go forth” from himself “and from all things,” including not only his beloved son, but also the ethical norms his community. One cannot do this intellectually; as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it, God “may well be loved, but not thought. By love may [God] be gotten and [held]; but by thought never.”

Herbert O’Driscoll, in his commentary on today’s lessons, noted that he could find little, if any, connection between this seemingly monstrous Old Testament tale of Abraham nearly killing his child and the gospel lesson, and on the surface he is right. But our gospel lesson today is the tale end of Jesus commissioning his apostles, which began in last week’s gospel reading with his telling them

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:34-39)

Now he tells them that there are others, outside their families but within the community of disciples, who will welcome and reward them. “The integral relationships between the disciples, Jesus, and God replace the disciples’ broken relationships with family and society. . . . [T]he call of discipleship does not fit very happily with ‘traditional family values,’ whether ancient or modern. The vocation of disciples necessarily relativizes all other relations and obligations – whether to party, corporation, or family – in favor of the new family that is the community of disciples.” (Stanley Saunders, Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42, Working Preacher, online)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, of course, is not history, it is metaphor. It is not meant to teach us about the characters in the story; it is meant to teach us about ourselves. As metaphor, I suggest to you that it represents the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith and action revealed in Jesus words in last week’s and this week’s gospel lessons. Just as Abraham had to turn away from and reject the ethical norms of his society to follow the command of God, so must the disciple of Christ be prepared to deny the cultural norms of his or her society. Again, as John of the Cross said, “in journeying to God” we must not allow ourselves to be hindered by “the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh,” any more than Abraham was hindered by the ethical norms of his culture.

As Christians called “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Catechism, BCP 1979, pg 855) we are to be salt, preserving agents actively working for that restoration in the midst of and rejecting a culture many perceive as decadent and decaying. We are to cooperate with Christ’s redeeming power working through us in ways that may contradict cultural norms and often flow counter to the cultural tide.

A commitment to being countercultural . . . isn’t always easy. Living differently can be hard. Going against the ebbs and flows of culture can create friction and sometimes provoke a hostile reaction to the good we are trying to create. Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon remind us that this should be expected, for “whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world.” (Gabe Lyons, What Does Being Countercultural Look Like?, Q Ideas, online; quoting Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1989, pg 94)

The story of the binding of Isaac and the gospel story of Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles are both stories with what O’Driscoll called “great weight.” They exude a darkness and mystery that raise a thousand unanswerable questions; they call us to an alternative way of seeing our world, to protest and stand against what is wrong, to cry out against injustice, and to call for an end to corruption. They call us to stand for something better, to stand for the “restor[ation] all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” to stand for “the sweet and delectable life of love with God.”

(Note: The illustration is “Le Sacrifice d’Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). It hangs in the Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France)

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

Fatherhood and Laughter: Sermon for RCL Proper 6A (18 June 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 6A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116:1,10-17; Romans 5:1-8; and St. Matthew 9:35-10:8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Our gospel lesson is the shortened version of Jesus’ commission to the twelve as he sends them out to do missionary work. As he continues with their instructions he tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mat 10:16), and then he warns them that those who follow him are likely to face all sorts of terrible strife, including bitterness and enmity within families.

“Brother will betray brother to death,” he says, “and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:21-22).

It’s an odd lesson, I suppose, for Father’s Day, but of course Father’s Day isn’t on the church calendar and the Lectionary doesn’t take it into account. It’s simply a coincidence that this lesson about discord between fathers and sons should come up this morning, just as it’s a coincidence that the Old Testament lesson about the promise of a child to the elderly and barren couple Abraham and Sarah should be in the Lectionary rota today.

As that story continues, you know, Sarah laughs at the idea that she (at the age of 90) would become pregnant by Abraham (who was 100 and – as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says – “as good as dead” [Heb 11:12]). But that is exactly what does, indeed, happen. She gives birth to a son whom she and Abraham name Isaac because, as Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). Isaac’s name in Hebrew, Yitschaq, means “he laughs.”

Lutheran seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker says of this episode that it proves there is humor and comedy in the bible,

. . . [not] comedy in the sense of stand-up routines or canned laugh tracks, but comedy as something so extraordinarily good that it’s hard to believe, something so out-of-the-ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down. It’s what Frederick Buechner calls “high comedy”: “the high comedy of Christ that is as close to tears as the high comedy of Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau or Edith Bunker is close to tears – but glad tears at last, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.” (Working Preacher, citing Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Harper & Row, 1977, p. 61.)

That is the very contrast these two lessons on Father’s Day present us: the “hilarious unexpectedness” and the “tragic expectedness” of life, both of which are so often present in the always serious, sometimes heartbreaking, and often uproarious business of parenthood.

A few weeks ago I mentioned the late essayist and poet Brian Doyle. A few years ago in The Christian Century magazine (July 22, 2014), Doyle published a poem entitled The poem about what it’s about:

Here’s my question. What if there was a poem
That didn’t know what it was about until it got
To the end of itself? So that the poet’s job isn’t
To play with imagery and cadence and metrical
Toys in order to make a point, but rather to just
Keep going in order to find out that the poem is
About how hard it is to watch your kids get hurt
By things they can’t manage and you cannot fix.
If I had been the boss of this poem I would have
Made it so they can manage things, or I could be
The quiet fixer I always wanted to be as a father;
But that’s not what the poem wanted to be about,
It turns out. This poem is just like your daughter:
No one knows what’s going to happen, and there
Will be pain, and you can’t fix everything, and it
Hurts to watch, and you are terrified even as you
Try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.
Some poems you can leave when they thrash too
Much but kids are not those sorts of poems. They
Have to keep writing themselves, and it turns out
You are not allowed to edit. You’re not in charge
At all—a major bummer. I guess there’s a lesson
Here about literature, about how you have to sing
Without knowing the score . . . something like that.
All you can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish
So joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.

I have called that “the best poem about fatherhood . . . ever.” I know from personal experience how absolutely accurate Doyle is when he writes that in parenting (and in so many other aspects of life) there are times when “there will be pain, and you can’t fix” it and “it hurts . . . and you are terrified,” and all you can do is “try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.” Being a father, being a parent is the case-in-point that proves again and again how correct St. Paul was in writing that we accept our “sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:3-5). It is the case-in-point that proves Jesus’ words that even when there is strife between father and child, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:22).

This is why fatherhood is the primary Christian metaphor for God’s relationship to us. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For . . . [we] have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ . . . .” (Rom 8:14-17)

And as John wrote:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. * * * Beloved, we are God’s children now. (1 John 3:1-2)

The Prophet Zephaniah wrote of God: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zeph 3:17-18). Just as our poet, Brian Doyle, said in his poem, “All [a father] can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish so joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.” That is God’s hope and promise for us, that everything, all the hilarious unexpectedness and all the tragic expectedness, will “finish so joyous and refreshing” that we will all gape with awe. Those who endure to the end will be saved, and we will all laugh with Sarah. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is “Sarah Laughing,” a woodcut by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld from Die Bibel in Bildern: 240 Darstellungen, erfunden und auf Holz gezeichnet published in 1899.)

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

How To Be Good: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 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 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit who empowered the disciples to proclaim the Good News to peoples from many lands speaking many tongues: we now pray for those in many lands speaking many languages who have been hurt or killed by terrorist violence in the past fortnight in: London (England), Kabul (Afghanistan), Mosel (Iraq), Minya (Egypt), Khost (Afghanistan), Mastung (Pakistan), Gao (Mali), Borno State (Nigeria), Raqqa (Syria), Mogadishu (Somalia), rural Colombia, Manila (Philippines), Baghdad (Iraq), Basra (Iraq), Portland (Oregon, USA) and Manchester (England). May God grant eternal rest to the departed, healing to the injured, and comfort to those in grief. And since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies, we pray also for those who have committed these violent acts, and for those who may be contemplating additional violence. May God change their hearts and shed abroad the gift of peace throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs (13:14). The word translated there as “teaching” is Torah, the Hebrew name for the Law of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The biblical tradition tells us that seven weeks after the Passover the Hebrews camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, met God, and returned with the Torah inscribed on stone tablets. Therefore, the Jews celebrate on the fiftieth day after Passover the feast called Shavuot, which literally means “the feast of weeks.” It is also called “the feast of the giving of the Law” and “the feast of first fruits” because it also became a celebration of the barley harvest and a time of prayer for the success of the wheat harvest; it was a time when the tithe of the barley harvest, the first ten percent of the grain was brought to the Levites in obedience to the Torah’s requirement: “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)

When worship became centered on the Jerusalem Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot became a pilgrimage feast, one of the three annual festivals on which every male Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, which explains why there were so many people “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) in the streets of Jerusalem when the disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went out to proclaim the Good News. They were the Jews of the Diaspora and for many of them, Greek rather than Hebrew was the language in which they read Scripture and worshiped, and they called this feast “Pentecost,” a word which means “fiftieth day.” They had returned to Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Passover to offer their tithes at the Temple in gratitude for the giving of the Law.

A rabbi of the time famously described the Torah as a “disciplinarian” or “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:22). Writing in Greek, the word he used was paidagogos, a word describing someone in Greek society, usually a family slave, who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of growing boys. In other words, the paidagogos’ obligation was to teach the boys to be good. This was the purpose of the Law given at Mt. Sinai. A modern rabbi writes that one should immerse oneself in the Torah

to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a Godly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within . . . you, [until God’s] thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are [God’s]. (Tzvi Freeman, What Is Torah?)

That is what we as Christians believe happened in the event described by Luke in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, a sharing of the Holy Spirit of God until God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts and they had no alternative but to speak them to the world around them.

That First Century rabbi of whom I spoke was none other than our own parish Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Galatians. He would continue to say that with the coming Christ we are freed from the discipline of the schoolmaster, and instead are led by the Holy Spirit to bear the “fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Another word that describes this fruit is “virtue,” which St. Augustine of Hippo defined as “a good habit consonant with our nature.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Virtue)

The “fruit of the Spirit” should not be confused with the gifts of the Spirit. In the epistle reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul details many of the gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in other tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, 1 Cor. 12:8-10), one of which seems to have been exhibited by the disciples, the ability to speak in other languages. While these gifts are important for a variety of reasons, what is most important about them is that they are, Paul says, “given . . . for the common good.” (v. 7)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his listeners to be good, to do good to all, to enemies as well as friends, saying:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:37-38)

To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, echoing the words the Book of Proverbs applied to the Torah, Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the water of life which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) And in today’s gospel lesson in a similar metaphor, he says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38) This is what Pentecost is all about; this is what happened that morning in Jerusalem; the disciples were given a share of the Holy Spirit of God until, as that contemporary rabbi said, God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts, until the Torah of the wise became a fountain of life and flowed out of them like living water to the world around them.

So the Law was given to teach us to be good and the Holy Spirit empowers us to be good, but how do we actually be good?

An author whose poetry has often graced the pages of The Christian Century, a magazine to which I have subscribed for many years, offered an answer to that question a few years ago. His name was Brian Doyle; he lived in Portland, Oregon, taught at the University of Portland, and edited Portland Magazine. He died a week ago from the same sort of brain cancer which killed my own brother several years ago, so I took particular note of his passing. At his requiem day before yesterday at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, mourners were given a copy of an essay he wrote and published in his 2013 book The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press, Chicago:2013). The essay is entitled How to Be Good. I would like to read part of it to you now:

First, pick up your wet towel and at least, for heavenssake, hang it up to dry. And wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn’t have to be shining and spotless, that would be fussy and false, but at least don’t leave little mounds of your neck hairs like dead insects for your partner and children to find. At least do that. It’s the little things; they aren’t little. You knew that. I am just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from the street, where it fell broken and almost unrecognizable, and she saw it as a holy being and she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn’t little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and was thus holy beyond our ken. Or in the morning, when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say thank you to the harried girl with the Geelong Cats logo tattooed on her forehead. At least look her in the eye and be gentle. Christ liveth in her, remember? Old Saint Paul said that, and who are we to gainsay the testy little gnarled genius? And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving, yes, you are peeved, and yes, he could be chasing down murderers, but be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault, you could have checked the scores later, and for another, Christ liveth in him. Also in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man under the clock at Flinders Street Station, and in the foulmouthed man at the footy, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation and have detested since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful vulgar elephantine couch to yet another of his shabby flats, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so and who could blame you? But Christ liveth in him. Speak hard words into your closet and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch, for the ninth blessed time, and do not credit yourself with good works, for you too are a package of small sins and cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta, but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the kids’ team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear and give them away. Sell the old machinery and turn it into food for those who starve. Express gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write the minister and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is care for the bruised among us, not pose on television. Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter but we know that they matter. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like sharp swords against the squirm of despair and violence. The Church is you. Christ liveth in you. Do not cloak Him but let Him be about His business, which is using the tools the Creator gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love given and granted; savor that and disburse that which is not important. Use less, slow down, write small notes. All the way to heaven is heaven, said old Catherine of Siena, and who are we to gainsay that slight smiling genius? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance. If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out in the open. Try to forgive even that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I do not know how that can be so but it is so. You and I know that. I am only reminding us. Be who only you are. Rise to what you dream. Do not cease with joy. That is the nature of the gift we were given. It is the most amazing and extraordinary and confusing and complicated gift that ever was. Never take it for granted, not for an instant, not for the seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness and generosity and kindness and mercy. Also humor. Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what He said could happen if we loved well. He did not mean loving only the people you know. He meant every idiot and liar and thief and blowhard and even your cousin. I do not know how that could be so, but I know it is so. So do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Ready? (Page 15)

On this fiftieth day, this feast of the first fruits, this day of bringing our tithes and offerings of thanksgiving before God, this celebration of the giving of the Torah and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the church, let us begin again to be good, and let goodness be in us like the Torah of the wise, a spring gushing up to eternal life, running over, and flowing out, a river into the world around us, so that “justice [may] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us begin again to be good, you and me, today! Ready?

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

Pray for Them, Then Tell Them: Sermon for Easter 6A, 21 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 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 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and St. John 14:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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A couple of years ago Pope Francis made a cogent observation about praying for those who are hungry: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” (Little Book of Compassion, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, VA:2017, pg 88) When I heard that, I remembered my Methodist grandfather’s teaching about prayer, “Never pray for something you aren’t willing to work for.” That came mind as I pondered the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning.

The story told by Luke in the reading is illustrated in our altar window. Paul, standing on the Hill of Mars or “Areopagus,” addressing the philosophers of Athens and telling them about the God of the Hebrews and his Son Jesus, drawing on Greek religion, philosophy, and poetry to do so. It is a model for our sharing of the gospel with others outside the Christian faith and for our sharing with other Christians of our peculiar Anglican expression of the faith; it has both positive and negative lessons to teach us.

It is a strong part of our tradition that we pray for those of other faiths and for those of no faith. For example, in one of the Prayer Book forms of the Prayers of the people we pray “for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him . . . that they may find and be found by him.” (BCP, pg 386) In another we pray “for those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith, that they may receive the light of the Gospel.” (BCP, pg 390) And when we pray for the dead, we included “all who have died in the communion of [the] Church, and those whose faith is known to [God] alone.” (BCP, pg 391)

A few days ago, the parish chapter of the Episcopal Church Women met and, as is their custom, we began their meeting with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. That particular day was the feast of a missionary bishop, William Hobart Hare, who ministered among and with the Lakota Sioux in the Niobrara territory which we now know as the states of North and South Dakota. The epistle lesson for Bishop Hare’s commemoration is from Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he writes:

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Rom 10:13-15)

Or, to paraphrase the pope, “You pray for those who haven’t heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how prayer works.” We Episcopalians are pretty good at the praying, not so good at the telling. So let’s listen to what Paul says to the Romans and let’s look at how Paul told the Athenians.

First, some background. Why is Paul in Athens? Well, Paul has not come to Athens to preach; he’s come there to let things cool off in Thessalonica, where some folks upset with Paul’s preaching had “formed a mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5), and in Beroea these same folks had “stir[red] up and incite[d] the crowds” (v. 13). So the local “believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast,” (v. 15) wait for his companions Silas and Timothy.

Athens was no longer the center of the world. “That center now was obviously Rome. Still, Athens’ vast history of intellectual and political and architectural vigor made it a destination place, and the perfect location for the confrontation of the new message of Jesus and the old message of the Greek philosophers.” (John C. Holbert, Perkins School of Theology) So Paul decides to preach at the place where philosophers meet to (in Luke’s words) “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (v. 21) In other words, Paul has been given an unplanned opportunity to share his understanding of Jesus, and that’s the first thing to learn from this episode: most opportunities to share our faith will be unplanned. They will be serendipitous. They will come about not because we are searching for occasions to be evangelists and missionaries, but simply because we are going about our daily lives and in some way will be given an opening.

Paul saw an opening and ventured into it, but he didn’t go into it unprepared. As he says, he had spent some time walking through the city, looking carefully at the objects of Athenian worship (v. 23). He learned about their religion so that he could share his own. Rather than dismissing their beliefs and, thus, dishonoring the religious hunger all human beings experience, Paul acknowledged points of common belief with them. For example, although the Greeks were polytheists, the concept of a creator deity was not unknown to them; laying this foundation of common ground is an important part of Paul’s witness.

Paul can do this because he is an educated man. He clearly knows his own religious background both as a Jew and now as a follower of Jesus, but his education must also have included Greek literature. We can conclude this because in this address he is able to draw on Platonic, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophy and even quotes the Stoic philosopher poet Aratus.

So here are a whole bunch of additional things we learn from this episode: (1) be prepared; you never know when these unplanned opportunities will occur, so be prepared. (2) Look for the common ground, which means (3) you have to know your own faith well and (4) you have to know at least a little about the faith and the circumstances of the other person or persons. The other person’s life circumstances are, in our world and context, probably more important to understand than their religious beliefs.

My Education for Ministry group is reading a book entitled My Neighbor’s Faith which the authors describe as a collection of “stories of interreligious encounter, growth, and transformation.” One of the vignettes describes the friendship between a conservative Southern Baptist and a left-wing cultural Jew who discovered that they “were both fathers of seriously handicapped daughters and both heavily involved in their care.” In their story, they describe how they would meet and talk for hours “often finishing each other’s sentences,” which is something I thought only married people did. They were able to do so, able to share their faith stories, because (and here is another lesson) they shared a common life experience.

On the negative side of the learnings from Paul’s Areopagus sermon is, I think, a warning to avoid assumptions.

Paul tells the Athenians that in his tour of their city he has seen an altar inscribed “To an Unknown God” and proceeds to equate this mysterious deity to the God of the Jews whom he then identifies as the father of Jesus Christ. What Paul seems not have appreciated, however, is that that isn’t what that altar was all about. The “unknown god” was “not so much a specific deity, but a placeholder, for [a god] whose name [was] not revealed.” In other words, if a Greek felt moved to make an offering of thanksgiving or propitiation or supplication to one of the gods but wasn’t sure which one to address, he or she would make that offering at the alter “to an unknown god.” As the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann asserted, “An altar to the unknown God would simply imply uncertainty as to the god to which it should apply.” (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, 115-21) Or as Karel van der Toorn and his coauthors tell us:

Probably the most frequent motive to raise altars for (an) unknown god(s) was uncertainty or doubt about the identity of the god who had caused a certain event. In ancient religions it was of utmost importance to know the right name of the deity when invoking him/her or sacrificing to him/her. [The aim was] to prevent the god invoked from being offended…. (van der Toorn, Karel, et al, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1999 p. 884)

So Paul, rather than appealing to his hearers’ religiosity, was instead calling out their possibly fearful religious ignorance. This may be why when all is said and done only two people who heard this sermon are named as expressing any interest in Christianity. So a negative lesson: don’t assume.

But don’t be afraid to speak! And here is the last lesson I want to suggest we take from Luke’s story of Paul at the Areopagus, a reminder of something Jesus said on many occasions and which Peter repeats in our epistle lesson today, ” Do not fear . . . do not be intimidated!” Specifically referring to unexpected opportunities to testify to one’s faith, Jesus said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Lk 12:11-12) In our place and time, we are unlikely to be dragged before religious councils or secular authorities, but we will have opportunities to speak. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be intimidated! Don’t worry! The Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.

That is the promise of today’s gospel lesson: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth [who] abides with you, and he will be in you.”

So . . . lessons from the story of Paul at the Areopagus, lessons we who worship in a church building named for Paul and who every week look at this window depicting this story should learn and embody:

  1. Unplanned opportunities to share our faith abound.
  2. You never know when they will happen to you, so be prepared.
  3. Know your own faith well; study it, learn it.
  4. Know your audience; know something of their faith, if any, and of their life.
  5. Ground your message in shared experience, in the shared human hunger for meaning.
  6. Don’t make assumptions.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

There are many in our world who have not heard any story from our scriptures, let alone the gospel of Jesus. In September of last year, the religious demographer George Barna published a book entitled America at the Crossroads. In it he reported that 46% of American adults are not religiously affiliated. The current adult population of Medina County, Ohio, is about 106,000. Putting those two statistics together suggests that there are nearly 49,000 residents of this county who don’t go to church (and driving through my own neighborhood on a Sunday morning, I can well believe it). Barna also reported that 14% of the religiously unaffiliated “said they are open to trying a new church.” In our county, that would mean 6,800 adults who open to hearing from you about your faith and your church. (Barna data from Preaching; census data from Suburbanstats.org)

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

As I mentioned earlier, Paul didn’t really have much success preaching in Athens. Luke tells us that some of his audience scoffed; some said they might like to hear more. Only two people are specifically named as responding positively to his sermon, a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris, and Luke says there were some others. (vv. 32 & 34) It wasn’t a very large harvest, but that hardly matters. We aren’t called to be successful; we are only called to be faithful. As the Psalmist says in this morning’s gradual, “Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard.”

You pray for those who have not heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how it works. Amen.

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

Act Three (Pt 2): Monstrous Relief – Easter Day 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Festival Eucharist of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, April 16, 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: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24, and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

I love that poem, John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter from the collection Telephone Poles and Other Poems. I have read it here before and, doubtless, I will read it again.

Only a poet like Updike could use the word monstrous to describe the Resurrection of Christ and, in spite of its shock value, or perhaps because of it, it is the perfect word, an ambiguous word that captures the essence of the entire Triumphal Entry – Passover Supper – Crucifixion – Resurrection event, the three-act drama of redemption which we began to remember on Palm Sunday.

Monstrous can, and usually does, mean something like “frightful or hideous; extremely ugly; shocking or revolting; awful or horrible,” and those are certainly good words to describe the way the people of Jerusalem turned on Jesus, the way his disciple Judas betrayed him, the way his other followers denied and abandoned him, the way the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, abused and killed him, mocking, scourging, and finally crucifying him. It was all monstrous; there’s no doubt about that!

Monstrous, however, can also mean “extraordinarily great; huge; immense; outrageous; overwhelming.” And those are superlative ways to describe the fact of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead! It is a huge thing! It is immense, outrageous, overwhelming! Yes, the Resurrection is monstrous!

There are two people who are hardly ever thought of in all of this three-part drama, in all the majesty of Holy Week and Easter: one of them is mentioned briefly only by John in his story of Jesus’ Crucifixion; the other isn’t named at all. I refer to Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ mother and foster father.

Of course, we know nothing of Joseph during Jesus’ adult ministry; after that event in the Jerusalem Temple when Jesus was about 13, Joseph is never again mentioned in the Gospels. Some suppose this is because he had passed away, but I like to think that he was just back home in Nazareth working the family business, doing carpentry or carving stone, making tables and chairs or building homes, keeping the family provided for so that Jesus could go about his ministry and Mary could accompany him.

Mary is mentioned in John’s story of the Crucifixion as standing at the foot of the cross and being entrusted by Jesus to the disciple whom he loved. And the legend from which we get the 14th Station of the Cross and Michelangelo’s exquisitely beautiful Pieta is that when his body was removed from the cross she held him, dead, in her arms. But there is no mention of her or of Joseph at Jesus’ burial, nor are they mentioned in any of the accounts of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.

That omission, for I am sure that is what it is, an omission, disturbs me. Two weeks ago was the 59th anniversary of my father’s death at the age of 39. I am now about the age his mother and father, my grandparents, were when he died. One of my clearest memories of childhood is his funeral. I remember how, as we were leaving the graveside, my grandparents hung back, how they could not step away from nor turn their backs on the grave that held their child’s lifeless body. When, at last, they accepted my Uncle Scott’s physical encouragement to do so, my grandmother said to my mother, “A mother should not outlive her child.” She would know that feeling again just a few years later when my Uncle Scott died of cancer.

And own my mother would know it, as well, when in 1993 my only sibling, my older brother Rick, died of brain cancer. I vividly remember doing exactly what my uncle had done, physically moving my mother and stepfather away from the grave, the grave they could not leave on their own. Later that day, my mother said to me, “You’re grandmother was right. A parent should not outlive her child.”

Having seen my grandparents and my parents at the graves of their children, I cannot believe that Mary and Joseph were not there when the stone was rolled into place, when Jesus was buried in that borrowed tomb.

Updike’s portrayal of the Resurrection and his admonition to us, “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,” so aptly describe the entire event of Holy Week and Easter, because we cannot appreciate the overwhelming wonder of the Resurrection, this third act of the redemption drama, without taking into account the first two acts, all of the horror and ugliness they portrayed: Judas’ betrayal, the other disciples abandonment, Peter’s denial, the trial before Pilate, Christ’s scourging and humiliation, his bitter agony on the Cross, his final self-emptying in death, and his burial. It is all monstrous; painful and ugly and awful in the first sense of that wonderfully ambiguous adjective. And I cannot believe that his parents were not there, did not experience the whole monstrous lot of it!

And, just as I am puzzled by the absence of almost any mention of Mary and Joseph in the narrative of Christ’s death and burial, and I am astounded that there is no allusion to them in the Gospel accounts of that first Easter morning or any time after his Resurrection! The only word about either of them is in the first chapter of the Book of Acts and, again, it’s only Mary who gets mentioned. Luke, the author of Acts, says that following Christ’s Ascension forty days after his Resurrection the apostles “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) That’s it, that one mention! I find that astonishing!

Apparently so have many Christians throughout the ages, because there is an extra-biblical tradition that the Virgin Mary was the first person to witness our Lord’s Resurrection. The Golden Legend, a medieval collection of stories about the saints, says that the first appearance of the resurrected Christ on Easter Day was to the Virgin Mary:

It is believed to have taken place before all the others, although the evangelists say nothing about it.. . . . [I]f this is not to be believed, on the ground that no evangelist testifies to it . . . perish the thought that such a son would fail to honor such a mother by being so negligent! . . . Christ must first of all have made his mother happy over his resurrection, since she certainly grieved over his death more than the others. He would not have neglected his mother while he hastened to console others.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (1st C.) claimed it was so, as did St. Ambrose of Milan (4th C.), St. Paulinus of Nola (4th C.), the poet Sedulius (5th C.), St. Anselm of Canterbury (11th C.), St. Albertus Magnus (13th C.), St. Bernardino da Siena (15th C.), and the bible scholar Juan Maldonado (16th C.) More recently, the late Pope John Paul II, in 1997 expressed his opinion that Mary “was probably the first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared.” (Gen. Aud., Wednesday, 21 May 1997)

We live through this three-act drama every year in a set series of events: triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, last supper and then the prayers at Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, weeping at the tomb on Holy Saturday, and then – of course – our liturgy and our hymns encourage us to express joy on Easter morning. In Matthew’s Gospel we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary ran from the tomb “with fear and great joy,” but in our reading this morning from John a weeping Mary Magdalene, upon recognizing her risen teacher, literally clings to his feet in prostrate relieve; I wonder if that might have been the more common reaction of Jesus’ disciples and parents.

I believe that the legends and early fathers and the late pope are right, that the Risen Christ appeared to Mary and Joseph, as well as and probably before the eleven apostles and their friends, and that they would have been profoundly shaken, perhaps overwhelmingly frightened, and maybe eventually greatly reassured. But I’m not so sure that joy would be the best description of their initial reaction; perhaps the closest they might have come would have been relief.

We remember the three-act drama, as I said, in an orderly fashion. But if we know one thing about human beings, it is that we are not orderly creatures.

It may seem odd, but in just a few days, the Daily Office Lectionary will put us back to the beginning of Lent. At the end of the second week of Easter this year, the Daily Office gospel reading will be about Jesus’ temptations in the desert following his baptism.

That’s not odd, at all, really. Our spiritual life, like our emotional life, follows no particular schedule, no orderly progression. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and people often think they follow an orderly progression, just like our Holy Week and Easter celebrations. But clinical experience has shown that a grieving person does not move neatly through them as if they were rungs on a ladder. One may move from denial to anger to bargaining and then return to denial; one may skip a stage only to return to it later; one may spend a good deal of time in one stage and only a short while in another. There is no orderly progression and I can well imagine that Mary and Joseph and the apostles and the women at the tomb were all experiencing that sort of emotional bouncing about, an emotional roller coaster the like of which probably none of us have ever known.

Our spiritual lives are the same. As one works through the process of enlightenment, of salvation, of spiritual growth, of whatever-one-calls-it, one does not follow a schedule. We may move back to an earlier stage, revisit issues we thought we’d dealt with.

St. Paul urged his friends in the church at Caesarea Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philip. 2:12-13) Nowhere does Scripture promise that this work will be neat and tidy. If anything, the witness of Scripture is that spiritual and emotional growth is a messy affair.

That is why I suggest that the closest the first witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection might have come to joy would perhaps better be described as relief. The dictionary defines relief as “alleviation of pain, as the easing of anxiety, as deliverance from distress.” This is an appropriate experience and emotion for Easter Day, profound relief.

I think the joy comes later in the Easter Season and that it comes later in life as we live out our Easter faith. But in the immediate aftermath of the monstrous-ness of Holy Week, here in the third act of the drama of redemption, in the wake of the horrible ugliness of betrayal and death that occurred in the first two acts, one may simply not be ready to be jubilant and happy. In the face of our own sinfulness and spiritual dysfunction, in the reality of our own messy spiritual lives, we may not be ready for joy and gladness. But the fact of Christ’s Resurrection relieves us of grief and sorrow; it relieves us of sin and death.

The experience and impact of Easter Day is one of profound, overwhelming, (one might even say) monstrous relief.

Perhaps that is why Jesus stuck around for forty days, to continually reassure and sustain the disciples in their relief from fear and sorrow and grief, so that they could move into joy and gladness as time went on. Perhaps that is why in producing the third act of the drama of redemption the church offers not a single day, but a season of fifty days, so that as it progresses we can . . . like Mary and Joseph, like Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, like all the apostles . . . move from shock into relief, from relief into joy, so that it provides a pattern with which we can handle the inevitable losses in our lives.

As life goes on and as the victory of life over death sinks in, Easter relief will grow into Easter joy, something that propels us toward action and compels us to invite others into the Resurrected life of our Risen Lord. As Christians, we have access through the relief of Christ’s Resurrection into a joy that is unshakable – for joy is really not an emotion; it is a virtue. Easter joy does not mean being happy all the time or being fine when times are difficult; Easter joy means being sustained by the power of the Resurrection.

What Easter means is that in the depths of our being, despite the circumstances we may face, despite any fears we may have, despite whatever may be tearing up our souls, despite whatever sin or spiritual malaise we may be suffering, despite whatever disorderly messes our spiritual lives may be in, we are able to get through them, to let go of them, and to find relief and eternal life in the Resurrected Christ, a life into which we invite others.

John tells us that on that first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalen fell at her Risen Lord’s feet, he admonished her, “Do not hold on to me; I am ascending to my Father.” It doesn’t sound to me like this woman who had just been grieving at his tomb was expressing joy, nor that Jesus’ was encouraging it. What I hear is Jesus offering comfort and relief.

It has been said that joy comes from letting go – letting go of our attachments, letting go of any thoughts that the present moment should or even could be different than it is, letting go of our expectations. Joy is the virtue of celebrating the present, of living in the moment, something to which we come through a process of detachment and release, something that we like Mary Magdalene let go of the old Jesus, the Jesus who died on the cross, and follow the now-Risen and ascended Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2)

Resurrection Day is not the end of the process; it is the beginning. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Mary Magdalen. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells her not to hang on to him. In both gospels the message is, “Let go” – let go of me, let go of your fear.

Easter Day brings relief, overwhelming relief! Through that relief we are able to let go, to release our fears, our griefs, our worries, and our sorrows with absolute abandon, to be completely freed of our sinfulness! In letting go as the Easter Season and as our Easter faith progress, we are able to work out our salvation, for it is God who is at work in us, and ultimately find joy, unutterably ecstatic joy, huge, overwhelming, outrageous joy into which we are compelled to invite others!

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body . . .
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

(The illustration is The Resurrection Of Christ (Right Wing Of The Isenheim Altarpiece) by Matthias Grünewald, c.1512–16)

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

Act Three (Pt 1): Fully Human – Easter Vigil 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday, April 15, 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: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31,15:20-21; Proverbs 8:1-8,19-21,9:4b-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Two weeks ago, the Sunday lectionary treated us to the entire long Gospel lesson of the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and then last week the Daily Office lectionary repeated it in smaller bits over the course of several days. Last Sunday I suggested that Holy Week and Easter can be conceived as a three-act drama to which the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday is an overture.

The Lazarus story, like last Sunday’s Gospel, is part of that overture, the introduction to the three-act drama of celebration in which we have participated this week and in which we have come, this evening, to the third and final act. Lazarus has been much on my mind as we have prepared for this Easter celebration and for the baptisms we have just performed. I believe the story of Lazarus’ raising has much to teach us about what we have done here tonight in this third act, this Baptismal Vigil, this liturgy of welcoming and inclusion.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany; they are a family which figures prominently in the Gospels as friends of Jesus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. This family really seems to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. When word is sent to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Lazarus is described to him as “he whom you love.” (John 11:3) Lazarus and his sisters are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.

As the story of Lazarus raising is told, the family is described as accompanied by “Jews.” That has always struck me as a bit odd. After all, aren’t they all Jews? Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, the whole lot of them? Of course they are! So many scholars suggest that we should better understand John’s term Ioudaiou to mean “Judeans,” that is people native to the Jerusalem area; these scholars suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus, were Galileans who had moved to Judea and been accepted into this southern community. This strengthens the suggestion that they may have been members of Jesus’ extended family.

Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (John 11:21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”

We’re told that Jesus’ response to this is that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s a fine translation, but it’s also a bit misleading. The Greek word rendered “disturbed” very literally means he “snorted with anger”; and the word translated “deeply moved” means “stirred up” and implies a certain physicality, not simply an emotion. Jesus response to the sisters’ confrontations, to Lazarus’ death, to the whole situation is to become indignant and sick to his stomach.

The Lazarus story contains the shortest verse in the New Testament, famously rendered in the King James Version with only two words, “Jesus wept.” Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest that, since John describes Jesus as angry and physically sick, we might consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.

We have just baptized four children and, together with them, we have affirmed the Baptismal Covenant beginning with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in which we will claim that Jesus, the Son of God, was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (BCP 1979, p 304). In the Nicene Creed, which we recite most Sundays during the Holy Eucharist, we go further and declare that he “became incarnate . . . and was made man,” that is, that he became a flesh-and-blood human being. (BCP 1979, p 358). In the Definition of Chalcedon, which you can find on page 864 of the Prayer Book, the church goes even beyond that and asserts its conviction that Jesus is “truly [human] . . . like us in all respects, apart from sin.”

I believe that standing before that tomb where his beloved friend Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, feeling the anger and frustration of his close friends Mary and Martha, surrounded by Judeans muttering “couldn’t he have prevented this,” and perhaps physically exhausted from traveling from the other side of the Jordan valley where he was when he got the news, Jesus’ humanity hit him like a ton of bricks. In that moment, everything that it meant to be human came crashing in on him: the way human beings settle for easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships; the injustice, oppression, and exploitation we impose on one another; the pain, rejection, hunger, and war we endure . . . but, also, the love, friendship, community, family, support, and every other good thing about being a human being; it all come together in that moment standing at that grave.

Why do I think that? Because that’s what I feel every time I stand at a grave. The first time I did that, I was 5-1/2 years old. I remember standing between my mother and my paternal grandmother watching two members of the US Army fold the flag that had draped my father’s coffin, feeling loss, grief, anger, confusion, and emotions I couldn’t even name. But there was also the love of family, pride in my father’s military service, a sense of community with extended family and friends, all the comfort that comes from our common humanity. And every time I have stood beside a grave, I have felt that again, and I can surely imagine that our Lord experienced something very like that. No wonder Jesus – the sorrowful-but-also-angry and stirred-up Jesus, the knowing-he-too-might-soon-be-dead Jesus, the fully-human, like-us-in-all-respects Jesus – wept.

We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As St. Paul asks in his letter to the Romans which was read just a few minutes ago, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” The Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death.”

St. Paul’s assurance that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” is echoed by the Prayer Books bold promise that by baptism we share in Jesus’ resurrection, and that “through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 1979, p 306) As Jesus called for Lazarus to be unbound from his funeral wrappings, as Jesus himself rose and set aside his shroud, through Holy Baptism our Lord calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with those whom the Psalmist describes as having “clean clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)

The Creation story in Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn 1:27) The story of the Fall reminds us that somehow that divine likeness has been marred, that on our own we fail to live up to that image; we fail to fully live up to the potential God created in humankind. Through baptism, the divine image is restore; through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a process of transformation begins and God restores us to who and what we were meant to be – fully human.

When we baptized these children, we asked them and their baptismal sponsors (and we asked ourselves) some questions which are taken directly from the Apostle’s Creed, to which I referred earlier. These questions began with the words, “Do you believe . . . .”

A few years ago a colleague of mine said that he had once asked his congregation, when reciting the Nicene Creed, to say “We trust in” instead of “We believe in” since the original Greek could have been translated either way. He said he wondered if the church would be less fragmented if we had used “trust.” He suggested that there might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here.” When we ask those questions of baptismal candidates and their Godparents, when we say the creeds ourselves, are expressing a deep affirmation of community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe we don’t “believe” exactly the same things that others here believe, but we all trust in the same God.

In that same conversation, another priest objected to what he called the distinction between “faith as trust and faith with content.” “It’s always struck me as a strange distinction,” he said. “If, for example, faith as trust is about relationship [and not about content], it is like someone saying to a prospective marriage partner, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but I’m not certain who you are.’” I suggested to him, however, and I suggest to you now that this distinction really doesn’t exist, that faith as trust or as relationship necessarily implies and includes “faith with content.” One cannot place trust in another person, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named in the Creed, without assenting to that person’s existence and properties; to say, “I trust you” or “I love you” and not also agree that you exist makes very little sense.

This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with God the Holy Trinity, and through God with the full community of human beings whom God loves and whom God has redeemed in all that long salvation history that we have heard read from the Hebrew Scriptures this evening. When we baptized these children, when we baptize any new member of the Christian community, we recognize them as part of that fully human community whom God invites to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov 9:6), whom God promises to save, and gather, and bring home, and restore. (Zeph 3:19-20)

That full human community relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us, the full humanity which gathered with friends and family at the Last Supper in the first act of this drama of redemption, the full humanity which was arrested and brutalized and crucified in the second act, the full humanity whose Resurrection we celebrate in this, the third act, the feast of Easter. It is into that Easter promise that we have baptized Kadence, Bryce, Hadley, and Joseph this evening. And that is why the Lazarus story figures so prominently in the church’s preparations for Holy Week and Easter, part of the overture of this three-part drama of redemption!

In the words of a popular Franciscan blessing, let us pray that, as these children grow into the full humanity into which they are initiated today, God will bless them with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that they may live deep within their hearts; that God will bless them with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that they may work for justice, freedom, and peace; that God will bless them with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that they may reach out their hands to comfort others and turn their pain into joy; and that God bless them with enough foolishness to believe that they can make a difference in this world, so that they can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice, kindness, and love to all.

As they have been buried with Christ, they have begun to share in his Resurrection; may God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. Amen.

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

Intermission: We Cannot Know – Holy Saturday 2017

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A meditation offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Holy Saturday, April 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: Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24; Psalm 31:1-4,15-16; 1 Peter 4:1-8; and St. Matthew 27:57-66. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the least thought upon, least looked upon day in the Easter Triduum. A moment when the pomp and majesty of events ceases; no betrayals, no protestations of loyalty, no meaningful dinner, no demonstrations of servanthood, no admonitions to love, no agony, no dying, and, as yet, no rising — merely dormancy on all fronts. It is the Intermission of the three-act drama of Redemption.

A time, as poet Emily Polis Gibson quoting T.S. Eliot says is a time to Be Still and Wait:

I said to my mind, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; yet there is faith
But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
~T. S. Eliot, from “East Coker,” The Four Quartets

This in-between day
after all had gone so wrong
before all will go so right,
puts us between the rock
and the hard place:
all hope, love and faith is squeezed from us.
Today we are flattened,
dried like chaff,
ground to pulp,
our destiny with death sealed.

We lie still
like sprinkled spices
trying to delay
inevitable decay,
wrapped up tight
stone cold
and futile.
The rock is rolled into place
so we lie underneath,
crushed and broken.
We are inside,
our bodies like His.
We are outside,
cut off and left behind.
We cannot know about tomorrow,
we do not fathom what is soon to come:
the stone lifted and rolled away,
the separation bridged,
the darkness giving way to light,
the crushed and broken rising to dance,
and the waiting stillness stirring, inexplicably,
to celebrate new life.

“We cannot know about tomorrow . . . . ” Poet and essayist Aaron Brown says that Holy Saturday “dwells in [the] place where words fail, between the bookends of suffering and resurrection. When the defiance of loss gives way to numbness, we are left in a space where time seems to slow, indeed seems to stop altogether.” (Brown) It is truly an intermission.

And yet it is not a time of inactivity. While we, the actors and cast of the yearly remembrance of the drama seem to languish, our faith teaches that the one who has died is active. We confess in each recitation of the Creed that “he descended to the dead.” It is the time called “the harrowing of hell” when the souls of the righteous dead are freed. An ancient anthem of the day sings

Our shepherd, the source of the water of life, has died.
The sun was darkened when he passed away.
But now man’s captor is made captive.

This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.
He has destroyed the barricades of hell,
overthrown the sovereignty of the devil.
This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.
(Responsory, Roman Rite Morning Prayer, Saturday of the Three Days)

The protagonist died, but the drama is not ended. This is merely Intermission, time to gather strength and prepare for the third act. Let us pray:

All-powerful and ever-living God, your only Son went down among the dead and rose again in glory. In your goodness raise up your faithful people, buried with him in baptism, to be one with him in the eternal life of your kingdom, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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

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