That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Scotland (page 1 of 4)

Nostalgia Is a Lie: Brexit & Plowing (Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 8C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; and St. Luke 9:51-62. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Brexit-flagsAs many of you know, this past week was a harrowing one for my wife and for me; specifically, Wednesday was one of those days you would rather not have to live through. In the afternoon, I was told by a urologist that I probably have prostate cancer, and later that night Evelyn nearly died from pulmonary embolism. She is OK now – I will be leaving right after this service to bring her home from the hospital – and my diagnosis will be either confirmed or proven wrong by a biopsy in about a month.

So all is well . . . but, really, I’d rather go back to Tuesday!

And I’m not the only one who’d like to start the week over!

No doubt, you have heard about this week’s “Brexit” referendum in Great Britain which decided whether the United Kingdom would continue to be part of the European Union. There were the Remainers or the “Ins” on the side of doing so, and the Leavers or the “Outs” on the side of exiting the Union. The “Outs” won to the shock and horror of nearly everyone else around the world.

The pound sterling lost more than 30% of its value in a matter of hours. Stock markets tumbled; the FTSE 100 index (the British equivalent of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average), which had closed the previous day at £6,388 opened the next morning at £5,789, a drop of more than 8.5%, inching back up during the day to a final loss of 3.15% The Dow itself closed down 610 points, its eighth-largest point loss ever.

In my humble opinion, the entire exercise of the referendum, from the decision by the Conservative government of David Cameron to hold it, to the very poor campaign run by the Remainers who simply didn’t believe they could lose, to the patently dishonest campaign waged by the Leavers, to the eventual outcome has been and is an exercise in monumental stupidity!

That the Outs’ victory was predicated on falsehood is the worst part of the whole mess. As Nick Cohen wrote in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian, the “politicians who [led the Vote Leave effort] knowingly made a straight, shameless, incontrovertible lie the first plank of their campaign. Vote Leave assured the electorate it would reclaim a supposed £350m Brussels takes from us each week. They knew it was a lie.” (EU referendum Opinion) Nigel Farage, one of those politicians, after the votes were counted and Leave had won, admitted that the assertion was (as he put it) “a mistake.” (USUncut)

The Brexit Leave campaign was a lie in another much more subtle way, as well, a way to which we on this side of the Pond are equally vulnerable. The campaign played upon the people’s nostalgia for a Great Britain that they believe used to exist: “We want our country back” was the campaign slogan of Mr. Farage’s UK Independent Party, and other Outs resurrected Margaret Thatcher’s early campaign slogan from the 1960s “Let’s Make Britain Great Again.” The day after the election, London’s Daily Star newspaper ran a picture of a bulldog (remember that Winston Churchill’s mascot was the British bulldog) with the headline “Now Let’s Make Britain Great Again.”

Nostalgia has been defined as the “yearning to return home to the past – more than this, it is a yearning for an idealized past – a longing for a sanitized impression of the past . . . – not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, [with] all negative emotions filtered out.” (Hirsch, Alan R., Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding)

And that brings us to today’s lessons, to Elijah’s call to Elisha to be his servant and apprentice prophet, to Jesus’ encounter with three potential disciples who wish to follow him but have other business to attend to before hitting the road. Elisha had such business as well – he wished to say good-bye to his parents – and Elijah allowed it (although the Hebrew is unclear; we cannot tell if he did so supportively or grudgingly).

Jesus was not so understanding. He told the first potential follower that to come with him would be hard and uncomfortable and, by not telling us that the man came along after that, Luke implies that this dissuaded the would-be disciple. When the second asked for a delay to bury his father, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead;” not the most pastoral response! And to the third who, like Elisha wished simply to say farewell to family, Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

“Here, Jesus makes reference to the story of Elisha out plowing in the field that we encountered in the first reading. And so it seems that Elijah’s [enigmatic reply] was indeed scolding Elisha – or at least, Jesus is suggesting Elisha should have been scolded for his request to kiss his parents goodbye.” (Soltis, Kathryn Getek, The Tensions of Discipleship)

The text from the First Book of Kings doesn’t tell us whether Elisha did, in fact, kiss his parents. What it tells us is that he slaughtered the oxen with which he was plowing, cooked them over a fire made by burning his farming equipment, and fed them as a farewell feast to his co-workers. We sometimes speak of burning our bridges behind us; Elisha prophetically acted out such a burning – the destruction of the return path in this feast of boiled oxen. Nostalgia was no longer an option for the young prophet-to-be.

Elisha, a farmer who had plowed a field, seems to have known that you have to watch carefully in front of you to keep the furrows straight, that you have to look forward not behind. “Look backward and you will swerve one way or another.” (Rogness, Michael, Commentary on Luke 9:51-62) And so, to avoid doing so, he destroys that which might lure him to look backward.

Elisha knew this and so, too, did the people of Jesus’ time. Luke “attributes to Jesus a saying that would have been rather well-known in the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, in Hesiod’s Works and Days [a didactic poem written around 700 BCE], a plowman is described as one ‘who attends to his work and drives a straight furrow and no longer gapes after his comrades, but keeps his mind on his work.’ In other words, to look back from the plow (whether to family living or dead) was to risk cutting a crooked or shallow furrow and thus ruining the work altogether! There is no place for looking back or even trying to look in two directions at once (being ‘two-faced’); rather, would-be disciples must be single-minded in purpose, setting their faces like Jesus on the task at hand.” (Parsons, Mikeal C., Commentary on Luke 9:51-62)

Nostalgia, that bittersweet yearning for a past that never was, encourages us to be “two-faced,” because nostalgia is a lie. Nostalgia is never true. “Nostalgia is a dirty liar that insists things were better than they seemed,” writes the poet Michelle K. Another poet, Alessandro Baricco, writes, “It’s a strange grief… to die of nostalgia for something you never lived.” He continues:

What is nostalgia?
What is it for you?
Is it the other half of a whole…
a fraction of a whole,
which takes up more space than the rest…
Is it a perfect day…
the sun was shining even if it was stormy,
even if it was the darkest of night…
there was sun in your heart
and it lit everything up in a glow
which you will never forget…
which still shines…
but do you remember it as it was or as…
it felt in that blissful moment
when all was right in the world, in your world…
it feels now seen from a distance
which has changed what it was
because of where you are now…
you wish you’d enjoyed that moment
rather than wasting it…
you wasted it…
why…
because it wasn’t as good as…
but now it is…
better than…
so you make amends in retrospect…
Is it a perfect memory…
one which isn’t anything like
what actually happened,
but you like this version better…
time heals wounds
sometimes by blurring the truth
with pretty lies…

Have you ever been accused of lying
when you told the truth…
it was not what others wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever accused someone of lying
because they told the truth…
but it was not one you wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever wondered how much
of what you remember is true…
and how much is a lie.
So much gets clouded…
sometimes by very beautiful clouds…
in a cerulean sky…

Like all untruth, nostalgia is a trap! It is a trap, says author C.G. Blake in his advice to new writers, because “by living in the past, we cheat the present.” He continues:

I’m a big believer in living in the present. Learn from the past, yes. Revere loved ones who have passed on. Keep the past in our hearts, but keep our eyes looking forward. Don’t dwell on the past because no matter how hard you wish it, you’re never going to change it. You can only change your present and your future. (The Nostalgia Trap)

We’re never going to change the past. And we are never, ever going to go back to it, especially not to that sanitized impression of the past with no negative emotions that nostalgia offers us!

If we dwell on it, we are trapped. The Brexit Outs wanted to make their country “great again.” What they got was a monumentally stupid mess of unknown proportions that no one knows how to handle, a country in turmoil where the Prime Minister had no choice but to resign, a nation now fracturing as politicians in Scotland call for a second independence vote and politicians in Northern Ireland seek a poll on whether to leave the United Kingdom and become part of the Republic of Ireland. The Brexit Leavers wanted to “take back their country.” What they got was a free falling economy, a nearly 10% reduction in the value of their investments and pensions, and a very uncertain future. They were trapped by the false promises of nostalgia.

Don’t get me wrong! I understand the lure of nostalgia, the desire to go back to some simpler and emotionally better time, even one that never existed. As I said, I’d like to go back to Tuesday! But we are never, ever going to go back to – nor recreate – the past!

What sets us free from the nostalgia trap, what sets us free from any lie, from any untruth, is truth. “You will know the truth,” Jesus told his followers, “and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) And the Truth tells us to get started on the important the work before us and to fix our gaze straight ahead, because “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

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

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

Don’t Carry All That Baggage – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Proper 11, Daily Office Year 1 (Pentecost 8, 2015)

Mark 6:7-9 ~ He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

A few years ago I took a sabbatical. It was my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical in 40 years of professional life, 25 of them in ordained ministry. I went to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland for a total of three months. The first two weeks I visited pre-Christian and early Christian sites in southern Scotland, northern and western England, and Wales. Then I flew from Edinburgh to Dublin. Checking in for the flight, I learned that I had misunderstood an airline website and my baggage was overweight. Substantially overweight! The fees and penalties amounted to nearly £300! (I paid more for my baggage to go one way than for myself to fly round-trip.) I’d brought books for a course of study I was undertaking in Ireland; I’d brought a summer’s worth of clothing; I was carrying a heavy CPAP machine I use while sleeping; I was way, way overweight. I could have carried nothing, ” no bread, no bag, no money in [me] belt,” and purchased everything in Ireland for less than those airline penalties. I guess I would have needed the money, but the bread, the bag, and everything else I didn’t need.

We carry so much that we don’t need. That’s what this story always says to me. We carry so much that we don’t need, that gets in our way more than it helps, that weighs us down and impedes us, that distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing. Jesus is clearly telling his disciples, originally the Twelve and, through them, us, that we don’t need all that stuff. We need some good footwear and something to lean on when we’re weary, and that’s about it. Anything else we may need we can acquire along the way; in fact, the promise of the story is that we will acquire it – it will be provided when it is needed.

When my two-month sojourn in Ireland was ended and I flew back to Scotland to join my wife for a two-week end-of-sabbatical vacation, I left behind most of what I had paid £300 to ship there. Books I could purchase again in the US, I gave to a school library. Clothing I wouldn’t need for those last two weeks, I gave to church to pass on to the needy. A second bag no longer needed, I gave to my landlady who had admired it. Things I was keeping but didn’t need to travel with, I shipped home. The CPAP machine I took back to Scotland, but for that I had pared my possessions down to one backpack; I was carrying again the same spare load I had carried on my first three-month trip to Europe when I was 16 years old. Following Jesus’ lightweight travel advice, I received the promise of the Psalmist: “He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.” (Ps 103:5)

Take Jesus’ advice: don’t carry all that baggage!

Unknown Ailments – From the Daily Office – January 15, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 2:14-15 (NRSV) – January 15, 2014.)

Low Back PainWhat is fear of death but fear of the unknown? The fear of death and the unknown brings anxiety, despair, and a frantic search for meaning. The fear of death and the unknown distracts us and makes us afraid to truly live. We end up fearing both death and life; we end up not attending to those things which are most important.

Yesterday, I woke up with an aching lower back. As the day progressed, the ache became acute, changing from ache to stabbing pain; it localized itself on the right side of my back. When the stabbing sensations occurred, the pain radiated around my right flank and into my abdomen. They got worse. “Kidney stone,” I thought, “I must have a kidney stone.” I’ve never had a kidney stone, but what I was experiencing seemed to be exactly what others have described as the symptoms of a kidney stone. I decided to seek medical advice.

It turned out to be no help. Diagnostic activities (urinalysis and a CAT scan) said it wasn’t a kidney stone. So what was it? What is it? It’s still here. I woke up with it again today. I’ve taken pain medication and applied heat, and they have helped with the discomfort . . . but the source remains unknown.

So I am concerned. Is my concern “fear?” Yes, to some extent it is. Is it disabling? It’s certainly distracting! Both the pain, which limits my motion, and the concern (or fear) which keeps my attention focused on it, and thus not on . . . my prayers, my work, my regular activities, the things important in my life . . . the distraction holds me in thrall. My imagination runs wild and I envision all sorts of dire and deadly medical conditions to explain my pain, when I know full well it’s probably nothing more than a pulled muscle. To the extent that I focus on the pain and its unknown source, I am a slave to my discomforts, both physical and psychological.

A petition from an old Scottish litany prays: “From ghoulies and ghosties, and long-leggedy beasties, and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord, deliver us!” It is a prayer for release from the fear of the unknown, a release the Letter to the Hebrews assures us we have already been given. The power of the unknown has been destroyed by God in Jesus sharing our flesh and blood, with all of its aches and pains and unknown ailments.

So today, I choose to be free of the pain. I may still feel it, but I won’t let it or fear of its still-unknown source distract me from getting on with life.

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

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

The Whole World is Irish on March 17 – Sermon for the Feast of St. Patrick – March 17, 2013

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 17, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Episcopal Sanctorale Lectionary, Patrick of Ireland: Psalm 97:1-2,7-12; Ezekiel 36:33-38; and Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary. At St. Paul’s Parish, during Lent, we are using the Daily Office of Morning Prayer as our antecommunion; therefore, only these two lessons and the psalm were read. The Epistle lesson, 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12, was not used.)

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Icon of St. Patrick of IrelandIn Ainm an Athar, agus an Mhic, agus an Spioraid Naoimh. Áiméan.

Dia dhaoibh ar maidin, gach duine. Beannachtaí na fheile Padraig oraibh.

That’s more Irish than I’ve spoken in nearly two years! What I said was, “God be with you this morning, everyone. The blessings of the Feast of St. Patrick be with you.” In other words, Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Everyone loves to be Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Even though we Funstons being descendants of Anglican Irish (or as the Irish would say, “Protestants”) did not have much, if anything, to do with the Irish communities of my childhood, we still (like everyone else) enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day. We would go to the parades, see and hear the pipe-and-drum corps, and all the other traditional sorts of things. On the evening news, we would see the reports of parades in other places, especially the big one down Fifth Avenue in New York City. And we would usually have corned beef and cabbage for dinner.

I have no problem with people dressing kilts (which aren’t really Irish, at all), putting green food coloring in beer, eating corned beef and cabbage (which is also not really Irish), or any of the other silly things people do on this day. It’s all part of the fun. Many like to watch Irish-themed movies on St. Patrick’s Day. My favorite is the heartwarming tale of a boxer’s return home in The Quiet Man, but I also like the mythical nonsense of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, or the intense drama of The Field, or the whacky comedy of Waking Ned Devine. Those movies are the only times I hear anyone say, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye” or “Faith and begorrah.” At least, I’ve never heard anyone say those things during any of my trips to Ireland.

The worship committee thought we ought to step away from Lent for a day (because March 17 today falls on Sunday) and celebrate St. Patrick. After all, on March 17, the whole world is Irish . . . but the man we commemorate wasn’t Irish and it would be much truer to his memory if on his feast day all the world tried to be not Irish, but Christian.

Patrick, who was a Romano-Brit (meaning a Roman who lived in Britain) was the son of a minor imperial official named Calpornius, who was also a deacon in the church; his grandfather Potitus was a priest. Around the year 406 A.D., at the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped and made a slave in Ireland to a minor tribal king. After six years, he escaped and returned home to Britain, and then went to Rome. There he was ordained a priest and a bishop and, according to the chronicle of Prosper of Aquitane, was appointed bishop to the Irish by Pope Celestine I; he arrived back in Ireland in 432 A.D. He landed near modern-day Belfast and set up his principal foundation in Armagh, which is now considered the Primatial See of Ireland. He ministered primarily in that part of the country known as Ulster. Patrick was not the first bishop appointed to bring the Christian faith to the people of Ireland. Ciaran and Palladius came before him, but their mission (primarily in Munster and Leinster, further south) did not bear the same fruits as Patrick’s. So today, what we celebrate is not Irish identity or heritage; today, we celebrate the success of a mission to spread the Christian faith.

The choir is going sing a poetic prayer or lorica attributed to Patrick, the famous St. Patrick’s Breastplate, as their anthem. It is attributed to him, but there is disagreement as to whether he actually wrote it. But he did write this prayer:

I give thanks to the one who strengthened me in all things, so that he would not impede me in the course I had undertaken and from the works also which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Rather, I sensed in myself no little strength from him, and my faith passed the test before God and people. (The Confession of St. Patrick)

For St. Patrick it seems the faith which passed the test was deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical. He is credited with using the shamrock, now one of the national emblems of Ireland, as an illustration of the Trinity – three lobes, yet one leaf – although that is probably an 18th Century legend rather than a historical fact. And as you heard, the Gospel lesson for his commemoration is the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Christ’s final words to his apostles before ascending into Heaven. This evangelical, Trinitarian faith — not green beer nor Celtic music nor corned beef and cabbage nor Irish-ness itself — but trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit shared with and commended to everyone around us, this is what we celebrate when we celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick.

I thought perhaps the lesson from Ezekiel was chosen for his feast because, with its “forty shades of green,” Ireland might make one think of the garden of Eden, and in Ireland there are both ruined towns and towns that are inhabited, some of both walled and fortified. But I think rather that it was chosen because, just as the nations around Israel came to know the Lord, the God of Israel, so the nations to which Irish missionaries went came to know the Lord Jesus Christ. What Patrick started in Ireland in 5th Century by the mid 6th Century was spreading to northern Europe, carried there by Irish priests and monks practicing what was called “white martyrdom.” The term comes from a 7th Century Irish sermon called the Cambrai homily:

Now there are three kinds of martyrdom that are counted as a cross to us, namely, white, blue, and red martyrdom.
It is white martyrdom for a man when he separates from everything that he loves for God, although he does not endure fasting and labor thereby.
The blue martyrdom is when through fasting and hard work they control their desires or struggle in penance and repentance.
The red martyrdom is when they endure a cross or destruction for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles when they were persecuted the wicked and taught the law of God. (O. Davis, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist Press: 1999)

The white martyrs left everything dear to them — homes, families, familiar surroundings, even Ireland itself — to spread the Gospel in distant lands; white martyrdom was a pilgrimage on behalf of Christ that might be extended permanently so that they would never again see their homeland. They went first to Scotland and the north of England, but then further afield to Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and even further. Like the man who had brought Christianity to their homeland, they held a deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical faith; and it is that faith which we celebrate when we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

It is that faith we all claim and, when we commemorate Patrick, it is to the spread of that faith that we dedicate ourselves. On the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, a special Litany of Penance is recited in Episcopal Churches. Among the confessions of that Litany we find this petition: “Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us, we confess to you, Lord.” (BCP 1979, page 268)

Let us remember that confession on St. Patrick’s Day and try not so much to be Irish, but try to be better Christians. Let us be like Patrick, who was not Irish, but Christian, and like him let us follow Christ’s Great Commission. If we must be Irish on this day, let us be like those Irish white martyrs of old, and commend the faith that is in us, a faith that is deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical.

Let us remember, also, a petition from the Great Litany which we recited on the First Sunday in Lent four weeks ago:

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good, we beseech thee to hear us, good Lord. (BCP 1979, page 151)

Let us pray:

Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

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

We Are All Called to Martyrdom – From the Daily Office – December 26, 2012

From the Book of Acts:

While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. And Saul approved of their killing him. That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Acts 7:59-8:3 (NRSV) – December 26, 2012.)
 
Icon of Saint StephenOn the second day of Christmas the church remembers a murder, the martyrdom of Stephen, and our Daily Office lectionary won’t let us forget it. Often the readings of the Daily Office seem to have nothing to do with the season and they seldom are tied to a saint’s commemoration, but today the morning and evening readings tell the whole story in gruesome detail.

Stephen is revered as the church’s first martyr. The word martyr in Greek merely means “witness” but the church (and thus our modern society) uses it to mean someone who has suffered and died for their faith. The Celtic church would identify three kinds of martyrdom, only one of which involves death, so-called “red martyrdom.” The others were “green martyrdom” and “white martyrdom.”

The green martyrs were those who left ordinary society for the life of a hermit on the mountaintops or islands of Ireland following the example of the Egyptian anchorites. Eventually, they merged their individual dwellings into the monastic communities which dominated the Irish church from the 6th through 9th Centuries.

White martyrs went further. They left Ireland altogether as missionaries. The first of these were Columba and his followers who founded the monastery at Iona. Others following their example went into northern Europe and beyond.

The 2nd Century theologian Tertullian said that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” This is usually understood to mean that through the sacrifice of their lives the “red martyrs” led others to conversion and, on this Feast of Stephen, we see the great example of that in the eventual conversion of Saul, the zealous Jewish persecutor of the church, into Paul, the equally-zealous Christian missionary. But it seems to me that the blood of the green martyrs and the white martyrs, which was not spilled but continued to course through their veins during a life of prayer and service, was equally effective in the conversion of others.

It is not so much the blood of the martyrs but, as the original Greek word says, the witness of the martyrs, the example and testimony of the martyrs of all sorts, red, green, and white, that nurtures the growth of the church. On this second day of Christmas, we should remember that, in some sense, we are all called to martyrdom; we are all called to witness to our faith in the Child whose birth we continue to celebrate.

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

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

Cooperating with Angels – From the Daily Office – November 13, 2012

From the Book of Revelation:

The angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are true words of God.” Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow-servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Revelation 19:9-10 – November 13, 2012)
 
The Annunciation, fresco by Fra AngelicoPerhaps among the most familiar words from St. John’s apocalypse, “Blessed are they who are invited to the marriage feast of the Lamb.” They are used as a fraction anthem or invitation to communion in many churches. But in this brief passage from Revelation, the most powerful image for me today is the angel saying, “I am a fellow-servant with you and your brothers and sisters.”

All too often, I think, we go through our daily lives with no an awareness of, nor gratitude for the work of the holy angels in our midst and on our behalf. Modern Christians, especially Protestants and Anglicans, seem to be a reluctant to acknowledge the angelic ministry or to call upon the angels (or the saints) for help. But angels are God’s first creatures; created to sing God’s praise and glory, they are God’s ministering spirits, sent as messengers to God’s people (as Scripture witnesses again and again) and to assistance us as heirs of salvation. The effectiveness of the angels’ work in our lives depends upon our cooperation; the more we cooperate, the better.

So, how do we do that? How do we cooperate with the angels? At the very foundation of angelic cooperation is regular prayer and contemplation of God and God’s messengers. Openness of spirit and readiness of will are the proper attitudes of our prayer.

In Carmina Gadelica, a large collection of hymns, prayers, charms, poetry and rituals gathered from the people of the Highlands and islands of Scotland in the late 19th century by Alexander Carmichael, one finds this charming blessing, which we have used as a dismissal at church services:

The love and affection of the angels be to you.
The love and affection of the saints be to you.
The love and affection of heaven be to you,
To guard you and to cherish you.

We cooperate best with the angels when we accept their love and affection in the spirit of the Blessed Virgin: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)

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

Simple Wisdom from Above – Sermon for Pentecost 17, Proper 20B – September 23, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, September 23, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 20B: Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1,12-22; Psalm 54; James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; and Mark 9:30-37.)

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Wisdom Highway SignThe collect for today from The Book of Common Prayer:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

On the positive side, the side of “things heavenly,” there is the “wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” On the negative side, the side of “earthly things,” there is “wisdom [which] does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, [and] devilish;” the story from the Wisdom of Solomon demonstrates what this sort of “negative wisdom” leads to. How do we learn wisdom and how do we learn to choose one sort over the other?

One way, of course, is from our elders. We learn by watching them, by listening to them, by doing what they do. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so good, but as the old saying goes, apples don’t fall far from the tree. For most of us, the ways we do things, the ways we make choices and decisions, the ways we react the world around us are pretty much the same ways our parents or grandparents did. I know I’m not alone in having those moments when I hear myself saying something and then think, “O heavens! When did I turn into my father (or into my mother)?”

But the world changes rapidly and we don’t always find ourselves in situations where the “wisdom of the elders” can be used. We face new contexts and different challenges; we deal with a reality that they never encountered.

My wife’s father passed away a couple of weeks ago and last weekend we were away in Nevada for his memorial service. (Our thanks to the many of you who have expressed your condolences.) Paul was 95-1/2 years old, and as we celebrated his life I thought about the way the world has changed in the almost complete century of his life. The Wright brothers flew their plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, just 14 years (almost to the day) before he was born. Look what has happened to the air transportation and space flight since then. Paul’s entire working life was spent in the telephone communications industry and look what has happened in that business and its offshoots, cell phones, smartphones, the internet, Facebook, and all the rest. The world has changed dramatically in just the span of his life, and the wisdom of the early 20th Century is sometimes woefully inadequate in dealing with the 21st Century.

Sometimes we humans can’t deal with change, particularly when it comes at us rapidly as it has in these past several decades. Our reaction is often to try lock things down, to try to stop the change. But we can’t really do that; the world changes anyway. Wisdom, the right kind of wisdom, the “wisdom from above” as James calls it, recognizes that. It is, he says, “willing to yield.” Earlier in his letter, in fact in its very first words, James writes, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance.” (1:2-3) For James, it is a simple thing: ” Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.” (4:10)

James understands, and he wants his readers, you and me, to understand that nothing is ever locked down, that change can never be stopped, it can only be embraced; for James this is as true for changes in ourselves as it is for changes in the world. In this letter, James writing to the whole church; unlike Paul’s letters which were written to particular congregations to solve particular problems, James’s epistle is written to all Christians in every place at every time. Therefore, he knows he is writing to people who are in different and widely differing circumstances, to Christians who are at different stages of spiritual maturity. But he is able to address each of us, no matter where along the journey we may be, because even our faith is not locked down.

Conversion to Christ is not a one-time thing; it is an on-going, life-long process. We aren’t brought suddenly in a blinding instance from darkness fully into the light so that everything before some point of conversion is left behind and all ambiguity removed. It just doesn’t work that way. Conversion is an on-going process. Every day we have to leave behind our anxieties about earthly things, and learn again to love things heavenly; every day we have to turn away from the wisdom from below, from envy and selfish ambition, from disorder and wickedness, toward the wisdom from above, toward peaceableness and gentleness, toward simplicity and mercy.
I spend some time each day in prayer and one of my favorite resources is this book, Celtic Daily Prayer from the Northumbria Community in northeastern England. In it are readings for each day of the year. This was yesterday’s taken from another book entitled Hebridean Altars: The Spirit of an Island Race by a Scots Presbyterian minister named Allistair MacLean:

When the shadows fall upon hill and glen;
and the bird-music is mute;
when the silken dark is a friend;
and the river sings to the stars:
ask yourself, sister,
ask yourself, brother,
the question you alone have power to answer:
O King and Saviour of all,
what is [Your] gift to me?
and do I use it to [Your] pleasing?

That is a wonderfully wise, spiritually simple question to ask everyday, a question which we each are only able to answer for ourselves in prayerful conversation with God: What is God’s gift to me and do I use it to God’s pleasing? It is a question which can help us to turn from earthly things, from envy and ambition and disorder and wickedness, toward heavenly things, toward peace and gentleness and mercy. It is a question which we, God’s children, should ask everyday in prayerful conversation with the Father.

In today’s Gospel lesson from Mark, when the disciples are arguing amongst themselves about envy and ambition, Jesus took a little child and put her among them; Jesus took the child in his arms and said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” When Matthew tells this story, Jesus also says, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3-4) In Mark’s Gospel he will say this in another setting, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

As a child, we look to our elders to learn wisdom; as children of God, we look to our Father to learn the wisdom from above. In that way, we receive the kingdom of God; we enter the kingdom of heaven. In today’s reading in Celtic Daily Prayer, also from Hebridean Altars, this is the very image presented, the image of a child reaching up to and being lifted up by the Father:

Often I strain and climb
and struggle to lay hold
of everything I’m certain
You have planned for me.
And nothing happens:
there comes no answer.
Only You reach down to me
just where I am.
When you give me no answer
to my questions,
still I have only to raise my arms
to You, my Father
and then You lift me up.
Then because You are my Father
You speak these words of truth
to my heart:
“You are not an accident.
Even at the moment of your conception,
out of many possibilities,
only certain cells combined,
survived, grew to be you.
You are unique.
You were created for a purpose.
God loves you.”

In our world today, the search for spiritual answers, the search for religious certainty, the attempt to lock things down does more to divide than it does to unite. It is a misguided quest governed more by the wisdom from below than by the wisdom from above. The wisdom from above does not try to lock down an unchangeable certainty, but rather turns daily to God with childlike simplicity to ask, “What is your gift for me today?”

In 1848, in the spirit of James’s epistle and Christ’s metaphor of childlike welcoming and faith, Elder Joseph Brackett of the Shaker community in Alfred, Maine, wrote one-verse song describing a simple children’s dance as a paradigm for gaining wisdom. It is entitled Simple Gifts, and these are the words:

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

You’ll find this song in the hymnal, Hymn No. 554. Will you stand and sing it with me today and then everyday remember to seek the wisdom from above by asking that simple question of God: “What is your gift to me today, and do I use it to your pleasing?” Shall we sing?

Will God Dwell on the Moon? – Sermon for Pentecost 13, Proper 16B – August 26, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 26, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 16B: 1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; and John 6:56-69.)

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Temple of SolomonOn the cover of our worship bulletin this morning is a depiction of King Solomon’s Temple. It’s an artist’s rendering of someone’s reconstruction of the Temple based on the description of its construction in the Old Testament record. Our first reading today (from the First Book of Kings), as long as it was, is just a small part of the dedicatory prayer that King Solomon offers when the Temple is finished and consecrated.

The building of the Temple marked a very significant change in the Jewish religion. Well, really, let’s not call it the Jewish religion because it wasn’t that, yet. Let’s just say, “The religion of the people of Israel.” These people were not, though we often imagine them to be, strict monotheists. Even in this prayer Solomon leaves open the question of whether there might be gods other than their God: “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath.” There might be other gods, lesser gods perhaps, demigods, or even demons, part of a heavenly pantheon of gods, but this God, the God of the People of Israel is greater than any of those others.

At this time, all the different nations, sometimes even different clans or families, had their own religions, their own gods. And nearly all of these religions believed the gods to be sort of tied to the land. If you moved from one place to another, you stopped worshiping the god of the first place and took up the worship of the god of your new residence. If a woman married outside of her family or tribe, married into a different clan, she would give up the religion of her family and take up that of her husband.

The People of Israel’s God, however, was different. Their God was not tied to a particular place. Their God was connected to a holy object, instead. God was associated with the Ark of the Covenant which they had created in the desert to contain God’s holy relics, the tablets of the Law given to Moses at Sinai (together with a pot of manna and Aaron’s staff). They carried the Ark with them, actually before them, as they traveled through the desert, as they crossed into the Holy Land, as they conquered the Canaanites and took possession of the country.

You may recall that in those first years, the People of Israel had no monarch: they considered God to be their king. The histories are silent as to where the Ark was kept during the period of the Judges, or during the reign of the first monarch, King Saul. But we know that David wanted to build a permanent location for it; he wanted to build a Temple. But God refused. He told David, through the prophet Nathan,

Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. (2 Sam. 7:5-6)

So David did not build the Temple, but he did build a special tent in his city, Bethlehem, and brought the Ark there. We are told

David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet. . . . They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it. (2 Sam. 6:15, 17)

David designed the Temple, but he never built it. His son Solomon was the one to do that.

So the Temple was finished, the sacred implements from David’s tent had been moved into it, the Ark of the Covenant was installed into the Holy of Holies where only the High Priest would be allowed to go and Solomon offers this long prayer of dedication. In it he asks a very important question: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth?” (1 Kings 8:27) By building the Temple, Solomon sought to provide God a place to dwell on earth and, in so doing, he made the religion of his people more like that of their neighbors than it had been.

Remember their religions had tied their gods to particular places whereas the God of Israel had moved about the countryside with his People. Now God had a permanent home and, over time, the Jews would centralize God’s worship in the Temple and they would eventually decree, in the Book of Deuteronomy, that the cultic part of their faith could only be performed in that place. Sure, people could gather anywhere for prayer, they could go synagogues for religious instruction, but they could only offer sacrifice and perform the Temple rites in the Temple at Jerusalem. God had become tied to a place. (This was one of the differences the Jews had with Samaritans with whom they shared a devotion to God and who also followed the Law as set out in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, and Leviticus, but who rejected the restrictions of Deuteronomy and had their own temples, primarily at Mt. Gerazim.)

By the time of Jesus, Solomon’s question had been firmly answered by the Jews. Yes, said their religion, God will dwell on earth, in this place, this Temple in Jerusalem. In the birth of Jesus, however, God gave a different answer: God will not dwell in a building in a particular place; God will dwell with and among God’s People: as the Gospel of John affirms, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14) Will God indeed dwell on earth? Yes, God will live among God’s people as one of us. God lived among us as an infant born in Bethlehem. God lived among us as an itinerant rabbi who had no home. God lived among us as a rabbi accused of being a rabble-rouser. God lived among us as a rabble-rouser condemned to die a criminal’s death. God lived among us as a criminal executed on a cross.

On the night before he died, he gathered with his friends for a Passover meal. There is some debate as to whether it was a Seder, the sacred meal of Judaism, but if it was he radically changed its nature, just as Solomon building the Temple had radically changed the nature of the religion of Israel. In the Passover meal, Jews become one with their ancestors; the Passover story is brought present to them in the ritual of the Seder and they, in turn, live through the Passover story, but the meal does not bring God into their midst. When Jesus took the bread of affliction and said, “This is my body,” when he took the cup of blessing and said, “This is my blood,” when he told his followers, “Do this when you remember me,” when he promised, “Where two or three gather, I am there,” Jesus gave us a power and an obligation unlike any given before to any people by God. We have the privilege to bring God present among us in the Bread and Wine of the Eucharist, the Christ’s Body and Blood.

Moon Rock Window, Washington D.C. National CathedralWhere were you on July 20, 1969? In July of 1969 I was living in a boarding house and studying in Florence, Italy. The boarding house or pensione in which I lived, Pensione Frati, did not have a television. My landlord, Colonello Roberto Frati, arranged for me and the other Americans living there to go to his sister-in-law’s home where we could watch Neil Armstrong’s and Buzz Aldrin’s moon landing on her TV – this great big box of a television set with a tiny black-and-white screen. We all gathered around that box peering into that tiny screen listening to the Italian news commentators and struggling to hear the American commentary behind them. I’m sure that when we heard of Commander Armstrong’s death we all thought about wherever we were on that day at that moment when he stepped out of the lunar lander and became the first human being to walk on another world.

What almost nobody knew until a long time afterward was that something else happened on the moon that day. Buzz Aldrin, a devout Christian and an ordained elder in his Presbyterian congregation, had taken a communion kit with some bread and wine to the moon. In the Presbyterian Church, the lay elders of the church who serve a function similar to our vestry members, are actually ordained by their congregation, and that ordination empowers them to bless the elements of Holy Communion. At the time Aldrin and Armstrong landed on the moon, the pastor and members of his Presbyterian church were watching TV but unlike most of us, they were also celebrating communion. Armstrong joined them across space, blessing the bread and wine on the moon and partaking there of Holy Communion.

In the act of Holy Communion we are joined with Christians everywhere and everywhen — with all those in every place who also take part in the Eucharistic feast, with all those who have done so at ever Eucharist since Christ’s last supper with his disciples, with all those who will celebration Communion in the future. We are joined with them and we are joined with God in Christ as we eat of his Body and drink of his Blood, no matter where we are on earth or even on the moon.

Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Yes! Will God dwell on the moon? Yes! God dwells with God’s People wherever the memory of Jesus is invoked in the Holy Communion, wherever bread and wine are blessed and consecrated the Body and Blood of God incarnate in Christ. God will dwell with God’s People across time and across space, even on the moon, and wherever else in this Solar System or beyond we may go, so long as we do this in memory of Jesus. Amen.

For the Requiem of Eileen Tough Harrington

Jesus, as we have just heard, said, “Anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” He did not, however, say that anyone who hears his word and believes in God would not die … and so we are here this morning to mourn our loss of Eileen Tough Harrington, to remember her life, and to celebrate her entry into the Presence of Almighty God. She has “passed from death to life,” larger life with the Saints in Light.

As many of you know, I often turn to the works of famous poets at times like these and one in particular is the early 19th Century writer Anna Lætitia Barbauld, the daughter and wife of Presbyterian ministers. Her poem A Thought On Death was published in 1821 in a magazine entitled The Christian Disciple. I was reminded of it when I reflected on Eileen’s long life:

When life as opening buds is sweet,
And golden hopes the fancy greet,
And Youth prepares his joys to meet,
Alas! how hard it is to die!

When just is seized some valued prize,
And duties press, and tender ties
Forbid the soul from earth to rise,
How awful then it is to die!

When, one by one, those ties are torn,
And friend from friend is snatched forlorn,
And man is left alone to mourn,
Ah then, how easy ’tis to die!

When faith is firm, and conscience clear,
And words of peace the spirit cheer,
And visioned glories half appear,
‘Tis joy, ’tis triumph then to die.

When trembling limbs refuse their weight,
And films, slow gathering, dim the sight,
And clouds obscure the mental light,
‘Tis nature’s precious boon to die.

In her time of youth, as a young girl of six years of age, Eileen emigrated from her native Aberdeen, Scotland, to the United States. As a young woman she “seized the valued prize” of a two-year college degree in business skills and became an executive secretary. “Dour Scot” though her heritage may have been, she did enjoy life – she and her brother Frederick became dancers and traveled the country entertaining others with their ballroom and tap dancing; she also loved to read and enjoyed word games and crossword puzzles. And, of course, her church membership was very important to her. A member of this parish for 27 years, she was the head of St. Paul’s Altar Guild in the 1980s.

She gave up the dancing when she married Richard Clay Harrington, but she continued throughout her life to enjoy reading and to be active in the church. Mother of two, Susan and Richard Jr., a grandmother and a greatgrandmother, Eileen like all mothers taught her children the lessons of life. A modern American poet, J.D. Deutschendorf, recently published a poem Lessons Mother Taught Us written last year when his mother died:

She planted dill for swallow-tails
and milkweed where monarchs would lay
their caterpillar offspring round
the grass green meadows of May.

The migrants returned then as always;
how quickly her crops were consumed!
but countless chrysalides dotted the dell
tucked inside their golden cocoons.

Then early one morning she beckoned
us watch the mystery unfold;
the metamorphosis almost complete
translucent shells gave up their gold.

Wet wings greeted the rising sun
and the warmth of a soft summer breeze,
soon butterflies coloured meadow and wood
floating gracefully throughout the trees.

She told us of unseen transcendings
as we watched the born-agains soar;
so certain were we then of heaven
as if we had been there before.

I don’t know if Eileen taught Susan and Richard about gardening and butterflies, but I do know that she taught her children, as all mothers do, about life.

I know that they know that we are all children of God; they know it because she knew it and I’m sure that with her Scots determination she made sure they learned her lessons.

That Scots determination (or perhaps some might call it stubbornness) is one of the things I first discovered about Eileen. From time to time, my wife Evelyn and I would have dinner with her together with her daughter Susan and son-in-law Paul. At some point during the evening, Eileen would simply decide that she’d had enough to eat and, apparently, enough of the company as well. “I’m ready to go,” she would say. And when Eileen was ready to go, everyone else had better be ready to go, too!

So last week, when Susan called me on Wednesday and said, “The nurses at Western Reserve have called and said Mom has decided to go,” I knew exactly what she meant. Eileen had finally come to that point when, as the poet Barbauld had put it, trembling limbs refused their weight and films had dimmed her the sight, when clouds obscured her mental light, and she was ready to go.

She was ready to pass through death to the life beyond, that that larger where, as our Prayer Book says, we shall see God and be reunited with those who have gone before. Eileen is now reunited with her beloved Richard, a Naval officer, and so I close with a final poem, one with a bit of a nautical theme, The Unknown Shore by Elizabeth Clark Hardy:

Sometime at Eve when the tide is low
I shall slip my moorings and sail away
With no response to a friendly hail
In the silent hush of the twilight pale
When the night stoops down to embrace the day
And the voices call in the water’s flow

Sometime at Eve When the water is low
I shall slip my moorings and sail away.
Through purple shadows
That darkly trail o’er the ebbing tide
And the Unknown Sea,
And a ripple of waters’ to tell the tale
Of a lonely voyager sailing away
To mystic isles
Where at anchor lay
The craft of those who had sailed before
O’er the Unknown Sea
To the Unknown Shore

A few who watched me sail away
Will miss my craft from the busy bay
Some friendly barques were anchored near
Some loving souls my heart held dear
In silent sorrow will drop a tear
But I shall have peacefully furled my sail
In mooring sheltered from the storm and gale
And greeted friends who had sailed before
O’er the Unknown Sea
To the Unknown Shore

It’s not really an “unknown shore”. It is, rather, our eternal home, God’s kingdom where there is no pain, no death, no sorrow, no crying, but the fullness of joy with those who have gone before, with all God’s saints. Today, we rejoice that Eileen has gone there before us.

May she rest in peace and rise in Glory! Amen.

Medicine for Society’s Ills: Sermon for the 8th Annual Medina County Red Mass

I’d like to share with you two vignettes from the life of Eric Funston and, I promise you, I will tie these in with the readings from Scripture that we have just heard, readings which the Common of Saints bids us read when we celebrate the life and ministry of St. Luke the Physician. The first vignette is the most recent.

The River Sligachan, Isle of Skye, Scotland

The River Sligachan, Isle of Skye, Scotland

A few weeks ago, my wife Evelyn and I had the opportunity to spend time together touring Scotland and, as part of that trip, we spent time in the Inner Hebrides, particularly visiting the Holy Island of Iona and the Isle of Skye. Our trip to Iona started in the port town of Oban, where we caught the ferry to the island of Mull. The Oban ferry takes you to the town of Craignure where you disembark and then drive (if you are daring) or take a bus for the hour-and-half, 37 miles to the village of Fionnphort where you board another ferry for the short voyage to the Holy Island. We opted to take the bus and so we were both able to enjoy scenery along the road, which (by the way) is a single-track two-way highway with wide places every few miles to permit traffic to pass in each direction. For much of the length of this highway one follows the River Lussa, which is a wide and, when we were there, very active and swift-flowing river. The River Lussa flows through the Lussa Glen (“glen” is the Scots word for a valley) on either side of which are very high, very steep hills; as someone who comes originally from the intermountain west I would call them mountains, but they are certainly bigger than any hill or mountain I’ve seen in Ohio! The source of the River Lussa, and all the rivers on the Isle of Mull, is the dew that collects and the rain that falls on these hills.

The same is true on the Isle of Skye which we visited a few days later. We stayed there in the town of Portree, the unofficial capital of Skye, and drove to visit other parts of the island, including a drive to the village of Talisker, home of the whisky of the same name. On the way we drove along the River Sligachan, which for nearly its entire length that day was white water, a rushing torrent of foam! As on Mull, the source of the river is merely the dew and rain falling on the high hills around it.

What was most fascinating for us was watching the water come down the hillsides to feed these rivers. You could see, through the mist and rain, its beginnings in small streams high on the hillsides, streams which then joined with others, and then others until they formed beautiful, dazzling waterfalls. We’ve been places in the world where they have made tourist attractions of the local waterfall … there are dozens, if not hundreds, of waterfalls feeding the rivers of Mull and Skye that would be many of those tourist-attraction waterfalls to shame. To be honest, after the first twenty minutes or so of the drive from Craignure to Fionnphort, or the drive from Portree to Talisker, I was sort of suffering waterfall fatigue: “Oh, yeah, another waterfall … great…” And all these waterfalls feeding these rushing, gushing, foaming, frothing rivers making their way to the sea.

Second vignette … about twenty-five years ago I was a litigator specializing in medical malpractice and medical product liability defense. I was also one of the five managing shareholders of the largest law firm in the state of Nevada: twenty-two shareholders, twenty-eight associates, and a whole slew of support staff. We owned our own 60,000-square-foot, four-story office building, on the third floor of which was our law library, the largest private law library in the state. Adjacent to the law library we had a large conference room which we called “The War Room”. When someone was in trial, it became our command headquarters; it was where we began our day before heading to the courthouse and it was where we ended our day debriefing what had happened in the trial. It was also where we kept the office liquor cabinet.

Often, when I was in a trial, after the client would leave, after the associates and the paralegals would go home, I would pour myself a drink, go into the library, and just sit there and look around at all those law books – this was in the days before Lexis/Nexis and Westlaw and computer-assisted legal research, when you had to know the key-number system and the index to ALR – I’d sit there and just feel the presence of all that law! … the Pacific Reporters, the Federal Reporters, the USCA, the Nevada Statutes, the Restatement of the Law, Corpus Juris and ALR, those odd tax publications by CCH and BNA, the specialty law journals to which we subscribed … all that massive flood of legal wisdom. Just sit there in amazement at the accumulated wisdom of the American legal system. Maybe some of it would soak into me by osmosis….

So who is this Luke we are commemorating this evening and why are we doing so at a service whose avowed purpose is to seek God’s guidance for those who sit on the Bench and those who appear at the Bar?

Well, to answer the second question first, St. Luke’s feast day was yesterday so it just seemed appropriate to recognize that and use the lessons assigned his feast today. Who he was is the only Gentile writer whose words appear in the New Testament, a Greco-Syrian physician from the city of Antioch who accompanied St. Paul in his later travels, perhaps was even with him in his imprisonment and at the time of Paul’s martyrdom (as our odd little reading from Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy suggests – “Only Luke is [still] with me”). Luke is generally acknowledged to be the author of both the Gospel which bears his name and the Book of Acts. Because he was a physician, the Common of Saints bids us read the portion of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also called Sirach or Ben Sira, that we heard this evening, and it is to that Scripture that I would like to turn now.

The author of this text, Yeshua ben Sira, sings the praises of physicians, as we heard, and then goes on to praise others who contribute to society, the farmers and the artisans, the smith and the potter, but he does so with this interesting introduction: “The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; only the one who has little business can become wise.” Acknowledging that society depends on these tradesmen and craftspeople, he nonetheless says, “They do not sit in the judge’s seat, nor do they understand the decisions of the courts.” Although “they maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade,” the need to set hand to plow or to potter’s wheel, to spend their hours “on business” makes it impossible for them to “become wise”. “How different, says Ben Sira, “the one who devotes himself to the study of the law….”

That famous Ohioan William Howard Taft, Secretary of War, President, Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, once said, “I love judges, and I love courts. They are my ideals, that typify on earth what we shall meet hereafter under a just God.”

Ben Sira seems to have been of a similar mind. He believe that God would direct the counsel and decision-making of judges: “If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding; he will pour forth words of wisdom …. He will show the wisdom of what he has learned …. Many will praise his understanding …. Nations will speak of his wisdom, and the congregation will proclaim his praise.”

So Ben Sira begins praising those who study and practice medicine and ends praising those who study and practice the law; as physicians and surgeons are to the individual, so lawyers and judges are to the community. As the former heal the ills of the body, the latter deal with the ills of society. Perhaps this is why Luke the Physician, who in his Gospel relates several individual healing miracles of Jesus, tells of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry not in terms of medical or physical healing, but in terms of social healing. Jesus, he writes, took the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, and proclaimed in the synagogue that he had been anointed to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and freedom to the oppressed, to right the social wrongs usually addressed by the law and by the courts.

Ben Sira wrote that physicians and pharmacists extract medicines out of the earth, and that from God in this way health spreads over all the earth. I want to suggest to you that societal health promoted by the rule of law is much the same. Remember the dew and the rain falling on the high hills of the Scottish highlands and islands, coming down into a thousand thousand little streams and rivulets, joining into larger streams and cataracts, combining into great waterfalls, and eventually great rushing wild rivers. The law is formed in the same way, from a thousand thousand sources … from agreements between friends, from contracts among businesses, from proverbs and maxims by which we govern our lives, from the words of rulers, the founders of nations, legislative bodies, legal scholars, and yes, even judges in the courts. From a thousand thousand sources, the rules of society combining and interacting and joining together to form that great wild rushing river of law!

That is what I would marvel at on those late nights sitting along surrounded by the statute books, the case reports, the legal encyclopedias and law journals. Our library was like a great reservoir in which all of that wisdom, all of that great rushing river of law was gathered and stored, waiting someone to extract from it just the right rule, just the right canon, the right decision to solve this particular issue. Ben Sira wrote that the physician and the pharmacist extract medicine out of the earth, and that is what lawyers and judges do, extract from that great flood of law the solutions to many of society’s problems, the legal medicines to cure society’s ills.

The humorist Ambrose Bierce defined a lawsuit as “a machine which you go into as a pig and come out as a sausage.” I prefer to think of the work of our judges and courts in a different way – using a different metaphor.

Not all of the water that runs down the hills of Scotland flows into those rivers and out to the sea. A good deal of it soaks into the earth, filters down through the soil and then through lime stone and eventually forms aquifers that accumulate on the top of the granite which is the bedrock of Scotland; it flows in underground streams to emerge in various places as beautifully clear spring water. And then the Scots do this wondrous thing … they mix it with malted barley in the process of extraction, fermentation, and distillation that produces whisky. (Whisky gets its name, by the way, from the Gaelic uisce beatha, the “water of life”.)

It seems to me that rather than Bierce’s sausage grander, this is a better metaphor for what our courts do. It’s the lawyers’ job to bring before the judge, from that great reservoir of all that law from all its sources, the particular canons, statutes, maxims, and rules that he or she thinks best apply to the facts of the case. Lawyers do this by bringing motions, settling proposed jury instructions, filing briefs in the trial court or on appeal, and making oral arguments before the courts. Judges then have the task to take what the lawyers present and, if you will, mix it around with the facts of the case, sort of let it ferment and then distill out of all that the resolution, the answer that best provides justice and equity, that treats this particular wound on the body of society.

I know its fashionable for some politicians to decry and criticize “activist judges”, and to suggest that judges should only apply the law not make it, but that betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of our courts. If that were all judges were supposed to do, we could program computers to take care of our lawsuits and criminal prosecutions – and dystopian fiction and B-grade science-fiction movies are filled with stories predicting (accurately, I think) what the horrible result of that would be – a sausage grinder, indeed! We do well to remember the words of the great jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.: “The law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.” The work of the court is like “painting a picture, not doing a sum.”

No! Judges are supposed to be activists! Courts and judges have always made law; in fact, courts and judges were making laws before there were legislatures to do so! And even now, because practically every case brought to court is unique unto itself, as the rules and maxims, the statutes and precedents are presented and applied to it, each case creates a little bit of new law, sometimes in unanticipated ways.

Just as the water that flows down the Scottish hillsides, even if it happens by some accident to mix with a some grain, doesn’t become whisky, the “water of life”, unless a master distiller sets his or her hand to it, his or her skill and knowledge and wisdom, so all those rules and maxims and statutes in all the law books don’t solve society’s problems, don’t treat society’s ills, unless a learned judge applies his or her skill and knowledge and wisdom.

Let us pray that, in the words of Ben Sira, that the great Lord will fill the judges of our courts with the spirit of understanding; that they will pour forth words of wisdom. Let us pray that the Lord will direct their counsel and knowledge, that they will have the leisure to become wise, and they will show the wisdom of what they have learned, so that the poor in our community will receive good news, the captives will be released, and all shall be freed from oppression.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen!

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