That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Commemoration of Saints (page 1 of 2)

At That Time: A Sermon Offered on St. Francis Day, 4 October 2015

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A sermon offered on Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 2015, to the people of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

(The lessons for the day are Jeremiah 22:13-16, Psalm 148:7-14, Galatians 6:14-18, and Matthew 11:25-30.)

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Detail, Francis in Ecstasy, CaravaggioWhen I was learning the art of preaching, my instructor was a fan of the old Barthian aphorism that a homilist should enter the pulpit with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. So here I am, newspaper and Bible at the ready, and opening the first I find glaring at me the headline you all have also seen: another mass shooting in America – the 294th multiple gun homicide of the year. Like many, if not most, of the clergy here this evening I have preached too many sermons about mass murder and gun control: after Columbine, after the Aurora theater, after the Milwaukee gurdwara, after Sandy Hook Elementary School, after Mother Emanuel Church, after so many others . . . . I’m sorry; my heart is broken and my prayers arise for the Umpqua College victims, their families, and their community. But, even as we gather to remember the Little Poor Man of Assisi, in whose name we often pray, “make me a servant of your peace,” I just don’t have another mass-murder-gun-control sermon to offer.

So I want to tell you about the other headline that grabbed my attention earlier in the week. The hairstyle commonly known as the “man-bun,” which described as “typically worn with hair shaved on the sides of the head with a top-knot worn in the middle,” has been banned at Brigham Young University’s Rexford, Idaho, campus. According to the school’s “Student Honor Administration,” the man-bun is not consistent with the school’s dress code; it is no considered “an extreme hairstyle . . . just something that deviates from the norm.” (BYU-Idaho Scroll)

The BYU action reminded me of a story the late Senator Sam Ervin used to tell about a rather puritanical North Carolina preacher whose ministry bridged a time when women’s hairstyles were changing and women were beginning to wear their hair up in buns and this preacher found that most objectionable. It was, he thought, wanton and sinful for women to tempt men by exposing the curve of their shapely and attractive necks, and so he preached against this “modern” hairstyle. He chose as his text the famous admonition of the Savior Himself: “Top knot, come down!”

“At the conclusion of his sermon an irate woman, wearing a very pronounced topknot, told the preacher that no such text could be found in the Bible. The preacher thereupon opened the Scriptures to the seventeenth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew and pointed to the words: ‘Let him which is upon the house top not come down to take anything out of his house.’” (Schutz, C., Political Humor: From Aristophanes to Sam Ervin, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Pr, 1976, p. 42)

That story has nothing to do with St. Francis, but it does illustrate the quandary I felt when considering the lessons assigned to this feast. I don’t want to accuse those who selected these lessons of decontextualizing Scripture quite so badly as Sen. Ervin’s preacher . . . but let’s be honest: these traditional lessons have been selected less because they convey a gospel message than for their superficial reminders of Francis. Clearly, this is true of the epistle in which Paul claims “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body,” a reminder that late in his life Francis bore the Stigmata. Similarly, the Psalm reminds us of Francis’s Canticle of Brother Sun; the reading from Jeremiah, of his service to the needy.

One supposes the gospel lesson was similarly chosen because Jesus’s dismissal of the “wise and intelligent” reminds us that Francis, who came from a wealthy family and could have lived among the educated elite, chose instead a life in solidarity with the voiceless, uneducated poor.

But, when the first words I read in a gospel lesson are “At that time” my curiosity is immediately piqued! “What time?” I want to know. Our evangelist contextualized these words of Jesus, and I want to know what that context is. I hope you do, as well, because I’m about to tell you; we are going to untie this “top knot”.

Chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel, the end of which constitutes our lesson, is a discrete literary unit which opens with messengers from John the Baptist asking Jesus if he is the anticipated messiah. Jesus’s reply is, “Tell John what’s happening: the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak, the dead are raised.” He then turns to those who are with him and says, “By the way, when you went out to the Jordan to see John, what were you expecting?”

He answers his own question, “You expected to see a prophet, and that’s what you got and more.” But, he reminds them that they rejected John because of his asceticism: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.'” (v. 18) But when Jesus came, “eating and drinking, … they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!'” (v. 19) They didn’t want the tough asceticism of John, nor did they did want the lighter touch of Jesus.

Why? Because both challenged the status quo; to follow either would have meant changing the rules! John’s way would have required them to renounce worldly pleasure; Jesus’s would have meant welcoming everyone including (heaven forbid!) sinners. They didn’t want to change the rules. They didn’t want to deviate from the status quo. They just wanted someone to bless them the way they were.

Jesus compares them to children who can’t make up their minds, “children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'” (v. 16-17) They are like children who cannot decide whether they want to hold a pretend funeral or a make-believe wedding and end up doing nothing. Australian theologian Bill Loader calls them “the religious wise who seriously go about trying to protect God,” to maintain the status quo. They are the rule-makers and the rule-keepers who miss the point.

In their book The Unblocked Manager (Gower:Brookfield, VT, 1996), Dave Francis and Mike Woodcock make the argument that in business an overly-serious obsession with rules, with established norms, is not compatible with playful creativity and receptivity, that such an attitude inhibits communication and saps new ideas of their excitement, vitality, and strength. St. Francis said much the same thing according to his first biographer, Thomaso da Celano: “It is the devil’s greatest triumph when he can deprive us of the joy of the Spirit. He carries fine dust with him in little boxes and scatters it through the cracks in our conscience in order to dim the soul’s pure impulses and its luster.” (Quoted in Dorothee Solle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance; see also, Celano, Second Life, Ch. LXXXVIII.125) That’s what had happened to Jesus’s audience in Matthew 11; they were the rule-makers and the rule-keepers who had been sprinkled with Satan’s powder of unmitigated seriousness.

So Jesus gets really personal and really pointed with them! He condemns three particular communities, pronouncing woes upon Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum, saying of the first two that “if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (v. 21) Tyre and Sidon were Philistine centers of pagan religion, business and commerce, and (apparently) prostitution; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets foretold their doom and destruction as a result. Of Capernaum, Jesus says that because of its rejection of those same deeds of power “on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you!” (v. 24) In that condemnation we get a hint of what has so angered Jesus for we know that Sodom’s sin was not about sexuality, despite centuries of misinformation on that score; Sodom’s sin was a failure of compassion, generosity, and hospitality. And those words clearly describe the “deeds of power” witnessed and dismissed by Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Actually, we don’t really know what may have happened in Chorazin; it is not otherwise mentioned in the gospels. But we do know that in Bethsaida Jesus gave sight to a blind man and we believe that it was a few miles south of town at Tel Hadar that he fed the Four Thousand. We know that in Capernaum Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and that a few miles south of there at Tabgha he fed the Five Thousand. Works of compassion, acts of generosity, instances of hospitality, these are the “deeds of power” scorned by the religiously “wise and intelligent,” the overly serious who go about enforcing rules, trying to protect the status quo, missing the point, and sapping Jesus’s gospel of its excitement, vitality, and strength.

We don’t know what the “wise and intelligent” of those towns may have said, what criticism they may have leveled, but on the basis of other conversations reported by the evangelists we can surely speculate. Were the healings done on the Sabbath so that they might constitute “work” in violation of the Law of Moses? Did the crowds at Tel Hadar and Tabgha wash their hands or did they eat in a defiled condition? Especially at Tel Hadar, might there have been Gentiles present? I’m sure we can with some accuracy suggest the concerns and critiques of the rule-keepers.

It is Jesus’s deeds of mercy and compassion that are the evidence of God’s gracious will, not rules! That is why Jesus told John’s messengers, “Look at what’s been done.” “Wisdom,” said Jesus, “is vindicated by her deeds.” (v. 19)

So this is the context of our gospel reading: “At that time, Jesus [angry and frustrated] said, ‘I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from’” these people, these overly-serious rule-keepers who cannot see that there is something more important than rules, who stifle compassion, and generosity, and hospitality, and mercy, and grace. (He’d run into this before. Remember when he visited his home synagogue at Nazareth? Mark tells us that “he could do no deed of power there. . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.” [Mk 6:5-6]) At that time, he was offended that Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin had refused to respond. At that time their overly serious attitude and unbelief sapped his good news of its excitement, its vitality, and its strength.

Those overly-serious rule-keepers, the defenders of the status quo are with us today; at this time there are lots of Chorazins, Bethsaidas, and Capernaums. We read about them in the newspaper at this time.

Woe to you, Ft. Lauderdale and Philadelphia and Salt Lake City (and 20 other cities), who deny compassion and make it illegal to feed the homeless and the hungry just to protect your rules about public order!

Woe to you, House of Representatives, you deny health care to hundreds of thousands of poor women who need cancer screenings and perinatal care because of your rules about abortion funding (rules that weren’t being violated in any event)!

Woe to you, Rowan County, KY, you would deny two people who love each other the possibility of marriage because of your rule about homosexuality (a rule that isn’t the law of the land any longer)!

Woe to you, Rexburg, ID, you would deny self-expression to your students because of your petty dress code about hair!
Woe to you, America, you sacrifice the students in your colleges, the children in your schools, the movie-goers in theaters, the worshipers in your temples and churches just to protect a rule you call “the Second Amendment.”

At this time, this is the context within which we hear Jesus say, “I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from [the rule-makers, the rule-keepers, and the overly serious] and have revealed them to infants.” (v. 25)

Here’s an interesting thing . . . the Greek word translated as “infant,” the word nepioi, is unlike much of the koiné Greek of the New Testament; it is a word one also finds in classical Greek literature. In the Septuagint, it is used in the Psalms to translate the Hebrew words for the naive, the innocent, and the uneducated. In the Illiad and the Odyssey, it describes those who are socially and spiritually disenfranchised, who have no say not only in public affairs but in their own lives, as well. In all these contexts, it carries the connotation of voicelessness, of being not a rule-maker or a rule-keeper, but one burdened without one’s say by the rules of others.

Our saint today was born in late medieval Italy and christened Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. “Francis” was a derogatory nickname meaning “little Frenchman,” which apparently had been given him by his father because of his habit of dressing in the French style. He tried to live up to the conventions of his place and time first as merchant with his wealthy father, then as a soldier in the service of his city. Eventually, experiencing a mystical call and a religious conversion, he gave that all up. When his father hauled him before the Bishop of Assisi in legal proceedings, Giovanni renounced his inheritance and stripped naked in public, returning to his father the garments he had paid for. According to his second biographer, St. Bonaventure, “the servant of the most high King was left stripped of all that belonged to him, that he might follow the Lord whom he loved, who hung naked on the cross.” (Major Life, Ch. II.4) He left behind a life among the rule-makers and the rule-keepers, and began a life among the voiceless and the disenfranchised; he laid down the heavy burden of social convention to take up the yoke of Christ.

The life to which Jesus invited Francis, and to which he invites us, is not found in the rules; it is not found in the newspaper. It is found in the examples, in the “deeds of power” we encounter in the Bible. For Francis, it was a life full of risks and challenges, and Jesus has made it abundantly clear that it will be for us. He calls us to a life of humble service, a life of generosity, compassion, and hospitality, a life of mercy and grace.

To live, as Francis did, yoked to Jesus is to live free from the burden of sin, resting freely, deeply, and securely in God’s grace. To live yoked to Jesus is to be free from the need to prove oneself under some set of rules whether they be the mitzvoth of Moses, the social conventions of medieval Italy, the dress codes of a university, or the amendments of the Constitution. To live yoked to Jesus is to be the voice to the voiceless who always face the oppression and the opposition of the rule-makers and the rule-keepers.

It is to live the life described in the prayer attributed to St. Francis, which though not actually written by him, “admirably expresses the thought and spirit of Francis, ‘the Man of Peace.'” (Marion Habig, OFM, Francis of Assisi: Writer, in Omnibus of Sources, Franciscan Herald:Chicago, 1983, p 1930)

Will you join me in offering that prayer now?

Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
(BCP 1979, Prayer No. 62, p 833)

It’s a beautiful prayer, but it’s essential to recognize that praying isn’t enough. Like Francis, we must live yoked to Jesus and be the voice of the voiceless in answer to the rule-keepers. Amen.

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

Foundations in the Forest – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Foundations in the Forest . . . .

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Tuesday in the week of Proper 15, Year 1 (Pentecost 12, 2015)

Psalm 122:1-2 ~ I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

When our choir, acolytes, liturgical assistants, and clergy gather for prayer just before the opening procession of Sunday worship, I will often use a prayer which begins with a paraphrase of these verses. As I do so, in my mind’s eye I see the forest going by the bus window as we drove from Jericho up to Jerusalem in the summer of 2014. My first and so far only trip to the land of the Holy One.

The forest is non-native, mostly European pines and Australian eucalyptus. It is a young forest with only several decades, not centuries, of growth. There is little, if any, undergrowth and peering through the trees when can see unnaturally regular formations of stone. These are the ruins and foundations of Palestinian villages emptied and bull-dozed into nothingness during the ethnic cleansing of Israel during the Jewish State’s “war of independence” in 1948. I am told that there are families in the refugee camps who still possess deeds from the Ottoman Turks testifying to their ownership of homes in these now-nonexistent towns, who still hold on the keys of front doors which can no longer be found let alone opened.

We made the journey up to Jerusalem a couple of times on that trip but we never stopped along the way to actually walk into that forest, to step into those village foundations, to experience that history and that obliteration of history. So now I am reading the history of Palestine and Israel from 1880 onward by a number of authors; I am reading classic Zionists, post-Zionists, neo-Zionists, anti-Zionists; I am reading both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian citizens of modern Israel. I will never comprehend the breadth and depth of Middle Eastern and Holy Land history, not even of the short 130 or so years of Zionism and its effect on the Land.

But I am coming to appreciate two things. First, how tragic and sorrowful is this psalm which ought to be a cry of joy: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you.'” (v. 6) There are so many of several faiths who love Jerusalem yet none can prosper in the absence of a shared vision of “the peace of Jerusalem” for which we all pray. Second, how woefully inadequate is my own education and, by extension, that of all! This morning I read some newspaper articles, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor apropos of the nuclear arms deal negotiated with Iran; several viewpoints were expressed and as I read each one I thought, “Yes, but do you know?” or “Have you considered the comments of [some other writer]?” or “No! That’s simply not true!”

We each focus our vision on a few facts; we cannot, or perhaps we choose not to, see them all. As a result, we do not see a full and complete picture. As an old saying has it, we cannot see for the forest for the trees. But we must see the forest, for in amongst its trees are the foundations of the future, the solution that must be built. “Peace [will never] be within your walls [nor] quietness within your towers” (v. 7) until we do so.

Our Chronic Illness, Our Besetting Sin (Eve of St. Alban, 21 June 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Eve of the Feast of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain, June 21, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 31:1-5; 1 John 3:13-16; and Matthew 10:34-42.)

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Heavenly Father,
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Amen.

We are moving away from the Lectionary this morning and are using the propers for the commemoration of St. Alban, First Martyr of Britain, whose feast is tomorrow. I hope you’ll forgive me this personal conceit: we are doing so because twenty-four years ago today, on the Eve of St. Alban’s Day 1991, the Right Rev. Stewart Zabriskie, bishop of the Diocese of Nevada and about 30 presbyters of that diocese laid their hands upon me and ordained me a priest in Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus promises that one result of following him will be conflict with one’s family: “I have come to set a man against his father,” he said. Those are hard words to hear spoken on Father’s Day (which today also happens to be), but they are words that speak to me because of my family history. I have spoken to you often of my father, York Funston, and of my grandfather, Charles Edgar Funston (known to everyone as “CE”), but you may not have notice that I have never involving both of them. That is because during the time they were both alive during my lifetime they never spoke to one another; I can recall no time when they were ever together.

When my father came home from the Second World War and finished his degree at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, my father and mother moved to southern Nevada. That was in 1947. From that point until he died in 1958, my father never again saw nor did he ever speak to his father. The reason was a very simple one, but one which is deeply imbedded in the culture of this country and is the besetting sin of our society; I believe it may be a chronic disease that is killing country.

My father had been an enlisted man in the US Army artillery. While serving in the European theater, he had become friends with several black service men. That was, I believe, a transformative experience for him. I don’t know what may have happened between my father and grandfather to sever their relationship, but I do know this . . . my grandfather was a racist: until he died in 1977, I never heard my grandfather ever refer to an African American by any term other than “n***er.” That was an attitude and a word my father simply could not and would not tolerate.

When my grandfather died in 1977 it was because he had suffered a stroke. My grandfather suffered that stroke because he, like every other member of our family (myself included) had a chronic disease, high blood pressure. Being a stubborn man, he did nothing about it and eventually that stubbornness caught up with him. He suffered a stroke, became bed ridden, and eventually contracted pneumonia which killed him. His chronic disease weakened him; the opportunistic, acute illness killed him.

The accurate medical term for high blood pressure is “hypertension,” a word which was originally coined in the mid-19th Century to mean, “excessive or extreme emotional tenseness.” That’s what racism is, a hypertension, a chronic disease which is killing American society.

Cartoon from "The New Yorker Magazine" by Christopher Weyant

Cartoon from “The New Yorker Magazine” by Christopher Weyant

On Wednesday night, America witnessed what happens when that chronic illness is augmented by the acute and opportunistic disease of easy unfettered unregulated unrestricted access to firearms. A 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof with a history of racism planned and carried out the murders of nine black men and women worshiping in their church, Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina; four of those who died were pastors of the church, including the senior pastor Clementa Pinckney, who was also a South Carolina state senator.

Researcher Timothy Tyson of Duke University has written recently about the killer . . .

[A photograph of Roof shows] a young man wear[ing] Rhodesian and apartheid-era [South African] flags on his jacket. Both countries never existed during his lifetime. Both flags are commonly worn as in-group insignia among politically organized white supremacists.

Dylann Roof told his victims that he came to kill black people because they are “raping our women and taking over our country.” Both claims date back to the white supremacy campaigns of the 1890s . . . . These ideas did not just percolate up inside of his mind; this is not ordinary “bias” or suspicion of people different from him; someone had to teach him these elaborated historical traditions. * * * He gunned down nine people at a historic black church, historic enough that he might well have selected it intentionally; Emanuel AME has been at the center of the civil rights struggle since the early 19th century. * * *

Roof said he wanted to start a race war; this is a common theme among white supremacists and depicted in their favorite book, The Turner Diaries, which also helped inspire Timothy McVeigh to commit the Oklahoma City bombings. He is part of something, . . . something dangerous. America in general and South Carolina in particular are generously sprinkled with white supremacist groups. (From a Facebook Note)

Wednesday’s tragedy, unfortunately, is only one of several recent incidents throughout the nation which have made it clear that racism is a chronic disease that is killing us. It may even be a part of our nation’s DNA. The evil institution of white Europeans owning black African slaves was allowed by our Founders to continue here when our nation was created. Some recognized the iniquity of doing so. Abigail Adams, wife of the first Vice President, once wrote in a letter to her husband, “I wish most sincerely there was not a slave in this province. It always appeared a most iniquitous scheme to me to fight ourselves for what we are daily robbing and plundering from those who have as good a right to freedom as we have.”

Many people do not realize that the U.S. Constitution as originally adopted provide that, in determining the proportional representation in House of Representatives, blacks were to be counted as lesser than whites. Specifically, it provided that the number of representatives to which a state was entitled would be “determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” (Art. I, Sec. 2, Cl. 3)

Interestingly, it was not the southern slave owners who inserted that provision, it was northerners. Elbridge Gerry, a deputy from Massachusetts who later became the fifth Vice President of the United States, objected to counting blacks at all arguing, “Why should the blacks, who were property in the South, be in the rule of representation more than the cattle and horses of the North?” I think we can all agree that valuing African Americans as nothing more than cattle or horses, or even as 3/5 of a free white person, is simply wrong; there is no other word for it – it’s wrong! Racism is a chronic disease from which America seems always to have suffered; it is our nation’s original and besetting sin.

Although it is historically wrong to assert that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation,” it is not inaccurate to recognize that most of the Founders were members of the Christian church; many, in fact, were Episcopalians. That Christians should have valued other human beings, black human beings, many of whom were themselves converts to the Christian faith, as of lesser value, as of no more value “than cattle and horses” boggles the mind. It flies in the face of, it is a direct violation of Christ’s new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12) As the portion of the First Letter of John read this morning reminds us, “Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them.” (1 Jn 3:14b-15) Racism, the hatred of a brother or sister human being simply because their skin color differs from one’s own, is deadly; it is the chronic hypertension that is weakening and killing our country.

When a chronic illness weakens the body, an acute opportunistic infection can bring death. My grandfather’s weakened condition, bedridden from a hypertension-induced stroke, made him a prime target for deadly pneumonia. Weakened by the hypertension of racism, our country is a prime target for the deadly destruction that the acute problem of easy unfettered unregulated unrestricted access to guns can wreak. Now, I know, some will answer me that the right to bear arms is a constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment and I really do not want to get into that argument today; let me just leave the issue with one thought – if the Constitution could be wrong today about the 3/5 valuation of black Americans, could it not also be wrong today about firearm access and ownership?

May I shift gears here and tell you how I spent my day on Friday?

I started the day earlier than usual getting to the office at 7:30 a.m. because I had a 9 o’clock doctor’s appointment and I wanted to be sure the rooms where, later, bicycles would be stowed overnight were ready for that. So I got here, and moved tables and chairs out of the way. Then I worked on the Prayers of the People for today’s services until I had to go my physician’s office. That didn’t take very long, so on the way back to the church I made a pastoral call. When I got back here, I met with a parishioner about pre-planning her and her spouse’s funerals, then I put together some materials for the clergy who will be substituting here while I am at General Convention. By then it was about 1 p.m. so I took the dog home (she’d been with me through all that I just outlined), grabbed a quick bite to eat, and got back here by 2 p.m. to begin receiving the 28 bicycle riders we would be hosting. From then until we sat down to dinner with them I ran several errands getting riders to their lodgings and picking up a few things for the kitchen crew, then I helped set the tables for dinner. After welcoming our guests to supper, I sat down at a table with the bishop expecting to enjoy dinner, only to be informed that a toilet in the ladies’ room was overflowing. I am grateful to my lady-wife, who got a plunger and went to work, but unfortunately things only went from bad to worse. Eventually, I found myself standing in a puddle of rather unsavory water on the phone with our plumber and then with Roto-Rooter arranging a late night service call. So after we broke down the tables and set up the chairs for Free Farmers’ Market, I sat here while the Roto-Rooter man did his job. Eventually he cleared what turned out to be a 75-ft long plug of God-knows-what, and he and I left at around 10:30 pm.

Days like that are not typical for clergy, but they are not uncommon, either. Usually after such a day, I go home tired but feeling pretty good about the life to which I’ve been called and which I’ve lived for 24 years of ordained ministry. The priesthood is a privilege and, no matter how tiring a day may be, it is usually a joyful mystery.

Friday, however, on the way home, I started crying. I got to thinking about Clementa Pinckney who, though very much younger than I, had been a pastor for just about the same amount of time, 23 years in his case. And I got to thinking about his fellow pastors DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Daniel Simmons Sr., and Sharonda Singleton, all of them gunned-down with five of their parishioners at Emanuel AME Church by a hate-filled, 21-year-old, white supremacist. I got to thinking about how I’m sure they had had similar days of ministry, and about how terrible it is that they are not still alive to do those things for their congregation, to visit their parishioners, to help plan funerals and weddings, to bear the frustrations of coordinating activities with bishops, to be burdened by the annoyance of clogged sewer pipes, and to endure the exhaustion of 16-hour days. And the only reason they are not . . . is racism. I believe that, as the Book of Wisdom reminds us, they “are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” and that their witness “will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble” (3:1,7), but we would all so much prefer that Wednesday had never happened.

On the anniversary of my ordination, I would so much prefer to preach about anything else, but the reality of racism cannot be denied, the sin of racism must be confronted. I don’t know if my father ever confronted my grandfather about his racism. I know that I never did and by failing to do so I am as guilty as him. Racism is our nation’s besetting sin and we must repent; it our society’s chronic illness and we must cure it, because it is killing our country.

Let us pray:

Good and gracious God, you created every human being in your image and likeness; we are weary, we are tired, we are sick of the besetting sin of racism that infects our country: we repent of the ways we have participated in or benefited from racial injustice; we ask forgiveness for the ways our nation continues to foster an environment of separation; break through the strongholds of superiority, destroy the dividing lines of racial separation, cure us of the toxic disease of prejudice, forgive us; make your church a model of unity, a beacon of reconciliation, and keep us on the path that leads to your light; through your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, 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.

So Many Martyrs – Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, RCL Year A – May 18, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 18, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; and John 14:1-14 . These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Lynching of Jesse WashingtonDoes the name “Jesse Washington” mean anything to you? It’s unlikely that it does. If I tell you that Jesse Washington died in 1916 in Waco, Texas, would that spark any memory? Have you ever been taught about the incident in which Washington was killed? Have you ever heard of what came to be called “The Waco Horror?”

Probably not. It’s not one of the incidents of American history that gets regularly taught in our schools. If I hadn’t taken a course in African American history when I was a college sophomore in 1970, I wouldn’t know anything about the death of Jesse Washington on May 15, 1916. It’s not the sort of story that makes a white person comfortable. But I do know about it, and the fact that its anniversary falls during the week when I was preparing a sermon on, among other passages from Scripture, Luke’s description of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Book of Acts struck me as significant. Both Stephen and Jesse Washington were murdered by mobs because they were different.

Jesse Washington was a 17-year-old African American farmhand. On May 8, 1916, he was accused of raping and murdering Lucy Fryer, the wife of his white employer in Robinson, Texas, not far from Waco. Jesse and his entire family (his parents and a brother) were questioned; the others were released, but Jesse was not. He was taken to Dallas, where he eventually signed a confession which some legal historians believed was coerced. There was little, if any, evidence that he was actually guilty.

Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with locals who had been provoked by local newspaper reports which included lurid, and demonstrably false, details about the crime. His defense counsel entered a guilty plea and Washington was quickly sentenced to death, but he had no opportunity to appeal.

After his sentence was pronounced, the teenager was dragged out of the courtroom and lynched in front of city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch. Members of the mob castrated the boy, cut off his fingers, and hung him (still alive) over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered into the fire and raised again to prolong his agony and death. After he finally succumbed, the fire was extinguished and Jesse Washington’s charred torso was dragged through the town; parts of his body were actually sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the lynching progressed; these were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.

As a Christian society, we remember Stephen as the first Christian martyr and as a hero of our faith; his is a unique story told in the Book of Acts. As a Christian society, we don’t remember Jesse Washington, at all; he’s just one of thousands who were lynched. Historical reports indicate that between 1882 and 1968 there were over 4,700 lynchings in the United States. One history text estimates that between 1882 and 1930 in America at least one black person was lynched every week. (Tolnay, S., & E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence, University of Illinois Press, 1992, p. ix) We know the numbers, but we don’t know their names.

We Americans, however, aren’t even in the minor leagues when it comes to martyring people for being different. Writing about Stephen’s death, Professor Daniel Clendenin reminds us that there have been so many more martyrs, that martyrdom is not ancient history. It is a very contemporary and present reality:

Millions more have been martyred for reasons other than religion — for their ethnicity (Jews, Armenians, Tutsis), for economic ideology (farmers, land holders), social prejudice (intellectuals, artists), race (American blacks), and gender (women around the world like the inspirational Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan).

Christians are just one group among many that honors their martyrs. Very few times, places or peoples have been spared mass murder.
If you can bear to read it, I recommend the book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Worse Than War; Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (2009). Goldhagen estimates that between 127–175 million people were “eliminated” in the last century.

These people came from all regions of the world, and from all social, economic and political groups. The vast majority of these victims were killed in their own countries, by their fellow citizens, by willing and non-coerced murderers, and almost never with any substantial dissent. Eliminationism is thus “worse than war.”

The numbers are mind-numbing, and therein lies our challenge. They bring to mind the infamous remark by [Joseph] Stalin in 1947 about the famine in Ukraine that was killing millions: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” (The Stoning of Stephen)

Clendenin concludes, “The martyrdom of Stephen disabuses us of a sentimental gospel. It roots us in the real world of industrial scale slaughter. The one man Stephen helps us to remember the individual humanity of the millions of people we might otherwise forget.”

Now I want to draw our attention away from mass murder and martyrdom, and focus instead, for a moment, on one another. I’d like you for just a few seconds to look around the room, and just take note of who and what you see here. (A short, silent pause)

What did you see? A bunch of living stones? The members of a holy priesthood? A chosen race? A royal priesthood? A people chosen and named by God? This is what Peter says we should see, the building material for a spiritual house, eternal in the heavens, not made with hands, that mansion in which there are many rooms where Jesus assures his disciples there is a place for all of us. But is that how we see one another?

Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father and Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” I sometimes wonder if Jesus’ answer would perhaps have been different if Philip had asked, “Show us God.”

In the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis we are told, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) If Philip had asked Jesus, “Show us God,” might Jesus not have said, “Look around you, Philip.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of reminding people of those words from Genesis and suggesting that we should genuflect to one another! In a paper entitled Religious Human Rights and the Bible, he wrote:

The life of every human person is inviolable as a gift from God. And since this person is created in the image of God and is a God carrier a second consequence would be that we should not just respect such a person but that we should have a deep reverence for that person. The New Testament claims that the Christian person becomes a sanctuary, a temple of the Holy Spirit, someone who is indwelt by the most holy and blessed Trinity. We would want to assert this of all human beings. We should not just greet one another. We should strictly genuflect before such an august and precious creature. The Buddhist is correct in bowing profoundly before another human as the God in me acknowledges and greets the God in you. This preciousness, this infinite worth is intrinsic to who we all are and is inalienable as a gift from God to be acknowledged as an inalienable right of all human persons. (Emory International Law Review, Vol. 10 (1996): 63-68)

Which brings me back to Stephen and Jesse Washington, and to a strange little short story by the author Shirley Hardie Jackson entitled The Lottery that was first published in The New Yorker in June, 1948.

Set in a small, contemporary American town, a small village of about 300 residents, the story concerns an annual ritual known as “the lottery” which is practiced to ensure a good harvest; one character quotes an old proverb, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” As the story opens, the locals are excited but a bit anxious on the eve of the lottery. Children are gathering stones as Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves make the paper slips for the drawing and draw up a list of all the families in town.

When they finish the slips and the list, the men put them into a black box, which is locked up in the safe at a local coal company. The next morning the townspeople gather at 10 a.m. in order to have everything done in time for lunch. First, the eldest male of each family in town draws a slip; there’s one for every household. Bill Hutchinson gets the one slip with a black spot, meaning that his family has been chosen. In the next round, each member of the Hutchinson family draws a slip, and Bill’s wife Tessie gets the black spot. Each villager then picks up a stone and they surround Tessie, and the story ends as Mrs. Hutchinson is stoned to death while the paper slips are allowed to fly off in the wind.

Shortly after it was published, Ms. Jackson said of her story that she had hoped that by setting the particularly brutal ancient rite of stoning (the same thing that was done to Stephen) in the present she would shock her readers with “a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in [our] own lives.” (San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1948.) Her story suggests that we human beings are more capable of honoring our rituals and our preconceptions than we are of honoring one another.

I think the true stories of Stephen of Jerusalem, of Jesse Washington of Waco, Texas, and of those millions of martyrs who have been “eliminated” amply demonstrate that she was right. Not only are we more capable of honoring our rituals and prejudices that we of honoring one another, we are demonstrably willing to murder one another to protect them.

We are because when we look around at our fellow human beings we do not see one another as divine; we do not see living stones; we do not see members of a royal priesthood. Blinded, or perhaps just numbed, by familiar ritual, by preconception, by the simple human need to conform, we do not appreciate one another as fellow citizens of a holy nation, “chosen and precious in God’s sight,” as bearing the image of God.

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” Jesus asked. I’m not the least bit surprised in Philip, however; we human beings, made in the image of God, have been with each other for a long, long time, and we still do not know each other. Dr. Clendenin suggested that the martyrdom of Stephen helps us to remember the individual humanity of the millions of unnamed martyrs we might otherwise forget; may it also help us to remember the divinity of each of them and of each other.

Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (For the Human Family, Book of Common Prayer, Episcopal Church, 1979, page 815)

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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.

Stilling the Seas – From the Daily Office – March 21, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 4:35-41 (NRSV) – March 21, 2014.)

Boat in Violent WavesMark, who is usually so taciturn and parsimonious with his descriptions, goes into rather great detail telling this story of Jesus calming the sea. A detail often overlooked is the second sentence of verse 36: “Other boats were with him.” (When Luke tells the same story in chapter 8 of his gospel, he leaves out this detail.)

One presumes that these other boats were being as tossed about, as beaten by the waves, as nearly swamped as that in which Jesus and disciples found themselves. One presumes that they also experienced the dead calm when Jesus rebuked the winds and commanded the say, “Peace! Be Still!” Unlike the passengers in Jesus boat, they would have had no idea what the cause of the sudden stillness might have been.

It’s interesting that this story is paired in the morning with Psalm 69, in which the rising waters of a swamp are used as a metaphor for an abundance of “lying foes” (v. 5) and “those who hate me” (v. 16), while in the evening the psalm appointed in Psalm 73, in which the source of one’s trouble is internal rather than external, arising from envy of “the wicked” who seem to have more than they deserve:

When my mind became embittered,
I was sorely wounded in my heart.
I was stupid and had no understanding;
I was like a brute beast in your presence.
(Ps. 73:21-22, BCP 1979, p. 688)

Are our lectionary editors suggesting that the raging storms in our life are as often caused by our own internal mechanisms as by the machinations of others? I think they are. Are they encouraging us to believe that Jesus can calm all chaos, both internal and external? I think they are.

And that little-noted half-verse in the gospel story reminds us that chaos and disruption, whether brought from outside or created from within, never affect only one person or one small group. Chaos and confusion are like the storm-tossed sea that disrupts everything around; the raging storm may have been centered on Jesus’ boat, but “other boats were with him” and just as certainly in danger of being swamped. And when it was stilled, the other boats also benefited. So it is when our lives (or those of others around us) are beset by chaos and trouble, external or internal, and when those troubles end and a calm settles unexpectedly on all about.

I’ve experienced those times when, all of a sudden, what had seemed a raging, chaotic mess simply resolved in a moment and settled into something manageable. It occurs to me now that it may have been because a storm, internal or external, in someone else’s life was calmed in ways and by means unknown to me. So this morning I give thanks for the stilling of the seas in others’ lives and for the undeserved calm it brings into mine.

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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.

Testing Spirits, Drawing Lots – From the Daily Office – February 24, 2014

From the First Letter of John:

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 John 4:1 (NRSV) – February 24, 2014.)

Coptic Pope Selection by LotHow does one “test the spirits”? How does one divine the promptings of the spirit or determine the will of God? That’s always the question we must face. In the ancient tabernacle, the high priest’s vestments included a breastplate in which he kept a couple of stones called the urim and the thummim (Exodus 28:30). What those were is a subject of much speculation, but one theory is that they were sort of like dice. The belief is that the high priest cast these dice to determine God’s guidance, to “test the spirit” when faced with a difficult decision.

Today is the feast of St. Matthias, who was selected by the eleven remaining apostles to replace Judas and restore their number to 12. Why they believed this was necessary would be an interesting subject of speculation, but what’s on my mind this morning is the method of selection. To “test the spirit,” to gain God’s guidance, they drew lots, much like casting dice:

They proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles. (Acts 1:23-26)

In the Episcopal Church, we use a rather lengthier process to select the successors of the apostles. Our method of choosing bishops includes appointment of nominating or screening committees, reception of nominations and applications, interviews, “meet-and-greet” tours (some refer to these as “dog-and-pony shows”), electing conventions, and finally approvals by other dioceses’ Standing Committees and bishops.

I’m told that in some Oriental Orthodox churches the method is more like that used by the eleven in today’s story from acts. The names of all clergy eligible to be bishop are written on slips of paper and placed in a chalice. A young child (sometimes blindfolded) is then asked to draw out a slip, and the named clergy person becomes the bishop. This is the manner in which the pope of the Coptic Orthodox Church is selected.

Does our lengthy (some might suggest inordinately long) process produce better apostles, better bishops than the drawing of lots? Does it “test the spirits” any more accurately than the casting of dice? One cannot say, but it’s a question to ponder on this feast of Matthias.

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

The Neighbors Can See In! — Sermon for the Annual Parish Meeting — January 26, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Patronal Feast Sunday of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector. It was the Sunday of the Annual Parish Meeting and, as part of the service, a newly built Gallery addition to the parish’s fellowship hall was dedicated.

(The lessons for the day were for the Conversion of St. Paul from the Episcopal Church’s sanctoral calendar: Acts 26:9-21; Galatians 1:11-24; Psalm 67; and Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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St Paul's Church -- December 2013

A few decades ago when I was studying law I was introduced to the term “officious intermeddler.” In law, an officious intermeddler is someone who, on their own and without any authority either by invitation or pre-existing legal duty, interjects himself into the affairs of another, and then seeks some sort of recompense for doing so. That pretty much describes young Saul of Tarsus and at least his initial quest to rid Judaism of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He was simply a rabbinic student, not any sort of priest or religious official when he began his crusade against Peter and James and the others. I don’t think he was doing it for money, but I do think he might have been looking for a pay-off in the form a religious reputation; if he was successful, he would become a powerful rabbi among the Jewish the people.

Saul was born and raised in the Greek city of Tarsus and apparently received a good education both in orthodox Judaism and in Greek philosophy; Tarsus was a center of Stoic teaching and we see a good deal of Stoicism in the letters he wrote after becoming a Christian missionary. While still fairly young, Saul was sent to Jerusalem to receive rabbinic instruction at the Hillel school under Gamaliel, one of the most noted rabbis in Jewish history. This would have exposed the young rabbinic student to a broad range of classical literature, philosophy, and ethics. Not a lot more is known of his background before he decided to make a name for himself dealing with the pesky proclaimers of what he considered to be a pernicious heresy.

Until the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. the followers of Jesus of Nazareth were simply one of many subsets of Judaism; there were few, if any, Gentile followers of Jesus and those Gentiles who wanted to be a part of the new group were required to convert to Judaism before being allowed to join the Jesus group. Judaism at the time was much like Christianity is today; there were different “schools,” similar to our denominations.

We are familiar from the Gospel stories with the Pharisees and the Sadducees, two of the competing versions of the faith; we may also be familiar with the Essenes who were part of the mix. In addition, influential rabbis had their groups of followers: John the Baptizer had had his disciples; Gamaliel had his; perhaps Nicodemus, who became a secret follower of Jesus, had his own school; and, of course, Jesus had had his. On the major feasts and liturgical days, all Jews would observe the Temple rituals together, but for their sabbath observance and instruction they would go to the synagogue which adhered to the school they found most convincing, or where their rabbi taught. They recognized each other as Jews; they just didn’t agree on some particulars. No big deal. And, usually, when their rabbi passed away, their group disbanded.

Except for the disciples of Jesus, those people who followed what they called “the Way.” Their rabbi was dead; the whole city had seen him crucified. But unlike the followers of other dead rabbis, these people didn’t disband; they claimed that their rabbi was still alive and they still met to proclaim his teachings. They even went so far as to suggest that he was divine; they were claiming that he had ushered in a new kingdom of God. In the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, some sought to have them kicked out of the temple, but Saul’s own teacher, Gamaliel, defended them. The Book of Acts reports his words to the Sanhedrin:

Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them — in that case you may even be found fighting against God! (Acts 5:35-39)

Apparently Saul did not agree with his teacher. He became an officious intermeddler, a self-appointed — that’s really what “officious” means — a self-appointed policeman protecting the purity of the Temple; he was going to get that Jesus crowd kicked out. In his letter to the Galatians he would confess that prior to his conversion he “was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” (Gal. 1:13) It is in the description of the martyrdom of the first deacon, Stephen, that we first encounter Saul in the New Testament. We don’t know whether Saul was an instigator of the events that led to Stephen’s death, but we know that he was there.

The 7th Chapter of Acts tells us that Stephen preached a sermon in the presence of the Temple council, an admittedly rather inflammatory homily, after which “with a loud shout [those present] rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:57-58) We are told that “Saul approved of their killing him.” (Acts 8:1) Saul didn’t take part, really; he just stood at the road side looking on.

After that, Saul became more and more openly and actively involved in the persecution of the Jesus movement, “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” (Acts 8:3) Eventually, this officious intermeddler received his remuneration — recognition and ratification of his activities by the high priest from whom he sought, and received, letters of warrant empowering him to go to Damascus, “arrest any who belonged to the Way, men or women, [and] bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (Acts 9:2) It was while journeying to Damascus that the events he described to King Agrippa in the reading we heard this morning occurred. It was while on that road to Damascus that the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which he had been unable to see, was revealed to him. As he wrote to the Galatians, God “was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.” But in the experience, we are told in Acts, something like scales covered his eyes as if symbolizing the blindness of heart he had suffered, and until he learned the fullness of the Gospel he was unable to see.

I will return to Saul and his conversion in a moment, but before I do I want to review a little bit of our parish history. So for the moment, let’s put Saul aside but keep in mind his story, especially those scales that eventually fell from his eyes.

We are beginning the 197th year of the life of St. Paul’s Parish. Founded in 1817 in Weymouth, the congregation moved to this location in the 1830s. After about 50 years in a wooden Greek revival structure, in 1884 the congregation built the stone church in which we are worshiping today. When weather permitted they would gather for after church fellowship on the lawn, fully open to their neighbors’ view and could invite the neighbors to take part.

In 1903, they built the Parish House in which our present day Parish Hall, kitchen, and dining room are located. It was a separate structure with one of those wide and inviting Victorian front porches. When the congregation gathered after church for fellowship, education, or other activities, they came and went through the front doors of the church, onto that veranda, and in and out the front door of the Parish House, again fully visible to their neighbors whom they continued to invite to participate.

Another fifty or so years later, the congregation built Canterbury House and linked it together with the Parish House and the church building with the concourse that came to be known simply as “the hallway.” The hallway replaced the Victorian veranda with fortress-like stone wall; it cut off the neighbors’ view of the congregation’s comings and goings, and blocked the neighbors’ appreciation of the church’s fellowship and other activities. The hallway incorporated a new entryway off the driveway leading to a parking lot that was built at the rear of the church property, and it was through those doors (and other doors at the rear of the Parish House) that members began entering the church building. The front doors of the Parish House and the church building fell into disuse, and the parishioners stopped invited the neighbors.

If anything was going on inside the Episcopal Church, you couldn’t tell it from the street. Stained glass windows on the church building, opaqued windows on the hallway, that imposing stone wall, and a set of large red doors which could not be opened from the outside blocked the public’s view of whatever it was the Episcopalians were doing.

Interestingly enough, the Episcopalians couldn’t see out, either. But until the new Gallery was built, and the sunshine and view of the street let in, we had failed to notice that! We were simply unaware that when we were inside this church’s physical plant we were visually cut off from the world around us; we just didn’t notice. We sat at here at the road side, but we were disconnected from the world going by on the major trafficway outside.

To be sure, there was plenty going on inside the church. Things were booming. It was the 1960s and the World War II and Korean War generations were coming to church, raising their children, participating in church clubs, holding fundraisers, even reaching out in overseas mission. The Episcopal Church was an active place . . . you just couldn’t tell it from the street.

And that story was true for the Episcopal Church as a whole, as a national institution, as well. We were pretty much a self-contained and self-reliant denomination. Someone not born into the Episcopal Church might occasionally wander through our doors, become fascinated with our peculiar style of being Christian, and join us, but we didn’t go out and encourage that sort of thing. Billy Graham and people like him might go out and evangelize and try to convert people, but that just wasn’t our style. We were doing quite well behind our stone walls and opaque windows, and our understanding of evangelism was that it was something other people did. After all, as one grand dame of the era is supposed to have put it, “Everyone who should be an Episcopalian already is one.” The world outside the Episcopal Church didn’t know much about us, and we were fine with that.

Then came the 1970s and things began to change. Social change was in the air both in the secular world and in the church. It was not comfortable. Women started suggesting that some of them might have a call to ordained ministry, and some of our best theologians supported them and agreed; behind our stone walls and opaque windows we were fighting like cats and dogs about it. The outside world only got a glimpse of it when a few very angry people threw open the red doors and stormed out, proclaiming themselves to be the only real Anglican Christians and the rest of us heretics, doomed to Hell. We got a lot of press, but not the kind of attention we really wanted. As soon as we could, we closed the red doors and regained our composure behind our stone walls.

But then, not very many years later, the General Convention approved a new Prayer Book. The process of revision had been going on for nearly 20 years but most of us hadn’t been paying attention. When the new book was approved in 1976 and then ratified in 1979 it seemed to many that the church was being completely overturned. The outside world got another glimpse of us when some more very angry people threw open the red doors and stormed out, proclaiming that they used the only real Anglican Prayer Book and that the rest of us were heretics, damned to Hell. Again, we got a lot of press, but once again it was not the kind of attention we really wanted. As soon as we could, we got back behind our stone walls.

Things were quiet for a while, but then the people of the Diocese of New Hampshire decided to elect their Archdeacon to be their Bishop and, horror of horrors, it turned out (they had known all along) he was a homosexual living in a committed, long-term relationship with another man. All hell broke loose behind our stone stone walls and opaque windows as we dealt with that. The arguing got so loud that the neighbors could hear us and, again, a group of very angry people threw open the red doors and stormed out, proclaiming themselves to be the only real Anglican Christians and the rest of us heretics, definitely headed straight to Hell. Again, we got a lot of press, and again we tried to regain our composure behind our stone walls. But we couldn’t because, finally, we started noticing something.

We noticed that the church was getting smaller. Fewer people were attending. Fewer children were enrolling in Sunday School. Fewer teens were coming to EYC meetings. Fewer dollars were getting deposited into the bank. And we decided, because we had gotten out of the habit of looking outside, that it was because of something we had done — it was because we ordained women; it was because we’d changed the Prayer Book; it was because we had a gay bishop. We were wrong, however. If we hadn’t been shut up behind our stone walls and opaque windows, we might have noted that the same thing — lower attendance, fewer children, fewer teens, less income — was happening to the Lutherans, and the Methodists, and the Presbyterians, and also to non-church groups like the Masons, and the Elks, and local bowling leagues. There was a societal change going on and, unable to see out through our stone walls and opaque windows, we couldn’t see it. We couldn’t figure out why the church was leaking membership because we weren’t looking in the right place.

And while all of that was going on . . . every time it rained there was water pouring into the church basement. Every time there was a heavy snow and it melted, there was water pouring into the basement. We got used to seeing buckets in the entryway and water stains on the basement ceiling because we couldn’t figure out where the leak was and we couldn’t figure out how to stop it. Physically, as well as metaphorically, we couldn’t figure out why the church was leaking.

We’ve learned a thing or two in the Episcopal Church in the last decade. We’ve learned that the church fails to grow not because of our internal failures; it fails to grow because of our external failures. The church has failed to grow because we have sequestered ourselves behind stone walls and opaque windows, and have failed to engage with our neighbors, who cannot see what we are doing and to whom we have not been paying attention. Out of this have come movements and experiments to get our denomination back out, on the other side of our stone walls, back into public engagement.

We are seeing new ministries such as “Church Without Walls,” an experiment in the Jacksonville, Florida, which calls people from all walks of life into partnership with “the least of these.” “Church Without Walls” describes itself as “a community of presence made up of individuals looking for the spiritual companionship and connection that give meaning to life.” The community seeks to welcome everyone — the homeless and the affluent, the addicted and those in recovery, the churched and the un-churched, the spiritual but not religious, the believer, the doubter and the seeker. They are grounded in the reality that “by opening ourselves to strangers, the despised or frightening or unintelligible other, we will see more and more of the holy.” (Description from the Diocese of Florida website.) And similar communities are being created in San Jose, California; Springfield, Pennsylvania; Bentonville, Arkansas; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and elsewhere.

We are seeing experiments in public liturgy such as “Ashes to Go” — an effort to give people an opportunity to receive the mark of repentance and encourage them to give thought to their spiritual lives without requiring them to attend a full Ash Wednesday service. The first such public imposition of ashes was offered by the cathedral in Chicago, Illinois, and has since been offered in a variety of locations throughout the country, including some places here in Ohio.

What the Episcopal Church has learned through these and other programs is that we have to tear down the stone walls and break out the opaqued windows that have separated us from our neighbors. When we do that and the church again engages with the world around it, the leaking stops; the church begins to grow again. Like Saul, after the scales fell his eyes when he was baptized and took the name Paul, by which we know him better, we have seen the truth and know that we, too, are “to open [the eyes of those around us] so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus].” (Acts 26:18)

And here we are in a congregation that has quite literally removed its stone wall and its opaqued windows, whose neighbors can now see clearly what is going on in the Episcopal Church, and who can see our neighbors even when we are inside our building. We have opened ourselves to engagement with the world around us. We are not a “Church Without Walls,” but we have become a church that lives in glass house . . . the neighbors can see in and we’d better make sure that what they see is good stuff!

If you have picked up a copy of the 2014 Annual Journal, you will see some interesting data. We are at the beginning a new period of growth. For 2013 we have a mixed bag of membership statistics: 21 new members joined the congregation by baptism, confirmation, reception or transfer; we had larger congregations for both Easter and Christmas services; we had more Sunday services. On the other hand, our average attendance is down slightly. The task before us is to grow both in membership and active commitment. The foundation is here. For 2014, we have a 7% increase in the number of pledging households; total pledging is up (compared to last year) by over 4%. We have a committed membership.

Our outreach to the community is strong. The Free Farmers’ Market, our food pantry, assisted 5,333 individuals during the past year, distributing nearly 50,000 pounds of food. The volunteer effort to accomplish that is phenomenal, and all members of the coordinating committee and all the volunteer workers are to be commended. Our support of the regional Battered Women’s Shelter expanded this year as, in addition to the regular monthly collection of supplies, our new Lenten Rose Chapter of the Daughters of the King oversaw a special drive for personal hygiene items and, through the effort of our Senior Warden, we provided several dozen stuffed toys to the children sheltered there. Our youth group also continued their annual tradition of making and giving away teddy bears to needy children at Christmas time.

Outreach of a different sort is exercised in the monthly Brown Bag Concert program which is entering its seventh year. Our music director is to be commended for the excellent work she does in recruiting performers and hosting our guests at those events. Because of the construction of the new Gallery, we did not hold any “Fridays at St. Paul’s Concerts,” but we are looking forward to the return of that program as early as this coming May when the chamber ensemble of the Cleveland Philharmonic Orchestra will be performing in this sanctuary.

Fellowship continues with the men’s breakfasts, the Episcopal Church Women, the new Daughters of the King chapter, the Sunday morning breakfast group, and the return this month of the Foyer Group dinner program. Christian education for children and youth is going strong with Godly Play and the Episcopal Youth Community; many of our EYC members are recognized leaders in the diocesan youth programs and are to be commended for that. Many of them are not here today because they have spent the weekend in training to lead the next “Happening” retreat for young people. For adults we have a regular weekly bible study and, starting last September, an Education for Ministry seminar group going strong.

By nearly every measure, this is a vibrant and lively parish. This church is no longer leaking! It is not leaking rain water into the basement; it is not leaking membership. Both the literal and the figurative stone walls have fallen away, like the scales that fell from St. Paul’s eyes, and the vibrancy and life of this parish is visible for all to see and for all to be invited into.

We were blinded and confused by our stone walls and our opaque windows, whether figurative or literal, but in the end, we know that we are called, as Paul was, to share the wonderful news that the risen Jesus, the Son of God, is Messiah and his kingdom is here now. Our experience of engaging in the Inviting the Future Project and building our beautiful new Gallery, is our “ Damascus Road ” experience. A new day for St. Paul’s Parish is shining through the windows of the Gallery and our calling is to insure that the neighbors — who can see us once again, just as they could in 1884 and in 1903 and in every year up to 1960, and (more importantly) whom we can now see — our calling is to insure that they can see the kingdom of God shining out, that they are invited to come into it.

Let us pray:

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Collect for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany)

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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.

Obnoxious Jesus – From the Daily Office – January 17, 2014

From John’s Gospel:

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 2:1-5 (NRSV) – January 17, 2014.)

Icon of the Wedding at CanaToday is the feast of St. Antony of Egypt. According to a Life of St. Antony written by Athanasius, Antony and his younger sister were orphaned when he was about 18 years of age, inheriting a goodly estate which he began to manage. However, writes Athanasius, six months after his parents’ death he was “turning over in his mind the way the apostles had left everything to follow the Savior” when he heard a sermon on Christ’s encounter with the rich young man whom the Lord instructed, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Matt. 19:21)

According to Athanasius:

As though this reminder of the saints had ben sent to him by God, and as though that passage had been read specially for his sake, Antony went out immediately, and gave to the villagers the possessions he had inherited from his ancestors — they consisted of some three hundred very pleasant and fertile acres — so that they would not be an encumbrance to him and to his sister. He sold all his possessions and gave the considerable sum h raised to the poor, keeping back only a little of it for his sister.

Again when he went into church, he heard what the Lord said in the gospel, “Do not be anxious about tomorrow.” He could not wait any longer, but went out and gave away even what he had kept back to the poor. He left his sister in the care of some well-known, trustworthy virgins, putting her in a convent to be brought up, and he devoted himself to the ascetic life not far from his home, living in recollection and practicing self-denial.

When I read that, I wondered what Antony’s sister’s reaction to it all might have been . . . . Truthfully, had I been her, my affections toward my older brother would not have been kindled! And then I read this morning’s Daily Office gospel about the wedding at Cana and the (to my mind) very uncomfortable repartee between Jesus and his mother. If we take off the rose-tinted glasses through which the Holy Family and the saints are often viewed and assess this conversation honestly, these are two people talking passed one another and not being terribly pleasant to each other!

When I was in seminary, my New Testament professor Bill Countryman referred to the portrayal of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel as “obnoxious.” In his book The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel, Countryman called Jesus’ repeated pattern of hard-to-understand responses to questions “obnoxious discourse.” Jesus seems intent on making his claims as difficult and offensive as possible; everything he says seems designed to irritate the people listening. And, in the story of the wedding at Cana, he seems to be starting with his mother!

Taken together, the story of Antony disposing of the family fortune and this gospel lesson serve as reminders that every family has its “issues.” The saints and holy people whom we revere and to whom we look as exemplars, even Jesus and his mother, were just “regular folks” doing the best they could and trying to work things out as well as possible. Sometimes they were wildly successful and are examples we should seek to emulate. Sometimes we look at them and question their judgments and their actions; not every example is one to follow. In either case, we hope to learn something, even when they are being obnoxious. Perhaps especially when Jesus is obnoxious!

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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.

Cleaning the Windshield — Sermon for All Saints Sunday, RCL Year C – November 3, 2013

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This sermon was preached on All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, All Saints: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; and Luke 6:20-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

[Note: The Revised Common Lectionary Old Testament reading for All Saints in Year C is an edited pericope; I had the reader at Mass read the entire thing, verses 1 through 18.]

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Windshield with BugsToday is the first Sunday in November which means that instead of the normal sequence of lessons for Ordinary Time, we are given the option of reading the lessons for All Saints Day, which falls every year on November 1. So today we heard a very strange reading from the Book of Daniel, a to-my-ear very troubling gradual psalm (in which we sing of wreaking vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples, of binding king in chains, and of inflicting judgment on the nobles bound in iron), a bit of Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus extolling the riches of the inheritance of the saints, and to Luke’s version of the Beatitudes in which Jesus not only blesses the poor, the hungry, and the weeping, he sighs woefully over the future plight people like ourselves – the comparatively wealthy, those whose bellies are full, and those in relatively good state of mind.

I asked our Old Testament reader this morning to read a somewhat longer lesson from Daniel than you find in your bulletin insert because the edited (or, more accurately, gutted) version there (which are the verses required for the day by the Revised Common Lectionary) includes only the introduction of a dream or vision experienced by Daniel and then skips immediately to the interpretation. We would have heard none of the apocalyptic imagery of the dream, but I think it important that we listen to and consider Daniel’s troubling vision of four strange beasts and the coming of one “like a son of man,” else how are we to understand the interpretation given by the “attendant.”

Early in my meditations and study for preaching today, I thought I would explore with you the meaning of the beasts and so on, but the more I thought about that, and especially as I began actually organizing my thoughts and writing out my sermon, I decided against doing so. It would I think be a distraction from the focus of the day. I was thinking that the reading as edited in the Lectionary presents us with a passage that makes little sense, but after reading and hearing again the full Daniel’s story of seeing a winged lion, a tusked bear, a four-headed leopard, and a ten-horned and iron-toothed monster, I guess that’s what we have in the longer reading, too! A lesson that distracts us, as so much in the Bible can do; so many people focus on these arcane details that they miss the bigger picture the Bible tries to show. As result, we get such non-Biblical nonsense as the various forms of “tribulationism” and the story of “the Rapture;” we get “one-issue Christians” who refuse to recognize as members of the same faith Christians who disagree with them. We get exactly the opposite of what the Feast of All the Saints is supposed to underscore.

So, instead of dealing with this troubling bit of the Bible right now, what I’d like you to do is come with me for a drive. Let’s just set the Bible aside and go get in our car and head off down the road. It’s a country road, a hard-pack dirt country road out in the farm country. We’re taking a country drive on a fine, beautiful spring day. It’s been raining, but it’s not raining now. Now the sun is shining and the birds are singing and insects of all sorts are buzzing and humming and chirping. In fact, there are loads of insects. It’s one of those days when the damsel flies are swarming, doing their brief romantic aerial ballets to attract mates and perpetuate their species. It’s one of those days when the grasshoppers are doing their best to eat everything in sight. It’s one of those days with yellow swallow-tails and monarchs and viceroys and white cabbage butterflies are flittering all over the place.

As we drive along, we’re traveling at a pretty good clip and, as you might expect with all those bugs around, the windshield is getting pretty messy. And since it just stopped raining and the dirt road is still a bit muddy, a lot of that has splashed up onto the windows and the windshield, as well. In fact, we can barely see through the windshield! We put the wipers on and twist the knob so the washer fluid sprays onto the glass, but the bug juice is sticky and there’s a lot of mud, so the washers only clear a little of the muck away, and the windshield is now not only covered with dead bugs and muck, it’s streaky, too!

Still, we peer through the streaks of bug blood and mud, and keep our eyes on the road ahead. Eventually we come to a filling station and we pull in. In a bygone era, a man in coveralls with a greasy rag tucked in his pocket would have run out and begun filling our tank with gas, and he would have checked under the hood, and he would have carried out a bucket of soapy water with a large sponge and a squee-gee, and he would have washed our bug-be-splattered, mud-streaked windshield and cleaned away all that distracting muck that was keeping us from seeing our way ahead.

A few days ago, I was reviewing a Vacation Bible School curriculum based on the story of Jonah and in the sales literature the publisher had written these words: “The Bible is a window that shows us God’s heart. In the stories, in the writings, and in the Gospels we see what God is like. The Bible reveals God to us, just like the windows in a car or in a building reveal what is going on outside.”

Isn’t that a great image for Holy Scripture: “The Bible is a window that shows us God’s heart.” Now I don’t know about you, but when I am driving in a car on a day like I described to you, a day when the windshield gets are splattered and messy with dead bugs and mud, I have a hard time looking beyond that cloudy window in front of me. I get distracted by the details on the window; I focus on them and not on the road out in front of me.

But so long as I focus on the window, the window is not serving its purpose. The window is not there to be the object of my attention; it is there to let me see what is happening on the other side. So it is with the Bible.

The Education for Ministry group that I have the privilege to mentor in this parish is made up of all first year students, so everyone in the group is working through study of the Old Testament. We are about six weeks into reading Genesis and Exodus now, and one of the things we’ve noticed is that the stories of the Patriarchs and the first Hebrews are not very pretty: Abraham is a liar; Jacob is a cheat; Joseph’s brothers are petulant bullies who nearly kill him; Moses whines a lot; and Aaron (Moses’ brother), although he is the first high priest, is the one who turns the people away from God and fashions the golden calf for them to worship! We are all, I think, finding it difficult to look past the peccadillos of the Patriarchs in order to see the God who is behind the stories; just like its difficult to look past the bugs and the mud on the windscreen!

And then today, along comes Daniel with his weird vision, the Palmist with his bloodthirsty delight in vengeance and revenge, and Jesus telling us that those of us who are fairly well off are destined to be hungry and in mourning! It’s hard to look past all of that understand where God is. As one commentator on Daniel noted, we who read this story in the Bible are “in the midst of bewildering events that affright and confuse.”

We find this all hard to accept and difficult to look through because we want the Bible to be clear! We want the Bible to be the answer book, to lay it all out for us in simple and easy-to-follow instructions; we want to be able to say, as our Sunday School children sang last week, “The B-I-B-L-E, that’s the book for me! I stand alone on the word of God, the B-I-B-L-E!” We just want it to be clear! But the Bible doesn’t exist to be the object of our devotion; the Bible doesn’t exist to be regarded on its own and for itself. The Bible is a window through which God is reveals Godself to us and, like any window, its got some distracting stuff we have to look past.

It does so because it is book (several books, actually) full of human stories, and human stories are messy. So we end up with stories of people who are sometimes liars and cheaters; people who can sometimes whine and be unfaithful. We end up with stories of weird hallucinations and frightful dreams. We end up with poetry by someone who’s been hurt so badly that vengeance and revenge can look like a gift of God. We end up with troubling warnings that we might, probably will, face hunger and grief. How do we look past that to see, as Paul encouraged the Ephesians, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, so that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us?

Well, when we were on our drive through the countryside with our windshield spatted with bug goo and mud, we pulled into a gas station, and a mechanic came out and washed all of that away. Remember? Today is the day that we remember those who help clean away all of the distractions, the filling station attendants of the faith. Today we remember the saints who help to clear our vision of God. Broadly speaking, of course, the saints are all those who are baptized, who follow Jesus Christ, and who live their lives according to his teaching, which would include all of us here today. Church tradition, however, also uses the term more narrowly to refer to especially holy women and holy men who are heroes of the faith, who through lives of extraordinary virtue reveal the Presence of God to us, who clean that window through which we all look.

Cleaning a WindshieldThe saints whom we celebrate on this day (and the many who are given special days of individual recognition) were people who tried to live according to the Bible as they understood its teachings. Like us, they read it and encountered those troubling visions, those petulant patriarchs, those bloodthirsty psalms, and somehow looked past them and through them to see the God of faith, the God who Incarnate in Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” We extoll the virtues of those saint and we celebrate their lives and their witness because they help us to do the same. By their lives and their examples, they clean the windshield for us; they clean away the bug blood and the mud, so that we no longer focus on the window, but on the God the window shows us.

This is not to suggest that we should not study nor seek to understand the murkiness and cloudiness that we find on the window, the questionable and troublesome visions of Daniel, the lying and cheating of the Patriarchs, the bloodthirstiness of the Psalmist, or the petulant pettiness of the Prophets. Certainly, we should for we can learn thereby of the graciousness of the God who overlooked and overcame those faults, who regarded and redeemed those men and women! But following the example of the saints before us, we should not let ourselves be distracted by them so that we fail to see and appreciate that same God.

Today we give thanks for the saints, the filling station attendants of the faith, who help us clean our windshields.

O God, the King of saints, we praise and glorify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in your faith and fear: for the blessed Virgin Mary; for the holy patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and martyrs; and for all your other righteous servants, known to us and unknown; and we pray that, encouraged by their examples, aided by their prayers, and strengthened by their fellowship, we also may be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light; through the merits of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 1979, Burial of the Dead, page 504)

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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.

To Boldly Go: Sermon for a Celebration of Ministry – St. Paul’s, Manhattan, Kansas – October 16, 2013

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This sermon was preached on October 16, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Manhattan, Kansas, where Fr. Funston’s son, the Rev. A. Patrick K. Funston is rector. Fr. Patrick was installed as rector, and the appointment of the Rev. Sandra Horton-Smith as Deacon in the parish was also celebrated.

(The Episcopal Church sanctoral lectionary for the Feast of Hugh Latimer & Nicholas Ridley, bishops and martyrs: Zephaniah 3:1-5; Psalm 142; 1 Corinthians 3:9-14; and John 15:20-16:1.)

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Ridley and LatimerI bring you greetings from the people of St. Paul’s Parish, Medina, Ohio, where I am privileged to serve as rector. Nearly all the active members of our congregation know and respect Patrick, and have asked me to convey their congratulations to him and to you, together with the assurance of their prayers, as you continue together in a new ministry only recently begun. Of course, none of them know Sandy, but we offer our greetings and prayers for her diaconal ministry among you, as well.

I suppose my son asked me to preach this evening because he believes that in 40 years of church leadership including 23 years in ordained ministry as a deacon, curate, associate rector, and now rector in four dioceses, I may have picked up one or two bits of useful information to pass along. I shall strive, Fr. Funston, to make it so.

Sandy, I have never been a vocational deacon and I have had only a little experience working with deacons in the course of my ministry; nonetheless, it is my hope there may be something in what I have to say that will be of use to you.

We are gathered this evening on the feast of two Anglican martyrs — Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. They were bishops of the reformed Church of England put to death, by being burned at the stake, during the short reign and attempted Roman Catholic restoration of Queen Mary I, eldest daughter of Henry VIII. During her less-than-six years on the English throne, nearly 300 Protestants were killed, including these two bishops, so she is known to history as “Bloody Mary.”

The bishops’ martyrdom is most notable for the probably apocryphal story that Latimer, as the fires were lighted beneath them, reached to Ridley, took him by the hand and said, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.”

I’ll skip the other details of Latimer’s and Ridley’s lives and ministries; I bring them up really only to explain the otherwise incomprehensible choices of lessons for this service; one really must stretch to find anything remotely enlightening about parish ministry in Zephaniah’s “soiled, defiled, oppressing city” filled with faithless people and profane priests, or in the Psalmist’s languishing spirit and loud supplications. There may be (indeed there will be) times when both priest and people may feel like the Psalmist in the course of a pastorate (as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the work of ministry will be tested by fire), but dwelling on that hardly seems a constructive way to begin the relationship.

I must admit that I was tempted to use the bishop’s martyrdom as a metaphor for parish ministry, but thought better of it; it would be an incomplete metaphor, at best. I think I’ve found a much better metaphor, but before I get to it, I want to digress for a moment and tell you something about our experience, my wife’s and mine, in raising our son.

When Patrick was in junior high school and high school, his band and orchestra directors said to us, “Your son is a talented musician. He could have a great career in music.”

“Yes!” we replied, “Encourage him in that!”

When he was in high school and college, his mathematics instructors said to us, “Your son is a natural mathematician. He could have a great career as a professor or a theoretician.”

“Yes!” we replied, “Encourage him in that!”

When he decided to major in business, we heard from his fellow students and his professors that he had a great mind for economics and finances, and could make millions as a financial planner.

“Yes!” we said, “Encourage that!”

Earlier in his life, from about the age of 14 on, when he was active as an acolyte, and in youth group, and in the diocesan peer ministry program, people would come to us and say, “Patrick has all the skills and the personality to be a wonderful priest.”

“No!” we cried, “Please do not encourage him that way!”

It’s not that we didn’t want Patrick to become a priest; we’re delighted that he has found his calling amongst the clergy of the church and that he has been called to be Rector in this parish. However, his becoming a priest or Sandy’s becoming a deacon is not something we, any of us, including them, have any business “wanting.” It isn’t something that we or anyone should be “encouraging.” Ordained ministry is something to be discerned and what it is to be discerned is whether the potential priest or deacon can be anything else.

Every potential clergy person is asked, over and over again, “Why do you want to be clergy?” And every priest and deacon here tonight has answered that question. We may have phrased the answer differently, but for each of us it is the same. It’s not that the person called to the diaconate wants to be a deacon; it’s that she must be a deacon! It’s not that the person called to priesthood wants to be a priest; it’s that he must be a priest!

Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buechner spoke for us all when he answered the question in his book, The Alphabet of Grace:

“I hear you are entering the ministry,” the woman said down the long table meaning no real harm. “Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?” And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else’s. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring of the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and if I could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death. (Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, pp. 109-110)

Buechner’s last sentence does call to mind the martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley and so many others: “I will condemn you to death.” As a description of the call to parish ministry it is both terrifying and terrific!

The Christ we follow, the Christ we proclaim, the Christ who said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you,” does call us, does lead us to die! To die to selfishness, to die to ego. But through that death he leads us to life. We die to self to uncover what the Quakers call, “that of God within” or the “inner Teacher” … the True Self. Your call, Patrick, to priesthood and yours, Sandy, to the diaconate … our call to parish ministry is a call to continue dying to self and, as a result, to continue becoming truly alive.

It is, as any priest or deacon here will tell you, a painful process. To be clergy in Christ’s church is, as Paul made quite clear in his letters to the congregations in Ephesus and Rome, a gift; it is a wonderful, precious, costly, and painful gift. It will take you into the deepest intimacy with God’s people, with your people. At times you will be with them in the midst of their worst nightmares – death and divorce, devastating illness and the depths of despair. At times, you will feel put-upon and misused. At times, you will feel left out and neglected. At times, there will be conflict, and it will seem like it is consuming you alive. At times, it may seem that, a bit like Latimer and Ridley, you are being burned at the stake, because people will hurt you, sometimes intentionally and spitefully, sometimes negligently, often simply because they are in pain.

But as I said a moment ago, that would be an incomplete metaphor because the source of that pain is also the source of the most exquisite joy, when that same intimacy will privilege you with sharing God’s people’s, your people’s happiest and most blessed moments – when two people commit themselves to one another for life, when their children are born, when they get that long-sought promotion, when their kids graduate with honors, when children marry, when grandchildren are born, when these people among whom and with whom you minister know themselves to be God’s beloved.

Cherish those intimate moments — both the painful and the joyful — because they are moments of grace. Each of them is unique; never fall into the black hole of thinking you’ve “been there, done that.” There may have been similar moments . . . but that couple has never been married before and never will be again, that baby has never been born or baptized before and never will be again, that teenager has never graduated from high school before and never will again, that man has never died before and never will again. Each intimate moment, painful or joyful, is unique and no one has ever been there before. Each unique intimate moment, painful or joyful, is bursting with the promise and potential of God’s grace!

Do not fear those moments of graceful intimacy; cherish them because it is in them that you and the people of St. Paul’s Parish will die to self and become truly alive, to continue growing in boldness and righteousness, in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and even holiness. It is in those moments when we are in the presence of God, when we stand before the throne of grace.

I think you know, Patrick, that one of my favorite verses of Scripture is from the Letter to Hebrews: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16 KJV) So . . . if I say to you that our mission in parish ministry is to boldly go into those unique moments of grace where no one has gone before, you probably know that my metaphor for parish ministry is “the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.”

I read somewhere recently that one can consider oneself an unqualified success as a parent if you have raised your child to be a Star Trek fan; by that measure, Patrick’s mother and I were successful.

Star Trek Uniform SocksIn the original Star Trek series, the crew’s uniforms were color coded: gold uniforms were command; red uniforms were engineering and security; and blue uniforms were science and medical. Parish ministry entails all three. So, Patrick, I have a little gift for you — a set of three pairs of official Star Trek color-coded uniform socks to remind you of these aspects of pastoral ministry.

Gold — command: Patrick, the canons of your diocese (with which, you may recall, I have some familiarity) provide that as rector, “by virtue of such office, [you have] the powers and duties conferred by the General Canons of the Church, and in this connection shall exercise pastoral oversight of all guilds and societies within the parish, and [you are] entitled to speak and vote on all questions before these bodies.” (Canon IV.6, Diocese of Kansas) The canons provide that you are the chair person of the vestry and that you not only chair the annual meeting of the parish, you are also the final arbiter of who may vote at the meeting.

That’s a good deal of command authority and it should not be taken lightly. Remember two things about it. First, that you share it with others. The canons specify that the vestry “shall share with the Rector a concern and responsibility for the mission, ministry, and spiritual life of the parish.” (Canon IV.5.6(a)) But not only the vestry, all the good people this parish are your co-workers. As our catechism makes clear, “the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons;” every single baptized person, every member of this church has a ministry. The Rector does not do it alone, nor should he.

You remember on Star Trek: TOS, Captain Kirk went on every away mission. That’s a model of poor leadership; the captain should not have commanded, or even been a part of, every away team. Trust the rest of the crew — the vestry, the staff, volunteers, all the people of the parish — to handle things.

Remember Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians in this evening’s epistle: “We are God’s servants, working together . . . .” You and the vestry and people of this congregation are God’s servants, working together. You as the Rector don’t have to do it all — you do have to know what is happening; you have to be in the information loop and be privy to all the information pertinent to the running of the church and to ministering with and among its members, but you don’t have do it all!

I suspect that if Jesus were to critique Kirk’s style of leadership, he might say something along the lines of “It will not be so among you; whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:26) That is the second thing to remember about command authority in the church. Be like the 6th Century pope St. Gregory the Great and remember that as a leader in the church you are the “servant of the servants of God.”

The red uniforms were for those doing engineering and security, and there is a lot of that in parish ministry. Much of it, knowing where the boilers are and how they work, knowing where the circuit breakers and fuses are, knowing how to fix a leaky faucet or a squeaky hinge or a broken kneeler . . . much of it falls into the category of “things they didn’t teach us in seminary.” But there is also a lot of engineering and security that they did teach us.

The ministry of word and sacrament are the engineering and security jobs of the parish priest; preaching God’s word and celebrating God’s Sacraments, for which seminary did prepare us. They are central to any priest’s ministry, and to do them well takes time and it takes prayer.

Preparing a sermon can easily consume 10-15 hours per week. Similarly, planning liturgies, not only for regular Sunday services, but for weddings, funerals, holidays, and other special events takes time and care. Many people are willing to say their clergy should put in this kind of time, but the only way the rector can have this time is if other demands are otherwise taken care of. I have admonished Patrick not to be Captain Kirk going on every away mission. So I admonish you, the people of St. Paul’s Parish, that you must not expect him to make every pastoral visit, oversee every parish activity, make every administrative decision. As St. Paul wrote the Ephesians, each member of the church is given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift and each member must work to properly promoting the body’s growth. I encourage you to claim the shared ministry of the whole people of God and join with your rector and your deacons in providing pastoral care to one another, in managing parish activities, and in administrative governance.

Patrick, this obligation of the congregation means that you must answer it with a similar commitment. Just like Engineer Scott was always adjusting the “warp coils” and tuning the “dilithium crystals” (whatever those were), you must take time in prayer adjusting your spirit and tuning your psyche. Take the time your congregation gives you to prepare prayerfully for these “red uniform” ministries — preaching and sacramental celebration. Be like Captain Jean-Luc Picard in TNG; take private time in your “ready room;” spend time in conversation with God every day. Other things can wait or someone else can do them . . . but no one else can listen to God for you. You must spend your own time in prayer.

Sandy, I would say the same thing to you. Your engineering and security ministry will be different from Patrick’s, obviously. As a deacon, you are (I’m sure) familiar with the description of the role of the deacon as bringing the world’s needs to the attention of the church and taking the church’s ministry into service in the world. Deacons exemplify Christian discipleship, nurture others in their relationship to God, and lead church people to respond to the needs of the most needy, neglected, and marginalized of the world. Those are definitely “red uniform” tasks, and they too can only be done well with careful and prayerful preparation.

Prayer is also the “red uniform” ministry of whole congregation. The early 19th Century American Presbyterian preacher and seminary professor Gardiner Spring wrote in his book The Power of the Pulpit:

[H]ow unspeakably precious the thought to all who labor in this great work, whether in youthful, or riper years, that they are … habitually remembered in the prayers of the churches! Let the thought sink deep into the heart of every church, that their minister will be very much such a minister as their prayers may make him. If nothing short of Omnipotent grace can make a Christian, nothing less than this can make a faithful and successful minister of the Gospel!

We might express this thought differently today, but Gardiner’s point remains valid. Your prayers, good people, even more than their own, are the wellspring from which flows the water of God’s grace on which Patrick’s ministry as priest and Sandy’s as a deacon so much depend. If you wish their ministries to bear good fruit, do not forget to pray for them, and let them know that you are doing so!

Star Trek:TOS CrewWhich brings us, at last, to the blue uniforms, the science and medical corps of the star ship. Mr. Spock the Science officer and Doctor “Bones” McCoy always wore blue. One of the ancient terms that we still use for pastoral ministry is “the cure of souls,” the word “cure” having pretty much the same meaning as it has in medicine. Broadly speaking, this ministry is the care, protection, and oversight of the nourishment and spiritual well-being of the souls committed to the pastor’s care; it may be shared with others, with deacons or with lay ministers, but it is truly the ministry of the parish priest. It is in this “blue shirt” ministry that those wonderful, painful, joyful, intimate moments of grace that I spoke of earlier will happen.

It is customary at these services to ask the clergy about to be installed to stand for an admonition or a charge, but I’m not going to do that this evening. We aren’t here celebrating only the installation of the rector, or only the new ministry of these two clergy; we are celebrating the whole ministry of all the People of God in this parish. So I have a charge for all of you.

I know you expect me to say something like “explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before,” but that would just be too hokey, don’t you think?

No, I have rather more practical and down-to-earth advice.

Give each other time; give one another your attention; support one another with your prayers; respect yourselves and each other; and, most importantly, love one another. (Members of St. Paul’s, I can’t underscore the last one enough. You expect your clergy to remember your birthdays and your wedding anniversaries, to thank you when you perform some volunteer service, to greet you pleasantly when they see you at the grocery store. That’s only natural, and it’s right and proper that you do so. But, please, do the same for them! It is the most important thing the people of a parish can do for their clergy. Love Patrick and Sandy, their spouses and their families. Invite them into your homes. Remember their birthdays and anniversaries. Remember to say, “Thank you” once in a while. Believe me: it really is such little things that make all the difference.)

And, again, remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “We are God’s servants, working together.” So together represent Christ, bear witness to him wherever you may be and, according to the gifts given to each of you, carry on his work of reconciliation in the world.

If you do these things, you shall, by God’s grace, like Ridley and Latimer, light such a candle in Kansas, as, I trust, will never be put out.

Make it so! Amen!

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

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