That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Tribalism — Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 14C) — August 7, 2022

The last sentence of our reading from Genesis says, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,”[1] so this text is often treated as a story of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abram questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.

We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. Think about the neighborhood and community where you live; I’m willing to bet that your neighborhoods are made up of people for the most part pretty similar to yourselves. Aside from clearly racist practices like red lining and sundown laws, we modern Americans may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do. Like attracts like. As individuals, we are initially situated within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, political party, nation.

It’s genetic: our nearest relatives, the great apes and chimpanzees, demonstrate this same family and clan predilection. And it’s religious: we find it in sacred literatures across cultures. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.

God has chosen Abram, an elderly, childless man of the city of Ur to be “God’s guy,” so to speak. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of nations; in fact, God will change Abram’s name to “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.” At this point, however, is not clear to Abram how this will happen, and at the time of our reading, it hasn’t happened yet. Abram is getting anxious. He challenges God with this very tribal sort of concern: “Who will inherit my estate? Will it be this slave, Eliezer of Damascus?”[2]

The Hebrew here is ambiguous. Our translation describes Eliezer as “a slave born in my house,” but many scholars suggest that “a servant in my household” is probably the better reading, and this is how some other translations render the text.[3] This explains Abram’s upset: Eliezer, rather than being a native of Abram’s domestic unit, is from another city, Damascus. He is from another clan, another tribe, perhaps even a different ethnic group. Nonetheless, according to the custom of the time, he would inherit his master’s fortune were Abram to die childless. Abram’s estate would pass out of the family; his concern is tribalism, pure and simple.

One of my favorite cartoons is a four-panel Peanuts offering from 1976, in which Snoopy, sitting on top of his doghouse , is writing a book of theology. Charlie Brown says, “I hope you have a good title.” Snoopy, thinking “I have the perfect title,” types “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”[4]

This is God’s response to Abram. God takes Abram outside, shows him the stars, and asks him, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” Well, God doesn’t actually say that, but that’s what it boils down to.[5] God’s response to Abram is, “Think again! Look beyond your tribalism.”

Many social scientists use the word “tribalism” to describe the fracturing of society that we are experiencing today. More than a decade ago, writer Wade Shepherd asserted, “The new tribal lines of America are not based on skin color, creed, geographic origin, or ethnicity, but on opinion, political position, and world view.”[6] Similarly, economist Robert Reich, who was secretary of labor in the Obama administration, wrote in an essay entitled Tribalism Is Tearing America Apart:

America’s new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe . . . hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other . . . .

Each tribe has contrasting ideas about rights and freedoms . . . Each has its own totems . . . and taboos . . . . Each, its own demons . . . ; its own version of truth . . . ; and its own media that confirm its beliefs.
And this is true of the world as a whole, this dividing of people into enclaves or “bubbles” of political or philosophical purity, to say nothing of racial and ethnic divisions.[7]

Human society is fractured by a kind of tribalist insistence on group identity that is our modern equivalent of Abram’s challenge to God. God’s response to Abram’s tribalism was essentially, “Think again!” And God’s response to our tribalism, to our insistence on our own ideas, our own totems, our own demons, our own versions of the truth, our own “identity politics” is the same; it’s Snoopy’s question, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”

Which brings me to the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and, especially, its first sentence which defines what faith is: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[8] The first part of the definition says faith is “the assurance of things hoped for.” The word translated as “assurance” is the Greek word hypostasis, a compound word –hypo meaning “under” and stasis meaning “to stand” – thus an “under standing.” But not in the sense of intellectual comprehension, rather in the literal, physical sense of something that “stands under,” that is foundational or bedrock. In the words of Episcopal priest and New Testament scholar Amy Peeler, hypostasis “is something basic, something solid, something firm [which] provides a place to stand from which one can hope.”[9]

A few years ago, I attended a continuing education seminar at which participants were given a large sheet of paper and asked to draw a map or picture of our personal spiritual growth with a focus on that which provides stability in our lives. Of course, nearly all of us attempted to depict God as the stable center, or unchanging goal or beginning, the whatever of our spiritual journeys, but one participant didn’t do that. In fact, he didn’t draw anything at all on his paper until he was standing in front of the group (as we were all required to do). He drew some squiggles and boxes and whatever on the sheet as he described his spiritual autobiography, but then said, “What is stable in all of this is the paper!” Brilliant! The paper represented the hypostasis, the bedrock standing under his life, the foundation of faith on which the details played out and changed and developed over time, and that is really true for all of us.

The second part of the definition is that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” We hear that word “conviction” as synonymous with “belief” or “firm opinion,” but the original Greek is elegchos which carries the sense of “proof” or “evidence.” Faith is the evidence which establishes the existence of that which cannot be seen, the proof that there is an invisible foundation for one’s life, one’s beliefs and opinions, one’s actions. “What is stable in all of this is the paper!”

Our modern tribalism insists that everyone in the tribe have the same life, the same beliefs, the same opinions, and undertake the same actions, but more than that it insists that anyone who differs to any significant degree in any of those things is outside the tribe. If we were to draw the tribes as circles on that sheet of paper, ideological tribalism would insist that each tribe is a circle that does not touch any other, and yet we all know that that is simply not true.

We know that if there are tribal circles on that foundational paper, they are more like the circles on a Venn diagram, not only touching but overlapping, and also not static but ever-changing. That was true of Abram’s descendants, the ancient Hebrews; their tribalism might demand ethnic purity, but they never achieved it; the Old Testament demonstrates that, again and again! Modern tribalism is no different. Ideologies, religious beliefs, political opinions differ in many ways, but in many others they share much in common; they overlap, then shift and overlap in new ways. People’s lives and opinions overlap and change, but ideological tribalism, identity politics, and racial stereotypes blind us to our similarities and encourage us to see only our differences and those, falsely, as permanent.

Which brings me to today’s gospel lesson in which Jesus admonishes us to be like servants who keep their lamps lit for their master on his wedding night.[10] I suspect that most people who hear this admonition are reminded of the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids, but I suggest that we think instead of Jesus’ command in Matthew’s Gospel, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”[11]

The purpose of the lit lamps is not simply to have lit lamps! It is to have light by which something can be done, something can be seen. The purpose of the servants’ lamps is to light the way for the bride and bridegroom, to illuminate the pathway and allow them to see the door. The purpose of keeping our lamps lit is so that people may see our “good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” It is our works, our lives and actions, which matter; it is in our stories that we will find the similarities, the places where our Venn-diagram circles overlap. We may not find them in our ideologies, religious beliefs, or political opinions, but we will find them in our experiences.

There’s a Christian rapper named David Sherer who performs under the stage name Agape. In one of his pieces he puts it this way: “Hear the biography, not the ideology.”[12]

The bishops of the Anglican Communion for the past several days have been meeting together with the Archbishop of Canterbury at something called “the Lambeth Conference” which is concluding today. You may have heard about, and you may have heard that there was a bit of a division among the bishops over the place of gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual persons in the church. Some, like the bishops from America, Canada, New Zealand, and elsewhere, believe LGBTQ+ persons are and should be full members of the church entitled to access and receive all of the Sacraments, including holy matrimony and ordination. Others, particularly some from Africa and Asia, styling themselves as “biblically orthodox,” hold a diametrically opposite point of view. Some of the latter, essentially declaring that their Venn diagrams cannot possibly overlap, refused to receive Communion at Eucharists in which married or partnered gay bishops also took part.[13] Both groups put out conflicting statements. It pained me to see the Anglican Communion infected with the same sort of information-bubble, ideological tribalism that infects our domestic politics.

I read the reports coming out of Lambeth and just wished that someone, God or Snoopy or anyone, might have stepped in and just whispered in the bishops’ ears, “Think again!” I read the news about legislation coming out of Washington, out Columbus, or out of other states’ capitals, and I wish that God would say to our solons, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”

My prayer is that God might speak those words in everyone’s life from time to time. It might shine some light on our ever-shifting Venn diagrams, reminding us that “what is stable in all this is the paper,” so that we listen to each others’ biographies, not just our ideologies. Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on August 7, 2022, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, to the people of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Canton, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was supply preacher. This is an updated version of a sermon preached at St. Paul’s Parish, Medina, Ohio, on August 7, 2016.

The lessons read at the service were Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16; and St. Luke 12:32-40. These lessons are from the Episcopal Church’s version of the Revised Common Lectionary (see The Lectionary Page).

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Genesis 15:6 (NRSV)

[2] Genesis 15:2-3

[3] See, e.g., the English Standard Version, the Geneva Bible of 1599, the Lexham English Bible, the New American Bible, the New International Bible

[4] Charles M. Schulz, And the Beagles and the Bunnies Shall Lie Down Together: The Theology in Peanuts (Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, NYC:1984), back cover

[5] He brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” (Genesis 15:5, NRSV)

[6] Wade Shepherd, New American Tribalism, Vagabond Journal, May 17, 2011, accessed August 3, 2022

[7] Robert Reich, Tribalism Is Tearing America Apart, Salon, March 25, 2014, accessed August 4, 2022

[8] Hebrews 11:1 (NRSV)

[9] Amy L.B. Peeler, Commentary on Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16, Working Preacher website, August 7, 2014, accessed August 4, 2022

[10] Luke 12:35-38

[11] Matthew 5:16 (NRSV)

[12] Benjamin Mathes, How to Listen When You Disagree, Urban Confessional website, July 27, 2016, accessed August 4, 2022

[13] David Paulsen, Conservative Bishops Refuse to Take Communion, Episcopal News Service, July 29, 2022, accessed August 4, 2022

A New Lens — Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C) — July 31, 2022

“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,”[1] advises the author of the letter to the Colossians (whom I shall call “Paul” even though there is some scholarly dispute about that). Is Paul echoing the Teacher who wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes? Is he also asserting that “all the deeds that are done under the sun [are] vanity and a chasing after wind”?[2]

And what about Luke’s Jesus? When he says that God calls the rich man a fool[3] is he condemning his wealth or his saving for the future as a waste of time?

No, not at all! None of our biblical authors this morning – not the Teacher, not Paul, not Luke (and certainly not Jesus whom Luke is quoting) – none of them is saying that life is futile or that our earthly existence is unimportant.

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God’s Faith, Not Ours — Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12C) — July 24, 2022

“Name this child.” That’s what I say to parents of infant baptismal candidates as I take their children from them. The words are not actually written in the baptismal service of The Book of Common Prayer as they are in some other traditions’ liturgies, but there is a rubric that says, “Each candidate is presented by name to the Celebrant . . . .”[1] so asking for the child’s name is a practical way of seeing that done. It’s practical, but it’s also a theological statement.

There is a common religious belief found in nearly all cultures that knowing the name of a thing or a person gives one power over that thing or person. One finds this belief among African and North American indigenous tribes, as well as in ancient Egyptian, Vedic, and Hindu traditions; it is also present in all three of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The naming we do at baptism echoes the naming that takes place in Judaism when a male infant is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth. In that service, called the brit milah or bris, the officiating mohel prays, “Our God and God of our fathers, preserve this child for his father and mother, and his name in Israel shall be called ________”[2] and the prayer continues that, by his naming, the infant will be enrolled in the covenant of God with Israel. A similar thing is done when a girl is named in the ceremony called zeved habat or simchat bat, the “gift (or celebration) of the daughter” on the first sabbath following her birth.[3] With the name given at baptism, the church says to its newest member, “This is who you are: washed in the waters of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever,”[4] a brother or sister in the church, a fellow member of the Body of Christ, an adopted child of God the Father.

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The Good Samaritan: Many Lessons (Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, RCL Year C, Proper 10a, 10 July 2022)

When I was in the 8th Grade, I attended Robert Fulton Junior High School in Van Nuys, California, which is in the San Fernando Valley area of the Los Angeles metroplex. At some point during the year, Mrs. R. Smith, who taught English, gave my class an assignment to memorize and interpret a poem; we had to get up in front of the class, recite the poem, and then give our interpretation. When it came to be my turn, I recited my chosen poem, said what I believed it meant, and explained my interpretation. Mrs. Smith responded, “Your interpretation is wrong,” to which I replied, “I can interpret a poem any damned way I please!”

Well, as you might expect, she immediately ordered me to the Vice-Principal’s office, where I sat for about an hour and a half waiting for my mother whom the Vice-Principal called, to come from her office in another part of Los Angeles. I missed two other classes because of my rejection of Mrs. Smith’s one-right-interpretation approach to poetry and, while I remember the punishment, I no longer remember the poem nor the lesson she was trying to teach.

I tell you this story because that one-right-interpretation approach is the way the church has looked at the Parable of the Good Samaritan for most of its existence; for the first 1500 years that one right way was a lot different than the way most of us hear the story today.

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Swim Sideways

Swim Sideways

Sunlight dapples the wavelets
They sparkle as living jewels
while children cavort on the beach
Happy holiday strollers laugh
their toes caressed by foam
and the bubbling escape of
sand crabs and beach hoppers
You tread water and look on
not taking part
though you might wish to
In fact, you try but you can’t
the undertow is pulling you away
pulling you down
pulling you under
You signal for help but
they don’t understand and
wave back happy greetings
which only makes it worse
“Swim sideways” you’ve heard
“that will get you out of the current”
It seems to work for the tide of water
but what is sideways
to the tide
of grief and depression?

–– C. Eric Funston, 6 July 2022 ––

Not an Equation (Sermon for Trinity Sunday 2022)

There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Rachel has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theological doctrine is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise.

We try in all sorts of ways to explain the Trinity, through diagrams, through analogies, through some really bad and usually silly similes and metaphors. Most such explanations are less than convincing, and virtually all are theologically problematic. As Brian McLaren has observed:

Seemingly orthodox Christians expose themselves—often to their own surprise—as closet adoptionists or Arians, unconscious Nestorians or Apollinarians, or implicit monophysitists or monothelitists.[1]

So I’m going to leave Christian theology behind for a moment and ask you a question from another religious tradition: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

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What Does This Mean? (Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, June 5, 2022)

Come Holy Spirit, Comforter, Spirit of Truth,
everywhere present and filling all things.
Treasury of Blessing, Giver of Life,
Come, dwell within us and between us… Amen.

On the day of Pentecost, the disciples, “filled with the Holy Spirit” rushed out into the streets of Jerusalem “and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability,” proclaiming the Good News to the crowds of people in town for Shavuot and answering their inevitable questions.[1] Jesus had told them, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”[2] The Spirit, as Jesus promised, had reminded them and empowered them, and now here they were.

Scholars and preachers go through all sorts of hermeneutical contortions to interpret this event as some sort of reversal or overcoming of the linguistic scattering of the nations at the Tower of Babel. I suppose that’s why our lectionary pairs that Genesis story with the reading from the Book of Acts, but I don’t think that’s what Luke, the author of Acts, was trying to convey. I’m always left wondering, “If that’s what he was trying to put across, why didn’t he just say that?”

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As Long As It Takes (Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent, RCL Year C), 6 March 2022

Lord God,
We ask you to hold the people of Ukraine deep in your heart.
Protect them, we pray; from violence,
from political gamesmanship,
from being used and abused.

Give, we pray, the nations of the world the courage
and the wisdom to stand up for justice
and the courage, too, to dare to care generously.

Lord, in your mercy, take from us all the tendencies in us
that seek to lord it over others:
take from us those traits
that see us pursuing our own needs and wants
before those of others.

Teach us how to live in love and dignity and respect
following your example,
that life may triumph over death,
and light may triumph over darkness. Amen. [1]

The Pope’s message for Lent is a poignant one, beginning with an acknowledgement that “going to some small extent without food [may not seem to] mean much, at a time when so many of our brothers and sisters are victims of war … and are undergoing such suffering, both physically and morally.” Nonetheless, insisted His Holiness, “Lent must mean something,” and he urged all Christians to focus on “the common heritage of humanity.”[2]

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Resolutions of the Magi: Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas, 2 January 2022

National Cathedral Creche

So, did you make any New Year’s Resolutions? I usually make three: lose weight, get more exercise, eat more healthily. I make them every year and every year by about Valentine’s Day I’ve let them slip. But this year I’m making a different resolution….

I did some research into the custom of making New Year’s Resolutions and here’s what I learned: the people of what’s called “the Old Babylonian Empire” are believed to have been the first people to make New Year’s resolutions; this was around the time of Hammurabi, the king known for his code of law. They celebrated the new year in mid-March, at the spring equinox when crops are planted. During a twelve-day religious festival known as Akitu, the Babylonians made both national and personal resolutions reaffirming their loyalty to the king, recommitting to pay any debts, and promising to return any farm equipment they had borrowed.[1]

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The Great Commandments: What’s Love Got to Do with It? – Sermon for RCL Proper 26B (Pentecost 23: 31 October 2021)

When my nephew, who’s now in his mid-40s, was about six years old, he was given a homework assignment that he found frustrating and he just didn’t want to finish it, but his mother made him sit down and do it rather than something else more to his liking. In his frustration, he blurted out, “I hate you!” My late sister-in-law responded calmly, “That’s too bad because I love you.” After a moment of reflection, my nephew amended his angry outburst: “I love you, too,” he said, “but I don’t like you right now.”

In the field of linguistic anthropology there is a theory called “cultural emphasis,” which postulates that if a particular topic is of importance to a society, that will be reflected in that culture’s vocabulary. If there are many words to describe that topic, then there is a good chance that that topic is considered important; the greater the number of terms, the greater the subject’s importance. Often this is particularly true of terms pertaining to livelihood, such as methods of food production, or to the weather.

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