That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Apocrypha

Changing Clothes: If I Were Preaching, Advent 2 (9 December 2018)

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”[1]

If I were preaching on the Second Sunday of Advent this year, I think I would select the first of the two options for the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is actually from the Jewish apocrypha.

Years ago (many years ago) when I was 18 years old, I worked in a small 100-bed community hospital in Southern California. Initially, I was a janitor (“housekeeper” in the hospital jargon of the time) but within a few months I was able to take the job of orderly.

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Anticipating an Ordination – From the Daily Office – November 7, 2014

From the Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach:

The leader of his brothers and the pride of his people
was the high priest, Simon son of Onias,
who in his life repaired the house,
and in his time fortified the temple.
When he put on his glorious robe
and clothed himself in perfect splendor,
when he went up to the holy altar,
he made the court of the sanctuary glorious.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Eccesiasticus 50:1,11 (NRSV) – November 7, 2014)

Ordination and First Mass of Saint John of Matha by Vincenzo CarducciTonight, as my diocese begins its annual governing convention in traditional fashion with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist, we will doing so in the context of an ordination – two ordinations, in fact, one to the diaconate and one to the presbyterate. This morning’s reading from Ben Sira is lengthy description of the glories of the ceremonial priesthood. One might have expected the church to have made this one of the potential readings for a presbyteral ordination, but in its wisdom, it has not.

My personal religious background is as the child of an inactive, not-quite-thoroughly-unchurched mixed marriage of a Disciple of Christ and a Methodist, the disinterested products of two decidedly American expressions of protestant evangelical Christianity. Until I was in high school my church attendance depended on which set of grandparents I was visiting; at home, church was out of the question. My grandparents’ churches were proudly non-ceremonial; the closest anyone came to wearing a vestment was the Methodist pastor’s doctoral gown.

In high school, I encountered the Episcopal Church in an Anglo-Catholic diocese. Bells, smells, chants, rich vesture . . . I knew I had come home! As I read the entire lesson today from Ecclesiasticus, I can almost remember every detail of that first encounter with the ritual of religion.

But the rubrics of the ordination service for a priest of the Episcopal Church do not permit or recommend Ben Sira’s soaring description of ceremonial liturgy and priestly elegance! Instead, we are given these choices from the Hebrew Scriptures:

  • Isaiah 6:1-8, in which the soon-to-be-commissioned prophet cries, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips,” and has his lips seared with a burning coal; or
  • Numbers 11:16-17,24-25, in which Moses is instructed to recruit seventy elders to “bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself.”

And then there are the choices from the Psalter:

  • Psalm 43 in which we ask, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why are you so disquieted within me?” or
  • Psalm 132:8-19 in which we beg God “do not turn away the face of your Anointed.”

In the New Testament readings, Peter reminds us, “Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pt 5:3), a rather different vision than Ben Sira’s description of the magnificent Simon, son of Onias. Paul warns us through his words to the Ephesians to not “be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph 4:14), and in his admonition to the church in Philippi he instructs us, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Again, a contrast to the picture of priesthood in this morning’s reading.

Don’t get me wrong! I love the ritual and the ceremonial. I love great vestments, incense, chant, trumpets, the clanging of bells – it’s all great show and great fun and adds to the experience of religion for me. But the priesthood is much, much more than all of that.

In my vesting sacristy hangs a simple frame with a printed copy of an address by an Englishman who was a bishop in Africa in the early years of the 20th Century. The Rt. Rev. Frank Weston, Bishop of Zanzibar, in his concluding address to the Anglo-Catholic Congress of 1923, finished with these words:

If you are Christians then your Jesus is one and the same: Jesus on the Throne of his glory, Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, Jesus received into your hearts in Communion, Jesus with you mystically as you pray, and Jesus enthroned in the hearts and bodies of his brothers and sisters up and down this country. And it is folly – it is madness – to suppose that you can worship Jesus in the Sacraments and Jesus on the Throne of glory, when you are sweating him in the souls and bodies of his children. It cannot be done.

There then, as I conceive it, is your present duty; and I beg you, brethren, as you love the Lord Jesus, consider that it is at least possible that this is the new light that the Congress was to bring to us. You have got your Mass, you have got your Altar, you have begun to get your Tabernacle. Now go out into the highways and hedges where not even the Bishops will try to hinder you. Go out and look for Jesus in the ragged, in the naked, in the oppressed and sweated, in those who have lost hope, in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus. And when you see him, gird yourselves with his towel and try to wash their feet.

Every time I put on my fine silk vestments from Whipple or Almy, the hand-made stoles and chasubles commissioned from private tailors, or the humble offerings created by members of the congregation, I read those words. The priesthood is not about Simon’s glorious robes and perfect splendor; it’s not about trumpets and thuribles and magnificent altars. That’s just the fun stuff we are privileged to enjoy. As the ordination readings and Bishop Weston remind us, priesthood is about serving God’s people in whom we find the living Jesus.

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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.

Open to God — Sermon for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 25C – October 27, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, October 27, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 25C: Sirach 35:12-17; Psalm 84:1-6; 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18; and Luke 18:9-14. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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3rd Century Mural, Woman in Orans PositionWe are straying from our usual lectionary path today because it is one of our Children’s Sundays and we have some younger kids reading the lessons at the 10 a.m. service. So, instead of a long reading from the prophet Joel (RCL Year C, Track 1), we have a brief lesson from the Book of Ben Sira, which is sometimes called Ecclesiasticus. (RCL Year C, Track 2) We thought it would be easier for a child to read.

This is one of the books of the Apocrypha, those books recognized by the Roman and Eastern Orthodox churches as canonical, but rejected by Protestants. Anglicans steer a middle course and accept them for moral teaching, but not as the basis for religious doctrine. The text is a late example of what is called “wisdom literature,” instruction in ethics and proper social behavior for young men, especially those likely to take a role in governance.

Ben Sira was written early in the 2nd Century before Christ by a Jewish scribe named Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem. The Jewish nation was then under domination of the Seleucid Empire, a Greek-speaking kingdom centered in modern day Syria. Society in Jerusalem was very polarized: powerful vs. weak; rich vs. poor; Jew vs. Gentile. Ben Sira sought to guide his students through socially ambivalent times.

Among the topics he addresses is the proper forms and attitudes of worship. The Seleucid governors had involved themselves in the affairs of the Temple and, therefore, many people (especially the precursors of the Pharisees) believed that Temple worship was comprised and invalid. Furthermore, for many of the city’s wealthy participation in Temple rituals was a matter of show to advance themselves and their agenda; they offered mere lip service to God while oppressing the poor and helpless.

In this social milieu, Ben Sira offered instruction on the nature of worship, sacrifice, and prayer in Chapters 34 and 35 of the book. In Chapter 34 he describes worship that is not acceptable to God:

The Most High is not pleased with the offerings of the ungodly, nor for a multitude of sacrifices does he forgive sins. Like one who kills a son before his father’s eyes is the person who offers a sacrifice from the property of the poor. The bread of the needy is the life of the poor; whoever deprives them of it is a murderer. To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder; to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood. When one builds and another tears down, what do they gain but hard work? When one prays and another curses, to whose voice will the Lord listen? If one washes after touching a corpse, and touches it again, what has been gained by washing? So if one fasts for his sins, and goes again and does the same things, who will listen to his prayer? And what has he gained by humbling himself? (Ben Sira 34:23-31)

He follows this up with the advice we heard in our reading today: “Be generous when you worship the Lord, and do not stint the first fruits of your hands. With every gift show a cheerful face, and dedicate your tithe with gladness. Give to the Most High as he has given to you, and as generously as you can afford.” (Ben Sira 35:10-12)

Ben Sira’s wisdom would have been well known to the people of Jesus’ time. Portions of the book were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a nearly complete scroll was discovered at Masada, the Jewish fortress destroyed by the Romans in 73 AD. In addition, there are numerous quotations of the book in the Talmud, and the Anglican scholar Henry Chadwick (1920-2008) cogently argued that Jesus quoted or paraphrased it on several occasions, including in the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.

So when Jesus told the parable of two prayers, his original audience would have had Ben Sira’s advice as background; they would have known that Jesus was referring back to a concern about hypocritical worship, about worship that is merely for show, about worship that does not honor the commandments, a concern dating back many years. They would have known who Jesus was condemning, just like we do! They knew that Jesus was not talking about them, just like we know that Jesus is not talking about us! Thank God that we are not like the bad people who pray with self-righteousness and contempt for others . . . .

Oh . . . wait a minute! You see what Jesus has done? He’s trapped us! He’s tricked us into judging the Pharisee, to regarding him with contempt. And by judging the Pharisee we have become like the Pharisee; in order to get Jesus’ point we have to point to the Pharisee and his sin. By pointing to someone else, to “thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even . . . this tax collector,” and to their sins, the Pharisee condemns himself; by pointing to the Pharisee and his sin, we condemn ourselves.

Clever, sneaky preacher, that Jesus! How do we become more like the tax collector and less like the Pharisee? Ben Sira instructed his students to look worship with the eyes and understanding of God, with humility and without partiality.

So here’s an exercise . . . look at the other people all around you in church today. You know most of these people; some of them are in your family; some of them are your friends; you go to breakfast with some of them every Sunday. You may not know others; some are people you see here on Sunday but don’t otherwise socialize with; some may be people you don’t know at all. But about all of them, you do know two things. First, you know that God loves them; God loves every single person in this church today. God made them; God knows them; God loves them.

The second thing you know is that nobody in this church today is perfect. The religious way to say that is that every one of us is a sinner. Each one of us says and does things that hurt others; each one of us says and does things that hurt ourselves; each one of us says and does things that hurt God. Sometimes we do that intentionally; more often we do it negligently. But the simple truth is, whatever the reason for it may be, that we do it.

And here’s a third thing you know, and this you know about yourself . . . that the two things you know about all these people around you in church are also true of you. These are the two central truths of the Christian faith: that we are sinners and that God loves us anyway.

Now I’d like to ask you all to stand, as you may be able.

Raise your right hand, palm cupped up. Receive in that hand the truth that God loves you, that God loves all of us. Now raise your left hand, palm cupped up. Offer from that hand to God the truth that you are not perfect, that you are a sinner. See how your right hand is still holding the first truth; the second doesn’t change it at all. Not about you, not about anyone!

This, by the way, is called the orans position, the ancient position of prayer, standing with one’s hands up-raised, open to God; it has a rich tradition in Jewish and Christian practice, one’s body representing the spirit open to God’s grace.

The Pharisee in the parable failed to be fully open, fully honest with God or with himself. He was willing to raise the one hand to receive God’s blessing, but was unwilling to raise the other, unwilling to admit that he was imperfect, that he was like the thieves, rogues, adulterers, and tax collectors, that he was like us.

Jesus, clever, sneaky preacher that he is, tricks us into acknowledging that we are like the Pharisee. Like Ben Sira before him, he encourages us to place ourselves fully before God, fully open to God, praying with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”

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.

What Is the Crying? – Sermon for Advent 2, Year C – December 9, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 9, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Advent 2, Year C: Baruch 5:1-9; Canticle 16 (The Song of Zechariah, Benedictus Dominus Deus, Luke 1: 68-79); Philippians 1:3-11; and Luke 3:1-6. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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John the Baptist

What is the crying at Jordan?
Who hears, O God, the prophecy?
Dark is the season, dark our hearts
and shut to mystery.

Who then shall stir in this darkness,
prepare for joy in the winter night?
Mortal, in darkness we lie down, blindhearted,
seeing no light.

Lord, give us grace to awake us,
to see the branch that begins to bloom;
in great humility is hid all heaven
in a little room.

Now comes the day of salvation,
in joy and terror the Word is born!
God comes as gift into our lives;
oh let salvation dawn!

(Words: Carol Christopher Drake)

What is the crying at Jordan? What is the crying in New York? What is the crying at Arlington? What is the crying in Southern California? What is the crying at Checkpoint 18 outside of Kabul? What is the crying in Medina? What is that crying?

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction,” wrote Baruch, “and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.” This is a time and a season when we expect to leave behind our sorrows and our afflictions; we expect to feel happiness and joy, and if we don’t we feel guilty because that’s what your supposed to feel at Christmas, right? But the truth is that for many this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely. That crying is the voice of those feeling the cold hand of death and the emptiness of loss in this season of joy and celebration.

This is a time and a season when death and loss can and do really hit home. Nine days ago, a week ago Friday, we received word that Nancy Lawrence, a long-time, life-time member of this congregation had passed away. Even though her last several months of life were, frankly, awful and everyone who has known Nancy is relieved that she is no longer suffering, still any death is an occasion of sadness. For many this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

This past Friday, day before yesterday, I got word in the evening that Deborah Griffin Bly, a woman I’ve known and whose music I have enjoyed for seventeen years had died. She was one of the singing duet called “The Miserable Offenders” and it was she and her partner who introduced me to that exquisite piece of poetry and its musical setting, Hymn 69, in our hymnal. Deb and I were part of community of Anglicans online that extends around the world; through it we have had nearly a thousand mutual friends. For many this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

Thirteen years ago, on the longest night of the year, the winter solstice, December 21, my mother passed away. Losing a parent is one of life’s hardest lessons, and never a good prelude to Christmas, and every year after the joyous holiday is also a reminder of the most profound loss. For me, as for many, this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

And, yet, Baruch writes, “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.”

In the current issue of the magazine The Christian Century, Lutheran pastor Peter Marty tells of preaching a Christmas Eve sermon in which he made “reference to a little boy in a rough section of Trenton, New Jersey, whose body was found stuffed in a bag under a fire escape.” At the conclusion of the service a woman “told [him] in the receiving line that mention of children being murdered had no place in a Christmas sermon. [She said,] ‘I will never set foot in this church again.'” (December 12, 2012, Vol. 129, No. 25, page 10) I don’t know if I would mention a murder in a Christmas sermon, but I think we all need to remember that for many this time of year is not a “holly, jolly” season.

As we get ready for whatever good times we anticipate, as we prepare to celebrate the Messiah’s birth, let’s remember that unless we see the shadow of the cross falling on the crib we are not seeing Christmas clearly. Jesus did not enter this world just to be a cute little baby; he grew up! He lived in a time of political turmoil in a land oppressed by the military might of the Roman Empire. He taught a subversive “good news” that offended both that Empire and the religious establishment of his own country which sought to appease it. His truth would lead to his arrest and he would suffer and die on a cross. That he did so and rose from the dead so that our sins might be forgiven and we might enter into the Kingdom of God is why Christmas is special. Christmas Eve might not be the time or place to make mention of the murder of children, but our time of preparing to appreciate Christmas is a time to appreciate the reality of death and suffering, the reality of sorrow and affliction.

Traditionally, on this Second Sunday of Advent (and again next week on the Third Sunday) we focus our attention on John the Baptist, the forerunner who was the voice crying in the wilderness. His was the voice crying at Jordan, “In the desert, make straight a pathway for our God.” We turned our attention toward John this morning by saying together the words of the song his father, the priest Zechariah, sang at his birth. It’s a great canticle, and I love its final words:

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

They are words that speak especially to those for whom this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely.

They are also words that speak to and for all of us, because we all dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. At one time or another, we all, as that marvelous poem says, lie down in darkness, blind-hearted, seeing no light. At one time or another, we all, as the Psalmist so eloquently put it, walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But we need fear no evil for as John the Baptist, cried out at Jordan

Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

It is for and through those for whom this is a time and a season when sorrow and affliction are felt most acutely that the real meaning of Advent comes through. Only a very shallow and superficial understanding of the story of the Savior’s birth would lead us to think that the Christmas for which we prepare is only about happiness. Christmas is about real life – yes, it is about joy, but it is also about sorrow; yes, it is about birth, but it is also about death; yes, it is about redemption, but it is also about affliction. It is about God coming to us incarnate in Jesus to give us life, real life, and that abundantly. It is about Christ crucified, risen, and ascended returning for us in glory. When we realize this and are enabled to give thanks for the birth of Christ and to look forward to his triumphant return even in the midst of death and loss, even as we live with profound sorrow and affliction, it is then that the dawn from on high breaks upon us brings us. It is then that we harvest the “righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ;” it is then that we see salvation; it is then that we put on forever the beauty of the glory from God.

Let us pray:

O God of grace and glory, as we continue to prepare to celebrate the birth of our Savior, as we await his return in glory, we remember before you our loved ones departed. We thank you for giving them to us, their families and friends, to know and to love as companions on our earthly pilgrimage. In your boundless compassion, comfort us when we are overcome by sorrow and affliction. Give us faith to know that the valley of the shadow of death shall be filled, that your dawn will break upon us to guide our feet into the way of peace, so that in quiet confidence we may continue our course on earth, until, by your call, we shall see your salvation and be reunited with those who have gone before; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Wisdom of Labor – From the Daily Office – November 5, 2012

From the Book of Ben Sira:

The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure;
only the one who has little business can become wise.
How can one become wise who handles the plough,
and who glories in the shaft of a goad,
who drives oxen and is occupied with their work,
and whose talk is about bulls?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 38:24-25 – November 5, 2012)
 
Laborer with Large WrenchA few years ago I used this text in an affirmative way at a mass in celebration of our country’s legal system and those who practice law at the bar or sit on the bench as judges, but as I reflect on this text today, I find it unacceptably elitist. Although in subsequent verses Ben Sira extolls the diligence and care taken by craftspeople and laborers, those who “rely on their hands, and all [who] are skilful in their own work,” (v. 31) he conludes that they “do [not] understand the decisions of the courts; they cannot expound discipline or judgement.” (v. 33) Workers cannot be wise in his estimation!

I disagree with Ben Sira. My late step-father was a skilled craftsman whom Ben Sira would have written-off as a manual laborer incapable of gaining wisdom. He was a tool-and-die maker; he was also one of the wisest men I’ve ever known. We often disagreed on matters of politics or economics, but in regard to the ways of getting on with people, being of service to his community, and respecting and caring for his friends, I looked up to him as to no other.

I rather think St. Benedict of Nursia also would have disagreed with Ben Sira! He required manual labor of his monks. Chapter 48 of the Rule of Benedict provides:

Idleness is the enemy of the soul. Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading. We believe that the times for both may be arranged as follows: From Easter to the first of October, they will spend their mornings after Prime till about the fourth hour at whatever work needs to be done. From the fourth hour until the time of Sext, they will devote themselves to reading. But after Sext and their meal, they may rest on their beds in complete silence; should a brother wish to read privately, let him do so, but without disturbing the others. They should say None a little early, about midway through the eighth hour, and then until Vespers they are to return to whatever work is necessary. They must not become distressed if local conditions or their poverty should force them to do the harvesting themselves. When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are really monks. Yet, all things are to be done with moderation on account of the fainthearted.

Those who work with their hands, who do what my maternal grandfather (a professional barber) would have called “an honest day’s work,” learn many things. First, they learn to identify priorities; they have a goal to achieve and learn to do things in an appropriate order to accomplish it. Second, they learn the value of cooperation with others; helping a co-worker in need, picking up the slack when someone else is unable to work, accepting the assitance of others, all of these are learned when working with others. Third, they learn essential skills transferable between jobs: time management, communication, coping with stress, creative thinking, problem solving techniques. I learned lessons such as these from my grandfather and from my step-father.

Ben Sira is, frankly, wrong. Manual labor or working at a craft are wonderful schools for wisdom; I think this is why St Benedict required it of his monks. It is certainly why my grandfather and my step-father were such wise men.

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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.

Unbind Him, and Let Him Go! – Sermon for All Saints Sunday – November 4, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 4, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, All Saints, Year B: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; and John 11:32-44. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Orthodox Icon of the Raising of LazarusToday, following church tradition, we step away from the calendar of Ordinary Time and, instead, commemorate the Feast of All Saints. That festival is specifically held on November 1, but tradition allows us to celebrate the saints also on the Sunday after that date, so here we are.

Anglicans and Episcopalians for generations have been used to hearing the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 5:1-12) or the similar Blessings-and-Woes from Luke’s version (Luke 6:20-26), but since the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary we also, every three years, hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the gospel according to John. The listings of who is blessed in the other two gospels make sense as lessons for this day; the story of Lazarus, not so much. It may make us wonder why those who created our new lectionary made that choice.

Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to that question, if there are any answers at all. The development of the lectionary is a creature of time and custom as much as it is of purposeful selection. Lectionaries develop over the centuries. Typically, a lectionary will go through the scriptures in a logical pattern, and also include selections chosen by the community for their appropriateness to particular occasions. The ecumenical scholars who set up our current lectionary looked back over these centuries of development and selected lessons which had the broadest consensus for use on particular days, like today’s celebration of the feasts.

But why that consensus may exist is lost in time. There are no legislative notes indicating why communities thought a particular lesson, like the story of Christ raising Lazarus, fit a particular feast, such as All Saints Day. We who have inherited the tradition must read the lessons and figure out their message for ourselves. On a feast day, the Prayer Book gives us some filters, if you will, to aid in our reflections and our understanding; these are the collect (or prayer) of the day and the “proper preface” said (or chanted) before the Great Thanksgiving. Let’s take a look at the collect again:

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen. (BCP Page 245)

The focus of the prayer is the “communion and fellowship” of the saints, the community of the church, which is “knit together . . . in the mystical body” of Christ, which shares in “virtuous and godly living” and together enjoys the “ineffable joys” of eternal life. Likewise the preface focuses on the community:

For in the multitude of your saints you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship, and run with endurance the race that is set before us; and, together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away. (BCP Page 380)

The emphasis is on the “great cloud of witnesses” (a phrase borrowed from the Letter to the Hebrews 12:1) who rejoice in fellowship and together are crowned with unfading glory.

So in our contemplation of any of the lessons for today, we should look for the ways in which the lesson exemplifies or speaks to the community of faith, and in the raising of Lazarus that comes at the end of the story: “The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go’.” (John 11:44)

“Unbind him, and let him go!” These may be the most powerful words in the story, because with them Jesus not only frees Lazarus, he empowers the community of faith. The community assists in the resurrection; it is the task of the People of God to complete the action of Resurrection. Jesus has called Lazarus out of the tomb, but he is still wearing the clothing of death, his funeral wrappings; the community removes those burial shrouds and dresses him for life.

I love that old Southern Harmony hymn we sang in procession today, especially the chorus which says

As I went down in the river to pray,
Studying about that good ol’ way
And who shall wear the robe and crown?
Good Lord, show me the way.
(“Down in the River to Pray”)

“Who shall wear the robe and crown?” is a reference to the vision of St. John of Patmos recorded in the Book of Revelation, a vision of heaven where “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” (Rev. 7:9)

Last Thursday, which was actually All Saints Day, one of the lessons for the Daily Office of Morning Prayer was from the apocryphal book of Second Esdras. In it Ezra reports seeing a similar vision of heaven.

I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord. (2 Esdras 2:42-47)

This vision differs from that in Revelation in that the presence of the Son of God is among the crowd, crowning them and putting the palms in their hands. I have to say, I rather prefer this vision to John’s because of that difference. There is something compelling about the Son of God being there with the saints, not high and exalted on a throne, as the Lamb is in the oracle of Revelation, but down with the people. This seems much more like the Jesus described in the Gospels, much more like the God he revealed.

This vision of Christ with the masses, yielding his glory and mixing in with his people, seems somehow quite in keeping with our celebration of all the saints. Today we don’t commemorate only those whose names are known, those who are portrayed in art with golden halos, those in whose particular memory churches and schools are dedicated; today we commemorate those whose names are not known. Ezra’s vision in Second Esdras of Christ mingling with these unknown but godly people appeals to me.

An early 20th Century Roman Catholic Lithuanian archbishop, George Matulaitis, once wrote:

May our model be Jesus Christ: not only working quietly in His home at Nazareth, not only Christ denying Himself, fasting forty days in the desert, not only Christ spending the night in prayer; but also Christ working, weeping, suffering; Christ among the crowds; Christ visiting the cities and villages. (Renovator of the Marians)

This is the Christ of Ezra’s vision; this is the Christ of the saints whom we remember today, Christ among the crowds. Indeed, John of Patmos in our reading from Revelation today describes God among the people: “[God] will dwell with [mortals] as their God; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Rev. 21:3-4)

When Jesus, this Christ among the crowds, this God dwelling with mortals, tells those around him, “Unbind him, and let him go” he is speaking not only to them, but also to us. When we hear those words we should remember another time when he empowered his church to unbind others. In Matthew’s gospel, in conversation with Peter, Jesus said: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19)

And again later to the apostles he said: “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 18:18)

Here the Greek verb luo is translated as “loosen”, but it is the same word in our reading today translated as “unbind”. We have the power and the obligation to unbind and set others free. “Unbind him, and let him go” is Christ’s empowering command to all the saints everyday. It is Christ’s command to us to unbind others and give them their freedom; this is Christ among the crowds, God dwelling with God’s people, showing us the way that we and others can wear the robe and crown.

We unbind others and set them free when we work to alleviate the desperate plight of those who lack material means of survival, whether they are in our own communities, on the Gulf Coast or the eastern seaboard, or in distant countries. We unbind others and set them free when we act to console a brother or sister crushed by loss or fear or despair. We unbind others and set them free when we strive to empower rather than intimidate. We unbind others and set them free when we commit ourselves to justice for all, not merely for ourselves. We unbind others and set them free when we extend to others the mercy we have received from God. Whenever and wherever we find someone bound by sin or system or circumstance, we are to unbind them and set them free, not keep them tangled up in the old affairs, the old clothing, the old funeral wrappings of sin and death; those burial shrouds constrict them and damage everyone. Whenever and wherever we find someone struggling to be free, we are to unbind them and let them go so that we may all wear the robe and crown.

Today we commemorate all the saints, that great cloud of witnesses, that great multitude that no one can count wearing their robes and crowns, the community of the church throughout time and space charged with, committed to, and constantly striving to unbind others and set them free. 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.

Hostess Gifts For God – From the Daily Office – November 3, 2012

From the Book of Ben Sira:

Do not appear before the Lord empty-handed,
for all that you offer is in fulfilment of the commandment.
The offering of the righteous enriches the altar,
and its pleasing odor rises before the Most High.
The sacrifice of the righteous is acceptable,
and it will never be forgotten.
Be generous when you worship the Lord,
and do not stint the first fruits of your hands.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 35:6-10 – November 3, 2012)
 
Host and Hostess GiftsIt shouldn’t, but it always surprises me when I preside at a worship service and the offering of alms (cash money) is small. This is especially so at a small-attendance service when there are only a few people but even fewer dollars in the plate. It surprises me, I suppose, because of something I was taught by my grandfather. It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose, because of the realities of which I am aware.

Those realities include the fact that many of those present have made their weekly or monthly pledge offerings at another time during the week, at a principal service or, perhaps, by mail or by direct deposit. Those realities include the fact that many people no longer carry cash at all and have no small bills or change to put in the alms basin. Those realities include the fact that many who give prefer to do so in a way that can be tracked for tax or other purposes and one cannot do that with “anonymous” cash donations. I know all these realities and yet, because of what my grandfather taught me, I am still surprised at how few alms there are in the offering basin.

What my paternal grandfather taught me accord’s with Ben Sira’s words in today’s lesson. He said, “Never approach the altar of God without a gift of thanksgiving. Even if you’ve already paid your pledge in some way, even if you’ve already attended the week’s principal service and made a major donation, open your wallet and give a little extra.” My grandmother always took a “hostess gift” when my grandparents were invited to dinner or another gathering at someone else’s home; I suppose, in some way, my grandfather’s insistence on an offering at worship was like a “hostess gift” to God. It is a visible act of thanksgiving and is as much a reminder to me as to anyone of my need to be thankful and generous. lt is much more for my benefit that I give than for that of the church or any mission or ministry it may support.

God doesn’t really need our hostess gifts, but we need to give them.

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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.

Christ Among the Crowds – All Saints Day – November 1, 2012

From the Book of Second Esdras:

I, Ezra, saw on Mount Zion a great multitude that I could not number, and they all were praising the Lord with songs. In their midst was a young man of great stature, taller than any of the others, and on the head of each of them he placed a crown, but he was more exalted than they. And I was held spellbound. Then I asked an angel, “Who are these, my lord?” He answered and said to me, “These are they who have put off mortal clothing and have put on the immortal, and have confessed the name of God. Now they are being crowned, and receive palms.” Then I said to the angel, “Who is that young man who is placing crowns on them and putting palms in their hands?” He answered and said to me, “He is the Son of God, whom they confessed in the world.” So I began to praise those who had stood valiantly for the name of the Lord.

(From the Calendar of Saints – 2 Esdras 2:42-47 – November 1, 2012)

The Victorious Saints of GodI have to admit that I’m not sure how to treat the so-called Second Book of Esdras. Although counted among the apocryphal books, it seems more to me to be what is technically called pseudopigrapha (“false writings”). It is not recognized by any western church; neither the Roman church nor the Protestants recognize it, although it is annexed as part of an appendix to the Vulgate. Only the Greek and Russian Orthodox accept it as Scripture. If I recall correctly, it is actually made up of three different writings all from the 2nd or 3rd Centuries of the Christian era; it’s not “Old Testament”or “Hebrew Scripture”, at all! So what does one do with it? Here it is in the lectionary for All Saints Day for obvious reasons, but what does one do with it?

Well, of course, one notes the similarity of this vision with that of John of Patmos set out in Revelation 7:9-17: angel talking to the one having the vision, question about who the crowd is, white robed saints, palms in their hands. What’s different here is the presence of the Son of God among the crowd, crowning them and putting the palms in their hands. And, I have to say, I rather prefer this vision to John’s because of that difference. There is something compelling about the Son of God being there with the saints, not high and exalted on a throne, as the Lamb is in John’s oracle, but down with the crowds. This seems much more like the Jesus described in the Gospels, much more like the God he revealed. I am reminded of a couple of hymns:

All praise to thee, for thou, O King divine,
didst yield the glory that of right was thine,
that in our darkened hearts thygrace might shine.

Thou cam’st to us in lowliness of thought;
by thee the outcast and the poor were sought;
and by thy death was God’s salvation wrought.
(Words by F. Bland Tucker)

and

Not here for high and holy things
we render thanks to thee,
but for the common things of earth,
the purple pageantry
of dawning and of dying days,
the splendor of the sea,

the royal robes of autumn moors,
the golden gates of spring,
the velvet of soft summer nights,
the silver glistering
of all the million million stars,
the silent song they sing….
(Words by Geoffrey Anketel Studdert-Kennedy)

This vision of Christ with the masses, yielding his glory and mixing in with “the common (people and) things of earth,” seems somehow quite in keeping with today’s celebration of all the saints. Today we don’t commemorate only those whose names are known, those who are portrayed in art with golden halos, those in whose particular memory churches and schools are dedicated; today we commemorate those whose names are not known.

I’m particularly fond of the text of Chapter 44 of the Wisdom of Sirach which begins “Let us now praise famous men….” I chose that text to read at the graveside when we buried my older brother in 1993. In it are found these words, “But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten….” (Sirach 44:9-10) Ezra’s vision in Second Esdras of Christ mingling with these unknown but godly people appeals to me. An early 20th Century Roman Catholic Lithuanian archbishop, George Matulaitis, once wrote:

May our model be Jesus Christ: not only working quietly in His home at Nazareth, not only Christ denying Himself, fasting forty days in the desert, not only Christ spending the night in prayer; but also Christ working, weeping, suffering; Christ among the crowds; Christ visiting the cities and villages.

This is the Christ of Ezra’s vision; this is the Christ of the saints whom we remember today, Christ among the crowds.

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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.