That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Acts (page 1 of 8)

Never-Changing & Ever-Changing: Sermon & Report for the Annual Meeting, January 21, 2018

A couple of months ago, I was part of a conversation among several parishioners about the set-up for our celebrations of the Nativity. We looking at our plans for Christmas services, and a member of our altar guild exclaimed, “That’s the problem! Things are always changing around here!”

A few days later at the November vestry meeting, as we were discussing our preliminary work on the 2018 budget and looking over the church’s calendar for the coming year, one of our vestry persons expressed some frustration saying, “That’s the problem! Nothing ever changes around here!”

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To See the Divine Image – Sermon for Baptism of Our Lord, January 7, 2018

Christmas is now done. It ended Friday on Twelfth Night. I am sure than none of you, good Anglican traditionalists that we all are, put away any of your decorations before then, but have by now put them all away.

Yesterday, of course, was the Feast of the Epiphany, the day on which we remember especially the visitation of the Magi. We don’t know exactly when they visited the Holy Family, but most scholars seem certain that it was a lot more than 13 days after Jesus’ birth! More likely, it was about two years. We’ve left the Creche in place this morning and you’ll notice that the Wise Men have made their way from the table at the rear of the Nave up the Epistle side aisle, have visited Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, and are now heading back down the Gospel side aisle, returning to “their own country (as Matthew tells us) by another road.”1

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

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I See You: Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, 28 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sunday after the Ascension, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10,33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11; and St. John 17:1-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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As I read our lessons for today and again as I heard them this morning, two verses in particular have leapt out at me. One from the Gospel of John in which Jesus says: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn 17:3) The other is from the story in the Book of Acts in which, after Jesus has been lifted up and a cloud has taken him out of the apostles’ sight, two suddenly-appearing “men in white robes” (angels, one presumes) ask the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11)

I want to explore the way in which these two verses are connected, but first let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a conversation that went like this?

“Hi, how are you?” asks an acquaintance.

“Fine, thanks! How are you?” you answer, but before you’ve even finished saying the word “fine” you friend has walked on and is paying not the slightest attention to you or your answer and clearly was not really interested in whether you are fine or not and is even less interested in telling you how they are doing.

What would you call the relationship such a dialogue evidences? I used the word “friend,” but that clearly overstates what such a lack of give-and-take demonstrates; I also used “acquaintance,” but I don’t think the conversation shows even that level of association. It’s more like the image in Longfellow’s The Theologian’s Tale:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
(Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863)

You’ve had, I suspect, many conversations of greeting like that. I know I have.

In contrast to such transient and insignificant greetings, consider the way the fictional people of the planet Pandora in the 2009 science-fiction film Avatar greeted one another. Avatar was on TV Friday night. Perhaps you saw it; I did. Avatar was a big splashy tale of the clash of cultures, rapacious exploitative humans from Earth versus the apparently primitive but wise and environmentally attuned Na’Vi of Pandora. It had lots of CGI special effects, very effective use of 3D film technology, and a good action plot that kept viewers entertained. In the midst of all that there was a story about relationships, both relationships in general and a specific relationship, the love affair between the human Jake Sully and the Na’Vi native girl Neytiri.

In the Na’Vi cosmology, all life is connected through a personalized power they call “Ey’Wa.” Ey’Wa is not God – it’s unclear whether the Na’Vi have a god, and at one point Neytiri criticizes and even ridicules Jake when he addresses a prayer to Ey’Wa – but neither is Ey’Wa the impersonal and amoral “Force” of the Star Wars saga. In the world of theology, the Na’Vi understanding is most similar to the teaching called “panentheism,” literally “all-in-God-ism.” This school of thought affirms that although God and the world are distinct, that is, not the same, and although God transcends the world, the world is, nonetheless, “in” God; God is intimately connected to the world and yet remains greater than the world. (Panentheism should not be confused with pantheism, which understands God to be the world.) Some famous theologians associated with the idea of panentheism are the Lutheran Paul Tillich, Wolfhart Pannenberg in the Reformed tradition, the Evangelical Jurgen Moltmann, and the Roman Catholic writer Karl Rahner.

In any event, the Na’Vi’s understanding of Ey’Wa and their connection to her is expressed in their greeting, “I see you.” As the Na’Vi explain in the film, this greeting doesn’t mean ordinary seeing; it means “the Ey’Wa in me sees the Ey’Wa in you; the Ey’Wa in me is connecting with the Ey’Wa in you.” That greeting conveys a much, much greater sense of relationship than any “Hi, how are you? … Fine, and you?”

The conservative Roman Catholic New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat didn’t like Avatar at all. The week it came out (just before Christmas in 2009), he wrote a blistering critique of the philosophical underpinnings of its story, accusing the writers of offering a world-view in which human beings are nothing more than “beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality” in an agonized and deeply tragic position from which “there is no escape upward.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/opinion/21douthat1.html)

Now, I often find myself in disagreement with Mr. Douthat but I also often find his prose memorable and, having read his negative critique of a movie I rather enjoyed, I often think of it when I see the movie (which I did on Friday night). And his “no escape upward” quip sort of went “click” into the socket presented by that question from today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

By far my favorite artistic representation of the Ascension is Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ painted in 1958. Dali said that his inspiration for the painting

. . . came from a “cosmic dream’ that he had in 1950, some eight years before the painting was completed. In the dream, which was in vivid color, he saw the nucleus of an atom, which we see in the background of the painting; Dali later realized that this nucleus was the true representation of the unifying spirit of Christ. (Dali Paintings)

The viewer’s perspective is that of apostles, looking upwards at the bottoms of Jesus’ feet.

The feet of Christ point out at the viewer, drawing the eye inwards along his body to the center of the atom behind him. The atom has the same interior structure as the head of a sunflower. (Ibid.)

Dali explained to Mike Wallace in a 1958 television interview that he was intrigued by continuous circular patterns like sunflowers because they follow the law of a logarithmic spiral, which he associated with the force of spirit. (The Mike Wallace Interview, 4/19/1958) Dali often fused his conceptions of Christianity with the science of the mid-20th Century. So the sunflower-like nucleus of the atom was Dali’s representation of the unifying spirit of Christ, which in Dali’s nuclear mysticism connects everyone.

In the distance above the sunflower is the Dove, ready to descend from the clouds as on Pentecost which the church celebrates ten days after the Feast of the Ascension. Also there is a human face, specifically Dali’s wife Gala, who is crying. Dali often used Gala’s image to portray the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven, but here she seems to represent the Father weeping over the Son’s departure from the Earth from the Father’s perspective in heaven.

So when I hear those two white-clad angels asking the men of Galilee why do they stood there looking up toward heaven, I think of Dali’s painting and I know why! There was so much to see, so much to stand in awe of, so much to be overwhelmed by! And yet the angels’ question is a poignantly valid one because, despite Mr. Douthat’s critique of the movie Avatar, there is no immediately available “escape upward.” There is, instead, this world in which we “beasts with self-consciousness, [we] predators with ethics, [we] mortal creatures who yearn for immortality” must get on with the business of living. There is this world into which Jesus sent his followers just before that moment of being lifted up with the command:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Mt 28:19-20)

There is this world in which Jesus prayed to his Father that his followers might have eternal life, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn 17:3)

There it is; the biblical definition of “eternal life.” Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in her commentary on this gospel lesson asks:

What if it is that simple? How would that change what we imagine in this life? How would it affect our thoughts about and beliefs in our future life with God? How does this alter even our picture of God? Of course, what it means to “know” God is key, and to know God in the Fourth Gospel has no connection to cognitive constructions, creedal consents, or specified knowledge about God. Rather, knowing God is synonymous with being in a relationship with God. (Working Preacher Commentary, 2014)

Another commentator on this text points out that there are

. . . four great examples of discipleship in John are the Samaritan woman in ch. 4, the blind man in chapter 9, Mary in chapter 12, and Thomas, of all people, in chapter 19? What do they have in common? They participated in ongoing relationship and encounter with Jesus. Both the Samaritan woman and the blind guy have lengthy, increasingly deep dialogue with Jesus and as they do, they understand him more and more to the point where they “know” him and understand that he is the source of their lives and loves them like no other. This leads them to worship him and testify to others about him.

Mary is described as one whom Jesus loved (11:5) and John makes it clear and that she, her brother Lazarus and sister Martha regularly spent time with Jesus. Thomas may be a less obvious hero, but he’s a hero nonetheless in this Gospel. He sticks with Jesus even though he discerns trouble is in store (11:16); he asks questions when he doesn’t understand (14:5); he’s not gullible or prone to flights of fancy but he’s willing to believe when confronted with raw glory (chapter 20). On the basis of all of this, Thomas comes to fully know Jesus such that he declares him to be “My Lord and My God” (20:28). (Jaime Clark-Soles, Working Preacher Commentary, 2008)

How do we do that? How do we come to know Jesus the way these four great disciples did? How can we emulate the woman at the well, the man born blind, Mary of Bethany, or Thomas who is wrongly called “the doubter”? Unlike them, we don’t have Jesus walking around here with us. But we do have each other. And we do have all those people out there for whom he died and rose again, and to whom he sent us. And we are commended by John in his first epistle to “love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 Jn 4:7) And John continues, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. * * * God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 Jn 4:12,16b)

Which brings me back to the two angels and their question, and to the Na’Vi and their greeting, “I see you.” Jay Michaelson, a writer for The Huffington Post, in an editorial reply to Mr. Douthat’s criticisms suggested that the Na’Vi greeting is equivalent to the Hindu Sanskrit greeting, “Namaste.” Namaste literally means, “I bow to you” and is often translated to mean more fully, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” That is pretty similar to the Na’Vi explanation that “the Ey’Wa in me sees the Ey’Wa in you” and I suppose the screenwriters could definitely have had that in mind.

But there is another culture in our world which uses a more direct equivalent of the Na’Vi greeting, the Samburu people of Africa’s Serengeti about whom life-coach Terry Tilman writes in his essay entitled Connecting to the Soul:

About 20 years ago I was on a safari in Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda). As we traveled through the villages and Serengeti savanna I noticed a recurring event. When one of the indigenous people would approach another, they would pause, face each other, look directly in each others eyes for 5 -15 seconds, say something and then continue on their way. This would happen in populated villages and in very remote areas where there may be only one human every 20 square miles.

After a couple weeks of noticing this I asked one of our guides from the Samburu tribe what the natives were doing. He said they were greeting each other. “How are they doing that? What are they saying?” I asked.

“One of them says, ‘I see you.’ Connecting through the eyes, the other replies, ’I am here.’”

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My Samburu guide told me something else that I didn’t get at first. He said that in their language the greeting also meant something like, “Until you see me I do not exist. When you see me, you bring me into existence.” This speaks toward our deep connectedness and that we are in fact All One.

If you have seen Avatar, you know that the human character Jake Sully is a disabled Marine; he is confined to a wheelchair in his “real” human life. But his avatar, a synthetic body into which his conscience is temporarily transferred, is a fully functional Na’Vi male body. At the end of the movie, after Jake has rebelled against his superiors and championed the Na’Vi’s cause against Pandora’s exploitation by Earth, Jake’s crippled body is trapped in a damaged mobile laboratory. Neytiri finds him, breaks into the lab, and rescues him: “In the end, the real Jake is not his avatar. The real Jake is a man, unshaven and unkempt, without functional legs. And Neytiri sees this. As she holds the dying Jake, she tells him ‘I see you.’ This is what love is. Love is not trying to change the other person, to make them perfect, or to focus on their weaknesses. Love is seeing a person for who they are and embracing that person.” (The Everyday Thomist) Jake, of course, doesn’t die. Through a Na’Vi ritual and the connection with and through Ey’Wa, his consciousness is permanently transferred into the synthetic Na’Vi avatar, and he and Neytiri live happily ever after (one supposes).

Mr. Douthat complained that the panentheism of Avatar encourages us to avert our gaze from the “escape upward” that the Christianity of his conservative understanding affords, but that is precisely what the angels’ question and Jesus’ prayer encourage us to do. Eternal life is not found in “looking up toward heaven.” Eternal life is found when we see and know God and Jesus in those around us. Eternal life comes from knowing that we are not “ships that pass in the night, and speak each other [only] in passing,” but that we are, instead, deeply connected, that (as John wrote) “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Eternal life comes from knowing that we are all – as Jesus prayed and as Jesus taught – one, as he and the Father are one. (Jn 17:11)

I see you.

Amen.

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

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

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and St. John 14:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Sheep, Not Slaves: Sermon for Easter 4, 7 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; and St. John 10:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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It’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter and that means it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And that means that clergy throughout the church have, for the last week, been scratching their heads thinking, “This again? What can I do this time with the sheep-and-shepherd simile?” But, I’m not among them. For three days this past week, the clergy of this diocese have been in conference with our bishop, with a retired seminary president, and with a retired cathedral dean exploring exactly what we understand our ordinations to the diaconate and to the presbyterate to mean. That has kind of taken my attention off the “Good Shepherd” metaphor.

In addition, tomorrow will be the twenty-seventh anniversary of the day the Bishop of Nevada laid his hands on my head and said:

Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Eric; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your Church. (BCP 1979, Ordination of a Deacon, page 545)

I suppose the clergy conference and tomorrow’s anniversary may be why, as I studied today’s lessons, it is verses 19 through 21 of the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter, the words “For to this you have been called . . .,” that caught my attention rather than anything in the Gospel text, and focused my thoughts on Peter’s admonitions to patient endurance of wrongful suffering. Of course, Peter’s instructions are not particularly addressed to the clergy. The way in which our Lectionary is edited, the implication is that they are addressed to Christians in general and, in a broad and inchoate sort of way, they are.

In next Sunday’s epistle reading, we will be treated to some of the verses that precede today’s lesson; we will hear verses 2 through 10 in which Peter will address us as “newborn infants,” describe us as “living stones” being built into a “spiritual building,” and assure us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] God’s own people.” What we did not hear today and will not hear next week and, in fact, never hear read in church on a Sunday as an official Lectionary reading are verses 11 through 18:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

And only then, after these introductory verses, does the selection we heard read today begin with a word edited out of our reading, “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly . . . .” As true as those words may be, they are not addressed to you or to me; they are specifically addressed to aliens, exiles, and slaves. They are addressed to the marginalized and the oppressed; they are addressed to those who must endure injustice because they are powerless to do anything else. These are words of comfort to those who cannot escape oppression, a reminder of St. Paul’s words that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” (Rom 5:3-5) Certainly, we can learn from Peter’s words, but they are not addressed to us. We are not aliens, exiles, and slaves; we are not the marginalized or the oppressed; and we are not powerless.

The patient endurance of unjust suffering is not the life to which I was called as a deacon or as a priest, nor to which you have been called as a follower of Christ. As people who have power, and we do have power, we are called to do something about unjust suffering not simply endure it stoically or heroically.

I keep reading editorials and news analyses which assert that the outcome of the most recent US presidential election, the so-called “Brexit” vote of the electorate in the UK, and the rise of nationalist parties in Holland, France, and elsewhere in the European Union are the result of people rising up against an elite political class with regard to whom they have felt powerless. Well, I can’t speak to the situation in other countries, but I can call “Nonsense” on that assertion here in our own country. You and I and every other eligible voter in the United States are not powerless with respect to our elected politicians! We just aren’t!

What many voters in our country are is apathetic! What many voters in our country are is ill-informed! What many voters in our country are is disengaged! That’s not powerlessness; that’s surrender. Do you know what the percentage of eligible voters who actually bother to cast a ballot is? On average over the last 100 years, the turnout of registered, eligible voters in presidential elections is just over 55%. Expressed differently, that means that 45% of those who could have voted . . . didn’t. And the turnout in non-presidential elections is even worse. We are not a people without power; we are a people who have failed to exercise the power we have been given. We are not slaves patiently enduring unjust oppression; we are empowered people who have surrendered to political usurpation! When we do not exercise the power we are given, we “go astray like sheep.”

But, as Peter writes, we “have returned to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls.” (1 Pet 2:25) We are followers of Jesus Christ who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them.” (Jn 10:3) Jesus who told us that on the last, great day, in his role as our shepherd, “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . ” and to those who have truly followed him he will say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mt 25:32,35-36)

In some metaphorical ways, we may be like sheep, but in truth we are not sheep. We are followers of Jesus Christ and, unlike sheep, we have the power to do all those things, the social power, the economic power, and the political power. We can, as our Free Farmers’ Market volunteers do, roll up our sleeves and distribute food to the hungry; as our Lay Eucharistic Visitors do, take time from our Sunday afternoons to call on sick and shut-in parishioners; as our greeters do, stand at the church door and welcome those unfamiliar to us. We can, as many of us do, give of our wealth to the church, to charities (such as the American Cancer Society, the SPCA, Let’s Make a Difference, Hospice of the Western Reserve, Project Learn, and many others), and to public institutions (such as PBS and NPR, the Medina Schools Foundation, and our universities’ and colleges’ alumni associations and foundations). And we can, as so few of our fellow citizens do, vote, participate in the political process informed by our Christian faith!

On that day 27 years ago tomorrow, the Bishop of Nevada said to me as every bishop says to those who stand before him or her to be ordained deacon:

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself. (BCP, page 543)

We are not aliens, or exiles, or slaves; we are residents, and citizens, and politically empowered voters in one of the greatest nations on Earth. We have the political power to serve Christ himself ensuring that our country responds to “the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world,” that it serves the helpless, feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger, houses the homeless, clothes the naked, and cares for the sick. If we truly follow Christ and live up to our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, Holy Baptism, page 305), neither we nor anyone in our country need ever endure unjust suffering.

The idea that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” is attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, the liberator of India, but he was not alone in expressing that sentiment. The anti-Nazi German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often quoted as saying, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Author Pearl S. Buck wrote, “[T]he test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” (My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, Pocket Books, New York:1954, page 337) And Vice-President Hubert Humphrey said:

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped. (Remarks at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, Nov 1, 1977, Congressional Record, Nov 4, 1977, vol 123, p. 37287.)

The Book of Acts tells us that the earliest Christians devoted themselves to the fellowship and teachings of Christ and his apostles, that they ordered their small society so that any who had need were provided for, and that (as a result) they had the goodwill of all the people. Some of them were slaves, but we are not. We are neither sheep nor slaves, but we can follow the example of those early Christians and order our society so that the needy are cared for. We have the power, and we have made the promise, to do that.

In that service 27 years ago, as in every ordination service, the bishop offered this prayer:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord . . . . (BCP, page 540)

It is through us, the followers of Jesus Christ, not as sheep nor as slaves, but as socially, economically, and politically empowered citizens of this great nation, that God accomplishes these things in our place and in our time.

“Truly I tell you,” the Good Shepherd will say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

Amen.

(The illustration is “The Good Shepherd” (1975) by Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996), a stencil print in the Mingei style.)

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

Our Door-Blowing-Open God: Sermon for Easter 2, April 23, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Canon A. Brad Purdom III, Canon for Congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, while Fr. Eric Funston, rector, was attending his grandson’s baptism in Kansas.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Like many (perhaps most) Episcopal churches, my first congregation had a set of large red doors on the front of their building. But also like many Episcopal churches, no one ever used them because all the members knew how to enter through a more convenient door near the parking lot.

And because they were never used, again like many Episcopal churches, the front doors had become stuck over the decades. They no longer opened at all.

But it got really hot in there, so one day when I was alone in the church, I threw my weight against those doors and busted them open. I remember a loud, frightening crack, but, lucky for me, they were more stuck than broken.

The next Sunday I opened those doors up as wide as they would go, and sure enough, the temperature dropped immediately as the morning breeze easily flowed. And the church looked . . . open for business. Win/win.

A few minutes later I met the choir at the back of the church next to those beautiful open doors, and headed down the aisle to begin the service. At the front, I turned around to face the congregation and proclaim the Opening Acclamation: “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and blessed be those open doors!”

And you know what I saw: Two doors closed and locked. Two well-intentioned ushers had done their job . . . ensuring that we would not be in any way disturbed by that pesky world out there.

In the years since, I’ve come to think differently about what happened that morning than I did that day. That congregation had done exactly as we had taught them to do: made sure our little church was as it should be: snug . . . as a bug . . . in a rug: safe behind closed doors, a retreat from the distractions and dangers of the world.

This is the third of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel. The first was to Mary at the tomb. The second was later that same day, behind locked doors, to everyone except Thomas. And this morning’s, the third, one week later and again behind closed doors.

But . . . this morning’s account is the last time in John’s Gospel that we see them hiding behind closed doors. It is the last time we see them retreating from the world, the last time we see them controlled by fear; in fact, the last time we see them anything but fully engaged in a wonderful though often dangerous world.

What happened? I think what happened was that moment so reminiscent of the Creation story when God breathed life into the human formed of mud from the river; the moment when Jesus breathed on his friends and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For me that is the moment when the doors of that room, and of the disciple’s hearts and minds, blew wide open.

It is, of course, that same intimate breath of God that Jesus still breathes into us. Just as it was that same intimate breath of God that blew open the locked doors of that upper room once and for all and, I believe, is blowing open many once stuck sets of big red doors today.

The truth is, God has always been in the door-blowing-open business. And I think that’s exactly what God is doing today in the Christian church of western culture. You know, of course, that it is not just the Episcopal church that has lost its preeminence over the last fifty years. It is the entire Christian church in the developed Western world.

I have actually come to see that as a mostly good thing: not a curse but a corrective. I’m not saying there aren’t lots of other things going on that affect the relationship between church and culture, or that God is in any way punishing us. I’m just saying we’ve most certainly played our part.

The truth is that we did teach each other that our faith should be lodged behind locked doors and was private.

We did take faith formation of our children out of our homes and put it into the thirty minutes a week, or a month, they got in Sunday School.

We did develop a spirituality that understood the church’s purpose as providing a quiet, personal space to recharge enough to survive seven more days in the cold, hard world before getting back to some “us-time” among friends.

In fact, we did go down that kind of path so far and for so long that most of us didn’t even notice that so many of our big red front doors no longer opened. Talk about a metaphor!

But I said before that the breath, the Spirit, of God has always been in the door-blowing-open business. And I think we do notice those things now. I am confident your front doors open easily and wide!

And so do most of the front doors I encounter these days as I go to a different Diocese of Ohio church almost every week. I really do feel fresh breezes blowing through many of our churches.

Increasingly, everywhere I go, I see more and more of us getting that the church isn’t what happens to us in here nearly so much as it is what happens through us out there: as open-hearted, overtly Christian, people in the world.

The Spirit of God is breathing in and through us right now, and I believe American churches of most types are rediscovering our true purpose: to work alongside God in the world, restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

We can get all angry and judgmental with our non-Christian culture if we want to, but I think that is counterproductive. The church must always respond to the culture of its time and place.

That is what Jesus made possible for the disciples that morning when he breathed and filled them with the Holy Spirit. And that is what Jesus makes possible for us as he breathes upon us and fills us with that same Spirit again and again.

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Canon Purdom is the Canon for Congregations of Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

Act One: Use Your Towel – Maundy Thursday 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and St. John 13:1-17,31b-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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On Palm Sunday, I suggested that we think of Holy Week and Easter as a three-act drama beginning with an Overture on Palm Sunday. Today, we take part in the first act. The analogy of the Three Holy Days (or “Triduum”) to a play breaks down if we think of ourselves as the “audience.” We are not the audience.

The audience of worship is God. The one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is the audience. We, all of us, are the actors. We, all of us, are the cast.

So, here we are….

Act One, Scene One: The curtain rises. We see a group of people gathered in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

A meal is in progress… we wonder if it might be a seder, the ritual meal of remembrance of the Passover. We don’t really know; the playwrights have not made this clear and the theater critics, the scholars, debate the issue.

Three of the story-tellers suggest that it is. Luke and Matthew based their stories on Mark’s, so to be honest there aren’t three stories, there’s only one that would make us think that this supper is a seder.

However, the fourth, John, tells the tale very differently. John doesn’t even seem to care about the dinner – he spends no time at all describing the meal; for him, it’s not important. What’s important is what happened afterward.

So as we continue this three-act drama of redemption let’s just assume that that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are correct and what we see in this first scene of the first act is, indeed, a seder.

Those present are prepared to do all that is laid out in the instructions in the book of Exodus; they have worn their sandals; they carry their staffs; they expect to eat of roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They anticipate spending the night in remembrance of that which happened generations before in Egypt. If we can imagine that they celebrate as modern Jews celebrate, they are gathered in that upper room, those serving the meal coming and going, and a breeze blowing through the open windows. They are following along in their prayer books, the Haggadah; they expect the youngest among them to ask the questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” They know that the head of the household, their rabbi Jesus, will answer those questions in the prescribed way and tell the story of the Passover.

So, when the youngest asks “Why do we eat the broken matzah?” they expect Jesus to answer “This is the bread of our affliction; the unleavened bread of poverty, baked and eaten in haste,” but instead he takes the bread, brakes it and says, “This bread is my body, given for you.”

They look up startled, glancing at one another, murmuring to each other, “What is he talking about? That’s not here! That’s not the right answer. Where is he? What page is he on?” But the moment passes, the meal moves on.

At the end he takes up the fourth and final cup of wine, the kiddush cup, which recalls God’s promise, “I will acquire you as a nation; you will be my people and I will be your God.” As before, they expect Jesus to say the prescribed prayer, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine,” but instead they hear, “This cup is my blood!” “What?!” They look at one another in disbelief. “What is he saying???”

It is for Jesus and his disciples one of those fleeting opportunities when, because of the pupils’ confusion or frustration or grasping for understanding, the teacher can pass on to the students new information, new values, new moral understanding, a new behavior, a new skill, a new way of seeing and coping with reality; it is what we have come to call “the teachable moment” and so he teaches, yet again, “Remember! Remember,” he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The curtain falls as Jesus continues to teach; the disciples look mystified.

Act One, Scene Two: The curtain rises again. We see the same group of people gathered in the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

The meal is over, the dishes have been cleared. The disciples are arguing among themselves about who is the greater among them. Jesus looks frustrated and troubled; the teachable moment has passed and the disciples clearly have not understood! They just haven’t gotten it.

“Look,” he says, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Here, let me show you what I mean.” Getting up from the table, he takes off his robe, picks up a basin of water and a towel, and begins to wash and dry their feet.

As many of you know, I am a fan of science fiction, so when I hear about towels, one of the first things I think of is the late Douglas Adams’ hilariously funny novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book begins seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, when the protagonist Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who has been posing for the last 15 years as an out-of-work actor. The one thing Prefect makes sure that Dent brings with him is a towel. Quoting from the guidebook, he explains that a towel is the one, crucial, indispensable necessity that the intergalactic traveler must bring along on any journey:

A towel (says The Hitchhiker’s Guide) is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have . . . . you can wrap it around you for warmth . . . . you can lie on it on . . . brilliant marble-sanded beaches . . . . you can sleep under it beneath the stars . . . . use it to sail a mini-raft down a slow river . . . . wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes . . . . you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it sill seems to be clean enough.

Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

John tells us that Jesus made use of the towel to dry the disciples’ feet and then said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” It has occurred to me that The Hitchhiker’s Guide suggests many other ways in which we might use a towel in following Jesus’ lead.

When we baptize someone here at St. Paul’s Parish, the altar guild supplies towels for them to be dried with; I often joke about getting those towels back. But now it seems to me that we might better give them to the newly baptized with an admonition to follow Jesus’ example of loving service. The towel of service just might be the one, crucial, indispensible necessity that the Christian traveler should bring along on his or her journey through life. It just may be the most massively useful thing we can have as we serve others. We can wash and dry their feet; we can wrap them in warmth; we can provide a comfortable place to sleep; we can help them on a journey; we can protect them; we can signal to them and for them in emergencies; we can clothe the naked, swaddle a baby, comfort the sick. I’m sure you can come up with many more uses, small and large, for a towel and, by extension, for your heart, for your life, and for your willing hands.

That Jesus made use of the towel in the context of the Lords’ Supper is a really important point. There used to be what some thought of as a silly and useless bit of priestly vesture worn at Communion called a “maniple.” It looked sort of like a short stole and was made of the same material as the stole and chasuble. It was worn over the left forearm and looked like, and in fact was meant to symbolize, the sort of towel or table napkin often worn by the wait-staff in fancy restaurants, a symbol of service. Anglican clergy stopped wearing maniples long ago and Roman Catholic priests were allowed to discontinue them in 1967, one of the minor reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In abandoning that symbolic vestment, however, we may have lost a reminder that, in addition to being called to follow Jesus along the way of the cross, we are also called to follow him in his use of the towel! Just as Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he might also have said, “Take up your towel and follow me.” In fact, he did when he said, “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”

Perhaps we no longer use the maniple as a priestly vestment because the ministry of Christian servanthood which it represents is not limited to clergy; it is the ministry of all baptized people. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” we are asked in the liturgy of baptism, and every person present answers, “I will, with God’s help.” This servant ministry is one which we all share, just as this meal of Bread and Wine, of Christ’s Body and Blood, is one which we all share.

The disciples, however, don’t get the opportunity to serve one another, for this second scene ends with Jesus, visibly agitated, declaring, “One of you will betray me.” As the curtain goes down, the disciples are looking puzzled and Judas Iscariot is leaving.

Act One, Scene Three: The curtain rises again. We see a garden and an olive grove just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is there, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. “Stay here,” he tells them, “Stay awake while I go over there to pray.” As they settle themselves, he moves away from them, and collapses in a heap, sobbing: “O God … Father, let this pass!”

Three times he returns to find them asleep; three times they rise looking sheepish and embarrassed; twice he tells them again to try to stay awake as he goes away still pleading with God for a way out. “Enough,” he says the third time, “Enough! We’re leaving.”

When they look back on that night, how must they feel? When we look back, how should we feel? Poet Mary Oliver offers a glimpse in her poem Gethsemane:

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree,
and didn’t move, maybe the lake far away,
where once he walked as on a blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.

Yes, this too, our utterly human inability to fully keep company with our Lord, this too must be part of the story when it is told, part of the third scene of the first act of this drama that is retold again and again. This minor, little betrayal is as much a part of the story as Judas’ treachery which now plays out.

Scene Three ends as Jesus is arrested and taken away off-stage. In the wings, a trivial side-story plays out as Judas dies, either by hanging himself (as Matthew asserts) or by falling and suffering some sort of rupture (as Luke portrays in the Book of Acts). In any event, Judas dies and, in the church’s eyes, is condemned.

The Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan, in a very long elegy entitled The Ballad of Judas Iscariot, tells the tale of the soul of Judas carrying his body in search of a burial place, only to have it rejected by even the worst of places in all creation. Eventually, he comes to a banquet hall where a wedding feast is waiting to get started. The guests (that is, the church), recognizing Judas, demand that he be “scourged away,” but the Bridegroom has a different idea:

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

We sometimes use a Scottish invitation to Communion which comes from the ecumenical monastic community on the island of Iona:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready.
It is the table of company with Jesus,
And all who love him.
It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world,
With whom Jesus identified himself.
It is the table of communion with the earth,
In which Christ became incarnate.
So come to this table,
You who have much faith
And you who would like to have more;
You who have been here often
And you who have not been for a long time;
You who have tried to follow Jesus,
And you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.

All who have faith; all who would like to have more; all who have been to Communion often; all who have not been for a long time; all who have tried to follow Jesus (in the way of the cross or the way of the towel); all who have failed to do so. In other words, as John of Patmos witnessed in his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, everyone is called to the Supper of the Lamb; everyone is invited to the Wedding Feast! Even the disciples who fell asleep in the garden; even Judas Iscariot!

In this, the first act of the drama of redemption, Jesus has gathered his disciples. He has gathered us at the table that in the upper room. He has shared Bread and Wine. He washed and dried feet. He has given us the New Commandment: “Love one another.” He has said, “I have set you an example.” He might well have said, “Take up your towel and use it.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide says your towel can be used as a signal. So take up your towel; wave it so that all may see, and when you have their attention, invite them into this drama of redemption in which, tonight, we witness and take part in the first of three acts. Say to them, with Jesus, “Come! Come to this table! . . . . We have waited long for thee!”

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

Get Up! Get Dressed! Go to Work! – Annual Meeting Sermon, January 22, 2017

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A homily offered on January 22, 2017, by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the 200th Annual Parish Meeting of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are those for the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle: Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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the-conversion-of-st-paul-1528May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. (Ps. 67:1) Amen.

Have you ever been knocked off a horse? I have. Twice. Once when I was 11 and again when I was 24. Different circumstances and if you promise not to laugh, I’ll tell you about them when we have our luncheon after the business meeting. In both instances, however, one element was the same: landing flat on my back, having the wind knocked out of me, and being stunned not quite to unconsciousness. Both times it was a startling and uncomfortable experience.

The story of Paul’s conversion is told not once but four times in the pages of the New Testament; three times in the Book of Acts and once in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Although not mentioned in any of those descriptions, artists often depict Paul falling from a horse or donkey. When I read or hear the story, therefore, I have some sympathy for Paul. In addition to being knocked flat on his back, having the wind knocked out of him, and being mentally stunned, his incident included a blinding light, an encounter with a living rabbi he was convinced was dead, and the voice of God, and it was followed by three days of blindness. Now that’s an experience!

Now this is homily is supposed to be both a sermon and the rector’s report for the 200th Annual Meeting of the parish. Were I to focus on the second purpose, I could give you a lot of history – but I did that at our Bicentennial Choral Evensong on the Feast of the Epiphany, so I won’t do that. I could give you a summary of all the good things and some of the not-so-good things that have happened in the last year – but you can read the various ministry reports and the financial statements in the Annual Journal for yourselves. I could tell you about all the wonderful things planned for the coming year – but, again, you have the Annual Journal in your hands with the bicentennial event calendar and the 2017 Budget, so there you have it.

A rector’s report would merely repeat things you already know or have available to you in that Journal. So this will be more of a homily and less of a report, more (I hope) of a proclamation of a theology for the future and much less a review of the past. I am convinced that God is merciful to us, does bless us, illumines the way with the light of his countenance, and comes to us every day. Perhaps God does not come to us as dramatically as the Risen Lord came to Paul . . . or perhaps he does and we just don’t recognize it. We may be getting knocked off our horses regularly and we may simply be too oblivious to notice.

A canon of Durham Cathedral a few years ago preaching on these same texts said:

The experience of a light, of falling, an involuntary act of submission doubtless sending him into great fear and shock, was further heightened by a voice, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul’s reply uses the divine title “Lord”, “Who are you, Lord?” He recognizes that this is something from heaven, while being unsure of exactly who it is that is speaking. The response was, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting”. Of course, those words are moving words; Jesus makes no distinction between himself and his disciples; in persecuting them, Saul was persecuting him. It is a narrative illustration of the kind of mystical theology that Paul was later to develop in his letters; through faith and baptism we are mystically joined to Christ, incorporated in him – we become his body; he indwells us and we indwell him. (St Paul’s Conversion, the Rev. Canon David Kennedy, Durham Cathedral, Church of England)

This is an everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over, just like being knocked from a horse. I am reminded of the observation of Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper & Row 1982), makes this point in an oft-quote observation:

Does any-one have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Dillard, Annie, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters, Harper & Row, New York:1982, pp 40-41.)

Every time we celebrate the Holy Eucharist, after the presider has said Jesus’ words over the bread and wine – “This is my Body” – “This is my Blood” – we are invited to affirm the powerful everyday-ness and everyday power of Jesus’ presence, “Therefore we proclaim the mystery of faith:”

Christ has died.
Christ is risen
Christ will come again (BCP 1979, p 363)

These words remind us that Jesus is here with us now:

The person Jesus and his story are now.
The forgiveness and hope he offers are now.
The invitation and the expectation for us to change and to grow through his love and presence are with us are now.
The renewal, vision and hope that transformed Paul from bigotry and narrow-mindedness are open to us now.
But, only if we have the faith and the courage to respond: to get up and follow Jesus. (Sermon at All Saints, the Rev. Alan Wynne, Parish of Poplar, Church of England)

You know . . . the getting up part is really important! Getting knocked of the horse isn’t the whole of Paul’s conversion; it was just the beginning. In Paul’s own description of his conversion in our reading from Galatians we can see that it took some time; including going into retreat in the Arabian desert and then a three-year delay before he went to Jerusalem to meet the original apostles. In the early church, entry into the worshiping community replicated Paul’s experience. The training for baptism, called “catechesis,” often took years, typically three, before someone was “exposed to the very real risks and challenges of full membership of the Christian faith” and admitted to full participation in the mysteries of the Holy Communion and full responsibility for the mission and ministry of the church. As English priest David Rowett says,

Conversion isn’t some once-and-for-all process, over in a blinding flash, not even for the Pharisee from Tarsus. It is a life-long process of deepening and learning which may begin in one moment – with or without a donkey – but then requires working out throughout the rest of our lives, and in the company of other pilgrims. (Conversion of St Paul, the Rev. David Rowett, St Mary’s Church, Barton-on-Humber, Church of England)

Our conversion is an on-going and everyday truth and if we recognized it every day, it would bowl us over. Like Paul, however, we couldn’t just lie there stunned. Jesus would say to us as he said to Paul . . . indeed, Jesus does say to us, “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus promised his first twelve followers that they would be handed over to councils, flogged in religious institutions, and dragged before secular rulers, but he told them not to worry about making a defense because, in words similar to those he would say to Paul on the Damascus Road, “What you are to say will be given to you at that time.”

I think it helpful to remember who Jesus is talking to in both stories. Talking to the Twelve he is not talking to the stained-glass saints they have become; he is talking to hide-bound, conservative, Law-abiding Jews. He is talking to Peter who, even after spending all that time with Jesus and going through the events of Jesus’ trial, execution, burial, and resurrection, would say, “I have never eaten anything that is profane or unclean” and would refuse to eat with Gentile Christians. He is talking to Thomas who is portrayed as a skeptic, a doubter, and something of a pessimist. He is talking to Simon the Zealot, who may have been a member of that Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to Rome and pagan practices. And on the road to Damascus, he is addressing Saul of Tarsus, a Pharisee set upon the path of persecuting and, indeed, destroying the fledgling Christian church.

Jesus in both the Gospel lesson and in the story from Acts is speaking to men who exhibit an attitude we still see in the church and in our society today – it is nothing new – an attitude characterized by bigotry, zeal, closed-mindedness, tunnel vision, intolerance, and exclusivity. “In varying degrees it may be present in each one of us:

our lack of openness to new ideas;
our total certainty that in all matters of faith, morality or ritual we are right and others are wrong;
the ease with which we judge or condemn those who see things differently;
the way we cling uncritically to the traditions and practices of the past;
our failure to see God’s continuing presence and work in creation;
our desire to contain God in our pockets and limit him to our shrines where he can be controlled and we can be cosy and unchallenged;
the way we call Jesus “Lord” and ignore the most basic of his teachings about love and respect for others.” (Alan Wynne, op. cit.)

When we discussed this Gospel passage during our bible study time at Monday’s last meeting of the 2016 Vestry, someone suggested that Jesus seems to be foreshadowing what would happen later to himself. While that is true, he is also, by forecasting this experience, demonstrating his authority and intimacy with God. His words assure the Twelve and us that:

Opposition is not a sign of failure or that Jesus was not trustworthy as a leader. And
Paradoxically, getting arrested is the only way you will have a chance to speak to the elites, so use it to testify. And [again]
Don’t worry about what you will say – God’s Spirit will speak through you. (Holy Textures, the Rev. David Ewart, United Church of Canada)

Quite a while after the event in today’s Gospel lesson, “the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.'” (Matt 18:1-4)

In the last sermon he ever preached, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said of this story:

Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important – wonderful. If you want to be recognized – wonderful. If you want to be great – wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness . . . . It means that everybody can be great because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant. (Drum Major Instinct, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., preached February 4, 1968)

You can be that servant. You are that servant. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” “Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you.”

Two hundred years ago a few men and women living in Weymouth, Ohio, heard God speaking to them and founded this parish. In Annie Dillard’s words, the waking god drew them out to where they could never return. They got up because they heard the call of Jesus telling them what they had to do, and here we are as a result. I firmly believe that everyday Jesus is still speaking to his Church – to you and to me – still knocking us off of our horses and then saying “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.”

On Friday morning, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th President. You may feel that’s a good thing; you may feel that’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is a fact; it is reality. He and his party colleagues in the congress will change the spending priorities of our government; this is the way our democratic system works. Already his administration has announced plans to cut funding to and to cancel a variety of government programs including some which support the arts and humanities, some which fund educational endeavors, some which fund housing projects, some which fund health care, some which fund food assistance programs. You may feel that this budget-cutting is a good thing; you may feel that it’s a bad thing. But feelings and opinions are irrelevant; it is reality.

We can all agree on reality – that there are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. And this reality means that if there are fewer government-funded programs to do these things, charities and charitable institutions, such as churches, church-run schools, nonprofit hospitals and clinics, volunteer food banks, and the like, are very likely to be called upon to take up new ministries to replace what is no longer being done by government-funded agencies. Whether we think this a good thing or a bad thing, it is reality. It is as real as being knocked off a horse, and like Paul we – the church – can’t just lay there. “Get up, you will be told what you have to do.” There are hungry people to feed, sick people to care for, homeless people to house, and students to educate. “And the king will answer, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matt 25:40)

During this last week, two lessons in the Lectionary have stood out for me: one is the Old Testament lesson for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (that’s next Sunday and, yes, clergy do read ahead) and the other is yesterday’s Epistle lesson for the Daily Office. They speak to me, and I hope to you, about what it is we have to get up and do. The first is this from the Prophet Micah:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

The other is from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

Stand . . . and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:14-17)

Two hundred years ago, that small band of Episcopalians in Weymouth got up because there was work to be done. Now it is our turn. Every day it is our turn. Get up! Get dressed! There is work to be done. And we have been told what we have to do.

We stand at the beginning of a new century for our parish, at the beginning of a new administration for our country. We pray for the new President and we pray for ourselves. May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is The Conversion Of St Paul by Girolamo Francesco Maria Mazzola, a/k/a Parmigianino, (1527-1528). It hangs in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria.)

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

“In Order That” – Sermon for Easter 5C – April 24, 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; and St. John 13:31-35. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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janitorbucketDr. Robert Waldinger is the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development which is something called “a longitudinal cohort study” in which the same individuals are observed over a long study period. It is the longest running study of this kind in history. For 75 years researchers have tracked the lives of 724 men from all walks of life.

Last November, Dr. Waldinger gave a TED talk entitled What makes a good life? in which he drew on the results of the Harvard study. This is some of what he said:

The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills.

And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health.

And the third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.

Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community.

The good life is built with good relationships.

So . . . last week I began my sermon by trying to sing Led Zeppelin’s classic rock song Stairway to Heaven and, in the homily, I suggested to you that, unlike the lady in the song, we do not need to buy or build such a stairway because the good news of Jesus’ Gospel is that heaven is already here: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 10:7) “The kingdom of God has come to you.” (Mt 12:28) It’s here; we don’t need to worry about getting there. And later in the week I got some feedback about that sermon; two people asked questions about it.

One asked, “Don’t you believe in an afterlife?” That’s the easy question to answer, “Yes, I do. But I’m not concerned about it.” I trust that Jesus was telling the thief on the other cross the truth when he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:4) I believe he was telling the truth to the disciples when, speaking of his own death, he told them “I go to prepare a place for you.” (Jn 14:2) I believe that the afterlife is a given and that there is nothing we need to do, indeed there is nothing we can do, to “earn” it. As the Eucharistic preface used during a requiem in the Episcopal Church says, “to [God’s] faithful people . . . life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP 1979, page 382)

The second question was a little tougher: “What about someone whose life just sucks? How can you say to someone like that that heaven is here?” Now that’s a good question. And the answer lies in that research done by Dr. Waldinger and his colleagues and their predecessors, and in today’s Gospel lesson, particularly in Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn 13:34) – This is the way our New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek. There may be a better way to translate it, but let’s go with this for the moment.

Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes of today’s Lectionary reading:

Jesus’ command to love one another is dangerously out of context. Read without its literary framework, it becomes another biblical platitude quoted by those who think it’s easy and who rarely stick to it themselves. It ends up on posters with the backdrop being some sort of idyllic scene of an ocean, snow-capped mountains, a rushing waterfall, or birds flying across a bright blue sky. It actually seems doable. (Resurrection Is Love)

But, she points out, lovely scenery and idyllic circumstances are not the context of this “new commandment.” Rather, it was given to the disciples at a time when evil seemed to be getting its way. It was spoken at the end of the Last Supper when someone Jesus and the others thought they could trust had just left to betray especially him and in reality all of them. Jesus commanded his followers to love at time “when the actions and words of others clearly [came] from hate and suspicion and prejudice;” in the words of my questioner, at a time when life sucked!

Jesus’ “new commandment,” says Prof. Lewis, “remind[s us] to choose love when evil seems to be having its way,” when life sucks. “And,” she says, “our decision to choose love does not even have to be in the face of the most overt and blatant expressions of its opposite. Our lives are full of minor incidents, if you will, when we can decide to come from a place of love rather than one of frustration and anger and judgment.”

Theologians sometimes use the word irruption when talking about the Kingdom of God. It is a word related to such ideas as eruption (a breaking out of something) and disruption (a breaking apart). Irruption means “to break into.” It conveys the idea that God’s rule, the kingdom of heaven, has broken into our reality. “The kingdom of God has come to you.” When we make the choice of love, we actualize that irruption; we make that in-breaking of heaven apparent and perceivable in a world which seems very much to the contrary.

But we are left, still, with a very serious question: How do we do that? If the “new commandment” is that we are to love one another, what does that mean? How are we to love one another? What are to be the manifestations of this love we are commanded to have?

Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology in Cameroon, points out that in John’s narrative the “new commandment” is bracketed by two stories of action. (Commentary) The first is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples about which he says: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn 13:13-15) The second is the crucifixion about which Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn 15:13-14)

These two actions parallel and help to flesh out the meaning of the “new commandment”. On the one hand, “love one another” compels us to “heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another.” On the other, “loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks.”

So that’s one way to understand the “new commandment” – that we are commanded to love one another and to act out that love in these sorts of ways. But some will object that love cannot be commanded, and that telling someone to love another and demanding that the one serve the other only breeds resentment and contempt. I know this from experience and I suspect you do, as well.

For that reason, I find the work of a Presbyterian pastor named Mark Davis compelling. Pastor Davis has a Ph.D. in theology and is very accomplished in the study and translation of Greek. He has recently made the argument that our typical translation of John is wrong and that, as a result, we haven’t properly understood the “new commandment.” It’s easier to show you his argument than it is to tell it, so I’m going to put a slide up on the big screen TV. (Commanding Love; see also ‘In Order That’ You May Love)

Here’s what we’ve got:

greekcolorcode

This is John 13:34 in the original Greek, and the lower color-coded text is Dr. Davis’s translation. The color coding helps to explain his argument.

Dr. Davis first points out that the original Greek is one sentence, not two. The translation in the New Revised Standard Version breaks it into two sentences. Second, he points out that the Greek is written in a poetic form called “parallelism,” which is the balanced and symmetrical repetition of a thought or idea in slightly different forms as a way to emphasize the message. The New Revised Standard fails to honor the parallelism and, in fact, adds an imperative that simply isn’t there. Third, he points out that the Greek word “hina” (which he has color-coded in red) has been either overlooked or possibly mistranslated.

This third point is really the most important. Pointing out that the word “hina” can be translated either as “that” or as “in order that,” and that “hina” is normally understood to specify purpose, Dr. Davis suggests the second translation, as shown here, is the better choice.

Thus, the “new commandment” is not simply “love one another.” The “new commandment” is something else that Jesus has said, done, or taught which enables us to love one another in the same way that his empowering love enables us to do so.

Therefore, Dr. Davis’ asks, “What is the new command ([of] which loving one another is the result)?” and answers his own question, “I would suggest that the whole demonstration of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is the command.” In other words, the “new commandment” is not to love one another, it is to do what Dr. Johnson called those “mundane, menial tasks” and from that work will flow the capacity for and the actuality of loving one another, from that work will flow the actualizing and appreciation of the irruption the kingdom of God, from that work will flow the realization that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I know, from personal experience, that this is true.

In the spring of 1971, I was 18 years old and finishing my sophomore year of college. And I was failing, badly. So I dropped out. I went to work in a hospital where I eventually worked as an orderly, but I didn’t start out as an orderly. I started out as a janitor. Once I had learned how to clean toilets and mop floors in proper hospital fashion, I was turned loose to take care of the common areas and of the patient rooms.

Early in my employment, I became acquainted with Mr. Aronson. I have no idea what Mr. Aronson’s medical problem was . . . all I know is that whatever it was it made Mr. Aronson’s life miserable. Mr. Aronson’s digestive system was out of control. If he ate, he vomited and he had diarrhea. His doctors were trying to treat this, of course, and he had to eat to see of the treatment was working, and most of the time it seemed it wasn’t. Nearly every day I would get a call to go to Mr. Aronson’s room where I had to mop the floor of either puke or feces and to gather up soiled bed linens. I hated getting those calls. I hated going to that room. I hated mopping that smelly floor and packing up those stinking linens and, I’m sorry to say, I hated Mr. Aronson. His life sucked and it was making my life suck.

And he knew it. He knew his life miserable and that his misery was negatively impacting everyone around him. But he must have known something else because he never acted that way. He was always gracious and he was always grateful. I’d show up with my 18-year-old “I hate being here” attitude, and if he was awake he would greet me courteously. I’d mop up his puke and his diarrhea, and stuff his soiled linens into a laundry bag, and he’d thank me. I didn’t want to be there; I didn’t want to deal with his mess or his smelly sheets; and I didn’t want his gratitude. But, when you’re employed as a hospital janitor, that’s what you do.

And after several days of doing that, you stopped noticing the smell and the misery. Instead, you looked forward to the greeting and you were grateful for the gratitude. And when, after a few weeks, Mr. Aronson died because they couldn’t fix whatever was wrong with him, you wept because, you discovered, you no longer hated Mr. Aronson. You loved Mr. Aronson; he had become your friend, and your friend was gone.

Mr. Aronson, it turned out, was the rabbi of the local Reform Jewish synagogue. His wife invited all of the hospital employees who had taken care of him, even us janitors, to attend his funeral, and it was there that I first heard and first recited the prayer called The Mourner’s Kaddish:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

I think that what Mr. Aronson knew that allowed him to be gracious and grateful is what I have come to know and believe: that if we will just take care of one another doing whatever mundane, menial tasks are needed, God will establish his kingdom in our lifetime and there will be abundant peace from heaven and life for all of us. From those mundane, menial tasks flows the capacity for and the actuality of loving one another, and that from that love flows the realization that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Whether we understand the “new commandment” to be “love one another” or to be “do these things in order that love for one another can grow,” the point of Jesus’ “new commandment” is to foster good relationships between people, those good relationships that Dr. Waldinger’s research has shown are the foundation of a good life. I have faith that sometime in the future the kingdom of heaven will be complete and God will exercise a gracious and just control over everything in (and outside of) time and space, but I know that right now heaven is close at hand through Christians and other good people, individually and collectively, engaging the world in acts of love, both mundane and heroic.

Jesus insists that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand when we love one another. Medical science has proved it: “The good life is built with good relationships.” So I can say with confidence that heaven is here now, even for the person whose life sucks. Mr. Aronson taught me that. Amen.

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

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