Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Colossians (Page 2 of 2)

WYSIWYG World – From the Daily Office – January 10, 2014

From the Letter to the Colossians:

Therefore do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 2:16-17 (NRSV) – January 10, 2014.)

Green-on-Black TextI sometimes wonder to what extent Paul, as an educated Jewish citizen of a Greek-speaking empire, was schooled in the classical Greek philosophers. Had he read Plato’s Republic? Was he aware of the conversation portrayed in Book VII between Socrates and Glaucon in which the allegory of the cave is laid out?

In the dialog, Socrates describes a prison cave in which the inmates have lived all of their lives chained in such a way that all they can see is a blank wall. The prisoners watch shadows formed on the wall by things passing between them and a fire behind them. They recognize the shadows, give them the names of the things which cast them, and believe them to actually be those things. The shadows, says Socrates, are as close as the inmates get to viewing reality. According to Socrates, a philosopher is like a prisoner who is loosed, sees the real forms casting the images, and comes to understand that the shadows are not reality at all. He is aware of the true form of reality, not the shadows seen by the chained inmates. The story illustrates Plato’s “Theory of Forms,” which holds that things in the material world perceivable through sensation are mere “shadows” of ideal “forms.” These “forms,” not the “shadows,” possess the highest and most fundamental reality.

When Paul writes things like “these are only a shadow . . . the substance belongs to Christ,” he seems to be buying into this Platonic idea. His famous line from the first letter to the church in Corinth seems to do so as well: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Take these sorts of Pauline statements and mix them with the Letter to the Hebrews (“They offer worship in a sanctuary that is a sketch and shadow of the heavenly one.” – Heb. 8:5) and even a bit of James (“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” – James 1:17), and one can see where the Neoplatonists and even the Gnostics get the notion that the material world is less than ideal, fallen, corrupt, or even evil. That’s a position that, unfortunately in my opinion, has made a significant impact on Christian theology.

It is also not a view to which the Hebrew Scriptures lend much support and one doubts very much that it was the opinion of Jesus of Nazareth! Oh sure, there are hints of it in Hebrew poetry and prayer. For example, King David prays with the assembly of the people: “For we are aliens and transients before you, as were all our ancestors; our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no hope.” (1 Chron 29:15) And Bildad the Shuhite advises Job: “For we are but of yesterday, and we know nothing, for our days on earth are but a shadow.” (Job 8:9) And from time to time the Psalms say things like the description of human beings as “like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.” (Ps. 144:4) But on the whole, the Old Testament and (I suggest) the Christian faith declare a much different understanding of reality!

Just read the accounts of creation in Genesis! God is not shown to be casting shadows; God is creating hard, physical reality and, at each step along the way, declares it good. In the second account (which is probably the older of the two), God gets God’s hands dirty in all that good, hard, physical reality molding human beings out of the clay. I’m particularly fond of poet James Weldon Johnson’s retelling of that story (which I quoted in last Sunday’s sermon):

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image;
Then into it He blew the breath of life.

(“The Creation”, from God’s Trombones)

When I was a second-year student at law school I was a member of the law review where we used some very early word processing equipment and software in which one had to enter the codes for changes in typeface, indentation, and so forth (not too dissimilar from writing HTML code, frankly). What you looked at on the green-on-black computer screen bore no resemblance to what (you hoped) the printer would produce. The next year, when I became an editor, we purchased a new computer and were introduced to a new concept – “WYSIWYG” (pronounced “wissy-wig”) – What You See Is What You Get. What was on the screen looked like what the printer produced!

I believe that’s the kind of world we have been given, one in which what we perceive is real. Yes, I know that quantum mechanics and superstring theory bring that into some question, that at some super-micro-nano-reality level things are not quite what they seem; but that is a different issue than this philosophical nothing-is-really-real shadow-world construct of Plato’s, and a far cry from the fallen, corrupt, evil world of some Christian theologies. We live in a real, physical world, one in which God was pleased to take on flesh and dwell among us (John 1:1-14).

When I see beautiful winter hillside covered with glistening snow, when I taste a sweet-tart bite of homemade cherry pie, when I kiss my wife or hug my daughter, when I listen to a Vivaldi concerto, I am seeing/tasting/feeling/hearing what I get, not some shadow of an unseen and unknowable “ideal form.” Like that mammy bending over her baby, what I am experiencing is real and good; it is the ideal. We live in a WYSIWYG world!

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

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

God Our Mother — Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 13C) — August 4, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, August 4, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 11 (Proper 13, Year C): Hosea 11:1-11; Psalm 107:1-9, 43; Colossians 3:1-11; and Luke 12:13-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Drawing of Mother Holding Baby, Artist UnknownThis passage is one of my favorites in the book of the prophet Hosea. Hosea’s major metaphor for the relationship of God with Israel, as we learned last week, is that of marriage. Hosea portrayed God as Israel’s “husband” and condemned the nation because of the “adulterous” relationship it had had with other gods. As a “prophetic act” Hosea married a prostitute named Gomer, with whom his relationship parallels that of God with Israel. He tells of Gomer running away from him and having sex with another man, but he loves her and forgives her. Similarly, even though the people of Israel worshiped other gods, Hosea prophesied that Yahweh continues to love his people and does not abandon God’s covenant with them. This passage, however, departs from that metaphor and presents, instead, an image of God as Divine Parent, an image which is surprisingly feminine and maternal.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
* * *
It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.

In these verses God is portrayed as an adoptive parent. God’s lovingly brought Israel out of Egypt, cared for Israel, taught, comforted, healed, and nurtured Israel. The Divine Adoptive Parent nurtured this child, taught the child to walk, held this child in times of suffering and anguish, offered healing when he was injured. But just as Hosea’s earlier metaphor likened God to a cuckolded husband, God is now an abandoned parent.

Israel’s disobedient and defiant nature becomes clear as God offers a general indictment against Israel’s idolatry.

The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and offering incense to idols.

The Baals are competitor gods to Yahweh. They were local gods, represented by fertile fields, jars of olive oil, the smell of baking bread, the aroma of roasting meat. They appealed to the senses and to one’s immediate sense of satisfaction and well-being. In the Spring, the followers of the Baals would cry “Baal is alive” through the villages, and the worshipers of Yahweh would joined; they were hedging their bets hoping to ensure a bounteous crop and a satisfied family. The cult of Yahweh demanded worship in sometimes far-away sacred places. Sacrificial worship hadn’t yet been centralized at Jerusalem, but there were only a few places where it cold be offered. The Baals were more immediate so many Israelites would take out a little insurance and serenade Baal along with the neighbors. After all, where was YHWH anyway and what has he done for you recently?

These Baals of satisfaction and well-being are precisely the “gods” which got the attention of the rich man in the Gospel parable Jesus tells today.

The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.

And so it was with the people of ancient Israel:

They shall return to the land of Egypt,
and Assyria shall be their king,
because they have refused to return to me.
The sword rages in their cities,
it consumes their oracle-priests,
and devours because of their schemes.
My people are bent on turning away from me.
To the Most High they call,
but he does not raise them up at all.

It was not the Baals who accomplished those things that many believed they had done; it was not they who were nurturing Israel; it was Yahweh! And like a spurned husband, like a rejected parent, Yahweh was angry! God, rejected and spurned, is furious and, frankly, vindictive. God will throw Israel out of the promised land. God will send them back to Egypt or turn them over to the invading Assyrians. God will allow war to consume the people and their lying priests. God is disgusted by their schemes. They think they have ample goods laid up for many years, so that they can relax, eat, drink, and be merry. God will show them what fools they are! God feels the indignation and rage that any parent might toward a disrespectful child.

Bu then, God rises above this anguish and anger; we are privileged to witness Yahweh’s churning emotional conflict commitment, the turmoil deep within God’s heart:

How can I give you up, Ephraim?
How can I hand you over, O Israel?
* * *
My heart recoils within me;
my compassion grows warm and tender.
I will not execute my fierce anger;
I will not again destroy Ephraim;
for I am God and no mortal,
the Holy One in your midst,
and I will not come in wrath.

At the heart of this passage are two Hebrew words, one of which is translated as “heart”; the other, as “compassion”. The first is leb and in Judaic understanding it refers not merely to the body’s physical heart, but to the innermost being of the human person. It refers to the center of personal life, to a human being’s psychic and spiritual energies upon which the whole moral and religious condition of a person completely depends. Here, it is God who has this sort of inner core of being, and the center of God’s Being is inextricably linked in Hosea’s prophecy with God’s compassion, not with Yahweh’s righteous anger and wrath . . . God’s essential Being is eternally and indelibly characterized by love and compassion.

Our English word compassion derives from the Latin for “suffering together”; compassion is the ability to share in the suffering of another, to be empathetic. There are two Hebrew words translated as “compassion;” Hosea uses them both. Although in this passage he uses is nichuwm, which has its root in the concept of regret or sorrow, elsewhere he describes God’s compassion using the synonym rechemet, which comes from the Hebrew root rechem which literally means “womb”. The Hebrew understanding of compassion is deeply maternal, rooted in a profound metaphor of birthing and motherhood; compassion in Hebrew thought might best be conceived not as “shared suffering”, but as “womb love”.

This word applied to God conjurs a beautiful image of God as our mother doing all the amazing and miraculous things a life-giving, nurturing mother does. She protects her child; she nourishes, cradles, and prepares her child. Whether she gives birth to the child or adopts the child, how can she give up or forget her child? “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?” asks God in book of the prophet Isaiah, “Even these may forget, yet I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

The 14th Century mystic and saint, Dame Julian of Norwich (1342-1416), wrote of God our Mother with these words:

It is a characteristic of God to overcome evil with good.

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­ and this is where His Maternity starts ­ And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never ceases to surround us.

Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother.

And He showed me this truth in all things, but especially in those sweet words when He says: “It is I”.

As if to say, I am the power and the Goodness of the Father, I am the Wisdom of the Mother, I am the Light and the Grace which is blessed love, I am the Trinity, I am the Unity, I am the supreme Goodness of all kind of things, I am the One who makes you love, I am the One who makes you desire, I am the never-ending fulfillment of all true desires. (…)

Our highest Father, God Almighty, who is ‘Being’, has always known us and loved us: because of this knowledge, through his marvelous and deep charity and with the unanimous consent of the Blessed Trinity, He wanted the Second Person to become our Mother, our Brother, our Savior.

It is thus logical that God, being our Father, be also our Mother. Our Father desires, our Mother operates and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms; we are thus well advised to love our God through whom we have our being, to thank him reverently and to praise him for having created us and to pray fervently to our Mother, so as to obtain mercy and compassion, and to pray to our Lord, the Holy Ghost, to obtain help and grace. (From “Revelations of Divine Love”, LIX, LXXXVI).

We may, like the ancient Israelites or like the man in Christ’s gospel parable this morning, be tempted away from God by those things which seem to satisfy our immediate needs, by fertile fields, jars of olive oil, the smell of baking bread, the aroma of roasting meat; we may believe that we have ample goods laid up for many years, and so be tempted to relax, eat, drink, and be merry. But let us never forget the source of all those things. As the Psalm today recalls to us, it is God who puts our feet on a straight path; it is the Lord who does wonders for his children; it is God who satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things. Hosea reminds us that we are God’s children and that at the center of God’s Being is the womb-love of a mother for her child, for us.

Whoever is wise will ponder these things,
and consider well the mercies of the Lord.

Amen.

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

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

God’s Faithfulness Prevails — Sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12C) — July 28, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, July 28, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 10 (Proper 12, Year C): Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-19; and Luke 11:1-13. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Baptism“Name this child.” That’s what I say to parents of infant baptismal candidates as I take their children from them. The words are not actually written in the baptismal service of The Book of Common Prayer as they are in some other traditions’ liturgies, but there is a rubric on page 307 that says, “Each candidate is presented by name to the Celebrant . . . .” so asking for the child’s name is a practical way of seeing that done. It’s practical, but it’s also a theological statement.

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

The naming we do at baptism echoes the naming that takes place in Jesus’ tradition as a faithful Jew. In Judaism, when a male infant is circumcised on the eighth day after his birth, the mohel who performs the brit milah prays, “Our God and God of our fathers, preserve this child for his father and mother, and his name in Israel shall be called ________” and the prayer continues that, by his naming, the infant will be enrolled in the covenant of God with Israel. The same thing is done when a girl is named in the ceremony called zeved habat, or “presentation of the daughter” at the first formal reading of the Torah following her birth. In baptism, we do the same; the church says to its newest member, “This is who you are: washed in the waters of baptism, sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever,” a brother or sister in the church, a fellow member of the household of God.

To give a name to anything, especially to another human being, is a powerful thing! In the first verses of Genesis we are told, “God said ‘Let there be Light’ and there was light.” (Gen. 1:3) God named the light before it was created; this process continues through the rest of the story. God says, “Let there be” and names the thing which will come into existence; the naming seems a necessary first step in creation. There is a sense in which the name given shapes the future of the thing, or of the person, named.

So this morning I will ask that question of Danny and Nikki ___________ (parents) and of Peter ___________ (Godfather) who will name Ryan George __________ (infant) as a child of God, and of Mary __________ (sponsor) who will name Jacqueline Ann ____________ (adult) as a child of God, and through baptism we all will welcome Ryan and Jackie into the household of faith, into a covenant relationship with Almighty God and with each of us.

In today’s lesson from the Prophet Hosea, we find God instructing the prophet to give strange and bewildering names to his children as powerful, prophetic signs of Israel’s broken relationship with God. Hosea’s firstborn son is to be named Jezreel, which refers to the location of a particularly brutal and bloody massacre of Israelite royalty; his daughter is to be called, Lo-ruhamah, which means “no pity,” as a sign that God will have no compassion for his people who have gone astray; and a second son is to be named, Lo-ammi, which means “no people,” to let the Israelites know they are no longer God’s people.

Preachers often use their children as sermon illustrations, but what God demands of Hosea seems a little extreme. These poor kids aren’t going to have to live merely with the embarrassment of a single sermon, they are going to live with these names, these prophetic, judgmental names for their entire lives! But as bad as that is, giving these awful names to his children is not the hardest thing God demands of Hosea. No, the hardest thing is marrying their mother, Gomer.

Hosea is ordered by God to (in the words of our NRSV translation) “take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom.” He is to marry a prostitute who will continue in her scandalous and adulterous behavior, even though Hosea will be faithful to her throughout the marriage. Why? Because it is a prophetic sign, a prophetic action symbolizing the way in which Israel has dealt with God: because “the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.” God loves Israel with all the passion and loyalty of a faithful husband, but Israel, like a promiscuous wife, has been unfaithful to God.

It is an unfortunate prophetic metaphor, for it is misogynistic to the core! Portraying God as a faithful (but dominant) husband and Israel as a supposed-to-be obedient (and submissive) wife perpetuates a patriarchalism that is inappropriate to our society. As a metaphor it may have communicated clearly to its ancient Israelite audience, but it doesn’t communicate quite so clearly to us, clouded as it is with its ancient cultural bias. So as we read and seek to understand Hosea’s message in our day and age, we must extract the meaning from the metaphor and then, perhaps, cast the metaphor aside, separating the kernel of truth from the chaff of historical baggage.

In the modern world, marriage is not the patriarchal, male-dominated institution it was in Hosea’s time, but the metaphor can still work for us. In our Prayer Book, the meaning of marriage is summarized in the introductory comments with which the presiding minister begins the ceremony. We are told that it is a bond and covenant established by God in creation and that the union of the parties “in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy [and] for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity.” (BCP 1979, page 423)

Later in the service, just before the Nuptial Blessing is given, we pray for the couple that “each may be to the other a strength in need, a counselor in perplexity, a comfort in sorrow, and a companion in joy,” and that “their life together [may be] a sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” (Page 429) In such a relationship neither party dominates the other, neither is submissive; it is a mutual and interdependent bond of covenant obligations, one to the other.

When Hosea’s prophetic metaphor is understood in these terms, it emphasizes that God is angry with God’s people for abandoning the covenant obligations they had to God, even as God remained faithful. What Hosea’s marriage metaphor communicates to us, as it did to his ancient audience, is that it is divine fidelity, not human inconstancy, that will ultimately save the relationship. It is God’s faithfulness, not our own, which prevails and redeems our relationship with God.

This is also the message of the author of the Letter to the Colossians, an epistle traditionally said to have been written by St. Paul, but which is now no longer believed to be of his authorship. The reason for that is in the very part of the text on which I want to focus our attention, the sentence where the author writes: “When you were buried with [Christ] in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” The author seems to echo Paul’s understanding of baptism in the Letter to the Romans, particularly a section we read every year on Easter Sunday. Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? . . . . If we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (6:3,5) The theology is similar, but note the significant shift: in Romans, Paul writes that we will be raised with Christ, whereas the author of Colossians asserts that our resurrection with Christ has already happened by reason of baptism. These two passages reflect the wonderful here-but-not-quite-here mysterious paradox of Christianity; we both celebrate the present reality of and anticipate the future consummation of our salvation in Christ. The victory has already been won, but not yet.

Now, what I really want to focus on is why our resurrection, our salvation, whether it is a present reality or something yet to occur, should happen at all! In Romans, Paul says that it happens “by the glory of the Father.” (v. 4) The author of Colossians asserts that it is “through faith in the power of God” according to our translation; that would seem to imply that our faith is somehow responsible for our salvation, that the means for our resurrection is our fidelity. But there is a growing body of scholarship which suggests that this is a misunderstanding of the original Greek of the text. The Greek is dia te pisteo te energeia tou theou . . . literally: “through the faith the working of God.” Traditional English translations add the preposition “in” into the interpretation which would imply that this powerful, operative faith is ours, but the Greek can also be understood to mean not “faith in” but rather “faith of” – in other words, it is God’s faith!

The 18th Century Lutheran translator Johann Albrecht Bengel suggested exactly this in his Annotations on the New Testament when he translated this text to say that our salvation, our resurrection comes about through faith which is a work of God. This text, he says, is “a remarkable expression: faith is of Divine operation.” (Gnomon of the New Testament, A. Fausset, tr., Clark:Edinburgh 1858, page 171, emphasis in original) Our resurrection with Christ is not brought about because of our faith; it is not because of us, or anything we do or believe! We are saved through the faithfulness of God who, by his glory and power, raised Christ from the dead.

It is also God’s faithfulness to which Jesus alludes in the parental metaphor which he uses in his instruction about prayer: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” God is the faithful parent who always responds when we ask, who is always there to be found when we search, who always opens the door when we knock. It is God’s faithfulness, not our own, which prevails and redeems our relationship with God.

On this we can rely; in this faithful God, we can have faith.

So let’s go back to Hosea’s marriage metaphor. The Lutheran Book of Worship, used by our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with whom we enjoy a relationship of full communion, says this about marriage: “The Lord God in his goodness created us . . . and by the gift of marriage founded human community in a joy that begins now and is brought to perfection in the life to come. Because of sin, our age-old rebellion, the gladness of marriage can be overcast, and the gift of the family can become a burden. But because God, who established marriage, continues still to bless it with his abundant and ever-present support, we can be sustained in our weariness and have our joy restored.” (LBW 1978, page 203)

It is into the household of God, the community of joy restored, the covenant of mutual help and comfort sustained by the faithfulness of God, that we welcome Ryan George and Jacqueline Ann this morning. They (and we together with them) will make the statements of belief and the promises of action set out in the Baptismal Covenant (BCP 1979, pages 304-04), and they (and we) will try faithfully to keep them. Fortunately, however, it is God’s faithfulness, not theirs (nor ours), which will prevail and redeem them (and us), and their (and our) relationship with God.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, by our baptism into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, you turn us from the old life of sin: Grant that we, being reborn to new life in him, may live in righteousness and holiness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP 1979, page 254)

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

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

The One Thing Needful in a Market Economy – Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11C) – July 21, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, July 21, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 9 (Proper 11, Year C): Amos 8:1-12; Psalm 52; Colossians 1:15-28; and Luke 10:38-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Fruit BasketIn last week’s sermon I talked about the first three prophetic visions God reveals to Amos: a plague of locusts devouring the crops of ancient Israel, a catastrophic fire destroying everything in the nation, and the plumb line set in the midst of the nation’s people demonstrating that they were not upright. This week Amos is shown a fourth prophetic vision.

The eighth chapter of this prophet opens with God showing Amos a basket of summer fruit, such things as peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums, and figs. We aren’t told the condition of the fruit, but some commentators suggest that it may be fruit that is over-ripe, maybe on the verge of going bad. They suggest this because God tells Amos that this vision means that “the end has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” God’s explanation continues with visions of dead bodies in the street, wailing and lamentation in the temples, the nation destroyed, and the survivors wandering lost.

Well, it may be that the fruit is going bad, but in truth what God is doing is making a pun in Hebrew, a play on words that simply doesn’t translate into English. In Hebrew, the word for “summer fruits” is qayits; the word for “the end” is qets. The are spelled differently, but pronounced almost identically. Qayits . . . qets . . . God is making it clear that with respect to Israel, God is calling it quits! The finality of the passage is clear; Israel has no recourse.

And why has it come to this? Again, God is very clear, it’s because of economic injustice. God will punish the nation because its upper class, its wealthy merchants “trample on the needy.” They can’t wait Sabbaths and holy days to get over so they can resume their fraudulent business practices. They sell partial measures of wheat weighed on false scales that are overbalanced so that what is shown as a sheckel of wheat is far less. They measure ephahs of grain that are less than the regulation 35 liters. They “buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals.” That they are described as “selling the sweepings of the wheats” suggests either that they are selling chaff as if it were good grain, or that they are selling even the gleanings which are required by the Law of Moses to be left for the homeless and the beggars. In short, God is more than a little unhappy about the disparity between the wealthy merchants and the poor who must buy from them.

In our world, as in ancient Israel, the overriding organizing principle of society is the market economy, profit at the bottom line: the measure for nearly everything is profit and how it can be increased. It is a principle which works on paper, yet it is not helpful when we encounter the most pressing issues in our society. By “society” I do not mean simply our nation, I mean our entire global society, but we do see this played out in our local and national communities.

We are concerned when our local superintendent of schools seems to abuse his financial privileges because we see our education system not keeping up in a world market. We complain about the cost of salaries and benefits for those who teach our children, and yet paradoxically use the superintendent’s apparent misuse of funds as an excuse to vote against school levies or otherwise reduce school budgets, as if cutting costs will improve our children’s education.

We have all witnessed the damage done to our environment by the continuing use of fossil fuels, and there is plenty of good scientific research indicating that it has resulted in man-made global climate change that is costing billions of dollars in storm damage, and disrupting (if not ending) the lives and livelihoods of millions of people. However, when solutions are proposed, the objection is always that it may impact the profitability of business.

The truth is that profitability is the wrong measure, that the market is unable to deal with these issues. The gap between rich and poor, between haves and have-not is huge when measured in dollars-and-cents; it is even more staggering when measured in education and quality of life, and it is continuing to grow.

Are we able to hear God’s word of justice spoken to Amos as applying to us? Do we even understand how clearly it applied to the ancient Israelites? Do we even remember that what was prophesied by Amos against them did, in fact, come to pass?

God’s word was given by Amos in approximately the year 750 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II of the Kingdom of Israel. This is not the united monarchy of Saul, David, and Solomon; this is the northern kingdom which rebelled against Solomon’s son Rehoboam in about the year 930 BCE and set up Jeroboam I as a separate monarch in the region we now know as Samaria. These rebels included the tribes of Reuben, Simeon, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Ephraim, and Manasseh, ten of the twelve tribes. Only the tribes of Benjamin and Judah remained loyal to the House of David.

Ten tribes. Ten tribes. That ought to ring some bells; that ought to tickle something in your memory. These ten tribes are legendary, known to history as “the ten lost tribes of Israel.” Lost because less than twenty years after Amos prophesied that “dead bodies shall be cast out in every place,” it came to pass. Less than twenty years after God told them through Amos that their end would be bitter and that any survivors would “wander from sea to sea and from north to east . . . seeking the word of the Lord” and never finding it, that is exactly what happened. The Assyrian Empire invaded the northern Kingdom of Israel in 732 BCE and wiped . . . it . . . out . . .

Are we able to hear God’s word of economic justice spoken through Amos as applying to us? Not us the nation, but us the global economic society which cannot seem to divorce itself from the organizing principle of profit no matter what the issue may be, even when that organizing principle cannot address the issue. If we believe the witness of Holy Scripture, the ten lost tribes were lost, utterly destroyed, wiped from human history because God will not tolerate economic injustice!

Let’s leave that question for a moment and turn our attention to the Gospel lesson which seems at first glance to have little if any relationship to our Old Testament lesson. It is the familiar story of Jesus visiting his friends Mary and Martha of Bethany. He arrived and, like good friends and hosts, they held a dinner party. Luke does not tell us that others were present, but it would have been very much out of the ordinary for Jesus to have been alone with these women, so we can assume that others, at least their brother Lazarus, were there for the meal.

Martha, anxious for the comfort of their guest, busied herself with all the details of hospitality — setting the table, cooking, filling the glasses, bustling about will all of that sort of thing. Her sister Mary, however, did not pitch in to help. Instead, she sat with the other guests at Jesus feet, a student attentive to her teacher, listening to his words.

Martha, seeing Mary seeming not to care, became annoyed and ungracious. A word to her sister would probably have been sufficient to secure her help, but rather than do that Martha impatiently complained to Jesus: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.”

Jesus answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” This text is commonly understood to contrast Mary’s attention to Jesus words — good — with Martha’s busy distraction — bad. But that’s overly simplistic and isn’t true to the spirit of Jesus teaching.

Martha has done the right thing; she has invited Jesus into her home and busied herself with the obligations of hospitality, something that Jesus values. The problem is that, as a hostess, she hasn’t been gracious; she hasn’t spent time with Jesus, her other guests, or even with her sister. She has let these tasks distract her. And worse, rather than speak with Mary directly and ask Mary directly for help, Martha did what we are all warned against; she dragged someone else into her tiff with her sister. It’s called “triangulation.” Like a school girl angry with a friend, she won’t talk directly to Mary, even when she’s in the same room: “Jesus, tell Mary (who was right there in the same room) to help me.” It’s a contentious move; it creates conflict.

It isn’t her busyness with hospitality and hosting, or her sister’s attention to his conversation, that Jesus referred to when he said, “There is need of only one thing.” Putting Mary to work at Martha’s task wasn’t what was required. It was something else. And to understand what it was, we have to step back from the gospel lesson and see this episode in context.

This visit with Mary and Martha happens immediately after Jesus has told the story we heard last week, the parable of the Good Samaritan. Remember that that story came in response to a question from a lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In answer to that question, Jesus asked the lawyer what the Law of Moses says, to which the lawyer answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. ”

Jesus told the lawyer that his answer was correct and then said, “Do this, and you will live.” The lawyer had given a two-part answer: love God — love your neighbor. But to Jesus it was not two things, but one. He did not say, “Do these.” He did not say, “Do those two thing.” He said, “Do this” — singular — one thing. Love God, love your neighbor. To Jesus, it’s one thing, one needful thing. (And, please, remember! This is not sloppy, emotional romantic love! This is Biblical love – chessed in Hebrew; agape in Greek – love which respects the dignity of human being, which promotes peace, and fosters justice.)

For Jesus, love is above and beyond all else. It takes precedence over every other consideration, every other organizing principle, every other motive. He will live by, and die because of, this one needful thing. He will stay true to this one thing even though it will mean his sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. “Through him,” writes Paul to the Colossians, and through the fullness of God, which is Love, which dwelt in him, “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Love is the one thing needful.

And that one thing is the answer to the economic injustice against which the prophet Amos railed. The answer does not and cannot lie within the context of the market economy itself. Just as taking Mary away from the conversation and putting her to work at Martha’s tasks would not really have answered Martha’s complaints and reconciled what had become the bitterness between them, simply taking money away from the rich and giving it to the poor will not correct economic injustice; it simply perpetuates it, giving the money a new owner, and making a new non-owner filled with resentment. Revolution, elevating the working proletariat above the rich merchant class, switching Mary for Martha, also is not the answer; it simply perpetuates the disparities by reversing the roles. The answer does not and cannot lie within the market economy; it must be found in a different context.

Reducing people to commodities — “buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals” — being eager to sell on the Sabbath, shorting measures, and cutting corners were commonplace, if not integral, to the economy of ancient Israel; they are commonplace, if not integral, to all market economies. But these practices and attitudes of markets, like Martha’s bustling busyness, lack one thing needful. They lack love — love which respects dignity, promotes peace, and fosters justice. And because they lacked love, the ten tribes of the northern kingdom became lost, utterly destroyed, wiped from the human history because God will not tolerate economic injustice!

We must come to the realization as a society, as a global economic society, that we are no different from the lost tribes of Israel. That for many aspects of our modern life — health, education, clean air and water, public safety — profitability is the wrong measure, just as it was for them. The market was and is unable to deal with these issues; it was and is the wrong context within which to solve these and many other of society’s ills. As the Psalm for today says, we must stop trusting in great wealth; we must stop relying upon wickedness; we must, instead, trust in the mercy of God. In these areas of our common life, we need to change society’s organizing principle from market economics to gospel values, from profit as the bottom line to biblical love – dignity, peace, justice – as the bottom line.

It is the one thing needful. Amen.

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

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

Who Is My Neighbor? And Who Is the Good Samaritan? – Sermon for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10C) – July 14, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 8 (Proper 10, Year C): Amos 7:7-17; Psalm 82; Colossians 1:1-14; and Luke 10:25-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Good Samaritan, engraving by Julius Schnorr von CarolsfeldThe nation’s legal system is corrupt; justice is for sale to the highest bidder. The guilty go free while the innocent suffer and die. The rich are crushing the poor. The affluent, the 1%-ers, are living a lavish life, with their costly perfumes and cosmetics, and their vacation homes with expensive furnishings, pleasure palaces where they can throw extravagant parties with music in every room. They revel in sexual debauchery of all sorts, but try to enforce a puritanical moral code on the rest of society. The poor are at the mercy of predatory lenders who exploit vulnerable families. The rich have more than enough to eat and to waste, while the poorest in the society go hungry. And government and religious leaders not only allow this to happen, they help it happen.

Just a brief summary of Chapters 1 through 6 of the Prophet Amos.

Some of you probably thought, “There he goes again, spouting his liberal politics from the pulpit.” But I’m not; as I said, it’s simply a paraphrase the Prophet Amos’s critique, of God’s critique, of ancient Israel at the time of King Jeroboam II. We just heard most of chapter 7 beginning at verse 7, in which Amos tells of the third of three prophetic visions. In verses 1 through 6, Amos tells of God showing him locusts devouring all the crops of the land and then another vision of fire destroying everything in the nation. Amos pleads with God not to let that happen. Most scholars interpret those visions as omens of what God might do to the nation, but I think perhaps they might instead be striking visions of prophetic judgment against the wealthy of ancient Israel and the rulers and religious leaders of the time. These are not visions of what God might do; they are visions of what those in power will do if not stopped. And God’s judgment spoken twice to Amos is, “This will not happen!” (vv. 3, 6)

So God shows Amos a vision of a plumb line. Do you know what a plumb line is? There’s a picture of a plumb line on the cover of the bulletin this morning. A plumb line is a string with a metal weight, or “plumb bob,” at one end which, when suspended, points directly towards the earth’s center of gravity so that the string hangs perpendicular to the plane of the earth’s surface; it is used to test the verticality of structures, how true to straight up-and-down they are. It sets the standard for up-rightness. God tells Amos that God is setting a metaphorical plumb line in the midst of God’s People and if they don’t measure up to the standard, “the high places of Isaac shall be made desolate, and the sanctuaries of Israel shall be laid waste, and [God] will rise against the house of Jeroboam with the sword.”

Well, you say, that’s ancient Israel. What’s that got to do with us?

Let me read you a news item from the past week. This is from the July 9, 2013, issue of the Florence, Alabama, Times-Daily:

Police Chief Lyndon McWhorter said Monday morning’s bank robbery [in Moulton, Alabama] was among the most unusual of his law enforcement career.

“I’ve been involved with several over the years, but none like this,” McWhorter said. “It’s one for the books.”

McWhorter said Rickie Lawrence Gardner, 49, of 7667 Alabama 33, Moulton, was arrested Monday morning while sitting on a bench outside the Bank Independent branch on Court Street in Moulton, minutes after he supposedly walked in and robbed the bank.

“When the officers got there, he was just sitting on the bench, waiting on them,” McWhorter said. “The money was locked up inside his truck, which was parked in the handicapped spot in front of the bank.

“He had a handicap sticker on his vehicle so he even parked legal.”

McWhorter said Gardner told authorities he robbed the bank because he had hurt his leg and wasn’t able to take care of himself.

“So, he decided to get arrested to have a place to live and someone to take care of him.”

Minutes before the arrest, McWhorter said, Gardner walked into the bank just off Alabama 157 and handed a teller a written note explaining that he had a gun and she was to give him money.

Authorities said no weapon, other than a pocketknife, was found when Gardner was taken into custody.

“The only thing he said to the teller was when he asked her to give him a bag to put the money in,” McWhorter said.

With the money in hand, McWhorter said Gardner walked out of the bank, laid the money inside his vehicle, locked the door and walked back to the bench. The chief said Gardner sat down on the wooden bench in front of the bank and waited on officers.

“When officers got there, he did not offer any kind of resistance. He was just waiting on them,” McWhorter said. “This is the first bank robbery I’ve ever worked where the robber was waiting outside the bank for the police to turn himself in.” (Times-Daily)

The Associated Press later reported that Gardner “mentioned the weapon in the note — even though he didn’t have one — because he thought it would get him a longer sentence;” he thought he’d get more time, which would mean more shelter, more food. (AP Story)

The reason you may have thought my opening paraphrase of Amos sounded like an indictment of our own society is simple. It does. The word of prophecy spoken by Amos to ancient Israel speaks directly to us.

You know the interesting thing about Amos’s prophecy is that we can’t even be sure it was heard by the rulers of the nation to which it was spoken. We know Amos wrote it down; we know that someone told the story of Amos delivering his prophecy to Amaziah (who was the high priest at Bethel the religious center of the northern kingdom), but we are told that Amaziah never delivered it to Jeroboam II, the reigning king.

Amaziah instead told the king that Amos was part of a conspiracy to kill him, and then Amaziah told Amos to return to his home which was in the southern kingdom. “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah,” he says, “earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” And this is where Amos speaks one of my favorite lines in Scripture, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees.”

Amos’s answer was to indicate that he was not a prophet by profession; he was not a member of one of the official “prophecy schools.” Indeed, as part of the official religious establishment, Amos thought those full-time prophets were as much a part of the problem as the priests, the king, and the wealthy! Amaziah proved that he was part of the problem by failing to communicate Amos’s prophecy to King Jeroboam, so our reading today ends with Amos’s personal prophecy against him: “Your wife shall become a . . . and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword . . . and you shall die in an unclean land.” A pretty pointed prophecy, if ever there was one!

But we, who hear in Amos’s condemnation of ancient Israel at least a bit of a word of warning to our own society, what are we to make of this prophecy of the plumb line? The standard for the People of God in Israel was the ancient law of Moses, the religious, ethical, and social rules we find in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers (Deuteronomy was unknown at the time of Amos). What is it for us? How are we (as Paul wrote to the Colossians) to be “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding?” How are we to “lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him?” How are we to bear fruit in every good work and . . . grow in the knowledge of God?”

Well, that standard is easily stated. A young lawyer does so in today’s Gospel: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” It’s easily stated; it’s not so easily understood.

The young lawyer says as much when he asks his follow up question, “Who is my neighbor?” He wants to know what we want to know: are there limits? Is it sufficient to love only the people of my community — for him, Israel; for most of us, white descendants of Northern European immigrants? Does it include Mr. Gardner, the bank robber in Moulton, Alabama? Might it also include other undesirables, Samaritans and Gentiles, the Irish, descendants of African slaves, recently immigrated Asians, Hispanics? Does it include women, people with disabilities, lepers, and others frequently excluded from society? Do we get to define who is our neighbor, or does Someone else?

Ultimately, the answer to our question is the answer to another question: “Who does God love?” Jesus answers the question by telling a parable, the oh-so-familiar story of the “Good Samaritan.” In analyzing this story, Lutheran theologian Brian Stoffregen asks an important question: “Why does Jesus make the hero of this story a Samaritan?” In answering this question he writes:

The idea of being a “Good Samaritan” is so common in our culture, that most people today don’t realize that “Good Samaritan” would have been an oxymoron to a first century Jew. Briefly stated, a Samaritan is someone from Samaria. During an ancient Israeli war, most of the Jews living up north in Samaria were killed or taken into exile. However, a few Jews, who were so unimportant that nobody wanted them, were left in Samaria. Since that time, these Jews had intermarried with other races. They were considered half-breeds by the “true” Jews. They had perverted the race. They had also perverted the religion. They looked to Mt. Gerizim as the place to worship God, not Jerusalem. They interpreted the Torah differently than the southern Jews. The animosity between the Jews and Samaritans were so great that some Jews would go miles out of their way to avoid walking on Samaritan territory. Previously in Luke, the Samaritans had refused to welcome Jesus — the “bad” Samaritans. I’m certain that in the minds of many Jews, the only “good” Samaritan was a dead Samaritan. Note that the lawyer never says “Samaritan.” He can’t call him a “good Samaritan” (a phrase that doesn’t occur in the text). Anyway, we are still left with the question, “Why a Samaritan?”

If Jesus were just trying to communicate that we should do acts of mercy to the needy, he could have talked about the first man and the second man who passed by and the third one who stopped and cared for the half-dead man in the ditch. Knowing that they were a priest, Levite, and Samaritan is not necessary.

If Jesus were also making a gibe against clerics, we would expect the third man to be a layman — an ordinary Jew — in contrast to the professional clergy. It is likely that Jewish hearers would have anticipated the hero to be an ordinary Jew.

If Jesus were illustrating the need to love our enemies, then the man in the ditch would have been a Samaritan who is cared for by a loving Israelite.

One answer to the question: “Why a Samaritan?” is that we Christians might be able to learn about showing mercy from people who don’t profess Christ. I know that I saw much more love expressed towards each by the clients at an inpatient alcoholic/drug rehab hospital than I usually find in churches. Can we learn about “acting Christianly” from AA or the Hell’s Angels? (CrossMarks)

But Stoffregen proposes an alternative response: “Another answer to the question: ‘Why a Samaritan?’ is that we are not to identify with the Samaritan. A Jew would find that so distasteful that he couldn’t identify with that person. He wouldn’t want to be like the Priest or Levite in the story, so that leaves the hearer with identifying with the man in the ditch.” And that raises the further question, “Then who is the Samaritan?” to which there can only be one answer, “The Samaritan is God.”

If the Samaritan represents God, that means that God loves the penniless, the stripped naked, the beaten down, the ones left half dead, the ones passed-by by the leaders of society, by the rulers, by the punctiliously correct, and (I’m sorry to say) by the religious. It makes us realize that God is no respecter of position or wealth, God does not care about social class or religion. The man in the ditch had been stripped of everything that might have indicated his social standing, his religious faith, even his nationality; he was simply a person in need. That is who God loves, and that means that God loves everyone. In the human community, every person is potentially a person in need; truth be told, every person is a person in need.

Who is my neighbor? Who does God love? Everyone. No exceptions. No exclusions. That is the standard, the rule, the plumb line by which God judges society. This again and again is what the prophets of old told us; it is what Jesus told us; it is what our own modern prophets have said over and over. For example:

In the 18th Century, Dr. Samuel Johnson’s biographer James Boswell quoted him as saying, “A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.” (Boswell, Life of Johnson)

In her book My Several Worlds (1954), Pearl S. Buck, wrote: “The test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.”

In his last political speech, Sen. 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; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped.”

And Mahatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.”

Who is my neighbor? Who does God love? Everyone. No exceptions. No exclusions.

Every person is potentially a person in need, and every person is potentially a caregiver, a supplier of that which is needed. When we conclude our worship this morning, several young people and a few adults accompanying them will depart for Franklin, Pennsylvania, to be suppliers of that which is needed. At this point, they don’t know whose needs they are going to be supplying; they don’t know what those needs will be. All they know is that there are people in need and they are going to care for them, because they are our neighbors.

So at this point, let’s get on with the business of commissioning them for the ministry on which they are about the embark.

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

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

A Comprehensive Redemption – From the Daily Office – May 28, 2013

From the Second Letter to the Corinthians:

Do I make my plans according to ordinary human standards, ready to say “Yes, yes” and “No, no” at the same time?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 2 Cor. 1:17b (NRSV) – May 28, 2013.)

Yes NoThree words come to mind as I read Paul’s question: indecision, duplicity, and dialectic. Each could be described as “saying ‘Yes, yes’ and ‘No, no’ at the same time.”

Indecision or indecisivenss is simply the inability to come to a decision, bouncing back and forth between alternatives, wavering between “yes” and “no” without ever coming to a conclusion. This would not describe Paul, but it certainly does describe many people. Sometimes it’s OK not to make a choice; in fact, sometimes it’s downright necessary! Decisions need to be made at the proper time. Years ago I was a cadet in the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC). I don’t remember a good deal of that training, but I do remember this: “When it’s not necessary to make a decision, it’s necessary to not make a decision.” Read that again carefully: “When it’s not necessary to make a decision, it’s necessary to not make a decision.” In other words, don’t jump the gun. Don’t commit to an action before you have to. On the other hand, as William James said, “When you have to make a choice and don’t make it, that is in itself a choice.” While Paul certainly called for his listeners and correspondents to make decisions and faithful choices, and even though he introduces this question with the words, “Was I vacillating,” I don’t believe that simple indecision is what Paul refers to in this passage.

Indecision may be morally neutral; duplicity, however, is not. Duplicity is deliberate deceptiveness: saying one thing and meaning another, or saying one thing to one person and something different to another. Deceitfulness is one synonym; hypocrisy is another. I suspect that this, rather than mere indecision, is the “ordinary human standard” to which he refers and which, by implication, he eschews. He may be referring to Jesus’ words about oath-taking from the Sermon on the Mount which the Christian community remembered and later recorded in Matthew’s Gospel: “Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.” (Matt. 5:37) In any event, dishonesty is probably Paul’s issue here.

Post-modern Anglican that I am, however, I can’t help but go a step further and wonder, “But why is in an either/or thing? Why not look at this as both/and?” Saying “Yes, yes” or “No, no” at the same time may be way of working through two opposing theses to arrive at a synthesis; in other words, a dialectic process may be at work here. Paul is such a black-and-white kind of guy that I don’t think he’d have made a very good Anglican dialectician. The “both/and” thing just doesn’t seem to be his style, but as we read his words we can move beyond them to a greater comprehensiveness.

As Paul continues his letter to the Corinthians he writes, “In [Jesus Christ] it is always ‘Yes.’ For in him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes.’” (vv. 19-20) This is not simply a contradiction of a human “no” with some more powerful yet still human “yes.” Beyond either our “no” or our “yes” is a comprehensive divine affirmation. As Paul elsewhere wrote to the Colossians, “Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11), and similarly to the Ephesians, “[God’s plan is] to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Eph. 1:10), and earlier to the Corinthians, “[The plan of salvation is that] God may be all in all.” (1 Cor. 15:28). In other words, the divine “Yes” is a comprehensive synthesis which more than contradicts our human “No” and more than affirms our human “Yes.” Instead, it integrates both in a divine dialectic that produces something new that is neither our “No” nor our “Yes” but God’s redemption.

Reading Paul this morning, I am reminded of the need to make decisions in the best way and at the best time that we can, doing so honestly, but always remembering that even our best, most honest decisions may (and definitely will) be inadequate; all our decisions await God’s comprehensive redemption.

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

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

One of Those Weeks (Salvation Belongs to Our God) – Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter – April 21, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Fourth Sunday of Easter: Acts 9:36-43; Psalm 23; Revelation 7:9-17; and John 10:22-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Etching of the Heavenly Throne RoomIt’s Good Shepherd Sunday . . . the Fourth Sunday of the Easter Season is always Good Shepherd Sunday. Every year, regardless of which of the three years of the Lectionary cycle we are in, we hear some lessons which mention shepherds or lambs, and we recite the 23rd Psalm as the Gradual, and we sing every “Shepherd hymn” in the hymnal. I’ve been preaching Good Shepherd sermons for 25 years, so I pretty much thought this was going to be one of those Sundays when I could just “wing it” and preach extemporaneously.

But it’s not. The events of the past week have made this a Good Shepherd Sunday unlike any that has come before. This Good Shepherd Sunday, as I read the words of the 23rd Psalm, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil,” (Ps. 23:4) I cannot help but be aware of all those who, unknowingly, were in that very place on Monday afternoon; I cannot help but think of Boylston Street, Boston, as “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Today’s Gospel lesson is John the Evangelist’s story of an event that happened before Jesus’ crucifixion, something that happened as he was teaching in the Jerusalem Temple. “The Jews,” which is John’s way of naming the temple authorities (the priests and scribes) gathered around Jesus and put him on the spot. “Are you the Messiah?” they ask, “Tell us plainly.”

Jesus’ answer is to say that he has said as much and that it is plain to those who are his sheep, because his sheep understand what he says: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (John 10:27) They hear what I say; they understand my words; and they do what I tell them.

Well, maybe . . . .

Let’s be honest. Understanding Jesus and doing what he says aren’t always very easy. For example, St. Luke tells us that Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6:36-37) And St. Matthew tells us that he commanded, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:44) I know what those words mean, but when it comes to the events of this week, they are not easy to obey.

But . . . OK . . . let’s give it a try. Our prayer book heritage gives us words to pray when we cannot think of the words ourselves, so let’s give this praying for those who hurt us a try using some of those prayers:

O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth: deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 816)

Into your hands, O Lord, we commend Tamerlan Tsarnaev, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most merciful Savior, praying that he may be redeemed in your sight. Wash him, we pray, in the blood of that immaculate Lamb who was slain to take away the sins of the world; that, whatever defilements he may have contracted in the midst of this earthly life being purged and done away, he may be presented before you pure and without spot; through the merits of Jesus Christ your only Son our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from the BCP 1979, page 488)

O God, whose mercy is everlasting and whose power is infinite; Look down with pity and compassion upon Dzhokhar Tsarnaev; and whether you visit him to test his fortitude or to punish his offences, enable him with your grace to submit himself willingly to your holy will and to your judgment. O Lord, go not far from him or any person whom you have laid in a place of darkness; and seeing that you have not cut him off suddenly, chasten him as a father and grant that he, duly considering your great mercies, may genuinely turn to you with true repentance and sincerity of heart; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Adapted from the Book of Common Prayer of 1789, A Form of Prayer for the Visitation of Prisoners.)

This is what our Shepherd requires of us, that we pray for the repose of the soul of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and for the salvation Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, even though we find it very difficult to do.

When I was still practicing law, I had occasion to defend a dentist whose hobby was sculpting. One of the pieces he showed me was a very nicely done, and in most respects very traditional, Crucifix. What was nontraditional about it was the expression on Jesus’ face; it was contorted in obvious and quite extreme rage.

I asked him about that saying, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Christ depicted in that way, and I can’t say that I’ve ever conceived of this reading any of the Gospels’ crucifixion stories.” He answered by asking me, “You know in the Gospel according to Luke when Jesus says, ‘Father, forgive them . . . . ?’ I’ve always heard that as angry, as Jesus saying to God the Father, ‘You forgive them because, right now, I can’t.'”

If you, like me, are having some difficulty in praying for those two boys, let these prayers be offered in that same spirit. We pray for God to take them, for God to forgive them, because right now, we can’t. We know exactly what Jesus meant but right now, we can’t do it. So we ask our Shepherd to do it for us. Because, as the multitude witnessed by St. John of Patmos cried so clearly, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10)

That’s one of the Good News lessons for today, for this week, I think. Jesus asks us to pray for and forgive those who do us wrong, but if we can’t, he can do it for us. We don’t need the fancy words of prayers out of the prayer book tradition. We just need Jesus’ own words, his words on the cross, “Father, forgive them.” That’s really all we need to say, “Father, forgive them.” Because even if we can’t, he can.

I think the other Good News lesson for this week is in something else Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

Yesterday, I was at a diocesan leadership conference and, as you might expect, during the break times, our conversations centered around the events of the week.

A colleague commented at a diocesan meeting this morning, “It’s been one of those weeks.” My first thought was, “One of what weeks? There aren’t very many weeks like this!” The more I thought about it, however, I think maybe every week is like this. Every week people die. It’s an uncomfortable reality, but it’s true. Every week people die. It’s nothing to fear, however. I remember hearing a bishop (it may have been Desmond Tutu) say that being a Christian means (among other things) accepting the fact that you have already died. Certainly that is the witness of scripture: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Rom. 6:3-4) And, again, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:2-3) And, again, “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him.” (2 Tim. 2:11) The very meaning of the Easter Season which we continue to celebrate is that death has been conquered, and that 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)

And every week people do awful things to other people. Sometimes those things are hugely catastrophic for many people, like the bombs at the marathon finish line. Sometimes those things go unseen by nearly everyone except the one injured, like the bullying that has led so many teens to commit suicide. Such things, awful things happen all the time. But . . . “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” (Isaiah 40:28-29) And, again, “The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down.” (Psalm 145:14) And, again, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philip. 4:13) The very meaning of the Easter Season which we continue to celebrate is that the power of God overcomes anything, any-awful-thing, the evildoers of this world can throw at us.

Not very long after the bombs exploded in Boston, comedian Patton Oswalt posted a reflection on his Facebook page in which he said:

I remember, when 9/11 went down, my reaction was, “Well, I’ve had it with humanity.”

But I was wrong. I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem — one human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. (Thanks FAKE Gallery founder and owner Paul Kozlowski for pointing this out to me). This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in a while, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness.

But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evildoers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

I think that is the reality to which Scripture testifies; I think that is the triumph of Easter — that the good will always outnumber the evil. “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.”

So I guess my colleague was right. It’s been one of those weeks . . . a week when life was changed for some, a week in which the Presence of God helped people get through some really awful stuff, a week when the good outnumbered the bad. It’s been one of those weeks. Every week is. Thanks be to God!

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

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

You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught – From the Daily Office – November 24, 2012

From Luke’s Gospel:

Jesus told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Luke 8:9-14 (NRSV) – November 24, 2012)
 
Lieutenant Cable and Liat from "South Pacific"Although from a modern perspective, the prayer of the Pharisee is rather bigoted, but we should try to see it from his perspective and from within his culture, which Jesus shares. When we do so, we can see that Jesus is not criticizing the individual, but rather condemning an entire system of religion which divides and categorizes people. Jesus is denouncing any system, religious, social, or political, which separates people on the basis of bigotry and fear.

We know that from the early Second Century some rabbis taught that every Jewish man was obligated to recite three blessings daily, and it is not too much of a stretch to imagine that these, or some earlier version, were in use in Jesus’ time. These three blessings express gratitude to God for one’s status or position through negative comparisons with others. The man blessed God that God had not made him a gentile, a woman, or a slave (or, alternatively, a boor). Modern scholars call these the “blessings of identity.” They may not have been universally required prayers at first, but we know that by the Fifth Century they were part of Judaism’s most authoritative teaching, The Babylonian Talmud, and at the end of the first millennium they had become part of the preliminary prayers of the Jewish daily morning service. So, again, it doesn’t take much imagination to think that perhaps Jewish men were saying something similar in the time of Jesus.

And they weren’t alone! Such divisive, negative, comparative thanksgiving was not and is not limited to the Jews. Thales of Miletus (d. 546 BC), traditionally the first of the Greek philosophers, reportedly gave thanks to Tyche, the goddess of fortune, “that I was born a human and not a beast, a man and not a woman, a Greek and not a barbarian.” Similar sentiments have been credited to Socrates (d. 399 BC) and Plato (d. 348 BC)! Scholars have wondered whether the blessings of identity might actually be of Greek origin, a bit of Greek philosophy that was “Judaized” and crept into the Jewish morning prayers by the First Century.

Whether of Greek or Jewish origin, it is this sort of divisive thinking that Jesus condemns in today’s Daily Office gospel lesson, not merely the self-congratulatory, self-righteous, and fine-tuned religious conceit of the Pharisee. It’s not pride that Jesus denounces; it’s bigotry. Paul would be the first to understand this well and spread Jesus’ gospel beyond its Jewish origins. To the Romans he would write, “There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him.” (Rom. 10:12) To the Colossians, “There is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” (Col. 3:11) And famously to the Galatians, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) A modern 20th Century hymn familiar to all Episcopalians picks up the strain:

In Christ there is no East or West,
in him no South or North,
but one great fellowship of love
throughout the whole wide earth.

In him shall true hearts everywhere
their high communion find,
his service is the golden cord
close-binding all mankind.

Join hands, disciples of the faith,
whate’er your race may be!
Who serves my Father as a son
is surely kin to me.

In Christ now meet both East and West,
in him meet South and North,
all Christly souls are one in him,
throughout the whole wide earth.

(Words by John Oxenham, 1908)

The Jew praying in the temple was doing only what he’d been taught, but that is the nature of bigotry. Bigotry, prejudice, fear and hatred of the other are not natural. They have to be taught. There’s a short, little remembered song from the musical South Pacific by Rodgers and Hammerstein. Sung by the character Lieutenant Cable as he struggles with whether to marry Liat, an Asian woman with whom he has fallen in love, You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught may be the most powerful song of the show:

You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

Well . . . this is getting a bit long for a simple morning meditation, but the point is that Jesus isn’t simply comparing two individuals and saying one is better than the other. That would be no different from the divisive prayer he condemns. Jesus is denouncing a religious system, any system, that builds up some at the expense of others. Better to stand before God and acknowledge who we are, and where we fall short of God’s expectations, than to enlarge ourselves through negative (and most often wrong) comparisons with those who are different from us. To do either, however, requires that we be taught to do so. You’ve got to be carefully taught.

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

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

Willful Stupidity – From the Daily Office – May 14, 2012

St. Paul wrote:

[God] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Colossians 1:13-14 – May 14, 2012)

I was reminded just this morning in something else I read that there is no positive attribute “darkness”. Darkness actually is nothing; it is simply the absence of light. We cannot and do not measure darkness; we measure light and when there is no light, that’s nothing. The only purported measurement of darkness I know of is the Bortle Dark-Sky Scale, but in truth the Bortle Scale is a nine-level numeric ranking of night sky’s brightness. There is no negative side of the scale. Once one reaches the bottom of the scale where there is total absence of light, there is no greater (or perhaps one should say, lesser) degree of darkness. There are degrees of light, but not of darkness. ~ So how is that modern scientific people who know this can make sense of a phrase like “the power of darkness”? If darkness is simply the absence of light, then darkness is nothing . . . literally “no-thing”. And no-thing can have no power. I can imagine someone saying, “If darkness is no-thing, and no-thing has no power, then God’s rescue is meaningless.” Of course, I don’t believe that, but I can certainly imagine someone in today’s world working through that line of thought. ~ I think one of the failings of our age is the loss of a poetic or metaphorical understanding of reality. I know that Paul is using “darkness” as a synonym or a metaphor for evil, but the trouble is that our spiritual or religious language is so often at odds with the physical reality we know around us, and in a world which has lost an appreciation for the poetic that is a problem. The English satirist Malcom Muggeridge said, “There is no such thing as darkness; only a failure to see.” Shakespeare wrote, “There is no darkness but ignorance.” Perhaps in our time, we need to understand Paul to be saying that God rescues us from our own callowness and incomprehension. Perhaps in our time, the human problem is not so much sinfulness as it is willful stupidity! ~ American author and neurosurgeon Ben Carson once wrote, “God has given us more than fourteen billion cells and connections in our brain. Why would God give us such a complex organ system unless he expects us to use it?” I believe St. Paul would have agreed. Failure to use those brain cells in every possible way, both in science and in matters of faith, is giving into “the power of darkness” from which God has rescued us.

What’s This Kingdom of Heaven Thing? – From the Daily Office – April 27, 2012

From Matthew’s Gospel:

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 4:12-17 – April 27, 2012)
 
Christ the KingAnother reading of that proclamation is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” To my hearing, this alternative version is a bit more imperative; the kingdom seems a bit more imminent when it is “at hand” rather than simply has “come near.” We used to live in that part of northeastern Kansas known as “tornado alley”. If we said a tornado had “come near” that was as good as saying “It missed us! It didn’t hit us.” On the other had, if someone had said a twister was “at hand”, I would have thought it was coming right at our front door! So . . . theologically I prefer the latter reading, but must confess that personally I breathe a sigh of relief if the kingdom merely has come near. A miss, after all, is as good as a mile, and it gives me time to do this repenting and reforming that Jesus calls for. ~ So what is this “kingdom of heaven”? Let’s get one thing clear right off the bat – it is not something different from the “kingdom of God”. Some try to make a distinction (like the notes in the Scofield Reference Bible towards which I acknowledge great antipathy), but a comparison of the gospels demonstrates that they are the same thing (compare these verses: Matthew 4:17 with Mark 1:14-15; Matthew 5:3 with Luke 6:20; Matthew 13:31 with Mark 4:30-31). ~ This kingdom also is not a place far away or near by. The Greek here is basileia ; the Hebrew for the same concept in the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 103:19) is malkuwth. While both can refer to a physical place, an actual nation state, they are better understood to refer to a condition or fact or authority of sovereignty or dominion; they might better be translated is “rule” or “reign”. This kingdom also is not a time – past or present or future. It isn’t some place or state or condition at which we arrive after death; it isn’t some place or state or condition which will arrive on earth at some future time. So what is it? ~ Well . . . in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees about the signs of the kingdom’s arrival, to which he replies, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or, ‘There it is!’ For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst.” (Luke 17:20-21) The Greek here is entos which means (and in other versions is translated literally as) “within you”. Other things the Christian scriptures tell us are found within human beings are the “word of Christ” richly dwelling (Col. 3:16), spiritual gifts (1 Tim. 4:14), and sincere faith (2 Tim. 1:5). The Hebrew scriptures mention peace (e.g., Ps. 12:8), God’s commandments (Prov. 7:1), and “a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezek. 36:26). In other words, the kingdom is an internal, spiritual characteristic of human beings characterized by these things. That’s coming about as “near” as you can get! That’s even more imminent than being “at hand.” If it’s within me, within you, within us, right here in the midst of us . . . that’s a matter of some urgency! We’d best be paying attention to it. ~ It is also characterized by the things revealed in the eight “kingdom parables” of Matthew 13, but that is too much to write about in a short meditation on a sunny day. I’ll leave those to the reader’s own contemplation. ~ Just one final note . . . if the kingdom (in all its characteristics) is truly within a person (or within a community), it will be very apparent by that person’s (or community’s) outer actions, his or her (or their) conduct, his or her (or their) relationships with others and the whole of creation. Here, the words of the Letter of James apply: “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (James 2:17-18) If the kingdom of heaven is truly within, truly come near, truly at hand in the lives of Christ’s followers, then it will be made clear in works of mercy. I think that’s the repentance and reformation Christ encourages here.

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