That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ephesians (page 1 of 5)

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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The Sheep & the Goats – Sermon for Christ the King, RCL Proper 29A

In Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe’s novel of post-colonial political intrigue in Africa, Anthills of the Savannah (1987), one of the characters (echoing Karl Marx’s famous aphorism about religion) opines:

Charity . . . is the opium of the privileged, from the good citizen who habitually drops ten kobo from his loose change and from a safe height above the bowl of the leper outside the supermarket; to the group of good citizens (like youselfs) who donate water so that some Lazarus in the slums can have a syringe boiled clean as a whistle for his jab and his sores dressed more hygienically than the rest of him; to the Band Aid stars that lit up so dramatically the dark Christmas skies of Ethiopia. While we do our good works let us not forget that the real solution lies in a world in which charity will have become unnecessary.

For many years, nearly all of my life as a parish priest, every time the story of Christ the King separating the sheep and the goats, Matthew’s picture of the judgment at the end of time, rolls around, I have read it, understood it, and preached it as Jesus’ admonition to us to be charitable. I have read it as an instruction in favor of individual charity, and so novelist Achebe’s statement, his condemnation of charity as “the opium of the privileged,” pulls me up short and discomfits me.

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I Rise Today in the Gray Zone: Trinity Sunday Sermon, 11 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 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: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Song of the Three Young Men 29-34 (apocryphal verses found in some translations of Daniel 3); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and St. Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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This is “Trinity Sunday,” the only Sunday of the Christian year dedicated to a truly puzzling Christian doctrine, the peculiar Christian notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one. The late Jim Griffiss, the seminary professor with whom I studied systematic theology, once quipped that one could walk into any church on Trinity Sunday and hear heresy preached; that’s because there is no good or easy way to explain this doctrine. There’s also no way to really understand this doctrine as a matter of intellectual assent. But as a friend of mine said recently, “We [are called to] worship one God in Trinity, not understand one God in Trinity. Accept the Mystery, sing the Te Deum, and move on.” (Facebook discussion) I think he’s right. As a way of describing God, one must admit that the doctrine of the Trinity seems paradoxical, more than a little bit ambiguous, and frankly beyond explanation in a short (or even a long) sermon. So, we won’t be singing the Te Deum today, but I would like to use some poetry to explore how we can experience and worship the Triune God.

I was reintroduced during the past several months to the poetry of the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas and would like to begin our exploration of the Trinity with his poem The Bright Field (suggested to me for today by a seminary classmate).

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I’ll return to Thomas’s Bright Field, but first let me tell you about some other reading I’ve done recently.

A few weeks ago, I was reading in the news about conditions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world and learned that the Islamic State in Syria (“ISIS” or “Da’esh”) has coined a new term to describe Western civil society. An essay published by Da’esh leadership just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in 2015 called for the Extinction of the Grayzone, which is to say the secular West, which it described as the dwelling place of “hypocrites and deviant innovators.” (See Alternet) But the author of the news report I was reading offered a different take on the idea of a “gray zone” and suggested:

The gray zone is the zone of peaceful coexistence. Eliminating the gray zone and rendering a world as black & white as the flag of the Islamic state is the ultimate goal of fundamentalists on all sides. (Ahead of the News)

I filed that away as an interesting observation that might sometime be useful.

A few weeks later, this past week in fact, I was researching for this sermon, once again trying to find ways to explain the doctrine of the Trinity before deciding not to try to do so. In my researches I ran across a summary of an interview given several years ago by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in which he lamented that when we put something other than the authority of scripture, the ancient creeds, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the nature of Christ at the center of our religious life we end up in a “very sorry situation” of division. He went on to describe our Anglican tradition as one which tries, instead, to be comprehensive:

The Episcopal Church is a questioning community. … It’s confident that Christ is at its center, and that gives it the courage to look at things that are difficult. It also is a church which has lived with open-ended questions. It doesn’t need to reduce things to absolutes. We can deal with shades of gray, we can deal with paradox and ambiguity without feeling that we are being unfaithful. (Father Jake)

In a word, we and our church are that “gray zone” which fundamentalists (and fundamentalisms) on all sides seek to eliminate; we model and offer to the world that “zone of peaceful coexistence” because we place the Trinity – this peculiar and confusing notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one – squarely at the center of life. And into this “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity every so often comes that brightness, that flash of illumination of which poet Thomas wrote, that miracle of the lit bush, transitory as youth but holding the eternity that awaits us. We experience the Trinity even though we may not understand it.

God the Holy and Undivided Trinity is the eternal, archetypal Community, in whose image and likeness we, both as a species and as individuals, are created. Sinfulness, described in the Genesis story of the Fall, has seriously compromised human participation in that community; in terms of the theological metaphor of perichoresis, which envisions the life of the Trinity as a dance, we have taken a misstep. Through God’s grace, in Christ and in Christ’s Church, humanity is re-created in the Divine image and likeness, and invited once again into that Community, back into the dance with the Divine.

I chose the hymn called St. Patrick’s Breastplate (and stipulated all seven of its verses) as our opening hymn because it exemplifies how broad that Divine Community really is. The lyrics of the hymn are Cecil Frances Alexander’s rhythmic and rhyming paraphrase of an original found in the 9th Century Book of Armagh and titled in Latin St. Patrick’s Irish Canticle. In truth, the original is not a canticle or a poem of any sort; it is a protection charm or prayer of the form called a lorica.

The short first verse invokes God as Trinity, the three-in-one and one-in-three, but is more than in invocation. In the original it says, “I arise today” into the power of God; in Alexander’s translation, “I bind unto myself.” I lay claim to, I enter into, I become a part of the holy Community. C.S. Lewis described this Christian experience this way:

An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying – the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his [ordinary] prayers. (Mere Christianity, Fount Paperbacks, London:1997, p.135)

Extraordinary! The brightness breaking through, as transitory as youth and yet the eternity that awaits us.

The second verse binds the singer to Christ, but in a remarkably holistic and complete way, laying claim to every aspect of the Incarnation of God, his birth and baptism, his death and resurrection, his ascension, and his future return on the last day. The lorica thus evokes the comprehensiveness that theologians call “the Christ Event,” the fundamental act of God in and through the flesh to redeem not only the individual but the whole of the cosmos, the entire created order. The third and fourth verses attest to this by invoking our ties to the religious and human community through all of time – cherubim, angels, and archangels; patriarchs and prophets; the apostles, and all the saints and martyrs in verse 3 – and to the community of nature – the stars, the sun, and the moon; fire and lightning; wind and sea; rocks and earth – in verse 4.

The theologian Raimon Panikkar describes the Trinitarian nature of reality. The Trinity, he says, is reflected in all of creation: in human beings we see the harmonious interrelationship of body, soul, and spirit, and in the physical world there is the triadic reality of space, time, and matter. “All beings,” he writes, “share what they are by being one with him, with the Son. All that exists, that is to say, all of reality, is nothing but God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Panikkar) Perhaps this is why the lectionary for Trinity Sunday always includes the reading of the Creation Story from Genesis; a reminder of our connection to the whole created order, a community which reflects its Creator.

The fifth verse of the hymn calls upon God’s various powers and aspects as protections against evils, both natural and human-caused – God’s vision, God’s hearing, God’s wisdom, God’s hand and shield. It is said that St. Patrick was inspired by St. Paul’s Letter to Ephesians when he first sang his lorica, by St. Paul’s admonition to

take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, 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 6:13-17)

As we lay claim to faith in the Trinity by reciting or singing St. Patrick’s Breastplate, we do as Paul commanded, being thus assured that we are protected from all evils, many enumerated in two verses of the lorica not paraphrased by Alexander into her hymn: the snares of devils, temptations of nature, those who wish us ill, “the charms of false prophets, the black laws of paganism, the false laws of heretics, the deceptions of idolatry, [and] spells cast by [witches], smiths, and druids.”

The penultimate verse of the hymn both calls for and acknowledges Christ to be in all things, especially in all of the people we meet throughout any day. It is a reminder of Jesus’ promised words at the last judgment: “Just as you did it [or did not do it] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it [or did not do it] to me.” (Mt 25:40,45) It also calls to mind St. Theresa of Avila’s timeless reflection:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

And it should also be a reminder that there are times for all of us when our lives (in Ben Sledge‘s unforgettable image) can be “a train wreck in a dumpster fire” and that at such times it is through other people’s eyes that Christ looks at us with compassion, through their feet that he walks to do good for us, that is through their hands that we receive his blessing. “Christ in hearts of all that love me, . . . in mouth of friend and stranger” is the sun breaking through to illuminate the small field of my life.

The last verse repeats the Trinitarian invocation of the first and reminds us that salvation is found not in the black-and-white of fundamental religious doctrine, but the “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity, in the brightly lit “gray zone” of peaceful coexistence which is the dance of holy Community.

I want to end with another piece of poetry entitled Sonnet for Trinity Sunday by my friend, the English priest and poet Malcolm Guite:

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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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.

Unity, Love, Prayer: Homily for a Celebration of New Ministry – November 18, 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Massillon, Ohio, at the Celebration of New Ministry (Installation) of the Rev. George Baum as their rector.

(The lessons for the service were Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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prayercircleGood evening! For those who don’t know me, I am Eric Funston, a priest of the Episcopal Church and rector of St. Paul’s Parish in Medina, Ohio. For those of you who don’t know why I’m preaching here tonight . . . I wish I could tell you! Usually these ordination or installation homily gigs go to someone with whom the new clergy person has had a, shall we say, formative relationship: a former pastor, a seminary professor or a ministry supervisor, an elder minister under whom the new pastor served a curacy, someone responsible for the priestly formation of the new rector. But that doesn’t describe me . . . I am not responsible for George Baum ~ and that is very probably a good thing!

Seriously, I’m here simply because George and I are friends and colleagues, and he asked me to preach, which I am honored and pleased to do.

An ecumenical friend of mine was asked to do the same, to preach at the installation of a new pastor of his denomination with whom he had not had a mentor relationship, so he sent the soon-to-be-plugged-in clergyman an email asking what sort of church he hoped he’d be joining. The answer was, “I would love to come into a church that was unified, where everyone loved each other, and they all prayed for the pastor.” When my friend shared that reply with our ministerial alliance, we all started laughing. Not because it’s funny, but because it’s so universally true. Every pastor would love to have a parish characterized by unity, love, and prayer.

I didn’t ask George what he might be looking for in a new pastoral call, nor what he might be hoping for from this installation sermon; frankly, I was sort of afraid to do so! Besides, when I even hinted at what I might say tonight he started to (and I quote from his Facebook page) “make a few phone calls for backup preachers.” Nonetheless, I suspect that if I had asked him, he might have said pretty much the same thing, that he would love to have St. Timothy’s Parish be a church that is unified, where everyone loves one another, and where the members pray for the rector.

So, about that first item, unity:

George selected a well-known passage from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus as our Epistle Lesson tonight. In the three verses which come before the opening sentence of our reading, St. Paul wrote these words which, I think, will also be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)

These verses summarize the primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians, which is the church’s call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) After making this appeal, Paul launches, as we heard, into a celebration of the church’s diversity: some members are apostles, some are prophets, some are evangelists, some are pastors, some are teachers, and so on. He has done this before, as when he reminded the Corinthians that

there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. (1 Cor 12:4-6)

Or when he wrote to the Galatians that though they might have been Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female, those differences no longer mattered “for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28) Whatever and whoever we are, we are all given gifts to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph 4:13). Paul’s call in this letter is for unity not uniformity, for a unity which embraces and celebrates diversity so that, in the words of our Lord’s prayer to his Father:

. . . [all] may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (Jn 17:22-23)

More than a half-century ago, when I was in junior high school, I saw a made-for-television movie which portrayed the most outrageous future you could imagine, a future in which every home had in it a computer terminal on which the family could talk to their friends and co-workers, could order their groceries, and could even cast their votes. In this impossible-to-imagine future, every citizen would enjoy instant coverage of world news, direct contact with political leaders, immediate access to all sorts of data, and be well-informed. This, of course, would lead to political unity and world peace. Oh … and everyone would have flying cars.

I’m still waiting for that future. We have the computers in our homes but not much else. Perhaps all the rest will come along when the flying cars get here. In the meantime, what our 24/7 instantaneous news cycle and our direct access to data (both true and false) have done is exacerbate our differences. Instead of drawing us closer together, the internet seems to have pushed us apart into competing “bubbles” and “echo chambers.” If the recently concluded election cycle, its outcome, and reactions to that result teach us anything, it is that the church’s witness to unity in diversity is needed now more than ever. And it is within this wider context of division and conflict that this community, St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church of Massillon, Ohio, has called the Rev. George Baum to be its rector.

Now, let’s be honest, the church has not always been a paragon of unity, despite Jesus’ prayer and St. Paul’s admonitions. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. But on a recent episode of the NPR show On Being Muslim American social scholar Eboo Patel argued that religious communities must stand together and witness to what he called “diversities of justice.” In this, he echoes the call of Anglican theologian David F. Ford, who has called upon our churches, within themselves and in outreach to others, to form what he labels “improved partnerships of disagreement.” Only if we ourselves are in unity of faith measuring up to the full stature of Christ can we make that witness to the world.

You have called George to be your rector which means that, among other things, you have called him to be a prophet, to be your parish’s and the wider church’s and God’s spokesman to the community around you. In a few minutes, your wardens will present him a set of keys and encourage him to open the doors of this place to all people; shortly after that, George will kneel in the center of the nave and pray for God’s blessing that through his ministry and yours “all the world may be drawn into [God’s] blessed kingdom.” Regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of the economic, political, demographic, or social spectra of difference and disagreement which encourage us to division and conflict, he or she is called to represent your unity in and to the wider world.

Don’t get me wrong, disagreements are fine and leaders in the church should welcome lively discussion of issues because no one person has a monopoly on all wisdom. Disagreement and debate help church leaders to hear all sides of the issues and force them to think matters through. But when all is said and done, when all the disagreements have been aired, and all the points debated, the church community will still be here and it must be united in faith and growing into the full stature of Christ.

The only way we can do that is with the second element of the new pastor’s request, love:

“This is my commandment,” said Jesus, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” (Jn 15:12)

We all know that no matter what may be happening in the larger world, no matter what disagreements or conflicts we may get into in business, or politics, or the church, babies still get born, children still grow up, teens and young adults still go through the changes and passages of life, young men and women still get married . . . and older people do too! People still get sick and people still die . . . and, George, these fine people here have invited you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to share all of that with them. No matter where they or you may stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they are going to invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of our unity in Christ is made most clear. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra; a web of relationship comes into being and fosters and upholds the work to which we all are called. That web is elastic but tough; it is flexible and enduring; it is stronger than any of those one-dimensional spectra could ever be. We give that web the name of “love.”

Good people of St. Timothy’s Parish, please remember that George does not do this ministry alone! Tending to this web of relationship we call “love” is everyone’s job. As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Love is the glue that bonds the church in unity. Love for Christ and love for each other. In St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he writes that he hopes his readers’ hearts will “be encouraged and united in love.” (Col 2:2) The Greek word translated as “united” is sumbibazo. It’s the same verb Paul uses in our Ephesians text this evening, translated here as “joined together,” the way the ligaments and tendons hold the joints of the body together and promote its growth, “building itself up in love.” (Eph 4:16) Remember that love is never an emotion; it is always an action. Love is not something we feel; love is something we do.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor 13:4-8a)

So love each other and love your new rector. As our bishop is fond of saying, “Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.”

One of my favorite hymns includes the repeated refrain, “God is love and where true love is, God himself is there.” So, George, remember those words of God to Joshua, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as St. Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Tim 1:7)

Which brings us, finally, to the third request of the new pastor, to the discipline of prayer.

“You that stand by night in the house of the Lord, lift up your hands and bless the Lord.” (Cf. Ps 134) The Psalmist’s fancy way to say, “Pray!” What more can be said? What more needs to be said? Not much, really . . . but I’m a preacher so it’s my job say what shouldn’t need to be said. Tonight, let’s say it. “Pray!”

Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity. Let me say that again: Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

It’s easy, I’m sure you’ll all agree, to pray for those we like, for those with whom we agree. It’s also pretty easy to pray for people we don’t know; our formal in-church prayer often include prayers for foreign provinces of the Anglican Communion – this Sunday, for example, we are asked to pray for church members in the Falkland Islands and for their bishop William Nigel Stock. I don’t know Bishop Stock or anyone else in the Falklands so I’m perfectly happy to pray for them until the cows come home!

It should be easy to pray for members of our family and of our church, and for our friends, although sometimes we may not like them very much and often we may not agree with them, and that makes it a little harder. And then there are those other people, the ones we really don’t like or with whom on a scale of 1-to-10 we disagree at level 12; for me, I confess, it’s practically impossible to pray for them. But Someone once said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, [and] pray for those who abuse you.” (Lk 6:27-28)

In my counseling with people who are dealing with anger issues, I often suggest to them that they should pray by name for the one with whom they are angry. In every parish I have served, I have insisted that we pray for the president, by name, at every Sunday service: I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Bill Clinton; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for George Bush; I have had parishioners who refused to pray for Barack Obama; and I know I will have parishioners who will refuse to pray for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, I will insist that we do so because, as Paul wrote to Timothy, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” (1 Tim 2:1-2)

Note what Paul says there. He urges prayer for our leaders not so that they, the ones being prayed for, will be successful, but rather so that we, the ones who are praying, may have the blessings of quiet, peace, godliness, and dignity. Prayer works on the heart of the one who prays. One of the chief purposes of prayer is to transform the heart of the person praying so that it more closely resembles the heart of God. Prayer nourishes us and aligns our wills with God’s will. In this way, prayer heals and strengthens our relationships with the ones for whom we pray.

To be sure, we also believe that prayer benefits the subject of our prayers, as well. Prayer, as an offering of humble dependence, strengthens all within the community which finds its source and harmony in God. Prayer is the putting into action of the love that binds our unity.

In every epistle, Paul begs his churches to pray for him. It is the constant need of every pastor, to feel supported by the prayers of his or her people. So, please, pray for George (even when he disappoints – which he will, occasionally; even when you disagree with him – which you will, occasionally); pray for his family; pray for one another; and pray for the community and the world within which together you begin this new ministry.

So there you have it. The three things every priest wishes to find in his or her parish: unity, love, and prayer. With these as foundation, together with your new rector, you can faithfully respond to Jesus, who says to you, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last.”

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand . . . and every member of St. Timothy’s Parish, I invite you to stand, also . . . I can offer all of you no better charge than that given by the Patron Saint of my parish to the Patron Saint of your parish:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim 6:11-12,14,20)

Do so in unity, with love, holding each other in prayer. Because despite what I said in the jest at the beginning of this sermon, I am responsible for George Baum. We are all responsible to and for one another. So, again, live and minister in unity and with love, and pray for one another.

Amen.

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

An Unpreached Clergy Installation Sermon in the Time of Donald Trump

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A homily which will NOT be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of a neighboring parish in Ohio, at the celebration of the new ministry of the Rev. George ___________ as rector. (I have not disclosed names or locations as they are, frankly, irrelevant to this soon-to-be-unpreached sermon.)

(The lessons on which this sermon is based are Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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Note: When first asked to preach at George’s celebration of new ministry, I penned this sermon. After a few days, I decided to go in a different direction and, using only a few bits and pieces of what I had written here, cobbled together with other material, I crafted another sermon which I will preach. Nonetheless, I believe this homily to have merit and, therefore, publish it here. (I will publish the actual sermon once it has been delivered.)

donald-trump-prune-faceOn the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.

Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.”

“Now, wait,” you’re probably thinking, “none of that has happened here (where we are celebrating), nor in Medina (where my church is), so why are you bringing it up?”

Well, in the three verses which precede the opening sentence of our Epistle Lesson this evening, St. Paul wrote these words which will, I think, be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6)

The primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians is the church’s ministry of reconciliation and our call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) We are all given gifts, as we heard in the portion read tonight, to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (4:13)

And we are to do that in the context of a nation in which threatening notes are left on minister’s cars, public recreation facilities are defaced with messages of racial hatred, students are made to feel unsafe on their college campuses, and churches are tagged with anti-gay or anti-immigrant graffiti, a nation where thousands protest because they cannot accept the outcome of a national election. We are called to be a community of unity (not of uniformity, but of unity), a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict.

It is within this wider context that the community of St. [Swithun’s], has called the Rev. George __________ to be its rector.

In those three verses, which form a sort of explanatory preamble to the first verse we heard read (verse 7), the word “one” is used seven times! It is the drum-beat of a hymn to the church’s unity which crescendos with the oneness of God, the “Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” In the first three chapters of the letter, Paul has identified God as the source of the church’s identity; here, he identifies the oneness of God as the source, foundation, and ultimate goal of the church’s unity and our ministry of reconciliation.

In the Greek, verse 7 (the first verse we heard from the letter) also begins with the word “one.” It’s not possible to translate that parallelism into English, but to fully appreciate Paul’s thrust we might add a couple of words to our translation. We might underscore Paul’s point by rendering it not simply as “each of us was given” but more emphatically as “each one of us was given” a gift of grace for this work. Paul is bringing his notion of oneness back to our individual experience – each one of us experiences God’s grace in the larger context of the church’s ministry and goal of unity and reconciliation.

In an opinion piece published Monday in the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, the provisional bishop of Bethlehem and Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, wrote:

[T]he news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. *** [B]ut before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. (Rowe)

I believe that what Bishop Rowe is saying is an echo of God’s words to Joshua as he took over leadership of the Hebrews from Moses: “Be strong, be courageous, be careful; do not to the right or to the left.” (Josh 1:7) That’s hard work, but God’s message to Joshua is God’s message to us: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)

While no one, at least so far as I am aware, has tagged any churches in this community with anti-gay or anti-immigrant or pro-Trump graffiti, and while no one, at least so far as I am aware, has marched through the streets of this town in protest of the election’s results, I would be willing to bet that this community, and even this parish, has within it both those who voted for Trump and are rejoicing, and those who voted for Clinton and are in grief. This is the reality of human community and of the church; as I said a moment, we are a community of unity not of uniformity, called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of such division and conflict.

I don’t know and don’t really care how any of you voted; I don’t know and don’t really care how Father George voted. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. And regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of those spectra, he or she is called into the midst of them to be pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to the whole of the community.

Because no matter what may be happening in the larger world, babies are still being born, children are still growing up, teens and young adults are still going through the changes and passages of life, young men and women are still getting married, older people are, too! And people are still getting sick and dying . . . and, George, they are counting on you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor through it all. No matter where they or you stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they will invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of reconciliation occurs. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra of opinion; a web of relationship comes into being which fosters and upholds the work of reconciliation to which all are called.

So, George, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as the apostle Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

But, good people of St. [Swithun’s], George does not do this alone! As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

“Who are the ministers of the Church?” asks our Catechism. “The ministers of the Church,” it answers, “are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” The ministry of the laity, it continues

is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP 1979, page 855)

“To carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world . . .” and we are right back where we began: we are called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict. In a world where so many are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming,” we, all of us, are call to “speak[] the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:14-15) George will do that; so must you.

George, as you may know, is named for the Patron Saint of England whose red cross emblazons our Episcopal Church flag and shield. What you may not know is that St. George is also the patron saint of Palestine. A few years ago, my wife and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among the places we visited was the village of Burkin which sits on the boundary between Samaria and Galilee.

There, we visited the tiny Church of St. George, which commemorates the spot on which Jesus healed ten lepers. (Luke 17:12-19) It is the fourth oldest continuously in use worship space in the world! There has been a church on that spot since the early Fourth Century! It is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Our host was Usama, a member of the Greek Orthodox congregation. One could tell that he and the other members of St. George’s Church are very proud of their heritage. Their worship space is immaculate. The silver is polished; the cloth hangings and altar vestments are clean and bright; the icons are dusted. Pride of place is patent in every corner.

The worship space is tiny – our group of eighteen people more than half filled it. It is probably very crowded on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy and at other times of Orthodox worship. This congregation has a membership of 65 people. They are the only Christians in a town of over 7,000 population. Their witness is astounding!

Usama and his wife Neda hosted us to lunch in their home. The tables were filled with tomato and cucumber salad, yoghurt, pita, and chicken and lamb shwarma served on heaping platters of seasoned rice. There was enough to feed a group five times our size.

Several of us had two or three helpings of the delicious food when Usama’s wife, Neda, came around and piled one more serving on everyone’s plate: “Eat,” she said, “how do I know you liked it if you leave some behind?” It was all in good fun, and the graciousness and vibrancy of their hospitality was overwhelming.

We talked with them about the dwindling of their congregation, what it is like to be a Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. Someone in our group asked if they had ever considered leaving Burkin. “No,” Neda replied quickly, “If we left, who would be the church?”

It was a brilliant response, “Who would be the church?” Not ”Who would take care of the church?” Not “Who would polish the silver?” Not “Who would do whatever ….” but “Who would be the church?” Who would be the community of reconciliation in that context of division and conflict?

Usama and Neda and their brothers and sisters in Burkin are called to be that community there; you and George are called to be that community here. So I want to be very clear what it means to be a community of reconciliation in a world of division and conflict. It does not mean to simply make nice and live in an uneasy peace with those with whom we disagree; it does not mean to accept what cannot be accepted; it does not mean to approve what cannot be approved.

Reconciliation does not take place in a vacuum, nor in a fog of niceness; reconciliation can only take place within a context of, and when it incorporates the elements of, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and the healing of relationships.

In the sacramental rite of reconciliation, “evidence of due contrition” must be shown and the Confessor may require that “something to be done as a sign of penitence and [an] act of thanksgiving.” (BCP 1979 page 446) In the invitation to the general confession in our older prayer books and in Rite One of the current Prayer Book, the presider calls on those

. . . who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways. (BCP 1979 page 330).

This is the prophet’s call to change. Standing in the web of reconciliation, addressing one another and those outside our community who stand at different points on the various spectra of politics, economics, and demography, our work of reconciliation is the work of a prophet.

For example, the Old Testament law commands, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) As ministers of reconciliation we are obligated by our baptismal promises to treat resident aliens in this way, to call others to do so, and to resist those who would treat immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities in any other way.

The prophet Micah told us that what is required of us is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) As Christian ministers of reconciliation it is incumbent upon us to do so, to encourage others to do so, and to seek to change systems and practices that do not promote justice and loving kindness.

Jesus was once asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he replied “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39) In fulfillment of these commandments, our ministry of reconciliation requires that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, Page 305) call others to do so, and oppose those who would thwart those goals.

Jesus suggested that the Father blesses those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison, and turns away those who fail to do such things. (See Matt. 25:32-46) Our ministry of reconciliation demands that, like Jesus, we say to those who refuse to do these things “Depart from me, I do not know you,” until they change and do what they can for the least of his brothers and sisters.

When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples drew a sword and cut off someone’s ear, but Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52). Our ministry of reconciliation must include a prophetic echo of Isaiah and Micah calling on the manufacturers, purveyors, and wielders of weapons to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)

You, good people of St. [Swithun’s], have called George to join you in this prophetic ministry of reconciliation; with him you are called to be the church in this place at this time, a community of unity and reconciliation in the larger conflicted and divisive context of this age. To you, Jesus says, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last,” the fruit of the prophetic ministry of reconciliation.

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the clergy person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand, and as friend to friend, presbyter to presbyter, long-winded preacher to long-winded preacher, I can offer no better advice than that given by St. Paul in his first letter to a new pastor, Timothy:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim. 6:11-12,14,20)

Amen.

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

The photograph of President-elect Donald J. Trump is from the Library Grape website.

A Saintly Obligation: Sermon for All Saints Sunday – November 6, 2016 (RCL Year A)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016, 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 for All Saints Day in Year C: Daniel 7:1-3,15-18; Psalm 149; Ephesians 1:11-23; and St. Luke 6:20-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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un-rockwell-mos-largeTuesday was the Feast of All Saints (which we are commemorating today, as is permitted by tradition, by translating the feast to the following Sunday). Traditionally, All Saints Day (or All Saints Sunday) commemorates the departed members of the Christian church who are believed to have attained heaven (it is not limited to those officially canonized by a church hierarchy).

It recognizes the reality that:

Our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground. *** Our religion is the traditions of our ancestors – the dreams of our old men, given them in solemn hours of the night . . . and the visions of our [sages], and is written in the hearts of our people. (Chief Seattle, Native American)

It looks to and gives thanks for the example of those who knew that “it is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends but to befriend one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion.” (M.K. Gandhi, Hindu) And it is underscored by the Christian community’s certainty “that in the religion of Love there are no believers and unbelievers. Love embraces all.” (Rumi, Sufi Muslim)

It is a Christian holy day, but I have just described it in three quotes from notable sages none of whom were Christians. The description of our ancestors as sacred and of religion as written on the hearts of the people is from Chief Seattle, the 19th Century leader of Suquamish and Duwamish nations of the northwest, a man who followed the religion of his ancestors. The observation about befriending one’s enemies is from Mohandas K. “Mahatma” Gandhi, a Hindu from India. And the statement about the religion of love is from Jal?l ad-D?n Muhammad R?m?, a 13th Century Muslim Sufi mystic and poet.

I quote from these three men because I’ve come to believe that in our commemoration of all the saints, we should include those who are recognized as “holy” or “saintly” in other religious traditions, as well. There is, I believe, nothing in what these saintly men said that could be disagreed with by anyone of any differing religious or philosophical background. Nonetheless, I am sure that there are some (perhaps many) who would reject their words entirely, with little or no thought, as a sort of knee-jerk reaction simply because they were not Christian, despite the wisdom, morality, and generosity of spirit which they displayed.

Such is the world and the nation in which we celebrate All Saints Day this year, two days before the voters of the United States will select a new chief executive for our country. We are a society divided, polarized, and given to knee-jerk reactions. It is in this context that our Lectionary today asks us to read a consider a portion of the Book of Daniel, the only piece of apocalyptic literature in the Hebrew Scriptures, a book which focuses the reader’s attention on “the relationship between earthly and heavenly rule, emphasizing that the sovereign authority of earthly [rulers] depends upon the will of God.” (Portier-Young)

In the vision shown to Daniel, God gave sovereignty to “one like a Son of Man,” one like a human being in response to the suffering of God’s people under the domination of the Persian, Median, Macedonian, Seleucid, and Ptolemaic empires. Professor Anathea Portier-Young of Duke Divinity School argues that in so doing, God sought to free the oppressed from political domination, state terror, and persecution, to empower them to exercise authority and participate willingly in the political systems in which they live, and to inaugurate just rule on earth as in heaven. (Ibid.)

The culmination of Daniel’s vision is the handing of the earthly over to “the holy ones of the Most High.” Historically, these “holy ones” may have been understood as divine beings, but from the perspective of the Christian Gospel, the “holy ones of God” are those good people who were deeply engagement in the power struggles of their day and time, those divided, polarized, and knee-jerk reactive struggles that threatened to change to course of history. (Davidson) The “holy ones of the Most High” are those who, in the midst of a highly troubled and dangerous world, know that God is present and that God is more powerful than all the unjust empires and political systems human beings can devise. The saints, of whatever religious tradition, know that God loves and nourishes us, and gives us hope and meaning, life and salvation, gives us “the kingdom [to] possess . . . for ever – for ever and ever.” (Gaiser)

In our context, we have been given not a kingdom, but a participative democracy in which we have the same obligation as the saints of old to be deeply engaged in the struggle for justice to which Jesus calls us in today’s reading from the Gospel according to Luke, the blessings and woes from the Sermon on the Plain. We are to remember the poor and the hungry, those who weep, and those who are hated, reviled, and excluded. We are to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us. We are to follow what has come to be called “the Golden Rule:” “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” These are not merely good ideas to be followed sometimes; they are moral imperatives which are to inform every activity of our lives, including our participation – wisely, morally, and with generosity of spirit – in the democracy we have been given.

As I wrote in our parish newsletter this month, I believe that voting is more than a privilege, more than a right; it is, I believe, an ethical, moral obligation. It is, for me as a Christian, an exercise in stewardship. We have been given this country and its governance by our forebears – and even, if Daniel’s vision is true (and I believe it is), by God – and we have the obligation to participate in its democratic processes, preserve it, and pass it on to our children, grandchildren, and more distant descendants.

We have heard too much cynicism in this election season. We have been told again and again how the candidates nominated by our two major parties are both deeply disliked and deeply distrusted by the electorate. On November 1, All Saints Day itself, the United Kingdom’s Independent newspaper reported that 60 per cent of likely voters view Mrs. Clinton negatively and a similar percentage dislike Mr. Trump. In a pastoral letter to his flock last weekend, the Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Oklahoma, wrote, “Our major party candidates are both deeply flawed.” (Patheos)

Well, I have some news for the Archbishop: that is just the way people, all people, are. He might just as well have written, “Our major party candidates are both human beings.” When the Roman Catholic Church began the process to canonize Pope John Paul II as a Capital-S Saint, the popular Jesuit author James Martin wrote an article responding to those who objected because they felt the late pope was insufficiently perfect to warrant it. Martin wrote of the saints:

[E]ven after their decisions to amend their lives, the saints remained stubbornly imperfect. In other words: human. And the history of sinful saints begins right at the start of Christianity. St. Peter, traditionally described as the “first pope,” denied knowing Jesus three times before the Crucifixion.

After cataloguing the indiscretions of several well-known saints, Martin commented:

All these men and women were holy, striving to devote their lives to God. They were also human. And they knew it, too. Of all people, the saints were the most cognizant of their flawed humanity, which served as a reminder of their reliance on God. (Slate)

Yes, our candidates are deeply flawed human beings. But to slightly misquote Jesus, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first ballot.” (See John 8:7)

I believe Archbishop Coakley was correct in writing that “what we most need is a renewed commitment to the pursuit of virtue, to seek the good and adhere to the truth as inscribed in our hearts by our Creator” and that “[v]oting is a moral act. It ought to be guided by prayer and an evaluation not only of the political, but also the moral implications of our decisions.” (Patheos)

In today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle writes of the church and the Christian faith being “an inheritance” for which the saints are to praise God. As I have said, I believe this nation and our participative democracy are likewise an inheritance. As Paul prayed for the Ephesians, so I pray for all of us, especially this week, that God may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation, that the eyes of our hearts may be enlightened, and that we may know what is the hope to which God has called us. None of us, not our candidates, not our neighbors, not our fellow voters, and especially not ourselves . . . none of us is perfect; we are all deeply flawed human beings. But we are also saints like the saints of old whom we commemorate today and like them we have been given the kingdom, on earth as in heaven, to possess and to participate in for ever – for ever and ever.

It is a saintly obligation. May we exercise it wisely, morally, and will generosity of spirit.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP Page 822)

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

Crossing Borders: A New Passport – Sermon for Christmas Eve, 24 December 2015

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A sermon offered on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-20. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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identitycards

Where refugees seek deliverance that never comes
And the heart consumes itself, if it would live,
Where little children age before their time,
And life wears down the edges of the mind,
Where the old man sits with mind grown cold
While bones and sinew, blood and cell,
go slowly down to death,
Where fear companions each day’s life,
And Perfect Love seems long delayed,
Christmas is waiting to be born
In you, in me, in all mankind.
(Howard Thurman, Christmas is Waiting to be Born in The Mood of Christmas, Friends United Press, Richmond, IN:1985, p 21)

As many of you know, I have a tradition of keeping my eye open, while doing my Christmas shopping, for something on a store shelf to use as a physical illustration for this annual event, this sermon on the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Over the years, these illustrative objects have included a pair of Christmas stockings, a Christmas banner with the greeting misspelled, a stuffed frog wearing a Santa hat, and last year’s mechanical dancing dachshund. Finding and using the annual “focus object” has become a source of great fun for me and I hope for the congregations who’ve been subjected to my preaching. This year, however, nothing on the shelves spoke to me.

Maybe that’s because I really didn’t do much in the way of Christmas shopping; I did a lot of driving around but not much buying. And while I drove, I listened (as I usually do in my car) to what’s called “talk radio.” This year, the talk was all about refugees, with some commentators claiming it’s too easy to get into this country and some claiming it’s too hard, and all of them describing the process of “vetting” or doing background checks on immigrants. It made me think of my great-great-grandfather, who came to this country a refugee from the township lands of Donegal in the northern part of Ireland during “an Gorta Mor,” the Great Hunger, the so-called Irish potato famine. He came without a single document, with no proof of identity; he got off a ship in the port of New Orleans, made his way up the Mississippi River, settled in sourthern Indiana, married a German girl, and started the family from whence I came, but left no documentary evidence of any of that. He couldn’t have been “vetted” at all.

This is also the time of year, Christmas always is, when the religious press is filled with articles either claiming that the historical existence of Jesus can’t be proved, or answering claims that the historical existence of Jesus can’t be proved. And everyone agrees that there are very few mentions of Jesus outside of the bible; maybe one in a Roman criminal record and one that amounts to little more than a dismissive footnote in a work by the historian Flavius Josephus. Again, I was reminded of my great-great-grandfather. I know quite a bit about John Henry Funston, but I can’t document any of it. Believe me, I’ve tried! If I were asked to prove his existence from public records, I couldn’t do it. Nonetheless, I know he existed; I wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t. I know that Jesus existed; we wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t.

So as I was doing what little shopping I did, listening to talk about “vetting” refugees and contemplating the historical evidence of Jesus (or the lack of thereof), I did finally identify a focus object for tonight . . . or I should say a “focus category” . . . these – my identity papers. My driver’s license, my passport, my bank card, my membership cards for the Bar and various fraternal organizations. You, I’m sure, have a wallet (and perhaps a file or a strong box at home) full of similar papers. Vetting us, proving our existence, moving from place to place, gaining admission to special places, crossing borders from state to state or country to country . . . all these things are easy for us. We have these identity papers.

These papers, especially our driver’s licenses and passports, allow us to do what the refugees cannot, what my great-great-grandfather who had no papers could not do today, what Mary and Joseph could not do today . . . to cross borders and move freely from place to place. And these papers give us a lens through which to appreciate, in a new way, the meaning of Christmas which, once again in our time, “is waiting to be born in you, in me, in all [humankind].”

We heard this evening only a part of the Christmas story – we all know that there is a larger context, more to tell. This is a story that began nine months earlier when the Angel Gabriel surprised a young, teenage girl in the town of Nazareth with the invitation to be the bearer of God’s Child; this is a story that will not end, ever. The angel crossed the border between heaven and earth to make his announcement to Mary, and that set in motion a series of border crossings that is still going on:

  • between the divine and the human when Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and she conceived
  • between law and grace when Joseph, who could have canceled their engagement and even had her killed, accepted her pregnancy and his fostering of the Child
  • between the tetrarchy of Samaria and Galilee and that of Judea as the Holy Couple made their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem
  • between the Holy Land and countries to the East (and possibly the North and South) when the Magi came to pay homage
  • between Judea and Egypt when the Holy Family became refugees escaping Herod’s slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and then back again when they returned
  • between Gentile and Jew when Jesus healed the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter in the region of Tyre, when he spoke with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, and when he healed the Roman Centurion’s servant
  • between life and death when Christ was crucified and died, when he was buried, and when rose again
  • between earth and heaven again, between human and divine again when he ascended in the sight of his disciples
  • between the bondage of sin and the freedom of risen life in the Redeemer when you and I were baptized

Borders crossed, barriers removed, reconciliation accomplished.

A couple of years ago a rabbi named Irwin Kula wrote an essay entitled Crossing Borders: Jews and Christmas in America. In it he commented

The majority of Americans, including more than 80 percent of those less than 30 years of age, accept marriage across all types of boundaries, including ethnic and racial. We are creating identities and webs of relationships that do not fit our inherited boxes and labels. And so the fixed ways of dividing “us” and “them” are breaking down and not surprisingly people deeply committed to their own groups and creeds are worried.

***

At their best, our ancient religious traditions know this, which is why they all teach we are one global family . . . .

There are no roadmaps, which, paradoxically is the hallmark of a genuine spiritual journey. But the more people love each other, the more people with different inheritances and traditions form intimate relationships, and the more we learn the best of each others insights and wisdom, the more discerning we will be about what we need to bring along with us from our traditions to help create a better world in this next era. (The Wisdom Daily)

Rabbi Kula hits the nail squarely on the head when he speaks of “creating identities and webs of relationship that do not fit inherited boxes.” In the Birth of Jesus, in the life of Jesus, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in our baptism into his never-ending story, the Holy Spirit creates in us new identities and new webs of relationship. We are no longer defined by our driver’s licenses, our credit cards, our passports, and all the rest. Christmas gives us new papers, a new passport!

Christmas is, for those who wish to follow the way of Jesus, an invitation to accept a new identity. For us who live comfortable and safe lives, it is an invitation to become the inn-keeper in the story; to open the way for those who, like Mary and Joseph, come from far away, who seem ragged, marginal, or in transition. They may come from the desert wilderness of Syria or from the rain forests of Central America, but they may also come from the streets of Detroit or Cleveland, or from the wasteland of addiction, the outback of unemployment, the deep darkness of depression and mental illness. They may even be members of our own families:

This is how God finds us, at this very dark time of the year, the winter solstice, when the daylight hours have shrunk to their minimal light. He comes knocking at the door, looking for a haven, for a place to rest and recover. (CNN editorial by Jay Parini)

He comes again, as he comes every Christmas, as he comes every day, seeking to cross the borders, the boundaries, the barriers of our lives, asking us to “strive for justice and peace,” to respect the dignity of every human being,” to welcome again the Babe of Bethlehem who is born in all persons and all times. “Every year at Christmas, he comes to us as a child on the run with his impoverished and terrified parents. He knocks at the door of our house and our hearts. And we let him in – or we turn him away.” (Jay Parini)

Christmas is also an invitation to remember that, as St. Paul put it in his letter to the church in Ephesus, we were all once “aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” But through the Incarnation of Christ, “in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall” and “created in himself one new humanity,” so that none of us are any “longer strangers and aliens, but . . . citizens with the saints and . . . members of the household of God.” (Eph. 2: 12-19) In the birth of Jesus, in the life of Jesus, in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and in our baptism into his story, we have a new identity, a new passport.

The voice of the angels to shepherds on the first Christmas Eve proclaimed God’s promise of peace, of borders crossed and barriers breached, not only in First Century Judea, and not only in the future nor only in heaven, but right here on earth today, if we will but live into the Christmas invitation, into our new identity. Last week, the Most Rev. Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, offered a meditation in which he said that Christmas invites us to take the risk of reaching out to the other and “see[ing] what happens. As Christians we are called to be people who take that first step, who take the risk of kindness because we believe the other person is a gift to us from God, just as we can be a gift to them.” (Facebook Status, 4th Sunday of Advent)

Striking a similar note, the Quaker philosopher Parker Palmer just yesterday offered a reflection reminding us that we are

called to share in the risk of incarnation. Amid the world’s dangers, [we are] asked to embody [our] values and beliefs, [our] identity and integrity, asked to allow good words to take flesh in [us]. Constrained by fear, [we] often fall short. And yet [we] still aspire to walk [our] heart-and-soul talk, however imperfectly. – Christmas is a reminder that [we are] invited to be born time and again in the shape of [our] God-given self – which means embracing the vulnerability of the Christmas story. (On Being)

Christmas is a reminder and an invitation. Christmas is the passport we receive at our baptism empowering us to cross the borders.

I began this sermon with a meditation entitled Christmas Is Waiting to Be Born by the great African-American theologian Howard Thurman from his book The Mood of Christmas. I’d like to close with another from the same book:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
(The Mood of Christmas, p 32)

May Christmas be born in us, and may the Birth of Jesus empower us to cross the borders, to breach the barriers, to overcome the boundaries, and to do the work of Christmas: to “see and serve Christ in all persons, loving [our] neighbors as [ourselves].” 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.

The Three-Dimensional Kingdom: Sermon for Christ the King (Proper 29B), 22 November 2015

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A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King, (Proper 29B, Track 1, RCL), November 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-19; Revelation 1:4b-8; and John 18:33-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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Christ the KingThe kingdom of God, of which today we celebrate Christ as king, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, dangerous peace.

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1934, quoted in Bethge, Renate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life)

In 1934 the young German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched in sadness as his democratic, educated, and Christian country discarded more and more of its core values. Fear-mongering politicians lured patriotic citizens to ignore their Bibles and the promise and hope of the Prince of Peace, and worship instead at the altar of safety and national security; he witnessed them behave terribly toward foreigners, minorities, the disabled and the mentally ill. Three weeks after Adolf Hitler was proclaimed Der Führer, Bonhoeffer preached the sermon I have just quoted.

Today, as the Christian year draws to a close, we celebrate the universal sovereignty of Christ. We call this last Sunday after Pentecost “Christ the King” and we underscore that Jesus is our Lord. My friend and colleague Kara Slade, who is completing her doctorate in systematic theology at Duke, posted as her Facebook status this morning:

Because Jesus is Lord, your fear is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your bank account is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your preferred political candidate is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your theological platform (and mine) is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, every power and principality of this world is not.

Theologian Daniel Clendenin makes the same point when he writes, “The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless — peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion.”

This morning we are joined by several young men and women, members of our own Episcopal Youth Community and of youth groups of other parishes, who erected cardboard shelters on our church’s front lawn, who spent the night as many homeless do in the cold and rain, and who walked the town square with volunteers from Operation H.O.M.E.S. to raise money for and call attention to the needs of the homeless in our community. Their witness extends beyond our community to the other cities where their other congregations are located, but also beyond our own diocese and state; they witness to plight of people of all ages made homeless by economics, made homeless by ill-health, made homeless by addictions, made homeless by war. They witness to hundreds of thousands in this country and beyond our borders who are refugees from their homes but who, like us, are “no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19)

In worldly terms, Jesus’ kingship during his life was a pretty spectacular failure. He was born in a stable and soon (probably when he was about two years of age) became a refugee himself, living in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by most of his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20) He died, as we heard in the Gospel account this morning, condemned as a political rebel. “Behold,” he says in the form of the Stations of the Cross we often use in this parish, “the poorest king who ever lived. Even my deathbed, this cross, is not my own.”

Yet within less than generation communities would form throughout the ancient Middle East dedicated to the idea that not only was he a king, but that he was and is the very Son of God. Within less than 60 years after his crucifixion, John of Patmos would declare that he is “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”

When we focus on Christ as our king, we celebrate and give thanks for this temporal three-dimensionality; when we give thanks for the universal sovereignty of Christ, who in the words of one of our Ascension hymns we name “the Lord of interstellar space and Conqueror of time,” we see these three tenses of Thanksgiving: the past, the present, and the future. The kingdom over which he is Lord and of which we are all a part always has been, is, and always will be. It is, preached Patrick of Ireland,

. . . greater than all report, better than all praise of it, more manifold than every conceivable glory. The Kingdom of God is so full of light, peace, charity, wisdom, glory, honesty, sweetness, loving-kindness and every unspeakable and unutterable good, that it can neither be described nor envisioned by the mind. . . . . In the eternal Kingdom there shall be life without death, truth without falsehood, and happiness without a shadow of unrest . . . (Sermon for Advent quoted in Ramshaw, Gail, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary)

On this Feast of Christ the King, in a few minutes, we will dedicate our financial commitments to our ministry in Christ’s church and our stewardship of Christ’s kingdom. The pledge cards we have completed and turned in are tokens of our gratitude, signs of our thanks for all “the unspeakable and unutterable good” that God has given us, sacramental of our commitment to care for it and use it to the benefit of others. Our thanksgiving is three-dimensional, evidencing our awareness of God’s abundance through the ages, our sense of his very presence in this moment, and our declaration of faith that God is also yet to come. When we live with that sense of expectation, today makes a difference; our pledges of gratitude and good stewardship make a difference.

When we celebrate Jesus as King, we reach back into the Jewish roots of our faith, into the Hebrew past. We hear King David, the shepherd son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, proclaim, “The God of Israel has spoken . . . to me, . . . he has made with me an everlasting covenant.” We hear the words of the prophets, such as Isaiah, proclaiming through the ages their expectation of the Messiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Isa 11:1-2)

Princeton philosopher Michael Walzer, however, reminds us that the prophetic expectation was not a political one. The prophets, indeed, “disdain” politics. In contrast to Greek philosophers, “the Biblical writers never attach great value to [human] politics as a way of life.” Politics is simply “not recognized by the Biblical writers as a centrally important or humanly fulfilling activity.” Their emphasis was on divine intention, not on human wisdom, The prophets exemplify the Hebrew Bible’s “radical denial of the doctrine of self-help,” of human safety and national security. (Walzer, Michael, In God’s Shadow; Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale:2012, pp 125, 186)

The prophetic emphasis is not one of political security; when Isaiah describes the Child upon whose shoulders authority will rest he names him “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6), and (as quoted above) asserts that he will possess a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. St. Ambrose of Milan said:

When we speak about wisdom, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about peace, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking of Christ.

Neither St. Ambrose, nor Isaiah, nor any Hebrew prophet ever spoke of national security or personal safety. As Bonhoeffer said, “Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. [To give] oneself completely to God’s commandment, [means] wanting no security . . . .” “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” said Jesus (Mk 8:35)

When Jesus says, “I am Alpha and the Omega,” he is reminding us all that our beginning and our ending is in him. No one is self-made. No one is safe apart from him. No one is secure apart from God. Nothing that God loves will ever be lost. No evil will endure. All that God has created he will redeem. The kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus the Son of David, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, forever. And it’s for everyone.

Our annual fund campaign pledges represent our three-dimensional acknowledgement of the fact of Christ’s kingdom, our gratitude for the truth of Christ’s kingdom, and our commitment to be good stewards of that kingdom entrusted to us. Those pledge cards which have already been received are in this basket; I will ask our ushers now to take it and receive any additional cards which you have brought today. If you’ve not turned in a card and haven’t brought a completed card with you this morning, there is a form in your bulletins which you may use. We’ll take a few minutes of silent reflection upon the abundance of God’s kingdom while you do so. At the offertory, we will pray over and bless our pledge cards.

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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.

Faith, Hope, and Charity – Sermon for Pentecost 22 (25 October 2015)

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25B, Track 1, RCL), October 25, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Job 42:1-6,10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, Hebrews 7:23-28; and Mark 10:46-52. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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Faith-Hope-CharityLast week, I gave away the ending of Job. I told you that everything turned out all right in the end, and so it has. Job has repented, not of any sin that warranted his suffering, but of the pride and arrogance (and ignorance) he displayed during his suffering by demanding to confront God. God has forgiven him and to make up for all his loss, his fortunes have been restored many times over. Happy ending! Except not quite . . .

I’ll come back to Job in a minute, but first I want to look at a petition in today’s opening collect and then at the gospel story. The petition is this: “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.” The gospel story is the restoration of sight to blind Bartimaeus to whom Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What is “faith,” the first of the theological virtues our prayer asks of God and the active agent in healing Bartimaeus? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) Faith is sometimes equated with belief, and in an ancient way that is true but in the modern sense of the word “belief,” that is a misleading equation.

In contemporary English, “belief” is understood to be an opinion or judgment of which the believer is fully persuaded, or alternatively it is considered intellectual assent to a factual assertion. By some it is derided as a false alternative to scientific certainty: one is said to believe that which cannot be proven, but to know that which is made evident by factual data. That’s a false dichotomy, but not one I want to debate this morning. For the moment, let’s accept the notion that belief is assent to an opinion, judgment, or assertion. This may be the first step of faith for, as Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Romans, “faith comes from what is heard,” (Rom 10:17a), through acceptance of assertions. However, faith must be more than that.

In the Epistle of James, we are reminded that such faith, faith which consists only of belief, “by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” (Jm 2:17) and Paul would seem to agree with that when, in his letter to the Galatians, he writes that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6b, emphasis added)

So, then, faith is not simply the same as belief (as belief is currently understood). Faith is belief plus action. This is in accord with the New Testament understanding of faith; remember that our New Testament was written in Greek and the word we translate as “faith” is pistis, a verb. From a New Testament perspective, faith is not a noun, an object or substance which one has; faith is a verb, an action which one does. But is it more? Is there another element of faith.

I suggest to you that there is and we find that element in the original meaning of the word “belief.” Our word “belief” derives from the same root as our word “beloved,” and in original meaning as more the sense of “confidence” or “trust” than of intellectual assent. It means to give one’s heart to the object of one’s belief.

Faith then is belief plus action plus confidence, and it was faith such as this which led blind Bartimaeus to throw off his cloak and cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even when those around him would silence him, this faith made him yell even more loudly. This is the faith which our opening prayer asks God to increase in us: not our assurance of the rectitude of some factual assertion made (for example) in the Nicene Creed, but that belief given shape in action and that action undertaken with confidence, and confidence (the Letter to the Hebrews tells us) belongs to hope (Heb 3:6), which is the second theological virtue in our petition to God this morning.

Did you know that we have iconic depictions of the theological virtues in our stained glass windows? Look to the back of the church over the entrance doors. Below the circular rose window are the figures of three women. One holds a cross; one, an anchor; and one, loaves of bread. The figure with the cross is the depiction of Faith. Next to her is the figure holding the anchor of Hope. Which brings us back to Job.

We are, as I mentioned earlier, at the end of the story and everything has turned out all right. Job confesses that he has been arrogant and prideful in demanding a hearing before God; he is healed of his loathsome sores, reconciled to God, and rewarded with an abundance of wealth and family and comfort.

Once again, however, the lectionary leaves something out. Between verse 6, the end of his confession, and verse 10, which begins the description of his reward, God addresses Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. God says, “My wrath is kindled against you . . . ; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (v. 7)

What is the difference between Job and these other three? The answer is, “Hope.” Throughout his ordeal, despite his pride, despite his arrogant demand that God present himself, despite his denials of any sin, Job has steadfastly maintained his hope in the justice of God. His friends have counseled him to admit to wrongdoing that even they are not sure he has done; they have advised him to just give up. They have given up hope, but Job has not.

What is “hope”? Well, that’s a good question. St. Paul wrote a lot about hope in his various letters, but he never really defines it. He comes closest to doing so in the Letter to Romans in which he writes: “[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Rm 5:3-5) And then later in the same letter he says, “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rm 8:24-25)

Theologically, hope is the “virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (C.C.C., 2nd Ed., 1997, Para. 1817)

Hope is not optimism. Optimism claims everything will be good despite all evidence of reality to the contrary; pessimism denies even the possibility of good because of present evidence. The nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.”

Optimism can be defeated by reality. Pessimism revels in reality but defeats itself. Hope, like optimism, expects the good. Hope, like pessimism, accepts reality. Hope does not deny the poverty of spirit that underlies fear, the sinfulness that underlies all tragedy, and the evil that causes systemic inertia. Hope, however, has a trump card – the capacity of the human heart. When reality grinds optimism down and reduces pessimism to a self-defeating smugness, hope will go toe-to-toe with reality because the heart’s capacity to love refuses to quit. This is why the letter to the Hebrews describes hope as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19) and why the iconic figure of Hope holds an anchor.

This is the steadfastness that our opening prayer seeks from God.

The last of the theological virtues for which we have prayed is Charity, who is depicted in our window as a woman distributing bread to hungry children. Theologically, Charity is the “virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (C.C.C., Para. 1822) Interestingly, though, we almost never read of charity in our English language bibles. In the New Revised Standard Version, the word “charity” appears only five times and four of those are in the Apocrypha; in the canonical scriptures, the word appears only in the book of Acts. In the Authorized or “King James” version it appears 24 times, more than a third of those in one book, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians from which you will (I’m sure) recognize these words:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth . . . . (1 Cor 13:108a)

In our modern translation we have changed the word “charity” to “love” and that bit of First Corinthians has become very popular at weddings, but it’s not about romantic love at all. It is about something much different. You know (you’ve heard it here before!) that the word in the original Greek is agape, which refers to selfless love. This is the love that one extends to all people, whether family members or distant strangers; it is the according of human dignity to everyone, simply because they are human. Agape was translated by St Jerome into the Latin word caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity.” C.S. Lewis referred to it as “gift love” and described it as the highest form of Christian love. But it is not solely a Christian concept; it appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of metta or “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism.

Charity, agape, is not simply love generated by an impulse emotion. Instead, charity, agape, is an exercise of the will, a deliberate choice. This is why Jesus can command us to love one another as he loves us, to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves. God is not commanding us to have a good feeling for these others, but to act in charity, in “gift love,” in self-giving agape toward them. Charity, agape, is matter of commitment and obedience, not of feeling or emotion. When Paul admonishes Christians in the Letter to the Ephesians to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” offering himself (as our reading from Hebrews says) “once for all,” it is precisely this kind of self-sacrificing love, Charity, agape, to which we are called.

When the Resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, the first two times the word is agape. “Peter,” Jesus is asking, “are you willing to do things for my sake that you do not want to do?” This is the sort of love, of Charity, that is depicted in our third iconic window, the woman giving bread to poor and hungry children, love which leads us to give sacrificially.

The contemporary hymn writer John Bell, a Scotsman affiliated with the Iona Community, has written a beautiful song entitled The Summons which I wish I had the voice to sing to you. I don’t, so you don’t want me to sing it, but please listen as I read the lyrics. I believe these words perfectly describe the sort of Charity our opening prayer asks God to increase in us:

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer pray’r
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of faith – faith like Bartimaeus’s, belief given shape by action undertaken in confidence which is sustained by hope. We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of hope – hope like Job’s, the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul not crushed by the suffering of the present sustained by the heart’s capacity to love and the assurance that in end all will make sense. And we have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of charity – the agape love commanded and demonstrated by Christ who gave himself once for all which leads us to give sacrificially.

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Cor 13:13) May Christ’s charity move and live and grow in us and we in him. Amen.

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

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