Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ezekiel (Page 2 of 3)

Gott [ist nicht] mit uns – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Tuesday in the week of Easter 7
Ezekiel 7
15 The sword is outside, pestilence and famine are inside; those in the field die by the sword; those in the city – famine and pestilence devour them.

Ezekiel’s prophecy of the day of doom and violence is disturbing. It should certainly have been disturbing for those to whom it was first spoken, and it should be disturbing for us. I find it personally disturbing because, I confess, I want it to apply to our present times. When he predicts disaster upon those who oppress the poor, upon a ruling class which hoards and squanders resources on their own pleasure to the detriment of others, upon sellers who for their iniquity are doomed . . . . when he predicts that their abundance and their wealth and their pre-eminence will vanish and never return . . . . I want that to apply to our present times! I understand the temptation of the armageddonists who want to read in Scripture a prophecy of retribution soon to be fulfilled – of course, they and I differ on exactly who should receive that retribution, but I can understand why they look at the Bible and read into it the troubles of our own times however wrongly they may perceive them. That’s what disturbs me, my own temptation to use Holy Writ for my own political agenda, to pull Ezeziel’s prophecy out of context and shout, “Look! My politics is God’s politics!” ‘Taint so . . . . My politics, I hope, is rationally and faithfully grounded in my faith, but I must always be careful to remind myself that “Gott [ist nicht] mit uns” when we misuse the Bible in that way.

Multi-Grain Cake – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Monday in the week of Easter 7
Ezekiel 4
9 … take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself.

Ezekiel is given detailed instructions for a prophetic action, an embodied metaphor involving a brick, lying on his side for hundreds of days, and eating a mult-grain “barley cake” baked over human dung. (When he objects to the latter, Yahweh relents and allows him to use cow dung.) It’s all very strange and meant to portray a judgment against both Israel and Judah. What interests me this morning is this mixture of grains. My suspicion is that it is intended to portray a lack of purity (especially since the resulting “barley cake” is to be baked over dung). Purity, especially racial purity, is a constant concern of the Old Testament Hebrews: one finds it in restrictions against intermarriage with other nations or even between the tribes of Israel, in the banning of cloths made of mixed fibers, in the laws regarding what can and cannot be eaten. The nation’s concern with purity is, of course, attributed to their god, but one doubts the validity of that ascription. This morning it occurs to me that the mixture grains and legumes is considerably more healthy than a cake made only of one type of grain. Many years ago (when I was in college) I read Frances Moore Lappe’s book “Diet for a Small Planet” and learned about the improved protein-profile of mixed grains. Purity has its place, I suppose, but so too does combination and diversity. I, for one, would be delighted to eat bread made of “wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt,” although I shouldn’t like to have it baked over dung!

Eat This Scroll ~ From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT Lesson for Friday in the week of Easter 6
Ezekiel 3
1 He said to me, O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel. 2 So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. 3 He said to me, Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey.

One of my favorite collects in the Book of Common Prayer is that for Proper 28 which begins, “Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them . . . .” I wonder if the idea of “inwardly digesting” the words of Holy Writ came from Ezekiel’s metaphor of eating the scroll. It’s such a great visualization of the way in which the spiritual and moral learnings of our religious tradition should become a part not merely of our intellectual baggage but of our very selves. It reminds one not only of the old shibboleth, “You are what you eat,” but of the wonderful words of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer’s eucharistic exhortation and prayer of humble access in the first prayer book of 1552, now preserved in the canon of Rite I of the current American prayer book, that we “may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction, and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him.” (BCP 1979, page 336) The image is visceral and compelling, that the words of Scripture, and the very Word of God, should be digested and become “flesh of our flesh,” part of who we are, not simply part of what we believe.

A Present, Close, Immediate Reality – Sermon for Lent 5A – April 6, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 6, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; and John 11:1-45. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Valley of Dry BonesLet’s just do a bit of bible study today. I think we’ll see a common theme in the three lessons.

First, the very familiar prophetic vision of the “valley of dry bones” from the Book of Ezekiel. Scholars date this prophecy to about 587 BCE. Ezekiel was one of those taken into exile by the Babylonians ten years earlier in 597 BCE. The Babylonians had laid siege to Jerusalem for almost two years, creating conditions of famine, disease, and despair. They destroyed the city of Jerusalem, razed the temple to the ground, killed many of its inhabitants, and forced the rest to migrate to Babylon. This is how the Babylonian conquest is described in the Second Book of Kings, from the paraphrase entitled The Message:

[In] the ninth year and tenth month of Zedekiah’s reign, Nebuchadnezzar set out for Jerusalem immediately with a full army. He set up camp and sealed off the city by building siege mounds around it. The city was under siege for nineteen months (until the eleventh year of Zedekiah). By the fourth month of Zedekiah’s eleventh year, on the ninth day of the month, the famine was so bad that there wasn’t so much as a crumb of bread for anyone. Then there was a breakthrough. At night, under cover of darkness, the entire army escaped through an opening in the wall (it was the gate between the two walls above the King’s Garden). They slipped through the lines of the Babylonians who surrounded the city and headed for the Jordan on the Arabah Valley road. But the Babylonians were in pursuit of the king and they caught up with him in the Plains of Jericho. By then Zedekiah’s army had deserted and was scattered. The Babylonians took Zedekiah prisoner and marched him off to the king of Babylon at Riblah, then tried and sentenced him on the spot. Zedekiah’s sons were executed right before his eyes; the summary murder of his sons was the last thing he saw, for they then blinded him. Securely handcuffed, he was hauled off to Babylon. In the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, on the seventh day of the fifth month, Nebuzaradan, the king of Babylon’s chief deputy, arrived in Jerusalem. He burned The Temple of God to the ground, went on to the royal palace, and then finished off the city — burned the whole place down. (2 Kgs 25:1-9)

Ezekiel, a young apprentice priest, experienced this. The religious institution he served, the Jerusalem Temple, was destroyed and he was reduced from a prominent position as a priest in Jerusalem to that of a temple-less priest in exile. God then pegged him to become a prophet to the exile community; he tells us in the very first sentence of his book that he “was among the exiles by the river Chebar, the heavens were opened, and [he] saw visions of God.” (Ezek 1:1)

But not only did Ezekiel experience this historical trauma common to all the exiles to a greater or lesser extent, he experienced deep personal loss as well: his wife died and God commanded him not to mourn her. Again, I am reading from The Message:

God’s Message came to me: “Son of man, I’m about to take from you the delight of your life — a real blow, I know. But, please, no tears. Keep your grief to yourself. No public mourning. Get dressed as usual and go about your work – none of the usual funeral rituals.” I preached to the people in the morning. That evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I’d been told. (Ezek 24:15-17)

God’s command for him not to mourn her was to serve as an example for the exile community not to mourn the loss of the Temple.

I don’t know about you, but if I had to endure what Ezekiel and his contemporaries went through I would be a deeply depressed person! I would sink into the depths of despair. And that is what the exiles did. The psalms speak eloquently of their desperation: “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.” (Ps 137:1; BCP version) Other psalms speak for the exiles in their sadness, their weariness settling deep within them. Psalm 31, for example:

Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am in trouble;
my eye is consumed with sorrow, and also my throat and my belly.
For my life is wasted with grief, and my years with sighing;
my strength fails me because of affliction, and my bones are consumed.
(Ps 31:9-10, BCP version)

Or Psalm 102:

Incline your ear to me;
when I call, make haste to answer me,
For my days drift away like smoke, *
and my bones are hot as burning coals.
My heart is smitten like grass and withered, *
so that I forget to eat my bread.
Because of the voice of my groaning *
I am but skin and bones.
(Ps 102:2-5; BCP version)

Or Psalm 6:

Have pity on me, Lord, for I am weak; *
heal me, Lord, for my bones are racked.
My spirit shakes with terror; *
how long, O Lord, how long?
(Ps 6:2-3; BCP version)

In these psalms and elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, the reference to “bones” is an idiomatic way of referring to one’s deepest self, a way for a person or a community to refer to its most essential self. And so we have Ezekiel’s vision of “dry bones,” a vision of the soul of the exile community. “Mortal,” says God, “these bones are the whole house of Israel.”

Since the dry bones represent the living exiles, we can see that this vision is not concerned with death; death here is a metaphor for the soul-deep desperation, the despair of the exiles. The exiles, bereft of their nation, their city, and (most importantly) their Temple, fear that God has abandoned them. Ezekiel speaks to this hopelessness with a startlingly simple metaphor of divine presence, the immediate closeness of breath, the pervading presence of wind. In just fourteen verses, the Hebrew word ruach occurs nine times, translated as “breath” in verses 5, 6, 8, and 10), as “wind” in verse 9, or as God’s own spirit in verse 14. The prophet’s repetitive use of the word drums the point of the message into his hearers’ consciousness: God’s spirit is the key. With God’s spirit, anything is possible. And God’s spirit is as close as the wind, as close as one’s own breath; there is no place on earth, no instant in time, and no situation of sin that can separate God’s people from God’s spirit. Not the loss of one’s country, one’s city, one’s Temple, even one’s beloved spouse; nothing! God’s spirit is always and everywhere present.

Which brings us to the Epistle lesson taken from the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. “To set the mind on the flesh is death,” writes Paul, “but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” (Rom. 8:6) We need first to understand that Paul’s use of “flesh” is not a reference to the physical body. The body is ethically neutral for Paul; it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. There certainly is nothing wrong with having a body. When Paul writes about the body, he uses the Greek word soma.

In this passage, however, he uses the word sarx, which means “flesh,” as in meat. Paul uses the word in Romans in two ways. First, he uses it to describe physical descent between ancestor and descendant. In the opening greetings of the letter, Paul identifies Jesus as a descendant of David “according to the flesh” (Rom 1:3) and later himself as a Jew because of “Abraham, our ancestor according to the flesh.” (4:1) In this sense, it is largely neutral, but in this sense also it can be negative. For Paul salvation or righteousness before God is not an honor due a particular blood line or a family heritage; it is not by the flesh but by the spirit of God that the followers of Jesus, the members of the community of faith receive life and peace.

In the second way in which Paul uses sarx or “flesh,” Paul is influenced by the dualism of his age which considered the flesh to be imperfect because it is capable of deterioration. Under that philosophical influence, Paul assigns to flesh negative characteristics such as death, hostility to God, and an incapacity to live according to God’s law. When a person’s focus in life is on the flesh and its appetites, that is a focus on death because the flesh does not last. “But,” Paul reassures his readers, “you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” Notice that, like Ezekiel’s message to the exiles in Babylon, Paul’s message is one for the present; not a promise of a future relationship with God, but an assurance of a present one.

Paul believes that this relationship with God is a present reality; it is not a something that exists somewhere else or that is coming in the future. Paul is certain that it is real, it is here, and it is now; because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ this new reality is here today. Throughout the rest of this Chapter 8 he will develop his argument that we are currently children of the Father, that we are currently brothers and sisters of Christ, that we currently possess the gifts of the Spirit, and that we are currently enjoy the real and present love of God. He concludes this chapter asking:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? * * * No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:35,37-39)

For Paul and for us, God is everywhere and always present.

And so we come to the Gospel lesson — another familiar story from the Gospel of John — the raising of Lazarus, a story about what it means to be in relationship with Jesus, what it means to love him and be loved by him. Lazarus is identified by his sisters to Jesus as “he whom you love,” (v. 3) and then John underscores this by telling us that “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” So in the way Jesus related to this Bethany family we get a clue of what it is to be in relationship with him. And what we learn, perhaps distressingly, is that doesn’t mean that one is protected from bad stuff. John’s Gospel makes this painfully obvious, for in this Gospel, love is linked inextricably to death.

Remember that what is perhaps the best known verse of Christian scripture is from this Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son . . . . ” (Jn 3:16) And it is in John’s Gospel that Jesus says, No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15:13) So it is with this family; that they love Jesus and he loves them does not mean that bad things, including death, do not happen. Lazarus dies.

And in John’s story, Jesus does not prevent it, nor even arrive until afterward. He is met on the road by Lazarus’ sister Martha who confronts him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” (v. 21) In response, Jesus assures her that “your brother will rise again.” (v. 23), but she hears only the promise of a future resurrection: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” (v. 24) And Jesus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (v. 25) Note, if you will, the verb: Jesus’ reply is in the present tense — “I am . . . .”

The resurrection is not a distant promise; it is not a guarantee of salvation in the future; it is not about an eternal life with God and Jesus in heaven. In the next few chapters of John’s Gospel we will encounter Lazarus reclining at the table with Jesus, sharing food and fellowship. (Jn 13:28) His new relationship with Jesus is intimate and close; it is here and now. For Lazarus and for us, the resurrection is not a future with Jesus; it is a present with Jesus. Jesus is present with Lazarus and his sisters; he is present with us, and through him God is glorified even in that which feels irredeemably bad and painful.

Being in relationship with Jesus, loving him and being loved by him, does not mean that unpleasant things do not happen. It means that when they do, he faces them, even death and grief, with us. It means learning that, in spite of the worst the world can do, the worst that flesh can be subject to, even death and the finality of the grave, Jesus is the resurrection and the life. Nothing is ever so dead that it keeps him from being that in himself and for us. In John, the resurrection is not a future hope; it is the abundant life which is always here, always now. Nothing, as Paul reminded the Romans, not “death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [can] separate us” from it. It is, as Ezekiel prophesied to the exiles, as close as the wind, as close as one’s own breath; it is always and everywhere present.

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.

Positively Lenten – From the Daily Office – March 7, 2014

From the Letter to the Philippians:

Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Philippians 4:8 (NRSV) – March 7, 2014.)

Orange and BananasIn thinking about yesterday’s readings, I suggested that the Lenten question we should be asking one another is not “What are you giving up?” but “What are you rejoicing about?” Along comes Paul today and tells the church in Caesarea Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (v. 4) following up with this list of things to consider, things about which we might rejoice.

As a contrast, today’s Old Testament lesson is from the prophet Ezekiel and focuses our attention on a variety of things one can do in violation of the Law of Moses, things not honorable or just or commendable, and decrees the Lord’s displeasure in such things. The point of the prophet’s words on God’s behalf is turn us away from such things. The reading concludes:

Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live. (Ezek. 18:31-32)

I don’t think the prophet succeeds in redirecting our attention, however. The priest under whom I served my curacy was fond of saying, “What gets your attention gets you.” So, although I know the point of Lent is to “put [us] in mind of . . . the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith” (BCP 1979, pg. 265), I think we might better focus our attention on the things Paul suggests rather than on our sinfulness.

As a Lenten discipline, I suggest focusing each day on one thing we find praiseworthy and honorable — today, for example, I have decided to rejoice in and give thanks for the good work of all the people who make it possible for me, on a cold, snow-covered morning in northeastern Ohio, to enjoy fresh fruit each morning. Yes, I know there are important environmental and social issues raised by our failure to “eat locally” and by our global food industry, but today I’m thankful for the orange and the banana and the kale that just went into my breakfast “smoothie” and for the people who made that possible.

Every dark cloud, it is said, has its silver lining. I choose to focus on the “silver lining” rather than on the “cloud;” perhaps if we do that more often we can do more about the “clouds.” After all that’s what we’re supposed to do in Lent, “turn from [our] wickedness and live.” (BCP 1979, pg. 269) As Johnnie Mercer wrote, “Accentuate the positive [and] eliminate the negative.” That’s positively Lenten!

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

Angelic Toddlers – From the Daily Office – January 14, 2014

From the Book of Genesis:

The Lord God sent [Adam] forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 2:23-24 (NRSV) – January 14, 2014.)

Putti with Book by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1744Look up cherub in a secular dictionary and this is what you find: “a member of the second order of angels, often represented as a beautiful rosy-cheeked child with wings.” (Collins) I don’t know why, when, or how the fat little boys with aerodynamically inadequate wings came to be an artistic and now normative depiction of cherubs, but there it is! Technically, these little guys (and they are male) are known as putti — an Italian plural; the singular is putto. (Putto is occasionally used in modern Italian to mean a male toddler.)

Say the word cherub (or its adjectival form, cherubic) to nearly anyone, and the image that will spring to his or her mind is almost guaranteed to be a putto. For me, this inaccurate representation of the cherubim has become the poster child for everything that needs to be unlearned.

As the end of the story of the Garden of Eden ought to make clear, the cherubim are beings of immense power, stationed on the path to the tree of life wielding flaming swords. They are the bearers of the throne of God (see Isaiah 37:16). Ezekiel describes the cherubim when recounting his vision of “four living creatures” whom he later identifies as cherubim:

Tetramorph, Fresco at Meteora Monastery

They were of human form. Each had four faces, and each of them had four wings. Their legs were straight, and the soles of their feet were like the sole of a calf’s foot; and they sparkled like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had human hands. And the four had their faces and their wings thus: their wings touched one another; each of them moved straight ahead, without turning as they moved. As for the appearance of their faces: the four had the face of a human being, the face of a lion on the right side, the face of an ox on the left side, and the face of an eagle. (Ezek. 1:5b-10; cf. Ezek. 10)

Although our error of imagination in regard to the appearance of the cherubim can be easily corrected by a few minutes of bible study like this, the larger issue of unlearning is not so quickly or easily dealt with.

An old comedy album by the group the Firesign Theatre was entitled Everything You Know Is Wrong. I wouldn’t go that far, but we are conditioned by our families, societies, and culture to “know” many things . . . and much what we “know” as a result of that conditioning is simply inaccurate. Before we can know the truth, we have to unlearn the things of which we are convinced because of our conditioning.

Unlearning, however, is not simply replacing inaccuracies with “true facts.” It is not about right or wrong. Unlearning is an attitude of openness to that which lies beneath the judgment of right or wrong. It is about “moving away from” rather than “moving towards.” Zen masters often use the metaphor of emptying a full cup of tea. There is nothing beyond the emptying. The cup is not emptied so that it can be refilled; it is emptied so that it can be empty. Only when it is truly empty with no expectation or anticipation of being filled is the cup open to the future.

Jesus used another metaphor, that of an innocent child: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15)

So perhaps our chubby little wingéd friends, those little angelic toddlers, are a good image after all. If they are, as I suggested, the poster children for unlearning, let’s think about the way toddlers receive things.

A way to unlearn might be to try to go back to our first learning experiences and explore new things as toddlers would, through playfulness and curiosity. Toddlers never seem to have a plan, no preconceived notion of where they are going, no expectation of what is coming next. Jiddu Krishnamurti, the Indian philosopher, often described truth as a “pathless land;” toddlers seem to live in such a pathless country, a place of endless discovery. This, I think, is where Jesus invites: to a place where we can open ourselves, empty ourselves, and unlearn our conditioning, to the pathless country of truth where we can wander like a toddler with playfulness and deep curiosity.

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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.

I’m sorry? – From the Daily Office – December 11, 2013

From the Psalter:

I confess my iniquity; I am sorry for my sin.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 38:18 (NRSV) – December 11, 2013.)

Repentance of St Peter by Guido ReniI thought, “Surely, this is wrong! There can’t be anything as weak and lifeless in Scripture (especially in the Psalms) as the plaintive little cry, ‘I’m sorry . . . .'” So instead of the New Revised Standard Version, I turned to The Book of Common Prayer, sure that I would find a stronger statement, perhaps “I repent.” But, no. The BCP version of this psalm is really even worse because it renders the verb in the future tense: “I will confess my iniquity and be sorry for my sin.” Come on! “I will be sorry”? Really?

I couldn’t sit there in my pajamas disconcerted by such a feeble, apologetic rendering of what must surely be a more forceful statement in the Hebrew. I turned to my old interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament and my Hebrew lexicon; I had to climb the stairs to the second floor study because those are not close to hand next to the recliner in the den. It was worth the effort; I breathed a sigh of relief. The Hebrew is da’ag, which means “to fear, be anxious, be concerned, be afraid, be careful.” In fact, the American Standard translation (which is what my interlinear uses) renders this verse: ” I am full of anxiety because of my sin.” In the Complete Jewish Bible (which I also snagged while I was upstairs), the translation is similar: “I am anxious because of my sin.” To be fearful or to be filled with anxiety because of one’s sinfulness is a lot more than merely being sorry! But even that doesn’t seem quite strong enough . . . .

I’m not sure why the words “I am sorry” set my teeth on edge, but they do. When my children were younger like all children they committed youthful indiscretions; when called on the carpet, their first words were always, “I’m sorry.” My response was almost always, “Don’t be sorry. Change your behavior.” Feeling badly about one’s wrong-doing is simply not enough! What is called for by Scripture, what is called for by the process of growing to maturity, is repentance. “Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin,” says Ezekiel (Ezek. 18:30) In another place, the Psalmist proclaims, “If one does not repent, God will whet his sword.” (Ps. 7:12) “Repent,” says Jesus, “for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matt. 4:17)

To repent is to lament one’s guilty state, turn away from it, change one’s mind and purpose, and undertake amendment of life and behavior. It is so much more than simply being sorry! It is to take action to alleviate one’s deep-set feelings of anxiety and fear. “Don’t be sorry. Change your behavior.”

Although Advent is not the penitential season that Lent is, there is in it a call to contrition. Last Sunday and next at the weekly celebration of the Eucharist we hear of John the Baptizer who came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” and announcing the arrival of the one who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. (Luke 3:3,16) In Advent, we do our best once again to heed his call and prepare again for the Messiah’s arrival.

There is so much more required than simply a weak plea of “I’m sorry,” and certainly more the Prayer Book’s promise to be sorry in the future! Only with true repentance, right now, and amendment of life, now and in the future, can we “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)

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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.

Economic Excrement, Financial Feces – From the Daily Office – May 13, 2013

From the Prophet Ezekiel:

[God said to Ezekiel] “You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ezekiel 4:12 (NRSV) – May 13, 2013.)

Dung FireToday’s Old Testament reading is a disturbing piece in which the Prophet Ezekiel is instructed to lie down for several days (in fact, for more than a year) as a sign of the number of years Israel and then Judah will be punished.

While lying down, he is to make grain cakes from specific measures of spelt, millet, wheat, barley, lentils, and beans, and he is to drink specific measures of water each day. This is to symbolize that during their punishments, the Israelites and the Judeans will lack bread and water; they will experience poverty and deprivation, and “look at one another in dismay, and waste away under their punishment.” (v. 17)

The selected verse is from God’s instructions to Ezekiel on how he is to prepare and bake his grain cakes, representative of the way in which the soon-to-be-exiled People of God will have to cook their food during their banishment.

The very thought of cooking with excrement must have been shocking to Ezekiel who objected and was given leave to use cow dung rather than human excreta. It would have been shocking in the extreme to people whose God had commanded them to cover their bodily wastes immediately after defecation because the very sight of it was offensive to God:

You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement. Because the Lord your God travels along with your camp, to save you and to hand over your enemies to you, therefore your camp must be holy, so that he may not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you.

The “designated area outside the camp,” though initially commanded as the latrine, was where everything unclean was to be disposed: the offal of sacrificed animals, warriors’ garments soiled with the blood the enemy, the stones of houses in which plague has been found, and the idols and altars of other nations are all commanded in the Law to be taken there. Persons deemed unclean because of leprosy, menstruation, issue of semen, or slaughter of animals were sent outside the camp. The “designated area outside the camp” was a place of defilement, uncleanness, impurity, corruption, dirtiness, filthiness, pollution, contamination, condemnation, punishment, rejection, castigation, and reproach. It is where disease, dung, and death were. To cook one’s food over excrement wasn’t simply distasteful, it was to imbue one’s nourishment with everything foul and unholy from the “designated area.” The smoke from a cooking fire of whatever fuel flavors anything cooked upon it; the smoke from a fire of human feces would pollute everything cooked over it.

In modern kitchens where we cook on electric burners or over clean natural gas flames, we no longer appreciate how the cooking fuel affects the flavor of the food. Many years ago, the summer of 1969 to be exact, I went to study in Florence, Italy. Upon arrival, I discovered that my pensione (boarding house) would not have a room for me until the next day. So, I checked into a small bed-and-breakfast hotel where I was offered an evening meal of chicken cacciatore. Having no other plans, I accepted. Unfortunately, the hotel kitchen used a kerosene stove. Chicken cacciatore cooked over kerosene is inedible; so too (I discovered the next morning) is coffee.

On the other hand, several years later, I had occasion to rent a cottage near the River Shannon in Ireland. It was heated by a peat stove and on that stove I could also boil water for my breakfast tea. Although I prefer coffee, one does want to be traditional occasionally when living in a 200-year-old, turf-fire-heated Irish farm cottage. My tea tasted of peat, which was an odd flavor, but not an inedible one (like kerosene). By the end of my month there everything I owned – my luggage, my books, all my clothing – smelled of peat. A couple of weeks later, touring a whisky distillery on the Isle of Skye, I discovered that good Scotch whisky (the malt for which is toasted over open peat fires) reminds me of my Irish cottage and, especially, of my morning tea.

I cannot imagine what food cooked over human feces might taste like, and I certainly do not want to find out! Apparently I’m not alone: a couple of years ago, a Japanese scientist perfected a method of making a vegan meat substitute using proteins extracted from human waste. Of over 12,500 who responded to an internet survey, 76% said there was no way they would even try the substance and another 11% said they were unsure whether they would. We can be very sure that the Israelites and the Judeans would not have wanted to; even the thought (or the threat) of eating food cooked over excrement was a religious affront to them.

However it might have tasted, the prophetic meaning is clear: food cooked over human feces is a symbol of abject poverty and want. It is a symbol of something unclean and contaminated to be avoided, not only for ourselves but for everyone. Poverty and deprivation are an abomination; any system which creates them should be viewed as corrupt and filthy, as economic excrement, as financial feces. It does not matter what name we may give such systems — capitalist or communist, socialist or fascist — if the success of the financial institutions created by those systems depends upon human beings being made destitute, those institutions and the system which creates them should be relegated to the “designated area outside the camp.” Like the smoke from a cooking fire of human dung, they pollute everything they touch. They are, simply put, shit not fit for human society.

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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.

Blindness and Sour Grapes – From the Daily Office – March 18, 2013

From the Gospel according to John:

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 9:1-3 (NRSV) – March 18, 2013.)

Sour GrapesI’m not the least bit sure I like the last thought of Jesus reply . . . Is he suggesting that a loving God caused this innocent man’s blindness so that Jesus could come along and heal him with some mud made of spittle and demonstrate his power? I mean, really, is he? I don’t want to get into that today, but surely there must be another interpretation for Jesus words and perhaps someday I’ll explore that.

Today, I want to focus on the first clause of his answer, which is basically just a wordy, “No.” As a parent, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me that the man’s blindness was not his parents’ fault! Because accepting that blame is all too often our parental response when things go wrong in our children’s lives . . . . It doesn’t really matter what it is – accident, illness, bad grades, suspension from school, trouble with the law, break-up with their partner or spouse – it doesn’t matter what it is, when something goes wrong in our children’s lives a parent’s response is often an overwhelming sense of guilt. “What did I do wrong that this happened to my child?”

This is, after all, a perfectly acceptable biblical view! In the Book of Exodus, Moses told the Hebrews that God does not “clear the guilty, but visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:7 NRSV) And again the same words are reported the Book of Numbers: “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Numb. 14:18 NRSV) And, again, in Deuteronomy, Moses says, “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deut. 12:28 NRSV) implying that disobedience would mean things wouldn’t go well for the kids! Finally, there is that great biblical proverb reported by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Jer. 31:29 and Ezek. 18:2 NRSV)

So there is plenty of biblical support for our parental guilt pangs! But here is Jesus saying that the sins of parents are not responsible for the misfortune of their son. Thanks be to God! What that says to me is that we need to start looking at our feelings of parental remorse in a different way.

Not that those feelings are “wrong” or “bad.” Guilt is a basic human emotion. Everyone feels it and, when it comes to parenting, whatever we do is liable to cause us a little bit of guilty self-reproach because it sometimes seems that “you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.” What if, instead of beating ourselves up over these things, we think of what feels like guilt as simply evidence that we are being good parents, good enough to be constantly thinking about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it? We care enough to do our best at the very important, frequently frustrating, often terrifying, and even more often incredibly rewarding job of raising children we love more than we will ever be able to tell them. No parent is perfect, but the ones who worry about whether they are doing it well, probably are doing it well, really well.

Here’s something I know. During the past sixty or so years that I’ve been alive, I’ve had a lot of rough patches, a lot of problems. I’ve done some bonehead things and made some really stupid mistakes. I’ve been in trouble with various authorities, and broken up with lovers and partners. And you know what? Very little of any of that was my parents’ fault! On the other hand, I’ve gotten through those rough spots. I’ve solved the problems. I’ve learned from my mistakes and avoided doing even more boneheaded stuff. I’ve made up with the lovers and, if I haven’t made up with the authorities, at least I’ve figured out how to work with them. And you know what? Most of my ability to do so is due to what I learned from my parents, from what I observed of the way they lived their lives and from the values they taught me. They may have eaten some sour grapes, I don’t know, but my teeth were not set on edge.

I love my kids a whole lot more than I can ever tell them, and I can only hope they have learned from me the way I learned from my folks.

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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 Whole World is Irish on March 17 – Sermon for the Feast of St. Patrick – March 17, 2013

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, March 17, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Episcopal Sanctorale Lectionary, Patrick of Ireland: Psalm 97:1-2,7-12; Ezekiel 36:33-38; and Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary. At St. Paul’s Parish, during Lent, we are using the Daily Office of Morning Prayer as our antecommunion; therefore, only these two lessons and the psalm were read. The Epistle lesson, 1 Thessalonians 2:2b-12, was not used.)

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Icon of St. Patrick of IrelandIn Ainm an Athar, agus an Mhic, agus an Spioraid Naoimh. Áiméan.

Dia dhaoibh ar maidin, gach duine. Beannachtaí na fheile Padraig oraibh.

That’s more Irish than I’ve spoken in nearly two years! What I said was, “God be with you this morning, everyone. The blessings of the Feast of St. Patrick be with you.” In other words, Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

Everyone loves to be Irish on St. Paddy’s Day. Even though we Funstons being descendants of Anglican Irish (or as the Irish would say, “Protestants”) did not have much, if anything, to do with the Irish communities of my childhood, we still (like everyone else) enjoyed St. Patrick’s Day. We would go to the parades, see and hear the pipe-and-drum corps, and all the other traditional sorts of things. On the evening news, we would see the reports of parades in other places, especially the big one down Fifth Avenue in New York City. And we would usually have corned beef and cabbage for dinner.

I have no problem with people dressing kilts (which aren’t really Irish, at all), putting green food coloring in beer, eating corned beef and cabbage (which is also not really Irish), or any of the other silly things people do on this day. It’s all part of the fun. Many like to watch Irish-themed movies on St. Patrick’s Day. My favorite is the heartwarming tale of a boxer’s return home in The Quiet Man, but I also like the mythical nonsense of Darby O’Gill and the Little People, or the intense drama of The Field, or the whacky comedy of Waking Ned Devine. Those movies are the only times I hear anyone say, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye” or “Faith and begorrah.” At least, I’ve never heard anyone say those things during any of my trips to Ireland.

The worship committee thought we ought to step away from Lent for a day (because March 17 today falls on Sunday) and celebrate St. Patrick. After all, on March 17, the whole world is Irish . . . but the man we commemorate wasn’t Irish and it would be much truer to his memory if on his feast day all the world tried to be not Irish, but Christian.

Patrick, who was a Romano-Brit (meaning a Roman who lived in Britain) was the son of a minor imperial official named Calpornius, who was also a deacon in the church; his grandfather Potitus was a priest. Around the year 406 A.D., at the age of 16, Patrick was kidnapped and made a slave in Ireland to a minor tribal king. After six years, he escaped and returned home to Britain, and then went to Rome. There he was ordained a priest and a bishop and, according to the chronicle of Prosper of Aquitane, was appointed bishop to the Irish by Pope Celestine I; he arrived back in Ireland in 432 A.D. He landed near modern-day Belfast and set up his principal foundation in Armagh, which is now considered the Primatial See of Ireland. He ministered primarily in that part of the country known as Ulster. Patrick was not the first bishop appointed to bring the Christian faith to the people of Ireland. Ciaran and Palladius came before him, but their mission (primarily in Munster and Leinster, further south) did not bear the same fruits as Patrick’s. So today, what we celebrate is not Irish identity or heritage; today, we celebrate the success of a mission to spread the Christian faith.

The choir is going sing a poetic prayer or lorica attributed to Patrick, the famous St. Patrick’s Breastplate, as their anthem. It is attributed to him, but there is disagreement as to whether he actually wrote it. But he did write this prayer:

I give thanks to the one who strengthened me in all things, so that he would not impede me in the course I had undertaken and from the works also which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Rather, I sensed in myself no little strength from him, and my faith passed the test before God and people. (The Confession of St. Patrick)

For St. Patrick it seems the faith which passed the test was deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical. He is credited with using the shamrock, now one of the national emblems of Ireland, as an illustration of the Trinity – three lobes, yet one leaf – although that is probably an 18th Century legend rather than a historical fact. And as you heard, the Gospel lesson for his commemoration is the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Christ’s final words to his apostles before ascending into Heaven. This evangelical, Trinitarian faith — not green beer nor Celtic music nor corned beef and cabbage nor Irish-ness itself — but trust in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit shared with and commended to everyone around us, this is what we celebrate when we celebrate the Feast of St. Patrick.

I thought perhaps the lesson from Ezekiel was chosen for his feast because, with its “forty shades of green,” Ireland might make one think of the garden of Eden, and in Ireland there are both ruined towns and towns that are inhabited, some of both walled and fortified. But I think rather that it was chosen because, just as the nations around Israel came to know the Lord, the God of Israel, so the nations to which Irish missionaries went came to know the Lord Jesus Christ. What Patrick started in Ireland in 5th Century by the mid 6th Century was spreading to northern Europe, carried there by Irish priests and monks practicing what was called “white martyrdom.” The term comes from a 7th Century Irish sermon called the Cambrai homily:

Now there are three kinds of martyrdom that are counted as a cross to us, namely, white, blue, and red martyrdom.
It is white martyrdom for a man when he separates from everything that he loves for God, although he does not endure fasting and labor thereby.
The blue martyrdom is when through fasting and hard work they control their desires or struggle in penance and repentance.
The red martyrdom is when they endure a cross or destruction for Christ’s sake, as happened to the Apostles when they were persecuted the wicked and taught the law of God. (O. Davis, Celtic Spirituality, Paulist Press: 1999)

The white martyrs left everything dear to them — homes, families, familiar surroundings, even Ireland itself — to spread the Gospel in distant lands; white martyrdom was a pilgrimage on behalf of Christ that might be extended permanently so that they would never again see their homeland. They went first to Scotland and the north of England, but then further afield to Holland, Germany, Scandinavia, Switzerland, and even further. Like the man who had brought Christianity to their homeland, they held a deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical faith; and it is that faith which we celebrate when we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

It is that faith we all claim and, when we commemorate Patrick, it is to the spread of that faith that we dedicate ourselves. On the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, a special Litany of Penance is recited in Episcopal Churches. Among the confessions of that Litany we find this petition: “Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us, we confess to you, Lord.” (BCP 1979, page 268)

Let us remember that confession on St. Patrick’s Day and try not so much to be Irish, but try to be better Christians. Let us be like Patrick, who was not Irish, but Christian, and like him let us follow Christ’s Great Commission. If we must be Irish on this day, let us be like those Irish white martyrs of old, and commend the faith that is in us, a faith that is deeply Trinitarian and deeply evangelical.

Let us remember, also, a petition from the Great Litany which we recited on the First Sunday in Lent four weeks ago:

That it may please thee to inspire us, in our several callings, to do the work which thou givest us to do with singleness of heart as thy servants, and for the common good, we beseech thee to hear us, good Lord. (BCP 1979, page 151)

Let us pray:

Everliving God, whose will it is that all should come to you through your Son Jesus Christ: Inspire our witness to him, that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. 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.

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