That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First Corinthians (page 1 of 8)

Listen, Grasshopper! – Sermon for Epiphany 5, RCL Year B, 4 February 2018

Listen to the word that God has spoken;
Listen to the One who is close at hand;
Listen to the voice that began creation;
Listen even if you don’t understand.[1]

At the winter convocation this weekend our music keynoter, Ana Hernandez, taught us those words as a tract to chant before the reading of the Gospel. As we chanted them, I could not help but remember the first words of our lesson from the prophet Isaiah this morning, the pleading questions:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?[2]

It is easy to read those questions, asked (says the Prophet) by God of God’s people, in what I call “the voice of parental frustration.” All of us who are parents have used that voice; all of us who are children have heard that voice. The people of God have heard that voice for centuries; it is the voice of what G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God.”[3] It is the voice of what the often-maligned conservative Christian author Eric Metaxas once called “a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.”[4] I suspect that a lot of parents have known that feeling, the feeling of being insulted by the one we love unconditionally.

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Discerning Prophets – Sermon for Epiphany 4, RCL Year B, January 28, 2018

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”[1] So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.

And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”[2] The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.

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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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Imaginative Contemplation – Sermon for the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 14, 2018

Introductory Comment:

Before I offer my homily this morning, I want to say something about a verse I have chosen not to address. Nathanael asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Many of my clergy colleagues this week have made note of the question the president has been quoted as asking about Haiti and other countries, and they have chosen to focus their sermons this morning on issues of immigration. I have not; I had already chosen my focus verse for today and decided not to make any change. Nonetheless, I want join my colleagues in pointing out that in the First Century, the hometown of our Lord and Savior was regarded in much the same way that Mr. Trump is said to have considered the countries of the Caribbean, of Latin America, and of Africa. Can anything good come from such places? I encourage you in your prayerful meditations on the Gospel, regardless of how you may feel about the president, about his immigration policies, or his alleged remarks, to remember Nathanael’s question and the answer that has echoed through the centuries.

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Here and Now – Sermon for Advent 1, RCL Year B

In a few minutes, when this sermon comes to an end, we will all stand together as we do every week and recite the Nicene Creed in which we will say that, among other things, we believe that Jesus Christ

. . . will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. (BCP 1979, page 359)

In the Apostle’s Creed said at Morning and Evening Prayer, and in our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm our expectation that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” (BCP 1979, pages 96, 120, and 304)

In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer we re-affirm this this belief by saying (as we will in Prayer C this morning), “We celebrate his death and resurrection, as we await the day of his coming.” (Pg 371) We say something very similar in Prayer A: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (Pg 363) In Prayer B: “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.” (Pg 368) And in Prayer D, we offer our gifts “recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to [the Father’s] right hand, [and] awaiting his coming in glory.” (Pg 374)

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Gloria! Homily for the Funeral of C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., 6 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston for the Requiem Mass for C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., June 6, 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible were Isaiah 61:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 5:24-27. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. The Gradual Psalm for the service was Psalm 121 from the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer; it can be read at The Online Book of Common Prayer.)

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As my parishioners know, I often find the images invoked by poets comforting and illuminating in times of grief.

Ronald Stuart Thomas, usually called simply RS Thomas, is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest English language and European poets of the 20th Century. He was an Anglican priest serving in the Church in Wales. No less a person than the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Primate of the Church in Wales, has said of Thomas that he

. . . articulate[d] through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith – the poet has been there before us. (BBC News, RS Thomas centenary celebrated by Bangor Cathedral service)

When Thomas’s wife of 51 years passed away in 1991, he published a multi-part poem entitled Mass for Hard Times. I would like to read for you the section entitled Gloria:

From the body at its meal’s end
and its messmate whose meal is beginning,
Gloria.
From the early and late cloud, beautiful and deadly
as the mushroom we are forbidden to eat,
Gloria.
From the stars that are but as dew
and the viruses outnumbering the star clusters,
Gloria.
From those waiting at the foot of the helix
for the rope-trick performer to come down,
Gloria.
Because you are not there
When I turn, but are in the turning,
Gloria.
Because it is not I who look
but I who am being looked through,
Gloria.
Because the captive has found the liberty
that eluded him while he was free,
Gloria.
Because from the belief that nothing is nothing
it follows that there must be something,
Gloria.
Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.
And because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

(Gloria from Mass for Hard Times by R.S. Thomas (1992), in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK:2013, page 135)

In Thomas’s first lines, I find an echo of the words of St. Paul in our epistle reading today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

Those of us who like Nevada have known cancer in ourselves, or like Roberta and their sons have known it in our loved ones, know all too well that “our outer nature is wasting away,” that (as Thomas put it) the body is at its meal’s end. There is no gentle or genteel way to put it: cancer is not an easy way to die. I don’t know that there is an easy way to end life, but if there is one, cancer isn’t it. That Nevada fought the disease as valiantly as he did and with his characteristic confidentiality, on might even say secrecy, is testament to both his strength of will and his private faith, to what St. Paul might have called his “inner nature . . . being renewed . . . for an eternal weight of glory.”

Our first reading was from the Prophet Isaiah; it is that portion of scripture with which Jesus began his public ministry, taking the scroll from the attendant and reading these same words in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and concluding with the declaration, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) In it we are told that the Messiah’s mission is to proclaim freedom to the captive. In Thomas’s poem he gives glory to God because the captive “has found the liberty that eluded him while he was free.” He must refer, I am sure, to the liberty from the pain and suffering of chronic disease that comes with physical death.

But physical death is not the end of life. As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, physical death, “the last enemy,” has itself been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) Christ “overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” (BCP, page 377) As the preface to the Eucharistic Canon which we will pray in a few minutes says, to God’s “faithful people … life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382) As Jesus promised in our reading from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

I am intrigued by the poet Thomas’s penultimate stanza:

Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.

When we think of all that passes between youth and age, when we (as we do at requiems like this) look back over the life of a friend and loved one and take stock of all that someone like Nevada Johnson was and did – student, law student, member of the Bar, captain in the Army and decorated hero, son and brother, lover and husband, father, fellow follower of Christ, volunteer in his community, hospital board and zoning commission member, historical society founder, and so much more – it is difficult to comprehend what Thomas means calling it a “moment” that “we do not count.”

But then I return to St. Paul and today’s epistle reading in which he refers to this earthly life as a “slight momentary affliction,” and I am reminded of the Psalmist’s declaration of how fleeting life is, that life is but “a few handbreadths” and “everyone stands as a mere breath.” (Ps 39:4-5)

In contrast are the promises of Isaiah that good men like Nevada (and, we believe, all of us through the grace of God) “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory,” and of Paul that this “weight of glory beyond all measure” will be eternal. As the Gradual Psalm which we recited together says: “The Lord shall preserve [us] from all evil; it is he who shall keep [us] safe. The Lord shall watch over [our] going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.” (Ps 121:7-8; BCP, page 779) It is as Jesus promised: we have passed from death to life eternal.

In his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul wrote, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Death has no victory; death has no sting. Death is nothing.

The Rev. Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached sermon entitled Death the King of Terrors while the body of the late King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster Abbey in 1910. His point in that sermon was that death is neither a king nor a terror. In it, he offered this meditation:.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

And so we understand Ronald Stuart Thomas’s final stanza in the Gloria of the Mass for Hard Times:

Because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good example of your servant, Carroll Nevada Johnson, Jr., who, having finished his course in faith, now finds rest and refreshment. May we, with him and all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 503, modified)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act One: Use Your Towel – Maundy Thursday 2017

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

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

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

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

So, here we are….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Be Holy, Be Perfect – Sermon for Epiphany 7, 19 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; and St. Matthew 5:38-48. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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pinkperfectionWhen the Prayers of the People are offered later in this service you will hear a name you’ve never heard before, and you will hear that the person named was buried in our memory garden this week, and you will wonder, “Who is Indra?” (“Indra” is not the child’s real name.)

Indra was born on February 1, 2017. And Indra died on February 1, 2017. Whether she was stillborn or expired a few minutes after her birth is unknown. Indra suffered Turner Syndrome and was born in her parents’ automobile as they were driving to the Emergency Room. In any event, she was not living when they got to the hospital.

Because of her father’s cultural traditions, the family was not involved in her burial and do not know the whereabouts of her ashes. Only the funeral director and I were present. It was the shortest, simplest funeral I’ve ever conducted, but in many ways it was perhaps the saddest and hardest burial I have done in 27 years of ordained ministry.

I was going to start this sermon with the declaration that being a priest is hard, but then I was asked to handle Indra’s burial and I thought perhaps that telling you about her and her funeral would illustrate that better than my simply whining to you about how hard it is to be priest.

It’s not this stuff, this Sunday stuff, that is hard. This is easy. Just follow the Prayer Book, follow the Lectionary, choose some hymns that fit the lessons, ask David to pick some other music, say a few words about Scripture, and share some Bread and some Wine. That’s easy.

And funerals and weddings are usually pretty much the same. Just follow the recipe; like cooking, it all pretty much takes care of itself.

But, sometimes, it’s not. Funerals usually aren’t hard, but Indrah’s fast, simple, no-family-to-deal-with burial was incredibly hard.

Sitting with someone in hospital who is facing their death is hard; sitting with a family whose loved one is facing death is even harder. Counseling two people getting married is hard; counseling two people getting divorced is harder. Getting over being angry with God is hard; helping someone else get over being angry with God is harder.

I don’t really know how handles those situations. I don’t really know how to do this stuff and I’m never sure I’ve done it right. If putting together a Sunday service is like cooking, this sort of stuff is more like baking. I was tempted to say there are no rule books for this sort of thing, but the truth is that there are lots books. There are lots of recipes. There are too many, in fact, and they seem to all give contradictory advice.

I say it’s like baking because I am always looking for the secret to flaky pie crusts or to a successful soufflé. One of my grandmothers swore by using lard in her crusts; the other used butter. My mother said to use vinegar in the dough, but my aunt insisted that ice water was the trick. And as hard as making a good pie crust is, baking a soufflé is even worse. Follow the recipe, but get the slightest thing just a wee bit “off” and what might have been a glorious dessert is a hopeless disaster, and more often than not, you have no idea what you did wrong.

Some of being a priest, a lot of being a priest actually, is like making pie crust or baking a souffle. Do it right – everything is great. Do the slightest thing wrong – it’s a complete mess. And constantly live in fear of that slight, wrong thing.

I think the priests in Solomon’s Temple had it easier. They had Leviticus. Most of us aren’t very familiar with Leviticus. It is, for the most part, a book of rules, of very detailed rules. So we don’t read it in church very much.

We Episcopalians are fond of saying that our worship is among the most biblical of all Christian denominations. We are often criticized for not taking the Bible more seriously and those not familiar with our liturgy accuse us of ignoring it. When that happens, we often fire back that our Prayer Book is about 80% scriptural and that we read through the Bible using a Lectionary so that (and I’ve heard clergy say this) “we read all of the Bible in three years.”

Except that’s not true. We don’t read all those genealogies. There are some of the Psalms that we don’t consider appropriate for Sunday worship, although we do read them in the Daily Offices. And there’s Leviticus from which we read, I think, only two short lessons in the whole three years of the Lectionary cycle. Today is one of those two times. Nonetheless, it is a book worth knowing and knowing about. I commend it to you; it is especially good for reading late at night when you can’t get to sleep . . . .

Very briefly, this is what you’ll find in Leviticus. First, there are six chapters on various kinds of offerings and sacrifices, then two chapters instructing priests how to handle all the different sorts of offerings and sacrifices. This is followed by four chapters on the history of the Aaronic priesthood.

Next are five chapters on uncleanness with which the Temple priests were expected to deal, unclean animals, the uncleanliness of women caused by childbirth, various unclean diseases (such as leprosy) and how the priests were to cleans them, if possible, and (my favorite) unclean bodily discharges. (Maybe the Temple priests didn’t have it easier, after all. I’m quite happy that you don’t come to me with your unclean diseases, your weeping ulcerous sores, and your other bodily discharges! That would be really hard . . . .)

After the uncleanness chapters, there is one chapter detailing the Day of Atonement.

Then comes something scholars call “the Holiness Code,” ten chapters for the not-priests, for the people of God. Ten chapters of practical rules for living a righteous life. One of them, from which we heard today, concerns neighborliness and begins with this admonition, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Do you know why I became a priest? Yes, I had that sense of call and went through the discernment “process” and all of that (twice, actually, but that’s another story). But . . . really . . . when I look back on it, I realize that I left my life as a trial lawyer and went into the ordained ministry because, as hard as it is, it’s easier than being a lay person. As hard as it sometimes is to be a priest, to be a “professional Christian” in the church, it’s harder still to be a lay Christian in the world.

There are no good rule books for priests, or too many contradictory rule books, but there are expectations and there are permissions. There is a stereotype and there are prescribed situations. There is “safety within the walls” of the church, within the set of circumstances in which a priest finds him- or herself.

That’s not true in the world. In the the wide open, free wheeling, anything-can-come-at-you-world where you not-priests have to do your ministry, you have the much harder job.

You can tell that just by look at the Book of Leviticus: there are five chapters of rules for priests, but there are ten for the not-priests! The people of God have twice as much to do as the priests of God.

And you can tell it just by reading the Catechism of the Episcopal Church (it’s in the Prayer Book back around page 845 or so, in that part of the book no one ever seems to open). It asks there who the ministers of the Church are and answers that it’s everyone: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. The ministry of priests, it says, is to “share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 856)

That’s a piece of cake when you compare it to the ministry of the laity. According to the Catechism, your job, oh People of God, is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [you] may be; and, according to the gifts given [you], to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take [your] place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” (BCP, page 855) Now that is hard work!

The Jewish bible scholar and rabbi Jacob Milgrom said that the point of the Book of Leviticus is that holiness is not the responsibility of priests alone. In this book, and especially in the Holiness Code, “the domain of the sacred expands, embracing the entire land, not just the sanctuary, and all of Israel, not just the priesthood.” Israel, he said, attains holiness and priests strive to sustain it. (Milgrom, J., Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, Fortress Press, Minneapolis:2004, pp 175, 178)

Although priests are not allowed by the rules in Leviticus to make any mistake, attaining holiness takes a lot more work than sustaining it. What we priests do in the sanctuary merely sustains holiness; what the People of God do in the world, that is how holiness is attained. That’s much, much harder!

It takes love … It takes loving even people we don’t really like, even people we can’t stand! Indeed, the word used in Hebrew text is not exactly “neighbor;” it is not limited to those who are geographically nearby. The Hebrew word is more akin to “fellow” and seems to be much more expansive. Thus, when a lawyer questions Jesus about the Law, Jesus is able to cite the rule from Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and then illustrate it with a story involving someone from another country, a hated foreigner, the Good Samaritan. (See Luke 10:25–37)

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus quotes (or, actually, misquotes) the same verse from Leviticus, adding words that aren’t in the original: “You have heard that it was said,” he says, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” (Mt 5:43)

Now to be fair to Jesus, he doesn’t actually say he’s quoting Leviticus, just “you have heard it said.” That last bit about hating enemies could just be a rabbinic gloss; it could just be folk wisdom. In any event, it was (and is) the way people act. Jesus acknowledges human nature by beginning this bit of the Sermon on the Mount (and that’s what this is, the end of the first chapter of that long sermon) with commentary on what’s called “the lex talionis,” that eye-for-an-eye rule. But the lex talionis isn’t about enemies; that’s a rule of justice not of war. “An eye for an eye” deals with retribution toward a neighbor who has violated social norms. Jesus dispenses with that (saying, basically, don’t follow the lex talionis, don’t seek retribution or revenge) and now moves beyond it; he leaves the neighborhood, so to speak.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Love those whom you fear, even those you think might kill you, even the hated foreigner.” He’s saying that “enemy” is not really a separate class, that the world isn’t divided into neighbors and enemies. Although some people would like to do that, although some people have always done that (it’s human nature, after all), the world isn’t carved up that way. Jesus is saying (I think) that “enemies” are simply a class of “neighbors;” that enemies and neighbors are all “fellows;” that the division – neighbors here, enemies there, those we’re unsure about in some holding pen over there – doesn’t hold water.

And then, echoing Leviticus’ “Holiness Code,” especially the first verses of the neighborliness rules of Chapter 19 – “Be Holy because God is holy” – Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)

That’s heavy stuff! And remember the Leviticus command and Jesus’ admonition are not directed to the priests; these are directives for the whole People of God, for the laity.

It’s hard work . . . but as Kathryn Schifferdecker, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says these verses are as much promise as command:

“You shall be holy.” It is both command and promise. And to believe that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living out in our day-to-day lives genuine love for God and for our neighbors. (Working Preacher)

You will be holy. You will be perfect. It’s a promise – so act on the promise; live as if you believe the promise. And keep this in mind, “holiness” is just another way to say “wholeness” and “perfection” is just another way to say “completion.” The promise of holiness is an instruction to strive for wholeness; the promise of perfection is a command to work toward completion.

What Leviticus and Jesus ask of us is that we be fully human, that we be as whole and complete a human being as each of us can be. And the way we do that is to love our neighbor, even the neighbor who seems to be our enemy, even the neighbor of whom we are afraid, even the neighbor we think may kill us.

When I was kid, I helped my stepdad restore old homes. I think my parents invented to the practice of “flipping,” buying old fixer-uppers, rehabbing them, and then selling them hopefully at a profit. From the time I was about 10 years old until I went away to college, we lived and fixed up in a different house every year. The last thing we would do was to paint the interiors. My stepdad encouraged me to do that very neatly and carefully because, he would say (and I had no idea that he was referencing scripture), “Paint covers a multitude of sins.”

He was parodying the First Letter of Peter, “Love covers a multitude of sins (4:8).” Peter goes on to say, “Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (v. 10).” Just be human, be yourself, be the best you you can be, loving your neighbor and using whatever gifts you have been given. I know that’s hard; it’s really hard. But with the help and grace of God, you can do it.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is a promise more than it is a command. With the help and grace of God you will be holy; you will be perfect.

And the glorious thing is – the Gospel truth is – that through the grace of God you already are!

Amen!

(Note: The illustration is Camelia Japonica, “Pink Perfection,” a camellia cutlivar dating from the late 18th Century; it was one of the most popular flowers of the Victorian Age.)

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

Life or Death; Lawfulness or Sinfulness: Sermon for 6 Epiphany, 12 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Sirach 15:15-20 (or, alternatively, Deuteronomy 30:15-20); Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and St. Matthew 5:21-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Moses_Pleading_with_IsraelThe Book of Deuteronomy tells us that when the long Exodus journey of the People of the Hebrews ended, just before they were to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses delivered a farewell address. He was not going to be going into the new land with them.

You may remember that God had been angered by the first generation of wandering Hebrews, what Jesus might have called an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mk 8:38), who had grumbled against God, had wanted to turn back, and who had eventually been so disobedient that they had fashioned an idol (the Golden Calf) and worshiped it instead of Yahweh, their deliverer.

Furthermore, even when they worshiped and followed God, they didn’t trust God. Not believing God’s promise of the land into which they were to come, they sent spies ahead of them. This angered God, so that God had decreed that none of those who had left Egypt would enter the Holy Land (Numbers, Ch. 14). The Psalmist quotes God:

They put me to the test,
though they had seen my works.
Forty years long I detested that generation and said,
“This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
So I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter into my rest.” (Ps 95:9-11)

So Moses was the last of these and, in addition, he himself had been told by God that he would not enter the Promised Land because he and his brother Aaron had doubted God at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. God had said to him and to Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Num 20:12)

So at the brink of their entry, probably near Moab in the valley of Beth-Peor where he would be buried in an unmarked tomb, Moses gathered the children and grandchildren of the original Hebrews and summarized all that God had done for them and all that God required of them saying, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”(Deut 30:15). Follow the laws of God, have life and prosperity; disobey the commandments, death and adversity.

Throughout the discourse, Moses does an interesting thing that we can’t follow in the English translation; he intermixes the use of the plural “you” and the singular “you.” By doing so, he seems to be saying that the obligation to do good, to follow the commandments is both a communal and an individual responsibility. As a whole, the People of God must do these things, but it isn’t sufficient that they do it only as a community. The individual member can’t rely on his or her neighbor to do it for them; he or she can’t rely on the community’s leadership to do it for them. Each member of the community must do it for themselves; the individual needs the support of the community to undertake and accomplish this individual responsibility, but the individual can’t let it slide and just rely on the community to take up his or her slack, so to speak.

Also throughout the course of his speech, Moses makes it clear that though God places this choice of good or bad, life or death, prosperity or adversity, obedience or waywardness before God’s people, God does not underwrite or endorse both equally. In fact, God endorses only one. So, at the end of his address, Moses offers his own advice: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Dt 30:19-20).

Choose life! I can imagine Moses raising a glass and giving this counsel in the form of the great Jewish toast “l’Chaim!” – “To life!” And given what was at stake, Moses adds, “Hold fast to God,” basically saying, “And don’t mess it up!”)

Several generations later, around 200-175 BC, Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem, a Jewish scribe, echoed Moses’ admonition as he wrote a text which is in the canon of writings called “the wisdom literature.” This body of literature constitutes basically a course of education for young men training for what we might call “the civil service.” The sons of the class equivalent to the “minor aristocracy” of England would be trained to function in the courts of kings throughout the ancient middle east using these writings. We heard this author’s advice to these young men in today’s reading from the Book of Sirach.

The author’s name is Simon, and he is identified as the son of Yeshua, who was the son of Eliezer, who was the son of Sirach, but some for reason we call the book by his grandfather’s, or rather his great-grandfather’s name. I suppose we do that because we think grandfathers are wiser than their sons or grandsons, although I don’t think I’ve convinced my son of that. This book is part of the Christian scriptures we call “the Apocrypha.” It is recognized as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. The Jews don’t recognize it as scripture because it is known only in a Greek translation discovered in Egypt; if there was a Hebrew language original (which one would assume since a scribe from Jerusalem wrote it), it has been lost to history. And since the Jews don’t accept it, the Protestants won’t recognize it, either.

Of course, we Anglicans take our usual middle way . . . we won’t based doctrine on it, but we will use it for the teaching of ethics and morality, which is pretty much the way this book has been used by the church through the ages. Another name for the text is “Liber Ecclesiasticus” or “Book of the Church” because it was used throughout the middle ages to teach clergy.

In any event, Simon the son of Yeshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Sirach, offers advice to the trainee courtiers not at all dissimilar to that offered by Moses to the Hebrews: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:15-17).

Simon the Scribe is a very canny fellow. He uses a metaphor for the choice of life or death, lawfulness or sinfulness; God, he says, “has placed before you fire and water.” At first glance that seems a pretty solid and clear metaphor, destructive fire versus life-giving water; but the metaphor is not all that clear. It’s really rather ambiguous. In some circumstances, yes, fire is destructive and death-dealing, but if you’re freezing to death in a winter storm, fire can be life-preserving; in some circumstances, yes, water is sustaining of life, but if you’re drowning in the sea the last thing you want is more water. Which, then, represents death and which life? One’s choices, Simon the Scribe seems to be saying, are not always clear cut and unambiguous.

And, like Moses, Simon reminds his readers that although the choices may be set before one by God, God does not underwrite or endorse both alternatives. God, he says, has a clear preference: “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin. ” (v. 20)

So Moses and Simon the Scribe offer their audiences, both their original audiences and us, this counsel that we have some big, important choices to made: life or death, prosperity or adversity, ethical conduct or sinful behavior. The choice may sometimes be ambiguous, but these are really big matters. And along comes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and complicates things by telling us that our choices aren’t just about the big stuff. “You’ve heard the commandment,” he says, “‘Thou shalt not murder.’ Well, you’re just as guilty if you think badly of another, if you insult a brother or sister, if you argue with another member of the community. You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Well, even if you just think about about it, you’re guilty!” Remember when Jimmy Carter got into public hot water by confessing in that quaint King James language that despite his long and faithful marriage to Rosalyn he had “lusted in his heart” after other women? (Oh, for the day’s when just that was sufficient to get a candidate or politician into trouble…. )

Jesus extended Moses’ admonition and Simon the Scribe’s advice even further. Yes, there are important choices to be made. Yes, they are sometimes ambiguous. And, guess what? They come at us every day, every hour, in everything we do. Not just in the big things, but in the little everyday minutiae of human existence.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not very often I have to decide not to kill someone (only about once a week), but every day I have to decide whether let a zinger of an insult fly or bite my tongue and hold it back, whether to vent my anger over some upset or just shrug it off and let go of it. It’s not very often that I have to decide whether or not to commit adultery; in fact, never (no one seems to think I’m that attractive). But all through the day I have to make . . . we all have to make . . . these ethical and moral decisions. We have to make our choices, daily, and then stick to them as best we can. As Jesus admonishes us, let our decisions to be “Yes, yes” or “no, no.”

Interestingly, in the koine Greek in which the author of our Gospel lesson wrote, he recorded Jesus doing what the Hebrews scripture recorded Moses doing: mixing plural “yous” with singular “yous” in his discourse. Like Moses, Jesus underscores what we all know to be the truth – that none of us can do this on our own, that we have to have the support of our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our fellow church members.

There is a story in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapters 27 & 28) about something that happened after the children of the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. Joshua the son of Nun, who was Moses’ assistant and took over leadership when Moses died, was directed to Moses to lead them into the valley of Shechem, the place where Jacob’s well is. Somehow I seem to recall that there were about 40,000 of them at the time, and Joshua divided them by tribes, sending half of them to the summit of Mount Gerizim and half of them to the summit of Mount Ebal on the other side of the valley. And those on Mt. Gerizim recited the blessings of keeping the Law, while those on Mt. Ebal recited the curses that came with disobedience.

I have this vision of Joshua reading the commandments, not just the “big ten” that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai on the stone tablets, but the other 603 mitzvoth (or “statutes”) that got added to them and as he would read each one, the folks on Mt. Gerizim would shout “Obey this law and you will be blessed” and those on Mt. Ebal would shout “Disobey and you will be cursed.” Can you imagine how 20,000 voices shouting on one side of valley and another 20,000 voices shouting in response on the other side would have echoed throughout the land? Those voices also would have echoed down through time as a reminder that obedience is a communal thing, but also a personal thing, an individual obligation in which one is support by the community.

But even that is not enough. We humans individually are unable to stay in the narrow way and we are also unable to do so as communities, as churches, as nations. As our opening collect says, “in our weakness we can do nothing good without you” (BCP 1979, pg 216) and as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). If we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice; but we can only stay the course if we are aided by our community and upheld by God.

Today and every day, the choice is before us, good or evil, obedience or sinfulness, life or death. Choose life! – l’Chaim – and rely on God (don’t mess it up)!

Amen!

(Illustration: Moses Pleading with Israel, an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company.)

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

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