Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First Kings (Page 2 of 3)

There’s always an “only” – From the Daily Office Lectionary

There’s always an “only” . . . .

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 16, Year 1 (Pentecost 13, 2015)

1 Kings 3:3 ~ Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places.

Yessireebob! The Deuteronomic historians responsible for the Books of Kings loved Solomon . . . except for that one little thing: he didn’t restrict his worship to the Jerusalem Temple (which he built) and he married all those foreign wives with their foreign gods (and maybe – hint, hint, nudge, nudge – participated in their religious activities).

Those historians are a lot like . . . well . . . everyone. There always seems to be an “only” or an “except” or a “but” – often unspoken – annexed to every human word of praise or expression of love. As a parish priest, I preside at weddings from time to time (really pretty frequently) and, under the rules of the Episcopal Church, I cannot do so unless the couple has undertaken a course of premarital counseling with me. I use a testing instrument (“It’s NOT a test!” I tell every couple, but it really is – it doesn’t test their compatibility or likelihood of success; it tests their communication) which each partner completes separately; it allows each, through indications of his or her level of agreement with several statements, to express any “excepts,” any “onlies,” and any “buts” in ways which are non-threatening to his or her partner. They don’t even realize that that is what they are doing, but I do. I see it in the scoring of the instrument. We deal with it, to some extent, in the course of the counseling.

To love unconditionally, with no “onlies” and no “excepts,” with “no ifs, ands, or buts” as my late mother liked to say, is not a human capacity. The Deuteronomic historians were incapable of it. The couples I counsel in advance of their nuptials are incapable of it. You are incapable of it. I am incapable of it.

God, on the other hand . . .

I have a bumper sticker on my car which reads “God Loves You. No Exceptions.” Yesterday, I took my car to the local dealer for service. As I pulled into the garage, another customer, a woman whom I would guess to be in her late 40s or early 50s, greeted me and said, “I love your bumper sticker.” I thanked her and chatted about the PR campaign of my diocese which produced the stickers and about my church. I gave her my card and invited her to join us on Sunday. It was one of those great, unplanned encounters when one can do that. We had a great conversation.

I love the opportunity to talk with people like that woman, only . . . I don’t really expect her to show up on Sunday. See? There’s always an “only”.

The Armor of God: Sermon for Proper 16B (Pentecost 13, 23 August 2015)

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A sermon offered on Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16B, Track 1, RCL), August 23, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6:10-20; and John 6:56-69. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Ancient ArmorIn the Education for Ministry program, the first year is spent reading the Old Testament, parts of which can be as dull as dirt! There are those long lists of genealogies, long catalogues of tribes and families, the lengthy and detailed instructions for making and erecting the tabernacle that the Hebrews carried along with them in the desert and, of course, a description of the Temple which Solomon built. In our EfM group, we sort of got into a habit of not reading those parts, of just acknowledging they were there but sort of skipping lightly over them. But it is there, earlier in the First Book of Kings from which our First Lesson is taken, a description of the building in which, in today’s lesson, Solomon places the Ark of the Covenant. Solomon’s Temple (the “First Temple”) was massive; it wasn’t really very big, but it was solid and substantial. It was built of huge blocks of solid stone; it had support beams made of whole cedar trees; it had immense fixtures and columns made of solid bronze and gold. In a word, it was a fortress!

But, as Solomon says in his public prayer in today’s Old Testament lesson, God doesn’t really need a fortress: “Will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” Earthly buildings cannot contain God and God certainly has no need of the protection massive stone walls can provide.

No, the Temple was not built for God; the Temple was built for human beings, for the Israelites. It is the place which serves as a focus for their devotion to the Almighty; it is the place where they will offer sacrifices and toward which they will face when they pray. So Solomon beseeches God, “Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.” And Solomon goes even further and asks that God also hear the prayers of foreigners: “Likewise . . . when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.”

The Temple was an earthly reminder of God’s Law; it was the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant, called the footstool of God by David. In the 28th Chapter of the First Book of Chronicles, David calls his court officers and his designated heir, Solomon, to an assembly and says to them, “I had planned to build a house of rest for the ark of the covenant of the Lord, for the footstool of our God; and I made preparations for building.” (v. 2, NRSV) He then gives his plans for the Temple to Solomon. In Psalm 132, the Psalmist (traditionally David) makes a similar reference when he says, “Let us go to God’s dwelling place; let us fall upon our knees before his footstool.” (v. 7, BCP)

The lexicons tell us that uses of this term footstool are metaphorical and symbolic of subjection to God as universal Lord. However, the term always reminds me of my grandmother Edna Funston who was a nurse. She and my grandfather lived only about four blocks from the hospital where she was employed, so she would walk to and from work everyday. After spending her days, like most nurses do, on her feet, she would walk those four blocks and then sit for a while with her feet up, resting them on a footstool that sat in front of her favorite chair. When I hear of God’s footstool, I picture God putting his feet up after a long walk. It reminds me of that passage from the Book of Genesis in which Adam and Eve, having violated God’s instructions by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, “heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze” and hid themselves. (Gen 3:8) It reminds me also of that passage in the Prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic 6:8)

The Temple was an earthly reminder of God’s Law which requires God’s people to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God. Several generations after the Temple was built, God’s people were doing anything but . . . and the Prophet Isaiah portrayed God as less than pleased by that. Isaiah prophesied:

Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance; for truth stumbles in the public square, and uprightness cannot enter. Truth is lacking, and whoever turns from evil is despoiled. The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle. (Isa 59:14-17)

Several centuries after Isaiah, the writer of the Book of Wisdom would offer an apocalyptic vision of the last judgment in similar terms:

The Lord will take his zeal as his whole armor, and will arm all creation to repel his enemies; he will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and wear impartial justice as a helmet; he will take holiness as an invincible shield, and sharpen stern wrath for a sword, and creation will join with him to fight against his frenzied foes. (Wis 5:17-20

The Letter to the Ephesians (which claims to have been written by Paul but is generally believed to have been written by one of his disciples shortly after his death, perhaps from notes drafted or dictated by Paul) makes use of these ancient armor and weapon metaphors in a new and startling way.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on the audience to whom this letter was initially addressed, the church at Ephesus, a small body of believers living as a minority in a hostile environment. Their commitment to Christ set them conspicuously at odds with their neighbors, perhaps even with some in their own families. They were regarded with suspicion, even considered troublemakers and atheists, by their neighbors because they refused to join in the municipal cult of the hunter goddess Artemis whose worship was an important commercial enterprise for the city. They were regarded as troublemakers and atheists by the Roman empire because they refused to burn incense and pay tribute at the altars to the emperor. It is likely that they had had more than one encounter with the police, who were not merely the police; they were the Roman army.

So when the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians borrows the armor imagery of Isaiah and the Book of Wisdom, although “the concrete details of the armor are biblical, not Roman, the audience probably envisaged the fully armed Roman soldier when they heard these words.” (NIB, Vol. XI, page 460) It is as if someone today were to write to a congregation in (for example) Ferguson, Missouri, and say: “Put on the bulletproof vest of righteousness and the night-vision goggles of truth. Take up the automatic rifle of the Spirit.” And that is how we need to hear these metaphors, too – as shocking and disturbing and counter-cultural. It violated their, and should violate our, expectations of what a comforting pastoral letter should say, and thus their eyes were opened, and our eyes should be, to the darkness of the present reality.

Of course, whether one uses the ancient weapons of the original or modernizes the imagery, the use is metaphorical. As the Letter reminds its initial readers and us, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the [world] powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.” This is not a call to armed revolution; it is not a call to man the barricades and overthrow the government. Although this text has been used shamefully and wrongly to justify violence and oppression, it is not a call for the followers of Jesus to become some sort of Christian ISIS.

No! We are not called to actually take up arms. The armor we are to don is that which these metaphors represent: truth, righteousness, peace, faith, holiness, impartial judgment, and the word of God (which is not the Bible, the Word of God is Jesus!). We so by constantly preparing ourselves. Earlier in the Letter, the writer admonished the Ephesians to utilize their gifts as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers to build up the church and equip one another for the work of ministry (4:11-12), to sing psalms and hymns together, to pray and give thanks (5:19-20). The same is true for us; “believers [today] must hear sermons, read scripture, talk with other Christians, engage in regular prayer, sing the praises of God, and so on.” (NIB, pg 403) Our formation as members of the Body of Christ, our preparation to withstand the “powers of this present darkness” and “the spiritual forces of evil” must be continuous.

We may skip over the details of its construction because we know that God didn’t need the Temple, but the truth is that the Israelites did. We may choose not read the full description because we know that God doesn’t need a fortress, but the truth is that we do. The Stoic philosopher Seneca taught that the soul of a wise person is fortified by reason and secure virtue. He wrote, “The walls which guard the wise [person] are safe from both flame and assault, they provide no means of entrance, are lofty, impregnable, godlike.” (De Constantia Sapientis [On the Constancy of the Wise Man], 6.8) We need that spiritual fortress!

In the same way, God really has no need of the metaphorical armor and weapons described in Isaiah, the Book of Wisdom, and the Letter to the Ephesians, but we do. Clothed with “the whole armor of God,” we will “be able to stand against the wiles of the devil,” and fed with “the bread that came down from heaven . . .[we] will live forever.”

Let us pray:

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, [protected by your armor] from all things that may hurt us [and nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son], that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (Collect 2 [with addition], BCP 1979, pg. 228)

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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 Storm of Depression – Sermon for August 19, 2014, Pentecost 9, Proper 14A

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On the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, August 10, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: 1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; and Matthew 14:22-33. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Icon of ElijahThere is a very strong possibility that at least five people in this nave today are suffering from depression. Not just garden variety, feeling a little bit down, depression, but from clinical depression that is being (or should be) treated with medication and therapy. Psychiatrists see more people suffering from depression than people suffering from all other emotional problems combined. It is currently estimated that one in every twenty Americans has been medically diagnosed is currently under treatment for depression. If all of those patients were formed into some sort of organization it would be more than twice the size of the Episcopal Church.

So there’s a very, very good chance that a few of those patients are here today. And it’s a certainty that there is at least one former depression patient in the room: me. I won’t go into the gory details, but about 17 years ago, I had my own bad run-in with clinical depression, but with medication, cognitive therapy, and most importantly spiritual direction, I came through it.

I bring this up because we have two lessons today that directly address the matter of depression and human failure to cope with failure, chaos, and fear. These lessons are instructive not only for those who suffer from clinical depression, but also for those who live and work with them, and for everyone who occasionally suffers from disappointment with life, with frustration and regret. The first is part of the story of Elijah, the Man of God.

Today we have heard a famous and familiar story from the 19th Chapter of the First Book of Kings, the story of Elijah encountering God at the entrance of a cave on Mt. Horeb, which is also called Mt. Sinai, the very place where Moses received the Law from the hand of God. Technically and religiously, what Elijah experiences is called a theophany or epiphany, a manifestation of the divine, but practically what he has received is treatment for depression. Elijah is a classic example of a clinically depressed human being and Yhwh does for him exactly what modern psychiatry has come to understand as the best treatment for depression.

But let’s back up and get the back story on all of this.

This is actually the second theophany Elijah experiences in relatively short order. The first was on another mountain, Mt. Carmel, which is about 280 miles north-northwest of Mt. Horeb. The occasion was Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal. You may recall that at the time Ahab was king in Israel, the northern kingdom. Ahab’s queen is a woman named Jezebel who is a princess of Tyre in Phoenicia and a worshiper of Baal. One of Elijah’s prophetic complaints against King Ahab is that he has allowed his queen to establish Baal worship in Israel. As a demonstration of the supremacy of Yhwh, Elijah challenged the 400 prophets of Baal who served Jezebel to a duel. They would each offer a sacrifice on Mt. Carmel and the one whose sacrifice is accepted will be shown to be the prophet of the true god.

The prophets of Baal erected an altar, as did Elijah, and they placed upon it several butchered animals, as Elijah did on his altar. Then the prophets of Baal began to solicit their god; they danced and prayed and sang and prostrated themselves but nothing happened. Then it was Elijah’s turn. Before invoking Yhwh, however, Elijah had the people douse his altar and the offering on it with water, not once but three times. Then, when he called upon the Lord, heavenly fire consumed not only the sacrificed livestock, but the very stones of the altar. This is the first theophany.

As a result, the people repented of their faithlessness, fell on their faces, and worshiped Yhwh. Then Elijah ordered them: “Seize the prophets of Baal; do not let one of them escape.” (1 kg 18:40) Which they did, and they killed all of the prophets of Baal. King Ahab was present during the challenge and witnessed the slaughter of his wife’s religious leadership.

At the beginning of Chapter 19, Ahab rides back to his palace in the city of Jezreel and tells Jezebel what has happened. Her response is to threaten Elijah with death. She sends him a message: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of [the prophets of Baal] by this time tomorrow.” (v. 2) So he flees the northern kingdom for Mt. Horeb and this is where we are in our reading today.

Elijah experiences the second theophany. He hears the voice of God asking him, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” (v. 9) Elijah’s answer is the that of a severely depressed person! “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (v. 10)

What do we know about this answer. We know that most of it isn’t true. The Israelites have not forsaken God’s covenant: at Mt. Carmel just a short while before they had repented of any allegiance to the religion of Baal and sworn themselves faithful to Yhwh. They have not killed Yhwh’s prophets with the sword: they have, in fact, killed the prophets of Baal. Elijah is not left alone: there are all those people who swore that oath of repentance at Mt. Carmel, if not many others. They are not all seeking his life: only Jezebel and her followers are doing so.

Elijah, exhibiting classic signs and symptoms of depression, has focused on and exaggerated the negatives in his life, completely ignoring anything and everything positive.

So God decides to get his attention, maybe shake him out of this funk. God sends an earth-shattering wind, then with an earthquake, then with a great fire, but (our scripture insists) God is not in any of those things. Lastly, there is “the sound of sheer silence” and in that deep, deep desert silence Elijah hears a small, still voice . . . the voice of God . . . asking once again, “Elijah, what are you doing here?” (v. 13)

And how does Elijah answer? Almost exactly as he did before: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (v. 14) Despite this dramatic theophanic event, in which God has intended to lift Elijah out of his despondency, Elijah’s responses to Yhwh, both before and after the theophany, are nearly identical. His thoughts, words, and actions are those of severely depressed person — withdrawal and escape, moodiness, apprehension and fear, self-pity, feelings of worthlessness, loss of hope and confidence, anger, irritability, wrong headedness, fixation on negative events, and physical exhaustion to name just a few.
And what does God do?

God doesn’t tell him cheer up; God doesn’t tell him to snap out of it; God doesn’t try to reason with him and convince him that all is well. No, God sets Elijah a goal; he gives him a task to perform. Yhwh gets Elijah active and involved once again in his prophetic ministry. “Get up and go do this,” God says, “anoint two new kings in Aram and Israel, and prepare for your retirement by taking Elisha as your apprentice and successor.” (vv. 15-16) This is precisely the sort of specific goal-setting that modern psychology prescribes for the treatment of depression!

Just last year a study published at the University of Liverpool demonstrated that people with clinical depression tend to describe personal goals lacking a specific focus. The lack of specificity makes it more difficult to achieve the goal and this, in turn, creates a downward cycle of negative thoughts. Setting specific goals and realizing them triggers an electro-chemical chain reaction in the brain that makes the patient feel rewarded, and this stimulates happiness, motivation, and self-esteem. (Generalized Goals Linked to Depression)

This is exactly what Yhwh does for Elijah, setting specific goals. What is scientific research has shown to be psychologically true is shown here in scripture to be spiritually true.

The second lesson that I believe directly addresses the issue of depression is the gospel tale of Jesus walking on the stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee.

I must be honest with you; this is one of those Jesus stories with which I am decidedly uncomfortable. I don’t think these stories of Jesus violating the laws of nature are meant to demonstrate Jesus to be some sort of superman or a powerful magician or even to be God. I believe they are, rather, prophetic actions, physical metaphors from which we are to learn something much more important, something about ourselves and about human nature.

Throughout the biblical canon, in other literature of the ancient middle east, and even in our world today, the image of a storm at sea is a powerful metaphor of chaos and even of uncontrollable evil. Twice the gospel writers use it as a way to demonstrate Jesus’ power. First, there is the incident when Jesus is in the boat with the disciples, asleep during a storm. They awaken him and he rebukes the wind and calms the sea. According to Matthew, whose gospel we are exploring in this year of the lectionary cycle, that incident took place earlier. This is the second time the disciples on are on the Galilean lake in bad weather at night, but this time Jesus isn’t with them.

In this story, Jesus is walking on the water and (Mark asserts in his version of the tale – Mk 6:47-51) intends to pass them by. However, they see him, think he is a ghost, and cry out. He identifies himself and reassures them, at which point Peter decides he would like to try this water-walking thing and asks Jesus, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” (Mt 14:28) Jesus says, “Come” and Peter gets out of the boat and begins to walk on the stormy sea. Note that — Jesus has not quelled the storm. The wind is still blowing; presumably, the water is still choppy, the waves still beating on the boat. Peter successfully takes a few steps, but then is distracted and frightened by the weather and begins to sink. Jesus rescues him; they get in the boat; and that’s when the storm ends and the sea becomes calm.

So what does this say to us about dealing with depression and disappointment?

Let’s say that the stormy sea, the wind, the waves, and all of that are a metaphor for the negativity, chaos, and fear which is clinical depression (and, to a lesser extent, any experience of sadness or grief). And let’s say that Jesus is setting for Peter (and by extension the other disciples) the same sort of goal that Yhwh set for Elijah, a specific, attainable goal, something easily accomplished . . . just walking on the water. We know it can be done; Jesus hass just demonstrated that.

And Peter in fact does accomplish it — he takes a few steps. But then he is distracted; the negative thoughts of depression, the repetitive ruminating over the fear and chaos sets back in. This can and does happen. Recovery from depression is not the quick and easy path the story in First Kings might suggest (and, in fact, even there it isn’t clear that Elijah recovered — he only accomplishes one of the three goals set for him). Recovery from depression takes time; dealing with disappointment, grief, and sadness takes time, and there can be (probably will be) set backs.

The set backs, however, if proper support is given by family, friends, therapists, spiritual directors, and others, don’t prevail. Recovery does happen. Depression can be conquered. The storm of grief can be weathered. The sea can be calmed.

In the epistle today, Paul tells the Romans that the righteousness of faith is not something far away. One doesn’t have ascend to heaven or descend into the abyss to find it. It is, he says, very near; it is, he says, “on your lips and in your heart.” So, too, is the strength that overcomes depression, that gets through regret and grief. Every person has it, has been gifted with it by God. Recognizing that fact takes time and support.

Most clearly in our lesson from Elijah, but also found in our other lessons, the psychological truth demonstrated by modern science are the spiritual truths set out in scripture. “Listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him,” especially those who are struggling with depression or emotional illness, with sadness, frustration, and regret. Let us pray:

Heavenly Father in whom we live and move and have our being: yours is the small still voice of guidance in good times and bad. In your infinite mercy, bring peace and comfort to those who face days sometimes filled with pain and depression. Help us to realize that through you there is joy and the promise of lasting peace. Help us through the rough times and over the stormy seas. Walk before and beside us that we may reach out to you in our journey through life. Help us to focus not on our misfortunes, but on our blessings, through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord who calms our seas and who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 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.

Parables and Women’s Ordination – Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 12A – July 27, 2014

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On the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 27, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: 1 Kings 3:5-12, Psalm 119:129-136, Romans 8:26-39, and Matthew 13:31-33,44-52. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Philadelphia 11 Ordination

Tell all the truth but tell it slant,
Success in circuit lies,
Too bright for our infirm delight
The truth’s superb surprise;
As lightning to the children eased
With explanation kind,
The truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

That’s a wonderful poem, isn’t it? Tell All The Truth by Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant;” come at it obliquely, shaded as it were, because “the truth must dazzle gradually” otherwise everyone will be blinded. But for the fact that she wrote it 1868, I would suspect Jesus of having read it and following her advice in today’s gospel discourse. These several parables are very “slanted”!

Of course, it is very unlikely that Jesus related all of these parables at one time, the two we heard the last two Sundays and these five (or is it six) that are in today’s lesson, but that is the way Matthew presents them. Most probably, these seven or eight metaphors for God’s dominion were things Jesus said at different times, but as the oral tradition transmitted them to and through his followers in the years afterward the specific circumstances of each were forgotten. Just the “slanted” sort of weird imagery was remembered, so Matthew writing his gospel tale a few decades later was left to figure out how to fit them in and decided to just put them all together in one teaching session. So we have these five (or is it six) all lumped together on one Sunday, five ways to understand — I use that word advisedly — to understand God’s sovereignty played out “on earth as it is in Heaven.” The holy domain is

  • like a mustard seed (and the mighty big bush it grows into);
  • like yeast (leaven) in a lot of flour;
  • like a treasure buried in a field;
  • like a pearl of incredible value;
  • like a dragnet gathering in an abundance of fish; and
  • (maybe, I’m not sure of this one counts as a parable)
    like a scribe tossing out a bunch of stuff, old and new.

As one commentator has suggested, “That is probably four [or is it five] images too many for one sermon.” So let’s deal with the first one primarily, the mustard seed and the tree into which Jesus says it grows.

Tree imagery as a metaphor for empire was well-known in Jesus’ time. There are at least three very important instances of it in the Hebrew scriptures, so it was familiar to the scribes, the priests, the rabbis, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees, and those who preached in the synagogues had probably made it fairly well known to their congregations, to folk like those who heard Jesus tell this parable. Those three instances are found in Ezekiel, Daniel, and the Psalms.

In the 17th Chapter of Ezekiel we read:

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it. (Ez 17:22-24)

In the 4th Chapter of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar of Bablyon tells Daniel of a dream he has had:

Hear the dream that I saw; tell me its interpretation. Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed. (Dan 4:9-12)

As Daniel interprets the dream, the tree represents Nebuchadnezzar and his kingdom.

And, finally, from Psalm 104, these words would have been sung in the Temple liturgy:

You make grass grow for flocks and herds *
and plants to serve mankind;
That they may bring forth food from the earth, *
and wine to gladden our hearts,
Oil to make a cheerful countenance, *
and bread to strengthen the heart.
The trees of the Lord are full of sap, *
the cedars of Lebanon which he planted,
In which the birds build their nests, *
and in whose tops the stork makes his dwelling.
(vv. 14-18, BCP version)

Yes, metaphors of mighty trees would be part of the spiritual landscape familiar to Jesus’ hearers. But not mustard bushes! The people who first heard Jesus preach this parable must have thought he was crazy, or that he was mocking the prophets, or that he was making a joke at the expense of the priests and the rabbis.

The mustard was not, is not, despite what Jesus said, “the greatest of shrubs [which] becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” The white mustard which grows in the Middle East is an invasive weed, a self-propagating, rapidly-growing, garden-ruining, field-destroying weed. Let it get into your growing space and you will never get rid of it. Jesus’ parable is not, like Ezekiel’s prophecy or the psalm’s liturgical praise, a story of a mighty and stately cedar tree. It is a “frightening tale of an invasive plant sowed perhaps in desperation because it grows and therefore might produce something usable quickly, but with it is the threat that because it is so hard to get rid of it may stultify the land and make it unavailable for future better crops. Once it is grown big it will seed itself again and again….” (English clergyman Christopher Burkett) It can’t be controlled!

And that may be the point of Jesus’ metaphor: the domain of God is like the mustard seed, not because from small things great things may come (the usual interpretation of this parable), but rather because the invasive mustard cannot be controlled. It is like the Wind of God which “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Jn 3:8) Once it gets started, you cannot control it.

It’s one of those Jesus-turns-the-world-on-its-head things, Jesus-tells-the-truth-in-a-slanted-way things, using a perverse and noxious weed as a metaphor for the reign of God.

The parable of the yeast in the dough makes that same point! Our NRSV translation says that the woman “mixed” it into her flour and we assume that this would be so that the bread would rise. However, the Greek verb Jesus uses is not the word for “mix.” It is the word in Greek is engkrupto — the root of our word “encryption” — it means “to hide” or “to conceal.” Like the tiny mustard seed, the yeast could not be seen — it was hidden in the meal, into “three measures” of the meal, which is an important detail.

Yeast, for us, is a useful ingredient in baking. For First Century Jews, however, yeast was a problem; for Jews of Jesus’ day leaven was a symbol of filth and corruption. Anything that was leavened with yeast was forbidden in the Temple. This woman was playing with fire! As a symbol of God’s dominion, this yeast is fire of the Holy Spirit: wherever it is present, things get changed and transformed. A tiny, hidden bit of it can work major changes — when we understand that that “three measures” of flour is enough to make 150 loaves of bread, we get that point! The growth of the yeast and the changes it makes in a huge amount of dough are as uncontrollable as the invasive mustard weed that takes over the field — and the point is the same: you cannot control the reign of God; once it gets started, look out!

Yet another of those Jesus-turns-the-world-on-its-head things, Jesus-tells-the-truth-in-a-slanted-way things, using the foul corruption of leaven as a metaphor for the reign of God.

The hiddenness of the yeast, the small invisibility of the mustard seed, link these parables with the next two — the treasure hidden in the field and the unexpected discovery of the priceless pearl. The reign of God is not only uncontrollable, it is surprising. Hidden, invisible, unexpected, it comes upon us in surprising ways and, uncontrollable though it may be, the changes it makes in our lives are beyond price, more valuable than we could ever imagine.

Which brings us to the last two metaphors, the dragnet full of fish, some good, some bad, in need of sorting out, and the scribe who is like a master of a household sorting old and new. The metaphor of the fish is yet another image of the final judgment, like the separating of wheat from the darnel in the parable of the weeds, or the sorting of the sheep from the goats in Jesus’ description of the Last Day; it is a warning for the sinful, but also a promise for those who faithfully follow the Lord. What, however, are we to make of the master of the house bringing out things old and things new?

This parable, it has been suggested, authorizes the followers of Christ who have been properly instructed, who have studied our catechisms and who have continued to study scripture and church tradition, who are schooled in the scriptures and in our communities’ histories, to re-interpret that scripture and that tradition, to bring out of our treasure of scripture and tradition that which is new, new insights, new interpretations, new ways of being God’s People even though those may not explicitly have been recorded in any previous text, to tell the truth slanted in a way that no one has slanted it before.

This accords with the ancient presupposition that properly trained scribes had the ability to decipher and interpret sacred texts. Followers of Jesus are to be trained scribes. They — WE — are to continuously study the scriptures, to be educated and trained, to have the ability to invoke tradition (the “something old”) and to contribute novel insights that have not previously offered (the “something new”).

On Tuesday, we celebrate the fortieth anniversary of a small, but remarkable event in the life of the church. On July 29, 1974, eleven women were ordained to the priesthood at Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Their ordination was not sanctioned by the canons of the church; the ordination of women had been hotly debated in two or three or more meetings of the General Convention, but had not yet been approved. Nonetheless, four bishops decided that they could not wait further parliamentary wrangling on the question.

Newsworks, a Philadelphia news journal, this week published this description of the service:

It was hot that day — July 29, 1974 — and the church was packed with more than 2,000 people — including family, congregants, and media. Not all were friendly.

“There was one protester who was very dramatic and said that these women could offer up nothing but the sight, sound, and smell of perversion,” said [Allison] Cheek [one of the eleven]. “Some in the congregation began to boo and hiss at that moment.”

“On one level it was scary,” said [Nancy] Wittig, another member of the 11. “But it was very clear as we got started that this was not just some vacant daydream by a bunch of women, but indeed a movement that was happening in the church.”

Delivering the sermon was Charles Willie, an African-American professor of education at Harvard University and a member of the Episcopal House of Deputies. He compared the ordination to the civil rights movement.

“This shouldn’t be seen as an act of arrogant disobedience,” said Dr. Willie from the podium. “But an act of tender defiance.” (Newsworks, 24 July 2014)

That “act of tender defiance” changed the church. The next meeting of the General Convention, in 1976, voted to approve the priestly ordination of women and, as Newsworks noted, the decision was “broader than just allowing women to the priesthood — it called for gender equality at all levels of church hierarchy, including bishops.” Today, nearly a third of the priests in our church are women and our current presiding bishop is a woman: the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori.

If the protestor at the ordination of the Philadelphia 11 was right, if there was about it “the sight, sound, and smell of perversion,” it was the perverseness of the mustard seed; it was the corruption of the yeast hidden in three measures of flour; it was the uncontrollable contrariness of the Holy Spirit and it has changed the church.

And for that we give thanks. Let us pray:

God of surprises, you startle us with truth we do not see, as we do not see the mustard seed; with truth that may be hidden from us, as the yeast is hidden in the dough; with truth that is as surprising as the unexpected treasure and as priceless as the great pearl. We thank you for the ministry of women throughout the church, and especially for the ministry of women ordained to the priesthood; we offer you special thanks for the witness and ministry of the Philadelphia 11 and of the bishops and others who supported them in their discernment of your call to priesthood. Amaze us with your power and grace; call us, empower us, and lead us through your uncontrollable Spirit to bring out of our treasure and into service in your world things new and things old, that your Name may be glorified among all people. All this we ask through your Son our savior Jesus Christ, who is alive and reigns with you and that same Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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

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

The Bible Is Fun! – From the Daily Office – January 23, 2014

From the Book of Genesis:

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 11:5-6 (NRSV) – January 23, 2014.)

Construction of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the ElderI’ve never quite understood the story of the tower of Babel. I get that it’s an etiological myth to explain the variety of languages spoken by human beings, but the picture of God that it paints is (shall we say?) less than positive. Might it have been better to cast someone else (say the Tempter?) as the “bad guy” who thwarts the plans of the tower builders?

As the story of God and God’s People develops over time and through the pages of Scripture, we learn that God’s goal is that “they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,” or at least that’s what Jesus said (John 17:21). The apostle Paul proclaimed this Good News setting out that the goal was that all people, indeed all things, be put in subjection under the Christ and ultimately under the one God “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). And his colleague, Peter, argued that preachers should speak as if speaking the very words of God so that “God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

It’s not just the New Testament that proclaims this goal of universal solidarity. Solomon proclaimed in prayer that the goal of his kingdom was “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other” (I Kings 8:60). The prophet Isaiah proclaimed that “in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2).

So, if that has been God’s goal all along, isn’t God’s fit of pique at the plain of Shinar just a wee bit counterproductive?

Playing with questions like that is why I so enjoy studying the Bible; the Bible is fun! So, I get really annoyed when someone treats it as some sort of scientifically or historically accurate text, and robs it of its capacity to provide fun and enjoyment.

It’s a bunch of stories and other sorts of literature! It’s a bunch of often contradictory stories, myths, poems, histories, memoirs, and so forth which, despite their contradictions (and often because of them) point to a truth that transcends our mundane perceptions. Sure, if I were writing a single text to tell the story of God, I’d use the Babel story quite differently and tell it from a very different perspective. But that’s not how the Bible came to be and, thanks be to God, I don’t have to write God’s story! Suffice to say that the Bible is not a history book; it’s not a scientific text. It’s a library, a collection of all different sorts of literature.

These texts must be read in light of each other. The prophet’s vision of the nations streaming to a temple on a hill and Jesus’ prayer for unity among all peoples (the prayer is not just about his followers) provide lenses through which we view the myth of the tower at Babel; the story of the tower provides a critical backdrop and foundation for the prophecy and the prayer. So, I may not understand the story of the tower of Babel standing alone, but I understand it in context. I understand it as a part of a synthetic whole (synthetic in the sense of dialectic synthesis, not as “artificial” or “unnatural”).

I’m not going to write a synthesis of these stories this morning (and probably not ever), but I am going to start the day acknowledging that, if the Bible is anything, it is fun!

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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.

Chaotic Disorderliness – From the Daily Office – January 3, 2014

From the First Book of Kings:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him . . . .

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Kings 19:11-13 (NRSV) – January 3, 2014.)

The Crowning by Sara StarIt’s almost over . . . nine ballerinas or lady ballroom champions or something are supposed to show up to join the eight milkmaids who came yesterday; then, ten leaping lords are to show up tomorrow. I’m not sure why the dancers are scheduled to get here before the musicians, but the pipers and the drummers won’t get here until the end. In any event, the familiar carol promises that the end of Christmas will be even more noisy and confusing than its beginning.

Thinking of Elijah standing at the mouth of his cave through all the turbulence of storm and temblor and conflagration, but not perceiving God until the “sound of sheer silence,” I am reminded again of how odd I find our (basically) northern European fantasies of the birth of Jesus to be. I sometimes wonder what “first world” Christianity would be like if we’d never developed the notion that the Savior was born on a quiet, snowy night.

We did, though, and church congregations play that up in spades! And, I must confess, my own parish and our liturgical planning for Christmas Eve and the Christ Mass of Christmas Day went right along.

At the Midnight Mass, as a sequence hymn, we sang O Little Town of Bethlehem with that line, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . . .” The Choir sang an anthem version of the Christina Rossetti — Gustav Holst hymn In the Bleak Midwinter with its gorgeous portrayal of a dark winter night:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

And we finished off with the lights dimmed, the candles flickering, and everyone singing Silent Night! We bought right into it! More than likely it’s completely wrong, but we did it anyway.

I think passages like this story of Elijah encourage us to envision the Nativity of Jesus as this peaceful, very-quiet-if-not-silent, nighttime event; this story and others make dark silence the normative setting for God’s interaction with humans. There’s Samuel’s late night call from God (1 Sam. 3:1-18). There are the Josephs (Jacob’s son and Jesus’ foster father) who both received dream messages while sleeping (Gen. 37:5-10; Matt. 1:18-25). There is Jacob who encountered God at night at Peniel, although wrestling with God through the night could hardly have been a silent affair (Gen. 32:24-30).

We’re also fooled by the Magi being led by a star. “There’s a star? Must have been at night,” we think, but the Magi were astrologers whose lives and actions, not just their travel plans, were “led” by the stars and constellations regardless of the time of day (Matt. 2:1-12). (Let’s not even mention the fact that the wholesale slaughter of the Holy Innocents suggests that their visit was several months, if not a couple of years, later so the star is completely irrelevant to Jesus’ actual birth!) And we’re told by Luke that shepherds were in the area keeping watch over the flocks “by night” when the angel told them of the birth, but the angel’s message is, “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:8-20, emphasis added) Couldn’t the birth have been earlier? During daylight hours, perhaps? To be honest, there is just no indication when the actual birth of Jesus took place.

And that “when” is bigger than time of day! There’s no indication of what time of year, either. As we all know (since the anti-religious crowd loves to tell us every year, just in case we don’t already know or had forgotten since they told us last year), the December 25 date of Christmas was originally the Roman feast of Saturnalia simply taken over by the church. When someone tries to disprove the Christian story by telling me this, my standard response is “So what?” We don’t celebrate the birthday of Jesus; we celebrate the birth of Christ, the Incarnation of God. We can and do that all the time; it doesn’t matter what day of the year we choose to do so in a particular and special way.

Except that we get this cold, bleak, quiet, silent, peaceful, midwinter, snow-on-snow, everyone-bundle-up northern European picture of Jesus’ birth.

I’ve attended births; I was present when both our children were born in the comfort of hospital birthing centers. Neither was quiet, silent, or peaceful! There was panting, grunting, crying, exclamations, excited utterances, anxiety, frustration, elation . . . and my wife was making noise, too! I can’t imagine that the biblical delivery in a stable would have been any less raucous! I’d be surprised if, with the farm animals provoked by all the goings on, Joseph excited, and Mary in the throes of childbirth (and possibly the owner of the stable and members of his family coming and going), it wasn’t a very noisy place!

I am thoroughly convinced that God was present in all the fuss and noise of my children’s births, so I am just as sure that God was present in all the fuss and noise of God’s own Son’s birth! I am pretty certain that God is present in the fuss and noise of all human affairs. So I would not be surprised, therefore, if the Deuteronomic historian responsible for redacting the First Book of Kings and recording this story of Elijah in the cave was just wrong. Perhaps it would have been accurate to say that Elijah did not perceive God in the wind, the earthquake, or the fire, but I think it is simply inaccurate to say that “the Lord was not in” any or all of those. God is with us in all the noisy, chaotic disorderliness of life.

I don’t have a clue what the Christian faith would be like if it were grounded by a more realistic narrative of Jesus’ birth, but I do know that God is there in the midst of turmoil, in the midst of chaos, in all the cacophony of human existence. That’s the truth the Christian faith teaches. So bring on the dancing ladies, the leaping lords, the pipers, and the drummers! Enough of this sheer silence! God’s twelve-day party is nearly over; let’s make the most of it!

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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.

Pray Clay – From the Daily Office – December 31, 2013

From the First Book of Kings:

[Solomon prayed:] Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Kings 3:9 (NRSV) – December 31, 2013.)

Russia Iicon of King SolomonYou’ve got to hand it to Solomon; he really knows how to wrap God around his little finger. God has appeared to him in a dream and said to him, “Ask what I should give you.” (1 Kings 3:5) This is Solomon’s reply. It just tickles God’s fancy! Because Solomon hasn’t asked for riches or long life, God replies, “I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you.” (v. 12)

God wants the rulers of his people to be wise; Solomon prays for “an understanding mind.” Solomon gets what he prays for, big time! So here’s what I get from this: ask in your prayers what accords with God’s will . . . you get it! In spades!

I was taught years and years ago by my paternal grandfather, a life-long Methodist Sunday School teacher, that that is, in fact, the purpose of prayer: not to convince God to do something God wasn’t going to do anyway, not to call to God’s attention something that had escaped God’s attention, not to give God advice on how to run the cosmos – the purpose of prayer is to conform our wills to God. Prayer is about changing us, not changing God or God’s mind.

This is why, I think, Jesus teaches the importance of persistence in prayer. He offers the people two parables lauding characters who are pests: the widow who pesters the unjust judge (Lk 18:1-8) and the neighbor who bangs on the door in the nighttime (Lk 11:5-10). The parables suggest that the judge and the neighbor who is in bed are ones who change, but I think that’s just artful misdirection; to take the parables teaching that we can change God through persistent prayer is to extend the metaphor of persistence beyond its usefulness.

I think also of Jeremiah’s prophetic metaphor of the clay being reworked by the potter until the potter has the exact sort of vessel he wants (Jer. 18:2-6). Our time in prayer is as if the clay were able to put itself into the potter’s hands, able to climb onto the potter’s wheel, able to say “Here I am. Form me.”

God’s invitation to Solomon is God’s invitation to us all: “Ask what I should give you.” So pray clay! Be wise and pray persistently! The potter invites it. (And, today, it seems a good resolution for New Year: resolve to be persistent in prayer.)

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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.

How Silently – From the Daily Office – December 30, 2013

From the Fourth Gospel:

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. . . . And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 8:6b,8 (NRSV) – December 30, 2013.)

Writing in the SandWhat did he write? What did he write the first time? What did he write the second? I have heard many speculative answers to this question, but the truth is that no one knows. And I tend to think it really doesn’t matter. I find myself in the company of John Calvin and others who have suggested that Jesus was merely doodling. This group of interpreters believe that by doing so Jesus was showing either utter contempt for the accusers or a calm lack of anxiety in the situation. Calvin was of the first opinion; I hold to the second.

In the past several years, under the influence of family systems therapists and theorists, most notably Rabbi Edwin Friedman with the 1985 publication of his book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, many clergy have sought to develop the ability to be a “nonanxious presence.” This, says Friedman, is someone who can demonstrate emotional clarity, who can separate while still remaining connected, who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others.

The automatic reaction of most of us (which the scribes and Pharisees in this story certainly exhibit) is to fill what seems to be empty emotional space with busy-ness, to plan and schedule our days, to keep busy and demonstrate a purpose, to have some sort of criteria against which to evaluate and judge both situations and people, and to exercise that judgment whether we actually need to or not!

In the midst of the emotional turmoil around him, Jesus just doodled. He waited it out. Whether he wrote anything of meaning, we cannot tell from the text. So let me add my speculation . . .

I think, if he wrote anything, it was not the names of prostitutes visited by the accusers, nor their own names, nor the list of their many sins, nor the Ten Commandments, nor the requirements set out in Leviticus for the proper conduct of legal proceedings against adulterers, all of which have been suggested by various interpreters and scholars. No, I don’t think he was writing anything for the benefit of the unruly crowd. I suggest two other possibilities . . . .

The first would be something for the benefit of the woman. Perhaps the admonition from the Psalms: “When you are disturbed . . . be silent.” (Ps. 4:4) Or another: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Ps. 46:10)

The second possibility would be something written for himself, a recollection perhaps of the story of Elijah in the First Book of Kings, a reminder that the Spirit of God was not found in the turmoil of wind, earthquake, or fire, but in the “sound of sheer silence.” (1 Kings 19:12)

In any event, in this season of the Incarnation, this story of Jesus’ patient doodling, his calm in the midst of turmoil, reminds us “how silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”

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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.

Legion . . . Silence: A Contrast – Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 7C) – June 23, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, June 23, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 5 (Proper 7, Year C): 1 Kings 19:1-15a; Psalms 42 and 43; Galatians 3:23-29; and Luke 8:26-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Schizophrenia Illustration from Vimeo At the beginning of the sermon, following the reading of Gospel lesson, five readers scattered among the congregation, rose and loudly read the following five passages simultaneously:

Voice One: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

Voice Two: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Voice Three: “You can’t do anything right and never will be able to. Everyone hates you. You have no friends. You are the most useless, worthless human being on the planet. You know this is true, and you are powerless to change it. You should just end it right now. There’s no reason for you to keep living.”

Voice Four: “In a large bowl, beat together eggs, oil, white sugar and two teaspoons vanilla. Mix in flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt and cinnamon. Stir in carrots. Fold in pecans. Pour into prepared pan. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean.”

Voice Five “Mr. Dursley, a well-off Englishman, notices strange happenings on his way to work one day. That night, Albus Dumbledore, the head of a wizardry academy called Hogwarts, meets Professor McGonagall, who also teaches at Hogwarts, and a giant named Hagrid outside the Dursley home. Dumbledore tells McGonagall that someone named Voldemort has killed a Mr. and Mrs. Potter and tried unsuccessfully to kill their baby son, Harry.”

One of the many ways in which modern scholars try to make sense of the story of the Gerasene Demoniac is the suggestion that he was, in fact, schizophrenic. For example, the Dean of St. Alban’s Cathedral in England, Jeffrey John, writes:

Anyone presenting the symptoms of the Gerasene demoniac today would be rapidly committed for treatment of multiple schizophrenia – and quite rightly. It would be very foolish to do otherwise, or to discount the huge, God-given progress that has been made in our understanding and treatment of mental illness since biblical times. (The Meaning in the Miracles, p. 91, Eerdmans:2004)

A Roman Catholic writer who identifies himself only as “John” tells of accompanying a priest making his Eucharistic ministry rounds at a psychiatric hospital. He describes what happened when they arrived at the ward where the most seriously disturbed patients were housed:

My friend began to say the prayers and all was relatively calm until he raised the Eucharist. This very motion acted like a trigger for one of the patients who began to shout expletives, spit and hiss. This set off most of the others; he had to be restrained while we administered the Eucharist to those who wanted it and lined up to receive it. Amidst the cacophony I heard one thing that he shouted which remains with me to this day; he shouted “why are you coming in here tormenting us?” (John’s Ramblings)

He then comments, “It wasn’t until some time later that when meditating on the Healing of the Gerasene Demoniac . . . that I shuddered to a halt and recalled that event in the psychiatric hospital.”

Schizophrenics hear voices. This is the most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia. The voices may talk to the person about his or her behavior; they may order the person to do things; they may speak warnings of danger. Sometimes the voices talk to each other; sometimes they talk over one another, several voices speaking at once. What we experienced as these five people read these differing texts was a crude demonstration of what some schizophrenics experience, or what the Gerasene Demoniac seems to have suffered.

The great English author, C. S. Lewis, once wrote that we human beings are a “myriad of impulses, a cauldron of evil desires.” The Gerasene Demoniac certainly was. When Jesus asked him (or the demon within him) his name, the answer was, “We are legion.”

That is a very scary answer! That word, legion, is a Roman military term. In the Roman army, a legion consisted of six thousand men. We heard only five voices in our little demonstration. Can you imagine what it must have been like to hear thousands upon thousands of demonic voices? No wonder he would break his chains and shackles and run into the wilds to live in the cemetery among the tombs!

John, the Roman Catholic blogger, suggests that “all disorder, all conflict whether we call it civil, political, doctrinal, psychiatric, psychological, social or personal disorder, . . . anything that creates or contributes to disorder or conflict is the presence of evil at work in the world.” I believe he is correct, the message of the Prophets is that that disorder, that chaos is not, and never will be, the last word.

As dramatic counterpoint to the Gospel story today, we have another story of the Prophet Elijah. The Lectionary, as you remember, has had us bouncing around in the First Book of Kings reading stories of Elijah, but not in the order they are presented in that book. Instead, we have been getting the texts from First Kings as they may relate to the stories from Luke’s Gospel; today’s pairing seems to be a good example. What we see here is the stark difference between the chaotic disorder of evil, represented by demon possession (or schizophrenia), and the order of holiness, represented by the “sheer silence” in which Elijah encounters God.

You recall the story. Elijah has just killed the 450 prophets of Ba’al, which has royally angered the wicked Queen Jezebel. She has sent word to Elijah saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” In other words, “Look out, Dude! I’m gonna kill you!” So Elijah, in fear, flees into the desert and in a fit of depression prays that God will take his life. However, an angel appears and tells him that’s not going to happen. He is instructed to eat something and then travel to “Horeb, the mount of God.” This is understood to be the very same place where Moses received the Tablets of the Law. When he gets there, God asks what his problem is: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” Elijah answers that all the prophets of Yahweh have been killed (by Queen Jezebel and her army) and only he is left. So God tells him to stand at the mouth of his cave because God will pass by.

He does so and there is a storm, and then an earthquake, and then a fire. All of these things represent that disordered chaos which the Demoniac in the Gospel experiences, and God is in none of them. Instead, God is in the “sheer silence,” as the New Revised Standard Version translates the Hebrew. A literal translation of the Hebrew would be “the sound of gentle blowing,” and the King James Version translated this by that wonderful turn of phrase “a still small voice.”

So we have this wonderful juxtaposition of an image of loud, confusing, demonic chaos — the Gerasene Demoniac, a person in a situation which is overwhelmingly evil, permeated with and being buffeted by a legion of devils, thousands of incoherent voices, pulling him in every direction, ruining his life — with an image of calm, peaceful, gentleness — the still small voice of God present in sound of sheer silence, the sound of gentle blowing.

We, I hope, are not possessed of demons, nor suffering from schizophrenia or some other form of delusional mental illness. But we all inhabit a world of many, many voices, all talking to us, all telling us what to think, or do, or say. No matter how old we are, we will always have the voices of parents and grandparents playing in our heads; we have the voices of politicians, news reporters, bosses, spouses, our own children, their teachers, doctors, lawyers, tax advisers . . . and occasionally preachers . . . all telling us what to do. There are times when all of that noise can get us down, when we can all relate personally to the lament in today’s gradual psalm: “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?”

Several years ago, there was a job opening on a cruise ship; a new communications officer was need. There were several applicants seeking the position and all were told to come to a particular office at the same time on the same day. They arrived and were shown in to a waiting room. While they waited to be interviewed, the conversed with one another and soon the room was filled with the sounds of conversation. After quite a long wait, another applicant who was late came in and sat down; everyone else was busy talking, so she just quietly waited for a few minutes, but then suddenly, she jumped up and walked through a door marked “Private.” A few minutes the personnel manager walked out of that door and announced that the position had been filled; the late-arriving applicant had been hired. The other applicants were extremely angry, “We were here first! How could she go ahead of us and get the job?” To which the personnel manager replied, “Any of you could have gotten the job if you had just been quiet long enough to pay attention to the message on the intercom.” “What message?” “All the time you were talking the intercom was broadcasting in Morse Code, ‘A ship’s communications officer must always be on the alert. The first person who gets this message and comes directly into my office will get the job.'”

I believe that God’s still small voice is like that coded message. It’s there if we will but take a few moments of silence and listen for it. And if it seems like we do not have the power to do so on our own, if we are unable to still the storms, the earthquakes, the fires, the voices . . . the story of the Gerasene Demoniac reminds us that Jesus can, because personal exorcism is not what this story is really about. “Rather,” as Jeffrey John reminds us, “it is about the promise . . . of God’s ability to defeat and re-order the disordered powers that afflict both individuals and communities.”

Life can sometimes, indeed, life can often be permeated with great evil that is almost beyond human comprehension and beyond our ability to handle. In those moments, we may be tempted to just give up and give in to the intensity of evil around us. Like the Psalmist we may cry out, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?” Like Elijah we may be tempted to just sit down in the desert and say, “Let me die.” But God does not give up; Jesus does not give up. Jesus faces the demons with his healing and his peace. There is no situation so bad that Jesus cannot or will not bring his healing power.

Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?
and why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God;
for I will yet give thanks to him,
who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
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.

Honoring Women on Fathers’ Day – Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6C) – June 16, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 16, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Pentecost 4 (Proper 6, Year C): 1 Kings 21:1-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Mary Magdalene Susanna and Joanna by Janet McKenzieToday, I would like to talk about women. I know it’s Fathers’ Day but as my friend and colleague (someone known to many of you) the Rev. Jennifer Leider recently remarked, “The lectionary is no respecter of secular holidays.” On this 4th Sunday after Pentecost, looking at the lessons for Proper 6 in Lectionary Year C, we have some readings from Scripture which draw our attention to women: women as active agents in the world of men, as subjects who act rather than as objects which are acted upon. Given the cultures, the political realities, and the social mores of the times and places in which these stories happened and were recorded, that’s really quite amazing! So, it may be Fathers’ Day, but let’s take a look at these biblical women.

The first woman to consider is the wife of King Ahab of Israel, Queen Jezebel. Jezebel was the daughter of Ethbaal, king of Tyre, the Phoenician empire. She was a powerful woman who commanded her own army and had considerable control over the religious establishment of her homeland. According to the Scriptures, she converted her husband to the worship of Ba’al and convinced him to have many Jewish prophets killed. As we heard a couple of weeks ago, she brought 450 prophets of Ba’al into Israel and the Jewish prophet Elijah challenged them to a competition, which he and Yahweh won, and he then had the prophets of Ba’al slaughtered. This made Jezebel his enemy and, out of fear for her, he fled the country. In today’s lesson from the First Book of Kings we see her wielding this power and manipulating her husband’s acquisition of a vineyard by getting the legitimate owner, Naboth, falsely accused of and executed for blasphemy. This was not a woman to be messed with; she had political, military, and religious power.

This was not so with the second woman we meet in Scripture today, a woman described in Luke’s Gospel as a “notorious sinner” who interrupts a dinner party to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears, dry them with her hair, and anoint them with costly oil poured from an alabaster jar.

In all four of the gospels there is a story like this. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all relate a tale of a woman who, at a dinner party, comes and anoints Jesus with a jar of balm described as extravagantly expensive. In each story someone objects to the waste of the valuable ointment (or the money spent on it). In each story someone questions Jesus’ credentials as a religious person. In each story Jesus defends the woman’s action.

In Matthew’s Gospel the event happens “while Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper,” just a few days before the Crucifixion; “a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment, and she poured it on his head as he sat at the table.” When the action is challenged by the disciples, Jesus defends it as an anointing for his burial. (Matt. 26:6-13) Mark’s version is essentially the same as Matthew’s.

John says that it was Jesus’ feet that were anointed, rather than his head, but agrees with Matthew and Mark this event took place just a few days before Jesus’ execution. Like Luke, John describes the woman as washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and drying them with her hair. But John identifies the woman as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.

Luke is the only one who doesn’t put relate this story as part of the narrative Jesus’ passion and death. In this version, Luke takes the story of anointing, places it in the house of a Pharisee, adds the parable of excused mortgages, and gives us a story forgiveness, not a story of preparation for death.

In each of the other stories, especially John’s telling, there is some suggestion that the woman has a legitimate right to be at the dinner, or at least in the house. This is not the case here. As I said a moment ago, this woman is described by Luke as “a notorious sinner.” She is clearly not an invited guest; she is not a member of Simon the Pharisee’s household. She just comes in off the street and does this remarkable, surprising thing. We might wonder how this could have happened; how could she have gotten all the way into the dining room to do this? To answer that question, we need to imagine ourselves in First Century Palestine.

Imagine that world for a moment. There are no telephones, neither cell phones nor land lines. There is no air conditioning. There is no refrigeration. Nothing electric at all. Furthermore, there is no credit; lending or credit are forbidden in the Law of Moses. Whatever was needed for daily life, especially food, had to be purchased with cash everyday. Whatever communication there was need of had to be done in person or through a messenger, usually a servant or slave employed specifically to run messages around town. Whatever business was done was usually done from the home, not from an office somewhere else. There were no schools; whatever education a child may have gotten was done at home by parents or, if the family was wealthy, by servants or hired tutors.

So people were constantly coming and going; members of the household going out to shop everyday and returning with their purchases. Messengers from others delivering family or business communications; the households own messengers taking messages to others. Servants coming and going.

Houses of the sort a prominent man like Simon the Pharisee would have had had a central courtyard with a number of rooms opening off it. The courtyard would have been separated from the public street by a wall and a gate, the gate usually open to all that coming and going.

The other three sides of the courtyard was surrounded by rooms, which would have been open to the courtyard to provide ventilation and cooling. Their inner walls would have been finished with a smooth coat of clay or plaster, decorated with elaborate frescoes. Wide benches of stone for sitting and sleeping, and shelves for storage would have been built into the walls. Stairs or a ladder would have led up onto the roof, which was used as an outdoor room most likely for bathing and laundry during the day and for sleeping at night during summer heat.

These rooms tended to be small and dark, so the courtyard and the roof were the important parts of the house; here those activities needing good light, spinning and weaving, food preparation, and dining would have taken place. In the courtyard of a First Century house you might find:

  • the mikveh, a pool of clean rainwater used for ritual cleansing
  • a kitchen area where food, purchased day by day, was prepared
  • a covered area where people worked and socialized, where they ate

This was the center of activity and socializing; it was here that all that coming and going took place. It was here that a woman might enter the gate right off the public street and interrupt a dinner in progress.

And that is what this woman did. A “notorious sinner,” an outcast, one of the lowest of the low, took matters into her own hands. Knowing that Jesus was there and knowing that he might be able to help her do something to end her abject abnegation, she felt herself empowered. She had heard, no doubt, about the several times he had healed and forgiven others even when others thought it violated the Law in some way (Luke, Chapters 5 and 6). She might have heard about (or even been present at) his Sermon on the Plain. When he said:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. (Luke 6:20-23)

she might have understood that he was speaking to her. And when she heard him say:

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. (Luke 6:37-38)

she may have made her plan to give everything she had, to spend whatever she had on that costly jar of oil, to give him her best in thanksgiving for the forgiveness she felt had been given her. So she took matters into her own hands, bought that ointment, and walked through that gate and into that dinner party. Jesus rewarded her boldness and confirmed her forgiveness in the parable he told the Pharisee and in the words with which he thanked her and sent her on her way, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The last image of women we have in today’s lessons is not a single woman, but a group of women. Luke tells us that, shortly after this extraordinary dinner party, Jesus went on through cities and villages, proclaiming the good news, and that with him where the twelve and “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.” (Luke 8:1-3) Here we have a picture of women of who in one sense are like Jezebel: they are independent women of means, some married, some unmarried, who own their own property and resources, women who have the authority to do as they wish. But in another sense they are like the woman with the alabaster jar; they give from their resources to provide for Jesus in his ministry.

So these are the three pictures of women in today’s scriptures: a woman of wealth and power who used who wealth and power to corrupt and manipulate; a woman of absolutely no status whatsoever who felt empowered to give probably everything she had in gratitude for the forgiveness brought to her by Jesus; and women of independent means who made their own decisions to work for the betterment of the world, who (in this particular instance) supported Jesus in his ministry of forgiveness. It is certainly not like Jezebel, but like the others that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion encourages and hopes to help women to become through our adoption of the Third Millennium Goal: to promote gender equality and empower women.

Not only in this Gospel story, but again and again in the Gospels we see Jesus meeting and interacting with women in ways that honor them, raise them up, and empower them. There is the woman who argued that “even the dogs get to eat the crumbs under the table” as she begged for healing for her daughter, whose faith Jesus applauded. There is the widow he observed who gave all she had to the temple treasury, whom Jesus praised for putting the wealthy to shame. There was Mary Magdalene, who became the first witness to the resurrection, the first evangelist of the Good News of the Risen Christ.

These are women whom Jesus empowered to be something other than the role their society would have put them in, to act with confidence that they, like the men around them, were created in the image of God.

Many women around the world today live in circumstances that make it difficult, if not impossible, to act with similar confidence. News reports daily document the level of violence against women: rape as a weapon of war (or as a possible danger of military service), so-called honor killings, sex trafficking, and other horrors suffered by women simply because they are women. In the United States today, homicide is the third leading cause of death for girls aged 1 to 4 and also for young women, 15 to 24, and most are killed by someone they know.

We are called by Jesus and by the church to emulate his ministry of forgiveness and empowerment, to offer women throughout the world the opportunity to choose life in a world ravaged by war, hunger, disease, and death; to promote gender equality so that women and men have equal opportunities and equal roles in decision-making throughout society. To promote equality between the sexes is to promote the healing of our world and to further the church’s ministry of reconciliation.

Yes, it’s Fathers’ Day, and as Jennifer Leider said, “The lectionary is no respecter of secular holidays.” But as it happens, Time Magazine decided to celebrate Fathers’ Day this week by asking some famous fathers to write open letters to their daughters, and those letters echo remarkably the message of today’s lectionary readings. Senator Marco Rubio wrote to his daughters Amanda and Daniella: “My hope for my daughters is that they will grow up to be strong, confident women who understand that they can be whatever that want to be in life.” Chicago mayor Rahm Immanuel wrote to his daughters Ilana and Leah his hope that they would be “smart, fearless, independent . . . strong, trailblazing women.” And producer Aaron Sorkin wrote this advice to his daughter Roxanne: “Be brave and know that the bravest thing you can do is be willing to not fit in. Never take pleasure in someone else failing. Dare to fail yourself. Be the one who doesn’t care as much about clothes as the person wearing them. Be kind, be compassionate and be humble.”

Our call as Christians, the message of today’s lessons, is that we are to help build a world where that is possible, where no woman need be as conniving and manipulative as Jezebel, where no woman should be as put down and subjected as the woman who interrupted the dinner party, where every woman can be as independent and resourceful as those who followed Jesus and supported his ministry of forgiveness.

Today’s Gospel teaches us that the best way to honor fathers is empower their daughters.

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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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