Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First Peter (Page 2 of 3)

If You’re Serious About This: Sermon for Proper 11B (Pentecost 8, 19 July 2015)

====================

A sermon offered on Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 11B, Track 1, RCL), July 19, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 7:1-14a; Psalm 89:20-37; Ephesians 2:11-22; and Mark 6:30-34,53-56. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. Note: The Revised Common Lectionary provides that the first lesson is 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19.)

====================

LoveGodBumperSticker

I was ordained a deacon in May of 1990 and made a priest in June of 1991. For two years, I served as associate rector of a parish in Nevada and then accepted a call to be rector of a parish in the Kansas City metropolitan area in a small, exurban community called Stilwell. Sometime after we had moved to Stilwell, my family and I visited my parents in southern California.

Now I should tell you that my parents were not church-going people. After the death of my biological father in 1958, my mother pretty much stopped going to church. In 1962, she married by step-father, a non-practicing Roman Catholic, in a Methodist church ceremony, but that is the only time I remember my parents going to church on their own (that is to say, not dragged there for the holidays or some other special occasion by one of their children). My folks were not particularly happy campers the day I told them I would be leaving the practice of law and entering ordained ministry.

So we were visiting my parents about three years after my ordination as a priest and during the visit I happened to go into their bedroom and found, on my mother’s bedside table, a copy of The Book of Common Prayer and an Inquirer’s Class study folder from St. George’s Episcopal Church in Laguna Hills, California. I picked them up and went out to the living room where they were both watching television and said, “Hey, Mom? What’s this all about?”

“Well,” she said, “I guess you’re serious about this, so I thought I should check it out.”

“If you’re serious about this . . . .” Took her three years after my priesting, but she finally, reluctantly got there . . . . But that was my mom. Today would have been her 96th birthday, by the way.

Once she decided I was serious about this, she got serious about this. She and my step-dad completed their Inquirer’s Class, became members of St. George’s and then a few years later transferred their membership to St. Wilfrid of York in Huntington Beach, California. Both volunteered to work at the church in various ways; he did handiwork; she became the secretary of the ECW. Both are now buried in the memory garden at St. Wilfrid Parish. That was my mom: “If you’re serious about this, then be serious about this.”

In the Gospel lesson today, I can imagine Jesus saying something similar to the apostles.

Chapter 6 of Mark’s Gospel is a bit hard to read because it’s all choppy and excited, like someone telling a story but who can’t get his words out fast enough to satisfy himself. Mark jams this chapter full of detail, but breaks the details up. Jesus goes to his home town and is rejected, so he and the apostles leave. He then sends the apostles out two-by-two with no provisions or equipment. They spread through the countryside, proclaiming the gospel of repentance, casting out demos, and anointing the sick. Mark tells us that King Herod hears about all this activity and becomes convinced that John the Baptizer has returned from the dead, at which point Mark goes off on a tangent and tells the story of Herod and Herodias, Salome’s dance and demand for the Baptizer’s head, and John’s execution. Now, in today’s bit, we return to the apostles and their missionary journey.

They are back, all excited by what they’ve done; Mark tells us (in Mark’s usual breathless style) that they told Jesus “all that they had done and taught.” So Jesus tells them to slow down; he can tell that they are excited by what they’ve done, but they are also exhausted and, because of all the coming and going of people who have heard about them, they can’t even take a break to eat. So he tells them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” I can almost hear him, in my mother’s voice, prefacing that with, “If you’re serious about this . . . .”

“If you’re serious about this, come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.”

What’s going to happen is that they are going to try to do as Jesus instructs, but people aren’t going to let that happen. They are going to get in their boat, head out to a deserted place a few miles away across the lake, the “Sea” of Galilee, a place now called “Tabgha,” but the people are going to follow; in fact, they are going to “hurry there on foot from all the towns and arrive ahead of them.” (v. 33) “If you’re serious about this, come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” But guess what, you’re not going to get the chance to do that today.

Do you notice the verse references on your insert? Once again, the Lectionary has us edit out some verses in our Sunday readings, nearly twenty of them from this gospel reading. Guess what happens in those twenty verses. Jesus feeds the 5,000 people who have “hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them,” and he sends the apostles back across the lake by themselves, and he walks on water, and he calms a strong adverse wind. All of that in this one short chapter . . . all of that, but no one actually gets away to deserted place by themselves. Instead, they are continually confronted by the demands of people who “rush about the whole region and bring the sick on mats to wherever they hear Jesus and the apostles may be.”

If you are serious about following Jesus, however, you have to find a way to get away to that deserted place by yourself. If you are serious about following Jesus, if you are going to love God, you have to find time for private time with God. If you are serious about following Jesus, if you are going to love your neighbor as yourself, you have to find time to take care of yourself.

We have another variation on this same theme in the story from the Second Book of Samuel. David has become king over Israel, supplanting Saul. He has taken over the city of the Jebusites, sometimes called Jebus, sometimes metsudat Zion, and made it his capital, renaming it “Jerusalem, the City of David.” He has built a fine house for himself (a “house of cedar,” as he calls it). He has reclaimed the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines and moved it to Jerusalem, where it is now housed in a tent. Now he wants to build a house for the Ark, a temple for God.

At first, the prophet Nathan, who is David’s trusted adviser, says, “Fine. Go ahead and do this thing.” But then Nathan has a dream in which he is given a message to David from God. He is to say to David, “Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day; I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle.” In other words, God doesn’t want a temple; God is happy with a moveable tent. And Nathan is to remind David, “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel….” In other words, God has given you a job to do and, if you’re serious about this, you need to do it. If you are serious about being king over Israel, make sure the people may live in their own place and be disturbed no more. If you are serious about being king over Israel, make sure that evildoers shall afflict the people no more. If you are serious about being king over Israel, do the jobs I have given you and don’t take on tasks that don’t need to be done now (building the temple will be someone else’s job).

And that’s really Paul’s point in writing to the Ephesians, as well. “You [Gentiles],” he writes to them, “are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” He will, in a few pages, say to them, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1-3) He will remind them that every church member, baptized into the one faith, following the one Lord, is gifted, equipped for ministry, for the building up of the body. “If you’re serious about this,” he seems to be saying, “if you’re serious about being a Christian, then get serious. Do the job you have been given to do.”

And what is that job? The job given to each of us, though we may be given different gifts with which to accomplish it is, is the same. We who are “living stones … built into a spiritual house” (1 Pt 2:5) of which Christ is the cornerstone all have the same job: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” (Lk 10:27)

If you’re serious about being a Christian, get serious about this:

Don’t take on jobs that you don’t need to do; building the temple is someone else’s job. If you’re serious about serving God, do the tasks God gives you.

Go away to a deserted place from time to time; spend time in prayer. If you’re serious about loving God, spend time with God. If you’re serious about loving your neighbor as yourself, take care of yourself.

If you’re serious about following Jesus . . . Love God. Love your neighbor. Use the gifts you have been given. Change the world.

Amen!

====================

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!

====================

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

Decision Train: Between Stimulus and Response – Sermon for Lent 2, 2015

====================

A sermon offered on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 1, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Genesis 17:1-7,15-16; Psalm 22:22-30; Romans 4:13-25; and Mark 8:31-38. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Decision Train TrackI was an English and American literature major in college (well, I finished as an English literature major – I was a biology major, a sociology major, an anthropology major, a philosophy major, and an undeclared major before ending up with a degree in literature.) I remember a certain type of end-of-term take home exam, the compare-and-contrast question. For instance, you’d read a bunch of novels and then along would come the final exam with a question like, “Compare and contrast the vision of the sea in Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and Melville’s Moby Dick.”

Reading our lectionary selections today, I had the sense that I was being handed a compare-and-contrast question: Compare and contrast the covenant made by God with Abram in Genesis 17 with the demand made by Jesus in the 8th Chapter of Mark.

On the one hand, we have “I will make you exceedingly numerous. You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful.” On the other, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

On the one hand, “I will give you everything.” On the other, “Give it all up.”

And yet the process and the promise is the same. The covenant offered to Abram and the demand made by Jesus both require a decision (that’s the process) and both lead to the promise described both by Paul in his letter to the Romans and by the Psalmist in Psalm 22: “the promise that [the righteous will] inherit the world” – the promise that “they shall be known as the Lord’s for ever” – that they shall enjoy what Jesus variously described as the kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven, eternal life, or abundant life.

As I was making my notes for this homily, I was also carrying on a conversation by internet chat with a friend and colleague about something else, and my friend quoted the late philosopher-psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. He reminded me of something Frankl, an Austrian Jew, had written in his book Man’s Search for Meaning which described the things he had observed and learned as a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. Frankl wrote, “Between stimulus and response, there is space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” It occurred to me that Frankl’s “space between stimulus and response” is a key to understanding the process which is common to God’s covenant and Jesus’ requirement.

Between God’s offer to Abram and Abram’s answer, between Jesus’ demand of his disciples and their reply is what Frankl identified as this space of our power to choose, this place where our potential for growth and freedom lies entirely within our control, where we either accept the kingdom of God or reject that abundant life. God offers, Jesus mandates, but we decide. We choose our response and “in our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

In our response also lies our identity. It is important to note that it is when Abram accepts God’s offer – which he does not only for himself but for his wife Sarai, a detail we might explore at another time – he and his wife are given new names; they become Abraham (“father of many nations”) and Sarah (“princess to all”). Their new names are symbolic of their act of giving up their former lives for the sake of God’s truth. In that “space between stimulus and response,” they were freed to live and grow into the new names, the new identities that God promised to give them.

The same is true for the disciples of Jesus. In that moment of decision, that “space between stimulus and response,” they (we) are given a new name. It is not without reason that in the sacramental sign of that decision, baptism, we are given a name, “sealed by the Holy Spirit,” and “marked as Christ’s own for ever.” As Peter reminds us in his first letter, we are to “glorify God because [we] bear [the] name” of Christian.

I got to thinking about the language we use to describe the act of deciding, and particularly the difference between the way Americans describe deciding and the way the British refer to it. We are, as George Bernard Shaw is supposed to have quipped, “two countries separated by a common language.” In colloquial American speech, we “make decisions,” but in idiomatic British, one “takes a decision.” To “make” a decision, or to “take” a decision? In all honesty, I think the British have the better of us here. To take a decision is certainly more responsible and more theologically sound than to make one. Here’s what I mean . . . .

Consider the difference between “making” something and “taking” something.

When you make something . . . when you have made something, you’re done with it. You do a lot of preparation, a lot work getting ready; you put a lot into the process, and then you create whatever it is – a painting, a piece of pottery, a casserole, a pie, whatever. You make it, and then you stop making it because there it is. You’ve made it. It has an independent existence in the world. You set it on the counter and the world will do with it whatever the world will do. You can just leave it there and let the world have it.

When we “make” decisions, we do the same thing. We treat decisions as destinations, as end points. In business management courses, students are taught to use “decision trains” in which the process of deciding is metaphorically diagrammed as a locomotive passing through “stations” labeled “situation,” “factors to consider,” “desired outcomes,” “possible consequences,” and so forth, eventually arriving at the terminus labeled “decision.” We even, in everyday speech, talk about “reaching a decision.”

There! We have arrived! We’ve done it! We’ve made our decision! Set it on the counter, record it in the minutes, put it in the filing cabinet, and let the world do with it whatever the world will do. We’re finished.

But when you “take a decision” the act of deciding is not the end . . . it is the beginning. When you take something, you are doing something very different from making something. When you take something, you hold it in your hands rather than set it on the counter. When you take something, you have to do something with it rather than let the world do with it whatever the world will do. When you take a decision, you have to act on it. It is not the terminus of your decision train; it is the start of the journey. Not the end, but the beginning.

When we make a decision, our “decision train” runs from stimulus to response . . . and stops. When we take a decision, our “decision train” starts at the response and runs for the rest of our lives.

In that “space between stimulus and response,” between God’s offer of covenant and our reply, between Jesus’ demand for discipleship and our answer . . . in that space lies our power to choose, to decide, not to make a decision and simply end an old way of being, but to take a decision and begin a new way of being, to give up an old life and save a new one, to surrender our old name and take on a new name, our true name.

As Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb reminds us: “To know our true name is, as it was for Abraham and Sarah, to turn, to reorient ourselves according to that name, and to live it. Just as God’s naming of Abraham and Sarah was also a calling, in naming us God is calling us to discipleship, casting off the old names by which we’ve been known, and living into (and maybe ‘up to’) the name that God bestows.” Whether that name be Abraham (“father of nations”), or Sarah (“princess to all”), or, simply, Christian (“follower of Jesus”).

So . . . compare and contrast . . .

For some, the decision we must take is to accept God’s offer: “I will give you everything.” For others, the decision we must take is to follow Jesus’ demand: “Give it all up.” For all, the promise is the same: “[We] shall be [named and] known as the Lord’s for ever.” Amen.

====================

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!

====================

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

What Is Lent All About? – Sermon for Lent 1, 2015

====================

A sermon offered on the First Sunday in Lent, February 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-9; 1 Peter 3:18-22; and Mark 1:9-15. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

God the Father and Holy SpiritWhat is Lent all about?

Some say it’s a time when we are supposed to find the presence of God in everyday life. Dr. Jonn Sentamu, the current Archbishop of York, suggested as much in his 2015 Ash Wednesday meditation when he said, “Lent is a time to get to know God better.” Similarly, an interdenominational Lenten devotional refers to Lent as a “journey [on which] you seek – and find – God.”

That’s one way to think about Lent. But that way isn’t working for me this year, especially as I contemplate Mark’s description of Jesus’ baptism and its aftermath. If in our Lenten discipline we are to be, in some way, doing what a Lenten hymn attributed to St. Gregory the Great says — “keep[ing] vigil with our heavenly lord in his temptation and his fast” — then we should pay particular attention to what really was going on there and seek to do during Lent what seems to be going on with Jesus in the wilderness.

Let’s look at Mark’s spare and barebones description of it all again. It’s a short Gospel text, so let’s read it in full one more time:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

OK. It doesn’t seem to me that Jesus needed to look for God! God is always there (which is the promise of the story of the rainbow in today’s Genesis reading) and the presence of God is very apparent in these first few lines of this Gospel story. The Holy Spirit (the Third Person of the Trinity) doesn’t just make a polite visit here; she’s not just gliding in here or fluttering by. No! The heavens, Mark says, were “torn apart” and the Spirit (in the form of a dove) came diving done like some eagle homing in on its prey! And there’s a bit of a mistranslation here, as well; the English translation we read says the Spirit descended “on” Jesus but the Greek makes more sense if we read it as saying that the Spirit came down into Jesus.

This really is an active, even violent description, that Mark has laid out for us. Jesus doesn’t just emerge from the water like someone stepping carefully out of a swimming pool; the Greek is “euthus anabainon” – Jesus “immediately ascended” out of the water; like a whale breaching the surface of the sea. And the Spirit, having torn the heaven’s apart, “katabainon eis auton“, dives down into Jesus. Rapid movement up is met with rapid movement down, a collision of the Son and the Spirit. This dove dove deep into Jesus; Jesus was possessed by the Holy Spirit.

And, of course, God the Father (First Person of the Trinity) is right there as well, fairly shouting, “You’re my son! I love you! I’m please as punch with you!” Jesus doesn’t need to go on any journey to find this God; he doesn’t need any time to get to know this God any better!

So what happens next?

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.

Mark continues his energetic, and here overtly violent, description of Jesus’ encounter with the Holy Spirit. There’s a sense here that Jesus is not a willing volunteer; the Spirit is making no polite suggestion that Jesus go spend a few days in the desert so that he can know “the presence of God in everyday life.” No! Jesus is prodded, herded, pushed, forced, driven out into the rough country to cozy up to the wild beasts.

Why? What was he to do out there?

He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Peiradzomenos hupo tou satana” reads the Greek: literally, “he was tested by the tempter.” Our English translation eliminates the definite article that is clearly there in the Greek, “the satan,” the tempter, and then capitalizes “satan” thus personalizing this tempter and, in fact, makes us think of the Devil of later Christian poetic mythology. But who else might the tempter have been?

“Sometimes we are devils to ourselves, when we will tempt the frailty of our powers, presuming on their changeful potency,” wrote William Shakespeare in the play Troilus and Cressida (Troilus speaking to Cressida and Aeneas, Act IV, scene 4). “The devil tempts us not — ’tis we tempt him….” wrote George Eliot in her 19th Century novel Felix Holt, the Radical.

Could it be that the temptations Jesus faced were those he put before himself? We certainly put enough temptations in front of ourselves; we are, more often than not, our own tempters. Could it be that Jesus’ tempter was his own human self? Scripture reminds us (and the Lenten preface of our Eucharistic prayer repeats) that in Jesus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15) Could it be that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to confront himself, to learn about himself?

If Lent is not a journey to find God, could it be journey to find ourselves? It could indeed! Lent, it has been said, is a period of self-discovery in which we encounter the parts of ourselves we don’t want to discover. If Jesus was made to spend time in the desert to learn about himself, then such self-discovery during this season surely would be, as Gregory’s great Lenten hymn proclaims, a reminder that “though frail we be, in [God’s] own image were we made.” Lent is a time to find ourselves, a time to reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are going to get there. This is surely what those forty days in the desert were for Jesus, as Mark demonstrates when he concludes this brief story with these words:

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

At the end of his 40 days with the wild beasts, Jesus knew who he was and what he was about. What can we do, then, to experience a similar self-revelation? How can we reorient ourselves to who we are, where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are to get there?

What we can do is to engage in a Lenten discipline, a rule-of-life for these 40 days. I plan to adopt a program set out several years ago by a famous bishop of Rome. It is known as “the daily decalogue of Pope John XXIII.” I plan to use it as a Lenten spiritual exercise to be renewed and lived out each day. As its name implies, it has ten parts:

  1. Only for today, I will seek to live the live-long day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
  2. Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
  3. Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
  4. Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
  5. Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
  6. Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
  7. Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
  8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
  9. Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
  10. Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.

I hope that through this daily wilderness exercise of prayer, fasting, and discipline I will find myself, even those parts of me that I don’t want to discover.

May your Lent, too, be a wilderness time of self-discovery. Remember, you don’t need to look for God; God is always there. This Lent, look for yourself. Amen.

====================

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!

====================

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

Foundation Stones – From the Daily Office – July 28, 2014

From the Letter to the Romans:

Greet Prisca and Aquila, who work with me in Christ Jesus, and who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Greet also the church in their house. Greet my beloved Epaenetus, who was the first convert in Asia for Christ. Greet Mary, who has worked very hard among you. Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Greet Ampliatus, my beloved in the Lord. Greet Urbanus, our co-worker in Christ, and my beloved Stachys. Greet Apelles, who is approved in Christ. Greet those who belong to the family of Aristobulus. Greet my relative Herodion. Greet those in the Lord who belong to the family of Narcissus. Greet those workers in the Lord, Tryphaena and Tryphosa. Greet the beloved Persis, who has worked hard in the Lord. Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; and greet his mother — a mother to me also. Greet Asyncritus, Phlegon, Hermes, Patrobas, Hermas, and the brothers and sisters who are with them. Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 16:3-16 (NRSV) – July 28, 2014)

Foundation StonesPaul often ends his correspondence with these requests that the readers convey his personal greetings to specifically named people. I often find myself skimming those parts of the reading, just passing quickly over them. But, also, I often find myself pausing at these names, wondering about them. Who were they? What did they do in their daily lives? How is it that Paul was personally acquainted with them?

Once upon a time I thought about preaching a series of sermons — or maybe writing some short stories — based on fanciful biographies for these named but now forgotten members of the early church. I gave up on that when I realized I had neither the gift for fiction nor sufficient knowledge of daily life in the First Century to do so credibly. Maybe someone else will do that — I would be among his or her readers if someone did.

When I read these names, I cannot help but think of a passage in the Book of Sirach, a passage read at my late brother’s funeral several years ago:

Let us now sing the praises of famous men, our ancestors in their generations. The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, and made a name for themselves by their valor; those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels and by their knowledge of the people’s lore; they were wise in their words of instruction; those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes — all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born, they and their children after them. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children’s children. (Sirach 44:1-11)

These friends of Paul are those of whom “there is no memory,” those who “have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born.” Nothing of their lives remains other than these greetings in Paul’s letters. And there are countless others of those early followers of Jesus of whom even less is left . . . .

Except, of course, the church. These forgotten followers of the way are the lowest course of the living stones which are built up into the spiritual house that is the church (1 Pt 2:5), that “house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 5:1) They are the foundation stones lying next to and alongside the Cornerstone.

The church is “their wealth [which] remains with [us] their descendants.” So don’t pass over the names of those to whom Paul sends personal greetings. Pause and give thanks for them. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.

====================

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!

====================

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

Rise! Rise! Rise! – Sermon for Easter 7 (Ascension Sunday) – RCL Year A – June 1, 2014

====================

On the Seventh Sunday of Easter: the Sunday after the Ascension, June 1, 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: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; and John 17:1-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Ascension of Christ by Salvadore Dali

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I’ve got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history’s shame
I rise
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I rise
I’m a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.

Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

(From And Still I Rise,Maya Angelou, Random House:1978.
Note — The verse beginning “Does my sexiness upset you?” was not read in church.)

The late Dr. Maya Angelou, who died this week and was (in my opinion) one of the greatest of contemporary English-language poets, wrote that poem (entitled Still I Rise) in 1978. Though it speaks out of her experience as a black woman growing up in the segregated South of the mid-20th Century, I believe it also speaks to us in our context today, celebrating the Ascension of Christ into heaven and, also, honoring our five newly minted high school graduates.

The Feast of the Ascension was Thursday. You may have missed it, however; it is a feast largely ignored by the Church. It passes by and we seldom, if ever, give any thought to it. In the Sunday rota it is noted only as the day after which the Seventh Sunday of Easter comes: that’s exactly how today’s collect is titled in The Book of Common Prayer, Seventh Sunday of Easter: The Sunday after Ascension Day. Kind of sad, because the Ascension really is the last event of the Incarnation, the last scene of the last act of the great drama which is “the Christ event.” Fortunately, this year (Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary) we have actually heard the story of the Ascension from the Book of Acts. This is not the case in the other two years of the rotation; in years B and C the Ascension isn’t even mentioned in any of the Sunday readings.

The story of Christ’s Ascension is told not only in Acts, which we heard this morning, it is also found in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Mark’s account is brief, a single verse: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” (Mk 16:19) Luke’s is also short: “He led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” (Lk 24:50-51).

Although neither Matthew’s Gospel nor John’s mention the Ascension event itself, both include prophetic references to it. According to Matthew, in his trial before the High Priest just before his Crucifixion, Jesus said, “I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mt 26:64) In John’s Gospel, after the Resurrected Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him, he gives her a message for the Apostles: “Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'” (Jn 20:17) So the fact of Jesus’ Ascension is well attested by Christian Scripture.

This Jesus, whom the powers of his age had (to use Dr. Angelou’s poetic language) tried to “write down in their history with bitter, twisted lies,” had tried to “tread in the very dirt” — this Jesus rose, not only from the grave into a new earthly existence, but into heaven. This Jesus, whom they “wanted to see broken, with bowed head and lowered eyes, with shoulders falling down like teardrops, weakened by his soulful cries” — this Jesus rose into very center of the Godhead. This Jesus, whom they “killed with their hatefulness” rose “out of the huts of the Hebrews’ history of shame,” from Israel’s past, a past “rooted in pain,” “bringing the gifts that his ancestors gave;” he is “the dream and the hope” of every human being enslaved to sin and death. He is our hope and he rose. He ascended into heaven taking our humanity into the very presence of God Almighty.

If the Incarnation (meaning the whole of Jesus’ earthly being, the entire time of God’s being in the flesh on earth) were viewed as a stage play, the drama of salvation would be seen in this way:

Act One — In the Nativity, God becomes a human being offering great promise to humankind.
Act Two — In the life of Jesus, God fully enters human existence in all its aspects making clearer the meaning of the promise.
Act Three — In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God defeats death and opens the way of eternal life to all human beings setting the scene for fulfillment of the promise.
Act Four — In the Ascension, the story comes full circle as a human being becomes God bringing the promise of the Nativity to fruition.
(Pentecost and all that follows it are the epilogue, just as the story of Israel and the words and works of the Prophets are the prologue.)

The Ascension is the denouement of the entire story but, unfortunately, most of the audience, thinking the play concluded, left after Act Three; some may even have left in the middle of that act. The climax of the drama played out on Thursday to a largely empty theater.

One of the Episcopal Church’s collects for today says: “We believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into heaven, so we may also in heart and mind there ascend.” (BCP 1979, page 226) I think this prayer gets it slightly wrong. Our ascension with Jesus is not a future thing that we “may” later attain. Rather, in Jesus’ Ascension we all have already ascended. It is not only Christ’s humanity but our humanity that ascended into heaven. God has already seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus; our ascension is not so much an experience to be attained, but a reality to be experienced. As St. Athanasius famously put it, “God became man that man might become God.” This is known theologically as the theosis or deification of humanity, and in the Ascension of Jesus it has already happened.

So here we are, deified human beings capable, as Jesus told us, of doing the very works that he did and, in fact, of doing greater works because he has ascended to the Father and he will do whatever we ask in his name — at least that’s what he promised in the Gospel lesson from John we heard in church two weeks ago (Jn 14:12-13) — but do we actually do them? Do we do the works of power and witness to the truth of the Gospel? Let’s be honest and admit that we usually don’t.

We don’t because we’re a lot like the eleven guys standing on that hilltop in Bethany “gazing up toward heaven.” Like them, as Prof. James Holbert of the Perkins School of Theology has written, “We are too enamored of the ascending Jesus, our necks strained as we peer upward, hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out ‘I love you.'”

Ascension WoodcutIt’s my favorite part of the story, really, because it demonstrates just how human the Apostles really were, how much like us. It’s this part of the story that is depicted in the woodcut on the cover of our bulletins. There they are looking up, Jesus’ feet just disappearing, when the “two men” (probably angels) appear and ask them why they are staring into space. In our modern vernacular, the two angels tell them, “Don’t just stand there. Do something!”

Prof. Holbert paraphrases and analyzes what the angels say in this way:

“Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Did you not pay attention to him just a few moments ago? He said, ‘Go,’ and you are rooted on this spot, looking longingly for some further word from him. He will come back in the same way that he went, but you need ask no further questions about when, they imply. “When” is simply not the right question to ask.

Why in heaven’s name (I mean that quite literally!) do so many Christians then spend vast amounts of time, inordinate amounts of energy, immoderate amounts of speculation, asking precisely that very question? We have been asked to be “his witnesses” to the world, not his calculators for his return. It remains a thorough mystery to me why this is so, and has been so throughout Christian history.

But I suppose I do know the answer. It is far safer, far less demanding, to be a speculator than a witness. Speculators write books of calculations, hold seminars that attract thousands, rake in untold piles of loot, while prognosticating a certain time for Jesus’ return. Witnesses, on the other hand, just witness to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast. As Acts 1 makes so clear, the world needs far fewer speculators and far more witnesses. (Speculators or Witnesses)

Which brings me to our five high school graduates . . . . You have finished that part of your education which society has made mandatory. Whatever you do from now on is up to you. You may, if you and your families decide, continue your education at college or university; you may continue it in trade or vocational school; you may continue it as an apprentice in a skilled trade. You may, alternatively, decide to enter the work force immediately and skip any further formal education and training, opting instead for what is known as “on the job training.” And you could, although no one here would recommend it or be happy if you did so, opt to do none of these things and, instead, become a bum, a grifter, a burden on society, in which case you will learn the hard and dangerous lessons of the streets.

Whatever you choose to do, you may have noted that every path means continuing to learn. I hope, as I’m sure everyone here and your parents hope, that you will learn the lessons of faith, hope, and love.

We hope that you will learn the lessons that Dr. Angelou learned and tried to teach us through her poetry — if people tell lies about you, rise above it; if people try to tread you in the dirt, rise above it; if they want to see you broken and weeping, disappoint them and rise above it; if they try to shoot you with their words, cut you with their eyes, or kill you with their hatefulness, rise above it.

We hope that you will learn to be, as Prof. Holbert said, witnesses “to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast,” that you will learn to be (as the Letter of James puts it) “doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” (James 1:22)

That is our hope for you and our prayer.

And now I have a word for the parents of our graduates. I’ve been where you are now, twice. When our eldest, our son Patrick, entered college he went away to the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. We drove him down to Sewanee and, with other freshman parents, we attended a meeting with the school’s president while our children took part in orientation activities. At the end of our meeting, the president was quite blunt: he basically said, “Go away. Get off campus. Let go of your sons and daughters.” Like Mary Magdalene, we were being told not to cling, not to hold on. So we left that meeting, found our son, and said good-bye. After he hugged us both, he turned and walked down the street toward to his dormitory, and he never looked back.

I stood there watching him go and, like those guys on the Mount of Olives, I wanted him to look back; I was “hoping for a further sign, for a magic act, for a cloud spelling out ‘I love you.'” Like them, I didn’t get it. I suppose the Apostles realized at some point as they stared into the sky that their friend, their rabbi, was no longer the man they thought they knew; he was something more. He was, and is, God. Standing on that campus lane at Sewanee, I knew that this young man was no longer the child I thought I knew; he was something more. He was, and is, an adult.

Both of our children, Patrick and Caitlin, are adults. So are yours. I’m proud to say that both of ours are college graduates and, though Caitlin is not working in her chosen field (yet), both are fully employed, productive members of society. So will yours be.

So don’t cling to them and don’t just stand there watching them go away, fading into the distance. You have things to do because, like them, like those eleven guys on that hillside in Bethany, like everyone of us, you too are called to be witnesses “to the truth of the gospel: the truth of justice for the whole world, the love of enemies, and the care for the marginalized and outcast,” to be “doers of the word.”

So graduates, parents of graduates, everyone . . . Remember the implication of the angels at the Ascension.

Don’t just stand there. Do something!

Experience the reality of the Ascension. Christ’s Ascension, our Ascension, your Ascension!

Rise!

Rise!

Rise!

Amen.

====================

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!

====================

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

Memorial Day at Church – Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 26, 2014)

====================

On the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 25, 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: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and John 14:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Memorial Day Cemetery FlagsI’m going to do something I have never done before! I’m going to read someone else’s sermon. While I was pondering these lessons, doing the usual research, and thinking about what to say, I came upon a superb sermon preached on Memorial Day weekend three years ago when, as today, the lesson from Acts was the story of St. Paul preaching at the Areopagus. The preacher was the Rev. Kurt Wiesner who is the rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Littleton, New Hampshire, and whom many of us remember from his tenure as curate at our own Trinity Cathedral. This is what Kurt had to say and I earnestly commend his thoughts to you:

[The sermon as originally posted on the internet can be found on Fr. Wiesner’s blog One Step Closer: Religion & Popular Culture.]

Memorial Day in Church — (A sermon preached Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend, 5/29/2011)

Contrary to the assumptions of many, Memorial Day is not officially a celebration of the church. Unlike Independence Day and Thanksgiving Day (both which I have talked about in the past), it is not on our church calendar, and there is no prayer in our Prayerbook to mark this day. It did not come from the church, nor was it formally adopted by it.

Robert Bellah writes that sociologists have suggested that America has a secular “civil religion” –- one with no association with any religious denomination or viewpoint –- that has incorporated Memorial Day as a sacred event. Our American tradition includes an obligation to honor the sacrifices made by our nation to earn our freedom. With the Civil War, a new theme of death, sacrifice and rebirth enters the civil religion. Memorial Day gave ritual expression to these themes, integrating the local community into a sense of nationalism. The American civil religion in contrast to that of France was never anticlerical or militantly secular; in contrast to Britain it was not tied to a specific denomination like the Church of England. Instead, Americans borrowed selectively from different religious traditions in such a way that the average American saw no conflict between the two, thus mobilizing deep levels of personal motivation for the attainment of national goals. (Civil Religion in America, by Robert Bellah, 1967. Used by Wikipedia)

This cannot completely explain why the church has not officially adopted Memorial Day: after all, the church has taken and adapted plenty of public events and celebrations in the past. Perhaps it’s only a matter of time. Then again, one could argue that every day is a Memorial Day in the church.
Regardless, this morning I want to share with you some Memorial Day history, which comes mostly from the Wikipedia Memorial Day entry:

Our tradition of Memorial Day comes from the time after the Civil War, honoring the soldiers who had died by decorating their graves with flags or flowers. By 1865 the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves had become widespread in the North. The first known observance was in Boalsburg, Pennsylvania, on October, 1864, and each year thereafter. Similar events followed around the northern states on various scales.

In Charleston, South Carolina, in 1865, freed enslaved Africans celebrated at the Washington Race Course, today the location of Hampton Park. The site had been used as a temporary Confederate prison camp for captured Union soldiers in 1865, as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died there. Immediately after the cessation of hostilities, freedmen exhumed the bodies from the mass grave and reinterred them in individual graves. They built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch and declared it a Union graveyard. On May 1, 1865, a crowd of up to ten thousand, mainly black residents, including 2800 children, proceeded to the location for events that included sermons, singing, and a picnic on the ground.

Beginning in 1866 the southern states had their own Memorial Days. The earliest Confederate Memorial Day celebrations were simple, somber occasions for veterans and their families to honor the day and attend to local cemeteries.

General John A. Logan may be most responsible for growth of a particular holiday. On May 5, 1868, in his capacity as commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic -– the organization for Northern Civil War veterans -– Logan issued a proclamation that “Decoration Day” should be observed nationwide. It was observed for the first time on May 30 of the same year; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of a battle.

There were events in 183 cemeteries in 27 states in 1868, and 336 in 1869. The northern states quickly adopted the holiday; Michigan made “Decoration Day” an official state holiday in 1871 and by 1890 every northern state followed suit. The ceremonies were sponsored by the Women’s Relief Corps, which had 100,000 members.

The Decoration Day speech became an occasion for veterans, politicians and ministers to commemorate the war -– and at first to recall the atrocities of the enemy. They mixed religion and celebratory nationalism and provided a means for the people to make sense of their history in terms of sacrifice for a better nation, one closer to their God. People of all religious beliefs joined together, and the point was often made that the German and Irish soldiers had become true Americans in the “baptism of blood” on the battlefield.

By the end of the 1870s the rancor was gone and the speeches praised the soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy. In 1882, the name of Decoration Day was formally changed to Memorial Day in “memory” and ‘honor” of those who gave their lives fighting for a common cause, America.

This name, however, did not become more common until after World War II and was not declared the official name by Federal law until 1967.

Many Americans observe Memorial Day by visiting cemeteries and memorials. A national moment of remembrance takes place at 3 p.m. local time. Another tradition is to fly the flag of the United States at half-staff from dawn until noon local time. The half-staff position remembers the more than one million men and women who gave their lives in service of their country. At noon their memory is raised by the living, who resolve not to let their sacrifice be in vain, but to rise up in their stead and continue the fight for liberty and justice for all. The National Memorial Day Concert takes place on the west lawn of the United States Capitol the Sunday before Memorial Day. The concert is broadcast on PBS and NPR. Music is performed, and respect is paid to the men and women who died in war.

There have, however, been a number of the historical problems concerning Memorial Day. Many of the celebrations have included a demonization of whatever is the perceived other side: not just concerning the Civil War, but the world conflicts that have followed. Certain ideologies have upended Memorial Day at different times. Continuing from Wikipedia:

In many southern locations in the 1890s from the consolatory emphasis of honoring soldiers to public commemoration of the Confederate “Lost Cause”. Changes in the ceremony’s hymns and speeches reflect an evolution of the ritual into a symbol of cultural renewal and conservatism in the South.
By the 1950s, the theme of Memorial Day had become more geared towards American exceptionalism and understood duty to uphold freedom in the world.

There have also been challenges beyond nationalism. The tradition has become permanently linked to sporting events. One of the longest-standing traditions is the running of the Indianapolis 500, the auto race has been held in conjunction with Memorial Day since 1911, run on the Sunday preceding the Memorial Day holiday. The Coca-Cola 600 stock car race has been held later the same day since 1961. The Memorial Tournament golf event has been held on or close to the Memorial Day weekend since 1976.

On June 28, 1968, the Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill which moved three holidays from their traditional dates to a specified Monday in order to create a convenient three-day weekend. The holidays included Washington’s Birthday, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day. The change moved Memorial Day from its traditional May 30 date to the last Monday in May. The law took effect at the federal level in 1971. This change is still controversial. The VFW stated in a 2002 Memorial Day Address:

Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day. No doubt, this has contributed a lot to the general public’s nonchalant observance of Memorial Day. (David Mechant, April 28, 2007, “Memorial Day History”, in the Wikipedia entry)

While the actual significance of the original date is debatable, it is pretty clear that Memorial Day Weekend’s role as the unofficial start of summer has come to dominate the observance. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that, in the vocabulary of many, the phrase “Memorial Day” include the word “sale.”

As I said at the beginning, Memorial Day is not officially a day marked by the Episcopal Church. Certainly remembering those who have given their lives in service is appropriate for church communities to do, and explains why plenty of individual churches celebrate the day.

Perhaps some of what the church has to offer Memorial Day can be found in Paul’s insightful preaching in the Book of Acts this morning (Acts 17:22-31). Paul observes the many religious practices of the Athenians. He does not spend it time condemning what is wrong with their practice. Instead, he lifts up the Athenians pursuit of religious understanding, and building on their creativity and passion, preaches about God “…in whom we live and move and have our being”. (Acts 17:28)

Perhaps it is the role of the church to not only help remember what is good in Memorial Day … honoring those who died in service to their country … but to also lift up the day as something more: articulating a vision of a world that so values peoples’ lives as dwelling in God, that violence towards others becomes unacceptable.

Perhaps this is why I find the [hymn from the United Methodist Hymnal], A Song of Peace, so appropriate:

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine;
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine;
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine;
O, hear my song, Thou God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for (people) in every place;
And yet I pray for my beloved country
The reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our oneness in the Savior,
In spite of differences of age and race.
[From the United Methodist Hymnal (Stanzas 1 & 2 by Lloyd Stone, Stanza 3 by Georgia Harkness)]

========================

That is Kurt’s sermon…. to which I want to add just a brief postscript, beginning with a personal story:

From 1972 to 1974, I was the youth minister at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Del Mar, California, where Fr. Tally Jarrett, a former military chaplain who had served in Germany, was the rector. Fr. Tally had absolutely no musical talent or skill, and seldom used hymns in his sermons, so (unlike me) he did not select the hymns for worship; he left that up to the Choir Director. (I select the hymns, but I leave the selection of preludes, postludes, voluntaries, and anthems up to Bertie.)

One Sunday we had a guest preacher, the local Reformed Jewish rabbi, and I was on the schedule as the chalice bearer for the service. As we lined up in the back of the church for the procession, the organist struck the opening notes of the first hymn, Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken. The words were written by John Newman, the same man who wrote Amazing Grace, but the hymn is set to the tune Austria by Franz Joseph Haydn. That tune is also the music for Das Lied der Deutschen, the German national anthem. Fr. Tally heard that tune start up, looked at the rabbi, and turned beet red with embarrassment; the rabbi just laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it! It’s a lovely tune.”

Thursday evening I was here in the church and heard the choir practicing their anthem . . . which turns out to be a choral arrangement of that hymn. I chuckled remembering that Sunday morning back in Del Mar and it occurred to me how similar to that event the singing of that tune, the melody of the national anthem of our sworn World War II enemy, on Memorial Day is. Some of us who fought against Germany in WW2 ourselves or whose fathers fought in that theatre, as did mine, might find it odd to do so. I find it particularly appropriate; a reminder that we have gotten past that conflict and that our former enemy is now our ally.

I would ask you to pay particular attention to the final verse that the choir will sing:

Savior, since of Zion’s city
I through grace a member am,
Let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in your name.
Fading are the worldlings’ pleasures
All their boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasures
None but Zion’s children know.

This, as Fr. Wiesner suggested, is what the church can lift up and articulate on Memorial Day, a “vision of a world that so values peoples’ lives as dwelling in God, that violence towards others becomes unacceptable,” a vision of a world in which all can enjoy the “solid joys and lasting treasures” of peace and good will.

Let us pray:

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this and every land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

====================

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!

====================

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

So Many Martyrs – Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, RCL Year A – May 18, 2014

====================

This sermon was preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 18, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Acts 7:55-60; Psalm 31:1-5,15-16; 1 Peter 2:2-10; and John 14:1-14 . These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Lynching of Jesse WashingtonDoes the name “Jesse Washington” mean anything to you? It’s unlikely that it does. If I tell you that Jesse Washington died in 1916 in Waco, Texas, would that spark any memory? Have you ever been taught about the incident in which Washington was killed? Have you ever heard of what came to be called “The Waco Horror?”

Probably not. It’s not one of the incidents of American history that gets regularly taught in our schools. If I hadn’t taken a course in African American history when I was a college sophomore in 1970, I wouldn’t know anything about the death of Jesse Washington on May 15, 1916. It’s not the sort of story that makes a white person comfortable. But I do know about it, and the fact that its anniversary falls during the week when I was preparing a sermon on, among other passages from Scripture, Luke’s description of the martyrdom of Stephen in the Book of Acts struck me as significant. Both Stephen and Jesse Washington were murdered by mobs because they were different.

Jesse Washington was a 17-year-old African American farmhand. On May 8, 1916, he was accused of raping and murdering Lucy Fryer, the wife of his white employer in Robinson, Texas, not far from Waco. Jesse and his entire family (his parents and a brother) were questioned; the others were released, but Jesse was not. He was taken to Dallas, where he eventually signed a confession which some legal historians believed was coerced. There was little, if any, evidence that he was actually guilty.

Washington was tried for murder in Waco, in a courtroom filled with locals who had been provoked by local newspaper reports which included lurid, and demonstrably false, details about the crime. His defense counsel entered a guilty plea and Washington was quickly sentenced to death, but he had no opportunity to appeal.

After his sentence was pronounced, the teenager was dragged out of the courtroom and lynched in front of city hall. Over 10,000 spectators, including city officials and police, gathered to watch. Members of the mob castrated the boy, cut off his fingers, and hung him (still alive) over a bonfire. He was repeatedly lowered into the fire and raised again to prolong his agony and death. After he finally succumbed, the fire was extinguished and Jesse Washington’s charred torso was dragged through the town; parts of his body were actually sold as souvenirs. A professional photographer took pictures as the lynching progressed; these were printed and sold as postcards in Waco.

As a Christian society, we remember Stephen as the first Christian martyr and as a hero of our faith; his is a unique story told in the Book of Acts. As a Christian society, we don’t remember Jesse Washington, at all; he’s just one of thousands who were lynched. Historical reports indicate that between 1882 and 1968 there were over 4,700 lynchings in the United States. One history text estimates that between 1882 and 1930 in America at least one black person was lynched every week. (Tolnay, S., & E.M. Beck, A Festival of Violence, University of Illinois Press, 1992, p. ix) We know the numbers, but we don’t know their names.

We Americans, however, aren’t even in the minor leagues when it comes to martyring people for being different. Writing about Stephen’s death, Professor Daniel Clendenin reminds us that there have been so many more martyrs, that martyrdom is not ancient history. It is a very contemporary and present reality:

Millions more have been martyred for reasons other than religion — for their ethnicity (Jews, Armenians, Tutsis), for economic ideology (farmers, land holders), social prejudice (intellectuals, artists), race (American blacks), and gender (women around the world like the inspirational Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan).

Christians are just one group among many that honors their martyrs. Very few times, places or peoples have been spared mass murder.
If you can bear to read it, I recommend the book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Worse Than War; Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity (2009). Goldhagen estimates that between 127–175 million people were “eliminated” in the last century.

These people came from all regions of the world, and from all social, economic and political groups. The vast majority of these victims were killed in their own countries, by their fellow citizens, by willing and non-coerced murderers, and almost never with any substantial dissent. Eliminationism is thus “worse than war.”

The numbers are mind-numbing, and therein lies our challenge. They bring to mind the infamous remark by [Joseph] Stalin in 1947 about the famine in Ukraine that was killing millions: “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” (The Stoning of Stephen)

Clendenin concludes, “The martyrdom of Stephen disabuses us of a sentimental gospel. It roots us in the real world of industrial scale slaughter. The one man Stephen helps us to remember the individual humanity of the millions of people we might otherwise forget.”

Now I want to draw our attention away from mass murder and martyrdom, and focus instead, for a moment, on one another. I’d like you for just a few seconds to look around the room, and just take note of who and what you see here. (A short, silent pause)

What did you see? A bunch of living stones? The members of a holy priesthood? A chosen race? A royal priesthood? A people chosen and named by God? This is what Peter says we should see, the building material for a spiritual house, eternal in the heavens, not made with hands, that mansion in which there are many rooms where Jesus assures his disciples there is a place for all of us. But is that how we see one another?

Philip asked Jesus to show them the Father and Jesus replied, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” I sometimes wonder if Jesus’ answer would perhaps have been different if Philip had asked, “Show us God.”

In the creation story in the first chapter of Genesis we are told, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) If Philip had asked Jesus, “Show us God,” might Jesus not have said, “Look around you, Philip.” Archbishop Desmond Tutu is fond of reminding people of those words from Genesis and suggesting that we should genuflect to one another! In a paper entitled Religious Human Rights and the Bible, he wrote:

The life of every human person is inviolable as a gift from God. And since this person is created in the image of God and is a God carrier a second consequence would be that we should not just respect such a person but that we should have a deep reverence for that person. The New Testament claims that the Christian person becomes a sanctuary, a temple of the Holy Spirit, someone who is indwelt by the most holy and blessed Trinity. We would want to assert this of all human beings. We should not just greet one another. We should strictly genuflect before such an august and precious creature. The Buddhist is correct in bowing profoundly before another human as the God in me acknowledges and greets the God in you. This preciousness, this infinite worth is intrinsic to who we all are and is inalienable as a gift from God to be acknowledged as an inalienable right of all human persons. (Emory International Law Review, Vol. 10 (1996): 63-68)

Which brings me back to Stephen and Jesse Washington, and to a strange little short story by the author Shirley Hardie Jackson entitled The Lottery that was first published in The New Yorker in June, 1948.

Set in a small, contemporary American town, a small village of about 300 residents, the story concerns an annual ritual known as “the lottery” which is practiced to ensure a good harvest; one character quotes an old proverb, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” As the story opens, the locals are excited but a bit anxious on the eve of the lottery. Children are gathering stones as Mr. Summers and Mr. Graves make the paper slips for the drawing and draw up a list of all the families in town.

When they finish the slips and the list, the men put them into a black box, which is locked up in the safe at a local coal company. The next morning the townspeople gather at 10 a.m. in order to have everything done in time for lunch. First, the eldest male of each family in town draws a slip; there’s one for every household. Bill Hutchinson gets the one slip with a black spot, meaning that his family has been chosen. In the next round, each member of the Hutchinson family draws a slip, and Bill’s wife Tessie gets the black spot. Each villager then picks up a stone and they surround Tessie, and the story ends as Mrs. Hutchinson is stoned to death while the paper slips are allowed to fly off in the wind.

Shortly after it was published, Ms. Jackson said of her story that she had hoped that by setting the particularly brutal ancient rite of stoning (the same thing that was done to Stephen) in the present she would shock her readers with “a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in [our] own lives.” (San Francisco Chronicle, July 22, 1948.) Her story suggests that we human beings are more capable of honoring our rituals and our preconceptions than we are of honoring one another.

I think the true stories of Stephen of Jerusalem, of Jesse Washington of Waco, Texas, and of those millions of martyrs who have been “eliminated” amply demonstrate that she was right. Not only are we more capable of honoring our rituals and prejudices that we of honoring one another, we are demonstrably willing to murder one another to protect them.

We are because when we look around at our fellow human beings we do not see one another as divine; we do not see living stones; we do not see members of a royal priesthood. Blinded, or perhaps just numbed, by familiar ritual, by preconception, by the simple human need to conform, we do not appreciate one another as fellow citizens of a holy nation, “chosen and precious in God’s sight,” as bearing the image of God.

“Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?” Jesus asked. I’m not the least bit surprised in Philip, however; we human beings, made in the image of God, have been with each other for a long, long time, and we still do not know each other. Dr. Clendenin suggested that the martyrdom of Stephen helps us to remember the individual humanity of the millions of unnamed martyrs we might otherwise forget; may it also help us to remember the divinity of each of them and of each other.

Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (For the Human Family, Book of Common Prayer, Episcopal Church, 1979, page 815)

====================

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!

====================

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

Jesus the Jedi – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter (Year A) – May 4, 2014

====================

This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, May 4, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3,10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; and Luke 24:13-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

====================

Broken BreadSince the early 1970s this day, on the Episcopal Church calendar, this day on which we hear the story of Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has been known as Star Wars Sunday. It’s because Jesus is very much like a Jedi in this story. I mean, think about it . . .

In the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker is mentored first by Obiwan Kenobi, who dies, then by Yoda, who also dies. But both Obiwan and Yoda come back! They appear to Luke and others after their deaths, continue to teach and give sage counsel, and disappear. That’s what happens with Jesus in the story Luke tells us this morning.

It’s still Easter Sunday. (For us, we’re three weeks down the road, but for them it’s the afternoon of the same day on which Mary Magdalene and the others found the empty tomb.) Two disciples, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed (let’s call him “Bob” — although some feminists scholars suggest that the reason this disciple is not named is because she is a woman, so it might be “Bobbie”) are on their way to a village called Emmaus. Luke tells us this village is seven miles from Jerusalem; that’s a long walk — two or three hours. Sometime during this long afternoon journey, they are joined by a stranger whom they do not recognize; the stranger, Luke reveals, is Jesus but Cleopas and Bob can’t recognize him. They have a long talk with him about all the thing that have happened in Jerusalem in recent days, and he gives them sage counsel about the meaning of scripture, particularly the messianic prophecies. They arrive in Emmaus early in the evening and encourage their traveling companion to join them at dinner.

They sit down at an inn for the evening meal and the stranger takes the lead. He takes the bread served by the innkeeper, offers a blessing, and breaks the bread. Now, Cleopas and Bob realize who this is. As he does the same thing he had done with his followers just a few days before, their memory is tweaked and their eyes are opened (which suggests that Cleopas and Bob were in the upper room in Jerusalem on Thursday evening). That’s when they recognize him; that’s when they think they’ve figure out who he is — he’s Jesus the Jedi. And that’s when Jesus vanishes.

Why do you suppose that is? Why does Jesus disappear?

Well . . . let me remind you of what happened earlier in the day as the story is told by John. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, found it empty, and told Simon Peter. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (another unnamed follower!) also found it empty, and then returned to their home to tell the others. Mary, however, hung behind and encountered Jesus but, like Cleopas and Bob on the road to Emmaus, she did not recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. Only when he addressed her by name (perhaps because of the tone of his voice) was something in her memory triggered and she realized who he was. She called him “Rabbouni” (which means teacher) and apparently fell at his feet and grabbed hold of them, for Jesus says to her, “Don’t hold on to me.” I think he did so for the same reason he disappeared from the table at the Emmaus inn.

Similarly, remember what happened before they arrived in Jerusalem, when Jesus took Peter and James and John up the mount of the Transfiguration. While they were on the holy mountain, the three disciples witnessed Jesus in conversation with Elijah and Moses. Peter wanted to memorialize the event by building booths, monuments to concretize the moment. Jesus said, “No. We’re not going to do that.” Again, I think for the same reason he disappeared in Emmaus.

That reason is that we cannot pin Jesus down. Jesus cannot be contained; he will not fit neatly into our boxes. When we think we have him figured out, we find out we are wrong. Jesus . . . God is bigger than any notion of him we may have; God is bigger than our conceptions, bigger than our doctrines, bigger than our creeds. And every encounter with Jesus is singular and unique. We cannot hold onto him; we cannot concretize and cast the moment in stone.

We just sang as our sequence hymn the old chestnut In the Garden, and that hymn makes this very point. We, the singer, say that we would like to stay there in that garden, but Jesus will not allow that:

I’d stay in the garden with Him,
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

We cannot pin him down! We cannot cast the moment in stone. When we think we’ve got hold of him, we find we are wrong; he disappears and what we are left with are our own notions, our own ideas, our own doctrines, our boxes. Our boxes, however, are too small; God is too big for them.

And the chorus of the hymn reminds us of the singularity and uniqueness of every meeting with our Lord:

And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Every time we encounter Jesus, the experience is unique; none other (not even our earlier selves) has ever had that experience before.

I think that is why it is significant that Cleopas and Bob recognized Jesus as he broke bread. Every loaf of bread is unique, similar perhaps to other loaves but never, ever identical. And every occasion on which bread is share is singular and unique. It may be a family meal or a celebration of the Eucharist; it may be a formal banquet or just friends having a bite. Whatever the circumstances, the situation is one unto itself, not like any other, never to be repeated.

A couple of Christmases ago, Evelyn gave me a set of books about the elements of the Eucharist. One volume is entitled The Spirituality of Wine; the other, which I have here, is The Spirituality of Bread by Donna Sinclair. The author is a Christian (in fact, I think she is an Anglican). I’d like to read you some of what she has to say about the symbolism of bread. About bread and community, she writes:

Jesus may have been lent significance by his association with other gods of bread. But that doesn’t acount for the power of his celebration, which persists daily around the world.

Everywhere, the words are similar: “He took a loaf of bread and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them and said, ‘Take, this is my body.'” And, everywhere, people line up, blue-jean clad or robed, young or old, to receive bits of bread; or they sit in pews and pass tiny chunks on a plate; or they stand in a circle and murmur a blessing as a broken loaf moves from hand to hand.

Sometimes they gather around a sickbed.

Once, I sat in a circle of friends, in a smoky cabin in the bush, after a weekend of tending a woodstove and talking about dreams. We passed the bread around as gently as if it were the heart of the other, which it was.

The ritual has power. I get uneasy if I think I might be left out. Once, reporting on an event, I slipped up to take a photo of Archbishop Desmond Tutu serving Communion, and then paused anxiously. He winked and held out the bread.

Perhaps inclusion is this ceremony’s strength. This bread offers an enormous community, a family that stretches around the world and through the centuries. We don’t want to be left out.

We don’t want to be left out because we don’t want to miss the opportunity for that unique and singular encounter with Christ. Every celebration of Eucharist, like every sharing of bread and every meeting with Jesus, is a moment unto itself never to be repeated, never to be duplicated. We realize that in some way, that this encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread will never happen again, and we don’t want to be left out.

With regard to bread and sacrifice, Ms. Sinclair writes:

The celebration of Communion is also a powerful experience of metaphor. Bread as body. Wine as blood. Love as sacrifice.

In the Jesus story, it is clear that love has great requirements. There is a price to pay, in an oppressive era, for feeding the unwanted.

It may help to see another story, that of the Celtic Earth goddess Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg, one of the ancient peoples of pre-Christian Ireland.

When Tailtiu saw that her people were starving after an insufficient grain harvest, she took up an axe and, for a solid year, cleared a forest: “the reclaiming of meadowland from even wood by Tailtiu, daughter of Magmor,” is the way it is reported by the anonymous bard of The Dindsenchas, poems about Irish place names.

After the trees had been cut down, “roots and all, out of the ground,” the land became “a plain blossoming with clove,” presumably suitable for planting grain. But the cost was appalling. Tailtiu’s heart “burst in her body from the strain beneath her royal vest,” the bard says. The Celts loved their sacred groves, and the destruction to the enchanted richness of her forest must have broken Tailtiu’s heart.

Aware that she is dying, her courtiers gather around, and Tailtiu whispers her last command. She wants funeral games to be held in her honour each year, just before the harvest. And they are to be peaceful, she says, “without sin, without fraud, without reproach, without insult, without contention, without seizure, without theft.”

Thanks to her faithful foster-child Lugh (later associated with a bountiful harvest), Tailtiu’s wish came to pass. There was always an “unbroken truce” at her fair, and “men went in and came out without any rude hostility. Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks for maintaining of justice.”

Tailtiu had given up her beloved forest and her life for a vision not too different from that of Archbishop Oscar Romero or of Mondawmin, who brought corn to the Ojibway. “Unbroken truce” and “corn and milk in ever stead,” represent the commonwealth of peace, the kingdom Jesus told his friends was close by. New parents get a glimpse of this kingdom looking at their tiny baby. Their sudden understanding that they would do anything to keep this child safe is the closest we can come, perhaps, to understanding the sacrifice that is part of love’s potential.

Perhaps that’s the power of Communion bread. Some say that it commemorates Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins, but I don’t think so. I would be appalled by a god who asked for the death of his child, or any child. But like any parent, I believe I would die for my children’s lives, even as absurdly grown-up as they are now.

Perhaps this bread simply expresses our wish to live little closer to the ideal of Tailtiu, Jesus, or Mondawmin, who died to give their people enough to eat. None of us can stand up to greed or selfishness as strongly as we wish. But eating this ceremonial bread with others, who also want to be just and loving, makes us brave enough to try.

Maybe that’s why I am sometimes overwhelmed at these ceremonies. Maybe I am simply terrified by the high sacrifices love assumes. Certainly the part most touching to me in the story of my own bread-god, Jesus, is not his death, but his constant focus on compassion. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he commands. “Love your enemies.”

Every encounter with this God who commands us to love, every encounter with love is unique and singular. Every encounter with this God who commands us to love, every encounter with love is larger than we can describe. We cannot constrain love in our boxes. Whatever our notions, our doctrines, our creeds, our understandings . . . they are too small to contain love, to pin love down, to hold onto and control love. When we try, love disappears, and that is why Jesus disappeared from the dinner table in that inn in Emmaus.

Now . . . I have to confess that, on the church’s calendar, this really isn’t Star Wars Sunday. But as every Star Wars aficionado knows, today is Star Wars Day: “May the Fourth be with you.”

But may Jesus the Jedi . . . Jesus, known in the breaking of the bread . . . Jesus, whom we cannot hold onto and pin down . . . Jesus, unique and singular . . . may Jesus be with you. Amen.

====================

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!

====================

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

Wilderness – From the Daily Office – May 1, 2014

From the Book of Exodus:

As Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 16:10 (NRSV) – May 1, 2014.)

Painted Desert Wilderness AreaTwo days ago we celebrated the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist and the Gospel lesson for use at the Eucharist was the opening of his Gospel which relates the story of Jesus’ baptism following which, Mark says, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” (Mk 1:12) so the word “wilderness” caught my attention today.

Years ago I read a commentary on the book of Revelation in which the author asserted that the wilderness is the true home of the People of God, that it is in the wilderness that the People find their true identity. Here in this verse we find the Hebrews looking towards the wilderness where they find the glory of God. Is that our true identity? St. Irenaeus wrote, “Gloria Dei est vivens homo,” which means “The Glory of God is a living person,” sometimes translated as “The Glory of God is the human fully alive.” Is that what the Hebrews spied in the wilderness? Is that what the Redeemer was compelled by the Spirit to discover out there with the wild beasts?

Yesterday I read an essay comparing the scientific theory of “dark matter” and “dark energy” to the doctrine of Original Sin, and suggesting that both spring from a human “primal desperation to make sense of our overwhelming ignorance.” The author suggested, “Truth lives in a lot of places – but we often just cannot seem to find out exactly where.” In the wilderness, where there is an absence of distraction, where our ignorance becomes more evident, where the Spirit drove Jesus, where the Hebrews encountered the Glory of God, perhaps truth is more readily apparent. And the truth will make us free (Jn 8:32), free to be truly alive.

I am a member of the Masonic fraternity (although these days not a very active one). In Freemasonry, the tools of stone masonry are given symbolic meanings. Among the first tools to which a new Mason is introduced is the common gavel. We are told that in operative masonry this tool breaks off the rough corners of the stone to better fit it to the builder’s use. Freemasons are to use it metaphorically to divest ourselves of the “vices and superfluities of life,” thereby becoming better fit as “living stones” to be used by the Supreme Architect of the Universe. The reference, of course, is to the First Letter of Peter in which the Apostle admonishes us:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 2:4-5)

It seems to me that in the wilderness those “vices and superfluities,” which I think are all those things we use to cover up or deny our “overwhelming ignorance,” naturally fall away — the work of using that gavel to remove them is much easier. The wilderness is a sort of quarry where we are cut away from all that we have accumulated, all that we have used to deny our ignorance; we are trimmed of that excess to become the building stones of that “spiritual house” of which Peter wrote. Little wonder that the Hebrews looked to the wilderness and saw God, little wonder the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be fitted for his ministry, little wonder we find our true identity there. Stripped of the doctrines, theories, and metaphors with which we cover our ignorance, we find that we don’t need them. Without them we are living stones, living human beings, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, truly alive, the glory of God.

====================

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!

====================

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!

====================

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!

====================

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

« Older posts Newer posts »