Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: First Samuel (Page 2 of 3)

Yeah, Not So Much – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary (Yr 1), Thursday in the week of Proper 9B (Pentecost 6, 2015)
1 Samuel 16
14 Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.

I can relate. At least to the first part of the verse. How often have I stared at a blank paper or a blank computer screen wondering what to write? Whether it be a letter of condolence to a parishioner who’s lost a family member, note of congratulations to someone, a report to the vestry, or (worst of all) a sermon for next Sunday, what secular authors know as “writer’s block” hits hard and I am left completely uninspired (which, as you know, means that the spirit is absent). That’s been the case most of this week. I’ve had to write two letters of condolence, one newsletter squib, a letter in response to a complaint about a sermon (thank heaven, those aren’t often required), and some sort of something to preach next Sunday, and it’s been like pulling teeth without anesthetic to get the words put together. When I’ve tried to write for this blog . . . nothing; that’s why there’s been no entry for a few days. So I read this verse (or the first half of this verse, anyway) and I can relate. – But “an evil spirit from the Lord”? I don’t get that. What does that mean? If the text simply said “an evil spirit,” it would make sense to me. If it say “an evil spirit from Satan (or the tempter or the devil or Baal or some other agency),” that would make sense. But “an evil spirit from the Lord”? I don’t get that. Does God really send “evil spirits to torment” God’s people? This is, honestly, one of those times when I have to look at the Hebrew Scriptures through the lens of the Gospel, squint, and say, “Yeah. Not so much. I think you got that one wrong.” As one of my seminar professors would have said, “The Gospel trumps the Bible.”

Sacrificing Orthodoxy – From the Daily Office Lectionary (6 July 2015)

From the Daily Office Lectionary (Yr 1), Monday in the week of Proper 9B (Pentecost 6, 2015)
1 Samuel 15
22 Samuel said [to Saul], “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt-offerings and sacrifices, as in obedience to the voice of the Lord? Surely, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams.”

I’ve just returned from two weeks in Salt Lake City, Utah, attending the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church as an alternate deputy for the Diocese of Ohio and working as a legislative aide to the committee on Prayer Book, liturgy, and church music. The Episcopal General Convention is a huge and fairly unwieldy legislative body, bicameral legislature made up of a House of Deputies (four clergy and four lay representatives from each diocese) and a House of Bishops (every bishop whether active or retired). About 1,000 people meet every three years to state the church’s positions on various issues, to adopt or amend canons (church laws), to make changes the church’s constitution or Prayer Book, and to adopt a budget. Parachurch organizations, seminaries, vendors of church wares, religious communities, missionary societies, and hundreds of volunteers come along for the ride. One participant the past fortnight described the convention as “summer camp for adult church geeks;” that pretty much describes it accurately. It’s also very much a big family reunion with a lot of activity, including a good deal of bickering.

The bickering, I think, is the result of a lot of people all trying to heed and obey the voice of the Lord, which each hears in a somewhat different way. Coming away from the convention I had several hours of opportunity to scan the Twitterverse and Facebookistan (terms I learned from a friend) and one huge word kept recurring in the serious posts (there were a lot of fun ones as people’s senses of humor took over): that word was “orthodoxy.” In one conversation thread, I typed in something like, “Oh … groan … I am so tired of seeing that word used as a barrier to communication, as a ‘fighting word”.” I was, in turn, accused of being “dismissive.” But I am tired of this misuse of the word “orthodoxy” and similar terms! I really am! “Orthodoxy” and its synonyms and antonyms have become an epithets which close off discussion.

Originally a word which meant “proper praise of God,” it morphed to mean something like “proper belief about God,” and now has become personalized in most usages into “what I believe to be correct about anything churchy.” So we heard (and will continue to hear) some people claim to hold “orthodox” views about marriage or the Prayer Book or the Hymnal or church investments or whatever, while disparaging others as not “orthodox.” What this really means is that the speaker has closed his or her mind and ears, and is sacrificing open communication on the altar of their personal opinion.

All that “orthodoxy” really means anymore is that each of us, individually or in our small affinity groups, hears God speaking in different ways; each of us seeks to obey the voice of God as we perceive it. Thus, my “orthodoxy” may not be your “orthodoxy.” When someone uses this word, though, they are not claiming to speak only for themselves; rather, they are claiming that their opinion is the agreed-upon opinion of the ancient, historic church. They are covering themselves in a mantle of traditional authority, and that cloak has the unfortunate effect of muffling their hearing so that, if God is speaking through another with a new voice, they cannot hear it. If one cannot hear, one cannot heed and obey.

Here’s an idea. Let’s declare a moratorium on the word “orthodoxy” and all its permutations. If tempted to use the word, say instead, “This is what I believe and what I believe the church to have been teaching throughout the past, what do you believe?” or “This is the metaphor for God that makes most sense to me, what metaphors work for you?” or “This is what resonates in my spirit, what reverberates in your soul?” Let’s hear and heed rather than sacrifice communication on the altar of our personal, allegedly “orthodox” opinion.

Raise an Ebenezer – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Wednesday in the week of Proper 6B (Pentecost 4, 2015)
1 Samuel 7
5 Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.”
6a So they gathered at Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord.

It feels like centuries ago, but it was only decades, I was an active lay person in the Diocese of Nevada when the late Wes Frensdorff was bishop. In the middle of Nevada is the town of Tonopah and in Tonopah is the Mizpah Hotel. Wes liked to hold diocesan committee meetings in Tonopah because it was a place mutually inconvenient to nearly everyone. This fortnight, the Episcopal Church is meeting in triennial General Convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, a place that nationally might be considered “mutually inconvenient” to nearly everyone. Today the work of the convention really starts. Yesterday, legislative committees met and organized. Today, they start to deliberate on numerous resolutions presented. This convention will deal with both internal affairs (electing a new Presiding Bishop, adopting a budget, possibly reorganizing the structure of the church, considering amendments to the canons and the church constitution). It will also deal with matters of import to the larger society, perhaps none larger the issue of marriage equality and how the Episcopal Church will minister to same-sex couples. I’m sure that many bishops and deputies will feel like they are doing battle with the Philistines, as the Israelites did at Mizpah. It is my prayer that when it all said and done we can look back at the work of the Convention and, like the Psalmist in today’s evening psalm, each one of us can say, “I have done what is just and right,” and like Samuel, we can raise an Ebenezer and say, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Milch-Cows (Humility & Love) – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Tuesday in the week of Proper 6B (Pentecost 4, 2015)
1 Samuel 6
10 The men did so; they took two milch-cows and yoked them to the cart, and shut up their calves at home.
11b They put the ark of the Lord on the cart, and the box with the gold mice and the images of their tumors.

Although Scripture is replete with images of and references to the greatness and magnificence of God, every so often we come across these little gems displaying God’s humility. The Philistines, who have captured the Ark of the Covenant but found it a dangerous possession, inquire of “the priests and the diviners” what to do about that, how to rid themselves of this thing that is causing them tumors. “The priests and the diviners” tell them to put it on a cart pulled by milch-cows and send it home (the cows, apparently, will know the way). So that is what they do. And, sure enough, the cows take the cart to Beth-shemesh in the country of the Israelites; it is met by Levites who take charge of its cargo. ~ It’s a strange little story but what grabs my attention is the detail of the homely milch-cows. Given other stories of the God of the Hebrews, you’d think something more grand would have been called for. One should note that the priests and diviners consulted by the Philistines were probably not those of Israel and their opinion of the Hebrew God might not have been high has God’s own people’s…. still, if God were insistent upon all the pomp and circumstance the Bible usually demands for God, putting the Ark on a cow-drawn cart might have had serious repercussions! The story suggests to me that the religious royal ostentation we usually read about in Old Testament is of human, not divine, origin. It suggests to me that just as love is understood to be central to God’s Being, so to is humility. In fact, it reminds me that there is an unbreakable link between love and humility. Love is impossible without humility. ~ I do hope all of us gathered in Salt Lake City for the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church will remember that!

Not “The Will of God” – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Thursday in the week of Proper 6B (Pentecost 3, 2015)
1 Samuel 2
33 The only one of you whom I shall not cut off from my altar shall be spared to weep out his eyes and grieve his heart; all the members of your household shall die by the sword.

This is part of a speech delivered to Samuel by a “man of God’ speaking on God’s behalf. I am often dismayed by the violence described in Scripture as the will of God. Even when God incarnate in Jesus Christ refused to engage in violence in self-defense and allows himself to be arrested, scourged, and crucified, we are later told by the church as it develops its theology that this, too, was the will of God, the sacrifice of the Son to satisfy (or at least with the foreknowledge and plan of) the Father. This is one reason I no longer use or encourage the use of the words, “The word of the Lord,” at the end of liturgical readings of Scripture. The Bible is not “the word of the Lord,” nor are the acts of violence it records the “will of God.” The Bible contains the words of human beings trying to make sense of their lives and history, and one way humans have done that is to distance themselves from their own savagery by blaming it on God. ~ I awoke this morning to news that a white suspect shot several people in a predominantly black Christian church in Charleston, SC, last night. According to the Charleston Post and Dispatch, a young white man joined a Bible study group at Emanuel AME Church for a short while, then stood, drew a weapon, and killed the pastor and perhaps nine others. He left one woman alive, telling her that “he was letting her live so she could tell everyone else what happened.” I couldn’t help but think of her when I read this verse. ~ The Charleston police chief is quoted by the paper as saying, “It is unfathomable that somebody in today’s society would walk into a church when people are having a prayer meeting and take their lives.” Really? I thought as I read that. Given the blatant racism that has re-emerged in our country since the election of the current president? Given easy access to firearms and the rush to “open carry” laws in conservative states (including, I believe, South Carolina)? Given the witness of Scripture and human history to bloody violence throughout every age? Violence, racial violence and mass murder unfathomable? Frankly, I find the police chief’s comment unfathomable. ~ In any event, the last thing I hope to hear (but I’m sure I will hear) is someone referring to last night’s horrible events being somehow “the will of God.” That is the “witness of Scripture,” but it is a wrong understanding of Scripture. The will of God is never death; the tellers of ancient stories in the Bible may have thought it was, but it wasn’t. When God speaks for Godself, through the prophets and incarnate in Jesus, God makes that clear: “[God] will swallow up death forever” and “will wipe away the tears from all faces” (Is 25:8) and “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10b) ~ These deaths are not the “will of God;” they are the will of one misguided man in a misguided culture. This is not a divine tragedy; it is a human one. May the dead rest in peace and rise in glory, and may those left behind be comforted.

Privilege of Stability – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the OT lesson for Monday in the week of Proper 6B (Pentecost 3, 2015)
1 Samuel 1
20 In due time Hannah conceived and bore a son. She named him Samuel, for she said, “I have asked him of the Lord.”

The story of Samuel intrigues me. Turned over to the priest Eli at a young age, dedicated in accordance with his mother’s promise to a life of service to God, he lived and ministered as a priest, a prophet, and a Judge of Israel in the same place for his entire life. I find that almost impossible to understand. I have lived more places than I can count without getting out a notepad and writing them down! ~ When I was sworn into the federal bar in the District of Nevada, I had to complete an FBI background check application which asked for all of my residence addresses up to that point. I was 32 years old at the time; I realized that at that point in my life I had lived at 35 addresses. (I believe my parents invented “flipping;” I lived in and helped them fix up so many homes that I know how to do things associated with nearly all of the building trades!) ~ It also occurred to me as I gave thought to Samuel’s life and career that in a few days I will be celebrating the 24th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, and that I have just celebrated my 12th anniversary as rector in my current parish. What that means is that I have spent more than half of my presbyteral ministry in a single congregation. I think that’s actually rare in today’s church. In some traditions, itineracy is the norm and clergy are moved on a regular basis. I read somewhere that the average tenure of an Episcopal priest in a congregation now is less than five years. I have to say that I think there is something to be said for longer pastorates; development of personal relationships and growth in community leadership takes time, usually more time than we give them. I’m not sure I could have been happy with a life-long, young-childhood-to-old-age placement, but I am glad to have had the privilege of stability for the past dozen years.

“By the Grace of God” – Blasphemy! (Sermon for Pentecost 2, 7 June 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 7, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 1 Samuel 8:4-20;11:14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; and Mark 3:20-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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CrownAs I read the lessons for today, I had one of those weird little flashes of memory when some small bit of trivial knowledge you had forgotten you knew floats to the surface . . . . In this case it was something from my 9th Grade American History class. My American History teacher loved to fill us up with the minutiae of our country’s past and the one that came to mind is the debate over what to call the President of the United States: the Founders had to determine how the president was to be introduced. There were, apparently, some who favored “His Democratic Majesty, by the Grace of God, President of the United States.” Other senators recommended “His Elective Majesty” and John Adams recommended the title: “His Highness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties.” All of this embarrassed George Washington who would have none of it; he wanted simply to be called “the President of the United States” and to be addressed as “Mr. President.” And thus it has been since then. The American president doesn’t even get “Your Excellency” as the presidents of other nations do.

The reason this came to mind, I think, is the story of the election or selection of Saul as first king of the Israelites, the first part of which we heard today from the First Book of Samuel. Let’s set the scene . . . .

This is the end of the period of the judges, which is a really poor translation of the Hebrew word shofet which describes what were essentially warlords. After the Hebrews had finished their trek across the desert of Egypt, after the first generation (whom God had forbidden to enter the Promised Land) had died, they settled the land which came to be called Israel and they become known as Israelites. But they were not a united nation in the sense we think of today. At best, they were a loose confederation of tribes with no sort of central administration. Whenever they were threatened from the outside, the leader of one tribe would be commissioned and anointed to lead their assembled troops. You know the names of some of these people: Gideon, Deborah (yes, there were female judges), Samson. They would lead the amassed warriors until the end of whatever crisis and then return to their life as a tribal leader.

Eventually, however, the people decided that this wasn’t a workable arrangement. So they come to the most recent of the judges, who was also a prophet, Samuel, and say to him (as we heard in the lesson), “Anoint us a king so that we can be like other nations.” Specifically, in our reading today, they say they want a king to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles;” in other words, they want someone to go to war for them.

Samuel is very upset by this; he considers this to be an affront not only to himself but to God! So he prays to God and asks what to do. God reassures him, “They aren’t rejecting you; they are rejecting me, which they have done many times in the past.” And God tells him to give them what they want, but tells Samuel to warn them of what will happen, what it means to have a king who goes to war. He does so. He tells them, “Look – a king will turn you into slaves. He will take your sons and turn them into soldiers; he will make your daughters [I love this]; he will take your horses and your flocks and the produce of your fields. You will not like it, but when you call out to God, God will not answer you.” I think that last warning may be a statement that whomever they choose (and they end up choosing Saul) will not be king “by the Grace of God.” This is fine with the people: “We want a king,” they say.

So off they all go to Gilgal and, although we aren’t given the details in today’s lesson, they choose Saul to be king . . . and we know how that works out – Saul is a terrible king and has to be replaced. Eventually God would send Samuel to anoint David and David would then be succeeded by Solomon and, after Solomon, the kingdom would split and both Israel in the north and Judah in the south would suffer a series of pretty bad monarchs. But even David and Solomon, back to whose rule the people of God have looked for millennia as a sort of “golden age,” were not that great: David was guilty of essentially murdering a soldier, Uriah, and committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba; Solomon had hundreds of wives and amassed great wealth at the expense of his people. None of them lived up to the ideal of kingship which God had pronounced through Moses at the very beginning of the Hebrews’ occupation of the Promised Land.

Interestingly, our Daily Office Lectionary this past week included (on Wednesday) that very description of kingship in a reading from the Book of Deuteronomy. As I was pondering today’s reading, I wondered if Samuel, or perhaps even God, had forgotten these words spoken to the Hebrews by Moses on the border of Canaan which he (as part of that disobedient original generation) was forbidden to enter. In his farewell discourse, speaking on God’s behalf, Moses had said:

When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,” you may indeed set over you a king whom the Lord your God will choose. One of your own community you may set as king over you; you are not permitted to put a foreigner over you, who is not of your own community. Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the Lord has said to you, “You must never return that way again.” And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself. When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests. It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes, neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel. (Dt 17:14-20)

When I researched this apparent lapse in divine memory, I found one commentator who explained that the difference between what Moses says and what the Israelites did in demanding a king is the difference between peace and war. Moses’ ideal king was to be appointed when the land was “settled,” when the people were at peace; the ideal king was to look after the welfare of the people, not amassing wealth nor preparing for war. In the First Book of Samuel, the people demand a king to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles;” they want a king to go to war. This is a far cry from the ideal approved by God through Moses.

Let that sit for a moment and let’s turn to the Gospel lesson taken from the third chapter of Mark. We are early in Jesus’ career, but a lot has already happened. He has been baptized and spent forty days in the desert discerning his mission. He has called the Twelve who are his inner circle and, together with them, he has walked through the countryside visiting villages, preaching his good news, healing the sick, and casting out demons. His reputation has grown and now he has come to his home town. The crowds are huge and they press in so tightly that he and his friends can’t even eat.

The situation is made more chaotic when Jesus’ family, Mary and his brothers James and Joses and Jude and Simon and Jesus’ sisters (whose names we are never told), show up to “restrain” him because they’ve decided his nuts! They’ve heard what he’s up to and they think he’s gone crazy. And not only are they there, some of the religious authorities from Jerusalem have come and they are saying that Jesus is evil! He’s in league with Beelzebul, either because he’s been possessed or, worse, because he’s intentionally working for the Devil.

Here is Jesus doing good works, healing people, feeding people, casting out demons, modeling a new kind of kingship, and his family says he’s a lunatic and the scribes say he’s Satan. He declares both assertions to be blasphemy, but he says that these blasphemies can be forgiven, there is only one unforgiveable sin: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.”

Now what is blasphemy? If I were to ask, you’d probably say something like “cursing God” or “speaking ill of God,” and in one sense you would be correct. Muslims might say that drawing a cartoon of Mohammed is a blasphemy and many believe that putting a crucifix in a container of urine, as artist Andres Serrano did several years ago, is a blasphemy. But none of those answers is technically, theologically correct. Blasphemy, as theologian Craig Uffman has written in a paper prepared for the up-coming General Convention, “is claiming God’s union with us in our doing that which is false, such as murdering, stealing, or any of the other ways we choose the opposite of the good.”

Blasphemy is when we claim that in what we are doing, in whatever incomplete, incorrect, sinful, false, inadequate thing we are doing, God is cooperating, that our will is God’s will. The most egregious contemporary example I can think of is the Nazi regime in World War II Germany, which claimed that in their oppression and annihilation of the Jews “Gott mit uns” (“God is with us”). Wehrmacht soldiers wore this slogan on their belt buckles. But God was not with them; God is not in, with, or supportive of any corrupt, false, oppressive, violent, or degrading act of sinful human beings. To claim otherwise is blasphemy, blasphemy against the Spirit of God, the unforgiveable sin.

Now, let’s go back to the Israelites demanding a king . . . I believe that this is why their experiment with kingship worked out so badly, worked out exactly as God warned them through Samuel, again and again as they anointed kings not as administrators of peace (according to the ideal set forth in Deuteronomy) but as warlords to “govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” Those kings might have claimed, as European monarchs later would claim, that they served at the election of and “by the Grace of God.” God’s ideal, however, was very different.

I think that’s why that little tidbit of American history came to mind as I considered this lesson. I believe our Founding Fathers, particularly George Washington, were very wise in eschewing titles of nobility for anyone, but especially such titles and forms of address for our president. We certainly pray that God’s grace will sustain and guide our national leaders, but our leaders serve by the election and selection of the people; they cannot claim to serve “by the Grace of God” and if they do so, they blaspheme! I think that in every election in which I have voted (and I have voted in every election since becoming eligible to do so) there has been at least one candidate who has hinted (and some have said outright) that “God told me to run.” That makes me very uncomfortable because that is the very core of the sin of blasphemy, claiming God’s union with us in what we do, claiming that our will is God’s will. I think that in the acceptance speech of every politician who has successfully run for office during my adulthood there has been some sort of claim (hinted at if not stated outright) that God was responsible for their victory. That makes me very uncomfortable because that is the very core of the sin of blasphemy, claiming God’s union with us in what we do, claiming that our will is God’s will. We’ve had at least one president who claimed that God told him to take our country into war! That makes me very uncomfortable because that is the very core of the sin of blasphemy, claiming God’s union with us in what we do, claiming that our will is God’s will.

Look again at our opening collect this week, the prayer that began our worship today:

O God, from whom all good proceeds: Grant that by your inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

We can certainly seek God’s inspiration and strive to follow God’s merciful guidance. In doing so, we are brothers and sisters of Jesus who said in today’s Gospel lesson, “Who ever does the will of God is my mother and my brother.” But we have to admit that, like the ancient kings of Israel, we are always going to fall short of the ideal! We strive to do God’s will, but because we are human there will be in everything we do that small bit of sinfulness, that portion of self-serving falsehood. By what we do and by what we leave undone, we will constantly err and stray from God’s ways like lost sheep, we will follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts, and we will we offend against God’s holy laws. None of us can ever claim that our will is God’s will; none of us can ever claim that God is in union with us in what we do, because what we do is, at least partially, always corrupt, false, and incomplete. Beware of anyone, especially any leader, especially any politician, who claims otherwise.

The best we can do is the best we can do, always knowing that it will fall short of God’s ideal. Thus, we can never claim that our will and our falsehood is God’s. To do that is unforgiveable blasphemy. All that we can do is acknowledge our shortcomings, constantly seek God’s inspiration, and strive to follow God’s guidance. Then, by the Grace of God, we will be not kings ourselves, but brothers and sisters of the King. Amen.

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

La La La, I Can’t Hear You – From the Daily Office – May 30, 2014

From the First Book of Samuel:

Hannah prayed and said,
“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Samuel 2:2-3 (NRSV) – May 30, 2014)

I Can't Hear You T-Shirt Advertisement“The Lord is a God of knowledge” may be the most important assertion in Hannah’s song. Many bible scholars believe her song to be the model of Mary’s song, The Magnificat. Both are sung by pregnant women; both extol the might and power of God; both confirm God’s preference for the poor and lowly over the rich and powerful. Only Hannah’s song, however, includes this description and her accompanying admonition to her hearers to not speak arrogantly. The translation in The Complete Jewish Bible renders her words in this way: “Stop your proud boasting! Don’t let arrogance come from your mouth! For ADONAI is a God of knowledge, and he appraises actions.”

The clear import of Hannah’s words is that actions speak louder than words and that God, “a God of knowledge,” knows both our words and our actions; if our words and actions are not in accord, God will know and judge according to the former no matter what we may say.

This morning, however, the depiction of Yahweh as “a God of knowledge” appealed to me in a different way, not as a description of an attribute of God, but as a statement of what God encourages in others. This is the God who gave human beings the capacity to learn, to engage in science and research, to explore new things, and (most importantly) to reason and apply what they have learned. And this God expects us to use this capacity, to actually do these things. As Galileo Galilei said in a letter written in 1651, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

We are not to remain ignorant, either of the nature of the world around us or of the nature of God. In moral theology ignorance is described as either invincible and vincible. Ignorance is considered invincible if a person cannot not overcome it by applying reasonable diligence in seeking its remedy. Ignorance is vincible if the application of reasonable diligence could remove it. (Reasonable diligence is that effort that a conscientious person would exert in seeking the correct answer to a question given (a) the gravity of the question and (b) the particular resources available.)

We seem to live in an age of pretend invincible ignorance. One of my favorite science fiction authors, the late Dr. Isaac Asimov, wrote in an essay for Newsweek magazine in 1980, “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” In the three decades since, things have gotten worse.

Contemporary logicians, in fact, now use the term to describe what might be the simplest of all logical fallacies, the refusal to face facts, the insistence on the legitimacy of one’s position in the face of contradictory evidence. It’s a pretty good clue that someone is engaging in this fallacy if they say something like “I really don’t care what the experts say; no one is going to convince me that I’m wrong” or “Nothing you say is going to change my mind” or even “Yeah, okay, whatever!”

Children arguing with one another stick their fingers in their ears and shout, “La la la, I can’t hear you.” We live in a world when adults seem to believe this is a proper form of political or religious or scientific argument. It’s not. This is not the invincible ignorance of moral theology, but it is immoral. This is willful ignorance, and willful ignorance is sinful. As Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologica:

It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. … This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary, either directly, as when a man wishes of set purpose to be ignorant of certain things that he may sin the more freely; or indirectly, as when a man, through stress of work or other occupations, neglects to acquire the knowledge which would restrain him from sin. For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is bound and able to know.” (Summa, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3)

The Lord is a God of knowledge; the Lord is not impressed with “La la la, I can’t hear you.”

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

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

Blind to Community – Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A) – March 30, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 30, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; and John 9:1-41. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Jesus Heals the Man Born BlindTwo weeks ago our Gospel lesson was the story of Nicodemus with whom Jesus discussed birth. Jesus talked about being born anew, being born of spirit, but Nicodemus could only think of physical birth and talked about crawling back into his mother’s womb. The words were all about birth, but the lesson wasn’t really about birth, at all. It was, as we all know, about a new life in Christ, about becoming a new person through the power of God.

Last week, we heard the story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. Jesus asked her for a drink and they talked about water. Jesus said that he could supply living water and that whoever drank it would never be thirsty and would live forever; she thought he was talking about physical water, so she asked for some so that she wouldn’t have to come to the well everyday. The words were all about water, but the lesson wasn’t really about water, at all. It was, as we all know, about sustaining the life of begun in new birth, about the constant refreshment of one’s spirit through the power of God.

Today, we have the story of the man born blind whom Jesus cures by applying a poultice of mud made with dust and spittle. The disciples want to know why he is blind: is it because he sinned or because his parents sinned. The people who knew the man as a blind beggar want to know if it’s really him: they don’t recognize him when he comes back to them sighted. The Pharisees want to know if any law was broken when his sight was restored: it happened on a sabbath and the healing might have constituted work. The words are all about blindness and sight, but . . . guess what? . . . the lesson isn’t really about sight or blindness, at all. So what’s this story about?

Let’s leave that question for a moment and remember what day this is, why it is we have flowers on the altar in the middle of Lent, why (if we had them) we would be using rose colored vestments today, and why (if we were the Crawleys of Downton Abbey) the servants would be away today. The answer to all those questions is that today is Mid-Lent, the fourth Sunday of the season, sometimes called Laetare Sunday or Refreshment Sunday or Mothering Sunday.

That Latin name (which means “Rejoicing Sundy”) comes from the practice of the medieval church which used, on Fourth Lent, an opening sentence derived from the Prophet Isaiah to begin the Mass

Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam . . . .

Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her . . . .

With this admonition to “rejoice,” the sobriety of Lent was lessened which was liturgically symbolized by replacing the penitential purple or violet vestments with rose colored garb for the clergy. Of interest to us in connection with our Gospel lesson, however, is the second admonition of the medieval introit: “Come together all you who love her.” Keep that in mind.

The name “Mothering Sunday” may come from the traditional epistle lesson read on this Sunday prior to the advent of the new lectionaries. In the English church, that lesson came from the Letter to the Galatians in which St. Paul refers to Jerusalem as “our mother” (Gal. 4:26). Perhaps because of that lesson, a tradition began in the early Renaissance (if not earlier) of people returning to their mother church, either the place where they were raised or the cathedral of their diocese. This was a particularly British and Irish tradition, but it was also observed in some places in continental Europe. Those who made the trek were commonly said to have gone “a-mothering,” hence the name Mothering Sunday. As the tradition continued, it became a custom of the aristocracy to give the day to their domestic servants as a day off to visit their mother church, and their own mothers and families. It also became a tradition for children to pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or to give to their mothers, so we have flowers in church. Visiting one’s place and family of origin, then, is another hint, I think, to the meaning of today’s Gospel lesson.

Because of the gathering of families on Mothering Sunday, the Lenten fast was relaxed and it became known as “Refreshment Sunday.” There are special baked treats made for this day called “Simnel Cakes” and “Mothering Buns.” The first is an almond paste and candied fruit bread similar to, but not as heavy as, fruitcake. The second are sweet rolls topped with white icing and multi-colored sprinkles known in England as “the hundreds and thousands.” It’s believed that both traditions, like others I’ve mentioned, stem from a biblical passage traditionally used on this Sunday, in this case the feeding of the five thousand (John 6:5-14). Another old name for this day is “the Sunday of the Five Loaves” which these cakes represent.

A last “fun fact” about the Fourth Sunday in Lent. There is, for example, a very peculiar English custom associated with it called “clipping the church.” The word “clipping,” however, has nothing to do with cutting or with coupons in the newspaper; it is apparently from the an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning to clasp or to embrace. In “clipping the church,” the congregation form a ring around their church building and, holding hands, embrace it. If the weather were better (and the building smaller), I’d suggest we do that! (Apparently, “clipping the church” is also done on Shrove Tuesday and on the Monday of Easter week. I’m not sure why it’s ever done!)

So what do all these traditions of the Fourth Sunday in Lent have in common: an introit admonishing those who love Jerusalem to gather together; a tradition of return home and gathering with one’s family; special cakes commemorating the feeding of 5,000 people on a hillside in the Holy Land; and the members of a congregation holding hands and embracing their church building. If I were to suggest one word to name the commonality, it would be “community.” And I want to suggest to you that community is what the story of the healing of the man blind from birth is all about, although everyone in the story (other than Jesus) is unable to appreciate that, just as Nicodemus did not appreciate that the conversation about birth was not about birth and the Samaritan woman did not understand that the discussion of water was not about water.

So it’s about community in a sort of negative way . . . when the blind man is healed he goes back home to his neighborhood, and what happens?

The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” But they kept asking . . . . (Jn. 9:8-10)

They don’t even recognize him! Without the defining characteristic of his handicap, they can’t relate to him; they don’t even know who he is! Some community, huh?

And then, once he convinces them that he is who he says he is, what do they do? They question the process and the procedure and the legality of the healing. They take him to the Pharisees, to whom he has to give a detailed explanation of the mud, and even with that the Pharisees suggest that he’s lying to them, or that his parents were lying, that he wasn’t ever really blind: “The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them.” (Jn 9:18) And when they are finally convinced that he was blind and has been given his sight, they say it isn’t legal because Jesus did it on the Sabbath. And, in the end, this poor man, whose healing should be a source of rejoicing and celebration, is not embraced by his community; he is expelled! “And they drove him out.” (Jn. 9:34)

It’s really quite sad. This miraculous thing happens in their midst — “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind” (Jn. 9:32) — and not a single one of them praises God for the healing. No one says, “Hallelujah!” No one congratulates the man who now has his sight! No one, not even his parents, says, “That’s great! We’re pleased.” The eyes of one man were opened . . . but because those around him could not see the wonder there was nothing but turmoil. Some community, huh?

In this awful way, this negative way, this story is not about blindness; it’s not about sight. It’s about community or, really, the failure of community. It underscores by their pronounced absence the terrible important of all the things the old medieval and renaissance traditions of this Fourth Sunday of Lent emphasize: gathering with family, rejoicing with friends, embracing the church, being in community.

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, open our eyes that we may see you in our families, in our churches, in our communities, in the lives of all our sisters and brothers; open our minds that we may understand their sorrows and their pain, their hopes and their dreams, their triumphs and their joys; open our hearts to give generously of ourselves; grant us wisdom to respond effectively to the needs of your people with grace and compassion, to their blessings with thanksgiving and delight; give us the courage to speak your words of life, peace, love, mercy, gratitude, and human community; through him with whom in the company of the Holy Spirit you form the community we call the Trinity, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

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

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

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

From the First Book of Kings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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