That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Galatians (page 2 of 5)

No Grief So Profound: Sermon for Pentecost 3, Proper 5C (5 June 2016)

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

A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 5, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 5C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 17:17-24; Psalm 30; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Luke 7:11-17. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

raisingthewidowssonI am convinced that there is no grief quite so profound as that of a mother whose child has died. I know that fathers in the same situation feel a nearly as intense sorrow at the death of their sons or daughters, but having spent time with grieving parents, I am convinced that the grief of a mother faced with the loss of her child is the deepest sadness in human experience.

About nine hundred years before the time of Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet Elijah spoke the word of God during the reign of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Jezebel was a foreigner who worshipped the god Ba’al and this was an abomination in Elijah’s eyes, and he was not remiss in letting the queen and everyone else know what he thought of that. He challenged Ahab about his wife and her religion, something the king did not appreciate. So Elijah fled the country; the First Book of Kings tells us that he did so at the command of God, who apparently wished to preserve the life of his prophet.

God sent Elijah during a time of famine to a widow in the Phoenician town of Zarephath. The woman was surprised by Elijah’s demand, pointing out that she had just enough flour and oil to make a last meal for her and her son, after which they expected to die of starvation. Elijah (as we heard) told her not to worry, that if she would feed Elijah, her canister of flour and her flask of oil would never run out until the famine ended. Sure enough that proved to be true. But not long after that meal, her son died.

In anger, out of the depths of that profound sorrow, she lashed out at Elijah: “What have you against me, O man of God? You have come to me to bring my sin to remembrance, and to cause the death of my son!” Elijah, faced with his hostess’s grief and anger, was also angered by the boy’s death. “He cried out to the Lord, ‘O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?’”

Nearly a millennium later, Luke tells us that Jesus also encountered another grieving mother. Entering the town of Nain, he encountered a funeral procession for a young man and was confronted by the deep maternal sorrow of his widowed mother. In our English translation, Luke says that Jesus felt compassion for the woman. The Greek word is a little earthier: splagchnizomai. It is derived from the word splagchna, which means “entrails” or “intestines”. It means, literally, to have one’s gut wrenched; it says that one has a feeling deep in one’s gut, the deepest of all human emotions, the kind of feeling that is physical as much as emotive. The best definition I’ve ever heard of splagchnizomai is that it is a lurching feeling deep in your gut that compels you to do something. That is a great description for both Jesus’ compassion for the widow of Nain and Elijah’s anger at the death of the son of the widow of Zarephath.

Today, in follow up to our Ninth Annual Gentlemen’s Cake Auction, we welcome and honor Michelle Powell, a single mother of two, who in the summer of 2000, had that sort of feeling deep in her gut that compelled her to do something. With limited resources, offering nothing more than a simple meal and a game of kickball at the local park, she started Let’s Make a Difference and began a journey that would ultimately change her life and positively impact the lives of many at-risk children in need in the Medina community. The mission of Let’s Make a Difference is “to provide positive social growth in the lives of children in need through educational, spiritual and creative experiences, promoting the fact that each person can make a difference.” This summer Let’s Make a Difference will offer character development activities, field trips, academic enrichment, arts and crafts, games and lots of fun, and make a huge difference in the lives of many of Medina’s underprivileged children.

We also welcome and pay tribute to retired educator Carol Andregg. In 2007, as an outgrowth of Let’s Make a Difference, Michelle and Carol started an after-school program for students at Claggett Middle School. Called Achieving Connections through Education (or “ACE”), the program assists students on four days of a typical five-day school week with daily homework assignments, longer term projects, behavioral issues, and developing respect for self and others. ACE has made a significant impact in the lives of their students, many of whom have successfully completed high school and gone on to college. Today, we honor and support Michelle, Carol, Let’s Make a Difference, and Achieving Connections through Education with a grant of $2,635, the total amount raised through this year’s cake auction. (See the Let’s Make a Difference Website)

Writing about the gospel story we have heard this morning, the Rev. Lia Scholl, pastor at Richmond Mennonite Fellowship in Richmond, Virginia, has offered what she calls a four-lesson, do-it-yourself guide to healing like Jesus.

#1: Pay Attention

The first lesson? We have to be paying attention. Jesus is walking along, sees a funeral procession and notices the mother of the deceased boy or man. He notices her.

#2: Give a Crap

The second lesson? Give a crap. How easy it would have been for Jesus to just walk on by. No one expected him to heal every sick or dead person who crossed his path. Jesus gave a crap.

#3: Be Willing to Feel

The third lesson? We have to be willing to feel. The NIV translates this passage as “his heart went out to her.” We have to be willing to hurt. That’s what compassion is. To share in someone’s pain.

#4: Healing Can Happen

The fourth lesson? We just walk up to someone who is dead and we command that they get better. It works! It really works. No, it doesn’t.

The fourth lesson is that healing can happen if the other things are in place. It may not be supernatural, immediate healing. But healing can happen . . . .

(How to Heal Like Jesus: Luke’s DIY Guide to Healing People)

I think Pastor Scholl has pretty well encapsulated everything we need to learn from these stories of mothers whose children died and from the ministry done in each case by Elijah and Jesus: pay attention, care so much you do something, be willing to be hurt, and trust that healing can happen. That’s what Michelle and Carol have done and why Let’s Make a Difference is making a difference. That’s what good people throughout time have done.

polio-deaths2The year that I was born was the worst of the mid-20th Century polio epidemic; about 55,000 Americans contracted the disease that year and more than 3,100 died, mostly children. As a society, we decided that that much illness and death was simply unacceptable, and an all-out effort was underway to put an end to it. Within just a few years, Jonas Salk and his team developed the vaccine which ended the epidemic; a few years later, the Sabin oral vaccine was developed and polio has been just about eradicated throughout the world. (Graphic from Polio Cases, Deaths, and Vaccination Rates.)

We are now in the midst of an even more deadly epidemic in this country, an epidemic of gun violence, and that is the point of the odd-colored stole I am wearing today.

Wear_Orange_InstagramOn January 21, 2013, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old high school student from the south side of Chicago, marched with her school’s band in President Obama’s second inaugural parade. One week later, Hadiya was shot and killed. She was shot in the back while standing with friends inside Harsh Park in Kenwood, Chicago, after taking her final exams. She was not the intended victim; the perpetrator, a gang member, had mistaken her group of friends for a rival gang.

On Hadiya’s birthday, June 2, her friends chose to wear orange, the color hunters wear in the woods to protect themselves, to remember her life. What started in a south side high school to celebrate Hadiya has turned into a nationwide movement to honor all lives cut short by gun violence. Now, June 2 each year is National Gun Violence Awareness Day, and those who participate wear orange to celebrate of life, to raise awareness of the scourge of gun violence, and to call for action to help save other lives from gunfire. (See Wear Orange)

This year, beginning here in Ohio, Episcopal clergy and clergy of many other denominations, including many of our bishops, have decided to wear out-of-the-ordinary orange vestments for the same purpose. (See Episcopal News Service) Too many of us have sat with and held the hands of too many mothers, too many fathers whose children have died, too many widows of Zarephath, too many widows of Nain. We have felt the rage of Elijah and the gut-wrenching compassion of Jesus but, unlike them, we are unable to change the circumstances. If we could have prevented those deaths, we would; if we could raise those dead children, we would. We can’t. But what we can do is raise awareness.

Here are just a few of the realities of the gun violence epidemic in this country:

  • On an average day in America, 91 people die from gun shots. If you compute that out, you’ll find that the number of deaths per year is more than 33,000; that is ten times the number of deaths from polio in the worst year of that epidemic. (See Everytown for Gun Safety)
  • Sometimes we hear people claim that the risk of gun death, especially the risk to children and teens, is higher in urban areas than in the suburbs or in rural communities. The fact is that the risk of gun death is the same in all areas, although the underlying reason for the death may be different: “Youth (ages 0 to 19) in the most rural U.S. counties are as likely to die from a gunshot as those living in the most urban counties. Rural children die of more gun suicides and unintentional shooting deaths. Urban children die more often of gun homicides.” (See Brady Campaign: About Gun Violence)
  • 64% of all gun deaths are suicides. (See Everytown for Gun Safety) “Someone with access to firearms is three times more likely to commit suicide” than someone living in a home where there are no guns. (See Access to Guns Increases Risk of Suicide)
  • Last week there was an enormous amount of news coverage about the shooting and killing of the silver-back ape Harambe at the Cincinnati Zoo. While that was a tragedy, I suggest to you that even more tragic were the three shootings of human beings in Ohio which were statistically likely to have happened the same day. Did you know that? That, statistically, an Ohio resident is shot to death every eight hours? In 2011 in this state “an average of one aggravated assault with a firearm [occurred] every two and a half hours.” (See Fact Sheet: Ohio Gun Violence)
  • Did you know that during the current year alone there have been 121 mass shootings (in which four or more persons were injured or killed) in the United States? That’s more than five per week, and more than half of those were the result of a family or domestic dispute; very many of the victims of those shootings were children. (See Gun Violence Archive)
  • Did you know that since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, on December 14, 2012, there has been at least one on-campus shooting in a school or college nearly every week? More than 160 incidents in which 59 people were killed and 124 were injured. (See Analysis of School Shootings)
  • Did you know that seven children and teens (age 19 or under) are killed with guns in the U.S. on an average day? (See Brady Campaign: About Gun Violence)

Seven mothers every day suffer the profound, gut-wrenching, soul-deep sorrow of the widows of Zarephath and Nain because of the preventable deaths of their children.

Gun violence is an epidemic far worse than the polio epidemic. Unlike the polio epidemic, however, it is one about which we need do no research to stem! We know the cause and we know how to stop it. If guns were a disease that killed 30,000 or more, this epidemic would have ended long ago. And yet we take no action to put an end to it.

Scholars often debate the historical accuracy of stories from the Bible; these two stories today get a lot of attention in that regard. But whether they are historically accurate or not is really not the point. These stories have a lesson to teach. As theologian Bill Loader says,

Whether or not one wants to defend the historicity of such accounts or is happy to see them as legendary expressions of faith, they still have a role within a broader perspective. [The story of Jesus raising the son of the widow of Nain], in particular, deserves to be allowed its symbolic potential. The ministry of Jesus and ours is about addressing real human need and it is about compassion. This is indeed his mission, God’s mission.

Such compassion and caring in action has few short-cuts to success, if any. A cross stands in the road, which unveils reality for both the carers and the world in need of care. In the midst of the complexity of human need is hope and the possibility of renewal and life. It is built on the foundation that all people are of value and none is to be dismissed or despised. Our world still needs that kind of good news and our challenge is to become it and help others become it. (First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary)

Our gift to the good people of Let’s Make a Difference and the marvelous work they do with at-risk children in Medina is a significant step in God’s mission of compassion, but it is only one step. These children, our children, our grandchildren are at risk every day from dangers, some of which we cannot know or imagine, but one of which we know all too well, the epidemic of preventable gun violence.

About the story of Elijah and the dead boy in Zarephath, Presbyterian pastor MaryAnn McKibben Dana, author of Sabbath in the Suburbs, writes:

As a minister of the gospel, I cannot bring ailing boys back to life – how I wish I could. But this story convicts me that while I am called to offer presence and a message of grace to people hungering for wholeness and justice, presence and eloquent words are not enough. This widow would surely offer an “Amen” to James when he wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Elijah is not off the hook simply because the jars of meal and oil have not run out. He must do all he can for the continued well-being of her son. (Political Theology Today)

We are not let off the hook by our grant to Let’s Make a Difference; we must do all we can for the continued well-being of the children they serve and of all the children of our community and our nation. That means being aware of and working for the end of the epidemic of gun violence which threatens them.

Carolyn Winfrey Gillette is another Presbyterian elder who writes hymns. Her hymn God of Mercy, You Have Shown Us was written at the request of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program for an International Peace Day in September, 2009. I will close with her lyrics as a prayer:

God of mercy, you have shown us ways of living that are good:
Work for justice, treasure kindness, humbly journey with the Lord.
Yet your people here are grieving, hurt by weapons that destroy.
Help us turn to you, believing in your way that brings us joy.

On a street where neighbors gather, shots are heard; a young girl dies.
On a campus, students scatter as the violence claims more lives.
In a family filled with anger, tempers flare and shots resound.
God of love, we weep and wonder at the violence all around.

God, we pray for those who suffer when this world seems so unfair;
May your church be quick to offer loving comfort, gentle care.
And we pray: Amid the violence, may we speak your truth, O Lord!
Give us strength to break the silence, saying, “This can be no more!”

God, renew our faith and vision, make us those who boldly lead!
May we work for just decisions that bring true security.
Help us change this violent culture based on idols, built on fear.
Help us build a peaceful future with your world of people here.

(Gun Violence Prevention: Worship Resources)

There is no grief so profound as that of the widows of Zarephath and Nain, the grief a mother whose child has died. Let us do all in our power to prevent that grief whenever we can. Let us learn from Jesus: pay attention to what is happening, care so much we do something, be willing to be hurt, and trust that this epidemic can be healed. And let us make a difference! 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.

Sermon for the 199th Annual Meeting: Conversion of Paul (24 January 2016)

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

A sermon offered on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 24, 2016, to the 199th Annual Meeting of the members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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

An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.
(Apostle by poet and priest Malcolm Guite)

A lovely sonnet getting at the contradictions and paradoxes of Saul the Pharisee, dedicated persecutor of the church, who became Paul the Apostle, greatest promoter of the church’s gospel. In lyrically detailing those polarities, Malcolm Guite gives us a hint at what is meant by “conversion.”

If we look up “conversion” on the internet, we find (in Wikipedia, for example) that there are definitions pertaining to its use in law, in finance and economics, in linguistic and computing, in sports and entertainment, and (of course) in religion. However, I think the Wikipedia article on religious conversion gets it sadly wrong.

We read there that religious conversion is “the adoption of a set of beliefs identified with one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. Thus ‘religious conversion’ would describe the abandoning of adherence to one denomination and affiliating with another.” (Wikipedia) That’s wrong. Conversion has nothing to do with “sets of beliefs;” adopting one of those in place of another is simply changing one’s mind. And it isn’t about abandoning one denomination for another; that’s simply changing clubs.

Conversion has to do with something much, much more. And I would suggest to you that it is something over which the person converting has really very little control. We do not convert; we are converted.

Certainly that is the case with Saul. His conversion as he describes it here to King Agrippa (and as Luke, the author of Acts, describes it earlier in Chapter 9), this is not conversion over which Saul has any control at all! I’m sure, though, that he was open to it. I’m sure that, as a faithful Jew, Saul prayed the daily Amidah (or “Standing Prayer”) which includes this petition: “You graciously bestow knowledge upon man and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from you, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are you Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.” (chabad.org) I rather doubt, however, that he expected it to be answered in quite so dramatic a fashion.

Religious conversion is a matter of being; it implies a new reference point for the convert’s self-identity, a complete change of direction. Whatever had been the pole star of the convert’s moral compass, another utterly replaces it. While there is a moment of conversion, an experience of being turned toward the new reference point, conversion is not complete unless it is appropriated, adopted, lived into by the convert; it is after the moment of conversion that “the adoption of a set of beliefs” or the affiliating with a new religious community takes place. Thus, conversion is never a one-and-done. Conversion does not end in the moment; it continues for a lifetime.

Saul became Paul, his baptismal name taken as token of that change in his being, that reorientation toward a new pole star, Jesus the Christ. We can see his living into all that that entails as he works out his new theology in his letters to the churches.

His example is for us. Each of us is, like Paul, living into a conversion. We may have come to our Christian faith by our upbringing rather than through a distinct moment of conversion. We may have been baptized as infants never to have known a moment when the direction of our life was changed. We may have come to faith slowly, perhaps we are not even sure we are there yet! Nonetheless, as members of the Christian community, like Paul, we are called to grow into the implications of conversion.

As the great Presbyterian story teller Frederick Buechner has written in his book Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, Scripture is filled with many examples unlike the great conversions such as Paul’s:

There are a number of conversions described in the New Testament. You think of Paul seeing the light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), or the Ethiopian eunuch getting Philip to baptize him on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:28-40). There is also the apostle Thomas saying, “My Lord and my God!” when he is finally convinced that Jesus is alive and whole again (John 20:26-29), not to mention the Roman centurion who witnessed the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Luke 23:47). All these scenes took place suddenly, dramatically, when they were least expected. They all involved pretty much of an about-face, which is what the word conversion means. We can only imagine that they all were accompanied by a good deal of emotion.

But in this same general connection there are other scenes that we should also remember. There is the young man who, when Jesus told him he should give everything he had to the poor if he really wanted to be perfect as he said he did, walked sorrowfully away because he was a very rich man. There is Nicodemus, who was sufficiently impressed with Jesus to go talk to him under cover of darkness and later to help prepare his body for burial, but who never seems to have actually joined forces with him. There is King Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s impassioned defense of his faith, said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28, KJV). There is even Pontius Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) under such circumstances as might lead you to suspect that just possibly, half without knowing it, he really hoped Jesus would be able to give him the answer, maybe even become for him the answer.

Like the conversions, there was a certain amount of drama about these other episodes too and perhaps even a certain amount of emotion, though for the most part unexpressed. But of course in the case of none of them was there any about-face. Presumably all these people kept on facing more or less the same way they had been right along. King Agrippa, for instance, kept on being King Agrippa just as he always had. And yet you can’t help wondering if somewhere inside himself, as somewhere also inside the rest of them, the “almost” continued to live on as at least a sidelong glance down a new road, the faintest itching of the feet for a new direction.

We don’t know much about what happened to any of them after their brief appearance in the pages of Scripture, let alone what happened inside them. We can only pray for them, not to mention also for ourselves, that in the absence of a sudden shattering event, there was a slow underground process that got them to the same place in the end.

There is another conversion in the story of Paul’s conversion. It is not in our reading today but in Luke’s version in Chapter 9; he tells us of Ananias, to whom the Lord appeared commissioning him to teach Paul. Ananias objects at first; “No way,” he says. The Lord’s words, however, convince him to do as he is bidden and he becomes Paul’s teacher. Paul, after receiving Ananias’s instruction, preaches in the synagogues that Jesus is Lord. These two men, Paul and Ananias, represent two different communities, the new community of the disciples and the old community of the synagogue, both of which are transformed by gospel of Jesus, the risen Lord. The two conversions are a vision, a sign, of how the name of the risen Lord takes shape and unfolds in the lives of believers and communities of believers.

These stories of Paul, of Ananias, of the rich young man, of Nicodemus, and the others, invite us to consider how we look at our own world, who we respond when God takes our “no way,” and our “we’ve never done that before” and transforms them into “yes.” God gives us new vision, God rearranges our ways of seeing, being, and acting. God changes our world.

We know this to be true in our community, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, a constituent congregation of the Diocese of Ohio, of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and (still, despite the demands of some foreign primates) of the Anglican Communion. We have seen this community, this parish grow, change, change directions, build, renew, and adapt, all in response to God’s “yes” even when many of us might have said “no way” and even when many of us did say “we’ve never done it that way before.”

And look where God’s “yes” has brought us. Fourteen youths and adults were confirmed or received this year; five persons were baptized. They represent a 3% growth in the registered membership of the parish. Our weekly attendance in 2015 increased 5% over 2014’s average attendance. There were twice as many marriages last year compared to the year before, 20% more home communion visits, and nearly 70% more weekly prayer services.

Free Farmers’ Market, our largest outreach ministry, fed over 4,000 people, distributing almost 50,000 pounds of food during the year. We helped sustain the Summit-Medina Battered Women’s Shelter with numerous gifts-in-kind including bathroom and kitchen supplies, personal hygiene and laundry items, and new clothing for women and children. We contributed over $1,200 to the United Thank Offering and made a grant (through the Gentlemen’s Cake Auction) to a local elementary school (Garfield) to create a college vision experience for their Fourth Graders. 2015’s 9th Annual Cake Auction, by the way, increased the total for that program to over $18,000 in monies raised for ministries outside the parish.

Our youth group, the Episcopal Youth Community of St. Paul’s Parish, has grown to over twenty young people who have traveled on mission trips, attended diocesan and national youth events, taken part in Happening and other youth retreats, and hosted the annual Homelessness Awareness Sleep-Out and raising hundreds of dollars for the homeless shelter program in our community. St. Paul’s youth program is recognized as one of the premier ministries to, for, and by teens in this diocese.

Financially, this has been a banner year. We began the year thinking we were going to spend over $18,000 more than we would have available through donations and other income. Well, we did end with a deficit, but not nearly so large as we thought: as the Treasurer’s Report will show, it ended up being only $6,000. We made up two-thirds of the anticipated deficit. For the coming year, based on the outstanding charitable generosity of our members and the good financial stewardship of the vestry and the staff, we have seen an increase in anticipated income, a decrease in anticipated expenses, with a deficit of only $8,000 anticipated. If we do as well in the coming year as we have done in the past year, we will overcome that budgetary deficit and end with the year with an operating surplus. Despite this year’s operating surplus, we nonetheless have seen an increase in the parish’s overall financial health. We are almost $55,000 wealthier at year’s end than we were at the beginning; about half of that is a decrease in our indebtedness, the other half is an increase in our savings.

We have seen where God’s “yes” can bring us. Looking to the future, what can we foresee? What do we imagine what God is going to do with St. Paul’s Parish? Where is God leading us? What will be our response when God says to us, as he said to our Patron Saint, “Get up and Go, because I have chosen you and am commissioning you for the life of my community?” What will be our response when Jesus says to us, as he said to the first apostles, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves?”

I know what our response will be, because we have already given it many times. It will be the same as St. Paul’s, the same as Ananias’s: “Yes, Lord!” And “God, our own God, [will] give us his blessing, [and] all the ends of the earth [shall] stand in awe of him.” 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.

Faith, Hope, and Charity – Sermon for Pentecost 22 (25 October 2015)

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

A sermon offered on Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25B, Track 1, RCL), October 25, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Job 42:1-6,10-17, Psalm 34:1-8, Hebrews 7:23-28; and Mark 10:46-52. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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

Faith-Hope-CharityLast week, I gave away the ending of Job. I told you that everything turned out all right in the end, and so it has. Job has repented, not of any sin that warranted his suffering, but of the pride and arrogance (and ignorance) he displayed during his suffering by demanding to confront God. God has forgiven him and to make up for all his loss, his fortunes have been restored many times over. Happy ending! Except not quite . . .

I’ll come back to Job in a minute, but first I want to look at a petition in today’s opening collect and then at the gospel story. The petition is this: “Increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity.” The gospel story is the restoration of sight to blind Bartimaeus to whom Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.”

What is “faith,” the first of the theological virtues our prayer asks of God and the active agent in healing Bartimaeus? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1) Faith is sometimes equated with belief, and in an ancient way that is true but in the modern sense of the word “belief,” that is a misleading equation.

In contemporary English, “belief” is understood to be an opinion or judgment of which the believer is fully persuaded, or alternatively it is considered intellectual assent to a factual assertion. By some it is derided as a false alternative to scientific certainty: one is said to believe that which cannot be proven, but to know that which is made evident by factual data. That’s a false dichotomy, but not one I want to debate this morning. For the moment, let’s accept the notion that belief is assent to an opinion, judgment, or assertion. This may be the first step of faith for, as Paul reminds us in the Letter to the Romans, “faith comes from what is heard,” (Rom 10:17a), through acceptance of assertions. However, faith must be more than that.

In the Epistle of James, we are reminded that such faith, faith which consists only of belief, “by itself, if it has no works, is dead,” (Jm 2:17) and Paul would seem to agree with that when, in his letter to the Galatians, he writes that “the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” (Gal 5:6b, emphasis added)

So, then, faith is not simply the same as belief (as belief is currently understood). Faith is belief plus action. This is in accord with the New Testament understanding of faith; remember that our New Testament was written in Greek and the word we translate as “faith” is pistis, a verb. From a New Testament perspective, faith is not a noun, an object or substance which one has; faith is a verb, an action which one does. But is it more? Is there another element of faith.

I suggest to you that there is and we find that element in the original meaning of the word “belief.” Our word “belief” derives from the same root as our word “beloved,” and in original meaning as more the sense of “confidence” or “trust” than of intellectual assent. It means to give one’s heart to the object of one’s belief.

Faith then is belief plus action plus confidence, and it was faith such as this which led blind Bartimaeus to throw off his cloak and cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even when those around him would silence him, this faith made him yell even more loudly. This is the faith which our opening prayer asks God to increase in us: not our assurance of the rectitude of some factual assertion made (for example) in the Nicene Creed, but that belief given shape in action and that action undertaken with confidence, and confidence (the Letter to the Hebrews tells us) belongs to hope (Heb 3:6), which is the second theological virtue in our petition to God this morning.

Did you know that we have iconic depictions of the theological virtues in our stained glass windows? Look to the back of the church over the entrance doors. Below the circular rose window are the figures of three women. One holds a cross; one, an anchor; and one, loaves of bread. The figure with the cross is the depiction of Faith. Next to her is the figure holding the anchor of Hope. Which brings us back to Job.

We are, as I mentioned earlier, at the end of the story and everything has turned out all right. Job confesses that he has been arrogant and prideful in demanding a hearing before God; he is healed of his loathsome sores, reconciled to God, and rewarded with an abundance of wealth and family and comfort.

Once again, however, the lectionary leaves something out. Between verse 6, the end of his confession, and verse 10, which begins the description of his reward, God addresses Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. God says, “My wrath is kindled against you . . . ; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (v. 7)

What is the difference between Job and these other three? The answer is, “Hope.” Throughout his ordeal, despite his pride, despite his arrogant demand that God present himself, despite his denials of any sin, Job has steadfastly maintained his hope in the justice of God. His friends have counseled him to admit to wrongdoing that even they are not sure he has done; they have advised him to just give up. They have given up hope, but Job has not.

What is “hope”? Well, that’s a good question. St. Paul wrote a lot about hope in his various letters, but he never really defines it. He comes closest to doing so in the Letter to Romans in which he writes: “[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Rm 5:3-5) And then later in the same letter he says, “In hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Rm 8:24-25)

Theologically, hope is the “virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit.” (C.C.C., 2nd Ed., 1997, Para. 1817)

Hope is not optimism. Optimism claims everything will be good despite all evidence of reality to the contrary; pessimism denies even the possibility of good because of present evidence. The nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer said, “The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.”

Optimism can be defeated by reality. Pessimism revels in reality but defeats itself. Hope, like optimism, expects the good. Hope, like pessimism, accepts reality. Hope does not deny the poverty of spirit that underlies fear, the sinfulness that underlies all tragedy, and the evil that causes systemic inertia. Hope, however, has a trump card – the capacity of the human heart. When reality grinds optimism down and reduces pessimism to a self-defeating smugness, hope will go toe-to-toe with reality because the heart’s capacity to love refuses to quit. This is why the letter to the Hebrews describes hope as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Heb 6:19) and why the iconic figure of Hope holds an anchor.

This is the steadfastness that our opening prayer seeks from God.

The last of the theological virtues for which we have prayed is Charity, who is depicted in our window as a woman distributing bread to hungry children. Theologically, Charity is the “virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God.” (C.C.C., Para. 1822) Interestingly, though, we almost never read of charity in our English language bibles. In the New Revised Standard Version, the word “charity” appears only five times and four of those are in the Apocrypha; in the canonical scriptures, the word appears only in the book of Acts. In the Authorized or “King James” version it appears 24 times, more than a third of those in one book, St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians from which you will (I’m sure) recognize these words:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth . . . . (1 Cor 13:108a)

In our modern translation we have changed the word “charity” to “love” and that bit of First Corinthians has become very popular at weddings, but it’s not about romantic love at all. It is about something much different. You know (you’ve heard it here before!) that the word in the original Greek is agape, which refers to selfless love. This is the love that one extends to all people, whether family members or distant strangers; it is the according of human dignity to everyone, simply because they are human. Agape was translated by St Jerome into the Latin word caritas, which is the origin of our word “charity.” C.S. Lewis referred to it as “gift love” and described it as the highest form of Christian love. But it is not solely a Christian concept; it appears in other religious traditions, such as the idea of metta or “universal loving kindness” in Buddhism.

Charity, agape, is not simply love generated by an impulse emotion. Instead, charity, agape, is an exercise of the will, a deliberate choice. This is why Jesus can command us to love one another as he loves us, to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves. God is not commanding us to have a good feeling for these others, but to act in charity, in “gift love,” in self-giving agape toward them. Charity, agape, is matter of commitment and obedience, not of feeling or emotion. When Paul admonishes Christians in the Letter to the Ephesians to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us,” offering himself (as our reading from Hebrews says) “once for all,” it is precisely this kind of self-sacrificing love, Charity, agape, to which we are called.

When the Resurrected Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, the first two times the word is agape. “Peter,” Jesus is asking, “are you willing to do things for my sake that you do not want to do?” This is the sort of love, of Charity, that is depicted in our third iconic window, the woman giving bread to poor and hungry children, love which leads us to give sacrificially.

The contemporary hymn writer John Bell, a Scotsman affiliated with the Iona Community, has written a beautiful song entitled The Summons which I wish I had the voice to sing to you. I don’t, so you don’t want me to sing it, but please listen as I read the lyrics. I believe these words perfectly describe the sort of Charity our opening prayer asks God to increase in us:

Will you come and follow me
If I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know
And never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown,
Will you let my name be known,
Will you let my life be grown
In you and you in me?

Will you leave yourself behind
If I but call your name?
Will you care for cruel and kind
And never be the same?
Will you risk the hostile stare
Should your life attract or scare?
Will you let me answer pray’r
In you and you in me?

Will you let the blinded see
If I but call your name?
Will you set the pris’ners free
And never be the same?
Will you kiss the leper clean,
And do such as this unseen,
And admit to what I mean
In you and you in me?

Will you love the ‘you’ you hide
If I but call your name?
Will you quell the fear inside
And never be the same?
Will you use the faith you’ve found
To reshape the world around,
Through my sight and touch and sound
In you and you in me?

Lord, your summons echoes true
When you but call my name.
Let me turn and follow you
And never be the same.
In your company I’ll go
Where your love and footsteps show.
Thus I’ll move and live and grow
In you and you in me.

We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of faith – faith like Bartimaeus’s, belief given shape by action undertaken in confidence which is sustained by hope. We have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of hope – hope like Job’s, the sure and steadfast anchor of the soul not crushed by the suffering of the present sustained by the heart’s capacity to love and the assurance that in end all will make sense. And we have prayed this morning that God will increase in us the gift of charity – the agape love commanded and demonstrated by Christ who gave himself once for all which leads us to give sacrificially.

“And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Cor 13:13) May Christ’s charity move and live and grow in us and we in him. 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.

At That Time: A Sermon Offered on St. Francis Day, 4 October 2015

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

A sermon offered on Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, October 4, 2015, to the people of Trinity Cathedral, Cleveland, Ohio.

(The lessons for the day are Jeremiah 22:13-16, Psalm 148:7-14, Galatians 6:14-18, and Matthew 11:25-30.)

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

Detail, Francis in Ecstasy, CaravaggioWhen I was learning the art of preaching, my instructor was a fan of the old Barthian aphorism that a homilist should enter the pulpit with the newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other. So here I am, newspaper and Bible at the ready, and opening the first I find glaring at me the headline you all have also seen: another mass shooting in America – the 294th multiple gun homicide of the year. Like many, if not most, of the clergy here this evening I have preached too many sermons about mass murder and gun control: after Columbine, after the Aurora theater, after the Milwaukee gurdwara, after Sandy Hook Elementary School, after Mother Emanuel Church, after so many others . . . . I’m sorry; my heart is broken and my prayers arise for the Umpqua College victims, their families, and their community. But, even as we gather to remember the Little Poor Man of Assisi, in whose name we often pray, “make me a servant of your peace,” I just don’t have another mass-murder-gun-control sermon to offer.

So I want to tell you about the other headline that grabbed my attention earlier in the week. The hairstyle commonly known as the “man-bun,” which described as “typically worn with hair shaved on the sides of the head with a top-knot worn in the middle,” has been banned at Brigham Young University’s Rexford, Idaho, campus. According to the school’s “Student Honor Administration,” the man-bun is not consistent with the school’s dress code; it is no considered “an extreme hairstyle . . . just something that deviates from the norm.” (BYU-Idaho Scroll)

The BYU action reminded me of a story the late Senator Sam Ervin used to tell about a rather puritanical North Carolina preacher whose ministry bridged a time when women’s hairstyles were changing and women were beginning to wear their hair up in buns and this preacher found that most objectionable. It was, he thought, wanton and sinful for women to tempt men by exposing the curve of their shapely and attractive necks, and so he preached against this “modern” hairstyle. He chose as his text the famous admonition of the Savior Himself: “Top knot, come down!”

“At the conclusion of his sermon an irate woman, wearing a very pronounced topknot, told the preacher that no such text could be found in the Bible. The preacher thereupon opened the Scriptures to the seventeenth verse of the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew and pointed to the words: ‘Let him which is upon the house top not come down to take anything out of his house.’” (Schutz, C., Political Humor: From Aristophanes to Sam Ervin, Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Pr, 1976, p. 42)

That story has nothing to do with St. Francis, but it does illustrate the quandary I felt when considering the lessons assigned to this feast. I don’t want to accuse those who selected these lessons of decontextualizing Scripture quite so badly as Sen. Ervin’s preacher . . . but let’s be honest: these traditional lessons have been selected less because they convey a gospel message than for their superficial reminders of Francis. Clearly, this is true of the epistle in which Paul claims “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body,” a reminder that late in his life Francis bore the Stigmata. Similarly, the Psalm reminds us of Francis’s Canticle of Brother Sun; the reading from Jeremiah, of his service to the needy.

One supposes the gospel lesson was similarly chosen because Jesus’s dismissal of the “wise and intelligent” reminds us that Francis, who came from a wealthy family and could have lived among the educated elite, chose instead a life in solidarity with the voiceless, uneducated poor.

But, when the first words I read in a gospel lesson are “At that time” my curiosity is immediately piqued! “What time?” I want to know. Our evangelist contextualized these words of Jesus, and I want to know what that context is. I hope you do, as well, because I’m about to tell you; we are going to untie this “top knot”.

Chapter 11 of Matthew’s Gospel, the end of which constitutes our lesson, is a discrete literary unit which opens with messengers from John the Baptist asking Jesus if he is the anticipated messiah. Jesus’s reply is, “Tell John what’s happening: the blind see, the lame walk, the mute speak, the dead are raised.” He then turns to those who are with him and says, “By the way, when you went out to the Jordan to see John, what were you expecting?”

He answers his own question, “You expected to see a prophet, and that’s what you got and more.” But, he reminds them that they rejected John because of his asceticism: “John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.'” (v. 18) But when Jesus came, “eating and drinking, … they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax-collectors and sinners!'” (v. 19) They didn’t want the tough asceticism of John, nor did they did want the lighter touch of Jesus.

Why? Because both challenged the status quo; to follow either would have meant changing the rules! John’s way would have required them to renounce worldly pleasure; Jesus’s would have meant welcoming everyone including (heaven forbid!) sinners. They didn’t want to change the rules. They didn’t want to deviate from the status quo. They just wanted someone to bless them the way they were.

Jesus compares them to children who can’t make up their minds, “children sitting in the market-places and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'” (v. 16-17) They are like children who cannot decide whether they want to hold a pretend funeral or a make-believe wedding and end up doing nothing. Australian theologian Bill Loader calls them “the religious wise who seriously go about trying to protect God,” to maintain the status quo. They are the rule-makers and the rule-keepers who miss the point.

In their book The Unblocked Manager (Gower:Brookfield, VT, 1996), Dave Francis and Mike Woodcock make the argument that in business an overly-serious obsession with rules, with established norms, is not compatible with playful creativity and receptivity, that such an attitude inhibits communication and saps new ideas of their excitement, vitality, and strength. St. Francis said much the same thing according to his first biographer, Thomaso da Celano: “It is the devil’s greatest triumph when he can deprive us of the joy of the Spirit. He carries fine dust with him in little boxes and scatters it through the cracks in our conscience in order to dim the soul’s pure impulses and its luster.” (Quoted in Dorothee Solle, The Silent Cry: Mysticism and Resistance; see also, Celano, Second Life, Ch. LXXXVIII.125) That’s what had happened to Jesus’s audience in Matthew 11; they were the rule-makers and the rule-keepers who had been sprinkled with Satan’s powder of unmitigated seriousness.

So Jesus gets really personal and really pointed with them! He condemns three particular communities, pronouncing woes upon Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum, saying of the first two that “if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.” (v. 21) Tyre and Sidon were Philistine centers of pagan religion, business and commerce, and (apparently) prostitution; Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and other prophets foretold their doom and destruction as a result. Of Capernaum, Jesus says that because of its rejection of those same deeds of power “on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you!” (v. 24) In that condemnation we get a hint of what has so angered Jesus for we know that Sodom’s sin was not about sexuality, despite centuries of misinformation on that score; Sodom’s sin was a failure of compassion, generosity, and hospitality. And those words clearly describe the “deeds of power” witnessed and dismissed by Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum.

Actually, we don’t really know what may have happened in Chorazin; it is not otherwise mentioned in the gospels. But we do know that in Bethsaida Jesus gave sight to a blind man and we believe that it was a few miles south of town at Tel Hadar that he fed the Four Thousand. We know that in Capernaum Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law and that a few miles south of there at Tabgha he fed the Five Thousand. Works of compassion, acts of generosity, instances of hospitality, these are the “deeds of power” scorned by the religiously “wise and intelligent,” the overly serious who go about enforcing rules, trying to protect the status quo, missing the point, and sapping Jesus’s gospel of its excitement, vitality, and strength.

We don’t know what the “wise and intelligent” of those towns may have said, what criticism they may have leveled, but on the basis of other conversations reported by the evangelists we can surely speculate. Were the healings done on the Sabbath so that they might constitute “work” in violation of the Law of Moses? Did the crowds at Tel Hadar and Tabgha wash their hands or did they eat in a defiled condition? Especially at Tel Hadar, might there have been Gentiles present? I’m sure we can with some accuracy suggest the concerns and critiques of the rule-keepers.

It is Jesus’s deeds of mercy and compassion that are the evidence of God’s gracious will, not rules! That is why Jesus told John’s messengers, “Look at what’s been done.” “Wisdom,” said Jesus, “is vindicated by her deeds.” (v. 19)

So this is the context of our gospel reading: “At that time, Jesus [angry and frustrated] said, ‘I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from’” these people, these overly-serious rule-keepers who cannot see that there is something more important than rules, who stifle compassion, and generosity, and hospitality, and mercy, and grace. (He’d run into this before. Remember when he visited his home synagogue at Nazareth? Mark tells us that “he could do no deed of power there. . . . And he was amazed at their unbelief.” [Mk 6:5-6]) At that time, he was offended that Capernaum, Bethsaida, and Chorazin had refused to respond. At that time their overly serious attitude and unbelief sapped his good news of its excitement, its vitality, and its strength.

Those overly-serious rule-keepers, the defenders of the status quo are with us today; at this time there are lots of Chorazins, Bethsaidas, and Capernaums. We read about them in the newspaper at this time.

Woe to you, Ft. Lauderdale and Philadelphia and Salt Lake City (and 20 other cities), who deny compassion and make it illegal to feed the homeless and the hungry just to protect your rules about public order!

Woe to you, House of Representatives, you deny health care to hundreds of thousands of poor women who need cancer screenings and perinatal care because of your rules about abortion funding (rules that weren’t being violated in any event)!

Woe to you, Rowan County, KY, you would deny two people who love each other the possibility of marriage because of your rule about homosexuality (a rule that isn’t the law of the land any longer)!

Woe to you, Rexburg, ID, you would deny self-expression to your students because of your petty dress code about hair!
Woe to you, America, you sacrifice the students in your colleges, the children in your schools, the movie-goers in theaters, the worshipers in your temples and churches just to protect a rule you call “the Second Amendment.”

At this time, this is the context within which we hear Jesus say, “I thank you, Father, because you have hidden these things from [the rule-makers, the rule-keepers, and the overly serious] and have revealed them to infants.” (v. 25)

Here’s an interesting thing . . . the Greek word translated as “infant,” the word nepioi, is unlike much of the koiné Greek of the New Testament; it is a word one also finds in classical Greek literature. In the Septuagint, it is used in the Psalms to translate the Hebrew words for the naive, the innocent, and the uneducated. In the Illiad and the Odyssey, it describes those who are socially and spiritually disenfranchised, who have no say not only in public affairs but in their own lives, as well. In all these contexts, it carries the connotation of voicelessness, of being not a rule-maker or a rule-keeper, but one burdened without one’s say by the rules of others.

Our saint today was born in late medieval Italy and christened Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone. “Francis” was a derogatory nickname meaning “little Frenchman,” which apparently had been given him by his father because of his habit of dressing in the French style. He tried to live up to the conventions of his place and time first as merchant with his wealthy father, then as a soldier in the service of his city. Eventually, experiencing a mystical call and a religious conversion, he gave that all up. When his father hauled him before the Bishop of Assisi in legal proceedings, Giovanni renounced his inheritance and stripped naked in public, returning to his father the garments he had paid for. According to his second biographer, St. Bonaventure, “the servant of the most high King was left stripped of all that belonged to him, that he might follow the Lord whom he loved, who hung naked on the cross.” (Major Life, Ch. II.4) He left behind a life among the rule-makers and the rule-keepers, and began a life among the voiceless and the disenfranchised; he laid down the heavy burden of social convention to take up the yoke of Christ.

The life to which Jesus invited Francis, and to which he invites us, is not found in the rules; it is not found in the newspaper. It is found in the examples, in the “deeds of power” we encounter in the Bible. For Francis, it was a life full of risks and challenges, and Jesus has made it abundantly clear that it will be for us. He calls us to a life of humble service, a life of generosity, compassion, and hospitality, a life of mercy and grace.

To live, as Francis did, yoked to Jesus is to live free from the burden of sin, resting freely, deeply, and securely in God’s grace. To live yoked to Jesus is to be free from the need to prove oneself under some set of rules whether they be the mitzvoth of Moses, the social conventions of medieval Italy, the dress codes of a university, or the amendments of the Constitution. To live yoked to Jesus is to be the voice to the voiceless who always face the oppression and the opposition of the rule-makers and the rule-keepers.

It is to live the life described in the prayer attributed to St. Francis, which though not actually written by him, “admirably expresses the thought and spirit of Francis, ‘the Man of Peace.'” (Marion Habig, OFM, Francis of Assisi: Writer, in Omnibus of Sources, Franciscan Herald:Chicago, 1983, p 1930)

Will you join me in offering that prayer now?

Let us pray:
Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is discord, union;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
(BCP 1979, Prayer No. 62, p 833)

It’s a beautiful prayer, but it’s essential to recognize that praying isn’t enough. Like Francis, we must live yoked to Jesus and be the voice of the voiceless in answer to the rule-keepers. 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.

Beyond Jesus’ Instructions: Annual Parish Meeting Sermon – January 25, 2015

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

A sermon offered at the 198th Annual Parish Meeting, the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, January 25, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

St Paul's Conversion by Gustav Doré“I heard a voice saying in Hebrew: ‘I have a job for you. I’ve handpicked you to be a servant and witness to what’s happened today, and to what I am going to show you. I’m sending you off to open the eyes of the outsiders so they can see the difference between dark and light, and choose light, see the difference between Satan and God, and choose God.'” (Acts 26:16-18a, The Message)

Amen.

A personnel recruitment and testing agency sent this memorandum to their client:

To: Jesus, Son of Joseph, Carpenter Shop, Nazareth

Thank you for submitting the resumes of the twelve men you have picked for managerial positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests. We have not only run the results through our computer, but we have also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and our vocational aptitude consultant.

The profiles of all tests are included. You will want to study each of them carefully. As part of our service, we make some general observations. These come without any additional fee. It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, educational and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. Specifically, we have the following observations about these candidates:

Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John, place personal interest above company loyalty. Thomas demonstrates a questioning attitude that would tend to undermine morale. We feel that it is our duty to tell you that Matthew (the former tax collector) has been blacklisted by the Greater Galilee Better Business Bureau. James the-son-of-Alphaeus and Thaddaeus have radical leanings and registered high manic-depressive scores.

Only one candidate shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness who meets people well and has a keen business mind. He has contacts in high places and is highly motivated, ambitious, and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your chief financial officer and right-hand man.

All the other profiles are self-explanatory. The candidates do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue to search for persons of experience and proven capacity in management. We wish you every success in your new venture.

Of course, our commemoration today is not about any of these guys . . . today we celebrate the “conversion” of our Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, who was (as he says himself in his letter to the Galatians) “violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” (Gal 1:13) Clearly not someone you would recruit to grow the church . . . and yet that is exactly what the Risen Jesus did! He handpicked him to be a servant and witness. As has been observed by many writers: God does not call the qualified; God qualifies the called.

And that’s as true for the church today as it was when Jesus was calling fishermen from their boats on the Sea of Galilee, or recruiting tax collectors out of their offices in Capernaum, or accosting the firebrand Pharisee Saul on the road to Damascus. Just look around this room. If you were going to call some group of people to represent God and spread the gospel in Medina, Ohio, would you call any of us? Be honest! Maybe one or two . . . but the whole group of us? Not likely. But here we are, tasked with doing just that.

The other thing Jesus doesn’t do is give instructions. He calls the unqualified and then sets them to work with minimal direction. Just a few verses before the bit we heard this morning Jesus has told the Twelve:

Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food. (Mt 10:8-10)

Then he gives them some advice about finding lodgings. That’s it. Minimal instructions and then the part read today, which boils down to “This is hazardous work” and “Don’t be naive.” (Thanks to Eugene Peterson’s The Message for those paraphrases.)

Professor Greg Carey, who teaches New Testament at the UCC’s Lancaster Theological Seminary in Lancaster, PA, in discussing this passage notes that although “Jesus gives the Twelve clear [if minimal] instructions,” once they are sent, “they are on their own. They must assess the responses of the cities; they determine whether to stay or to move along.” They probably wanted something more in the way of training (they were, as that fictional memorandum suggests, grossly unqualified). We would like more in the way of instructions and that drives many Christians to treat scripture as a rule book. But scripture isn’t a rule book and Jesus instructions, as Prof. Carey notes, “only take us so far. The faithful church must move beyond Jesus himself, as the disciples do.” Like “the disciples the church finds itself cast into the world, taking Jesus’ message [of healing and liberation] beyond his instructions into surprising new contexts.” (Working Preacher commentary)

As we begin our 199th year of being the Episcopal Church in Medina, Ohio, that is the self-examination we must undertake. Have we moved beyond the minimal instructions we have been given? Have we successfully taken the gospel message of healing and liberation into our context in this time and place?

In the Annual Journal that you will be given when we begin the business session is a page of parish statistics which reflects the data our national church requests from us each year in the Annual Parochial Report. Looking at those statistics might suggest that the answer to that question is “No.” You will find there, for example, that we began the year with a registered membership of 539 persons (active and inactive); we baptized six but lost two to transfer and one to death for a net growth of three; that’s a growth rate of a little more than 1/2 of 1% – not really very good. But . . . that report is constrained by the definitions and requirements of the canons, our “instructions,” if you will, from the national church.

If we move beyond the instructions, as Prof. Carey suggests the followers of Jesus are supposed to do, one gets a much different picture. We may have a “registered” membership of 542, but a good number of those people are inactive . . . some don’t even live in Ohio anymore. Our active worshiping community at the beginning of the year was really composed of around 200 people and to that active group this year we have added 19 adults and six children that I can name. They are not yet technically “members” as defined by the canons, but they are certainly part of our parish family! There may be some more, people who have quickly grown so familiar that they seem to have been here longer than the year. But even just counting those I can name off the top of my head, that’s a growth rate of 12-1/2%, twenty-five times what our “official” statistics would suggest.

However, as the Rev. Loren Mead suggested more than twenty years ago in his book More Than Numbers, there are other measures of church growth: there is growth in maturity of faith, increase in corporate effectiveness, and success in transforming the outside world. Those are very difficult metrics to measure. It’s really not easy to determine if, when, and how God’s “ways [have been made] known upon earth,” and God’s “saving health [manifested] among all nations.” (Ps 67:2) There, however, some indicators.

We have, for example, not only added 25 people to our worshiping community, we also added two pledging households to our stewardship base and have seen an increase in financial commitments from pledging households of about 2-1/2%. In 2014, we added to our outreach ministries, increasing our outreach expenditures to 18% of our operating budget, well above the nationwide Episcopal Church average which is 11%. Our outreach includes, as you can read in the Annual Journal, $11,000 raised for and spent on feeding the hungry through the Free Farmers’ Market which provided almost 50,000 pounds of food to over 4,300 of our neighbors.

We are offering education in biblically based personal fiscal responsibility and financial management through the Financial Peace University program in which sixteen Medina households are participating, about half of them not (yet) members of this congregation.

We have added to our youth group which now includes middle and high school students not only from our own congregation but from other Episcopal congregations in our mission area and other Christian churches in our city, youths who meet in this building every Wednesday evening for supper and bible study and who, throughout the year, have raised awareness of homelessness in our community, raised money for shelter ministries, built teddy bears for children in need, repaired the homes of the poor, and taken part in the councils and ministries of the church. Two of our youth group members, Nick _______ of our own parish and Richard __________ of Christ Church, Kent, are among thirteen diocesan youth nominated to be part of the official youth presence at this summer’s General Convention of the Episcopal Church.

Of course, we completed addition of 400 square feet of open and inviting gallery space to our parish hall, and reorganized our usage of space moving the nursery to the second floor of Canterbury House (on the same level as our worship space) and consolidating our offices in the undercroft. (There are still some finishing touches to complete, but for the most part that process is done.)

I suggest to you that all of this represents growth in maturity of faith, increase in corporate effectiveness, and success in transforming the outside world . . . and that it is just the tip of the ice berg.

Yes, our official statistics may not look all that good and when the hierarchs of the diocese and the national church look at them, they may “hand [us] over to councils and flog [us] in their synagogues,” (Mt 10:17) although I don’t really think they will. As we approach the bicentennial of our congregation, I believe we have ample evidence that we have followed Jesus’ instructions to feed the hungry, house the homeless, cure the sick, and liberate the captive. And we have followed his last instruction, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20a)

Can we do better? Yes, of course, we can and we will because we have faith that those “who endure to the end will be saved,” (Mt 10:22) and we believe Jesus’ assurance that he is “with [us] always, to the end of the age.” (Mt 28:20b) We have followed Jesus’ instructions and gone beyond them. We may not be the most qualified, but we are the ones who have been called. We have taken Jesus’ message of healing and liberation beyond his basic instructions into our context in Medina, Ohio.

I believe that through the open windows of our gallery, through the activities of our youth, through the ministry of our food pantry, through our faithfulness our neighbors and all who pass by “can see the difference between dark and light, and choose light, see the difference between Satan and God, and choose God.” (Acts 26:18a, The Message) I believe that through our faithfulness and God’s grace St. Paul’s Parish has grown in many ways and will continue to increase; “may God, our own God, give us his blessing. May God give us his blessing, and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.” (Ps 67:6-7)

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.

Handwriting – From the Daily Office – June 14, 2014

From the Letter to the Galatians:

See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 6:11 (NRSV) – June 14, 2014)

Writing HandI sort of remember something from New Testament class at seminary that Paul would compose his letters by dictation to a secretary and then add greetings in his own handwriting. What I can’t remember is whether this verse (which seems such a strange intrusion into the text of the letter to the Galatians) in which he comments on the quality of his penmanship is taken by scholars to be proof of genuine Pauline authorship or as evidence that the letter wasn’t truly written by him. I know it’s one or the other. Whatever . . . it’s in the accepted canon of the New Testament.

When I was a kid I remember that one of the attractions at county fairs in the Kansas town where my grandparents lived was a handwriting analysis booth. You would write out in cursive something like “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy white dog” or “She sells sea shells by the sea shore” and then sign your name. The graphologist (as the analyst was called) would then tell you about your character traits and sometimes predict your future.

I always wanted to have my handwriting analyzed but my grandfather, who was a Palmer method penmanship instructor, would never allow it. He did, however, insist that his grandchildren learn proper cursive penmanship so in addition to going to the fair each summer we also had to practice writing things out and making evenly sized, evenly spaced letters and loops. His handwriting was beautiful, rather more Spencerian than Palmer; mine, while passable, never achieved the fluid beauty of his.

As an adult just finished with college and then a 12-week summer course in paralegal studies, I went to work for a law firm in Las Vegas, Nevada. The firm was then providing office space and occasionally support personnel for the attorneys trying to prove the validity of the so-called “Mormon will,” the alleged handwritten testament of Howard Hughes. From time to time I would be called on to deliver documents to their off-site location elsewhere in Las Vegas and, each time I was there, the lead attorney would delight in showing me the latest in their analysts’ charts and comparisons of the will to other exemplars of Hughes’s handwriting.

All of those things come to mind whenever I read Paul’s comments about this handwriting. (Although he doesn’t comment on the quality of his penmanship, he also makes note of a greeting being “in my own hand” in the first letter to Corinth. 1 Cor 16:21)

Handwriting is a lost art. Some schools have even discontinued instruction in cursive penmanship. I think there’s something sad about that. While what is written is clearly of more import than how it is written — the same thoughts will be conveyed whether written out, lettered, typewritten, or recorded by some electronic method — there is (as the county fair graphologists insisted) a personality to cursive penmanship. There is an investment of one’s self in the handwritten text. Time must be taken and care invested in what is written.

When I finally entered into law practice as an attorney several years after those days of running errands for the Mormon will lawyers, I got into the habit of handwriting the initial drafts of my court briefs and legal arguments. I found I could work with blocks of text, with aggregations of ideas, with turns of phrase and different phrasing more effectively by doing so. Today, when I make my feeble attempts to write poetry, I work initially with pen and paper. I find the act of writing my thoughts and images out makes them somehow more malleable than when they are simply input to the computer screen (as I am now “writing”).

Handwriting and hand-lettering were the means of transmission of information — of data, of lore, of stories, of sacred language, of everything — for millennia until the late 19th Century and the invention of the typewriter. Today, inspired by Paul’s commentary on his penmanship, I give thanks for the untold number of scribes who wrote down their own words or those of others, for Paul with his large letters and for Tertius who took his dictation (Rom 16:22), for monks and other calligraphers who copied holy texts, for poets and story tellers who played with words with pen and ink, and for my grandfather who taught me to value the English word written with the human hand.

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

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.

Partial Truths and Hamster Wheels – From the Daily Office – June 9, 2014

From the Letter to the Galatians:

Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Galatians 4:16 (NRSV) – June 9, 2014)

Hamster in a Wheel“What is truth?” asked Pilate. (Jn 18:38)

“The truth will set you free,” said Jesus. (Jn 8:32)

“You can’t handle the truth,” shouted Col. Nathan R. Jessup (Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men).

“Partial truths or half-truths are often more insidious than total falsehoods,” wrote political scientist Samuel P. Huntington (Reconsidering Immigration, November 2000).

Poor Paul! He’s just telling the Galatians the truth and they hate him for it. Thank heaven he didn’t say some post-modern nonsense about “what is true for you isn’t necessarily true for me!” But in his correspondence with these Gentile Christians, is the good apostle communicating the whole truth, or a partial truth? I’m not asking if Paul is being dishonest; I’m asking if, as a rhetorician making a point, is he constructing a narrative with some, but not all, of the pertinent facts. It’s hard to tell from his letter and it’s even harder to determine because we have only his side of the correspondence. But, I suggest, it’s a very valid inquiry because partial truths can create (or exacerbate) discord and enmity.

Recently on our local NPR station, a panel of journalists were discussing a bill recently passed by the Ohio legislature. One insightfully noted that each side of the debate over the bill presented facts in support of its position; each constructed a narrative from easily verifiable data; and each arrived at a “truth” that was convincing to its followers. The “truths” they presented, however, were diametrically opposite in the conclusion to which they led as to whether or not to support the legislation. Why? Because each was partial, each conveniently overlooked facts contradictory to its narrative, and each was partisan. Neither was factually inaccurate, but neither was entirely true.

Fully investigating and fully presenting all the facts of any situation takes time, effort, and resources, and might lead to some conclusion other than that which a partisan is trying to argue. And, anyway, it is much easier to simply go with a few critical facts supporting a partial truth; it lends itself to brevity of argument and to sound-bite news coverage. Furthermore, partial truths are inflammatory; they excite people, rally the troops, and build the cadre of (ill-informed?) supporters. Partial truths do not set free; they entrap and they entangle.

Partial truths make enemies (or, at least, opponents). And this is where we seem to be in American politics and society at the moment. We are in a battle of partial truths. Jon Stewart on The Daily Show recently made the point that partial truths about the Second Amendment have brought us to an intersection “of Open Carry Road and Stand Your Ground Place. * * * You have a right to carry a weapon that may cause a reasonable person to believe they are in danger of great bodily injury, and they have a right, if they feel that way, to respond with deadly force. It’s a perpetual violence machine.” And, I would suggest, the same is true in many other areas of our political and social life. Competing partial truths trap us in perpetual cycles preventing any advance; society ends up like a hamster in an exercise wheel, running to beat the band but going nowhere.

If the truth is really going to set us free, if we are going to be able to handle the truth, we must first determine what it is. In any discussion, listening to any news report, reading any newspaper, one should ask whether important facts have been left out or not, particularly if the report is inflammatory or clearly partisan. It is always wise to pause and consider that not all the facts may be given and that some additional data is likely to change the story significantly. This is worth the effort.

What is truth? It is more than few carefully chosen facts and a well-constructed narrative. The whole truth can set us free and, I believe, we can handle it. We have to make the choice, however, to get out of the hamster wheel and get all the facts.

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

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.

We Are One . . . NOT! – From the Daily Office – June 4, 2014

From the Letter to the Ephesians:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ephesians 4:4-6 (NRSV) – June 4, 2014)

Fractured SocietyHere is another piece of Paul’s writing that the Episcopal Church has lifted out of the bible and plugged into The Book of Common Prayer. It is used as the opening dialog of the church’ baptismal service. After a seasonally appropriate greeting, the presider and people converse:

Celebrant — There is one Body and one Spirit;
People — There is one hope in God’s call to us;
Celebrant — One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism;
People — One God and Father of all.
(BCP 1979, page 301)

I must confess that every time I engage in this dialog I am reminded of, and (almost) have to stop myself from singing, a particularly bad example of the sort of music the church produced in the late 1960s, a song entitled We Are One in the Spirit:

We are One in The Spirit,
We are One in The Lord.
We are One in The Spirit,
We are One in The Lord.
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
[Chorus]
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,
By our Love,
Yes they’ll know we are Christians by our love.
(©Peter Scholte 1966)

I don’t think that song is bad musically: the tune is catchy; the accompaniment is rather easy; congregations (even those who don’t read music) can pick it up quickly and sing it with gusto. What’s bad about the song is that it’s what I would call ecclesio-narcissistic: it’s all about us! There’s not a single word of praise for God, of thanksgiving, of intercession or petition. It’s all “we are” . . . “we will” . . . we we we: “aren’t we great?” As if we are capable of attaining unity on our own . . . . which is, thank heaven, not the overt message of the baptismal service (although it may be its implication).

Unity, however, is not something human beings seem capable of achieving unaided, especially not the unity-in-diversity which is supposed to be the hallmark of the Christian church. Remember, Paul again: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3:28)

This is also supposed to be the strength of the United States. We are supposed to be the great “melting pot” society, a nation of immigrants coming together not around ethnicity or some other ancient exclusive and divisive characteristic but around notions of freedom and justice. But just look at us! Torn apart by wing-nut ideologies on both Right and Left. We can’t even be united about the retrieval of an American soldier from enemy hands: I believe that every American, regardless of their politics, should be overjoyed that Bowe Bergdahl is out of Taliban captivity. But that ain’t so . . . and it isn’t so because, left to our own devices (and now we have so many of them) we not only can’t achieve unity, we revel in our fractured disunity. (A friend whose politics are on the Left published a Facebook link to what she call an “epic rant” on this subject, and it is something. Although politically I agree with its premise, as a Christian American I’m saddened by the witness it makes to our brokenness. I’m sure there are equally visceral rants from the Right; I just haven’t seen them. For any who want to read it, here is the link, Stonekettle Station. A word of warning: it’s heated, it’s vulgar, and it’s long.)

In a recent conversation with some members of my parish’s Altar Guild about attending funerals and weddings in other denominations, one of the ladies asked why some (particularly the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod) exclude non-members from Holy Communion. As we explored the meaning of the Eucharist, I suggested that (among other reasons) it might be because in such churches Communion is seen as a sacrament of unity achieved while in the Episcopal Church it is considered a sacrament of unity hoped for. If it is the former, then someone not a part of that “unity” is not welcome; if it is the latter, then everyone who comes seeking Christ, whether member or not, is accepted at the Table.

This can be, should be the churches’ great witness to a fractured secular society, that unity is possible through the grace of God, “who is above all and through all and in all.” Alas, in our fracture ecclesial state, contrary to that ecclesio-narcissistic song, we are unable to make that witness. We are not one! Although we keep hoping . . . .

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

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 Joy? – From the Daily Office – May 19, 2014

From Book of Psalms:

The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 65:12-13 (NRSV) – May 19, 2014)

Joy Carved on StoneWhat is joy? A bible study group at church grappled with that question recently and I’m still thinking about the question, so these concluding verses of today’s evening psalm got my attention. It’s not just a matter of defining emotion. Joy is a religious attitude, a stance toward God mentioned numerous of times in the Holy Scriptures; according to St. Paul, it is one of the “fruits of the Spirit.” (Gal 5:22) It’s important to know what we mean when we name it.

In the bible study discussion, I found it amazing that, although “laughter” was mentioned as we tried to answer this question, the common synonyms “happiness,” “mirth,” “giddiness,” and the like (even “gladness”) were not. We wrestled with the issue by exploring such questions as: “When do you feel it?” “Who are you with?” “Where does it come from?” “Where are you when you know joy?” and a really tough one “How do you feel when you experience it?”

That question almost seems redundant, doesn’t it? But as we tried to answer that in some meaningful way another question was asked, “Did Jesus feel joy on the cross?”

Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft says that joy “is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the center of the self.” If he’s right, and I think he is, then the answer to our question about Jesus must be “Yes.” Jesus felt joy on the cross!

Consider Christ’s “seven last words”:

“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43)
“Woman, here is your son” . . . “Here is your mother.” (Jn 19:26-27)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46)
“I am thirsty.” (Jn 19:28)
“It is finished.” (Jn 19:30)
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46)

Read in this, the traditional order in which they are presented in Good Friday meditations, only one simply cannot be read or understood as containing any joy: Mark’s and Matthew’s report of his cry of despair, “Why have your forsaken me?”

Jesus had told his disciples that joy is the result of a relationship with God:

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (Jn 15:1-10)

He concluded this discourse saying to them, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (v. 11)

In the Psalms, the hills, the sheep, the trees, all of nature is described as experiencing and giving voice to joy. This makes sense only if joy is a relationship with God. On the cross, only once, only in that cry of “why have you forsaken me,” do we find Jesus unable to sense that connection. In fact, the “seven last words” in their traditional order evince the very human journey every person has experienced at one time or another during a time of trouble, a journey from trust in God (“Forgive them”) into the valley darkness where God seems absent and back out again with a renewed sense of kinship with God (“Into your hands, I commend my spirit”).

What is joy? A connection with God, a relationship in which we are fulfilled not by our own efforts, not by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, not by anything other than the Presence and grace of God. Even in the hardest and most troubling of situations, even hanging on a cross, we can know joy.

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

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.

Zesty Vestry – From the Daily Office – March 18, 2014

From the First Letter to the Church in Corinth:

Do you not know that a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – I Corinthians 5:6b-8 (NRSV) – March 18, 2014.)

Saccharomyces Cerevisiae YeastPaul uses the metaphor of yeast in a negative way making it symbolize sin and corruption. In the letter to the Galatians, he uses it in a similar manner in an aside about the few who have “prevented you from obeying the truth,” saying, “A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough.” (Gal. 5:7,9)

Jesus had used the metaphor in a positive way: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” (Matt. 13:33; cf. Luke 13:21) But he also warned his disciples to beware “the yeast of the Pharisees.” (Matt. 16:6, Mark 8:5, Luke 12:1)

The point of the metaphor is that a small number of individuals can influence the behavior of a large group. A few years ago, some British researchers demonstrated that this is true even when there is no conscious communication within the group. In a series of experiments groups of people were asked to walk randomly within a large but confined space. A few subjects were given detailed instructions about where to walk. Participants were all instructed to stay at least arms length away from any other person and they were not allowed to communicate with one another.

In every run of the experiment, the instructed subjects ended up being followed by others in the crowd, forming a sort of self-organizing conga line. Iterations with varying numbers of subjects up to 200 demonstrated that it only took 5% of the group being instructed to result in an unconscious group consensus. Despite the fact that participants weren’t allowed to talk or gesture to one another, the group ended up being led by the specially instructed minority.

Just think what a small minority within a church community could do if it were united and made conscious effort to influence the larger group. Think what a vestry, session, or other governing board could do if it put its collective mind to being a “yeast” for good within a congregation. Too often church leaders try to persuade congregations to grow through personal evangelism or to reach out in social ministry or to mature in faith through spiritual discipline without actually demonstrating those behaviors themselves. That hasn’t worked. What works is “leading by example,” which is what the small amount of yeast in a loaf does in a way; it’s what the instructed walkers in the British experiments did.

With just a little bit of care and nurture, a little bit of yeast can grow explosively; the most common yeast used in brewing and baking (Saccharomyces Cerevisiae) can double every 100 minutes! The English word “yeast,” according to the dictionary, derives from the Greek word zestos. The word used in the New Testament for “leaven” (and translated here as “yeast”) is zume. These words have no linguistic link to our modern words “zest” and “zoom,” but it occurs to me this morning that if small leadership groups in our churches got truly zesty for spiritual maturity, for personal evangelism, and for social ministry, there’d be no stopping the church; it would zoom. The church would explode! We need to cultivate a zesty vestry in every congregation!

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

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 »