That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Hebrews (page 1 of 6)

Poems for Good Friday – March 30, 2018

Sometimes I find myself at a loss for words. It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while I simply don’t know what to say about a person or an event or a spiritual feeling. On Good Friday, is one of the times when this happens. I don’t know what I want to say about Jesus or his crucifixion or the salvation we enjoy because of his death and resurrection.

When these speechless times happen, I find that turning to poets helps. I find that others have expressed that with which I am having such difficulty. So, today, I want to share three poems with you, actually part of an epic poem, a hymn, and a complete short poem. These aren’t specifically about Good Friday, but they give us some insight into this event, the Passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and what it might mean for us.

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Stones of Agony – Sermon for Maundy Thursday, March 29, 2018

Across the Kidron valley from Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives, is a small grove of olive trees. In the midst of it is a church called “The Church of All Nations” and in the center of that church, surrounded by a low wrought iron fence sculpted to resemble brambles and thorns, is a large, rough, flat rock. It is called “the stone of agony” and tradition tells us it is the place where Jesus prayed on the night before he died.

Our gospel lesson for this evening, for Maundy Thursday, does not mention that olive grove, that stone, or Jesus’ prayers. Our gospel lesson on this day is always the same from year to year. We rehearse John’s story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. John’s Jesus is self-assured and in control. He “knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father.”[1] He knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands.”[2] “He knew who was to betray him.”[3] He gives his friends a “new commandment” (which, as a colleague of mine noted in our on-line bible study, isn’t really all that new): “Love one another.”[4]

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Moment of Crisis – Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, RCL Year B, March 18, 2018

This is such a great set up! Here are these Greeks (whether gentiles or Greek-speaking Jews of the Diaspora is unclear) who want to meet Jesus. John tells us in today’s gospel lesson:

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus.[1]

So the Greeks come to Philip (who apparently speaks Greek) and make their request. He goes to Andrew (another unclear thing: does he take the Greeks with him?) The two of them go see Jesus (with the Greeks?)

Now, how will Jesus respond?

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Never-Changing & Ever-Changing: Sermon & Report for the Annual Meeting, January 21, 2018

A couple of months ago, I was part of a conversation among several parishioners about the set-up for our celebrations of the Nativity. We looking at our plans for Christmas services, and a member of our altar guild exclaimed, “That’s the problem! Things are always changing around here!”

A few days later at the November vestry meeting, as we were discussing our preliminary work on the 2018 budget and looking over the church’s calendar for the coming year, one of our vestry persons expressed some frustration saying, “That’s the problem! Nothing ever changes around here!”

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Fatherhood and Laughter: Sermon for RCL Proper 6A (18 June 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 6A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116:1,10-17; Romans 5:1-8; and St. Matthew 9:35-10:8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Our gospel lesson is the shortened version of Jesus’ commission to the twelve as he sends them out to do missionary work. As he continues with their instructions he tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mat 10:16), and then he warns them that those who follow him are likely to face all sorts of terrible strife, including bitterness and enmity within families.

“Brother will betray brother to death,” he says, “and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:21-22).

It’s an odd lesson, I suppose, for Father’s Day, but of course Father’s Day isn’t on the church calendar and the Lectionary doesn’t take it into account. It’s simply a coincidence that this lesson about discord between fathers and sons should come up this morning, just as it’s a coincidence that the Old Testament lesson about the promise of a child to the elderly and barren couple Abraham and Sarah should be in the Lectionary rota today.

As that story continues, you know, Sarah laughs at the idea that she (at the age of 90) would become pregnant by Abraham (who was 100 and – as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says – “as good as dead” [Heb 11:12]). But that is exactly what does, indeed, happen. She gives birth to a son whom she and Abraham name Isaac because, as Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). Isaac’s name in Hebrew, Yitschaq, means “he laughs.”

Lutheran seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker says of this episode that it proves there is humor and comedy in the bible,

. . . [not] comedy in the sense of stand-up routines or canned laugh tracks, but comedy as something so extraordinarily good that it’s hard to believe, something so out-of-the-ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down. It’s what Frederick Buechner calls “high comedy”: “the high comedy of Christ that is as close to tears as the high comedy of Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau or Edith Bunker is close to tears – but glad tears at last, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.” (Working Preacher, citing Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Harper & Row, 1977, p. 61.)

That is the very contrast these two lessons on Father’s Day present us: the “hilarious unexpectedness” and the “tragic expectedness” of life, both of which are so often present in the always serious, sometimes heartbreaking, and often uproarious business of parenthood.

A few weeks ago I mentioned the late essayist and poet Brian Doyle. A few years ago in The Christian Century magazine (July 22, 2014), Doyle published a poem entitled The poem about what it’s about:

Here’s my question. What if there was a poem
That didn’t know what it was about until it got
To the end of itself? So that the poet’s job isn’t
To play with imagery and cadence and metrical
Toys in order to make a point, but rather to just
Keep going in order to find out that the poem is
About how hard it is to watch your kids get hurt
By things they can’t manage and you cannot fix.
If I had been the boss of this poem I would have
Made it so they can manage things, or I could be
The quiet fixer I always wanted to be as a father;
But that’s not what the poem wanted to be about,
It turns out. This poem is just like your daughter:
No one knows what’s going to happen, and there
Will be pain, and you can’t fix everything, and it
Hurts to watch, and you are terrified even as you
Try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.
Some poems you can leave when they thrash too
Much but kids are not those sorts of poems. They
Have to keep writing themselves, and it turns out
You are not allowed to edit. You’re not in charge
At all—a major bummer. I guess there’s a lesson
Here about literature, about how you have to sing
Without knowing the score . . . something like that.
All you can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish
So joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.

I have called that “the best poem about fatherhood . . . ever.” I know from personal experience how absolutely accurate Doyle is when he writes that in parenting (and in so many other aspects of life) there are times when “there will be pain, and you can’t fix” it and “it hurts . . . and you are terrified,” and all you can do is “try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.” Being a father, being a parent is the case-in-point that proves again and again how correct St. Paul was in writing that we accept our “sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:3-5). It is the case-in-point that proves Jesus’ words that even when there is strife between father and child, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:22).

This is why fatherhood is the primary Christian metaphor for God’s relationship to us. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For . . . [we] have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ . . . .” (Rom 8:14-17)

And as John wrote:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. * * * Beloved, we are God’s children now. (1 John 3:1-2)

The Prophet Zephaniah wrote of God: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zeph 3:17-18). Just as our poet, Brian Doyle, said in his poem, “All [a father] can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish so joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.” That is God’s hope and promise for us, that everything, all the hilarious unexpectedness and all the tragic expectedness, will “finish so joyous and refreshing” that we will all gape with awe. Those who endure to the end will be saved, and we will all laugh with Sarah. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is “Sarah Laughing,” a woodcut by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld from Die Bibel in Bildern: 240 Darstellungen, erfunden und auf Holz gezeichnet published in 1899.)

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

Act Two: Do You Love Me? – Good Friday 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Good Friday, April 14, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Hebrews 10:16-25; Psalm 22; and St. John 18:1-19:42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

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

So, here we are . . . . the second act . . . .

In the first act of the drama of redemption, Love tried to teach his lesson through bread and wine, through water and basin, through garden prayer, and through willing surrender to corrupt authority. The Body and Blood symbolically broken, the Body washing other bodies, the Blood sweated out in agonized prayer, these did not suffice and so, betrayed and exhausted, he surrendered. Whether or not he knew what would ultimately happen is irrelevant. He could do nothing else – if he were to remain faithful to his God, faithful to his values, faithful to his principles, faithful to his mission, he could do nothing else. And so now, in the second act, the incarnate Creator is prisoner to Destruction, now Life is condemned to death by Death.

In the beginning he had been tempted by riches, by power, by idolization; all these had been offered in the desert. Now how great the temptation must have been to simply give up! Poet Denise Levertov ponders this allure in her poem Salvator Mundi: Via Crucis

Maybe He looked indeed
much as Rembrandt envisioned Him
in those small heads that seem in fact
portraits of more than a model.
A dark, still young, very intelligent face,
A soul-mirror gaze of deep understanding, unjudging.
That face, in extremis, would have clenched its teeth
In a grimace not shown in even the great crucifixions.
The burden of humanness (I begin to see) exacted from Him
That He taste also the humiliation of dread,
cold sweat of wanting to let the whole thing go,
like any mortal hero out of his depth,
like anyone who has taken herself back.
The painters, even the greatest, don’t show how,
in the midnight Garden,
or staggering uphill under the weight of the Cross,
He went through with even the human longing
to simply cease, to not be.
Not torture of body,
not the hideous betrayals humans commit
nor the faithless weakness of friends, and surely
not the anticipation of death (not then, in agony’s grip)
was Incarnation’s heaviest weight,
but this sickened desire to renege,
to step back from what He, Who was God,
had promised Himself, and had entered
time and flesh to enact.
Sublime acceptance, to be absolute, had to have welled
up from those depths where purpose
drifted for mortal moments.
(In The Stream & the Sapphire: Selected poems on religious themes [New Directions Books: 1997])

In this second act of the drama of redemption, it is faith and will which prevail, the faith and will of Jesus who did not step back, who did not give in to the human longing to simply cease.

In this second act of the drama all that has gone before is recapitulated; all that we saw in yesterday’s first act, the supper in the upper room, the act of servanthood taught there, the agonized prayer in the garden, the willing surrender to unjust authority, and more. Not just yesterday’s first act, but all that has gone before from our first act of defiance in the first garden. Poet Ross Miller reminds us of that bond in his brief verse entitled Tau

That dreadful beam
that Jesu bore
knot made from pine
but ancient tree
that bore a bitter fruit

That pole on which it hung
he hung
knot made from pine
undying tree of life
that bears forever fruit

Take and eat – the Serpent cried
You shall not die
You shall be
like God
We bit
The Servant took those twisted words
held them on the knotted wood
Take and eat – the Servant cries
You shall not die
You shall be
like me
(Found in 2012 at Stations of the Cross (www.stations.org.nz) a no-longer-working site)

We shall be like him! It is here on the cross in this second act that the promise of the Incarnation, the guarantee of the Nativity is made good. Then we sang

Great little One! whose all-embracing birth
Lifts Earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to Earth.
(In The Holy Nativity of Our Lord God: A Hymn Sung as by Shepherds, Richard Crashaw [1613-49])

Here on the cross, indeed, God “gathers up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth.” (Eph. 1:10) And here on the cross, in an act of faithfulness and will, he died. Here on the cross, in this final fact of human existence, truly “God became man so that man might become a god.” (St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione)

But his death, we know, cannot be the end of the story. This is only the second act of a three-act drama. So his body must be taken down; it must be dealt with in the appropriate way.
Composer Jimmy Owens paints the picture in his cantata No Other Lamb:

They took Him down,
His poor dead body,
and prepared Him for His burial.

They took Him down,
His poor pale body
drained of life, ashen, and stained
with its own life-blood.

His healing hands, now pierced and still;
Serving hands, that broke five loaves
to feed five thousand;
Holy hands, often folded in fervent prayer;
Poor gentle hands, now pierced and still.

His poor torn feet, now bloodied and cold;
Feet that walked weary miles
to bring good news to broken hearts
Feet once washed in penitent’s tears;
Poor torn feet, now bloodied and cold.

His kingly head, made for a crown,
now crowned – with thorns.
His poor kingly head, crowned with thorns.

His gentle breast, now pierced by
spear-thrust, quiet and still;
His poor loving breast.

His piercing eyes, now dark and blind;
Eyes of compassion, warming the soul;
Fiery eyes, burning at sin;
Tender eyes, beckoning sinners;
His piercing eyes, now dark and blind.

His matchless voice, fountain of the Father’s
thoughts, stopped –
and stilled – to speak no more.
Silence now, where once had flowed
Wisdom and comfort, Spirit and life;
His matchless voice; stilled, to speak no more.

They took Him down,
His poor dead body,
and prepared Him for his burial.
(They Took Him Down in No Other Lamb [Lillenas Publishing Co.])

And so the second act comes to a close, the body is laid in a tomb and as the rock is rolled to seal it, the now-torn curtain descends. We are left in the darkness of our hearts to contemplate our place in this drama. With poet Luci Shaw we realize that we just may be Judas or Peter….

because we are all
betrayers, taking
silver and eating
body and blood and asking
(guilty) is it I and hearing
him say yes
it would be simple for us all
to rush out
and hang ourselves
but if we find grace
to cry and wait
after the voice of morning
has crowed in our ears
clearly enough
to break our hearts
he will be there
to ask each again
do you love me?
(Judas, Peter in A Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation [Regent College Publishing, 1997])

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

Banquet Seating: Sermon for Pentecost 15, RCL Proper 17C (28 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 28, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 17C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Sirach 10:12-18; Psalm 112; Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16; and St. Luke 14:1,7-14. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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placecardOur first lesson today is from a book with the wholly amazing title The Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Joshua ben Sira, usually (and mercifully) shortened to Sirach. It is accepted as part of the Christian biblical canon by Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and most of the Oriental Orthodox churches. In our Anglican tradition, it is not accepted as canonical, but we do read it “for example of life and instruction of manners;” however, it cannot be used to establish any doctrine. (Article VI of the Articles of Religion, 1801) The book is in the tradition known as “wisdom literature;” basically, it is a collection of ethical teachings closely resembling the canonical Book of Proverbs, and serving the same function.

This material in general does not deal with the “big questions” of life; it does not try to fathom the ultimate meaning of life or to answer the problem of evil or to explain why bad things happen to good people. Rather, the wisdom literature deals with the smaller issues of day-to-day life. “How should I handle my financial affairs? How should I relate to friends and colleagues? What about relationships to the opposite sex? What can I do to maintain a healthy marriage? How should I treat the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger, the aged? These are the sorts of things that [the wisdom literature] addresses.” (James Limburg, Working Preacher Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7) They were important questions in a society where social standing was based on an unwritten but rigid system of honor and shame. They are still important questions.

Sirach, written perhaps 150 to 200 years before Jesus’ time, is somewhat more theological than Proverbs, however, and in the passage we heard this morning does address the question of why some nations fail; the author’s answer is simple, “God’s judgment.”

The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers,
and enthrones the lowly in their place.
The Lord plucks up the roots of the nations,
and plants the humble in their place.
The Lord lays waste the lands of the nations,
and destroys them to the foundations of the earth.

What is the reason for this judgment? The pride and arrogance of their rulers and governors. To us, that may seem a bit harsh. But, as commentator Rich Procida reminds us, “These words as used in the Bible are not about feeling good about yourself and your accomplishments. They are not even about being conceited or immodest. The Book of Sirach describes arrogance as a form of hate, the devaluation of others in relation to oneself. Once devalued, evil is more easily done to others.” (Think Impunity: Understanding Arrogance and Pride in the Bible) Thus it is that Joshua ben Sira declares, “the beginning of pride is sin, and the one who clings to it pours out abominations.” Those are strong words in the honor-and-shame social milieu of the Greco-Roman world!

While the Book of Proverbs does not go as far as ben Sira does to give the credit to God, it sounds a similar note declaring, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov 16:18, KJV) Thus, in giving counsel about those day-to-day issues, about relating to friends and colleagues, Proverbs offers this piece of advice: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.” (Prov 25:6-7, NRS)

That should sound familiar. In today’s Gospel lesson, Luke doesn’t tell us that Jesus is quoting from Proverbs, but his “parable” – a word Luke uses that we should make special note of – about being a banquet guest is clearly derived from this bit of wisdom.

Proverbs‘ and Jesus’ advice are about much more than etiquette, more than “example of life and instruction of manners.” As I said, they deal with how one got along in and how one advanced one’s social standing in the honor-and-shame society of the Greco-Roman world of which First Century Palestine was a part. In a nutshell, it worked like this: suppose I throw a dinner party and I invite ten people to that party, all of whom come. Those ten people are now indebted to me and must reciprocate by inviting me to a similar affair in their homes. If I have been paying attention, I will have invited at least one if not two or three persons who are of higher social standing than myself. So when I am invited into their home, my social credit is advanced; I gain social standing. At least, I do if I can figure out where to position myself in the banquet hall. Hence, the advice of Proverbs: don’t “stand in the place of the great,” otherwise you will be told to go to a lower place and you will be shamed. It is better to sit in Coach and be invited into First Class, in which event you will be honored. And, believe me, there were the local, then-popular equivalents of Hedda Hopper or Matt Drudge, The National Enquirer or People Magazine to make sure that one’s honor or shame became well known in the community.

Of course, we don’t behave this way today, do we? We don’t worry about where we sit at dinner parties or banquets, right?

Wrong! Of course we do. There are “life coaches” out there making a bundle teaching entrepreneurs and business executives and even clergy how to “network,” how to jockey for position at business lunches and conferences, doing for us exactly what the writers of the wisdom literature were doing for the young courtiers of the ancient world, young men seeking a position in the courts of kings and emperors.

And if you don’t believe that there is still worry and angst about where people are seated at banquets, then you have never sat with a bride and her mother figuring out where and with whom and how far from the head table wedding reception guests should be seated. The thing about these banquets in the Greco-Roman world is that there wasn’t anyone making the seating assignments; no bride or mother of the bride filling out place cards and making the decision where you would be placed. You had to figure that out for yourself, hence the jockeying for places, and thus the advice in the Book of Proverbs.

And Jesus’ counsel sounds a lot like that advice, too, doesn’t it? The wisdom literature, especially Proverbs, was written to teach those aspiring young courtiers how to behave in order to advance. Jesus’ takes that advice, applies it to everyone, and does so as a “parable.” Remember I said we needed to take special note that Luke uses that word to describe what Jesus says to his host and the other guests. A parable. So what is a parable?

Simply put, a parable is a type of analogy; it is a short, didactic story or statement in which one thing is used to illustrate or explain some other thing. And what is always the “other thing” in Jesus’ parables? The kingdom of heaven, the eternal and abundant life to which he as God Incarnate is constantly inviting his listeners.

So what does Luke mean by calling Jesus’ counsel a “parable”? And what is Jesus saying about the reign of God with these words? Is he suggesting that life in the kingdom is like the jockeying for position that goes on at dinner parties in the honor-and-shame culture of the Greco-Roman world? Of course not! Because Jesus’ parable differs from the advice of the wisdom literature in one significant detail.

Proverbs tells the young courtier to not take the seat of the great; in other words, its advice is to be careful during that jockeying for position that goes on at state banquets. What it does not say is what Jesus says: take the lowest ranked seat available! Jesus’ parable, his counsel to his host and the other dinner guests turns the conventional wisdom literature on its head. Proverbs is saying, “Don’t be too prideful, but take the position to which you are entitled.” Jesus is saying that no one is entitled, that in the kingdom of heaven everything is given as grace, as an invitation from God to come up higher.

This is typical of Jesus’ teaching: he often takes an accepted notion and extends it to make his point. Most often he does this with notions of sin – The accepted teaching is that adultery is sinful; according to Jesus, even thinking about it is a sin! The accepted teaching is that one should not murder; according to Jesus, don’t even get angry! The accepted teaching is to not break one’s oath; according to Jesus, don’t swear at all! (See Matthew 5:21-48) So here . . . the accepted teaching of the wisdom literature is to be careful about jockeying for social position; according to Jesus, don’t jockey at all! Take the lowest place! For sure, taking the seat of the great is prideful; for Jesus, taking any seat higher than the lowest is prideful and, as Joshua ben Sira wrote, “Pride was not created for human beings.”

Jesus tells his parable and then drives home his point when he turns to the host and says, “You really shouldn’t be throwing dinner parties for those who can repay you. You shouldn’t be playing this social networking game at all! When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

I love the way Dr. David Lose, the president of the Lutheran seminary in Philadelphia describes this story:

Jesus [is] telling the guy who’s invited him to his home for supper – how gauche! – and who also just happens to be a leader of the Pharisees, that his (and our) pecking orders aren’t worth squat. More than that, Jesus is inviting this guy (and us) to defy the pecking order, to actually turn it on its head. (Dear Working Preacher, More Than Good Advice)

The Australian theologian Bill Loader says that Jesus’ words were “totally absurd and . . . meant to heard that way.” (First Thoughts) “It was a crazy idea,” he says, “designed to subvert the games being played. . . . . Jesus is subverting the whole enterprise which was driving his culture and its values.” Of course, his host and his fellow guests are the ones who are invested in that culture and its values; they are the winners in the pecking order so they are going to have to put Jesus to death. If his way of looking at things catches on, they are going to be toast!

Kill him they did, and his crazy idea hasn’t caught on quite yet; brides and their mothers are still making those seating decisions for wedding receptions; entrepreneurs and executives and clergy are still jockey for position at conferences. So, as Dr. Loader says, “we (and those with whom we work) may benefit from re-examining” our own behavior; Jesus “crazy idea . . . has huge application for today.”

The Bible’s condemnation of pride, whether in the wisdom literature or the prophets or the gospels or anywhere else, is not an insistence that we abandon self interest.

People who claim to be acting . . . without any self interest are frequently in a state of denial, so much so at times that they fail to recognise [or] to control their self interest – to their own harm and that of others. The gospel is not an appeal to abandon self love, but to believe in being loved and loving and to engage in it fully in all directions, including towards ourselves. [This] invitation to love is an invitation to life, made from the premise that life’s greatest reward is to live in love and that to do so is to participate in God’s being and to best fulfil our own. (Loader)

Remember that this is more than advice from a Book of the All-Virtuous Wisdom; “this is Jesus, God’s Son, and he will come back, lifting his scarred hands in eternal blessing and benediction, inviting us [as he invited his host and the other guests] to a new vision and way of being where there is no first or last, no honor or shame, only each other, bound to one other in God’s abundant love and grace.” (Lose)

Amen.

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

Community Choice: Sermon for Pentecost 14, RCL Proper 16C (21 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 16C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; and St. Luke 13:10-17. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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borderwallOur reading from the Book of Isaiah today is the second half of chapter 58, a chapter which begins with God ordering the prophet to “Shout out,” to “do not hold back,” to “lift up [his] voice like a trumpet” with God’s answer to a question asked by the people of Jerusalem: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:1,3a)

God’s answer is simple: “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. [Y]ou fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (vv. 3b-4)

The rest of the chapter, including the portion we heard today, is simply an expansion on that answer including (in this reading) God’s promise that a change of civic behavior, a change in the ruling elite’s treatment of the poor will be answered with prosperity for all. They had to choose what kind of community they were going to be. That was an important lesson for the ruling class to learn; it is an important lesson for us to learn. To fully understand the importance of this lesson, however, requires some placement of this prophecy in historical context.

The Book of Isaiah is not the work of a single prophet. Based on internal evidence and other historical data, scholars believe that in contains the oracles of at least three prophets or schools of prophets. The first, sometimes called “Proto-Isaiah,” comprises chapters 1 through 39. This writer lived and worked in Jerusalem before the Babylonian Exile. Chapters 40 through 54 are believed to have been written during the Exile recording the prophecies of the second or “Deutero-Isaiah.” The last of the book, chapters 55-66, contains short oracles of several post-Exilic prophets who are collectively known as third or “Trito-Isaiah.”

These “Third Isaiah” prophets were at work during the rebuilding of the Temple under the direction of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor, whose names we know as the titles of the history books which tell that story. Professor Brian Jones of Wartburg college describes the social milieu of the time in this was:

Rebuilding the temple and the city was moving slowly, perhaps stalled completely. Leadership within the community was contested. Divisions and violent quarreling hindered progress in both physical and social restoration. Drought and food shortages exacerbated the social strife and made rebuilding difficult. Economic and social inequity – homelessness, hunger, lack of clothing – threatened the stability and identity of the returned community. (Jones, Working Preacher Commentary)

In addition, there was conflict between the returnees and those who had never left. The returnees disagreed about how welcoming their community should be to the locals who had remained; the leaders (particularly Ezra) were not welcoming at all.

Ezra and Nehemiah took an exclusivist position, regarding those who had remained and intermarried with other peoples to be less than Jewish. For example, “one of the first measures Ezra took was to make an ultimatum forcing all Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives or at least have the women convert. Whoever refused would be excluded from the community.” (Jewish History, Ezra and Nehemiah) Ezra focused the people’s attention on rebuilding the Temple; Nehemiah focused on building a wall around Jerusalem. These, they believed, would bind the people as a nation and strengthen them to stand against their neighbors, friend and foe alike.

Others, however, promoted an inclusive viewpoint. For example, the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of a non-Jewish Moabite woman who married into Israel and became an ancestor of King David, was written during this period. The “Third Isaiah” prophets were of this viewpoint; they argued, as our reading makes clear, that welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, and meeting the needs of the afflicted were more important than building walls and, in the long run, would lay a foundation of prosperity for many generations.

Of course, Ezra and Nehemiah were in charge so the Temple and the wall were built, but the prophets turned out to be correct. The Temple and the wall did bind the people together, but Israel as a nation was never restored to the glory of the Davidic kingdom and for most of the next three hundred years was under the control of foreign empires ending, in Jesus’ time, with the Romans.

What Ezra and Nehemiah and their successors did accomplish was the creation of a relatively united and ritually pure Judaic religion, a faith which bound the people one to another and to their God. They might have minor disagreements about the relative importance of the festivals and sacrifices of the Temple as opposed to the rules and rituals of daily life, the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, but in the end they were all Jews sharing one religion.

This was the religion into which Jesus was born, about which he taught, and the reform of which he sought. Our lesson from Luke’s Gospel today is a story of his effort to accomplish that reform.

As was his Sabbath custom, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, the local religious meeting hall; Luke doesn’t tell us what village or town he was in, but somewhere in the region of Galilee. As he was teaching, a woman who was (the Greek tells us) “bent over double,” apparently with considerable curvature of her spine, entered. He called her to him and said, “You are freed,” not cured, freed, and laid his hand on her; she then stood up straight. Actually, was the Greek says is that “she was straightened.” It doesn’t say that Jesus straightened her, or that she straightened herself, simply that “she was straightened.” By what? By freedom and into freedom.

Of course, this astonishing event raises a commotion. The “leader of the synagogue,” a direct spiritual descendant of Ezra and Nehemiah, objects. Jesus, he argues, has violated the rules; he has done work (assuming that healing someone is work) on the Sabbath. Jesus answers in true rabbinic fashion employing what is known as arguing from the lesser to the greater. He reminds the leader and those around them that it is not a violation of the law to free a farm animal on the Sabbath so that it may drink; if this, the lesser thing, is permitted, then it must also be true that to free a Jewish woman, a “daughter of Abraham,” from her ailment, the greater thing, is also permitted.

Many commentaries make not of the fact that this woman, by reason of her spinal curvature, her being bent over double could never have looked anyone in the eye, could not have seen the horizon, could only look at her feet and the few feet of ground that lay before her. She was cut off from the world around her. The leader of the synagogue and other spiritual descendants of Ezra and Nehemiah were similar blinded by their rules and traditions.

The rules of the Sabbath on which the synagogue ruler bases his objection are not to be found in the Law of Moses; they are not in the Torah. Instead, these are the mitzvoth d’rabbanan, the man-made laws intended by the rabbis to be a fence or wall around the Torah, lesser (but just as strenuously enforced) ritual rules that insured one did not break a commandment of the Scriptures.

Although this gospel story is often presented as just one more of Jesus’ healing miracles, I suggest to you that it is much, much more. It is a story of liberation, not only of the woman herself, but of all those who were present and all those, like ourselves, who have heard it through the ages. In this story, Jesus frees them and us from the bondage of inflexible rules, from the walls we have built around our hearts and our spirits.

The leader of the synagogue and generations of tradition had made the ritual observance of the Sabbath more important than the people for whom the Sabbath was meant. Sabbath (the Hebrew word literally means “rest”) was intended to give the people of God freedom from the demands of everyday life; it was to be a time of rest, relaxation, and refreshment. But in trying to guard that time of liberation, the rabbis had built their wall of rules, their “fence around the Torah,” rituals which were more restrictive, more demanding than the strictures of daily life. It is not in this text but in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), but that is certainly the message of this story. The Sabbath is no reason to refuse healing and liberation to a “daughter of Abraham.” As St. James would later write to the church, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26)

We often focus too much on the “keeping unstained” and too little on the care of the poor. That was the problem the Third Isaiah oracles sought to address, the focus on the wall of security around the city and on the purity of the temple. A Quaker preacher in North Carolina has written about our Isaiah lesson as follows:

If ever there was an unambiguous prophetic signpost for the people of Israel that would show them the way to a restored relationship with Yahweh, Isaiah’s message in Chapter 58:10 was it: “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…”

While so many of the Old Testament prophets’ messages are filled with jeremiads of doom and gloom, this positive passage is exceptional in that it holds out the conditional promise of personal and community restoration and reconciliation, expressed poetically as a “watered garden” (v.11). The condition was clear: first the Israelites had to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and treat their neighbors as they would themselves like to be treated. The power of this poetic passage speaks volumes for the spirit of love, compassion, and neighborliness which God expects God’s people to demonstrate as they go about feeding the hungry in their communities. The hungry were not to be subject to a “means” test, speak only one official language, or show documents to prove they were not “illegal” before they were to be fed. They were to be fed simply because they were hungry.

God does not say here, “The poor you have with you always, so relax, take your time, pay your bills, balance your budget, play the lottery, fill up the SUV, take a vacation, and, if there are any crumbs left on the table, offer pennies to the hungry.” Rather, God clearly gives feeding the hungry top priority on the daily agenda of God’s people rather than fighting terrorism and protecting one’s job security, life insurance, college savings program, or retirement investment.

The bottom line in this text from Isaiah is not maximization of profits, but feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. (Ed King, Member, Chapel Hill Friends Meeting)

As for the Third Isaiah prophets, so too for Jesus. “God’s time,” writes Lutheran pastor Amy Lindeman Allen about the gospel story, “is a time that, no matter when it is observed (and, for Jesus and the synagogue leader, this would have been a Saturday) and no matter how it is observed in the particulars, it is always and only about life.” This story demonstrates that for Jesus, Sabbath is “always about God’s people and their well-being, and not simply about the ‘rules’ and the way we wish things ought to be.” (Political Theology)

These stories today are coupled with a frankly strange bit of prose cut out of the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer of the letter contrasts two mountains, Sinai where the Law was given and Zion to which those finding freedom in Christ are invited. The first place is “ominous for the eye and the ear with burning fire, darkness, gloom, windstorm, [and the] noise of trumpets.” (Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) The second is a place of life and light, of festivity, of angels, and of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” The author of Hebrews encourages us to accept the invitation, “See that you do not refuse!” We are being offered a kingdom, a community that cannot be shaken, a community where the finger is not pointed, where evil is not spoken, where the hungry are fed, the afflicted cared for, the stranger welcomed, where bones are made strong, where backs are straightened and youth is renewed.

These lessons today are about our communities, religious and secular, local and national, and the role and function of our laws, our rules, and our traditions; they test our claims about what could and should be practiced within our communities, and about who is allowed within our walls. They ask us, and demand that we answer. What kind of community – what kind of church, what kind of city, what kind of state, what kind of nation – do we want to be? An exclusive community encircled by walls and bound by restrictive rules, or an unshakeable inclusive community of life and light and freedom. The choice is ours. Amen.

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

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

Division Happens: Sermon for Pentecost 13, RCL Proper 14C (14 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 14, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 15C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Jeremiah 23:23-29; Psalm 82; Hebrews 11:29-12:2; St. Luke 12:49-56. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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division-sign-clip-art-divide-clipart-t48bPp-clipartIn philosophy and theology there is an exercise named by the Greek word deiknumi. The word simply translated means “occurrence” or “evidence,” but in philosophy it refers to a “thought experiment,” a sort of meditation or exploration of a hypothesis about what might happen if certain facts are true or certain situations experienced. It’s particularly useful if those situations cannot be replicated in a laboratory or if the facts are in the past or future and cannot be presently experienced. St. Paul uses the word only once in his epistles: in the last verse of chapter 12 of the First Letter to the Corinthians, he uses the verbal form when he admonishes his readers to “strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you [deiknuo, ‘I will give you evidence of’] a still more excellent way.” It is the introduction to his famous treatise on agape, divine love, a thought experiment (if you will) about the best expression, the “still more excellent” expression of the greatest of the virtues.

Today I would like to do a thought experiment with you, actually three short experiments, in which I will ask you to envision some interpersonal interactions to test the hypothesis of Jesus that his message, which he claimed was the message of God recorded in the Law and the Prophets, would bring division.

So make yourselves comfortable and, if it helps, close your eyes and envision yourself a 16-year-old high school student completing your secondary education at a church-affiliated institution which includes the study of religion in its curriculum. You have just completed a course in which you studied the creation myths of Genesis, the notion that all of humankind is descended from a single pair of proto-parents, Adam and Eve, or later from one family, that of Noah, after all other people were wiped out by a universal flood. Your class has explored what this means in a world divided by nations and cultures, into races and ethnic groups, and you have come to believe that all human beings are related one to another and to be treated with equal dignity and respect. Suppose also that you come from a family with some of its roots deep in the antebellum South and that your grandmother, a proud inheritor of those origins, employs an African-American maid whom she regularly refers to as her “house nigger.” Imagine that you start a conversation with Grammy about your new biblically based understanding of race relations . . . .

Now let’s have you imagine yourself a few years older, your early twenties. You are working your way through college or graduate school in the housekeeping department of a Southern California hospital and many of your coworkers are Mexican-American. So, too, is the pastor of your church which is culturally diverse and makes an effort to model its life and ministry on Jesus’ acceptance of the Syro-Phoenician woman who came seeking healing for her daughter, the Samaritan woman with whom he talked at Jacob’s well, the Roman centurion who asked that his servant be healed, Levi the outcast tax collector, and the woman sinner who anointed his feet in the home of Simon the Pharisee. At work, your supervisor who, like you, is of northern European ancestry, often talks with you about the other housekeepers and janitors calling them “wet backs” and “spics.” You confront her about that language and ask her not to use it when conversing with you . . . .

Finally, you are in your late thirties, a practicing attorney, a partner in a prestigious law firm. You are also a vestry member and a Sunday School teacher in your church. You’ve just spent several weeks studying the biblical concepts of debt and ownership in your adult Sunday School class. Coincidentally, your law firm is considering taking on a potentially very lucrative book of business from a pay-day lender. You attend a meeting with several of your partners and representatives of potential client. As you listen to the lender’s representative talk of interest rates and profit margins and enforcement of loan contracts, you remember the words of Deuteronomy: “You shall not charge interest on loans . . . , interest on money, interest on provisions, interest on anything that is lent.” (Dt 23:19) You hear, too, Jesus saying, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal.” (Mt 6:19) After the potential client leaves, you tell your partners that you can’t vote in favor of taking on the pay-day loan business . . . .

Well . . . I’m sure you can play out the rest of those scenarios for yourselves, that you can see that the “thought experiment” suggests that Jesus’ hypothesis that the message of biblical faith brings dissent is correct. But, indeed, Jesus was not stating a hypothesis; he was making a bald-faced assertion of fact.

Jesus said that he came to bring not peace, but division: “From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided.” This makes us uncomfortable, I know; it’s not what we want to hear from Jesus, but division “is a part of the biblical tradition and [it] is not foreign to Christian tradition. . . . Sadly, religious divisions are . . . seen within the church today, which is divided along racial, political, class, and denominational lines. * * * [W]e might say that Christianity offers the prospect of unity, [but] this reality cannot be forced upon a free people. As a result there will inevitably be division in churches and even families.” (Richard A. Davis, The Politics of Unity, Division, and Discernment) It has ever been so.

The prophet Jeremiah is sometimes called the “weeping” prophet because of the way his message was rejected by the people and his many laments about that rejection, such as we hear in today’s lesson when, speaking for God, he cries, “How long?” The people of Israel, particularly the leaders of the people, during Jeremiah’s time did not want to hear messages that recalled them to the Law of Moses. They wanted to hear (as one commentator, Alphonetta Wines, put it) “feel good” sermons; they wanted to hear that they were the chosen race, the People of God, the one’s favored by the Almighty who would never let anything bad happen to them. Ms. Wines writes:

Much like people today who only want to hear “feel good” sermons, people of his day preferred false hopes presented by false prophets dreaming about a short road to peace. While even in the worst of circumstances God’s word includes a word of hope and restoration, the word spoken by these “dreamers” was no word from God. God does sometimes communicate through dreams, but this is not one of those times. No more than wishful thinking, these pipedreams gave people false hopes and an unrealistic view of what lay ahead. (Alphonetta Wines, Working Preacher Commentary)

Jeremiah dissents! “Am I a God near by, says the Lord, and not a God far off?” he asks on God’s behalf, “Who can hide in secret places so that I cannot see them?” His question reminds the people that their relationship with God is not one-way; it’s not all just God doing for them. This is a covenant relationship with obligations on both sides; their faith in Yahweh should be a belief upon which they stake their lives and, thus, should determine how they live their lives. If that covenant obligation was not met, not only would God not extend God’s protection, God would instead exact punishment. Jeremiah’s dissent from these “feel good” pronouncements was not a welcome message; it caused division.

Our reading from the Letter to the Hebrews follows on last week’s lesson in which the writer defined faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” He has gone on to recount stories of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and his family, and Moses as examples of ancestors who held such faith; today he adds many others all of whom “were commended for their faith, [even though they] did not receive what was promised.” They all “trusted God even if they could not fully imagine what God’s promises would entail.” (Amy Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) For the author of Hebrews, as for Jeremiah, “faith comprises not only mental assent, but indicates that belief upon which you stake your life, this life and the next.” (Ibid.) In other words, faith and belief have behavioral consequences! The covenant is not one-way! There are obligations! And when you start practicing the faith, as did the heroes described by the author of Hebrews, there is division as promised by Jesus. It is inevitable.

John Wesley, the Anglican priest responsible for the birth of the Methodist movement and eventually the Methodist Church, insisted that inward holiness must lead to outward holiness, that a heart transformed by faith must be evidenced in a life transformed. Our discipleship is dependent on, formed by, and flows out of our Christian character. It is evidenced both by works of piety, that is to say corporate worship and private devotion, and works of mercy which embody our love for our neighbor. Such works of piety and mercy are the means through which the Holy Spirit empowers our growth; they are means of grace. And it is to the purifying fire of grace that Jesus calls us.

Jesus called his first hearers hypocrites because they could interpret the weather, but could not read the signs of the “present time,” the needs of the society around them for the works to which their covenant with God obligated them. “Jesus demands attention to one’s time and place. For this reason, there is something deeply incarnational and worldly about Jesus’ expectation of his listeners. This is not looking to the sky for God, but analyzing [and responding to] the here and now.” (Davis)

And when one does so, division happens:

The division of which Jesus speaks is a result of the purifying fire he bears. The kingdom of God he proclaims represents a new order governed not by might but by forgiveness (hence the import of forgiveness in the Lord’s prayer, 11:4), not by fear but by courage (“be not afraid” in 1:13, 30, 2:10, 5:11, 8:50, 12:4, 7, 32,), and not by power but by humility (see Mary’s song, 1:46-55). Yet those invested in the present order; those lured by the temptations of wealth, status, and power; and those who rule now will resist this coming kingdom for it spells an end to what they know and love (or at least have grown accustomed to). Hence Jesus – though coming to establish a rule of peace – brings division, even to the most intimate and honored of relationships, that among family. (David Lose, Working Preacher Commentary)

Our expectation of the peace, harmony, and unity notwithstanding, we must understand that division will happen.

When it does, we must have faith to see that God is “at work in all realities, and that division is not the problem.” Instead of our own naive expectations, instead of our wishful thinking, our pipedreams, and our false hopes, we should hear Jesus’ talk about division which points “to a broken reality for Christianity no matter how hard we work toward unity. Perhaps this is Jesus’ point: that human togetherness is not what the gospel is about. Rather, the gospel preached into the life of an individual person will do its work, and we are left to trust that it is God at work, and resist our attempts to control the outcome.” (Erick J. Thompson, Working Preacher Commentary)

We must “lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,” including our fear of and our concern about division, and “run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” remembering our covenant obligations, our works of piety and our works of mercy.

As you might have guessed, the three deiknumoi, the “thought experiments” with which we began are drawn from my own life experience. Each of them did, as you might also have guessed, cause some division and conflict. But in each of them, also, the division was eventually overcome. My grandmother and I reconciled and she came to (and was one of the oldest people to attend) Evelyn’s and my wedding. My supervisor and I continued to work together and became good friends, and she stopped calling Mexican-Americans by derogatory terms (at least at work). And, after some loud and heated discussion, my partners eventually agreed with me and we did not take on the pay-day lender’s work. Yes, trying to live according the principles of our faith, living up to the obligation to offer not only works of piety in the church but also works of mercy in the world, can (and Jesus tells us in today’s gospel lesson that it will) bring division. But division can be – and the gospel’s promise is that it will be – overcome by love. Remember what St. Paul wrote in his deiknumi in the First Letter to the Corinthians:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. (1 Cor. 13:4-8a)

Amen.

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

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

A Pope, a Dog, and a Venn Diagram: Sermon for Pentecost 12, RCL Proper 14C (7 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, August 7, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 14C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 15:1-6; Psalm 33:12-22; Hebrews 11:1-3,8-16; and St. Luke 12:32-40. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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In your bulletins this week, I have added three pictures to illustrate this sermon. These pictures kept coming back to mind as I read and re-read the lessons. The pictures are as follows:

  1. A photograph of Pope John Paul II’s arrival in Managua, Nicaragua, on July 5, 1983. Fr. Ernesto Cardenal, who served in the Nicaraguan government as Minister of Culture, kneels before the Pope who is wagging his finger at him.
  2. One of my favorite cartoons, a four-panel Peanuts offering first published on August 9, 1976, in which the beagle Snoopy is writing a book of theology with the planned title “Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?”
  3. A generic Venn diagram

I will refer to these pictures later in the sermon.

Most exegeses of today’s Genesis text focus on the last sentence, “And [Abraham] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness,” and treat this story as one of faith. But, in all honesty, this is a story of doubt. It is the story of Abraham questioning God’s promise of a posterity; it is a story of tribalism and concern for bloodline, ethnicity, and inheritance.

We humans have a predisposition to tribalism, to congregating in social groupings of similar people. I was at a continuing education event this week in which one of the exercises explored the issue of economic segregation in our society; the facilitator asked each of us to describe the home in which we live and the neighborhood and community within which it is situated. One of the uniform characteristics was that no matter what our race or ethnic type might have been, our home neighborhoods were made up of people for the most part similar to ourselves. We in modern 21st Century America may not consciously organize ourselves into tribal groupings, but if we take time to look at ourselves honestly we will find that we do: like attracts like. As individuals we initially, we situate ourselves within nuclear families, then as we grow we broaden our social interactions to extended families, then clan, tribe, ethnic group, nation . . . .

This has been so from the beginning of time. Those of us who accept the notion of natural selection and evolution can look at our nearest genetically similar relatives, the apes and chimpanzees, and see this family and clan predilection. Those of us who accept the notion of divine handiwork can look to our traditional religious literature and see it in the stories of creation and God’s interactions with this chosen people. Today’s lesson from Genesis is a case in point.

God has chosen Abram, an elderly, childless man in the city of Ur to be “God’s guy,” so to speak. God has promised Abram that he will be the father of nations; in fact, God changes Abram’s name to “Abraham” which means “father of a multitude.” It is not, however, clear to Abraham how this will happen . . . and at the time of our reading, it hasn’t happened and Abraham is getting anxious. He challenges God with this very tribal sort of concern: “Who will inherit my estate? Will it be this slave, Eliezer of Damascus?”

Although our New Revised Standard version translates the ambiguous Hebrew to describe Eliezer as “a slave born in my house,” there is considerable scholarly debate over whether that is the meaning of the Hebrew text. Why would Eliezer be described as “of Damascus” if he had been born in Abraham’s home? The New International Version renders the description as “a servant in my household,” which is probably the better reading. Eliezer, rather than being a native of Abraham’s domestic unit, is from another city, Damascus, from another clan, another tribe, perhaps even a different ethnic group . . . yet according to the custom of the time, he would inherit his master’s fortune were Abraham to die childless. This is rank tribalism.

Snoopy-might-wrongGod’s response to Abraham’s challenge is to take Abraham outside and show him the stars and ask him, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” Well, God doesn’t, actually . . . but that’s what it boils down to. God’s response to Abraham is, “Thank again!”

Many social scientists today use the word “tribalism” to describe the fracturing of our society. The economist Robert Reich, for example, wrote an essay two and a half years ago entitled Tribalism Is Tearing America Apart. In it, Dr. Reich wrote:

America’s new tribalism can be seen most distinctly in its politics. Nowadays the members of one tribe . . . hold sharply different views and values than the members of the other . . . .

Each tribe has contrasting ideas about rights and freedoms . . . Each has its own totems . . . and taboos . . . . Each, its own demons . . . ; its own version of truth . . . ; and its own media that confirm its beliefs.

Five years ago, writer Wade Shepherd asserted, “The new tribal lines of America are not based on skin color, creed, geographic origin, or ethnicity, but on opinion, political position, and world view.” In other words, where Abraham’s tribalist concern (and subsequently that of the Old Testament Law) was about bloodline and ethnic purity, in the modern world our tribalist tendency centers on ideology and philosophical purity. As Shepherd put it, people “are selecting a singular point of view and isolating themselves within its barricade.” (The New American Tribalism) And although Reich and Shepherd were looking specifically at the situation in the U.S., their observations are valid around the world and have been for some time.

JP2-CardenalWhen Pope John Paul II scolded Fr. Cardenal upon the his arrival in Nicaragua, it was because Cardenal had collaborated with the Marxist Sandinistas and, after the Sandinista victory in 1979, he became their government’s Minister of Culture. His brother, Fr. Fernando Cardenal S.J. also worked with the Sandinista government in the Ministry of Education, directing a successful literacy campaign. There were a handful of other priests working in the government, as well.

They were all influenced by a school of thought called “liberation theology” which taught, among other things, that Christians could work alongside of non-Christians, even atheists, on the shared the goal of improving the lives of the poor. As Leonardo and Clodovis Boff, theologians from Brazil, put it, “The Church has the duty to act as agent of liberation.” (Salvation and Liberation, Robert R. Barr, trans., Orbis Books:New York: 1984)

The pope, however, with his personal background in Communist Poland, was intolerant of liberation theology and forbade Cardenal and the others to be involved in the Sandinista government. Ernesto Cardenal ignored this order, and thus the finger-wagging rebuke. Eventually, in February 1984 John Paul defrocked Cardenal because of his liberation theology, but that decision was overturned 30 years later in August 2114 by the current Pope Francis.

The picture thus illustrates for me the kind of tribalist insistence on ideological purity that is our modern equivalent of Abraham’s challenge to God. God’s response to Abraham’s tribalism was essentially, “Think again!” And God’s response to our tribalism, to our insistence on our own ideas, our own totems, our own demons, our own versions of the truth, is the same; it’s Snoopy’s question, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?”

Which brings me to the reading from the Letter to the Hebrews and, especially, its first sentence which defines what faith is: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The rest of the lesson betrays why it was chosen in the lectionary; it exegetes the story of Abraham’s faith – the faith which came after the challenge of his doubt, after God had answered his tribalist concern about bloodlines and ethnicity and inheritance. But it’s that first sentence, the definition of faith that I think is the important part for us to consider.

The first part of the definition says faith is “the assurance of things hoped for.” The word translated as “assurance” is the Greek word hypostasis, a compound word – hypo meaning “under” and stasis meaning “to stand” – thus an “under standing.” But not in the sense of intellectual comprehension, rather in the literal, physical sense of something that “stands under,” that is foundational or bedrock. Thus, hypostasis “is something basic, something solid, something firm;” it “provides a place to stand from which one can hope.” (Amy L.B. Peeler, Wheaton College)

In one of the exercises at the continuing education seminar I was at this week we were given a large sheet of drawing paper and asked to draw a map or picture of our personal spiritual growth with a focus on that which provides stability in our lives, and then to describe our artwork to the group. Of course, nearly all of us attempted to depict God as the stable center, or unchanging goal or beginning, the whatever of our spiritual journeys, but one participant didn’t do that. In fact, he didn’t draw anything at all on his paper before standing in front of the group. He drew some squiggles and boxes and whatever on the sheet as he described his spiritual autobiography, but then said, “What is stable in all of this is the paper!” Brilliant! The paper represented the hypostasis, the bedrock standing under his life, the foundation of faith on which the details played out and changed and developed over time, and that is really true for all of us.

The second part of the definition is that faith is “the conviction of things not seen.” We hear that word “conviction” as synonymous with “belief” or “firm opinion,” but the Greek original, elegchos, carries the sense of “proof” or “evidence” such as would be presented in a court of law, such as would be used to convict a defendant in the dock. Faith is the evidence which establishes the existence of that which cannot be seen, the proof that there is an invisible foundation for one’s life, one’s beliefs and opinions, one’s actions. “What is stable in all of this is the paper!”

Our modern ideological tribalism insists that everyone in the tribe have the same life, the same beliefs, the same opinions, and undertake the same actions, but more than that it insists that anyone who differs to any significant degree in any of those things is outside the tribe. If we were to draw the tribes as circles on that sheet of paper, ideological tribalism insists that each tribe is a circle that does not even touch another, and yet we all know that that’s simply not true.

VennDiagramWe know that if there are tribal circles on that foundational paper, they are more like the circles on a Venn diagram, not only touching but overlapping. That was true of the ancient Hebrews; their tribalism might demand ethnic purity, but they never achieved it; the Old Testament demonstrates that, again and again! Modern ideological tribalism is no different. Ideologies, religious beliefs, political opinions differ in many ways, but in many others they share much in common; they overlap. People’s lives and opinions overlap, but ideological tribalism encourages us to hear only the differing opinions and blinds us to our similar lives.

During the Republican National Convention in Cleveland a man named Benjamin Mathes sat outside the convention center with a sign reading “Free Listening.” His goal was to engage convention goers on a personal level, to hear without judgment what they had to say about controversial topics. He was mostly disappointed, but on the Urban Confessional website he related listening to a woman who had a strong opinion on topic about which he disagreed vehemently.

He was asked, “How do you listen to someone with whom you disagree?” His answer is instructive: “It takes a lot of forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage to listen in the face of disagreement. I could write pages on each of these principles, but let’s start with the one thing that makes forgiveness, compassion, patience, and courage possible. We must work to hear the person not just the opinion.” He then quoted the Christian rapper David Sherer who performs under the stage name Agape. In one of his pieces Agape sings, “Hear the biography, not the ideology.”

Mathes continues, “When someone has a point of view we find difficult to understand, disagreeable, or even offensive, we must look to the set of circumstances that person has experienced that resulted in that point of view. Get their story, their biography, and you’ll open up the real possibility of an understanding that transcends disagreement.”

Which brings me to today’s gospel lesson in which Jesus admonishes us to be like servants who keep their lamps lit for their master on his wedding night. I suspect that most people who hear this admonition are reminded of the parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids, but this week what I remembered was Jesus command in Matthew’s Gospel, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt 5:16)

The purpose of the lit lamps is not simply to have lit lamps! It is to have light by which something can be done, something can be seen. The purpose of the servants’ lamps is to light the way for the bride and bridegroom, to illuminate the pathway and allow them to see the door. The purpose of keeping our lamps lit is so that people may see our “good works and give glory to [our] Father in heaven.” It is our works, our lives and actions, which matter, not our ideologies, or religious beliefs, or political opinions.

That was the point of Fr. Cardenal’s theology and belief that as a Christian he could work with Marxists, with atheists to improve the lives of the poor in Nicaragua. He saw the overlap of their circles on the political Venn diagram. Their ideologies differed, but their goals, their actions and works in regard to the poor, the point where their circles overlapped, did not. Underlying it all was the foundational bedrock of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen. The pope apparently could not see that overlap; his disciplining of Fr. Cardenal and other Latin American priests came out of modern ideological tribalism, an insistence on purity of belief which made it impossible to work toward a common goal with someone of a differing opinion. Our modern American ideological tribalism is doing the same thing to us.

I look at that picture and just wish that someone, God or Snoopy or anyone, might have stepped in and just whispered in his Holiness’s ear, “Has it ever occurred to you that you might be wrong?” My prayer is that God might whisper that in everyone’s ears from time to time. It might shine some light on our ever changing Venn diagrams of ideological tribalism; it might remind us that the diagrams, the circles on the paper, move all the time and that “what is stable in all this is the paper,” the foundational bedrock, the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Amen.

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

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