That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Isaiah (page 2 of 12)

In the Beginning Was Poetry – Sermon for Christmas 1, RCL Year B

“In the beginning was the Word . . . .” The Prologue of John’s Gospel echoes the opening words of the Bibe, “In the beginning God said . . . .” Our God is a god who communicates, who speaks, whose Word creates.

The collect for blessing the Christmas Créche begins, “O God our Creator, to restore our fallen race you spoke the effectual word, and the Eternal Word became flesh . . . .” (Book of Occasional Services 2003, page 37) I’ve always like that turn of phrase, “the effectual word” . . . the word that accomplishes something, the word that has power.

In his magisterial work on the poetry of the Indian sage Rabindranath Tagore, Dr. S.K. Paul wrote of powerful words:

If we think of poetry as the use of especially powerful words, then there may reason to suppose that poetry was more important in the prehistoric, preliterate past than it is today – in song, in ritual, in myth – with the structure and choice of words compensating for the impossibility of any written record. Some have even suggested that in the beginning was poetry – in the evolution of language each new word was a poem, the outward expression of a new inward perception. (The Complete Poems of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali: Texts and Critical Evaluation, Sarup & Sons: New Dheli, 2006, page 318)

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Believe! – Sermon for Christmas Eve 2017

I believe for every drop of rain that falls
A flower grows
I believe that somewhere in the darkest night
A candle glows
I believe for everyone who goes astray, someone will come
To show the way
I believe, I believe
I believe above a storm the smallest prayer
Can still be heard
I believe that someone in the great somewhere
Hears every word
Every time I hear a new born baby cry,
Or touch a leaf or see the sky
Then I know why, I believe1

Those are the lyrics of a song written the year after I was born and which was very popular in the early 1950s. Frankie Laine, the Four Letterman, Elvis Presley, and many others recorded versions of it. It was even arranged in combination with Gounod’s Ave Marie as a Christmas choral piece.

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Mad-Libs with John the Baptist – Sermon for Advent 3, RCL Year B

One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:

  1. He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
  2. He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
  3. He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).

She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):

“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”

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Death at Christmas – Sermon for Advent 2, RCL Year B

Today’s Gradual, Psalm 85, includes what may be my favorite verse in the entire collection of the Psalms: “Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” (v. 10)

I think it may be my favorite because it figures prominently in the movie Babette’s Feast, based on a short story by the Danish write Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). The story tells of a grand meal prepared for the residents of a small Danish village in memory of their deceased Lutheran pastor. In flash backs, we see his ministry and on several occasions we hear him quote this verse, which seems to be a rallying cry for his flock.

Mercy and truth have met together; *
righteousness and peace have kissed each other.

It’s a lovely poetic summation of the Peaceable Kingdom painted by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson and elsewhere in that book of prophecy.

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Here and Now – Sermon for Advent 1, RCL Year B

In a few minutes, when this sermon comes to an end, we will all stand together as we do every week and recite the Nicene Creed in which we will say that, among other things, we believe that Jesus Christ

. . . will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. (BCP 1979, page 359)

In the Apostle’s Creed said at Morning and Evening Prayer, and in our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm our expectation that “he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” (BCP 1979, pages 96, 120, and 304)

In the course of the Eucharistic Prayer we re-affirm this this belief by saying (as we will in Prayer C this morning), “We celebrate his death and resurrection, as we await the day of his coming.” (Pg 371) We say something very similar in Prayer A: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” (Pg 363) In Prayer B: “We remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory.” (Pg 368) And in Prayer D, we offer our gifts “recalling Christ’s death and his descent among the dead, proclaiming his resurrection and ascension to [the Father’s] right hand, [and] awaiting his coming in glory.” (Pg 374)

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Gloria! Homily for the Funeral of C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., 6 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston for the Requiem Mass for C. Nevada Johnson, Jr., June 6, 2017, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible were Isaiah 61:1-3; 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 5:24-27. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page. The Gradual Psalm for the service was Psalm 121 from the Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer; it can be read at The Online Book of Common Prayer.)

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As my parishioners know, I often find the images invoked by poets comforting and illuminating in times of grief.

Ronald Stuart Thomas, usually called simply RS Thomas, is generally acknowledged to be one of the greatest English language and European poets of the 20th Century. He was an Anglican priest serving in the Church in Wales. No less a person than the Most Rev. Barry Morgan, Archbishop and Primate of the Church in Wales, has said of Thomas that he

. . . articulate[d] through his poetry questions that are inscribed on the heart of most Christian pilgrims in their search for meaning and truth. We search for God and feel Him near at hand, only then to blink and find Him gone. This poetry persuades us that we are not alone in this experience of faith – the poet has been there before us. (BBC News, RS Thomas centenary celebrated by Bangor Cathedral service)

When Thomas’s wife of 51 years passed away in 1991, he published a multi-part poem entitled Mass for Hard Times. I would like to read for you the section entitled Gloria:

From the body at its meal’s end
and its messmate whose meal is beginning,
Gloria.
From the early and late cloud, beautiful and deadly
as the mushroom we are forbidden to eat,
Gloria.
From the stars that are but as dew
and the viruses outnumbering the star clusters,
Gloria.
From those waiting at the foot of the helix
for the rope-trick performer to come down,
Gloria.
Because you are not there
When I turn, but are in the turning,
Gloria.
Because it is not I who look
but I who am being looked through,
Gloria.
Because the captive has found the liberty
that eluded him while he was free,
Gloria.
Because from the belief that nothing is nothing
it follows that there must be something,
Gloria.
Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.
And because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

(Gloria from Mass for Hard Times by R.S. Thomas (1992), in Collected Later Poems 1988-2000, Bloodaxe Books, Tarset, UK:2013, page 135)

In Thomas’s first lines, I find an echo of the words of St. Paul in our epistle reading today from his Second Letter to the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure.” (2 Cor. 4:16-17)

Those of us who like Nevada have known cancer in ourselves, or like Roberta and their sons have known it in our loved ones, know all too well that “our outer nature is wasting away,” that (as Thomas put it) the body is at its meal’s end. There is no gentle or genteel way to put it: cancer is not an easy way to die. I don’t know that there is an easy way to end life, but if there is one, cancer isn’t it. That Nevada fought the disease as valiantly as he did and with his characteristic confidentiality, on might even say secrecy, is testament to both his strength of will and his private faith, to what St. Paul might have called his “inner nature . . . being renewed . . . for an eternal weight of glory.”

Our first reading was from the Prophet Isaiah; it is that portion of scripture with which Jesus began his public ministry, taking the scroll from the attendant and reading these same words in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, and concluding with the declaration, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) In it we are told that the Messiah’s mission is to proclaim freedom to the captive. In Thomas’s poem he gives glory to God because the captive “has found the liberty that eluded him while he was free.” He must refer, I am sure, to the liberty from the pain and suffering of chronic disease that comes with physical death.

But physical death is not the end of life. As Paul wrote in his First Letter to the Corinthians, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, physical death, “the last enemy,” has itself been destroyed (1 Cor 15:26) Christ “overcame death and the grave, and by his glorious resurrection opened to us the way of everlasting life.” (BCP, page 377) As the preface to the Eucharistic Canon which we will pray in a few minutes says, to God’s “faithful people … life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP, page 382) As Jesus promised in our reading from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” (Jn 5:24)

I am intrigued by the poet Thomas’s penultimate stanza:

Because when we count we do not count
the moment between youth and age,
Gloria.

When we think of all that passes between youth and age, when we (as we do at requiems like this) look back over the life of a friend and loved one and take stock of all that someone like Nevada Johnson was and did – student, law student, member of the Bar, captain in the Army and decorated hero, son and brother, lover and husband, father, fellow follower of Christ, volunteer in his community, hospital board and zoning commission member, historical society founder, and so much more – it is difficult to comprehend what Thomas means calling it a “moment” that “we do not count.”

But then I return to St. Paul and today’s epistle reading in which he refers to this earthly life as a “slight momentary affliction,” and I am reminded of the Psalmist’s declaration of how fleeting life is, that life is but “a few handbreadths” and “everyone stands as a mere breath.” (Ps 39:4-5)

In contrast are the promises of Isaiah that good men like Nevada (and, we believe, all of us through the grace of God) “will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory,” and of Paul that this “weight of glory beyond all measure” will be eternal. As the Gradual Psalm which we recited together says: “The Lord shall preserve [us] from all evil; it is he who shall keep [us] safe. The Lord shall watch over [our] going out and your coming in, from this time forth for evermore.” (Ps 121:7-8; BCP, page 779) It is as Jesus promised: we have passed from death to life eternal.

In his First Letter to the Corinthian Church, Paul wrote, “When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?'” (1 Cor 15:54-55) Death has no victory; death has no sting. Death is nothing.

The Rev. Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, preached sermon entitled Death the King of Terrors while the body of the late King Edward VII was lying in state at Westminster Abbey in 1910. His point in that sermon was that death is neither a king nor a terror. In it, he offered this meditation:.

Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was. I am I, and you are you, and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. Call me by the old familiar name. Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. Put no difference into your tone. Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together. Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was. There is absolute and unbroken continuity. What is this death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!

And so we understand Ronald Stuart Thomas’s final stanza in the Gloria of the Mass for Hard Times:

Because, when we are overcome,
we are overcome by nothing,
Gloria.

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good example of your servant, Carroll Nevada Johnson, Jr., who, having finished his course in faith, now finds rest and refreshment. May we, with him and all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP, page 503, modified)

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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.

Redemption: Drama in Three Acts (Sermon for Palm Sunday, 9 April 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Palm Sunday, April 9, 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, Year A, with the addition of a reading from the prophet Zechariah: at the Liturgy of the Palms: Zechariah 9:9-12; at the Liturgy of the Word: Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, and St. Matthew 21:1-11; following the distribution of Communion, St. Matthew 26:14-27:66. Most of these lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Redemption is a drama in three acts – three acts and a brief intermission – today the prelude, the overture, an introduction encapsulating the story to be fleshed out as the action proceeds. Jesus and his companions enter the city of Jerusalem from the east while the Roman governor, Pilate, makes his annual procession into the city in pomp and circumstance from the west.

The crowds welcome Jesus, singing “Hosannas” (a Jewish word meaning “Save us, we pray!”). We can perhaps hear a chorus, as in the Greek theater, singing sentiments later put into writing by the English philosopher journalist G.K. Chesterton:

O God of earth and altar,
bow down and hear our cry,
our earthly rulers falter,
our people drift and die;
the walls of gold entomb us,
the swords of scorn divide,
take not thy thunder from us,
but take away our pride.

Jesus, eschewing pride and showing a different way, enters the city on a donkey.

Later in the week, Act One, Scene One – An upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

In the first act, Jesus shares a Passover meal with his friends. He knows, although they seem not to, that this will be their last formal meal together. At supper he tries to explain to them what he believes is going to happen and how he hopes they’ll remember him. He uses bread and wine to make his point, but they don’t seem to understand. In fact, as the scene ends, they are arguing about their relative ranks! Who among them will be the greatest? The curtain falls on a frustrated rabbi.

Act One, Scene Two – the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

Dinner is over, so Jesus tries something else. Taking on the role of a servant, he kneels down and washes their feet, but they still don’t get it. Later they would begin to understand; later they would re-enact Jesus’ actions and ponder them again and again, trying to more fully understand him. We, too, are pondering; we, too, grope for understanding.

Act One, Scene Three – a garden outside the city walls at Gethsemane.

Depressed and agonizing, feeling he has failed, knowing his actions of the past three years are leading inexorably to a final “showdown” with the political authorities, Jesus prays to be delivered from the inevitable. He asks his closest friends to stay awake with him, but they cannot. Falling asleep as he prays, they abandon him emotionally just as they will abandon him physically. Soldiers enter the scene led by one of Jesus’ own friends, Judas from the village of Kerioth. After a brief struggle in which a servant is injured, Jesus surrenders. His friends scatter and even deny knowing him. We hear the chorus sing more of Chesterton’s words:

From all that terror teaches,
from lies of tongue and pen,
from all the easy speeches
that comfort cruel men,
from sale and profanation
of honour and the sword,
from sleep and from damnation,
deliver us, good Lord!

Act Two – another place outside the city, a hill called “the place of a skull.”

Jesus, struggling under the weight of a cross, staggers up the hill from the city to the summit. Once there, he is nailed to the cross he has dragged along the way. The crowd jeers, the soldiers mock, his friends (so few of them now) weep. Speaking from the cross as he dies, “Forgive them…. It is finished.” His friends take his body and seal it in a borrowed tomb. What more is there to do? It certainly seems to be the end. What more could possibly come after the death of the drama’s protagonist?

Intermission – another garden occupied by a sealed tomb.

The characters have all left. The stage is as bare and as silent as a grave. Is this intermission or has the drama concluded? The principal’s death certainly seems to have ended things! The silence of Holy Saturday is profound; it is palpable; it is pregnant with uncertainty. What does all that has come before mean? How can there possibly be anything more after this?

Act Three – the same garden, the tombstone rolled away.

What seemed to be a tragedy at the end of the second act turns out to be a comedy. The tomb is empty! There are angels where there should be mourners! There are only folded linens where there should be a body! Confusion mixes with relief, disbelief encounters faith, death is overcome by life. The joke is on the powers of evil, but what does it all mean? Many who have missed the first two acts of this drama arrive to see the end of the story, but can one truly appreciate the momentous conclusion without having lived through it all? Can one really get the punchline without hearing the whole story?

As the drama ends, Jesus’ friends and others who now believe are moving into the world, a world they will change, a world to which they will bring a message of love and a vision of peace. The chorus sings the last of Chesterton’s verses, a triumphant supplication to the conqueror of death:

Tie in a living tether
the prince and priest and thrall,
bind all our lives together,
smite us and save us all;
in ire and exultation
aflame with faith, and free,
lift up a living nation,
a single sword to thee.

The story of our Lord’s Resurrection, the story of redemption is a drama in three acts. Today, only the overture . . . don’t miss the whole story!

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

Praying for Presidents: Sermon for Epiphany 2, Year A – 15 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany, January 15, 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, Year A: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-12; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; and St. John 1:29-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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prayer-in-church“The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me.” (Isa. 49:1b) What a powerful statement that is that the prophet makes in today’s reading. We name this prophet Isaiah; scholars name him Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah. We don’t really know his name . . . but God did! God named him before he was born. Gave him personhood and human identity.

In many ancient and pre-scientific cultures names hold a very special significance; this was so in the near-Eastern cultures from which our Bible comes at the time of Second Isaiah and right down to and after the time of Jesus. Far from merely identifying a person, names in ancient Jewish culture revealed a person’s essential character and, it was believed, their destiny. So it is that this same Second Isaiah prophesies the name of the messiah, Immanuel – “God with us” (Isa 7:14), and the angel of the Annunciation instructs Joseph to name Mary’s child Jesus – “God saves” (Matt 1:21). Jesus does this with Simon in today’s Gospel lesson when he tells him: “You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter).” (Jn 1:42) This name, Cephas or Peter, means “rock” and Simon Peter did, indeed, become a rock anchoring the fledgling Christian church after Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension.

Furthermore, it was believed that to know a person’s name was to have a certain power over that person. This is why the name of God is never spoken by devout Jews; indeed, it is never read even when written in Scripture. We Anglicans have continued that tradition even into our Prayer Book and our service bulletins; if you look at today’s Gradual, Psalm 67, in the Book of Common Prayer, and as we have reprinted it in today’s bulletin, you will see that the word “LORD” is printed in all upper-case letters.

The reason for this is that Jews developed the idea that God’s name was so holy that it could not be uttered. When Jews read from the Hebrew Scriptures and get to the name of God, written only with four consonants and no vowels, “YHWH,” they will not try to pronounce it as “Yahweh;” instead, they will say “Adonai,” which means “Lord.” The Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer continues this tradition.

When the Old Testament was translated into English, the translators continued to signify the holiness of God’s name: when they came to “YHWH” in the Hebrew text, they wrote “LORD” instead. If you look through the Authorized Version of the Old Testament you will see this done many times – over 6000 times in fact. In every case, the original Hebrew says “YHWH,” but it is translated “LORD.”

In the Gospel lesson today, John the Baptizer names Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (Jn 1:29) If ever there was a naming which revealed a destiny, that was it. Names have power. To know and to use someone’s name, or to refuse to use someone’s name, is always an act of power: sometimes an act of domination; sometimes an act of submission; sometimes an act of collaboration; and sometimes an act of dismissal.

Rabbi Andrew Davids, head of the Beit Rabban Jewish School in New York, commenting on the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, writes:

God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, [the biblical creation story] affirms that humans – created in the image of God – may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming. The power to name can be experienced in our everyday lives; for example, nothing grabs the attention of a misbehaving child more effectively than a parent – the bestower of the child’s names – calling him [or her] by . . . first, middle, and last names.

The rabbis caution us, however, to use the power of our voices and our words wisely. We must make certain that we use the divine gift of naming in a moral, appropriate, and thoughtful manner. (The Power Of A Name: The Power Of Naming)

In a commentary on that event recorded in Genesis when Jacob wrestles with the Angel of God and gets his named changed to Israel (“one who wrestles with God and prevails”), David Lose, President of Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, challenged preachers to challenge their congregations about names. He wrote:

The task before us . . . Working Preacher, is to invite our people to confess their names. Whether silently or by writing them down on a paper, ask them first to answer this one question: Who are you? Really. What is your name? What is it that others call you? More importantly, what is it that you call yourself? What is that name you can scarce speak for fear or shame? Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal? (Working Preacher Commentary, October 14, 2013)

And he continues, “Names, as we know, can limit us, hurt us, even kill. But so also can they heal and make alive. And so a part of what [the church does each week], is to invite people to come and be reminded once again of our true name and new identity so that we may go out into the world as new persons, as God’s own beloved child.”

One of the things that happens when human beings are angry with one another is that we stop using names; by doing so, we deprive the other of personhood. One of the greatest offenses you can give a person is to not use their name. It’s dehumanizing. It takes away that precious gift that God gave to Second Isaiah even before he was born! So, in my pastoral counseling with persons dealing with anger issues, one of the first things I suggest to them is to pray for the person with whom they are angry by name. Nothing elaborate, just a simple prayer; something as simple as, “Lord, I pray for [fill in the blank].” Doing so does not endorse the person’s behavior or validate what it is about them that has angered you, but it does create an intimacy which can defuse the anger. Praying for the person by name, naming the person, brings them into your sphere of being.

One of the saints of our church, Dr. James DeKoven, a priest who taught Church history at Nashotah House seminary in Wisconsin in the 19th Century, wrote that prayer brings the one for whom we pray present to us “in the deep, hidden bonds” that link persons together. (From a letter written just before his death, March 1879.) Although he was writing of prayer for deceased loved ones, I believe his observation is true of prayers for the living, as well.

I bring this up because an event is about to happen which has caused some consternation and debate in our denomination and in others. It is something that we have already addressed in this congregation and which we will not change so long as I am the rector and the one charged by tradition and canon with making liturgical decisions.

When I came to St. Paul’s Parish in the summer of 2003, although the President of the United States was being prayed for in the generic manner set out in the standard forms of the Prayer Book, George W. Bush (who was then the president) was not being named. I began to name him and to instruct prayer leaders to do so. Some people not of Mr. Bush’s political persuasion objected. When he left office and Barack Obama was elected, we began praying for him by name. Some people not of Mr. Obama’s political persuasion objected. When we started distributing the sheets with the additional petitions to be read by members of the congregation, some people refused to read the petition including Mr. Obama’s name. Now that Donald Trump has been elected and we have added his name as president-elect, some people have refused to read that petition.

On Friday, Mr. Trump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. Some of us are pleased as punch about that. Some of us are appalled. Most of us are somewhere in between. And many are debating about whether or not to pray for him by name. What an incredibly silly thing to argue about! And what a terrible thing to do, to refuse to pray for someone by name.

In St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy, he writes:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus . . . . (1 Tim. 2:1-5)

In this parish on Sunday morning, as a congregation, will pray for the president and “all who are in high positions” by name. To do otherwise is to deprive them personhood, to dehumanize them, and in doing that we dehumanize ourselves.

In our Gospel lesson today, when the Baptizer named Jesus the Lamb of God, two of John’s disciples took off following Jesus. They asked him what to us sounds like an impertinent, but really quite inessential, question, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” (Jn 1:38)

[T]he English obscures the significance of the phrase. The Greek verb is meno: abide, remain, endure, continue, dwell, in the sense of permanence or stability. John the Baptist recognizes Jesus when the Holy Spirit remains (meno) upon him (John 1:32). After Jesus provides bread enough to satisfy a crowd, with plenty left over, he cautions the people to work not for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures (meno) for eternal life (John 6:27). He promises that he will abide (meno) in those who abide (meno) in him (John 15:4-10). Wherever Jesus stays (meno), people have the opportunity to believe (John 4:40; 10:40). (Audrey West, Working Preacher Commentary, January 15, 2017)

The Lord abides; the Lord endures: earthly rulers do not. The Psalms remind us:

It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in flesh.
It is better to rely on the LORD *
than to put any trust in rulers. (Ps 118:8-9)

and again

Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, *
for there is no help in them. (Ps 146:2)

Presidents come and presidents go; Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” endures. (The dude abides!) “He will . . . strengthen [us] to the end.” (1 Cor 1:8) So we rely on the Lord . . . and we pray for presidents.

By name.

Amen.

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

A Bicentennial Epiphany: Sermon at Evensong – 6 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector and which inaugurated at the service its Year of Celebration marking the parish’s bicentennial.

(The lessons for the day are the Episcopal Church’s Daily Office Lectionary, Year 1: Psalms 96 & 100;
Isaiah 52:7-10; and St. Matthew 12:14-21.)

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St Paul's Church -- December 2013We are here tonight for two reasons. First, because this is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the major feasts of the Christian Church and one we too often ignore, and second, because this is the inaugural event of our Year of Celebration during which we will mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of this parish.

Epiphany is one of those weird Greek-based words that is so weakly translated into English that we misunderstand its power. Generally, the word is translated as “manifestation” and by it we refer to the manifestation of God in Christ Jesus. In the western church, this Feast of the Epiphany has come to focus on the visitation of the Magi – in some places it is even called “Three Kings Day” or just “Kings Day” – and it is followed by a season of Ordinary Time during which other “manifestations” of Christ are the focus of the weekly gospel lessons: his baptism by John with the descent of the Spirit and the voice of the Father, his first miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana, the calling of the Twelve, and so forth. In the eastern church, it is called the Theophany, usually translated as “manifestation of God,” and it is the principal feast of the Incarnation in the eastern tradition where the focus is primarily on either Jesus’ birth or his baptism.

These words epiphany or theophany, however, mean so much more than what is suggested by the translation “manifestation.” They are compound words made up of, in the first case, the preposition epi– meaning “on” or “onto,” and in the second case, theo meaning “god,” combined with phanos,

… a word familiar to [us] from the English ‘fantasy’ and ‘fantastic’ and all that is suggested by the ‘light shows’ with which modern electronics have made [us] familiar – the word epiphany speaks to [us] of showing forth, breaking through, letting light shine forth. * * * This is a time to look up and out, to shine forth, to witness to something quite literally spectacular and that, of course, is the presence in our midst of the Light of the World. [1]

So that is one reason we gather to celebrate this evening, to celebrate the fantastic, spectacular manifestation of God in Christ, the Epiphany of our Lord!

You may wonder why, if this is Three Kings Day, none of our lessons mentioned the visitation of the Magi: we heard neither Psalm 72, which speaks of the kings of Tarshish, of the isles, of Arabia, and of Saba paying tribute and offering gifts, nor Matthew’s story of the wise men from the East bearing myrrh, frankincense, and gold. Instead, we have Isaiah’s prophecy praising the beauty of messengers’ feet and another story from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus heals a crowd of people but then “order[s] them not to make him known.”

The simplest answer, of course, is that those lessons about kings and wise men are reserved for the celebration of the Eucharist, while the lessons we have heard are part of the daily rotation of Scripture for use at the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, the latter of which being the service we are offering tonight.

The more complicated, or perhaps deeper, answer is that tonight’s lessons remind us of the ministry of God’s People, a ministry of epiphany described in our Catechism as “represent[ing] Christ and his Church” and “bear[ing] witness to him wherever [we] may be.”[2] For that is what those beautiful footed messengers of Isaiah’s did with their proclamation of God’s reign and his comfort for a people in ruins, and it is what those people in Matthew’s gospel story did despite Jesus’ pleading with them not to do so; they manifested God, proclaimed God to those around them.

Which brings us to the second reason we gather this evening, to remember the founding of this parish and begin our year of celebration during which we will, in a number of ways, commemorate the first 200 years of the life of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, and look forward to our third century of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this community.

So let us look back for moment some 200 years ago . . . rather let’s look back 241 years ago for the story of our congregation really has its beginnings in the origins of our republic. Had the Revolution of 1776 not happened, we very likely would not be here today. You know the story, of course, how some American colonists came to the reluctant conclusion that their government, the King, his ministers, and the parliament in London, England, were acting in tyrannical ways and that they were unlikely to change their behavior; how those American colonists decided that the only remedy was to rebel, over throw that government’s dominion in the thirteen colonies, and establish a new sort of local government; and how, against the odds and nearly everyone’s expectations, they succeeded.

You know all of that, but did you know that 32 of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence where members of the Church of England? That’s nearly 60% of the Founders who were Anglicans like you and me! And did you know that their chaplain, the chaplain of the Continental Congress which adopted that Declaration was the rector of a parish in Philadelphia, a man named William White?

Those men, those Anglicans, were reared in a religious tradition of public service, schooled in a theology of society, a peculiar worldview which teaches that the point of one’s life is not to locate oneself in some particular position of privilege, but rather to contribute to the transformation of the social order. Because of their Anglican ethos, they believed that the nation, whether it be the old Mother Country or the new nation they were conceiving, should reflect the merciful purposes of God: the comfort among the ruins of which Isaiah’s beautiful-footed messengers spoke, the healing of the sick which Matthew describes in this evening’s gospel, God’s everlasting mercy about which our Psalm sings today.

When they acted to sever their civil and political society from England, which they believed had fallen away from that tradition and that theology, they also severed their religious lives from the Church which had taught them that worldview. This was a serious matter for these men who were, many of them, vestrymen and leaders in their parishes. They belonged to a church which had preserved the ancient three-fold model of Holy Orders – bishops, priests, and deacons – which had preserved the traditional seven Sacraments – which believed with the ancient theologian Ignatius of Antioch in the centrality of the Eucharist and the unique role of the bishop in preserving the unity of the church. It was a serious matter because there were no Anglican bishops in North America, neither in what would become the United States nor in the still-loyal-to-Britain colonies of Canada.

After the Revolutionary War was ended and the new country was established, many of these men therefore turned their attention to the organization of Anglican Christianity in the new nation. In 1782, William White wrote a pamphlet entitled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, in which he proposed a structure very similar to that which eventually came to be.

It is said that William White was the chief architect of our new kind of Anglican polity, a uniquely American, democratic way of being church. “Hierarchical rule [would be replaced] with egalitarian, democratic government,”[3] and bishops would be elected by majority vote of the laity and the clergy to be “servants of the Church and not its lords.”[4]

In 1784, the churches in Connecticut elected Samuel Seabury who sailed off for the United Kingdom and was eventually ordained a bishop by the Scottish Episcopal Church; he returned to Connecticut in August of 1785. In September 1785, the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held in Philadelphia, but it was a meeting only of the House of Deputies made up of lay and presbyteral representatives, Bishop Seabury not being in attendance; Mr. White presided.

In 1786, the churches in New York elected Samuel Provoost, who had fought in the Revolution and had succeeded William White as Chaplain of Congress, and the churches in Pennsylvania elected Mr. White. A year later, first Provoost and then White were ordained bishops at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. In 1789, what is considered to be the third General Convention was held; it was the first in which a House of Bishops would meet. Bishop White presided, making him both the first President of the House of Deputies and the first Presiding Bishop. He later surrendered the chair to Bishop Seabury who served until his death about two-and-a-half years later; Seabury was succeeded by Provoost who also served for about two and a half years. He was then succeeded in 1795 by Bishop White, who thereby became not only the first Presiding Bishop but also the fourth. He served in that office for almost 41 years until his death in 1836!

During Presiding Bishop White’s tenure, some important things happened. Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803 as the 17th State. Medina County was created in 1812.

In 1814, at the XIth General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Rector of St. Peter’s Church in Plymouth, Connecticut, made an impassioned plea for the funding of mission activity and church planting in Ohio. His name was Roger Searle. Thereafter, with the blessing and support of the Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hobart, and of Presiding Bishop White, Searle left Connecticut and began planting churches in northeastern Ohio. In March of 1817, he met with a group of people living in the village of Weymouth who decided to organize themselves as the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina County; some of them may have been old enough to have been members of the Church of England before the Revolution. A month later, they built a small log cabin to serve as their church on Sundays and as a schoolhouse for the children of Weymouth during the week. That was the beginning of our parish!

On January 5, 1818, representatives of St. Paul’s, Medina would join with other Ohio congregations to adopt the constitution of the Episcopal Church and formally organized the Diocese of Ohio, the first diocese formed outside the borders of the thirteen original states. Although some hoped that Mr. Searle might be the first bishop of the new diocese, he supported the Rev. Philander Chase, who was elected as Ohio’s first bishop and consecrated to that office in 1819.

What they started here was a congregation and a diocese of the Episcopal Church, a manifestation (if you will) of that unique form of American Anglicanism championed by Bishop White, a way of being Christian that former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has described as “holding together in tension polarities that some [might be] eager to resolve,” a sort of “both/and” thinking and living “that keeps our hearts pumping and mission thriving. [T]he kind of tension that drives some of us crazy – what’s more important? – justice or mercy? inclusion or orthodoxy? ministry grounded in bishops or in baptism?” Our American Anglican way of following Christ takes “the long view [that] says that if we insist on resolving the tension we’ll miss a gift of the Spirit, for truth is always larger than one end of the polarity. Tension is where the Spirit speaks. Truth has something to do with that ongoing work of the Spirit, and it can only breathe in living beings capable of change and growth.”[5]

We are indebted to Presiding Bishop White, to Bishop Hobart, to the Rev. Mr. Searle, and to the men and women who formed that first congregation of St. Paul’s Church in Weymouth 200 years ago. They bequeathed to us that sometimes tense, but living and breathing, changing and growing, Anglican sort of Christian faith which emphasizes reason in religion; which advocates an alliance of religion and science supporting scientific developments and believing that true philosophy can never hurt sound divinity; which seeks to make the church as inclusive as possible by providing toleration for dissent; and which teaches that constraining inquiry and the freedom of the believer is neither necessary nor salutary. It is a Christian witness which insists on a practical, public morality which comforts those whose lives are in ruins, heals those who are sick, feeds those who are hungry, shelters those who are homeless, and embraces the Gospel with the innocence of the children it educates. This is the legacy bequeathed to us by White and Searle and those Weymouth Episcopalians two centuries ago.

For 200 years this parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, has been an epiphany, shining forth in our peculiar American Anglican way, and witnessing to that fantastic, spectacular truth that present in our midst is the Light of the World.

As we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ tonight, we look forward to continuing that ministry, “represent[ing] Christ and his Church” and “bear[ing] witness to him” into the next century. May God continue to bless us abundantly as we do. Amen.

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

Notes:

[1] Byron, William J., SJ, Epiphany, The Word Proclaimed: A Homily for Every Sunday of the Year – Year A (Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ, 2013).

[2] American BCP 1979, Page 855.

[3] Podmore, Colin, A Tale of Two Churches, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, Vol. 8:2, pp 124-54, 2008.

[4] Gundrum, James R., The General Convention: Understood Authority or Ecclesiastical Chaos, Arrington Lectures, University of the South, 1982.

[5] Closing Sermon, General Convention 2009.

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