That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Isaiah (page 2 of 12)

Listen, Grasshopper! – Sermon for Epiphany 5, RCL Year B, 4 February 2018

Listen to the word that God has spoken;
Listen to the One who is close at hand;
Listen to the voice that began creation;
Listen even if you don’t understand.[1]

At the winter convocation this weekend our music keynoter, Ana Hernandez, taught us those words as a tract to chant before the reading of the Gospel. As we chanted them, I could not help but remember the first words of our lesson from the prophet Isaiah this morning, the pleading questions:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?[2]

It is easy to read those questions, asked (says the Prophet) by God of God’s people, in what I call “the voice of parental frustration.” All of us who are parents have used that voice; all of us who are children have heard that voice. The people of God have heard that voice for centuries; it is the voice of what G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God.”[3] It is the voice of what the often-maligned conservative Christian author Eric Metaxas once called “a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.”[4] I suspect that a lot of parents have known that feeling, the feeling of being insulted by the one we love unconditionally.

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The Work of Christ – Sermon at the Requiem for Elizabeth Scott Bres, January 28, 2018

You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.”[1] Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”

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God the Embroiderer – Sermon at the Requiem for Susan H. Potterton, January 13, 2018

Why do we do this? Why do we gather when a loved one dies and hold assemblies like this? Most human beings believe that death is not the end of the person who has passed away. Except for the few human beings who really strongly subscribe to an atheist philosophy, and they truly are a minority of our race, everyone on earth belongs to some faith group which teaches that we continue on, whether it is by reincarnation or in the Elysian Fields or the happy hunting grounds, as a guiding ancestral spirit or at rest in the presence of our Lord. So why do we do this?

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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.

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