That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Isaiah (page 2 of 11)

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.

A Christmas Lamb Chop: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are the second set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Christmas in Year A: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; and St. Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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lambchop1I was in the pet supply aisle at Giant Eagle several days ago getting food for the Archbishop (that’s our black cocker spaniel, Lord Dudley of Ballycraic, the Archbishop Canine of Montville) when I found, right in front of the Beneful which is his favorite meal, a bin filled with these: dog toys in the likeness of a lamb dressed for Christmas. And not just any lamb! This is Lamb Chop, the somewhat snarky puppet introduced to the world by the late Shari Lewis in 1957.

As many of you know, this is something I do every year for this Christmas Eve sermon . . . find something to be a sort of “focus object” or trigger for our Christmas Eve meditations. Lamb Chop just seemed perfectly suited. This Christmas toy suggested four poetic associations to me: one is the title given Jesus by John the Baptizer, “the Lamb of God;” a second was a familiar nursery rhyme; the third was a romantic English poem; and the fourth, a song that Lamb Chop sang on the Shari Lewis television show, all of which can help us explore and understand the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.

So, the first thing that comes immediately to mind when we look at a lamb, whether Lamb Chop the puppet dressed up for Christmas or an actual lamb in the fields is the statement made by John the Baptizer in the Gospel of John: “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn 1:29) That seems an odd way to refer to a grown man, which Jesus was at the time.

The 20th-century bible scholar Joachim Jeremias suggested that a way to understand John’s statement is that he probably used the Aramaic word talya. Jeremias says that “lamb” (amnos in the Greek in which the gospel is written) is a translation of this Aramaic word, which can also be translated “boy,” “child” or “servant.” When Jesus was described as the talya of God, Aramaic speakers of the earliest church would have heard “child” of God, or “son” of God, or “servant” of God, or “lamb” of God. When that gospel story was written after Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, the image of the sacrificial lamb of the Hebrew tradition resonated with the author. (See America)

According to some widely accepted Christian theologies, the sacrifice of the cross is the very reason for which Jesus was born. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case; I suspect that God the Father would much rather have had Jesus followed than killed, but certainly God made use of Jesus’ Crucifixion and through it opened for us the way of salvation. In any event, some people think that the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, the second thing called to mind by our Christmas Lamb Chop, is about Jesus’ birth as the sacrificial lamb of God. You know the one:

Mary had a little lamb,
a little lamb, a little lamb
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.

It’s not really about the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus, however. It was written by Sarah Josepha Hale of Sterling, Massachusetts, in 1830, and is said to describe an actual event of a pet lamb visiting the local schoolhouse. (See Wikipedia) Nonetheless, we can learn something about our Christian faith by considering the lamb of that story.

The rhyme continues that the lamb followed Mary and “everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.” Although I don’t believe that the Son of God was born necessarily or primarily to be a sacrifice, I am sure he was born to be followed; I’m certain Christ came into Creation to teach us how to live life God’s Way. He is the Word given to us to lead us to salvation. The little lamb in the nursery rhyme trusted Mary and followed her, and that is what God wants us to do, to trust and follow the Son so that, with the Son, we may live the abundant life of the Kingdom of Heaven that God constantly offers us. This is what makes his birth so important to us and why we celebrate the Incarnation in our many special ways.

So, anyway, I picked up this Christmas Lamb Chop dog toy and the first thing I did was check to see where it was made. I’m very careful not to give the Archbishop, Lord Dudley, anything made overseas. (I’m sure you’ve heard about the toxins found in dog toys and treats made, for example, in China.) Doing so, I thought of another bit of lamb-inspired poetry, one by the English Romantic poet William Blake. You may know it; it is entitled simply The Lamb. It is, in essence, a question asked of a lamb by a child:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake’s poem is a deceptively naive child’s song. Beginning with a descriptive, pastoral stanza, it moves quickly to focus on the abstract spiritual matter of Creation. The child’s guileless but profound question – “Who made thee?” – echoes the deep and timeless question that all human beings have about our origin. It reminds us of the opening lines of John’s Gospel with its abstract account of the Incarnation:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth
(Jn 1:1-3,14)

In Blake’s poem, this profound truth is presented with the naiveté of a child’s puzzle revealing the child’s confidence in a simple and innocent Christian faith. Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:15) Christmas is a time for us all to experience once again our childlike wonder at the simple beauty that is the Incarnation.

But our Christmas dog toy can trick us! We have to beware of oversimplifying the Incarnation. I read recently about “a Christmas display . . . at [a shopping] mall: giant plush bears robed as Mary and Joseph, beaming at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger.” Theologian Fredrica Mathewes-Green, who described this display, said of it,

If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since dispersed. Three jolly bears now convey everything we know or expect to know. It is a scene plump with stupidity. Jesus as a cookie. God as a pet. (Patheos)

This, she says, “is very bad news,” because “a circle of cuddly bears is useless at helping us deal with pain. It cannot help us grasp searing heartbreak.” Neither can a puppet, even a nice Christmas Lamb Chop puppet, but it can serve as a warning and a reminder!

Tracy Dugger, an Episcopal priest in Florida, has written about what she calls “meat puppet theology,”

. . . the idea that our bodies are machines simply being utilized and driven around by our minds. The mind/soul is the control, and the body is subservient. This way of thinking about the mind/body connection is wrong, and leads us into some pretty wrongheaded [ideas]. (The Young Anglican)

“The ultimate example of why bodies are important,” she says, is the simple fact that “JESUS HAD ONE! Jesus was Incarnate. Not only was Jesus, Son of God, begotten by the Holy Spirit, He was knit together in Mary’s womb. Jesus was a man of flesh and blood, as well as God from God, light from light.”

Mathewes-Green puts it this way:

God came down in a suit of skin and bones, and walked and talked and offended people, and finally they tortured him to death. And by that death he destroyed death; he rescued us and gave life everlasting and every other good thing. Into this universe crammed with pain we say that God came down, because he loves us with the kind of love that we can only understand by thinking of how a parent loves. (Patheos)

In an Advent meditation offered earlier this week, Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminded us that parental love and every act of kindness is an action of the body. He wrote: “The Spirit of God animates us, but it all happens in the flesh: every deed of kindness, every act of generosity, every word of encouragement happens in the flesh. Every embodiment of Christ’s grace or truth or love happens in the flesh – or it doesn’t happen.”

Tonight, tomorrow, as we celebrate the Word becoming flesh, we celebrate that bodily parental love . . . the love of mother and father tending their newborn child; the eternal love of the Father sending the Son to redeem us. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary, we celebrate also the truth we recite every Sunday (and this evening) in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father . . .
(BCP 1979, Pg 358)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem once for all time; the Son of God is eternally begotten of the Father and both, as we say in the Creed, for our salvation.

lambchop2Which brings me to the fourth and last bit of poetry our Christmas Lamb Chop brought to mind, which is a song Lamb Chop and Shari Lewis taught their viewers during the 1992 season of the PBS show Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. Some of you may know the song and can sing along:

This is the song that doesn’t end
Yes, it goes on and on my friends
Some people started singing it
Not knowing what it was
And they’ll continue singing it
Forever just because . . .
(Repeat)

There is a contemporary Christmas carol by Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn entitled The Cry of a Tiny Babe which expresses the timelessness and eternality of Jesus’ birth in its refrain:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
(Cry of a Tiny Baby YouTube)

In the last book of the bible, St. John of Patmos recorded his many visions, the last of which was of the Lamb:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. * * * Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 21:22-26,22:3-5)

Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that salvation is a song that doesn’t end, that “redemption rips through the surface of time,” and that our Christmas carols are but a faint echo of the multitude’s song of worship before the throne of the Lamb for ever and ever. Mary had a little lamb, the Lamb of God, the Word made flesh through Whom all things were made, Who came down for our salvation, and Whose song of redemption doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friends.

Merry Christmas!

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

Complicated Joseph: Sermon for Advent 4 – 18 December 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2016, 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 for Advent 4 in Year A: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7,16-18; Romans 1:1-7; and St. Matthew 1:18-25. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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angel-appears-to-joseph-in-a-dream1In these few verses, Matthew opens up for us the complexity of Joseph as a human being. He hints at, and we can imagine, Joseph’s distress, his sense of betrayal, his disappointment, and all the other emotions he must have experienced. We can imagine also the fear and hurt that Mary probably would have felt as she and her betrothed sorted out the complications caused by the divine intrusion into their relationship.

Unlike Luke’s pastorally pleasing story of the manger, the angels, and the shepherds, Matthew gives us a direct and simple story of Mary and Joseph as human beings, not characters frozen in a stained-glass window, but flesh and blood people, people like us dealing with a serious complication in their relationship. Thus, we can see ourselves to be people like them, people who live complex lives, who have all sorts of experiences, some of them quite detrimental, and yet whom God invites nevertheless to accomplish God’s purposes.

Poets have explored the complex humanity of Joseph and his possible reactions to the news given by the angel in his dream. For example, in Joseph’s Suspicion, Rainer Maria Rilke envisions Joseph arguing with the angel, forcefully refusing to believe even that Mary is pregnant, raising his fist to the angel defending Mary’s honor:

The angel spoke and patiently tried to
convince the man, who met him with clenched fists:
Can you not see that in every way
she is as cool as God’s first morning mist?

And yet the man looked at him glowering with
suspicion, murmuring: what has brought about her change?
But then the angel cried in anger: Carpenter!
Do you not yet perceive the hand of God’s own doing?

Because you handle wood and know your trade,
do you in arrogance call Him to task
who from the self-same wood you handle now
can make green leaves appear and swelling buds?

He understand. And as he raised his eyes;
now full of fear, to meet the angel’s face,
he was gone. Slowly Joseph removed his cap.
Then he began to sing his song of praise.

In his Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, W.H. Auden envisions Joseph asking for “important and elegant proof” that Mary’s word is true; the angel refuses and, instead, demands that Joseph simply have faith in what Auden clearly considers a scientific impossibility.

JOSEPH:
Where are you, Father, where?
Caught in the jealous trap
Of an empty house I hear
As I sit alone in the dark
Everything, everything,
The drip of the bathroom tap,
The creak of the sofa spring,
The wind in the air-shaft, all
Making the same remark
Stupidly, stupidly,
Over and over again.
Father, what have I done?
Answer me, Father, how
Can I answer the tactless wall
Or the pompous furniture now?
Answer them . . .
GABRIEL:
No, you must.
JOSEPH:
How then am I to know,
Father, that you are just?
Give me one reason.
GABRIEL:
No.
JOSEPH:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
GABRIEL:
No, you must believe;
Be silent, and sit still.

The Narrator of the oratorio then compares Joseph’s dilemma to that of Adam believing Eve and eating the apple, and traces the spiritual relationship of men and women through the ages, ending with this advice to Joseph:

You must behave as if this were not strange at all.
Without a change in look or word,
You both must act exactly as before;
Joseph and Mary shall be man and wife
Just as if nothing had occurred.
There is one World of Nature and one Life;
Sin fractures the Vision, not the Fact; for
The Exceptional is always usual
And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith. Joseph, praise.

The Jesuit poet John Lynch in his narrative poem A Woman Wrapped in Silence, writes of what we do not know, capturing through our ignorance what Joseph and Mary might really have been to each other in their mutual consternation:

What source we have of knowledge of her days
Is sparing, and has left us many days
Still veiled, and if there is enough to find
What Joseph found, and a few dear treasured words,
We must have more to lead us where our love
Would seek to go. And there is one sweet place
That distant watching eyes could fondly wish
To see and ponder on. Did Joseph come,
And with his sobs seek pardon for his fears?
And did he see how, suddenly, his love
Was greater than he knew and could be carried
Now along new pathways with his prayers?
God’s kingdom now was four, and claimed again
Another life to be with Zachary,
To listen with Elizabeth, and then
With her to serve. O, glad, he was for strength,
And glad for honor, and for nmae, and glad
His hand was skilled enough to fashion walls
And build the smallness of a crib that now
Would cradle more than all the world could hold.
Dreams of all his fathers fell on him
In one bright dream, and all bright hopes were clear.
We may not know for sure, and yet, and yet,
May we not see how quietly he came
And spoke no word. And Mary saw him come,
Finding a new thing shining in his eyes.
And when quick tears of gladness and relief
Were done, she saw him kneel, lift up his hands,
Two hands that held invisibly, his life.
She may have reached her own pale fingers out
And found them . . . callused, generous, and strong.

Alyce M. McKenzie, Professor of Preaching and Worship, Perkins School of Theology, in her commentary on this gospel entitled The Fear of Betrayal offers not a poem, but a vignette offering another possible conversation between Joseph and the angel:

On this night, as much as on Christmas Eve, an angel hovered near, whispering a message from God into Joseph’s sleeping ear. The angel interrupted the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement that played in the theater of Joseph’s dreams. The angel replaced them with a manger scene and visions of a boy growing and becoming strong.

“Here,” whispered the angel, “is the key that unlocks your dilemma. Believe her unbelievable story. Marry her, and become the father of God’s child. He will need a father to be accepted by others as he grows to manhood. He will need, not just any father, but a father like you, capable of nurturing him, and giving him a name. ‘Immanuel — God with us.’

“He will need a father like you to teach him to take risks like the one you are about to take, for he will be tempted not to take them.

“He will need a father like you to teach him to withstand the disapproval of others, as you will soon have to withstand it.

“He will need a father like you to teach him what to do in situations like this one, when all hope seems lost and only pain remains; to model how to believe the unbelievable good news and to walk ahead in faith.

“If you do not walk the hard road to Bethlehem, who will teach him how to climb the cruel hill to Calvary?”

In this way, I imagine the father of our Lord was born that night.

These writers through their imaginative treatments show us what Matthew hints at in his simple story: that Joseph was a complex man, a human being like any of us, entrusted by God with the ominous responsibility of fostering God’s own son. We can imagine that his response to that invitation might have been as fearful and as conflicted as any of ours would have been and yet, although Joseph soon disappears from the gospel narratives, we can be assured that he accomplished that ministry with skill and grace. From that we can take the comfort that when God invites us to accomplish his purposes, as God surely does, we too will be able to do so with skill and grace.

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

Superbloom: Sermon for Advent 3 – 11 December 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2016, 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 for Advent 3 in Year A: Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:4-9; James 5:7-10; and St. Matthew 11:2-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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01-death-valley-super-bloomMost of the time when we hear this story of John’s disciples coming to Jesus we focus on John’s question – “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Mt 11:3) – and on Jesus’ answer to it which is neither a “yes” nor a “no” but a pointing to the evidence – “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (Mt 11:5).

But the lesson adds a second conversation, one that happens after John’s followers leave. Jesus turns to the crowd and asks them a question, “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?” (Mt 11:7)

Whenever I read this gospel and encounter that question (especially when I read it in one of the translations that renders it as “What did you go out into the desert to see?”) I remember my childhood and early adult life in southern Nevada, where we would often “go out into the desert to see” something. Today’s prophecy from the Book of Isaiah – “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Isa 35:1-2) – reminds of those times when we would go out to see the wild flowers in bloom.

There is a phenomenon that occurs only rarely in the desert when there is sufficient rain, a blossoming of the wild flowers called a “superbloom.” You may have seen the news of a superbloom in Death Valley last year, in the fall of 2015. It’s an amazing sight to see! The desert bursts with color as thousands of plants come to life; coaxed to blossom by the rains, the flowers create intricate tapestries, the blues and purples of desert lavender, sand verbena, and Arizona lupine, the red of the California poppies, the brilliant orange of the Mariposa lily, and the yellow explosion of a stand of Palo Verde trees in full bloom. It is truly a vision worthy of Isaiah’s prophecy, “The desert shall rejoice and blossom!” It is what we would go out into the wilderness to see.

Most of the time, though, we go out into the desert and we see . . . wilderness, a “reed shaken in the wind,” as Jesus says (Mat 11:7). We go out into the wilderness with our expectations of wild flowers in blossom, of superblooms carpeting the desert with color, and we are disappointed. We miss the truly remarkable splendor of the “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains” that “repeat the sounding joy” of God’s creation. (I. Watts, Joy to the World) We dismiss the gray-greens of cactus and sage, failing to see that there’s “not a plant or flower below but makes [God’s] glories known.” (I. Watts, I Sing the Mighty Power) We fail to see the stark native beauty of the wilderness for what it is because it doesn’t meet our superbloom expectations.

That was the problem for John, and it was the problem for the religious authorities whom John opposed. They looked at Jesus but did not see; this Galilean peasant messiah was not what they expected and so John sent his disciples to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” If we are honest – and the point of the season of Advent is to call us to that sort of honesty – there are times we have seen and heard the work of God but called it something else, not recognizing it for what is. Like the Romans, like the religious authorities, like John the Baptize sitting weary in prison, we mistake what we see. Somehow, it just doesn’t match what we had in mind.

There is a danger during Advent – while we are preparing for the annual celebration of the winter solstice that we call “Christmas”, while we are hosting teas and attending office parties and going to school Christmas plays – there is a danger that we will create the Jesus we want, and miss the Jesus who really is. As Methodist campus minister Deborah Lewis at the University of Virginia notes, we can be confused by and miss “God’s willful, wily, wonderful ways of showing up in the world.” She advises us:

Don’t get carried away in your waiting, in your anticipation. Keep alert and keep paying attention. We’re called not to create and conjure the Prince of Peace but to recognize and welcome him when he arrives, when we see and hear what he’s doing. In the remaining weeks of Advent and when you go home to family and friends and a Christmas you’ve been expecting for a while now, remember what it was you came to see. Remember that wilderness vision and pay attention to how it might look and sound as it is revealed in new places and people. (Deborah Lewis)

Advent, as I said, calls us to be honest. It calls us, as Jesus called his first followers, to “keep awake, for [we] do not know on what day [our] Lord is coming.” (Mat 24:42) It calls us to “beware [and] keep alert, for [we] do not know when the time will come.” (Mk 13:33) We must be alert to the many cultural messages which obscure the Truth of Jesus Christ, cultural messages which lead us to expect something other than the Truth that Jesus offers. “Advent calls us to be honest about the values and beliefs that we hold because of cultural convenience, rather than the values and beliefs [of] our faith.” (Roman Catholic Bishop Paul D. Etienne)

So for the next couple of weeks, keep awake, be alert, be honest. Look to the wilderness beyond the teas, the office parties, and the Christmas plays. Look to the wilderness beyond the decorated trees, the colorful lights, and the blow-up displays in the neighbors’ yards. Look to the wilderness.

Look for God in works of mercy, healing, hope . . . .
Look for God in those who strive for justice and peace . . . .
Look for God in those who mourn and suffer . . . .
Look for God in your own heart. Go there. Into the wilderness. Follow the leading star of your longing for a closer relationship with God, a closer walk with Christ. There is where you hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit. There you begin to see.
Three times Jesus asks the gathered crown: What then did you go out to see? Ask yourself the same question this week, and not only at church, but at any time or place: what did I come here to see?
Ask yourself the same question . . . .
(The Rev. Dr. Matthew Calkins)

Answer honestly and you will see the superbloom of God’s Presence!

Note: The illustration is from the article Marveling at the Super Bloom in the March 2016 issue of Vogue Magazine.

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

Swords into Ploughshares, But No Rapture: Sermon for Advent 1, 27 November 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the First Sunday of Advent, November 27, 2016, 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 for Advent 1 in Year A: Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; and St. Matthew 24:36-44. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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swordsploughsharesrockefeller“Two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” (Matt 24:40-42) You probably have friends who have told you these verses from Matthew’s Gospel describe something called “the Rapture.” You may have read the Left Behind books or seen the movies. So you may think you have a handle on what these verses mean and why they are offered to us as we begin our Advent preparation to celebrate the anniversary of Christ’s Incarnation and to look forward to his return, his “Second Coming.”

Well… just hold that thought for a moment and let’s explore the first reading before we get back to it.

This is such a great passage from the Prophet Isaiah that we have this morning. It’s got those wonderful verses that are carved into the wall of the broad plaza across the street from the United Nations building in New York City:

They shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4, NRSV)

It’s got all that wonderful imagery of the nations of the world streaming toward the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem, at peace with one another. It’s a wonderful, wonderful vision.

We keep waiting for it, don’t we?

Isaiah saw this vision during the reign of King Uzziah of Judah about 750 years before Jesus’ time. Isaiah promulgated what is known as “Zion theology,” a religious understanding of Jerusalem as the center of the world and the Temple as the center of Jerusalem. The Lord will come to it and its mount, Holy Zion, will be the most prominent mountain. The nations will all come to Jerusalem to learn divine teaching. Yahweh, enthroned in the Temple, will mediate and end all international conflict. The waging of war will cease.

Of course, none of that has ever happened, but for nearly eight centuries after Isaiah the son of Amoz this was the belief and hope of Israel, of all Jews. The realities of this text exist in the realms of promise, hope, and faith.

Or at least they did until about forty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Here’s a little First Century history lesson:

Jesus was born sometime around the year we might think of as “Zero” – in truth, we think he was born about the year now designated 4 B.C. (The calendar designations we use were developed by a man named Dionysus Exiguus – Dennis the Short – around the year 525 A.D. Dennis made a couple of miscalculations and so our calendar is just a bit off; it really doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus.) He lived to about his mid-thirties; the most popular dating of the crucifixion is April 3 of the year 33 A.D.

The Gospels were written several years after Jesus’ Ascension. Folks apparently thought it would be a good idea to get things written down because the original followers of Jesus were dying off. So Mark’s gospel was compiled a few years before 70 A.D., perhaps in the mid-60s. Matthew’s gospel is believed to have come next, about 80 A.D., perhaps as late as 90 A.D. Luke wrote his gospel and the Book of Acts at about the same time. John’s gospel comes along about the year 100 A.D.

These dates are important because of what happened in Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

Around the year 64 A.D. the Jews of Jerusalem rebelled against the then-ruling Roman Procurator, a man named Gessius Florius, who had tried to take the Temple treasury for his own use. They succeeded in expelling Florius from the city, but only after nearly 4,000 Jews had been killed. Then they got into a battle amongst themselves. There was essentially a civil war between the forces of Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod the Great, who claimed to be king, and Eliezer ben-Hananiah, who was the high priest.

This division between the Jews allowed the Roman Procurator of Syria Cestius Gallius to lay siege to the city for four years between 66 and 70 A.D. and basically starve the Jews. In the late summer of 70 A.D. the Roman general Titus Flavius successfully breached the city walls and destroyed the city and the Temple. The contemporary Jewish historian Joseph ben Matityahu reported that more than a million Jews were killed.

That is when the Zion theology of Isaiah took a nearly fatal blow. There was no longer a Temple to which (as the Psalmist put it)

the tribes [could] go up,
the tribes of the Lord,
the assembly of Israel,
to praise the Name of the Lord. (Ps 122:4, BCP 1979 Version)

This was also the background, the context within which Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels were written. When the authors set about to record the story of Jesus, they look back to view him through the smoke of burning Jerusalem, across the rubble of the destroyed Temple.

Thus, they remembered things that Jesus had said about the Temple’s destruction. They remembered things that Jesus had said about his own probable death. They remembered and interpreted and wrote about many things in light of what was happening and had happened in the world around them. Of course they did! They were just as human as you and me, and the way they saw things and understood things and reported things was influenced by their experiences.

“The impact of this catastrophe cannot be overestimated. The loss of the war was itself devastating. The loss of the city of Jerusalem, the symbolic unifier of the Jewish people and the physical link to the memories that make Jews distinctively Jewish, tying them together all the way back to David, who ruled from this city, this loss shook the people deeply.” (Prof. Richard W. Swanson) Including the followers of Jesus, who at that time still thought of themselves as Jews.

Which brings us back to those verses from today’s gospel reading . . . that much cited and much misinterpreted text! When they remembered Jesus saying, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left” (Matt 24:40-41), the evangelists didn’t think he was talking about something that would happen in some future when he would return. They believed, probably correctly, that he was talking about something that had already happened to them and to their families and to their country. They had lived through a devastating and now inescapable loss. As a result of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, which they had 800 years of regarding as the center of the universe, “every extended family [had] lost many members.” (Swanson)

In Luke’s version of this story, by the way, the disciples ask a follow-up question: Jesus says, “I tell you, on that night there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding meal together; one will be taken and the other left.” (Lk 17:34-35) Then his followers ask, “Where, Lord?” and Jesus them to look for the ones taken “Where the corpse is,” where “the vultures will gather.” The authors of the gospels were not looking forward to this happening; they had already been through it. (See Benjamin Corey)

It wasn’t until a crazy Irish Anglican priest named John Darby took these verses out of context and mashed it together with something Paul wrote to the Thessalonians about being “caught up in the clouds together with [the risen dead] to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thes 4:17), and stirred it all together with some crazy imagery from the Book of Revelation, that we get the notion of a “rapture.” That “pointless [and] weird theology has . . . produced some strange bumper stickers (In case of Rapture this car will be driverless, etc.), and bad movies (you know which ones), [but] it is not what these words are about.” (Swanson)

These words are about hope even in the worst possible of circumstances. As Professor Arland Hultgren of Luther Seminary says:

The message of Christ’s return is not meant to frighten us. It is to give us hope. ~ The Christ who is to come is the Christ who once lived among us on earth, and who is known in the gospel story as the friend and healer of those in need. Moreover, living in hope, expecting Christ’s return, is integral to the Christian faith, for by it we insist that there is more to the human story and God’s own story than that which has been experienced already. (Hultgren)

There is another prophet whose words convey this message, the Prophet Habakkuk who shouted his intent to praise the Lord even when everything had gone bad. He wrote:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights. (Hab 3:17-19a)

This is the hope of Advent, the hope that lets us believe, indeed lets us know with certainty that although Jerusalem may be destroyed, although the Temple may be in ruins, although war may rage around us, still there will be a time when

they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more. (Isa 2:4)

“Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man [who will usher in that time of peace] is coming at an unexpected hour.” Amen.

Note: The illustration is “Swords into Plowshares” by Lee Oscar Lawrie at the International Building, Rockefeller Center, NYC, NY.

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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.

The Perfect Scorecard: A Funeral Homily (James McKee, 28 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the funeral of James William McKee, July 28, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from The Book of Common Prayer lectionary for burials: Isaiah 61:1-3; Psalm 23; Second Corinthians 4:16-5:9; and St. John 10:11-16. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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golfWhen I was practicing law and serving as the chief legal officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada, there was a church member (of another congregation than mine) who always greeted me with a lawyer story. “What’s the difference between a lawyer and ….? ” “There was a lawyer who went to heaven ….” I think I’ve heard all the lawyer jokes, and I considered starting with one this morning. If I had had more than a passing acquaintance with Jim McKee, I might have done so. But I didn’t know Jim, so I won’t do that. Instead, I’ll begin with some poetry.

The death of anyone important in our lives is a tragic and painful thing. This is especially so when a father or grandfather passes away, perhaps because we use that metaphor of fatherhood to explain God’s relationship to us. Whenever a father or an older brother passes away, I cannot help but remember the poem by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieve it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

As I said, I didn’t know Jim McKee; I do not know if he was Thomas’s wise man, a good man, a wild man, or a grave man, so I cannot eulogize him. But I do know that he was a father and I know that he was a lawyer specializing in what I think of as an esoteric specialty (intellectual property law), and that he had a loving wife, two children and five grandchildren, and that he loved football and golf (though he is said to have had no skill at the latter).

So I have a few things in common with Jim McKee. I’m also am a loving husband, a father, and a grandfather. I, too, am a lawyer (though my specialty, before I left active practice, was medical negligence litigation) and I am a terrible golfer.

I don’t play the game any longer, but as I was preparing to celebrate Jim’s life and preach this homily today, I got to thinking about golf. I remembered the observation made by someone (I can’t remember who) that there are probably more prayers said on the golf courses of America on Sunday morning than are said in its churches, although as evangelist Billy Graham once quipped, “The only time my prayers are never answered is on the golf course.”

I collect prayers, as you might suppose, and over the years I’ve collected quite a few golf-themed petitions. One of the nicer is this one:

God, What is my fascination with this game? Is it the outdoors – the green fairways, the blue skies, the lakes and trees, the feel of the breeze across my face? Is it the friends with whom I play – their companionship, their encouragement, the conversation between holes, the silence as we wait our turn? Is it the game – the balance between grace and skill and power, the striving for perfection, the loft of the ball, the precision of the putt? Or is it all of these, and in these, meditations about all of life – harmony, friendship, balance, and – every once in awhile – the perfect shot and a glorious Amen. (The Joy of Golfing)

I suspect that that prayer captures what it was about golf that attracted an intelligent and thoughtful man like James McKee.

Another golf prayer, one written by a man named Don Humm, begins this way:

Oh God, in the game of life, you know that most of us are duffers and that we all aspire to be champions with plenty of birdies or eagles.

Help us, we pray, to be grateful for the course including both the fairways and the rough. We thank you for those who have made it possible for us to tee off. Thank you for the thrill of a solid soaring drive; the challenge of the dogleg; the trial of the trap; the discipline of the water hazard; the beauty of a cloudless sky and the exquisite misery of rain and cold. (Presbyterian Church of the Roses)

The Buddhist writer Roy Klienwachter writes that “golf is a metaphor for life. It is up and down. The harder you try to win the worse you get. When you learn to let go the game gets easier. So,” he advises, “learn to play the game and go with it. The ‘practice’ is the game, learn to practice.” And Roman Catholic monk and golfer Thomas Moore writes that a game of golf is “an abbreviated, symbolic round of life. A green is like Eden: You reach it, and you feel that you have arrived at an unearthly place with its perfect grass and chance at salvation.”

In our lesson from the Gospel of John this morning, Jesus describes our salvation this way: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” so that “there will be one flock, one shepherd.” (Jn 10:11,16) The Eucharistic prayer which we will offer in a few minutes picks up this theme of salvation, recalling that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [the Father’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” (BCP 1797, Pg 362)

Lutheran Pastor Chris Rosebrough uses golf as a metaphor to explain Christ’s atoning sacrifice:

Pretend you are a terrible golfer (for most there is not much imagination needed here). Now pretend that your eternal salvation depends on you scoring a perfect round of Golf (par or better for the entire round) at Bethpage Black (arguably the toughest golf course on the planet) and the course has been set up for U.S. Open conditions (7400 yards long, 8 inch rough and greens so fast it’s like putting in a bath tub). But, wait just to make things even more difficult, the devil has thrown in gail force winds that are swirling and gusting as high a 60 miles an hour.

To give you an idea of how difficult this feat is, Tiger Woods at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, with practically perfect weather conditions was the ONLY golfer with a score that was UNDER par. Phil Mickleson was the only other golfer that scored an even par for the tournament. Every other golfer was above par for the tournament. But under these course conditions not even Tiger Woods has any hope of being saved. Sadly, even if Jesus gave you a Mulligan then there would still be no hope of your being saved. One ‘do-over’ would be quickly gobbled up at Bethpage Black under these conditions.

So then how can you be ‘saved’ in this scenario?

The Gospel teaches us that even under these impossible conditions, Jesus Christ shot the perfect round of golf for you at Bethpage Black and is offering you His scorecard as your own. He’s already taken your scorecard, the one with all the sins on it, and he’s atoned for those sins on the cross. In return, He will give you His perfect scorecard and let you sign your name to it as if you were the one who shot that round. (Extreme Theology)

Our guaranteed salvation notwithstanding, we must still face those “impossible conditions” as we play the fairways and putt the greens of life even though we are assured that they cannot defeat us. As the rabbis teach, we must not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. We are not obligated to complete the work but neither are we free to abandon it. We must, as the Buddhist philosopher said, continue to play the round and practice.

Thus, in Mr. Humm’s prayer, he give thanks that golf teaches us important life lessons: “how to get the right grip on life; to slow down in our back swing; to correct our crazy hooks and slices; to keep our head down in humility and to follow through in self-control . . . to be good sports who will accept the rub of the green, the penalty for being out-of-bounds, the reality of lost golf balls, the relevancy of par, the dangers of the 19th hole, and the authority of [the] rule book.” As Leonard Finkel wrote in Chicken Soup for the Golfers Soul, “In golf, as in life, obstacles are placed in our path. In overcoming these roadblocks, our greatest triumphs occur.” It is such times that we know that God (as Isaiah put it) brings good news to the brokenhearted, “the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” (Is 61:3)

New York Times writer Harold Segall observed that golf is “an adventure, a romance . . . a Shakespeare play in which disaster and comedy are intertwined.” The author L.R. Knost didn’t mention golf but she could certainly have been describing the game when she wrote:

Life is amazing. And then it’s awful. And then it’s amazing again. And in between the amazing and the awful, it’s ordinary and mundane and routine. Breathe in the amazing, hold on through the awful, and relax and exhale during the ordinary. That’s just living heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful ordinary life. And it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

As I said at the beginning, I did not have the privilege to know James William McKee. I do not know if he was the wise man, the good man, the wild man, or the grave man of Dylan Thomas’ poem. But I know from what I have been told that Jim did bless each of you with his fierce tears, that he battled bravely the cancer which finally took him from you, and that he did not go gentle into the night, but raged against the dying of the light. Nonetheless, his last putt has dropped into the cup; the light of his last day has faded into the darkness of death, and though his trophies may be few, his handicap still too high, and that hole-in-one still an unfulfilled dream, he is able to turn in that guaranteed perfect scorecard.

Today, we commend to almighty God the life and death of James William McKee – father, grandfather, lawyer, friend, lover of golf – whose life was, like a round of the game he loved, an adventure and a romance, amazing and awful and ordinary and routine and, like everyone’s in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful. Remember that, remember the beautiful part, and be assured that, through the grace of God, he is at rest in the final clubhouse, that building “not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (2 Cor 5:1)

I didn’t want to start this homily with a lawyer story but I’ll finish with one: A lawyer went to heaven. That’s it. No long tale, no punchline. Just a true story: A lawyer went to heaven. Amen.

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

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