Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Lamentations

Our Country Has Become a Strange Land – Sermon for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22C) – October 2, 2022

In 1978 the German Caribbean disco group Boney M covered a Jamaican Rastafarian anthem called “Rivers of Babylon.” Their cover claimed the Number 1 spot on the European pop charts that year and Number 30 on US pop charts. You may remember it. I’m going to ask our sound man to play the first minute or so of the song now.

That danceable little tune is based on Psalm 137, the same psalm the choir chanted this evening. That bouncy rhythm seems just a little bit at odds with the psalm’s words of lament, don’t you think? — and that violent imprecation at the end?

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Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Homily for the Requiem of Organist Roberta Stamper, 8 Sept 2017

Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
stay right here with us,
filling us with your love. Amen.

(Please, be seated.)

I wonder if you remember a few years ago when the Broadway actress and singer Patti Lupone performing in a revival of Gypsy stopped the show, broke the “fourth wall,” and berated an audience member who was using his cell phone? She launched into what has been called a “blistering tirade” and “legendary rant,” and had the spectator thrown out of the theater. Her moment of ignominy is preserved forever on YouTube. (Radar Online)

In contrast, there is a story about Wynton Marsalis playing at the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Grennwich Village in 2001 told by The New Republic‘s music critic David Hajdu:

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Intermission: We Cannot Know – Holy Saturday 2017


A meditation offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Holy Saturday, April 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: Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24; Psalm 31:1-4,15-16; 1 Peter 4:1-8; and St. Matthew 27:57-66. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the least thought upon, least looked upon day in the Easter Triduum. A moment when the pomp and majesty of events ceases; no betrayals, no protestations of loyalty, no meaningful dinner, no demonstrations of servanthood, no admonitions to love, no agony, no dying, and, as yet, no rising — merely dormancy on all fronts. It is the Intermission of the three-act drama of Redemption.

A time, as poet Emily Polis Gibson quoting T.S. Eliot says is a time to Be Still and Wait:

I said to my mind, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; yet there is faith
But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
~T. S. Eliot, from “East Coker,” The Four Quartets

This in-between day
after all had gone so wrong
before all will go so right,
puts us between the rock
and the hard place:
all hope, love and faith is squeezed from us.
Today we are flattened,
dried like chaff,
ground to pulp,
our destiny with death sealed.

We lie still
like sprinkled spices
trying to delay
inevitable decay,
wrapped up tight
stone cold
and futile.
The rock is rolled into place
so we lie underneath,
crushed and broken.
We are inside,
our bodies like His.
We are outside,
cut off and left behind.
We cannot know about tomorrow,
we do not fathom what is soon to come:
the stone lifted and rolled away,
the separation bridged,
the darkness giving way to light,
the crushed and broken rising to dance,
and the waiting stillness stirring, inexplicably,
to celebrate new life.

“We cannot know about tomorrow . . . . ” Poet and essayist Aaron Brown says that Holy Saturday “dwells in [the] place where words fail, between the bookends of suffering and resurrection. When the defiance of loss gives way to numbness, we are left in a space where time seems to slow, indeed seems to stop altogether.” (Brown) It is truly an intermission.

And yet it is not a time of inactivity. While we, the actors and cast of the yearly remembrance of the drama seem to languish, our faith teaches that the one who has died is active. We confess in each recitation of the Creed that “he descended to the dead.” It is the time called “the harrowing of hell” when the souls of the righteous dead are freed. An ancient anthem of the day sings

Our shepherd, the source of the water of life, has died.
The sun was darkened when he passed away.
But now man’s captor is made captive.

This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.
He has destroyed the barricades of hell,
overthrown the sovereignty of the devil.
This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.
(Responsory, Roman Rite Morning Prayer, Saturday of the Three Days)

The protagonist died, but the drama is not ended. This is merely Intermission, time to gather strength and prepare for the third act. Let us pray:

All-powerful and ever-living God, your only Son went down among the dead and rose again in glory. In your goodness raise up your faithful people, buried with him in baptism, to be one with him in the eternal life of your kingdom, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.


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

Baseball and a Father’s Death: A Funeral Homily, 18 November 2015


A sermon offered at the requiem for James E. Freiberger, held November 18, 2015, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the requiem were Lamentations 3:22-26,31-33; Psalm 27:1-7; Romans 8:14-19,34-35,37-39; and John 11:21-27. These lessons may be found at the Burials Lectionary Page The Lectionary Page. Mr. Freiberger’s obituary may be found here.)


Baseball and GloveThe death of anyone important in our lives is a tragic and painful thing, even if the relationship was strained or even broken. This is especially so when a parent dies and, for some reason, more so when that parent is our father, perhaps because we use that metaphor of fatherhood to explain God’s relationship to us. Whenever someone’s father 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.

The death of a parent, especially a father (I think) no matter what our relationship with him may have been, fills us with rage, with conflicted emotion, with a frustration difficult to name. Let us commend all of that to God, as we commend the soul of James E. Freiberger to God’s eternal care.

I didn’t know Jim Freiberger; I do not know if he was (to use poet Thomas’s labels) a 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 in the Navy, that he had a career in data processing, and that he had three children, one of whom I know. I am told that he was a gifted athlete and almost had a chance to play professional baseball, a game about which he was passionate . . . a love I know he passed on to his daughter.

So I got to thinking about baseball and did some research and found an article about the lessons baseball can teach us, lessons that can be applied in business and management. I think what the author has to say suggests that baseball can also teach us something about our spiritual life, as well. It’s a cliché, I think, that baseball is a metaphor for life, but (in many ways) it actually is.

The author of that business article contrasts the timing of baseball with the timing of sports such as football or basketball, noting that in those sports there is a clock which limits the time of the game and ticks down inexorably and finally, and although there might be overtime in the event of a tie at the end of regulation play, even that is bounded by the clock. In contrast, he writes:

Baseball is a game that is pastoral in nature, a reminder of a time that our life was slower and most of us lived on farms and small towns. You have 27 outs and the game is not over until all outs are exhausted. There is no clock to pressure you. You simply go on your business until it is done. Time marches slowly in baseball and baseball allows us to simply relax for three hours while drinking a few adult beverages.

I think this is part of the message of the lesson from Lamentations: “[God’s] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning.” God’s time marches slowly and it is always merciful and every morning is new. We can relax into God’s time; we can find comfort in God’s time; we can find all things renewed in God’s time; we can abandon our frustrations, our rages, and our fears in God’s time. “The Lord is the strength of my life,” says the Psalmist today, “of whom then shall I be afraid?”

In the article, then, the author talks about the way baseball deals with failure:

Baseball teaches about failure as the length of the season reflects the pace of our life. You have 162 games and there are days in which the batter can’t see the ball or the pitches look more like beach balloons as the opposing hitters feast on the big fat pitches coming their way. The beauty of baseball is that you can suck one day but the next you can redeem yourself. You don’t have to wait a week before getting a chance to get it right.

And you don’t have to dwell on getting it wrong. It occurred to me this morning that there’s a real contrast between football and baseball with regard to getting it wrong. In football, every mistake a player or a team can make has a name and is remembered by that name: the quarterback sack, the fumble, the incomplete pass, the missed block, and so forth. Fans and players relive, again and again, all the mistakes of past games. In baseball, on the other hand, there’s just one word for every sort of mistake: error. The scorekeeper and the statisticians keep track of “errors,” but the rest of us move on. There’s no point in dwelling on mistakes, because (after all) they are forgiven. They will be of no consequence in the end. As Paul said, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [and I would add that includes ourselves and any mistakes or errors or bad decisions we have made] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The author of our article on baseball and business then takes a look at the game’s attitude towards success, something that none us (especially in our families and interpersonal relationships) really have much of. He writes:

In baseball, if you hit .300, you are very good. In most sports, hitting .300 represent failures. Quarterbacks lose their jobs if their accuracy is 55% but in baseball, a manager who win 55% of the games is brilliant. In college football winning only 55% of your games will get you fired. Ask any good salesman and they will tell you if they get 30% of their prospects to buy their products, this will produce a successful year. There are days that you wonder why you got up and then there are days in which wow, you can’t do no wrong just like the baseball player who hits for the cycle.

In the Christian faith we believe in a cycle . . . a cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth that we call “Resurrection,” not a rebirth into this world as taught by some other religions, but a rebirth into the Presence of God. This is the assurance Jesus gave to Martha, to Mary, to their brother Lazarus; it is the assurance that his own birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension gives to us. “I go,” he told his disciples, “to prepare a place for you . . . and I will gather you to myself, that where I am you may also be.” Martha said to Jesus about her brother, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” And we can say that now about Jim Freiberger and about all of us, no matter what our “batting average” or our “percentage of accuracy” may have been.

So, baseball (about which Jim was passionate) has something to teach us about our spirituality; it may be a cliché, but it is true that baseball can be a metaphor for life. If you “Google” that phrase – “baseball is a metaphor for life” – you will find, among many other less colorful explanations, this somewhat off-color monologue by the character Kenny Shea in the television program Rescue Me:

Anyway, baseball and life, one in the same. Everybody always says that life is too short. Bullshit. Life, unless you get cancer or hit by a bus or set on fire, takes forever. Just like baseball. It’s a series of long, mind-boggling boring stretches of time where absolutely nothing happens. So, you take a nap, and then, after a little while, when that crisp crack of the bat hittin’ the ball, so crisp you could almost smell that wood burning, jolts you awake and you open your eyes to see something so exciting and intricate, and possibly, very, very meaningful has just happened, but you missed it ’cause you were just so goddamn bored in the first place. Oh, you know, a couple of hot dogs, throw in some beers, . . . and that’s that.

So baseball is a metaphor for life with its long boring stretches and its moments of excitement and its disappointments. The author L.R. Knost didn’t mention baseball but she made the same point 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.

Today, we commend to almighty God the soul of James E. Freiberger – Navy man, father, grandfather, data processing worker, lover of baseball – whose life was amazing and awful and ordinary and routine and, like everyone’s in its own way, breathtakingly beautiful. Remember that, remember the beautiful part, and remember that, whatever else may be true about Jim Freiberger, remember that “nothing in all of creation will be able to separate [him] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.


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


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

By the Rivers of Babylon – Sermon for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 22C – October 6, 2013


This sermon was preached on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, October 6, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 22C: Lamentations 1:1-6; Psalm 137; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; and Luke 17:5-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


You may recognize this reggae version of a portion of Psalm 137, the psalm we recited this morning, combined with a paraphrase of verse 14 of Psalm 19. It was originally done by the Melodians in 1969, but the version I played was recorded by Boney M, a German Caribbean group, in 1978 and claimed the Number 1 spot on the European pop charts that year. It’s quite a danceable little tune; it puts a bounce in your step which seems quite at odds with Psalm 137’s words of lament and with the violent imprecation with which the psalm concludes. I’ll return to this musical version in a moment, but first let’s take a closer look at this psalm and our other lessons today.

Paul begins his letter to the young bishop, Timothy, whom he has nurtured in the faith, with these words: “I am grateful to God — whom I worship with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did . . . .” I’m glad that Paul was able to do so, to worship with a clear conscience, because I think he was wrong about his ancestors! His ancestors were the ones who wrote the psalm we recited just before Paul’s letter was read, the psalm that ends with these words:

Remember the day of Jerusalem, O Lord, against the people of Edom, *
who said, “Down with it! down with it! even to the ground!”
O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, *
happy the one who pays you back for what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!
(Ps 137:7-9)

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time worshiping with a clear conscience after reciting such words and, I suspect, so did the ancient Jews, even though those awful words may have been as heart-breakingly genuine, as horrifically honest as possible.

There is academic debate about the authorship of this letter; many scholars believe that it was not written by Paul even though it purports to be his personal farewell address, “Paul modeling how to die” as one commentator puts it. So we don’t really know when or why this letter was written, or by whom (but we’ll call the author “Paul” anyway). We know that Timothy was in tears: “Recalling your tears,” writes Paul, “I long to see you so that I may be filled with joy.” Presumably, Timothy is distraught over Paul’s imprisonment and probable impending execution. Paul’s advice to Timothy is to buck up! “God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” Please keep this advice (and the happy, danceable music to which the Melodians and Boney M set Psalm 137) in mind as we turn to the other lessons of the day.

Lessons like the reading from Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus admonishes his followers (specifically the Apostles, but also us), “When you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'” Bill Loader, an Australian theologian whose work and words I rather like, says this admonition is a slap in the face to the established order:

It deconstructs hierarchy [and] debunks the idea that we achieve value by achieving the good, as though we deserve a bonus for being decent, caring human beings. It does not let us play the game. We can’t claim: you ought to love me, because look at how good I am! Look at what I have done! The passage is probably deliberately offensive in flooring aspirations to human worth based on achievement capital. It is annoying and frustrating, and even seems mean. It gives us no credit. (First Thoughts)

Jesus’ comment subverts any system that bases value on achievement; very simply, Jesus is saying that we are valued by God (and thus should value one another), not because of what we achieve, but because of who we are! Paul’s admonition to Timothy to buck up because we have been given “a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” is grounded in the assurance of Jesus that we are loved by God not because we have accomplished anything, but simply because of who we are.

The way Jesus (who is, remember, the incarnation of God) approaches human dignity and value is hugely comforting in a world where the poor are exploited and where anger explodes in violence and terror which disregards human life, in the very world of Psalm 137 and its cry for vengeance, its imprecation that someone will ” take [Babylon’s] little ones and dash them against the rock!”

So what was the world of Psalm 137? It was the world of the Babylonian exile, the world of the destruction of Jerusalem, the world of the demolition of the Temple, the very heart and soul of the Jewish people. The year was 587 B.C.E. The armies of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, aided and cheered on by the Edomites (ancestral enemies of the Jews, supposedly descended from Jacob’s brother Esau) invaded the southern kingdom of Judah. (The northern kingdom of Israel had already been destroyed by the Assyrians 150 years or so before.) The Babylonians took possession of Jerusalem, raping, pillaging, and slaughtering with abandon. They seized the priests and the scribes, the king and the nobles, the wealthy leaders and their accountants, and took them away to Babylon. For those left behind, the economy quickly collapsed, food became scarce, water became foul, the daily life ceased to make sense. Order was replaced by chaos. Jerusalem became a wasteland. The Book of Lamentations describes the scene:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
. . . .
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
. . . .
Her foes have become the masters,
her enemies prosper;
. . . .
her children have gone away,
captives before the foe.
(Lamentations 1:1,5)

The psalmist, speaking for those who have suffered through this desolation, curses those who have caused it. The psalm’s cries of deep sorrow (“We wept; we could not sing!”) and the dreams of horrible acts of vengeance (“Happy the one who murders their infants!”) are cathartic; they are a means of working through and overcoming the intense hurt of defeat and exile. By voicing anger to God, the exiles cleanse themselves of violent emotion, but they also give themselves a reason to persist.

In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning (Beacon Press, Boston, 2006), psychologist Viktor Frankl described his own experience in the Nazi death camps of the Holocaust and the lessons he and his fellow inmates learned about spiritual survival. Among those learnings was the need for a goal: “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future,” (p. 73) even if that future is one of vengeance. Without a goal, the concentration camp prisoners ceased to live for the future; indeed, they ceased to live at all, they simply decayed. “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear with almost any ‘how'” wrote Frankl. (p. 76) Their anger and dreams of revenge supplied the exiles with the why, the goal, the reason for them to survive. The provocative and hyperbolic language of the psalm expresses the horror and outrage the exiles were experiencing, and describes a future for which they could live. That it is a horrific future does not deprive it of its spiritually supportive power.

In their defense, we should note that “dashing babies” was a common practice of warfare in the international community of the exiles’ time. In the Second Book of Kings, for example, Elisha weeps in the presence of a foreign general who asks why the man of God is crying, and Elisha answers: “Because I know the evil that you will do to the people of Israel; you will set [Israel’s] fortresses on fire, you will kill their young men with the sword, dash in pieces their little ones, and rip up their pregnant women.” (2 Kgs.8:12) Babylonian armies are known to have killed babies, raped women, and blinded some their war prisoners. The Babylonians committed terrible atrocities against the people Judah so, in their dreams of retribution, they cried out to God for proportional retribution. There is, however, no evidence that the exiles ever followed through on their bloodthirsty dreams of revenge.

Psalm 137 “tells it like it is;” anger, vengeance, hatred, rage, pain and suffering are a human reality. The people of Judah believed that everything they had hoped for and everything they relied upon, their own country, their sacred priesthood, the Davidic kingdom, and the Jerusalem temple had been taken away by the bloodthirsty Babylonians. We know that faith becomes compromised when hopes of ease and comfort and success are snatched away by economic chaos, by terrorism, by personal health problems, by hunger, or by the dysfunction (or non-function) of government. Bad things happen and people react. Many, I am sure, have been guilty of extremes of thought like those voiced by the psalmist. Have you never wished someone dead, even in unspoken your thoughts? I confess that I have. Have you never told someone (even if only under your breath) to “Go to Hell”? I have! In today’s culture, that may be more acceptable than threatening to “dash babies,” but theologically speaking, it voices a much stronger sentiment than the psalm. We and our world are more like the exiles and theirs than we know or want to admit.

This is how this psalm, this awful, horrific psalm, speaks both to and for us. The Babylonians may not have attacked us, but we live in a world at least as violent as that of the exiles. Since 1900, there have been 232 wars; more than 96 million people have been killed in those wars, and it is an inescapable fact of modern history that the same barbarism described in Psalm 137 or the Book of Lamentations or the Second Book of Kings occurred in many of those wars and still occurs today. One need only think of the ethnic cleansing episodes in the former Yugoslavia, the civil war in Rwanda, and the almost daily atrocities currently happening in Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Myanmar, and elsewhere.

Abandoned Train Station, Detroit, MIWe live in a country where there are cities once full of people now sitting lonely: we sit here today less than 200 miles by turnpike from Detroit, where the picture on the cover of our bulletin was taken, a city which has been described as looking as if it had been bombed in a war! Just yesterday, Salon reported that in the United States there are 14 million unoccupied residences. Six months ago, “Detroit had more than 83,000 unoccupied residential addresses. That constitutes nearly 25 percent of the city’s potential housing stock. New Orleans had 44,000, for 21 percent. Cleveland had 41,000, or 19 percent.” (Salon, Abandoned Homes) Cities once full of people are sitting abandoned and lonely. Meanwhile, on any given night in this country over 633,000 homeless people sleep in shelters, and no one knows how many may be sleeping in cars, under bridges, squatting in abandoned buildings, or simply out on the streets. (National Alliance to End Homelessness)

We live in a country where 49 million Americans live in food insecure households, including almost 16 million children; where over 29 million people rely on assistance from government programs (now sadly shut down) to obtain sufficient food; and where 6.2 million households at least once in the last year have accessed emergency food from a food pantry or soup kitchen. (Feeding America)

This is not the country of our hopes and dreams; it is not the country we want it to be; it’s not even the country we think it is! It is a strange land: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” The psalm speaks to and for us.

In this psalm, the poet and the exiles turned their pain over to God! Giving voice to their sorrow, their anger, and their thirst for revenge, they were able to let go of them and to trust in God to act as God might. They were able to follow Paul’s advice to Timothy, to buck up, to rely not on the spirit sorrow and of anger and of cowardly vengeance, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Eventually, they came to understand that they were valued by God (and thus should value others, even their enemies), not because of what they had or had not achieves, but simply because of who they were! This brought them a sense of freedom — even in their exile — to dream, to hope, and to pray. Their prayers may have been, as Bible scholar Walter Wink said, “impertinent, persistent, shameless, indecorous, [and] more like haggling in an outdoor bazaar than the polite monologues of the church,” and they may have offered them with far less a clear conscience than Paul claims, but through them they voiced faith and courage to hand their desire for revenge over to God; through them they started the long healing process of returning home and truly worshiping God.

And so can we. We can end the wars and put a stop to the genocides. We can rebuild the cities and house the homeless. We can provide good nutrition for everyone and end food insecurity. We can do so because, I believe, we have faith at least the size of a mustard seed, because we have been given a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline, and because we are God’s servants and we know what we ought to do. And when we have done it, we can sing Psalm 137 like a dance tune, with a spring in our step, like exiles returning home to God!



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


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

God Is in the Business of Healing & Life – Sermon for Proper 8B – July 1, 2012


This sermon was preached on Sunday, July 1, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector. (Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 8B: Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15;2:23-24; Lamentations 3:21-33; 2 Corinthians 8:7-15; and Mark 5:21-43.)


The Resurrection of Jairus' Daughter, Emmanuel Benner, 1902Our first reading this morning is from a little book from the Apocrypha called The Book of Wisdom. At one time church tradition ascribed authorship to King Solomon, but it is now believed to have been written sometime in the first or second century before Christ by a Greek-speaking Jew of the Diaspora. It is found in the Greek-language version of Jewish scriptures, not in the Hebrew version, and is therefore not considered as canonical scripture by Jews or by Protestants. Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do accept it, and we Anglicans take a middle course, saying that we read them “for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet [we do] not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (Articles of Religion, Art. VI, BCP 1979, pg. 868). Well, here’s an example of life, then:

God did not make death,
And he does not delight in the death of the living.
For he created all things so that they might exist;
the generative forces of the world are wholesome….

God, says this odd little book, created human beings for immortality.

So here’s some “instruction of manners”: when something bad happens to someone, particularly if someone’s loved one dies, if someone has a miscarriage, if someone is diagnosed with a serious illness (like, say, terminal cancer), do not say, “Well, it’s God’s will. We may not understand it, but it’s part of God’s plan.” And if anyone says that to you or to a loved one or to a friend or even to a stranger, tell them they’re wrong. In fact, if it will make you feel better, you tell them to stick it in their ear! Death is not God’s will; it never was and it never will be! “God,” as the Book of Wisdom says clearly, “did not make death.”

But, of course, someone will say to me, “Wait! You’re making a doctrinal statement based on an apocryphal text and we Anglicans are not supposed to do that.”

OK, yes, that’s what I’m doing, but my “doctrinal statement” is not based only on this small portion of Wisdom. We also have Lamentations in the Lectionary texts this morning: “The Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” God is not in the business of causing grief and suffering; the Prophet Ezekiel, as well, assures us God takes no “pleasure in [even] the death of the wicked, [but would] rather that they should turn from their ways and live?” (Ezek. 18:23) In other words, God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.

In addition, elsewhere in Scripture, we have the promise of God through the Prophet Isaiah that “he will swallow up death forever,” (Isaiah 25:8) , that the “dead shall live, their corpses shall rise . . . . and the earth will give birth to those long dead,” (26:19), that God is “about to create new heavens and a new earth.” (65:17) In that new reality, “no more shall there be in it an infant that lives but a few days, or an old person who does not live out a lifetime; for one who dies at a hundred years will be considered a youth, and one who falls short of a hundred will be considered accursed . . . . The wolf and the lamb shall feed together, the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . . . They shall not hurt or destroy on all [God’s] holy mountain [meaning everywhere].” (65:20,25) In other words, God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.

This is what our Gospel reading today assures us in these two stories of Christ healing two women: the daughter of the synagogue ruler Jairus and the unnamed women who touched him in the market place. Jairus had faith that God’s will for his daughter was healing and so he came to Jesus; the woman with the hemorrhage had faith that God’s will for her was healing and so she thought, “If I could just touch the hem of his garment . . . .” God’s will for us is healing; we just have to have faith in that promise.

Faith, however, does not mean believing the unbelievable; it means holding on to God’s promise, despite whatever present realities call it into question. To the writer of Lamentations, which was written in the 6th Century before Christ at time when the Temple (indeed the whole of Jerusalem) had been destroyed and it seemed all hope was lost, such faith meant holding to the credal and communal memory of what God had done for God’s people in ages past. It meant calling God’s mighty works of healing and strength into the present through prayer and proclamation.

For Jairus and the women in the market place, it meant holding fast to God’s promise that he would bring “recovery and healing” to God’s people, that he would “heal them and reveal to them abundance of prosperity and security” (Jer. 33:6), and believing that that promise was made manifest in Jesus of Nazarth. It means the same for us today. It means laying claim to Jesus’ works of healing and strength, and bringing them into the present through prayer and proclamation in the context and community of fellow Christians who support and restore our faith, who recite it with us in the creed, who proclaim it to us in the sermon, who sing it with us in the liturgy and hymns. Even in times when it appears that all is lost, the community of faith helps us to hear the voice of faith saying, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him [God] does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone.” God is not in the business of causing death! “God created all things so that they might exist; the generative forces of the world are wholesome.” God is in the business of healing and life.

This, of course, just raises a question: what if we have faith and pray for someone who is ill, but the sick person does not get better? What if we pray and pray and despite all of our prayer, the person die? Does that mean that we did not have faith or did not have enough faith?

Well, as another preacher has remarked

. . . that depends. Is God obligated to His creatures to answer all prayers with Yes? Is God no more than a cosmic Coke machine, who must dispense what we want when we put in the proper amount? Or does our God have His own will, His own plan, and His own wisdom, which may transcend ours? Personally, I am more comfortable with the idea that God would override any requests I make, if He deems them not in my best interest. What if I ask for something that will cause me great damage, mistakenly believing, in faith, that I need it? Would it not attribute great cruelty and maliciousness to God if we supposed that He were obligated by some scriptural contract to give me what I ask for, no matter what? (Ken Collins, Faith Healing)

If there is healing in response to prayer, we know that it was God’s will to heal, but if there was no healing in response to prayer, the answer isn’t so simple. Perhaps healing at a later date would do more good. Perhaps the illness, if prolonged, might lead to fruitful introspection and a new spiritual awareness. Perhaps the person’s earthly life, if prolonged, might be a source of pain and misery for that person or another. Sometimes the answer to prayer is “No” and we cannot know why. “We have to give God credit for being smarter and wiser than we are, and we must acknowledge that we cannot always immediately apprehend [God’s] designs.” (Ken Collins, Faith Healing) But we can know this: God is not in the business of causing death! God is in the business of healing and life.

As the Book of Wisdom poetically reminds us, “God did not make death . . . but through the devil’s envy death entered the world.” One of the great illusions of our time, some would say that is one of Satan’s great lies, is that through our own effort, through our own science, through our own better medicine, we can live forever. It makes us feel that death is wrong. It comes as a surprise, even when we say that we expect it. We are always surprised by death! But in our Gospel story this morning, we learn that Jesus views death differently; Jesus treats death as if it were simply like falling asleep. Last night (assuming your neighbor was not shooting off fireworks prematurely) you went to sleep. This morning you woke up to a new day. “Death,” says Jesus, is like that.” You fall asleep . . . you wake up. In this Gospel story the young girl wakes up. Jesus shows us that death, the devil’s creation, Satan’s great illusion, is not fatal. Death is merely another form of sleep, because God did not make death; God is not in the business of causing death! God created all things so that they might live. God created human beings for immortality. God is in the business of healing and life.

Let us pray:

O merciful Father, you have taught us in the Holy Scriptures that you do not willingly afflict or grieve anyone: Look with compassion upon all who are in pain or sorrow, all who are troubled by illness, all who tend any who are dying; remember them, O Lord, in mercy, nourish their souls with patience, and comfort them with a sense of your goodness; empower us, O Lord, to minister to their needs and to offer support for their faith; that all may be strengthened in times of weakness and have confidence in your loving care; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.