That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Proverbs (page 2 of 3)

Shrove Tuesday Confession – From the Daily Office – March 4, 2014

From the Book of Proverbs:

Thus says the man: I am weary, O God,
I am weary, O God. How can I prevail?
Surely I am too stupid to be human;
I do not have human understanding.
I have not learned wisdom,
nor have I knowledge of the holy ones.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
Who has gathered the wind in the hollow of the hand?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is the person’s name?
And what is the name of the person’s child?
Surely you know!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Proverbs 30:1b-4 (NRSV) – March 4, 2014.)

Stained Glass Window Portraying ConfessionI am later than usual committing to “paper” my thoughts on a portion of today’s readings, but these first verses of the lesson from Proverbs have been with me all day. Today is Shrove Tuesday, the day before the season of Lent begins, a day on which in the 2,000-year tradition of the church the faithful are encouraged to meet with a priest and make their confessions. The name, “Shrove Tuesday,” comes from the old English verb “to shrive,” which means to absolve of sin.

Several days ago I sent out an email to the members of my parish advising them that they could, if they would like, make an appointment to offer their confession in the formal rite of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I make that invitation every year. In ten years in this parish not a single person has approached me to hear their confession. I’m not surprised; the piety and devotional practice of what is, essentially, a Midwestern Protestant congregation is very different from the nosebleed-high, bells-and-smells, Anglo-Catholic piety and practice of my initial formation as an Episcopalian. These folks are very like my southern Methodist grandparents for whom the very idea of baring their souls to a priest was anathema.

So it’s been a very long time since I have heard someone say to God, through me as a priest, “I am weary, O God, I am weary. I am too stupid; I have not learned wisdom.” That, really, is what every confession boils down to — a recognition that I am burdened by something really incredibly stupid that I have done or failed to do, an acknowledgement that the result of that has wounded my spirit, and an action taken in hopes of relieving the pain of that wound. It isn’t necessary to do this in the formal confines of the confessional, nor is it necessary to do it in the presence of another human being. But sometimes it helps. Confession, like any prayer, is a conversation between the penitent and God; the confessor is there only to aid in the communication.

I’ve had people tell me that they’ve never done (or failed to do) anything that requires confession. I’m dumbfounded when I hear that . . . because I know for sure that I have! And I’ve heard enough confessions in my years as God’s priest to know that I’m not alone and my experience of my own sinfulness and stupidity (and that of others) pretty much convinces me that it is a universal human condition. We all, every single one of us, fall short of the mark. Every single one of us is in debt to God in some way. Very few of us (and certainly no one I know) has ascended to heaven; very few of us can gather the wind in our hands; very few of us can wrap the waters in their garments; and none of us established the ends of the earth. Perfection and universal knowledge is the providence of only one or two . . . definitely not me and, I’m pretty sure, not of anyone I’ve ever met on this earth.

It’s appropriate to acknowledge that occasionally, even if only once a year.

And now I must confess that I didn’t make an appointment with a priest to make my confession this year. I knew what my day would be like; I knew what was on my itinerary through this day. I started early and didn’t write this, my daily meditation, at the usual time — in fact, I didn’t think I’d write one at all. But something I thought would take more of my time than it did is now accomplished and I find myself with a few minutes to spare. So in the absence of a private time with my confessor . . .

Holy God, heavenly Father, you formed me from the dust in your image and likeness, and redeemed me from sin and death by the cross of your Son Jesus Christ. Through the water of baptism you clothed me with the shining garment of his righteousness, and established me among your children in your kingdom. But I have squandered the inheritance of your saints, and have wandered far in a land that is waste.

Especially, I confess to you and to the Church . . .

[Well, let’s just say that there have been some times when I have been too stupid to be human, when I have not had human understanding, when I have not learned wisdom . . . ]

Therefore, O Lord, from these and all other sins I cannot now remember, I turn to you in sorrow and repentance. Receive me again into the arms of your mercy, and restore me to the blessed company of your faithful people; through him in whom you have redeemed the world, your Son our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. (BCP 1979, page 450)

I haven’t done any of those things the author of proverbs asks about, but I do know who has, and I know the name of that Person’s Child. And knowing that, I know that I am shriven. Thanks be to God!

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

Get Wisdom – From the Daily Office – February 25, 2014

From the Book of Proverbs:

Get wisdom; get insight: do not forget, nor turn away
from the words of my mouth.
Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.
The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom,
and whatever else you get, get insight.
Prize her highly, and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.
She will place on your head a fair garland;
she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Proverbs 4:5-9 (NRSV) – February 24, 2014.)

Christa by Edwina SandysMy favorite thing in the Book of Proverbs is the personification of Lady Wisdom. Perhaps because of the further development of her portrait in Chapter 8, where she is said to have been with God in the moments of creation, “daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race” (vv. 30-31), I see her as young, slender, and athletic, her rejoicing being manifest as dance.

Many scholars have pointed out that in pre-Christian Judaism, wisdom (sophia) and word (logos) were nearly synonymous alternative descriptions of the creative and immanent power of God. Some have suggested that the Prologue to John’s Gospel could have been written: “In the beginning was Wisdom, and Wisdom was with God, and Wisdom was God.” However, John — as either proponent or victim of patriarchy (or both) — chose to use word rather than wisdom because of this personification of Lady Wisdom. Perhaps John felt it would have been awkward to speak of a female figure “being made flesh” in Jesus, a male.

Several years ago, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City created quite a stir by exhibiting a crucifix displaying a nude female body as the Christ figure — Christa by Edwina Sandys. Parks Morton, the dean of the cathedral, said at the time, “Christa simply reminded viewers that women as well as men are called upon to share the suffering of Christ.” I think, however, that the sculpture did more than that. It challenged preconceptions and established theologies; it made graphically visible the inherent sexism in the notion that the Second Person of the Trinity is “eternally masculine” as some Orthodox theologians argue.

I’ve often wondered how the Christian faith might have developed if John had embraced that awkwardness and used the term wisdom, instead. He did not, but we still can. We can still “get wisdom; get insight,” and she will lead us “in the paths of uprightness.” (Prov. 4:11) Along those paths we still have much to see, much to learn.

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

The Logos Became Meat – Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas – December 29, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 29, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The Revised Common Lectionary, Christmas 1A: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7; and John 1:1-18. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Selection of Raw MeatsOne of my favorite Christmas hymns is O Come, All Ye Faithful. The last verse of the hymn is:

Yea, Lord, we greet thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to thee be glory given;
Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.

The last line is derived from our Gospel lesson this morning, from prologue to the Fourth Gospel:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” These verses from the prologue to the Fourth Gospel are among the most beautiful, the most familiar, and the most abstract sentences in Scripture.

Although tradition tells us that the Fourth Gospel was written by the Apostle John, it’s actually highly unlikely that this is true. There are two basic reasons for this.

First of all, the development of the New Testament. A briefly sketched timeline of it would be something like this:

AD 30-33: Jesus is crucified and buried; he rises form the dead, appears to many over a period of about seven weeks; he ascends. The story of this is spread by word of mouth for several years and the “Jesus movement” grows as a sect within Judaism.

AD 35-40: Saul, a Pharisee, becomes a persecutor of the church, but is later converted and becomes Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles, founding churches in several Gentile communities.

AD 45-60: Paul produces the first written materials of what becomes the New Testament, his epistles (letters) to the various churches. These are written basically to solve problems that have arisen in the new Christian congregations.

AD 60-70: As those who personally knew Jesus begin to die, preservation of the story becomes important and the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are produced; Mark is probably the first one written. In addition, more letters (the Catholic epistles of Jude, James, 1-3 John, the “letter” to the Hebrews, and so forth) begin to be produced.

AD 85-100: The Fourth Gospel is written.

Now let’s just think about this. Sometime during the third decade of the Christian era, Jesus called James and John, the sons of Zebedee, to be among his disciples. They were working men, possibly as young as 16, more likely in their early 20s, not too much different in age from Jesus himself. This would mean that by the time the Fourth Gospel was written, John would have been about 80 years old! That would have been more than uncommon in that day and age. It is very unlikely that he lived that long. I know that Christian tradition insists that John was the youngest of the disciples and lived to the ripe, old age of 98, but there is truly no evidence of that.

I believe the tradition may be accurate that the Fourth Gospel is based on the memories of John the Apostle, perhaps told (and possibly re-told) to someone who then built the Fourth Gospel from them, but I’m not convinced that John actually wrote this book.

The second reason for disbelieving the traditional attribution of the Fourth Gospel to the Apostle John is its literary style and erudition. Like all of the New Testament, it was written Greek, the common trade and international language of the First Century Roman Empire. Its Greek and its theology are surprisingly sophisticated; this prologue, which the lectionary makes our Gospel Lesson not only for today but also includes in one of the three sets of readings that can be used on Christmas, sets the tone. Its initial verse is probably the most abstract piece of prose in the whole of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures. It is a philosophical statement worthy of the greats of Greek philosophy. John the Apostle was a simple Galilean fisherman! It’s possible that he became a scholar of Greek philosophy and an abstract theologian in later life, but somehow . . . I just don’t think that likely.

So I don’t believe this Gospel was written by John the Apostle, the hot-tempered son of a Galilean fisherman. Instead, I believe it was written by an educated and erudite man, possibly a Greek-speaking Jew of the diaspora familiar with the traditions and texts of Greek philosophy. And from the pen of this man we have this beautiful but abstract explanation of the incarnation of God:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The first verse could very easily have been written by a Greek philosopher living 500 or 600 years earlier. The concept of “the Word” or “the Logos” (to use the original Greek) was first introduced into Greek philosophy by Heraclitus in the Sixth Century BC. In his writings, the Logos seems to be a sort of independent, universal and ideal wisdom according to which all things come to pass, but to which humans cannot attain despite their best efforts. He wrote, “This Logos holds always but humans always prove unable to understand it, both before hearing it and when they have first heard it. For though all things come to be in accordance with this Logos, humans are like the inexperienced when they experience such words and deeds….”

For Aristotle, the Logos is a universal reason or rationality, movement toward which is the optimum activity of the human soul and should be the aim of all deliberate human action. Not long after Aristotle, the Stoic philosophers, starting with Zino of Citium, conceived of the Logos as an active reason pervading and animating the universe; they spoke of a logos spermatikos, the generative principle of the Universe which creates and takes back all things. They seem to have equated it with a psyche kosmou or “soul of the world,” and believed it to be the only vital force in the universe.

The author of the Fourth Gospel apparently knew of this Greek philosophical tradition and reaches into it to explain how it is that God became incarnate (I’ll come back to that word, incarnation, in a moment). It’s as if he’s consciously building a bridge between the philosophical world of the Greeks and the theological world of the Jews. There was precedent for doing so; the Greek-speaking Jews of the diaspora had used the term Logos in translating the Hebrew Scripture’s description of God’s creative activity, as for example in Psalm 33: “By the word (logos) of the LORD were the heavens made. . . .” (v. 6a) The Septuagint’s translators had used, but not expounded upon, the concept of the Logos, and — truth be told — the Greek and Jewish uses and understandings of the word were different.

For the Greeks there was a sharp distinction between the ideal, spiritual world and the mundane, physical world (Plato and Socrates with the “theory of forms,” which taught that there were unattainable ideal forms for every thing and every idea of which the things and ideas in the material world are only “shadows,” are perhaps the extreme case of this). The idea that the Logos, the creative force in the universe, might dirty itself with the material world, was unthinkable; the Logos might communicate directly with human beings, but entering the material world was out of the question. For the Jews, on the other hand, it was no problem to think that God might involve himself in the physical world, after all the Garden of Eden story portrait God as working with dust and clay, molding it with his own hands and breathing life into it from his own lips. For them, the direct communication was a problem! God spoke to humankind through intermediaries, through angels or through specially chosen people (Moses and the prophets); regular folks didn’t talk to God face to face. If a human heard the Logos of God directly, that human would die!

The Fourth Gospel takes on both and builds a bridge between them in this prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

In the second of these verses, the author of John’s Gospel asserts (scandalously for the Greeks) that the ideal, the Logos, “became flesh,” sullied itself by taking on earthly form, and (scandalously for the Jews) “lived among us,” as one of us, someone anyone could talk to face to face, a man named Jesus.

The Greek translated as “became flesh” is rather more graphic than our lovely Jacobean archaic translation preserved through the centuries would suggest. Since the King James Version’s translation of these words as “the Word was made flesh” that (or the even more sterile “became human”) has been the typical English rendering of the Greek Kai ho logos sarx egeneto. The important word here is sarx. It might better be translated as “meat,” which would actually be how a speaker of Jacobean English would have understood the term “flesh,” as Strong’s New Testament Lexicon puts it, “the soft substance of the living body, which covers the bones and is permeated with blood,” the part used as food. Meat!

Today is the fifth day of Christmas . . . what should you have received from your “true love” today? Five gold rings! There is a legend that the song from which that is take, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” was a catechetical device used by Roman Catholics in England and Ireland at a time when their religion was illegal; each of the days and each of the gifts is said to represent in code a particular lesson. A partridge in a pear tree represents Jesus; two turtle doves, the Old and New Testaments; three french hens, the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity; four colley birds, the four gospels; five golden rings, the five books of Moses – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Nice legend, not true! I recently read a musicological analysis of the song suggesting that, instead, the song is all about feasting and partying, and identifying the gifts as the dishes or entertainments that would be offered at a Christmas banquet. According to that author, the five golden rings are the rings on the neck of an English pheasant! The song is all about the meat served at the feast honoring the birth of the God who becomes meat. . . .

Those who speak a little Spanish will be familiar with the word carne, as in carne asada (which means “grilled meat”). Remember that when you think of the “in – carne – tion.” And remember that this incarnate God would later take a loaf of bread and say, “This is my body” of which we are instructed to eat. John’s Gospel, from these very first words in the prologue, is eucharistic in emphasis, insisting that the irruption of the Logos is for our nourishment. An absolute scandal to both Jews and Greeks! (The author of John seems intent on living up to Paul’s assertion that the Gospel is “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” [1 Cor. 1:23])

And then there is that notion that this God who becomes flesh “lived among us,” a very weak translation of the original Greek which means something on the order of “and pitched his tent among us.” Here, the author is reaching back into Jewish history, in to the story of the Exodus. During those forty years in the desert, God was present with the Hebrews in the form of a pillar of fire and cloud which went before them to show them the way, occasionally behind them to guard them from harm, and when they would stop the pillar would stop and rest over the Ark of the Covenant. They were instructed to build a tent to house the Ark, a very elaborate tent but still, just a tent. When they encamped, they were to set it up and place the Ark inside of it. Once it was so housed, only Moses or his brother Aaron the high priest could approach it. Now, however, this enfleshed God was pitching his own tent and living among his people as one of them, someone to whom anyone had access, a man named Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

The prologue to the Fourth Gospel tells us that the Word was the light of creation shining in the darkness, that the Word became flesh that that light might be kindled in all people. There are bible scholars who assert that John was drawing on the wisdom tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures in which Wisdom is personified and portrayed as working with God in the Creation:

When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always,
rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.
(Proverbs 8:27-31)

I think the prophet Zephaniah might have been drawing on that wisdom image, as well, when he wrote, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zeph. 3:17b)

And I wonder if the author of the Fourth Gospel might have alternatively used that image . . . or maybe he just left it for us to do. Could we not paraphrase the prologue:

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. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the song of all people. The song sings in the silence, and the silence did not overcome it.

And could we not say, “And the Word was made flesh, and sang his song among us?” Someone with whom anyone might sing along, a man named Jesus.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. * * * And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

Two short, simply-stated verses from the prologue to the Fourth Gospel, perhaps the most abstract, meaning-laden of verses. I don’t think a simple fisherman from Galilee wrote them, though perhaps he did. When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter who wrote them. If we believe they were inspired by God and preserved by the church in the canon of Scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, then we must take them seriously and seek to understand them. No amount of exposition in a sermon can unlock them for you, but I offer you these bits and pieces of information about their background with the encouragement to ponder them, to contemplate them, to pray and meditate about them. In them there is the reason for and the promise of the birth we celebrate in this season.

And it is a season! Despite the fact that the stores started their “after Christmas” sales on December 26, despite the fact that the radio stations are no longer playing Christmas carols, despite the fact that there are no more holiday movies playing on television, it is still Christmas. As I said, this is the fifth day of Christmas, the first of two Sundays in the season!

But I will give the stores and the broadcasters their way for a moment and close with a poem about Christmas being over, a poem by Howard Thurman, sometime dean of the chapels at both Boston University and Howard University, and an honorary canon of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. It is entitled The Work of Christmas:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.

“To make music in the heart.” Do you ever sing to yourself? I do that a lot. I don’t sing out loud much, but when I’m driving or vacuuming, shoveling snow or doing yard work, I often sing to myself, inside my own head, in my own heart. And I don’t just hum tunes, I sing the words. I sing of the Word incarnate: “Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing. O come, let us adore him.”

As you contemplate the Word made flesh, the light shining in the darkness, the song singing in the silence, pitching his tent and singing his song among us, may your heart be filled with song and may that song empower you to do the work of Christmas. 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.

Broken Hearts – From the Daily Office – December 20, 2013

From the Psalter:

Open my lips, O Lord,
and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice;
but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 51:16-18 (BCP Version) – December 20, 2013.)

Broken Heart_by_eReSaWThe Episcopal Church includes Psalm 51 in its liturgy of Ash Wednesday. After ashes are imposed on the faithful and just before the recitation of a litany of penitence, the psalm is recited in its entirety. It’s a perfect piece of scripture for that use with its plea for forgiveness — “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness” (v. 1) — its acknowledgement of sinfulness — “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (v. 3) — and its petition for amendment of life — “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me (v. 11).

I am so familiar with it in that Lenten liturgical setting that when it rolls around in the Daily Office cycle it always surprises me and usually seems oddly inappropriate for whatever other time of year it is appointed. Today, however, these ending verses strike me as particularly apposite.

In planning my Advent and pre-Christmas activities, I had set aside today for the preparation of my sermons for Advent IV (often the story of the Annunciation, but this year the tale of Joseph’s dream about Mary’s pregnancy) and Christmas. It was not a good decision; I should have started earlier, but I know myself well and usually do just fine “working to deadline.”

It was not a good decision for two reasons, one I knew about well ahead of time and one just occurred. The first is that tomorrow is the 14th anniversary of my mother’s death. I thought that it had been long enough (more than a decade, for pity’s sake!) that I could overlook that residual sadness, and probably I could have but for the second reason. Yesterday morning I received word (via Facebook) that an old friend, a colleague in ordained ministry, had passed away this week.

This is the week our Sunday School children have been rehearsing for Sunday’s annual pageant. This is the week our choir has held its annual Christmas party and dinner. This is the week our new Gallery addition to the Parish Hall has become nearly finished and is gorgeous beyond expectations. This is the week when Christmas cards are pouring in from friends old and new, from family, from colleagues, from people we haven’t seen in years but whom we remember with fondness. This is a week in which one’s cup should be overflowing with all the joys of the holidays!

Then that news and with it the old sorrow of missing Mom. The wisdom of Book of Proverbs is shown once again: “Even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” (Prov. 14:13)

But this morning, I get to read Psalm 51 and to pray as every preacher surely does in one way or another, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise,” and to be reminded that “the sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit.” Writing out my sermon for Christmas will be no different than preparing any sermon! Sure, the crowd will likely be bigger than a Sunday morning congregation and it will include people I’ve never seen before and people I haven’t seen since Easter and people I haven’t seen since last Christmas, and a small piece of me wants to preach the zinger that will change their hearts and get them returning to corporate worship on a weekly basis . . . and a larger part of me scoffs at that idea! Sure, it’s a big, grand show we put on on Christmas Eve, and a small part of me wants to preach an eloquent and stirring homily that will be remembered as people head home (and beyond) . . . and a larger part of me reminds that small piece of me that people don’t go out humming the sermon. The larger part of me knows full well that writing this sermon is no different than preparing any sermon.

Every sermon a priest or pastor preaches, on the days it is conceived and researched, on the day it is written, on the day it is preached, must be larger than his or her peculiar situation, whether it is a Sunday sermon, a funeral homily, or the oration on a principal feast. Every preacher must set aside his or her personal concerns and issues, his or her griefs and sorrows, his or her individual joys. Every preacher must, I think, begin and continue the homiletic process with two biblical prayers: first, from John the Baptizer who said, “[Christ] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30); second, from today’s psalm, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.”

So today, as I prepare to write some sermons, I do so in the midst of personal sadness, but I am reminded that “a broken and contrite heart [the Lord] will not despise,” and a line from a favorite song occurs to me:

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
(Anthem by Leonard Cohen)

From the cracks in a preacher’s broken heart, the Light can and will get in!

I offer these thoughts to my colleagues in ministry with a prayer and an assurance that their Christmas homilies will touch the hearts, the broken hearts, of the people entrusted to their care.

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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.

Mystery and Community: Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day – Sermon for May 26, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Feast of the Holy Trinity, May 26, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Trinity (Year C): Proverbs 8:1-4,22-31; Canticle 13 (Song of the Three Young Men, 29-34); Romans 5:1-5; and John 16:12-15. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Andrei Rublev Icon of the Holy TrinityI’d like you to take out a pen (there are some in the pew racks if you don’t have one of your own) and on a blank piece of paper, or an empty spot on your service bulletin, I’d like you write down these numbers:

1,016,823
116,516
405,399
36,516
58,209
2,031
4,487
22
3

They are, respectively:

1,016,823 – the estimated number of war dead from the American civil war (the figures, especially for Confederate dead, are notoriously untrustworthy)
116,516 – the number of Americans who died in World War I
405,399 – the number of Americans who died in World War II
36,516 – the number of Americans who died in the Korean conflict
58,209 – the number of Americans who died in Vietnam
2,031 – the number of Americans who so far have died in Afghanistan during our so-called “war on terror”
4,487 – the number of Americans who so far have died in Iraq during our so-called “war on terror”
22 – the average number of U.S. Armed Forces veterans and active duty personnel who commit suicide every day because of combat-related PTSD
3 – the number of Persons in the One, Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity

Today, our church asks us to focus our attention on the last of these numbers. Tomorrow, our country asks us to remember all the others. It is merely fortuitous that the calendar, this year, conflates the Feast of the Blessed Trinity with Memorial Day weekend, but it seems to me that the two speak to us with a united voice drawing our attention to common themes.

Memorial Day has its origins in a proclamation by General John A. Logan, commander-in-chief of the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization for Union Civil War veterans. On May 5, 1868, he called for an annual, national “Decoration Day.” It was observed for the first time that year on May 30; the date was chosen because it was not the anniversary of any particular battle and because it was the optimal date for flowers to be in bloom in most areas of the country. It was observed, that first year, in 27 states. A similar day of remembrance was held in the states of the former Confederacy on June 3, which was the birthday of Jefferson Davis, first and only President of the Confederate States of America. Beginning in the 1880s the name “Memorial Day” began to be used for these commemorations and it gradually became the more common term. For the first hundred years, these holidays were matters of state law, although in 1950 Congress issued a joint resolution requesting the President to issue a proclamation calling for a national observance on May 30 and every year since the presidents have done so. In 1967, by act of Congress, “Memorial Day” was declared the official name and May 30 the official date under Federal law. The following year, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which moved Memorial Day, together with Washington’s birthday, Labor Day, Columbus Day, and Veterans Day, from their traditional dates to specified Mondays in order to create convenient three-day weekends.

The Veterans of Foreign Wars, by the way, opposed that change and has publicly stated its position that, “Changing the date merely to create three-day weekends has undermined the very meaning of the day.” Throughout his career in the Senate, the late Senator from Hawaii Daniel Inouye, a World War II veteran, annually introduced a measure to return Memorial Day to its traditional date of May 30. Obviously, his efforts proved unsuccessful.

The Solemnity, or Principal Feast, of the Most Holy Trinity has a somewhat longer history. The Sacramentary of St. Gregory the Great (who was pope from 590 to 604) contained prayers and a Preface for a celebration of the Trinity, but specified no date. Documents from the pontificate of Gregory VII (pope from 1073 to 1085) indicate that by that time an Office of the Holy Trinity was recited on the Sunday after Pentecost in some places, but it was not a universal practice. In 1162, Thomas á Becket (1118–70) was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, and his first act was to proclaim that the day of his consecration should be commemorated as a new festival in honor of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from England throughout the western Catholic world until Pope John XXII in 1334, the last year of his 18-year papacy, ordered the feast observed by the entire Church on the first Sunday after Pentecost.

I want to suggest to you today that these two observances, one secular and one religious, share two common themes, and that this year’s fortuitous coincidence of Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day weekend allows us to explore them. Those themes are community and mystery.

There is a humorous video on YouTube made by a group calling themselves Lutheran Satire in which two Irishman engage St. Patrick in a dialog about analogies for the Holy Trinity. Although at first pronouncing themselves simple and unsophisticated, the two proceed to demonstrate considerable theological acumen as they condemn Patrick as a heretic each time he tries an analogy. The famous water-ice-steam analogy, they condemn as Modalism; the analogy of the sun, with its light and heat, they denounce as Arianism; when Patrick tries to liken the Trinity to a shamrock, they stop him and criticize him for preaching Partialism. Finally, Patrick gives up and asserts:

The Trinity is a mystery which cannot be comprehended by human reason, but is understood only through faith and is best confessed in the words of the Athanasian Creed which states that we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the Persons nor dividing the Substance, that we are compelled by the Christian truth to confess that each distinct Person is God and Lord, and that the deity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is One, equal in glory, co-equal in majesty.

The two Irishman, after a moment of stunned silence, respond, “Well, why didn’t you just say that?”

So there you have it: the Trinity is a mystery and every analogy by which we try to explain how God can be one-in-three fails, every attempt to comprehend the unity in which the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together are one God ends up in heresy, and every sermon about the Doctrine of the Trinity either confuses the heck out of us or bores us to tears.

Therefore, rather than try to explain or comprehend the mystery that is the Trinity, let’s focus instead on the community that is the Trinity: the paradigm and model of all human community. The early Church Fathers explored in their writings how many aspects of our humanity reveal the divine image: our ability to perceive God’s presence; our apparently innate knowledge of the spiritual realm; our intellect; our ability to freely choose; and our capacity to live lives of goodness and love. These characteristics, they taught, belong to every human being and reveal much about God.

In the twentieth-century theologians have explored the concept of human personhood. To be made in the image of God is not to be made in the image of the Father only; it is to be made in the image of the Holy Trinity, to be made in the image of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Human beings are persons intended to be, like the Persons of the Blessed Trinity, in relationship with other persons. This means that participation in community is at the heart of our humanity; our relatedness to other persons is at the very core of who we are. The three Divine Persons are forever united with each other in mutual love. They dwell within one another; they collaborate and share in all their activities; they always act in harmonious accord. This is the model for the ideal human community, the paradigm of corporate human existence.

Human beings are supposed to work together in harmony in ways that preserve and respect the equality and dignity of every person. The English Orthodox bishop and theologian Kallistos Ware put it this way in an article in the journal of the Fellowship of St Alban & St Sergius:

Each social grouping — family, parish, diocese, church council, school, office, factory, nation — has as its vocation to be transformed by grace into a living icon of [the Holy Trinity], to effect a reconciling harmony between diversity and unity, human freedom and mutual solidarity, after the pattern of the Trinity. (The Human Person as an Icon of the Trinity, Sobornost 8, 17-18)

He also wrote in a later essay:

Belief in a God who is three-in-one, whose characteristics are sharing and solidarity, has direct and practical consequences for our Christian attitude toward politics, economics, and social action, and it is our task to work out these consequences in full detail. Each form of community — the family, the school, the workplace, the local eucharistic center, the monastery, the city, the nation — has as its vocation to become, each according to its own modality, a living icon of the Holy Trinity. (The Trinity: Heart of Our Life, in Reclaiming the Great Tradition: Evangelicals, Catholics and Orthodox in Dialogue, James S. Cutsinger, ed., InterVarsity:1997, 142)

On Friday, as has been customary in this country since 1950, the president issued a proclamation designating Memorial Day tomorrow as “a day of prayer for permanent peace.” In his proclamation, President Obama said:

On Memorial Day, we remember those we have lost not only for what they fought for, but who they were: proud Americans, often far too young, guided by deep and abiding love for their families, for each other, and for this country. Our debt to them is one we can never fully repay. But we can honor their sacrifice and strive to be a Nation equal to their example. On this and every day, we must meet our obligations to families of the fallen; we must uphold our sacred trust with our veterans, our service members, and their loved ones.

Above all, we can honor those we have lost by living up to the ideals they died defending. It is our charge to preserve liberty, to advance justice, and to sow the seeds of peace. With courage and devotion worthy of the heroes we remember today, let us rededicate ourselves to those unending tasks, and prove once more that America’s best days are still ahead. Let us pray the souls of those who died in war rest in eternal peace, and let us keep them and their families close in our hearts, now and forever. (Presidential Proclamation, May 24, 2013)

In other words, Memorial Day, like Trinity Sunday, is a day whose theme is community, the nation as community, the military services as community, the family as community. Bishop Ware’s description of Trinitarian community as embracing “diversity and unity, human freedom and mutual solidarity” could as easily have been used by the president to describe the community which celebrates Memorial Day; President Obama’s words of courage and devotion, sacrifice and trust, justice and eternal peace could as easily have been used to describe the community which is an icon of the Trinity.

There is also a mystery about Memorial Day, and the mystery is this: Why must young men and now young women go to war and die? One of my favorite Celtic folk songs reflects on this mystery. It was written in 1976 by the Scottish folksinger Eric Bogle and originally entitled No Man’s Land, but it is more commonly called The Green Fields of France or Willie McBride. It is the musing of a man stopping by a grave in a World War I cemetery and wondering about the man buried there. These are the last two verses:

Ah the sun now it shines on these green fields of France,
The warm summer breeze makes the red poppies dance,
And look how the sun shines from under the clouds;
There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’re no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land,
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
To a whole generation that was butchered and damned.

Ah, young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,
Did all those who lay here really know why they died?
And did they believe when they answered the call,
Did they really believe that this war would end war?
For the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,
The killing and dying were all done in vain,
For, young Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again and again and again and again.

The mystery of Memorial Day is the mystery of war. No one wants it to happen, and yet it does, again, and again, and again, and again . . . The mystery of Memorial Day is . . . why?

The mystery of the Trinity is expressed in that number 3: How can God who is One be Three? It’s a mystery which we cannot comprehend. It can be understood only through faith; it can be lived out only in community.

The mystery of Memorial Day is expressed in those other numbers: 1,016,823 — 116,516 — 405,399 — 36,516 — 58,209 — 2,031 — 4,487 — 22. It’s a mystery we must comprehend and, through our faith and in our communities, bring to an end. Please take home the paper on which you wrote those numbers and tomorrow . . . think about that.

Let us pray:

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the peoples and nations of the world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that the community of humankind may become more and more an image of the community of the Holy Trinity; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. 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.

Wells of Spirituality – From the Daily Office – March 5, 2013

From the Gospel according to John:

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing there, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.'”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 7:37-38 (NRSV) – March 5, 2013.)

St Mary's Well Cefn Meiriadog WalesScholars and commentators seem to agree (and a computer search of various translations confirms) that there is no single verse of the Hebrew scriptures saying what John says Jesus quoted. It seems to be an amalgam or summary of several different bits of the prophets. When I read this story of John’s, however, it isn’t a prophet that comes immediately to mind. Instead, I think of a portrayal of Lady Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs:

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has also set her table. She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls from the highest places in the town, “You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Proverbs 9:1-6 NRSV)

John’s picture of Jesus standing in the streets of Jerusalem calling out an invitation to all comers is very reminiscent of Proverbs’ picture of Wisdom calling “from the highest places in the town.” They may be using different metaphors for spiritual nourishment, but the offer is the same. And, since John has clearly dipped into the Wisdom tradition in Jewish thought in his Prologue (John 1:1-18), the parallel imagery is understandable.

Of course, a prophet, Isaiah, also comes to mind especially when this Gospel is read in the context of Morning Prayer. The canticle called The First Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 12:2-6) includes these words:

Surely, it is God who saves me; *
I will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, *
and he will be my Savior.
Therefore you shall draw water with rejoicing *
from the springs of salvation. (BCP translation)

When I consider the words of this Gospel together with Isaiah’s song, I come to the conclusion that the springs of salvation are in the believer’s heart, that we draw living waters from deep inside ourselves. I must confess that I am predisposed to that conclusion. Several years ago I was introduced to the observation of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, “Everyone has to drink from his own well,” by the writing of liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez. In his book We Drink from Our Own Wells, Gutierrez wrote, “Spirituality is like living water that springs up in the very depths of the experience of faith.” From that deep experience we “live, and walk in the way of insight.”

Frank Griswold, a former Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, once said that Anglican spirituality emphasizes the progressive nature of grace, carefully considering our human experience of the divine. “Christ happens to us over time,” he wrote. “The One who makes use of water, bread and wine to mediate his presence can make use of the stuff of our lives and relationships to address us and draw us more deeply into his life, death, and resurrection.” From being drawn deeply into the on-going life of Christ we drink from that well, we develop insight, and “the stuff of our lives” becomes the spring from which the living waters of grace flow out to others.

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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.

Enduring Enlightenment – From the Daily Office: Ash Wednesday – February 13, 2013

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 12:12-4 (NRSV) – February 13, 2013.)

Running the RaceThe author of the Letter to the Hebrews is using an athletic metaphor, and borrowing from the Hebrew Scriptures, to make a point about endurance.

Taking up his own earlier metaphor of “running with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1), he echoes the Prophet Isaiah, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.'” (Isa. 35:3-4a) He draws from the Proverbs, “Keep straight the path of your feet . . . .” (Prov. 4:26)

Endurance, also known as “fortitude,” is one of Christianity’s four cardinal virtues. In Freemasonry (yes, I’m a Freemason), this Christian virtue is defined as “that noble and steady purpose of mind, whereby we are enabled to undergo any pain, peril, or danger, when prudentially deemed expedient.” As a subject of preaching, I’m afraid, this virtue gets rather short shrift in today’s church. I suppose that may be because the church reflects the popular culture which, with its emphasis on self-expression and instant gratification, emphasizes a sense of entitlement to ephemeral happiness and comfort.

As we begin Lent, it is well to reflect on this virtue. This period of forty days is meant to be our spiritual union with Jesus in his time of desert testing. If ever there was an example of endurance or fortitude, it has to be those days of temptation in the arid land beyond the Jordan. Endurance is a part of our Christian heritage, going back to Jesus and beyond him into the centuries-long story of the endurance of Israel, God’s chosen people.

Endurance is also one of the four Buddhist virtues, although in that religious tradition it is called “eternity”. It is regarded as a quality of inner being which allows the practitioner to remain unswayed by the ever-changing circumstances of life while confidently challenging him- or herself toward enlightenment. It leads, it is said, to another of the Buddhist virtues, happiness, a kind of contentment that can withstand the ups and downs of human existence including death. This is quite different from the vacuous “happiness” of the modern age, that insipid self-indulgence buoyed by unprecedented affluence and rampant consumerism.

This Lent let us eschew the world’s “happiness” and strive for that eternal happiness common to the Christian and Buddhist faith traditions, that noble and steady purpose of mind, that quality of inner being, that eternal endurance that leads to enlightenment, that leads to God.

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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 Patients of Job: Part One – Sermon for Pentecost 19, Proper 22B – October 7, 2012

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This sermon was preached on Sunday, October 7, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 22B: Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; and Mark 10:2-16. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Job's Repentance (Artist Unknown)I know two things today that I didn’t know earlier in the week. First, I know that people read our sign. I got two telephone calls and one email telling me that we had misspelled “patience” on the sign. Second, I know that people won’t believe you when you tell them you did it on purpose. But I really did name this sermon series “The Patients (P-A-T-I-E-N-T-S) of Job” for reasons that I hope will become clear very shortly.

Before diving into that subject this morning, however, a word about the Lectionary. For the next four weeks our lessons from the Old Testament will be from the Book of Job as we follow what is called “Track One” of the Revised Common Lectionary.

Track One is a semi-continuous reading of major Old Testament books. The idea this is that we tend to short-change the Old Testament in our Sunday Eucharistic lectionary, and that we need to hear more of the Old Testament and be more familiar with it. So Track One is set up so that we can see the development of some of the great Old Testament stories over the course of successive Sundays; this gives us peculiar opportunities for preaching series like the one we’re embarking on today. The assumption, of course, is that the congregation each Sunday is made up of who actually come to church every week to hear the unfolding of the Old Testament readings in this way. That’s not always a valid assumption. Many of our people, because of work schedules or whatever, do not make it to church every Sunday and so are likely to miss huge chunks of the story. So each week in these sermon there may be a bit of repetition to bring these folks up to speed; I hope weekly congregants will bear with us on that score. (For those of you who may not be here every week, the sermons and lessons will be on the internet for you.)

There other thing about Track One is that, unlike Track Two, which is a Gospel-related track in which the Old Testament reading is selected because it has some sort of thematic connection to the Gospel reading appointed for the day, there is no specific link between the lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures and the lessons from the Christian Scriptures. For example, today we heard part of the backstory of Job’s suffering (we’ll return to that in a moment), while the Gospel focused on Jesus’ teaching about marriage and divorce. I suppose one could draw a connection between the little spat Job and Mrs. Job have at the end of the Old Testament reading and what Jesus has to say, but I’m not going to go there. So for the next few weeks, please don’t expect much exegesis of the Gospel lessons.

So, now, let me answer the signage critics and explain why I chose to (apparently) misuse the word “patients” on our sign. Obviously it is a play on the familiar statement made of a long-suffering individual that he or she has “the patience of Job”. That’s an odd turn of phrase because, as we shall see, Job is not particularly patient; he is at turns angry, demanding, petulant, and sullenly silent, but he is not patient. Nonetheless, I chose to play with and make a pun on that old concept because the story of Job is one to which we can turn are in need of balm for whatever turns in life may beset us.

The great preacher St. John Chrysostom, in a sermon on the Gospel of John, said of Holy Writ,

The divine words, indeed, are a treasury containing every sort of remedy, so that, whether one needs to put down senseless pride, or to quench the fire of concupiscence or to trample on the love of riches, or to despise pain, or to cultivate cheerfulness and acquire patience – in them one may find in abundance the means to do so. (Hom. 37 On John.)

In a sermon on St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, he likened the Bible to a medicine chest:

Listen, I entreat you, all that are careful for this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul . . . . If grief befalls you, dive into [the Holy Scriptures] as into a chest of medicines; take from there comfort for your trouble, be it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations; or rather do not merely dive into them but take them wholly to yourself, keeping them in your mind.” (Hom. IX On Colossians)

This is especially true of the Book of Job.

This book, as I made mention from this pulpit some weeks ago, is a work of fiction, but that does not stop it from being a work from which we can learn great truth. Or perhaps I should say “great truths” for, more than any other book in the Bible, Job offers what some might call a “post-modern” or pluraform vision of truth. Job, in the midst of his suffering, is visited by his wife, his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, and a fourth man, Elihu (who may just be a passerby). Each of them offers an explanation of why life has treated Job so shabbily and offers advice as to how he should respond. Job’s answer to each of them is basically, “That may be true for you, but it’s not true for me!” The character Job could be the patron saint of our post-modern age, and the Book of Job offers us a variety of remedies, a selection of alternative truths for whatever besets our spirits; it also provides a glimpse at the over-arching meta-truth that sustains our lives, namely the awesome power of God. We all come to this book, as we come to all of Scripture, as patients seeking medicine for the soul; we are all the “patients of Job.”

When we first open this text we are treated to two scenes involving the characters God and Satan. (I put it that way very advisedly, very carefully. Please always remember that this is a work of fiction and so we have a character named “God” and a character named “Satan” who may or may not behave in the ways the Creator and the Adversary actually interact with the world.) In both of these scenes these two characters make and continue a wager regarding Job. In Chapter 1, all the heavenly court appears before God, including Satan whom God asks where he has been. Satan answers that has been “going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” (1:7) God asks if he has seen God’s servant Job who is a good and righteous man. Satan replies that he has, but then challenges God about Job’s virtue suggesting that Job is only righteous because God has provided him a good life. So they make a wager; Satan bets that if Job loses everything he has, he will curse God. God gives Satan authority to strip him of his wealth and possessions, but forbids him to lay a hand on Job. The next thing we know, Job is struck by calamity after calamity all within a very short time. Four servants come to him, one after another, the next coming before the one before has even finished speaking, telling him that Sabaeans have come and stolen his oxen and donkeys, a fire has destroyed his sheep, Chaldean invaders have killed all his servants, and a collapsing house has killed all his sons and daughters. Job is left with nothing; he tears his clothing, shaves his head, and falls to the ground, but the narrator assures us that “in all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.” Rather, he blesses the Name of God! (1:20-21)

Which brings us now to our reading for today and the second scene in the heavenly throne room. Again, the court is assembled; again, Satan is there having come “trom going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” (2:2) Again, God asks if Satan has considered Job; and again, Satan makes a bet with God. It’s all well and good that he’s lost everything, but he’s still alive and healthy; “touch his bone and his flesh,” says Satan, “and he will curse you to your face.” (2:5) “Very well,” says God, “you can cause him illness, but do not take his life.” So Satan “inflict[s] loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head.” (2:7) Job’s response is different from his actions in the first chapter; he engages in no new acts of mourning or worship. Instead, he picks up a piece of broken pot, scratches at his sores, and sits down on a pile of ashes. At this point Mrs. Job (she isn’t given her own name in the text) says to her husband, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”

One commentary points out that the concept of integrity in the Old Testament has two prongs. First, it “denotes a person whose conduct is completely in accord with moral and religious norms.” Second, it describes someone “whose character is one of utter honest, without guile.” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV, Abingdon Press: 1996, page 356) Mrs. Job seems to sense that for her husband to “persist in his integrity” in this situation, he cannot do both. She seems to be arguing that “if Job holds on to integrity in the sense of conformity to religious norm and blesses God as he did before, . . . he will be committing an act of deceit. If he holds on to integrity in the sense of honesty, then he must curse God and violate social integrity, which forbids such cursing.” (Ibid.)

Job, however, tells her she is being foolish. In fact, the Hebrew here is rather stronger – the commentary notes that a more accurate contemporary translation would be that he tells her she is “talking trash”! Job insists that there is no conflict between religious integrity and personal honesty. We are again assured by the narrator that “in all this Job did not sin with his lips.” (2:10)

This is where our reading this morning ends, but it is not the end of Chapter 2. As the chapter ends, Job’s three friends – Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite – hearing of all of his troubles meet together to come to console and comfort him. On seeing his state, they tear their own clothes, weep loudly, throw dust upon their own heads, then sit down in the dirt with him. For a week they sit there with him in silence.

So what are we to make of these initial scenes from the story of Job. If St. John Chrysostom is right and there are “medicines for the soul” to be found here, what are they? I suggest there are a couple of things to be learned here which may be of some comfort in our modern age. The first is found in this book’s rejection of the facile answers of an older “wisdom religion” tradition.

I am sure that we have all, at one time or another, faced the death of a loved one, the loss of something or someone precious to us, or some other personal tragedy or difficult situation; or that if we have not, we surely will. And I’m equally sure that in such a situation we are all prone to ask an interior question along the lines of “Why me?” or “What have I done to deserve this?”

That older “wisdom religion” which runs through our faith tradition encourages that sort of thinking. Elsewhere in Holy Scripture, in the Book of Proverbs, for example, we are told:

Walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just. For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it. (2:20-22)

And again:

The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the abode of the righteous. Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he shows favor. The wise will inherit honor, but stubborn fools, disgrace. (3:33-35)

The message seems clear: “Do good, you’ll be rewarded with good. Do bad, you’ll be punished with bad.” It suggests a sort of post hoc ergo propter hoc (Latin for “after this, therefore because of this”) assumption that if something bad has happened to me, I must have done something bad to deserve it. And it’s not too far to the next thought, “I’ve not only done something bad, I am bad.” But post hoc ergo proper hoc is a logical fallacy and that line of reasoning is just plain wrong, as the story of Job clearly demonstrates.

Although this Book of Job is part of the “wisdom literature” and firmly grounded in the wisdom tradition, it offers a sound critique of that tradition. The character Job, an upright and righteous man, a man of integrity, is visited by loss and calamity through no fault of his own. He does not deserve what happens to him. His story avoids the clicheic simplicity of the older wisdom tradition and rejects that “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” thinking to which we are all prone. His story “is, in fact, an impassioned assertion of the awareness that the simple moralism of most wise men is hardly enough.” (Jay G. Williams, Understanding the Old Testament, Barrons Educational Series: 1972, page 267)

Stuff sometimes happens in a person’s life, as it does in the story of Job, that he or she does not deserve and for which he or she is not to blame! Stuff sometimes happens in your life that you do not deserve, and you are not to blame for it! That is the first bit of medicine we find in these introductory scenes in the Book of Job. Give up the “Why me? What have I done to deserve this?” thinking, and stop beating yourself up over things you can’t control!

The second bit of “medicine” is the book’s apparent rejection of religious ritual as a touchstone of goodness and integrity. It is important that Job is afflicted with “loathsome sores” because, according to Jewish law in the Book of Leviticus, a person inflicted with a skin disease is ritually impure and an outcast from society. Such an individual is referred to in Hebrew as a metzorah. Jewish law as set forth in the Book of Leviticus requires the metzorah to be shunned; the person must live alone outside the confines of the community. In chapter 13 of Leviticus we read that he or she must show their sores to the local priest, and then

. . . shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, “Unclean, unclean.” He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease; he is unclean. He shall live alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Lev. 13:45-46)

Job, however, does none of this; he does not follow any of the Levitical requirements, nor do his friends. Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar do not shun him, nor leave him alone outside the community. Integrity, this story assures us, does not rest in conformity to religious norms.

This should come as good news, as balm for our modern and postmodern souls, because, as Emerging Church blogger Drew Tatsuko has pointed out, “religions that make these exclusive claims to Truth demand conformity; religions that demand conformity tend to abuse non-conformists . . . ; and, in history God is [most frequently] revealed among the non-conformists.”

Now this does not mean that, in its rejection of the wisdom tradition, the Book of Job is telling to not live a good and honorable life, or that in its rejection of religious ritual as definitive of personal integrity the book is telling us to abandon our norms of worship and behavior. Rather, what we should take from the story of Job is that life is a set of questions. If there is truth to be found in this book, or in any of the books of the Bible, it is to be found in the process of struggling with those questions. We will wrestle with the questions of Job throughout this month during which our Old Testament readings will be drawn from it. The book has 42 chapters so, clearly, in four weeks of readings we are not going to cover it in depth. But I hope to demonstrate over the course of these sermons that, as my friend Greg Jenks who is Academic Dean at St Francis Theological College, Brisbane, Australia, says, Job “is a biblical text that celebrates the lack of a compelling answer, and instead calls us to faithfulness that sees beyond suffering to a meaning beyond human comprehension.”

I hope you will find, as I said at the beginning of this introductory sermon, that Job is a book which offers us a variety of remedies, a selection of alternative truths for whatever besets our spirits; it also provides a glimpse at the over-arching meta-truth that sustains our lives, namely the awesome power of God.

Comprehending the Mind of God – From the Daily Office – September 25, 2012

From the Book of Judith:

Who are you to put God to the test today, and to set yourselves up in the place of God in human affairs? You are putting the Lord Almighty to the test, but you will never learn anything! You cannot plumb the depths of the human heart or understand the workings of the human mind; how do you expect to search out God, who made all these things, and find out his mind or comprehend his thought?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Judith 8:12-14a – September 25, 2012)
 
God from Monty Python & the Holy GrailThe Book of Judith is part of the Apocrypha or Deutercanon, those books accepted as Holy Writ by part of the Old Testament by Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but rejected by Protestants and by rabbinic Judaism. As Anglicans, we Episcopalians adopt the position taken in the 39 Articles of Religion: they are the “other Books the Church doth read for example of life and instruction of manners; but yet doth it not apply them to establish any doctrine.” (Art. VI, BCP 1979, page 868)

The story of Judith is relatively simple. She was a widow living in the city of Bethulia when it is under siege by Holofernes, a general of the Ninvite king Nebuchadnezzar. Facing starvation, the people of the city demand that their rulers surrender. The elders of the town, named Uzziah, Chabris, and Charmis, calm them by promising to surrender Bethulia to Ninevites unless God helps rescues the city within so five days. This angers Judith who upbraids the town rulers (the selected verses are from her speech to the three elders). She then takes things into her own hands, wins entrance into the enemy camp, finds Holofernes passed out, drunk in his tent, and decapitates the general. She escapes from the camp, brings the head to the town elders, and saves the city.

While I find the book a wonderful story of faith in action, and its heroine a woman to looked up to, the verses I’ve quoted from its eighth chapter are troubling. I believe that it’s perfectly all right to put God to the test and that searching out God, trying to find out God’s mind, and seeking to comprehend God’s thought are worthy endeavors that God encourages. In the book of Prophet Malachi, when the people fail to pay their tithes, God says, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” (Mal. 3:10) I believe that it is not only in regard to tithes and offerings that God encourages us to “put me to the test;” God wants us to seek understanding, to try to comprehend God.

The Franciscan writer St. Bonaventure in his essay Itinerarium mentis in Deum (“The Journey of the Mind to God”) wrote of this comprehension or understanding as an ascent or journey and offered this advice:

He, therefore, who wishes to ascend to God must first avoid sin, which deforms nature. He must bring the natural powers of the soul under the influence of grace, which reforms them, and this he does through prayer; he must submit them to the purifying influence of justice, and this, in daily acts; he must subject them to the influence of enlightening knowledge, and this in meditation; and finally, he must hand them over to the influence of the perfecting power of wisdom, and this in contemplation.

Obviously, it takes effort and practice; it takes study and work. To make this effort is not (as Judith berated the Bethulian elders) to “set oneself up in the place of God,” but it is an endeavor to learn and understand. It is an effort blessed by God – we read in the Book of Proverbs:

My child, if you accept my words and treasure up my commandments within you,
making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding;
if you indeed cry out for insight, and raise your voice for understanding;
if you seek it like silver, and search for it as for hidden treasures –
then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly,
guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones. (Prov. 2:1-8)

So, as much as it pains me to disagree with a heroine of Scripture . . . Judith, you’re just wrong about this! You were right to cut off Holofernes’ head, but not to try to shut down the minds of those who seek to comprehend the Almighty!

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

Be Righteous, Not Stupid! – From the Daily Office – September 21, 2012

From Psalms:

When my mind became embittered,
I was sorely wounded in my heart.
I was stupid and had no understanding;
I was like a brute beast in your presence.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 7:21-22 (BCP Version) – September 21, 2012)
 
Raging Bull CartoonToday’s evening Psalm is ascribed to Asaph who, according to the genealogies in the Books of Chronicles, seems to have been one of King David’s chief musicians. His sons, we are told, were assigned by David to “prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals” (1 Chr 25:1). Asaph seems to have been something of a psychologist, for in these two verses he draws the connection between anger and stupidity – being embittered and “wounded in heart” leads to lack of understanding and brutish behavior. Was there ever a truer observation?

There is nothing wrong with anger per se. In fact, St. Paul commends anger that is controlled: “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil” (Eph. 4:26). It’s the loss of control that is the problem. As we read in the Book of Proverbs: “One given to anger stirs up strife, and the hothead causes much transgression.” (Prov. 29:22) In fact, we find Asaph’s point repeated in Proverbs: “One who is quick-tempered acts foolishly, and the schemer is hated” (Prov. 14:17) and “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but one who has a hasty temper exalts folly” (14:29). Someone who flies off the handle and cannot or does not control their anger will say things they wouldn’t normally say and do things they wouldn’t normally do – stupid things!

A Japanese Buddhist sage, Nicherin Daishonin, once wrote, “The extremity of greed, anger, and stupidity in people’s minds . . . is beyond the power of any sage or worthy man to control.” Albert Einstein is reported to have said, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Does the extreme, possibly infinite, amount of uncontrollable stupidity in the world suggest that there is a similar infinite amount of anger and rage?

The Hebrew word for anger in the verses from the Book of Proverbs quoted above is anaph, which seems to be derived from a root word referring to the flaring of one’s nostrils. It calls to mind those cartoons of raging bulls with smoke puffing from their nostrils, which reminds me of the Psalmist’s image of the angry individual behaving like a “brute beast.”

Two words are used in the original Greek of the New Testament to name anger. One is thumos which the lexicon defines as “passion, anger, heat, anger forthwith boiling up and soon subsiding again.” Its origin or root is a word that describes the immolation or burning of animal sacrifices. It refers to an uncontrolled outburst of blazing anger. It is a sudden outburst of anger, a flying off the handle that rages like a fire out of control. The other is orge with the lexicon defines as a “movement or agitation of the soul,” wrath or indignation; it comes from a root meaning to stretch. The word implies a slowly building, controlled, and slow-burning anger, what we might call “righteous indignation”. It is the first type of anger that leads to stupidity; the second can lead to positive change.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book Strive for Freedom laid out six principles of nonviolence, the first of which acknowledges the positive potential of controlled anger:

Nonviolence is a way of life for courageous people. It is a positive force confronting the forces of injustice, and utilizes the righteous indignation and the spiritual, emotional and intellectual capabilities of people as the vital force for change and reconciliation.

The lesson I take from this bit of the Psalm is “Don’t be stupid!” Don’t let uncontrolled anger cloud your judgment. There’s more than enough stupidity in the world already (possibly an infinite amount, as Einstein suggested); don’t add to it. If your nostrils flare . . . use them to take a deep breath and get control! Controlled anger, righteous indignation, can be a force for good. Stupidity never can. Be righteous, not stupid!

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

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