That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Revelation (page 1 of 4)

Saints Vote: Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018

Today, by translation from Thursday, the 1st of November, we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.

All my life as an Episcopalian (we didn’t have All Saints Day in the churches where I spent my childhood), I’ve been told that this day is about remembering all the saints who didn’t get a day of their own. Sure, we include Hildegarde and Francis and Richard Hooker and all those other folks with a feast day, but it’s really about those of whom the Book of Sirach says “there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed,” although they “also were godly [people], whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”[1] All Saints Day (and, thus, this Sunday) is a Christian festival celebrated in honor of all the saints, known and unknown, and frankly more in honor of the unknowns. It acknowledges the powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (those we call the “Church triumphant”) and those of us still here on earth (we who make up the “Church militant”).

I’ve also been told, as I’m sure you have, that included in this commemoration are all the baptized who have ever lived and died. After all, the Catholic faith teaches that all faithful Christians are saints. St. Paul addressed his correspondence that way: for example, “To the saints who are in Ephesus…”[2] or “To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae…”[3] So we are paying tribute to all departed baptized Christians.

Which is great, but then I am left wondering what November 2 is all about… If All Saints is about all those dead baptized Christians, what makes it different from the feast the next day that we call “All Souls” or the “Feast of All the Faithful Departed”? Why do we even have that day if that’s what All Saints Day is about. There must be something about All Saints that makes it different. According to one source, All Saints is about those dead who are believed to be already in heaven, while “All Souls was created to commemorate those who died baptized but without having confessed their sins, and thus they are believed to reside in purgatory.”[4]

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An All Saints Drive: Sermon for All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2019

Cleaning a WindshieldToday is the first Sunday in November which means that instead of the normal sequence of lessons for Ordinary Time, we are given the option of reading the lessons for All Saints Day, which falls every year on November 1. So today we heard a reading from the Wisdom of Solomon (a part of the apocrypha in which we hear that the righteous are in the hand of God), a psalm reminding us that the saints pledge themselves to truth rather than falsehood, a bit of the Book of Revelation describing the “new Jerusalem” where God will make God’s home with the saints, and (oddly enough) to the story of the raising of Lazarus in John’s Gospel.

Early in my meditations and study for preaching today, I thought I would explore with you the meaning of these various readings, but the more I thought about the less I wanted to do that.

So, instead of dealing with these bits of the Bible right now, what I’d like you to do is come with me for a drive. Let’s just set the Bible aside and go get in our car and head off down the road. It’s a country road, a hard-pack dirt country road out in the farm country. We’re taking a country drive on a fine, beautiful spring day. It’s been raining, just like it’s been doing here for the past week, but it’s not raining now.

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Train Tracks & Ties: Perspective – Sermon for Pentecost 5, Proper 7B (June 24, 2018)

Our Old Testament lesson this morning is a very small bit of the Book of Job, that really sort odd bit of Biblical literature that tells the story of a wager between God and Satan. Some scholars believe that it may find its origins in an earlier Babylonian work known as the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, that the Jews in Exile became familiar with the older Babylonian story and adapted it to their own theology.

Job begins with a scene in the heavenly court where God is in conversation with character called, in Hebrew, ha-satan which is translated into English as Satan. However, this is not the Devil of later Christian mythology, the ruler of Hell portrayed by Milton or Dante or even Walt Disney (in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in the movie Fantasia). Rather, ha-satan is a sort of heavenly district attorney or prosecutor who goes “to and fro on the earth, and … walking up and down on it,”[1] scoping out sin and iniquity and bringing it to God’s attention for judgment.

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An Anthropology of Heaven – Sermon for All Saints Sunday, RCL Year A

I think it’s no secret that I am a news junkie. I read several articles and opinion pieces in three major newspapers (the N.Y. Times, the Washington Post, and the Manchester Guardian) everyday. I watch the cable news commentaries on all of the news channels (yes, even Fox) and I read a couple of major international journals on a regular basis (the Economist and Foreign Policy).

I’ve been a news junkie since I was a kid. It was not uncommon for my parents and me (and my older brother when he was still living with us) to watch the CBS Evening News during dinner. I will always remember Walter Cronkite’s sign off: “And that’s the way it is . . . . ” and then he would say the date. “And that’s the way it is November 5, 2017.” Over on NBC, which my grandparents preferred to watch, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley shared the anchorman job, one in Washington, DC, the other in New York City, and they would sign off by wishing each other and the nation “Good Night!” There was something reassuring about those sign-offs, something solid and final. If Uncle Walter said, “That’s the way it is . . . .” If Chet and David said, “Good night!” we could rest easy knowing that the world was right, that the facts were nailed down.

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Act One: Use Your Towel – Maundy Thursday 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Maundy Thursday, April 13, 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: Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 116:1,10-17; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; and St. John 13:1-17,31b-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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On Palm Sunday, I suggested that we think of Holy Week and Easter as a three-act drama beginning with an Overture on Palm Sunday. Today, we take part in the first act. The analogy of the Three Holy Days (or “Triduum”) to a play breaks down if we think of ourselves as the “audience.” We are not the audience.

The audience of worship is God. The one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God is the audience. We, all of us, are the actors. We, all of us, are the cast.

So, here we are….

Act One, Scene One: The curtain rises. We see a group of people gathered in an upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

A meal is in progress… we wonder if it might be a seder, the ritual meal of remembrance of the Passover. We don’t really know; the playwrights have not made this clear and the theater critics, the scholars, debate the issue.

Three of the story-tellers suggest that it is. Luke and Matthew based their stories on Mark’s, so to be honest there aren’t three stories, there’s only one that would make us think that this supper is a seder.

However, the fourth, John, tells the tale very differently. John doesn’t even seem to care about the dinner – he spends no time at all describing the meal; for him, it’s not important. What’s important is what happened afterward.

So as we continue this three-act drama of redemption let’s just assume that that Matthew, Mark, and Luke are correct and what we see in this first scene of the first act is, indeed, a seder.

Those present are prepared to do all that is laid out in the instructions in the book of Exodus; they have worn their sandals; they carry their staffs; they expect to eat of roasted lamb and unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They anticipate spending the night in remembrance of that which happened generations before in Egypt. If we can imagine that they celebrate as modern Jews celebrate, they are gathered in that upper room, those serving the meal coming and going, and a breeze blowing through the open windows. They are following along in their prayer books, the Haggadah; they expect the youngest among them to ask the questions, beginning with “Why is this night different from all other nights?” They know that the head of the household, their rabbi Jesus, will answer those questions in the prescribed way and tell the story of the Passover.

So, when the youngest asks “Why do we eat the broken matzah?” they expect Jesus to answer “This is the bread of our affliction; the unleavened bread of poverty, baked and eaten in haste,” but instead he takes the bread, brakes it and says, “This bread is my body, given for you.”

They look up startled, glancing at one another, murmuring to each other, “What is he talking about? That’s not here! That’s not the right answer. Where is he? What page is he on?” But the moment passes, the meal moves on.

At the end he takes up the fourth and final cup of wine, the kiddush cup, which recalls God’s promise, “I will acquire you as a nation; you will be my people and I will be your God.” As before, they expect Jesus to say the prescribed prayer, “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, creator of the fruit of the vine,” but instead they hear, “This cup is my blood!” “What?!” They look at one another in disbelief. “What is he saying???”

It is for Jesus and his disciples one of those fleeting opportunities when, because of the pupils’ confusion or frustration or grasping for understanding, the teacher can pass on to the students new information, new values, new moral understanding, a new behavior, a new skill, a new way of seeing and coping with reality; it is what we have come to call “the teachable moment” and so he teaches, yet again, “Remember! Remember,” he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The curtain falls as Jesus continues to teach; the disciples look mystified.

Act One, Scene Two: The curtain rises again. We see the same group of people gathered in the same upper room somewhere in Jerusalem.

The meal is over, the dishes have been cleared. The disciples are arguing among themselves about who is the greater among them. Jesus looks frustrated and troubled; the teachable moment has passed and the disciples clearly have not understood! They just haven’t gotten it.

“Look,” he says, “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. Here, let me show you what I mean.” Getting up from the table, he takes off his robe, picks up a basin of water and a towel, and begins to wash and dry their feet.

As many of you know, I am a fan of science fiction, so when I hear about towels, one of the first things I think of is the late Douglas Adams’ hilariously funny novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The book begins seconds before Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway, when the protagonist Arthur Dent is plucked off the planet by his friend Ford Prefect, a researcher for a revised edition of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy who has been posing for the last 15 years as an out-of-work actor. The one thing Prefect makes sure that Dent brings with him is a towel. Quoting from the guidebook, he explains that a towel is the one, crucial, indispensable necessity that the intergalactic traveler must bring along on any journey:

A towel (says The Hitchhiker’s Guide) is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have . . . . you can wrap it around you for warmth . . . . you can lie on it on . . . brilliant marble-sanded beaches . . . . you can sleep under it beneath the stars . . . . use it to sail a mini-raft down a slow river . . . . wet it for use in hand-to-hand combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes . . . . you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it sill seems to be clean enough.

Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still know where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

John tells us that Jesus made use of the towel to dry the disciples’ feet and then said, “I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” It has occurred to me that The Hitchhiker’s Guide suggests many other ways in which we might use a towel in following Jesus’ lead.

When we baptize someone here at St. Paul’s Parish, the altar guild supplies towels for them to be dried with; I often joke about getting those towels back. But now it seems to me that we might better give them to the newly baptized with an admonition to follow Jesus’ example of loving service. The towel of service just might be the one, crucial, indispensible necessity that the Christian traveler should bring along on his or her journey through life. It just may be the most massively useful thing we can have as we serve others. We can wash and dry their feet; we can wrap them in warmth; we can provide a comfortable place to sleep; we can help them on a journey; we can protect them; we can signal to them and for them in emergencies; we can clothe the naked, swaddle a baby, comfort the sick. I’m sure you can come up with many more uses, small and large, for a towel and, by extension, for your heart, for your life, and for your willing hands.

That Jesus made use of the towel in the context of the Lords’ Supper is a really important point. There used to be what some thought of as a silly and useless bit of priestly vesture worn at Communion called a “maniple.” It looked sort of like a short stole and was made of the same material as the stole and chasuble. It was worn over the left forearm and looked like, and in fact was meant to symbolize, the sort of towel or table napkin often worn by the wait-staff in fancy restaurants, a symbol of service. Anglican clergy stopped wearing maniples long ago and Roman Catholic priests were allowed to discontinue them in 1967, one of the minor reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

In abandoning that symbolic vestment, however, we may have lost a reminder that, in addition to being called to follow Jesus along the way of the cross, we are also called to follow him in his use of the towel! Just as Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he might also have said, “Take up your towel and follow me.” In fact, he did when he said, “I have set you an example, that you should also do as I have done to you.”

Perhaps we no longer use the maniple as a priestly vestment because the ministry of Christian servanthood which it represents is not limited to clergy; it is the ministry of all baptized people. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” we are asked in the liturgy of baptism, and every person present answers, “I will, with God’s help.” This servant ministry is one which we all share, just as this meal of Bread and Wine, of Christ’s Body and Blood, is one which we all share.

The disciples, however, don’t get the opportunity to serve one another, for this second scene ends with Jesus, visibly agitated, declaring, “One of you will betray me.” As the curtain goes down, the disciples are looking puzzled and Judas Iscariot is leaving.

Act One, Scene Three: The curtain rises again. We see a garden and an olive grove just outside of Jerusalem. Jesus is there, accompanied by Peter, James, and John. “Stay here,” he tells them, “Stay awake while I go over there to pray.” As they settle themselves, he moves away from them, and collapses in a heap, sobbing: “O God … Father, let this pass!”

Three times he returns to find them asleep; three times they rise looking sheepish and embarrassed; twice he tells them again to try to stay awake as he goes away still pleading with God for a way out. “Enough,” he says the third time, “Enough! We’re leaving.”

When they look back on that night, how must they feel? When we look back, how should we feel? Poet Mary Oliver offers a glimpse in her poem Gethsemane:

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.
Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did,
maybe the wind wound itself into a silver tree,
and didn’t move, maybe the lake far away,
where once he walked as on a blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.

Yes, this too, our utterly human inability to fully keep company with our Lord, this too must be part of the story when it is told, part of the third scene of the first act of this drama that is retold again and again. This minor, little betrayal is as much a part of the story as Judas’ treachery which now plays out.

Scene Three ends as Jesus is arrested and taken away off-stage. In the wings, a trivial side-story plays out as Judas dies, either by hanging himself (as Matthew asserts) or by falling and suffering some sort of rupture (as Luke portrays in the Book of Acts). In any event, Judas dies and, in the church’s eyes, is condemned.

The Scottish poet Robert Williams Buchanan, in a very long elegy entitled The Ballad of Judas Iscariot, tells the tale of the soul of Judas carrying his body in search of a burial place, only to have it rejected by even the worst of places in all creation. Eventually, he comes to a banquet hall where a wedding feast is waiting to get started. The guests (that is, the church), recognizing Judas, demand that he be “scourged away,” but the Bridegroom has a different idea:

The Bridegroom stood in the open door,
And he waved hands still and slow,
And the third time that he waved his hands
The air was thick with snow.

And of every flake of falling snow,
Before it touched the ground,
There came a dove, and a thousand doves
Made sweet sound.

‘Twas the body of Judas Iscariot
Floated away full fleet,
And the wings of the doves that bare it off
Were like its winding-sheet.

‘Twas the Bridegroom stood at the open door,
And beckon’d, smiling sweet;
‘Twas the soul of Judas Iscariot
Stole in, and fell at his feet.

“The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!”

The supper wine is poured at last,
The lights burn bright and fair,
Iscariot washes the Bridegroom’s feet,
And dries them with his hair.

We sometimes use a Scottish invitation to Communion which comes from the ecumenical monastic community on the island of Iona:

The table of bread and wine is now to be made ready.
It is the table of company with Jesus,
And all who love him.
It is the table of sharing with the poor of the world,
With whom Jesus identified himself.
It is the table of communion with the earth,
In which Christ became incarnate.
So come to this table,
You who have much faith
And you who would like to have more;
You who have been here often
And you who have not been for a long time;
You who have tried to follow Jesus,
And you who have failed;
Come. It is Christ who invites us to meet him here.

All who have faith; all who would like to have more; all who have been to Communion often; all who have not been for a long time; all who have tried to follow Jesus (in the way of the cross or the way of the towel); all who have failed to do so. In other words, as John of Patmos witnessed in his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, everyone is called to the Supper of the Lamb; everyone is invited to the Wedding Feast! Even the disciples who fell asleep in the garden; even Judas Iscariot!

In this, the first act of the drama of redemption, Jesus has gathered his disciples. He has gathered us at the table that in the upper room. He has shared Bread and Wine. He washed and dried feet. He has given us the New Commandment: “Love one another.” He has said, “I have set you an example.” He might well have said, “Take up your towel and use it.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide says your towel can be used as a signal. So take up your towel; wave it so that all may see, and when you have their attention, invite them into this drama of redemption in which, tonight, we witness and take part in the first of three acts. Say to them, with Jesus, “Come! Come to this table! . . . . We have waited long for thee!”

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

A Christmas Lamb Chop: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mathewes-Green puts it this way:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas!

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

“In Order That” – Sermon for Easter 5C – April 24, 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 11:1-18; Psalm 148; Revelation 21:1-6; and St. John 13:31-35. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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janitorbucketDr. Robert Waldinger is the current director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development which is something called “a longitudinal cohort study” in which the same individuals are observed over a long study period. It is the longest running study of this kind in history. For 75 years researchers have tracked the lives of 724 men from all walks of life.

Last November, Dr. Waldinger gave a TED talk entitled What makes a good life? in which he drew on the results of the Harvard study. This is some of what he said:

The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

We’ve learned three big lessons about relationships. The first is that social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills.

And we know that you can be lonely in a crowd and you can be lonely in a marriage, so the second big lesson that we learned is that it’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health.

And the third big lesson that we learned about relationships and our health is that good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.

Over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships, with family, with friends, with community.

The good life is built with good relationships.

So . . . last week I began my sermon by trying to sing Led Zeppelin’s classic rock song Stairway to Heaven and, in the homily, I suggested to you that, unlike the lady in the song, we do not need to buy or build such a stairway because the good news of Jesus’ Gospel is that heaven is already here: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 10:7) “The kingdom of God has come to you.” (Mt 12:28) It’s here; we don’t need to worry about getting there. And later in the week I got some feedback about that sermon; two people asked questions about it.

One asked, “Don’t you believe in an afterlife?” That’s the easy question to answer, “Yes, I do. But I’m not concerned about it.” I trust that Jesus was telling the thief on the other cross the truth when he said, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:4) I believe he was telling the truth to the disciples when, speaking of his own death, he told them “I go to prepare a place for you.” (Jn 14:2) I believe that the afterlife is a given and that there is nothing we need to do, indeed there is nothing we can do, to “earn” it. As the Eucharistic preface used during a requiem in the Episcopal Church says, “to [God’s] faithful people . . . life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (BCP 1979, page 382)

The second question was a little tougher: “What about someone whose life just sucks? How can you say to someone like that that heaven is here?” Now that’s a good question. And the answer lies in that research done by Dr. Waldinger and his colleagues and their predecessors, and in today’s Gospel lesson, particularly in Jesus’ words, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn 13:34) – This is the way our New Revised Standard Version translates the Greek. There may be a better way to translate it, but let’s go with this for the moment.

Seminary professor Karoline Lewis writes of today’s Lectionary reading:

Jesus’ command to love one another is dangerously out of context. Read without its literary framework, it becomes another biblical platitude quoted by those who think it’s easy and who rarely stick to it themselves. It ends up on posters with the backdrop being some sort of idyllic scene of an ocean, snow-capped mountains, a rushing waterfall, or birds flying across a bright blue sky. It actually seems doable. (Resurrection Is Love)

But, she points out, lovely scenery and idyllic circumstances are not the context of this “new commandment.” Rather, it was given to the disciples at a time when evil seemed to be getting its way. It was spoken at the end of the Last Supper when someone Jesus and the others thought they could trust had just left to betray especially him and in reality all of them. Jesus commanded his followers to love at time “when the actions and words of others clearly [came] from hate and suspicion and prejudice;” in the words of my questioner, at a time when life sucked!

Jesus’ “new commandment,” says Prof. Lewis, “remind[s us] to choose love when evil seems to be having its way,” when life sucks. “And,” she says, “our decision to choose love does not even have to be in the face of the most overt and blatant expressions of its opposite. Our lives are full of minor incidents, if you will, when we can decide to come from a place of love rather than one of frustration and anger and judgment.”

Theologians sometimes use the word irruption when talking about the Kingdom of God. It is a word related to such ideas as eruption (a breaking out of something) and disruption (a breaking apart). Irruption means “to break into.” It conveys the idea that God’s rule, the kingdom of heaven, has broken into our reality. “The kingdom of God has come to you.” When we make the choice of love, we actualize that irruption; we make that in-breaking of heaven apparent and perceivable in a world which seems very much to the contrary.

But we are left, still, with a very serious question: How do we do that? If the “new commandment” is that we are to love one another, what does that mean? How are we to love one another? What are to be the manifestations of this love we are commanded to have?

Elizabeth Johnson, who teaches theology in Cameroon, points out that in John’s narrative the “new commandment” is bracketed by two stories of action. (Commentary) The first is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples about which he says: “If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (Jn 13:13-15) The second is the crucifixion about which Jesus says: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” (Jn 15:13-14)

These two actions parallel and help to flesh out the meaning of the “new commandment”. On the one hand, “love one another” compels us to “heroic acts of great risk; it extends even to the point of giving one’s life for another.” On the other, “loving one another as Jesus has loved encompasses the mundane; it means serving one another, even in the most menial tasks.”

So that’s one way to understand the “new commandment” – that we are commanded to love one another and to act out that love in these sorts of ways. But some will object that love cannot be commanded, and that telling someone to love another and demanding that the one serve the other only breeds resentment and contempt. I know this from experience and I suspect you do, as well.

For that reason, I find the work of a Presbyterian pastor named Mark Davis compelling. Pastor Davis has a Ph.D. in theology and is very accomplished in the study and translation of Greek. He has recently made the argument that our typical translation of John is wrong and that, as a result, we haven’t properly understood the “new commandment.” It’s easier to show you his argument than it is to tell it, so I’m going to put a slide up on the big screen TV. (Commanding Love; see also ‘In Order That’ You May Love)

Here’s what we’ve got:

greekcolorcode

This is John 13:34 in the original Greek, and the lower color-coded text is Dr. Davis’s translation. The color coding helps to explain his argument.

Dr. Davis first points out that the original Greek is one sentence, not two. The translation in the New Revised Standard Version breaks it into two sentences. Second, he points out that the Greek is written in a poetic form called “parallelism,” which is the balanced and symmetrical repetition of a thought or idea in slightly different forms as a way to emphasize the message. The New Revised Standard fails to honor the parallelism and, in fact, adds an imperative that simply isn’t there. Third, he points out that the Greek word “hina” (which he has color-coded in red) has been either overlooked or possibly mistranslated.

This third point is really the most important. Pointing out that the word “hina” can be translated either as “that” or as “in order that,” and that “hina” is normally understood to specify purpose, Dr. Davis suggests the second translation, as shown here, is the better choice.

Thus, the “new commandment” is not simply “love one another.” The “new commandment” is something else that Jesus has said, done, or taught which enables us to love one another in the same way that his empowering love enables us to do so.

Therefore, Dr. Davis’ asks, “What is the new command ([of] which loving one another is the result)?” and answers his own question, “I would suggest that the whole demonstration of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is the command.” In other words, the “new commandment” is not to love one another, it is to do what Dr. Johnson called those “mundane, menial tasks” and from that work will flow the capacity for and the actuality of loving one another, from that work will flow the actualizing and appreciation of the irruption the kingdom of God, from that work will flow the realization that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” I know, from personal experience, that this is true.

In the spring of 1971, I was 18 years old and finishing my sophomore year of college. And I was failing, badly. So I dropped out. I went to work in a hospital where I eventually worked as an orderly, but I didn’t start out as an orderly. I started out as a janitor. Once I had learned how to clean toilets and mop floors in proper hospital fashion, I was turned loose to take care of the common areas and of the patient rooms.

Early in my employment, I became acquainted with Mr. Aronson. I have no idea what Mr. Aronson’s medical problem was . . . all I know is that whatever it was it made Mr. Aronson’s life miserable. Mr. Aronson’s digestive system was out of control. If he ate, he vomited and he had diarrhea. His doctors were trying to treat this, of course, and he had to eat to see of the treatment was working, and most of the time it seemed it wasn’t. Nearly every day I would get a call to go to Mr. Aronson’s room where I had to mop the floor of either puke or feces and to gather up soiled bed linens. I hated getting those calls. I hated going to that room. I hated mopping that smelly floor and packing up those stinking linens and, I’m sorry to say, I hated Mr. Aronson. His life sucked and it was making my life suck.

And he knew it. He knew his life miserable and that his misery was negatively impacting everyone around him. But he must have known something else because he never acted that way. He was always gracious and he was always grateful. I’d show up with my 18-year-old “I hate being here” attitude, and if he was awake he would greet me courteously. I’d mop up his puke and his diarrhea, and stuff his soiled linens into a laundry bag, and he’d thank me. I didn’t want to be there; I didn’t want to deal with his mess or his smelly sheets; and I didn’t want his gratitude. But, when you’re employed as a hospital janitor, that’s what you do.

And after several days of doing that, you stopped noticing the smell and the misery. Instead, you looked forward to the greeting and you were grateful for the gratitude. And when, after a few weeks, Mr. Aronson died because they couldn’t fix whatever was wrong with him, you wept because, you discovered, you no longer hated Mr. Aronson. You loved Mr. Aronson; he had become your friend, and your friend was gone.

Mr. Aronson, it turned out, was the rabbi of the local Reform Jewish synagogue. His wife invited all of the hospital employees who had taken care of him, even us janitors, to attend his funeral, and it was there that I first heard and first recited the prayer called The Mourner’s Kaddish:

Glorified and sanctified be God’s great name throughout the world
which He has created according to His will.
May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and during your days,
and within the life of the entire House of Israel, speedily and soon;
and say, Amen.
May His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity.
Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, extolled and honored,
adored and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He,
beyond all the blessings and hymns, praises and consolations that
are ever spoken in the world; and say, Amen.
May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life, for us
and for all Israel; and say, Amen.
He who creates peace in His celestial heights,
may He create peace for us and for all Israel;
and say, Amen.

I think that what Mr. Aronson knew that allowed him to be gracious and grateful is what I have come to know and believe: that if we will just take care of one another doing whatever mundane, menial tasks are needed, God will establish his kingdom in our lifetime and there will be abundant peace from heaven and life for all of us. From those mundane, menial tasks flows the capacity for and the actuality of loving one another, and that from that love flows the realization that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Whether we understand the “new commandment” to be “love one another” or to be “do these things in order that love for one another can grow,” the point of Jesus’ “new commandment” is to foster good relationships between people, those good relationships that Dr. Waldinger’s research has shown are the foundation of a good life. I have faith that sometime in the future the kingdom of heaven will be complete and God will exercise a gracious and just control over everything in (and outside of) time and space, but I know that right now heaven is close at hand through Christians and other good people, individually and collectively, engaging the world in acts of love, both mundane and heroic.

Jesus insists that the kingdom of heaven is close at hand when we love one another. Medical science has proved it: “The good life is built with good relationships.” So I can say with confidence that heaven is here now, even for the person whose life sucks. Mr. Aronson taught me that. 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.

Stairway to Heaven – Sermon for Easter 4C – April 17, 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and St. John 10:22-30. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Stairway to HeavenThere’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for . . .

As I read and pondered both the vision of heaven in John of Patmos’ Revelation and the words of Jesus – “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27) – I could not get the words of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven out of my head!

The metaphor of God’s Presence – and of our future and eternal life with God – in a place “beyond the sky” may be the oldest metaphor in the human lexicon. It is shared, in some form, by every culture on earth. Our distant ancestors standing at night and gazing at the moon and the stars, watching the sun as “wide he goes through empty heaven with repose” (RL Stevenson, Summer Sun), or facing “the fierce wind, while mid-day lightnings prowl [and] untimely thunders growl” (Wm Wordsworth, Composed During A Storm) conceived of the sky as a place of unspeakable and unimaginable power, the dwelling place of the gods.

But we have been there; we “have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;” we have “trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space.” (JG Magee, Jr, High Flight) Men have walked on the moon and our machines are even now wondering the surface of Mars; our probes have studied the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and then left the planetary system entirely moving on “through corridors sublime, the [realms] of interstellar space and [the passageways] of time.” (And Have the Bright Immensities, The [Episcopal] Hymnal 1982, Hymn 459) We know that beyond the blue dome of our earthly sky is not some otherworldly domain filled with angels and gods, but the physical reality of the Solar System, the Milky Way galaxy, and the limitless universe. And, yet, the metaphor of heaven up there beyond the sky where we may get to go when we die, that metaphor still captures our imaginations and our spirits.

Our lesson from the Book of Revelation today is the second half of a two-part vision shown to John in Chapter 7 of the book; it begins with the words “After this. . . .” – “After what?” we may ask. In the first eight verses of the chapter, John is shown the “servants of our God [marked] with a seal on their foreheads,” an army numbering 144,000 – 12,000 from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. These represent what we traditionally call “the church militant,” defined theologically as Christ’s “disciples [who] are pilgrims on earth” (CCC 954), who are “engaged in constant warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil” (Turner, H.M., The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity, A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia:1885, online). In other words, you and me and every other Christian currently alive, the people doing Jesus’ work on earth right now. Bible commentator Christopher C. Rowland of Oxford University tells us that the number, 144,000, is neither exclusive nor limiting; instead, like all of the numbers and measures in the book, it is a sign of God’s possession and ownership of the earth and its people. John’s numbers are not “a measure of the success of human endeavours.” (NIB, Vol. XII, page 620)

It is after this part of the vision that John then sees the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9) This is “the church triumphant,” those who have died and “are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’” (CCC 954) In a word, these are the “saints in heaven.”

John says that “one of the elders” in his vision describes them as those “who have come out of the great ordeal.” (vv 13-14) Early translations use the term “great tribulation” and many have suggested that this refers to some kind of organized persecution that may have been experienced by John’s original audience. But other scholars suggest that “the ‘tribulation’ (thlipsis) of Revelation’s [original] audience was not state-sponsored persecution but rather the social, economic, and religious marginalization of those who refused to participate in the Roman imperial system.” (Barbara Rossing) Thus, the lesson for us “is not that all Christians must shed blood as a form of testimony but rather, all Christians are candidates for tribulation in some form or the other, and in whatever comes their way, it is paramount to follow the Lamb’s way.” (Israel Kamudzandu)

Laurence Hull Stookey, Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C, in his book on the liturgical calendar, reminds us that these saints seen by John are not there by their own merit: “Men and women do not by sheer determination and self-discipline become saints. Sanctity is a divine gift. It is indeed the power of the resurrection at work in human lives. * * * We are saints because God’s sanctity is at work in us, not because on our own we have come to great spiritual attainment.” (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1996, pp. 141-42)

In terms of Led Zeppelin’s famous song, we cannot build or buy a stairway to heaven on our own; we can only get there by “follow[ing] the Lamb’s way,” by hearing the Shepherd’s voice, being known by him, and following him. But if we listen to the Shepherd, what do we learn about heaven? What do we learn about where and when it is? Is it, as John’s vision suggests, only accessible after death? Is it, as John’s vision and Led Zep’s song and all the myths and legends of heaven suggest someplace beyond the sky?

Here’s an interesting thing . . . look the word “heaven” up in the New Testament and review all the times Jesus uses it and you will notice something fascinating: Jesus never refers to heaven in anything other than the present tense. Heaven is always now, never then. It’s not in the past; it’s not in the future; it’s now. And the other thing you will notice is that it is not far away: “The good news [is that]‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Mt 10:7) “The kingdom of God has come to you.” (Mt 12:28) “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mk 1:15) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27) He’s really just repeating something he said earlier in this same chapter: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (Jn. 10:14-15) In John’s Gospel, “knowledge is not a cognitive category, but is a category of relationship.” (O’Day, Gail R., NIB, Vol. IX, p. 670) Those who hear his voice and follow him belong to Jesus and are in relationship with him in the same way that Jesus is in relationship with the Father. This kind of relationship “does not mean to be acquainted; rather, it means to have a living bond.” (Haenchen, Ernst, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1984, Vol. 2, p. 48)

And what is that “living bond”? Bishop Charles Grafton, early 20th Century bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac, answered that in his commentary on the Catechism: “The Holy Spirit is the living bond which unites us in Baptism to Christ’s nature.” (Grafton, Charles C., A Catholic Atlas: Or Digest of Catholic Theology, Longmans Green, New York:1914, Vol. III, p. 112) It is through the action of the Holy Spirit that we are in relationship with Jesus and hear the voice of our Shepherd, or as the great 17th Century bible commentator Matthew Henry put it: “The great Shepherd of the sheep knows all that are his, guards them by his providence, guides them by his Spirit….” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary, online) The Spirit, as Jesus reminded Nicodemus late one night, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Jn 3:8) So we must listen carefully to hear the voice of our Shepherd.

“It is [a] voice which is especially precious in times of struggle and pain. And it is one we sometimes have to work harder to hear in better times when other voices especially seem to drown it out.” (Janet Hunt) Thus, “we tend to hear God’s voice better when we do so in community with others than when we are listening alone.” (Eric Mathis)

Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven ends with these words:

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

Our “stairway to heaven” lies on the wind; it depends on the Spirit, who blows where she will and cannot be controlled, but who conveys to us the voice of our Shepherd. “And as we wind on down the road,” as we follow our Shepherd on the path he sets, “all are one and one is all;” we are all in that relationship, that living bond, with God and with one another. And we are not in want. We are cared for and protected, for our Shepherd is also our “strong rock, a castle to keep [us] safe . . . [our] crag and [our] stronghold.” (Ps 31:3) A rock that will not roll.

This is the kingdom of heaven – where we are – on the path with our Shepherd, hearing his voice, and being in relationship with him. We need not buy or build, indeed we cannot buy or build a stairway to get there; we are already here. “The kingdom of God has come to [us].” (Mt 12:28) When the Shepherd speaks and we hear his voice and follow, heaven it is not far away; it is here, always here, never there. Heaven is not in the past, nor is it in the future. It’s always now, never then. It’s here and it’s now.

Let me close by quoting a song about a hundred years older than Stairway to Heaven, a hymn first published in 1883:

Oh, not in far-off realms of space,
the spirit hath its throne;
in every heart, it findeth place,
and waiteth to be known.

Thought answereth alone to thought,
and soul with soul hath kin;
the outward God he findeth not
who finds not God within.

And if the vision come to thee,
revealed by inward sign,
earth will be full of Deity,
and with his glory shine.

Thou shalt not wait for company,
nor pitch thy tent alone:
the indwelling God will go with thee,
and show thee of his own.

O gift of gifts, O grace of grace!
That God should condescend
to make thy heart his dwelling-place,
and be thy daily friend.

(Hosmer, F.L., The Indwelling God, in Sacred Songs For Public Worship, Savage, M. J., ed., Geo. H. Ellis, Boston:1883, p. 35)

Rejoice! The kingdom of heaven has come to you! No stairway required. 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.

Between Two Fires – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter – 10 April 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and St. John 21:1-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpg/1200px-Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpgIn Jerusalem, just outside the walled Old City to the south is a church built on the place where the house of Caiaphas, the high priest who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion, is believed to have been. The church is named St. Peter in Gallicantu; the name is from the Latin meaning, “St. Peter where the rooster crowed.” It is a reference, of course, to Peter’s three denials of Christ in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

In the interior of the church, in niches on either side of the altar, are two icons. One depicts that episode which gives the church its name; the other, the story which we heard in today’s gospel lesson. The icons are similar in that they both depict Peter and Jesus on either side of a charcoal fire.

In the first, the fire is quite small and several other people are gathered around it. Jesus and Peter are in the foreground. Jesus is bound and looking directly at Peter; Peter’s eyes, on the other hand, are downcast and he is holding up one hand, palm toward Jesus as if to fend him off. The icon is captioned in Latin “Non novi illum” (Lk 22:57) – “I do not know him.”

In the second, the fire is much larger and is accompanied by baskets of fish and bread. There are no other people around the fire; the other disciples are still in the boat some distance off shore. Jesus, again, is looking directly at Peter. Peter, in this picture, is looking directly at Jesus and holding his hand out to Jesus to receive a shepherd’s staff which Jesus is handing to him. This icon is also captioned, again in Latin, “Domine tu omnia scis tu scis quia amo te” (Jn 21:17) – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Some bible scholars believe that Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is an add-on, that the original text of this gospel ended with the statement at the end of Chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (vv 30-31) These scholars argue, and I think we have to admit, that that sounds pretty much like a definitive conclusion to the book. Thus, they argue that Chapter 21 from which we have heard today is either an afterthought that John felt compelled to add or the work of a second author, a false John who was apparently unsatisfied with the original text. However, I would suggest that Chapter 21 is neither an afterthought of John’s nor the forged addition of another: it is connected to the main body of John’s gospel by those charcoal fires and the number three.

Non novi illumOn that awful night, as all was being lost and his rabbi was being tried, mocked, and ultimately killed, Peter stood at that first charcoal fire and denied Jesus three times. As John tells the story in Chapter 18, Judas led the authorities to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was then taken away to Caiaphas’s courtyard and Peter, who had sworn that he would never deny Jesus, followed. The maid who watched the gate to the courtyard saw Peter and said to him, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

Peter replied, “No, I’m not.”

John then tells us, “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.” (Jn 18:18) There and here in today’s story in Chapter 21 are the only two places in all of the New Testament that fires are specifically described as being a “charcoal fire.” John is very deliberately contrasting these two scenes in his gospel.

A bit later, those with whom Peter was standing and keeping warm by the fire asked him if he were one of Jesus’ disciples; he replied, “No, I am not.” (Jn 18:25) And immediately another person asked Peter the same question and again Peter replied, “No.”

Just then, while Peter was still standing next to the charcoal fire in the courtyard, is when the crowed, confirming Jesus’ earlier word to Peter that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster’s call. Luke’s account tells us that at that moment, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Lk 22:61) That was when Peter realized what he had done and he was devastated: this is the moment depicted in the first icon in the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.

Peter left that first charcoal fire a broken man, weeping bitterly, and all alone. Eventually, he would re-connect with his fellow disciples. Eventually, with them, he would witness the empty tomb and encounter the Resurrected Jesus. Eventually, with Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, and two others John does not name, he would go fishing. Eventually, he would come to this beach and to the second charcoal fire.

Domine tu omnia scisLooking at Peter across this charcoal fire after their breakfast of grilled fish, Jesus would begin a conversation of three questions and three answers: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15)

What Jesus is asking is if Peter loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus. That is, after all, what Peter had said at dinner that night when he said that even if the others deserted Jesus he would never do that. But that, of course, is exactly what he did and more; he denied even knowing Jesus. So it must have been difficult for Peter to have this conversation at this charcoal fire remembering what happened at that charcoal fire.

Nonetheless, he answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” In words that can only be taken as a clear sign of forgiveness as much as they are of empowerment and commissioning, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.” But that doesn’t end the conversation!

Jesus asked Peter a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter must have wondered, and certainly we wonder, why Jesus would ask him the same question. Again, he answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” and again Jesus commissioned him, “Tend my sheep.”

And then, yet again, Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John changes the Greek verb here from agápe used in the first two questions to philía, naming in some circumstances a different sort of love, but whether that has any theological significance is a matter of debate. For us, today, it does not, but we should be aware of that change.)

John tells us that this third time, the question stings Peter. Says John, “Peter felt hurt . . . and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'” (v 17) And again, Jesus commissioned Peter, “Feed my sheep” but this time with a warning saying, in essence, “It will be dangerous and you will suffer at the hands of others.”

Jesus then ended the conversation with a simple, “Follow me,” an invitation ripe with forgiveness; whatever had happened at that first charcoal fire, it is put behind them; it does not matter. The three denials have been wiped away by three declarations of love and three commissions to service. All that matters now is that Peter follow his Master and live out the task he has been given.

The second icon illustrates this as Jesus passes the pastoral staff, the shepherd’s crook, to Peter who reaches out to receive it.

In Section IV of T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding the poet writes that we will all be “consumed by either fire or fire:”

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

The two charcoal fires of John’s Gospel, the two charcoal fires in the Gallicantu icons, show us the two fires of Elliot’s poem: the destructive fire of denial, or the life-giving, nourishing fire of resurrection, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The genius of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is that it is in the space between these fires, between the two icons, between these two stories in John’s Gospel that the people’s worship takes place, that our lives as the people of God are lived, wearing that “intolerable shirt of flame which human power cannot remove.”

What that placement of worship between those two icons says is that Peter represents all of us, that in a sense we are all Peters. All of us have committed ourselves, like Simon Peter, to follow Jesus. That commitment was made at our baptism and again at our confirmation; it has been reaffirmed again and again, as it was on Easter morning in the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, as it was last week when we joined in baptizing Anthony Jon and Laura May on whose behalf the promises of that covenant were made for the first time. But, just like Peter, we have all of us betrayed that covenant, broken those promises, and denied the Lord we have sworn to follow. But then comes that gentle but supreme act of absolution, uttered from the cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)

The image of the charcoal fires in the Gospel of John becomes an image of that divine mercy. One moment we’re warming ourselves at the fire of denial, potentially destroyed by the poor decisions we make, decisions that break our covenant promises. The next moment we’re with Jesus as he feeds us at the fire of mercy and forgiveness. The Lord is faithful to us even when we have not been faithful to him, and it is through his faith that we are healed and restored, and eventually, like him and with him, risen to new life.

Thanks be to God. 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.

God Is the Question – Sermon for Easter 2, Year C (3 April 2016)

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The-Doubt-of-St_Thomas-300x300Every year on the Second Sunday of the Easter season, we read the story from John’s Gospel of Thomas’s refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, but in each year of the Lectionary Cycle, it is coupled with different lessons from the Book of Acts and a different epistle lesson. So this year, in Year C of the cycle, we have heard of the confrontation between Peter and the high priest about the apostles’ teaching in the Temple, and we have heard part of the introduction of John of Patmos’ Revelation.

In the first, we see the clash between two parties each absolutely convinced of the truth of their conception of God: the high priest, speaking for the council, is absolutely sure that his God, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, had nothing to do with the itinerant rabbi from Galilee; Peter, speaking for the fledgling Christian community, is just as certain that his God, the Father of Jesus Christ, had everything to do with him. There is no way to avoid conflict between these two camps, their spokesmen, and their very different understandings.

In the reading from Revelation, John of Patmos gives us yet another view of God, whom he quotes as saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and who (says John) is and was and is to come. John’s God is a god of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

These lessons encourage us to grapple with the story and example of Thomas, the apostle whose insistence on solid evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection earned him the epithet “the Doubter,” but who in fact made the first post-Resurrection statement of convicted faith, crying out “My Lord and my God!” upon seeing Jesus.

My friend David Henson, a priest and journalist in North Carolina, says that “it hardly seems fair” to brand Thomas as “the archetypal doubter, the skeptic that demanded proof.” “He wasn’t the only disciple in the Christian gospels to express disbelief or doubt at the reports of resurrection.” (Easter for Doubters: The Unexpected Faith of Thomas, Patheos, April 1, 2013) And Professor David Lose, president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, agrees with him:

When you read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, you quickly realize that Thomas is not alone in his doubt. In fact, doubt isn’t the exception but the rule. No one – even after all the predictions – no one says, “Welcome back.” Or “We knew it.” Or even “What took you so long?” No. No one anticipates Jesus return and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.

Which makes me think that maybe doubt isn’t the opposite of faith but, actually, part of it, maybe even an essential part of it. (Faith and Doubt, Dear Working Preacher, April 8, 2012)

Last week in The New York Times, William Irwin, professor of philosophy at King’s College, a Roman Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an op-ed piece entitled God Is a Question, Not an Answer (The New York Times Opinionator Blog, March 26, 2016). In it he said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.

***

We should all feel and express humility in the face of the question even if we think the odds are tilted heavily in favor of a particular answer.

Thus, Prof. Irwin says, “The believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt.”

Today, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon, and welcome them into the household of faith, into the community which believes not only that there is a God, but that that God is most fully revealed to humankind in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the course of their lifetimes, they will explore with us what that means.

We could tell them, as many Christian preachers do, that “God is the answer.” They will encounter people like the Christian writer Dana Gatlin who begins one of her books with this firm statement and admonition:

In every human difficulty I have learned to center on God as the way out. God is the answer! ~ Center on God quickly, completely. God cannot fail! God loves you, right now is waiting to help you, and if you really put your trust in Him with all your heart, He will not fail you. Trusting in Him utterly, you cannot fail! ~ Whatever your dilemma or need may be, God is the answer. (God Is the Answer, Kansas City: Unity School of Christianity, 1940, p 7)

And they will encounter many others who witness that many in this life do in fact fail and that there always seem to be dilemmas which cannot be resolved and needs that are never met, and thus just as firmly assert that not only is God not the answer, but that there is no God. This conflict of certainties is not unlike that between Peter and the high priest about which we heard in the reading from the Book of Acts.

In this Easter season of alleluias we can sometimes be blinded to the reality of human doubts, fears, and pain, even our own. We tend to forget, as Professor Lose reminded us, that for the first disciples, for every one of them, not just Thomas, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place. The loud alleluias of Easter can make us forget that, as Prof. Irwin suggests, we “all exist along a continuum of doubt. Some of us will approach religious certainty at one extreme and others will approach atheistic certainty at the other extreme. Many of us will slide back and forth over time.” The story and example of Thomas serves as a reminder.

Poet Denise Levertov in her poem St. Thomas Didymus remembers another man in scripture who, like Thomas, expressed his doubts, a father who came to Jesus in the midst of fear and pain seeking healing for his child. Mark tells us the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus saying, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. * * * If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replied, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” In answer, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24)

Levertov imagines that Thomas witnessed this encounter and, remembering that Thomas’s name means, “the Twin,” names the father as Thomas’s “spiritual twin.” Her poem gives voice to Thomas’s doubts and their resolution:

In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teeth-gnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tight-drawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life.

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

(St. Thomas Didymus in Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire; Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, p 81)

In a moment, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon. Before we do so, their parents and Godparents will make some promises and commitments on their behalf and then, as the presiding priest, I will ask them and you some questions about belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” And each time the answer will be, “I believe.”

Perhaps for some of us, perhaps sometimes for all of us, the unspoken answer will be “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” The affirmations of the Creed, which is what those answers are, are not statements of certainty like those of Peter or the high priest, of the author who asserts that “God is the answer,” or of the atheist who insists there is no God. They are, rather, statements of faith, statements of hope, statements of trust in the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come, the God of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “You cannot be a [person] of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning . . . .” Therefore, he said, religious faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, 2007, p 105)

It is said that when the early 20th Century novelist and poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her life partner Alice B. Toklas at her bedside, Stein roused herself and asked, “What is the answer?” Toklas was unable to respond and sat there silent. “In that case,” Stein said, “What is the question?”

The question is God. God is the Question. When we welcome Laura May and Anthony Jon into the household of faith, we welcome them not to a life of nailed down certainty, but to a life of exploring the Question, in the course of which some lesser questions may be answered, but for the most part they will find that, like Levertov’s Thomas, their questions (and ours) will not so much answered as given their part in a vast unfolding design lit by the risen Son. Amen.

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The illustration is “The Doubt of St. Thomas” by the Chinese artist He Qi.

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.

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