That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Revelation (page 2 of 4)

Remember and Rejoice: Sermon for the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (14 December 2015)

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A sermon offered at the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (12/14/1967-12/09/2015) on Monday, December 14, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons selected by the family were Isaiah 25:6-9 ; Psalm 121; Revelation 21:2-7; and John 14:23-30.)

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funeralsprayA Native American proverb instructs us, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced; live your life in a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Today, on what would have been Sheryl Ann King’s 48th birthday, the world (you and me and everyone who knew and loved Sherry) is crying, but Sherry is rejoicing. “If you loved me,” Jesus told his followers, “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:28); we who love Sherry, let us rejoice (even through our tears) that she, too, has gone to the Father.

In the Jewish religion going back at least as far as the Babylonian exile it is a tradition that those mourning the death of a loved one recite a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer begins with these words:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen. (ReformJudaism.org>

As the prayer continues to its conclusion, there is not a single mention of the loved one, no mention of the loved one’s passing, no mention of the mourner’s grief. The prayer is, in its entirety, a sanctification of God and a petition for peace. The rabbis tell us that this tradition arose to remind us, even in the midst of great sorrow, to rejoice and to give thanks.

Nonetheless, there is a very human need to acknowledge the loss of the one we love and in a prayer book of the Reform Jewish movement entitled New Prayers for the High Holy Days there is this lovely meditation:

At the rising sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn, we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live,
for they are now a part of us.
As we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
(Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer, We Remember Them, New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Media Judaica, New York:1970, p. 36)

What memories do you have of Sherry? I will always remember three things about her. The first is her competence and her drive. When Sherry was doing volunteer work here at St. Paul’s Church, I knew that if she said she would do something it would get done and it would get done well. (Parish priests really appreciate that and remember with special blessings those members on whom they can rely as one could rely on Sherry.) The second is that she loved to have a good time: she was a great hostess and she enjoyed a good party. I’m sure that she is just as pleased as she can be to be joining the saints in light at God’s great party, the one Isaiah described, that “feast of rich food, . . . of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Is 25:6).

The third thing I will remember is the way she always looked when she came back from her annual trip to Cancun. Sherry was someone who clearly enjoyed the sun! I have to admit to being somewhat amused when I realized that the family had selected a psalm with the verse, “The sun shall not strike you by day” (Ps 121:6)! I’m not sure Sherry would have gone for that, but I am sure she is now enjoying what Malachi prophesied, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Sherry, we believe, is now in that place “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” (BCP 1979, p 499)

And this is where our Christian faith takes us beyond the meditation in the Reform Jewish prayer book. We are assured that more than our memories sustains the lives of our departed loved ones; it is not “as long as we live” that they shall live, but forever. We are assured, because of the birth of Christ which we will celebrate in just a few days, because of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that the way to eternal life has been opened to Sherry, to all of our loved ones gone before, and to all of us.

Sometimes when we bury the dead, we also celebrate the Holy Communion. In the Episcopal Church as part of that service, in the introductory preface to the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest presiding at the altar says these words:

Jesus Christ our Lord . . . rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, 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, p 382)

This is our Christian hope and our assurance, that in Christ Jesus God has (as Isaiah prophesied) “swallow[ed] up death forever” (Is 25:8), and as John of Patmos heard the voice in heaven saying, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

So, our memories are precious and we cherish them, but it is more than our memories which sustain Sherry or any of our departed loved ones: through the love of God and the salvation of Christ, rest eternal has been granted to them, and light perpetual shines upon them. And we honor them with more than our memories; we honor Sherry not by living in the past, not only by remembering her, but by living into the future. When Queen Mother Elizabeth passed away in 2002, this meditation entitled Remember Me by David Harkins was included in the order of service. It seems to me appropriate today as we remember and celebrate Sherry’s life:

Do not shed tears when I have gone
but smile instead because I have lived.
Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back,
but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind.
I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me,
but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow
and live only for yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow
because of what happened between us yesterday.
You can remember me and grieve that I have gone
or you can cherish my memory and let it live on.
You can cry and lose yourself,
become distraught and turn your back on the world,
or you can do what I want –
smile, wipe away the tears,
learn to love again and go on.
(See Poetic Expressions.)

The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Pleasures and Days, Hesperus Classics, London:2004, p 116) “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus, “and do not let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27c) Instead, let them blossom, and let us rejoice and be grateful for the life of Sheryl Ann King. Amen.

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

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

The Three-Dimensional Kingdom: Sermon for Christ the King (Proper 29B), 22 November 2015

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A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Christ the King, (Proper 29B, Track 1, RCL), November 22, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 23:1-7; Psalm 132:1-19; Revelation 1:4b-8; and John 18:33-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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Christ the KingThe kingdom of God, of which today we celebrate Christ as king, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, dangerous peace.

There is no way to peace along the way of safety. For peace must be dared, it is itself the great venture, and can never be safe. Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. Peace means giving oneself completely to God’s commandment, wanting no security, but in faith and obedience laying down the destiny of the nations in the hand of Almighty God, not trying to direct it for selfish purposes. Battles are won, not with weapons, but with God. They are won when the way leads to the cross. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1934, quoted in Bethge, Renate, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Brief Life)

In 1934 the young German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched in sadness as his democratic, educated, and Christian country discarded more and more of its core values. Fear-mongering politicians lured patriotic citizens to ignore their Bibles and the promise and hope of the Prince of Peace, and worship instead at the altar of safety and national security; he witnessed them behave terribly toward foreigners, minorities, the disabled and the mentally ill. Three weeks after Adolf Hitler was proclaimed Der Führer, Bonhoeffer preached the sermon I have just quoted.

Today, as the Christian year draws to a close, we celebrate the universal sovereignty of Christ. We call this last Sunday after Pentecost “Christ the King” and we underscore that Jesus is our Lord. My friend and colleague Kara Slade, who is completing her doctorate in systematic theology at Duke, posted as her Facebook status this morning:

Because Jesus is Lord, your fear is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your bank account is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your preferred political candidate is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, your theological platform (and mine) is not.
Because Jesus is Lord, every power and principality of this world is not.

Theologian Daniel Clendenin makes the same point when he writes, “The kingdom of God that Jesus announced and embodied is what life would be like on earth, here and now, if God were king and the rulers of this world were not. The political, economic, and social subversions would be almost endless — peace-making instead of war mongering, liberation not exploitation, sacrifice rather than subjugation, mercy not vengeance, care for the vulnerable instead of privileges for the powerful, generosity instead of greed, humility rather than hubris, embrace rather than exclusion.”

This morning we are joined by several young men and women, members of our own Episcopal Youth Community and of youth groups of other parishes, who erected cardboard shelters on our church’s front lawn, who spent the night as many homeless do in the cold and rain, and who walked the town square with volunteers from Operation H.O.M.E.S. to raise money for and call attention to the needs of the homeless in our community. Their witness extends beyond our community to the other cities where their other congregations are located, but also beyond our own diocese and state; they witness to plight of people of all ages made homeless by economics, made homeless by ill-health, made homeless by addictions, made homeless by war. They witness to hundreds of thousands in this country and beyond our borders who are refugees from their homes but who, like us, are “no longer strangers and aliens, but . . . citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19)

In worldly terms, Jesus’ kingship during his life was a pretty spectacular failure. He was born in a stable and soon (probably when he was about two years of age) became a refugee himself, living in a country not his own: “Get up,” said an angel to his father, “take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you.” (Mt 2:13) He was rejected by most of his family and friends: “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house,” he said. (Mt 13:57) He wandered as homeless person: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he once remarked. (Mt 8:20) He died, as we heard in the Gospel account this morning, condemned as a political rebel. “Behold,” he says in the form of the Stations of the Cross we often use in this parish, “the poorest king who ever lived. Even my deathbed, this cross, is not my own.”

Yet within less than generation communities would form throughout the ancient Middle East dedicated to the idea that not only was he a king, but that he was and is the very Son of God. Within less than 60 years after his crucifixion, John of Patmos would declare that he is “the one who is and who was and who is to come.”

When we focus on Christ as our king, we celebrate and give thanks for this temporal three-dimensionality; when we give thanks for the universal sovereignty of Christ, who in the words of one of our Ascension hymns we name “the Lord of interstellar space and Conqueror of time,” we see these three tenses of Thanksgiving: the past, the present, and the future. The kingdom over which he is Lord and of which we are all a part always has been, is, and always will be. It is, preached Patrick of Ireland,

. . . greater than all report, better than all praise of it, more manifold than every conceivable glory. The Kingdom of God is so full of light, peace, charity, wisdom, glory, honesty, sweetness, loving-kindness and every unspeakable and unutterable good, that it can neither be described nor envisioned by the mind. . . . . In the eternal Kingdom there shall be life without death, truth without falsehood, and happiness without a shadow of unrest . . . (Sermon for Advent quoted in Ramshaw, Gail, Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary)

On this Feast of Christ the King, in a few minutes, we will dedicate our financial commitments to our ministry in Christ’s church and our stewardship of Christ’s kingdom. The pledge cards we have completed and turned in are tokens of our gratitude, signs of our thanks for all “the unspeakable and unutterable good” that God has given us, sacramental of our commitment to care for it and use it to the benefit of others. Our thanksgiving is three-dimensional, evidencing our awareness of God’s abundance through the ages, our sense of his very presence in this moment, and our declaration of faith that God is also yet to come. When we live with that sense of expectation, today makes a difference; our pledges of gratitude and good stewardship make a difference.

When we celebrate Jesus as King, we reach back into the Jewish roots of our faith, into the Hebrew past. We hear King David, the shepherd son of Jesse the Bethlehemite, proclaim, “The God of Israel has spoken . . . to me, . . . he has made with me an everlasting covenant.” We hear the words of the prophets, such as Isaiah, proclaiming through the ages their expectation of the Messiah: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” (Isa 11:1-2)

Princeton philosopher Michael Walzer, however, reminds us that the prophetic expectation was not a political one. The prophets, indeed, “disdain” politics. In contrast to Greek philosophers, “the Biblical writers never attach great value to [human] politics as a way of life.” Politics is simply “not recognized by the Biblical writers as a centrally important or humanly fulfilling activity.” Their emphasis was on divine intention, not on human wisdom, The prophets exemplify the Hebrew Bible’s “radical denial of the doctrine of self-help,” of human safety and national security. (Walzer, Michael, In God’s Shadow; Politics in the Hebrew Bible, Yale:2012, pp 125, 186)

The prophetic emphasis is not one of political security; when Isaiah describes the Child upon whose shoulders authority will rest he names him “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa 9:6), and (as quoted above) asserts that he will possess a spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge. St. Ambrose of Milan said:

When we speak about wisdom, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about virtue, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about justice, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about peace, we are speaking of Christ. When we speak about truth and life and redemption, we are speaking of Christ.

Neither St. Ambrose, nor Isaiah, nor any Hebrew prophet ever spoke of national security or personal safety. As Bonhoeffer said, “Peace is the opposite of security… To look for guarantees is to want to protect oneself. [To give] oneself completely to God’s commandment, [means] wanting no security . . . .” “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it,” said Jesus (Mk 8:35)

When Jesus says, “I am Alpha and the Omega,” he is reminding us all that our beginning and our ending is in him. No one is self-made. No one is safe apart from him. No one is secure apart from God. Nothing that God loves will ever be lost. No evil will endure. All that God has created he will redeem. The kingdom of God, proclaimed by Jesus the Son of David, is not a kingdom of security; it is a kingdom of peace, forever. And it’s for everyone.

Our annual fund campaign pledges represent our three-dimensional acknowledgement of the fact of Christ’s kingdom, our gratitude for the truth of Christ’s kingdom, and our commitment to be good stewards of that kingdom entrusted to us. Those pledge cards which have already been received are in this basket; I will ask our ushers now to take it and receive any additional cards which you have brought today. If you’ve not turned in a card and haven’t brought a completed card with you this morning, there is a form in your bulletins which you may use. We’ll take a few minutes of silent reflection upon the abundance of God’s kingdom while you do so. At the offertory, we will pray over and bless our pledge cards.

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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.

Fully Human: A Baptismal Sermon for All Saints Day, November 1, 2015

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A sermon offered on All Saints Day, Sunday, November 1, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; and John 11:32-44. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Raising of Lazarus, Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy, 6th centuryFor some reason, although I know that the Lectionary is a three-year cycle and thus that the lessons are not the same every year, when All Saints Sunday rolls around I’m surprised when the lessons do not include John the Divine’s vision of the multitude in white robes standing before the Lamb’s Throne in heaven (Rev 7:9-17) or Jesus preaching the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:1-12). Those were the lessons, the only lessons provided for this feast in prior editions of the Book of Common Prayer. I’ve preached the “new” Lectionary for thirty years, so you’d think I’d be used to it . . . but each time the raising of Lazarus pops up as the Gospel lesson I think, “Well, what’s up with that?” You may have had that thought this morning, as well: “It’s All Saints Day. We’re doing a baptism. What’s up with this Lazarus story?”

So I want to delve briefly into a couple details of the story.

First of all, let’s remember who this family is, Mary, Martha, and their deceased brother Lazarus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. These people seem to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. Earlier in this story, Lazarus is described to Jesus as “he whom you love” when Jesus is told of his illness. (John 11:3) These people are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.

Secondly, we’re told that the family is accompanied by “Jews.” That seems a bit odd, doesn’t it? After all, aren’t they all Jews? Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Jesus, the whole lot of them? Of course they are! So many scholars suggest that we should better understand John’s term Ioudaiou to mean “Judeans,” that is people native to the Jerusalem area; these scholars suggest that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, like Jesus, were Galileans who had moved to Judea and been accepted into this southern community. This strengthens the suggestion that they may have been members of Jesus’ extended family.

Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (vv. 21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”

In the portion we read, we’re told that Jesus’ response to this is that he is “greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” That’s a fine translation, but it’s also a bit misleading. The word rendered “disturbed” – embrimesato – very literally means he “snorted with anger”; and the word translated “deeply moved” – etaradzen – means “stirred up” and implies a certain physicality, not simply an emotionalism. Jesus response to the sisters’ confrontations, to Lazarus’ death, to the whole situation is to become indignant and sick to his stomach.

Angry and physically ill, Jesus wept. Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest we consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.

In a few moments, we will baptize two young men, Aiden and his brother Carson, and together with them we will affirm the Baptismal Covenant beginning with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed in which we will claim that Jesus, the Son of God, was “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary” (BCP 1979, p 304). In the Nicene Creed, which we recite most Sundays during the Holy Eucharist, we go further and declare that he “became incarnate . . . and was made man,” that is, that he became a flesh-and-blood human being. (BCP 1979, p 358). In the Definition of Chalcedon, which you can find on page 864 of the Prayer Book, the church goes even beyond that and asserts its conviction that Jesus is “truly [human] . . . like us in all respects, apart from sin.”

I believe that standing before that tomb where his beloved friend Lazarus had been buried four days earlier, feeling the anger and frustration of his close friends Mary and Martha, surrounded by Judeans muttering “couldn’t he have prevented this,” and perhaps physically exhausted from traveling from the other side of the Jordan valley where he was when he got the news, Jesus’ humanity hit him like a ton of bricks. In that moment, everything that it meant to be human came crashing in on him: the way human beings settle for easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships; the injustice, oppression, and exploitation we impose on one another; the pain, rejection, hunger, and war we endure . . . but, also, the love, friendship, community, family, support, and every other good thing about being a human being; it all come together in that moment standing at that grave.

Why do I think that? Because that’s what I feel every time I stand at a grave. The first time I did that, I was 5-1/2 years old. I remember standing between my mother and my paternal grandmother watching two members of the US Army fold the flag that had draped my father’s coffin, feeling loss, grief, anger, confusion, and emotions I couldn’t even name. But there was also the love of family, pride in my father’s military service, a sense of community with extended family and friends, all the comfort that comes from our common humanity. And every time I have stood beside a grave, I have felt that again, and I can surely imagine our Lord experience something very like that. No wonder Jesus – the fully-human, like-us-in-all-respects Jesus – wept.

We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As the Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit” (BCP 1979, p 306). As he called Lazarus from to rise from his funeral wrappings, through Holy Baptism Jesus calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with “those who have clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)

The Creation story in Genesis tells us that “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Gn 1:27) The story of the Fall reminds us that somehow that divine likeness has been marred, that on our own we fail to live up to that image; we fail to fully live up to the potential God created in humankind. Through baptism, the divine image is restore; through our baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, a process of transformation begins and God restores us to who and what we were meant to be – fully human.

When John the Divine witnessed his Revelation, he saw that multitude of human beings in white robes standing before the Lamb’s Throne in heaven. He was told who they were – those “who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev. 7:14) – and why they were there, and nowhere in that description did the Elder who spoke to him say anything about the saints having agreed to a doctrine. When the voice spoke from the throne and said, “See, the home of God is among [human beings]. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them” (Rev. 21:3), not a word was said about assent to a creedal formula. Nonetheless, when we baptized someone, we ask them (and ourselves) some questions that sound a lot like doctrine; we ask questions which are taken directly from the creedal formulation we call “the Apostle’s Creed,” to which I referred earlier.

Recently, a commission of Anglican theologians representing you and me and all Anglicans everywhere agreed with a similar group of theologians representing Orthodox Christians that three words could be removed from the Nicene Creed, three words that theologians and liturgists call “the filioque clause.” Filioque is a Latin word meaning “and the Son.” It refers to that place in the Creed where we say, “We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who proceeds from the Father and the Son.” Those three words (or that single Latin word) were added to the Nicene Creed by the Third Council of Toledo in 589 CE, a council in which no Eastern bishops took part; that additional phrase, which the East rejected, was one of the causes of the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Western Catholicism. The theologians’ agreement is part of the on-going work to heal the rift between Eastern and Western Christianity.

As you might imagine, that agreement has excited no little amount of discussion amongst us clergy. In one of our conversations, another priest said this about the Creed which I think applies equally these doctrinal statements we require of baptismal candidates:

For the past couple of years, I have introduced the creed with, “Using the words of the Nicene Creed, we proclaim our faith and trust in the God . . . .” Last Sunday . . . I asked people to substitute “We trust in” for each “We believe in” as we said the Creed, since the original Greek word . . . could have been translated either way. I wonder if the Body of Christ would be far less chopped up, if we had used “trust”. There might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here”, and another denomination is created. Also, there is that “in” . . . we are doing a whole lot more than expressing belief. We are expressing a deep community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe you don’t believe exactly the same things I believe, but we both believe/trust in the same God.

In that same discussion, another of our colleagues objected to what he called the distinction between “faith as trust and faith with content.” “It’s always struck me as a strange distinction,” he said. “If, for example, faith as trust is about relationship [and not about content], it is like someone saying to a prospective marriage partner, ‘I love you and I want to marry you, but I’m not certain who you are.'” I suggested to him, however, and I suggest to you now that this distinction really doesn’t exist, that faith as trust or as relationship necessarily implies and includes “faith with content.” One cannot place trust in another person, such as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit named in the Creed, without assenting to that person’s existence and properties; to say, “I trust you” or “I love you” and not also agree that you exist makes very little sense.

This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with them, and through them with the full community of human beings whom God loves, with whom God will live, from whose eyes God will wipe every tear, and for whom God will spread that glorious and eternal feast described by the Prophet Isaiah.

That relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us. It is into that promise that we baptize Carson and Aiden today. And that is what’s up with the Lazarus story!

In the words of a popular Franciscan blessing, let us pray that, as these boys grow into the full humanity into which they are initiated today, God will bless them with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships, so that they may live deep within their hearts; that God will bless them with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that they may work for justice, freedom, and peace; that God will bless them with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, hunger, and war, so that they may reach out their hands to comfort others and turn their pain into joy; and that God bless them with enough foolishness to believe that they can make a difference in this world, so that they can do what others claim cannot be done, to bring justice, kindness, and love to all.

May God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. 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.

Neither Hot Nor Cold: A Sermon of Ecclesial Disappointment – 12 July 2015

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A sermon offered on Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10B, Track 1, RCL), July 12, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 6:1-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; and Mark 6:14-29. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. Note: The Revised Common Lectionary provides that the first lesson is 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19.)

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Israel-Palestine MapWhy do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters [New York: Harper & Row, 1982], pp. 40-41.)

I wonder if Ms. Dillard might not have had in mind the episode recounted today in our reading from the Second Book of Samuel. Confession: The Lectionary edited out the verse that describe the death of the priest Uzzah and the circumstances and causes thereof. I put them back in because they explain the sudden reluctance of David to take the Ark of the Covenant into his city, and his three-month delay in doing so. With Uzzah’s death David, as the writer of Second Samuel tells us, got a notion of “what sort of power we so blithely invoke,” of what sort of power he was bringing into Jerusalem, and it frightened him.

After all, what had Uzzah done. Nothing disrespectful of God, that’s for sure. If anything, he saved the Almighty the indignity of the Ark tumbling out of the ox cart and falling to the ground. All he had done was reach out to steady it when it was jostled by the oxen; he was doing only what comes naturally when one is moving a large, heavy object over rough terrain. And for this, for touching the Ark with the most innocent and benign of intentions, he was stricken dead. At first, David was angry with God about that; apparently he cursed up a storm because the place gets renamed “Perez-uzzah” which means “outburst about Uzzah” – could be God’s outburst that killed Uzzah, more likely it’s David’s outburst of anger after Uzzah is dead. Once he vents, however, David becomes frightened; we are told, “David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?'” So, he leaves the Ark right there in the care of a foreigner, Obed-edom the Gittite, for three months. David has realized that he may need a crash helmet when dealing with the power of the Almighty.

And then there’s John the Baptizer. John knew all too well the Power he’s been dealing with; he’d talked directly with God (“The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me,” he claimed – Jn 1:33) and John spoke to earthly power on God’s behalf. He said to the crowds that came out to him, to the scribes and the Pharisee, the priests and the Sadducees, to all who came to him at the River Jordan, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Lk 3:7-9) John knew there was danger, terrible danger when one becomes involved with Almighty God. It was the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews who said it, but John knew well, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:31) Because even if the power of God doesn’t kill you, the ministry demanded of you by God may well put you in harm’s way . . . and that, in the end, is what happened with John.

Speaking truth to power, John publicly denounced Herod Antipas for his sinful, adulterous relationship with his half-brother Philip’s wife Herodias, who also happened to be Antipas’s niece. For that public reproof, John was arrested and held for a time in prison; the Gospel lesson tells us that Herod protected John after his arrest because he feared him! – Even Herod Antipas felt the danger of involvement with the Almighty at second hand, the danger of dealing with God’s anointed prophet. But in the end, tricked by his own foolish behavior, Antipas must order John beheaded; for John the ax is laid not at the foot of the tree, but at the base of his neck. As Ms. Dillard might put it, “The waking god drew John out to where he could never return.”

We, the Episcopal Church, take this dangerous prophetic step out to where we might never return every time we make a statement or take an action and proclaim to the world, “We do this because we are called to do so by our Lord and our God.” I do it every time I step into this pulpit and dare to preach a sermon. You do it every time you take a stand on an issue or behave in a particular way and say, “I do this because I am a Christian, because I am an Episcopalian.” Our church does it when it meets in deliberative council, in vestry meetings, in diocesan conventions, or as we have just done in our triennial General Convention; we do it when we issue public statements on important issues of the day.

We feel like we have done it now in the aftermath of our 78th General Convention because, for example, we have taken the bold step of opening our marriage liturgies to same-sex couples. However, I would suggest to you that that was not a very prophetic step after all. We had already, several years ago, declared that gay and lesbian persons are beloved children of God entitled to the full ministry of and to full inclusion within the body of the faithful. We underscored that a dozen years ago when we approved the election and consecration of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. When we declared last week that same-sex couples could marry in the church, we were only continuing down a path we had already been walking, a path which (frankly) the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and the United States Supreme Court had just walked before us. It’s easy to be prophetic when others have already done so before you.

We feel like we have taken a prophetic stance because 1,500 bishops, deputies, and other Episcopalians marched the streets of Salt Lake City to protest against gun violence and to call for rational handgun licensing laws and for background checks on all gun sales including gun show and private transactions. We feel like we have done so because, a few days after that protest march, the General Convention passed a resolution making that same call; but in all honesty it’s a call we have made before. We have been on record as a church in support of reasonable regulation of gun manufacture, sale, and ownership for nearly 40 years; we have passed resolution after resolution urging registration, licensing, and insuring of handguns, as well as the banning of civilian sale and ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons since at least 1976. And we have not been alone among the churches in doing so. It’s not particularly original or prophetic to do and say again that which you and many others have done and said many, many times.

We feel like we have been prophetic in the House of Bishop’s election of Michael B. Curry of North Carolina to be our Presiding Bishop, our first black Presiding Bishop! But, folks, we have had black bishops in the Episcopal Church for over 140 years since the consecration of James Theodore Holly to be Bishop of Haiti in 1874. Neither God nor the world would be out of line in telling us that Bishop Curry’s election is not particularly prophetic and asking, “What took you so long?”

It’s not that these are not important and vital issues; they are. It’s not that our voice, added to so many others, is not worth raising about these issues; it is. It’s not that we should not be taking a stand on these matters; we should. We should and we have and we will continue to do so, but we are not being particularly prophetic when we do so. We are merely doing what comes naturally moving a large, heavy institution over the rough terrain of difficult issues. Like Uzzah steadying the Ark of the Covenant, it may be dangerous, but it’s not particularly prophetic.

We did have the opportunity to be prophetic, but we failed to take it. A resolution numbered D016 was offered for our consideration. It would have called upon our church and our leadership to

work earnestly and with haste to avoid profiting from the illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and [to] seek to align itself with, and learn from, the good work of our Ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, who have worked for decades in support of our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers and others oppressed by occupation. (Resolution D016 as originally proposed)

It did not call for divestment from Israeli investments. It did not call for the boycotting of products made in the occupied territories. It did not call for sanctions against Israel. It did not call upon us to join the “BDS” movement as it is called – Boycott, Divest, Sanction. It was opposed on the grounds that it did, but in truth it did not.

We could have taken such action; we could have joined BDS although the resolution did not call for it. Alternatively, we could have proclaimed that, instead of doing that, we would work through positive investment and constructive engagement with both Israelis and Palestinians to foster reconciliation and peace. Or, we could simply have done as the resolution sought and undertaken a time of intentional study and discernment as to what our ministry as a church with important ties to the Holy Land might be, how we might try to encourage healing in that broken, wounded, and bleeding place. We could have done any of those things, any of those prophetic things. But do you know what we did?

We ducked the issue. We played it safe. We closed off debate. We failed to act. The House of Bishops rejected Resolution D016 so the House of Deputies never had a chance to consider it and, thus, we did nothing. – We should know better! As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:8b-10)

We know that! We have declared as much in our catechism that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” and that “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” (BCP 1979, page 305) We are a church for whom the ministry of reconciliation should come as naturally as reaching out to steady the cargo on an ox cart came to Uzzah. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we did nothing…. We are a church who believes itself to speak like John the Baptizer prophetically to power on any number of subjects. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we said nothing….

As a church meeting in deliberative assembly and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we did nothing, we said nothing to promote justice, peace, love, and reconciliation in the Holy Land.

When John of Patmos had the vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, he was instructed to deliver a message from Jesus to the church in Laodicea. He was told to write these words to them: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16) With regard to those living in the land where Jesus was born, where he lived and taught and loved and died, where he rose from the dead for our salvation . . . with regard to our brothers and sisters living in that land, our General Convention action (or, really, lack of action) was lukewarm; it was tepid; neither hot nor cold, worthy only to be spit out.

I love my church. I love what we do in our synods and our conventions. I love that we take positions, sometimes unpopular positions. I love that we take risks with power, the kind of risks that Uzzah took, the kind of risks that John the Baptizer took, the kind of risks for which we should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers and holding signal flares. But we failed to do that with regard to the occupation of Palestine and the strife existing between our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters, and I am disappointed in the church I love. As the Rev. Winnie Varghese, a priest from New York who was one of the supporters of Resolution D016, wrote after its rejection: “I will never understand why we would not listen … to our brothers and sisters truly on the ground, the lay and ordained Palestinian Christians who have been displaced; who work for justice; and who ask for our help.” (Huffington Post, July 10, 2015) Nor will I. I will never understand.

Let us pray:

Lord our God, the earth is yours and all that is in it, so we lift up our heads, we open our gates, and we give you glory; the Psalmist asked who could stand in your holy places and answered his own question saying, “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart;” give us clean hands and pure hearts that we may follow through on the promises made at our baptism, promises to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” to “respect the dignity of every human being,” and to “work for justice and peace;” give us grace that we, as the Episcopal Church, may do so in solidarity with those who have dedicated their lives to justice for Palestinians and security for Israel, that we may be either hot or cold, never tepid or lukewarm; give us the strength to do what should come naturally and to speak prophetically in your name; all this we ask through your Son, our Savior, the King of Glory. Amen.

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

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

The Midterm Zombie Apocalypse – From the Daily Office – November 5, 2014

From the Apocalypse of John of Patmos:

The fifth angel poured his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness; people gnawed their tongues in agony, and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and sores, and they did not repent of their deeds.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Revelation 16:10-11 (NRSV) – November 5, 2014)

The Republicans won control of the Senate. Facebook and other social media this morning are rife with Democrats and other self-styled progressives writhing in agonized self-blaming (or furious finger-pointing). You’d think the fifth angel’s bowl was poured out yesterday on the United States and that we’d been plunged into darkness.

Pah!

Last night my Education for Ministry group did a theological reflection on an image from culture. (EfM folks will have a better understanding of what that means. If you aren’t an EfM participant, I can’t really go into the EfM model of theological reflection here: I recommend you find an EfM group in your area and enroll.)

Our image: Zombies. We talked about the old “voodoo” horror movie model of zombie; the George Romero “living dead” movie version; the AMC television program “The Walking Dead” version; and the new Syfy Channel “Z Nation” version. Zombies, apparently, have changed over the years from living people under the spiritual control of an evil voodoo shaman into dead corpses reanimated by a virus which (I didn’t know this because I don’t watch the television programs) infects everyone! So, everyone dies and everyone comes back as a zombie! Now there’s a metaphor for something; I’m not sure what and I’m not sure it’s spiritually edifying, but there it is.

Zombie Attack

Anyway, we had great fun deeply considering the world of zombies then moving from the culture source into the Christian tradition source, the personal position (belief) source, and the personal experience (action) source. When we reached the end of the evening and came to the application exercise – “How will I apply this reflection? What will I now do?” – one of our thoughts was, “Just go home and shoot myself in the head.” Apparently that prevents one’s coming back as a zombie.

I had no idea I would wake this morning to so many liberal friends and colleagues having that same sort of reaction to the midterm election!

Chill out, folks! The world has not been plunged into a zombie-filled darkness filled with creatures gnawing at their tongues and covered with rotting sores.

One party has taken control of the Congress by a narrow margin in the upper house, but it is a party at war with itself. I think it will actually be fun to see if Mr. McConnell (presumably the new majority leader) can control his caucus any better than Mr. Boehner has controlled his. The split between old line Republicans and the new “Tea Party” Republicans may just grow wider and hamstring the legislative branch even more so than it has done for the past four years. Furthermore, even if they unite, the Democrats hold enough votes to defeat things by fillbuster (an old GOP tactic they will now have to contend with on the receiving end) and a Democratic president still holds the veto power. (See this analysis by the UK’s The Guardian newspaper.)

It’s not John’s end of the world! Nor are Zombies flooding the streets.

I hope that something good can come of this. The New York Times this morning editorializes that there might be greater opportunity for compromise than there has been. Personally, I think they’re wrong; I believe we are in for two-years of mind-numbingly pointless political theater. My prayer is that it is not also spirit-numbing!

The “zombies” in John’s vision did not “repent of their deeds.” My hope and prayer is that we, the “zombies” of the 2014 midterm election, whatever our party or political persuasion, will do so. We are where we are (and we would be here if the Democrats had held onto the Senate, by the way) because, as a nation, we have allowed ourselves to be tribalized and polarized. To a certain extent, when it comes to politics, we are all “zombies,” infected by the unrelenting virus of our political positions and unwilling (perhaps by this time unable) to see any positive in the positions of others.

We need to repent and return to the ways of civility, negotiation, compromise, and actually getting the work of society done.

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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.

At the End, There Is God – From the Daily Office – July 22, 2014

From the Letter to the Romans:

We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Romans 14:7-8 (NRSV) – July 22, 2014)

Coffin in GraveThe Book of Common Prayer (1979) lifts these verses and, together with others, uses them in the anthem with which the Burial Office (Rite Two) begins:

I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.

As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.

For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.

Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.

The first paragraph is from Jesus’ conversation with Martha of Bethany when she met him on the road when he came following her brother Lazarus’s death. (John 11:25-26) The second is from Job; it is part of Job’s reply to Bildad the Shuhite. (Job 19:25-27) The conclusion is from Revelation; John of Patmos is told to write this after seeing the “one hundred forty-four thousand” elect and as the angels of God harvest what Julia Ward Howe called “the grapes of wrath.” (Rev. 14:13)

The 1928 Prayer Book had a similar but rather more resigned opening anthem compiled from Scripture, the first two paragraphs being the same, but a third concluding paragraph was taken from 1 Timothy 6:7 and Job 1:21. Where the newer anthem presents the hope of eternal rest, the older feels like a shrug of the shoulders and a sigh of “Oh well, it’s over – it was fun while it lasted.” I’m sure that’s not the original intent of the drafters, but that’s my reaction to it:

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.

We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Although the newer anthem is more positive and comforting in my opinion, the theological import of the two is the same; life ends and at its end, there is God.

Both represent a liturgical model of what I find most attractive about the Anglican approach to Scripture. They are theological statements constructed from a holistic understanding of the Bible. They draw from multiple sources within the holy text, from both Hebrew and Christian scriptures, to fashion a statement which succinctly, but memorably summarizes the Christian hope.

Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. At the end, there is 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.

Woe to You – From the Daily Office – June 18, 2014

From Matthew’s Gospel:

Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 18:7 (NRSV) – June 18, 2014)

Weeping AngelUntil I undertook a little bit of Greek language study, I always thought Jesus’ pronouncements of woe were angry condemnations, predictions of doom, and certainly they can be that. On the other hand, they can be understood as something very different. The Greek word translated as “woe” is ouai which can also (and perhaps more properly) be translated as “alas.” The word is onomatopoeic, representing a deep sigh of sorrow or resignation. Perhaps Jesus is not so much condemning as mourning.

I grew up with a picture of Jesus that was internally contradictory. There was the Good Shepherd Jesus who was loving and kind, who healed children, sought out the lost, and wept over the death of friends. On the other hand, there was the angry, condemning Jesus who braided a whip out of cords, overturned tables, pronounced doom-laden “woes”.

Although his earthly post-Resurrection were certainly more the former sort of Jesus, it seemed it was the angry Jesus who really rose because that’s the one John of Patmos said was coming back: “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” (Rev 9:15)

Then I studied Greek and read, for example, Luke’s “blessings and woes” rather differently:

Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. (Lk 6:24-26)

The same ouai, the same deeply sad sigh, the same “alas” as in today’s reading. Now it seems to me that Jesus, rather than venting fury at these people, is saying, “I feel sorry for you rich . . . I fell sorry for you full . . . I feel sorry you who laugh . . . I feel sorry for you who have great reputations.” This Jesus, sadly disappointed rather than angry with those about whom he expresses woe, is not contradictory to the Jesus who heals, who cares, who listens, who feeds, and who weeps.

I still don’t know what to do with that raging horse rider with the sharp sword for a tongue, but I’m feeling a lot better about the Jesus who says, “Woe to you . . . . ”

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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.

Filthy Clothes – From the Daily Office – December 18, 2013

From the Prophet Zechariah:

Now Joshua was dressed in filthy clothes as he stood before the angel. The angel said to those who were standing before him, “Take off his filthy clothes.” And to him he said, “See, I have taken your guilt away from you, and I will clothe you in festal apparel.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Zech. 3:3-4 (NRSV) – December 18, 2013.)

Dirty ShirtClothing is a common metaphor in Holy Scripture. Clean clothing is often a portrayal of righteousness or forgiveness. Everyone is familiar with the vision of John of Patmos recorded in the Book of Revelation:

One of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:13-14)

I’m not aware of any other use of “filthy clothes” to represent sin or guilt, although Paul comes close in his admonition to the Ephesians: “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice. . . .” (Eph 4:22) The Greek verb translated here as “put away” is the same that would be used to describe the act of removing one’s clothing, airo.

In Zechariah’s vision, angelic attendants remove Joshua’s filthy clothes, but in our lives it is up to us to do it ourselves, to “put away” such things as Paul lists.

There is one week left until the celebration of the Nativity. In that week, getting ready for Christmas, what “filthy clothes” do I need to take off?

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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.

Stir Up – From the Daily Office – December 17, 2013

From the Book of Revelation:

You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Rev. 3:15-16 (NRSV) – December 17, 2013.)

Hand Stirring a CupWhen I was in college I was part of group that liked to go backpacking on weekends. Because we were in Southern California, this often meant a trek into some desert wilderness where there was no local water. As a result, we each had to carry enough water for the weekend; as a rule of thumb, that would mean one gallon of water for each day of the hike.

We had found these one-quart, cube-shaped, collapsible water bladders that weighed just an ounce or two, and were easily packed into a backpacked. Pack four of those per day and you were set.

Of course, the cubes weren’t insulated and neither were the water bottles or canteens we carried outside our packs for easy regular access. One’s water was whatever temperature the day was; most of the time that meant the water was tepid, or as this verse says “lukewarm.” It satisfied the body’s need for hydration, but it was not terribly refreshing or stimulating!

I’ve always understood these two verses from Revelation (part of the message to the angel of the church in Laodicea to be metaphorical. I have considered that being “hot” or “cold” equate to loving or hating God; being lukewarm, to being indifferent. Understood in this way, the verse encourages emotional commitment.

But as I think about drinking that tepid water on those college hikes and how much more I appreciated the water if it was chilled or used to make a hot beverage, I’m wondering if maybe the passage should be understood somewhat more literally. What if God really does want to be refreshed? What if God really wants to be stimulated? (I won’t say “needs to be,” but that would be an even more interesting question.)

That God enjoys refreshment and finds it good is witnessed in Scripture. In the Book of Exodus, God commands the Israelites to honor the sabbath because “it is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:17)

That God might be stimulated by human beings was explored by the poet Louise Glück as she described an afternoon hike:

Even as you appeared to Moses, because
I need you, you appear to me, not
often, however. I live essentially
in darkness. You are perhaps training me to be
responsive to the slightest brightening. Or, like the poets,
are you stimulated by despair, does grief
move you to reveal your nature? This afternoon,
in the physical world to which you commonly
contribute your silence, I climbed
the small hill above the wild blueberries, metaphysically
descending, as on all my walks: did I go deep enough
for you to pity me, as you have sometimes pitied
others who suffer, favoring those
with theological gifts? As you anticipated,
I did not look up. So you came down to me:
at my feet, not the wax
leaves of the wild blueberry but your fiery self, a whole
picture of fire, and beyond, the red sun neither falling nor
rising —
I was not a child; I could take advantage of illusions.
(“Vespers” in The Wild Iris)

I wonder if God finds me refreshing or stimulating . . . or just lukewarm, tepid, and dull.

On Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, in the Episcopal Churches, we began our worship with this prayer, “Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us.” Perhaps it is us who need to stir up in Advent, who need to become hot or cold, stimulating or refreshing.

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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.

Increasing Complexity – From the Daily Office – December 9, 2013

From the Book of Revelation:

“I am the Alpha and the Omega”, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Rev. 1:8 (NRSV) – December 9, 2013.)

The Annunciation by Sandro BotticelliFirst, a confession: I’m not fond of the Book of Revelation. Although it has occasionally brilliant passages and some incredible metaphoric imagery, it is probably the most abused and misused piece of scripture in the entire Christian canon! I remember hearing or reading at one time that, during the formation of the canon, bishops in what is now the Eastern Orthodox wing of the church opposed the inclusion of this book. If that had been the way things went, it would have been relegated to that collection of interesting historical literature which includes The Shepherd of Hermas, The Didiche, and the Letters of Clement. But it wasn’t, so we have it and we have to take it seriously. (When dealing with the Apocalypse, it is well to remember the meme about Episcopalians, though: “We take the Bible too seriously to take it literally!”)

One of the thinkers whose work was formative of my theology is the French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He postulated the evolution of the universe in the direction of ever increasing complexity and ever growing consciousness. The supreme point of complexity and consciousness he dubbed “the Omega Point” (with reference to this verse, I wonder). He theorized that the Omega Point is utterly complex and completely conscious, transcendent, and independent of the universe; in fact, according to Teilhard, the Omega Point is the cause of the universe’s growth in complexity and consciousness. In a sense, it “invites” the creation to grow toward it. Teilhard argued that the Omega Point is equivalent to the Logos describe in the prologue to Gospel according to John, namely Christ, who draws all things into himself.

Most Christian theology focuses on God as the creator and source of all existence, the Alpha of this verse. As a result, we think of God as somehow “behind” creation; creation was perfect at the beginning, “fell” into brokenness, and now must somehow (through the grace of God) get back to that original state. But Teilhard’s thought invites us to focus on God as the goal and summation of all existence, a perfection to which we are evolving through God’s invitation.

There is an intersection between Teilhard’s thinking and another branch of theology that I found of value in my earlier studies, process theology derived from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. One of the premises of process theology is that God does not control the universe, nor any individual in it, but rather influences our creaturely exercise of universal free will by offering possibilities. Note the plural! Possibilities! In other words, there are different ways to approach (getting back to Teilhard) the Omega Point.

Advent is the season of possibilities. One of the most powerful images of the season is Gabriel’s message to Mary, his communication to her of God’s invitation to be the mother of the Messiah. It is a moment fraught with possibility — she could have declined . . . . Sandro Botticelli’s painting of that liminal moment is poignant; the look on Gabriel’s face is one of almost-fear that she will refuse. Of course, she didn’t . . . and it would be an understatement to say that her life became one of increasing complexity!

As we look on that painting, as we consider God who is Alpha and Omega, both source and ending, who invites us into ever-increasing complexity and ever-growing consciousness, what are our possibilities? Where do we have opportunities to say “Yes” or “No” 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.

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