That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Romans (page 1 of 8)

Chiseled – Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, RCL Year B, March 4, 2018

Here they are. The “Big Ten”! The words of Exodus[1] that Right-wing fundamentalists want to chisel in granite and put in American courthouses unless, of course, they prefer the similar (but not quite the same) version in the Book of Deuteronomy.[2]

My sort of go-to guy on the Old Testament is a Lutheran scholar named Terence Fretheim, who is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota. My first grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures was from a short, two-volume study guide he wrote with co-author Lutheran pastor Darold H. Beekman entitled Our Old Testament Heritage.[3] A couple of years ago, Fretheim wrote a short online commentary on today’s Old Testament lesson in which he said:

The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places.[4]

This is why the version set out in Deuteronomy is slightly different.

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Shut! Up! – Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent, RCL Year B, February 25, 2018

The past couple of days, Friday evening and most of the day on Saturday, the vestry and I were on our annual retreat. Our retreat leader was the Rev. Percy Grant, who is on the diocesan staff as the bishop’s canon for ministry. Percy’s been on the diocesan staff for about ten years in basically the same job, but she’s had three job titles.

Initially she was the “deployment officer.” Deployment is a word the church used to use to describe the process of placing clergy in congregations and our deployment officers assisted our bishops in that process. But we realized a few years ago that there was a lot more to the process that simply placing clergy. Congregations had to prepared to go through it. Parish had to be coached in how to end one relationship and prepare for and begin another; pastoral care, liturgy, and parish administration are on-going and have to be overseen after one priest leaves but before another comes. And after the new priest is in position, both she or he and the congregation need support and assistance. The entire process came to be seen as a time of transition, and so our deployment officers became “transitions officers.”

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Listen, Grasshopper! – Sermon for Epiphany 5, RCL Year B, 4 February 2018

Listen to the word that God has spoken;
Listen to the One who is close at hand;
Listen to the voice that began creation;
Listen even if you don’t understand.[1]

At the winter convocation this weekend our music keynoter, Ana Hernandez, taught us those words as a tract to chant before the reading of the Gospel. As we chanted them, I could not help but remember the first words of our lesson from the prophet Isaiah this morning, the pleading questions:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?[2]

It is easy to read those questions, asked (says the Prophet) by God of God’s people, in what I call “the voice of parental frustration.” All of us who are parents have used that voice; all of us who are children have heard that voice. The people of God have heard that voice for centuries; it is the voice of what G.K. Chesterton called “the furious love of God.”[3] It is the voice of what the often-maligned conservative Christian author Eric Metaxas once called “a love that pursues even when the pursued is hurling insults at the pursuer.”[4] I suspect that a lot of parents have known that feeling, the feeling of being insulted by the one we love unconditionally.

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The Ten Suggestions? – Sermon for Proper 22A (Pentecost 18), October 8, 2017

I’m wearing an orange stole today and a couple of you asked me on the way into church, “What season is orange?” Well, it’s not a seasonal stole … although I suppose we could say it commemorates the season of unregulated and out of control gun violence. A few years ago, a young woman named Hadiya Pendleton was shot and killed in Chicago; her friends began wearing orange, like hunters wear for safety, in her honor on her birthday in June. A couple of years ago, Bishops Against Gun Violence, an Episcopal group, became a co-sponsor of Wear Orange Day and some of us clergy here in Ohio decided to make and wear orange stoles on the following Sunday. Our decision got press notice and spread to clergy of several denominations all over the country.

Today, after what happened last Sunday in my hometown, I decided to wear my orange stole as a witness to my belief in the need for sensible, strict, and enforceable regulations on gun manufacture and sale, on gun ownership and use. But I am not going to preach about that; I did so after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, after the Mother Emmanuel church schooting in Charlotte, SC, after the Pulse dance club shooting in Orlando, FL. We talk about it and pray about it and preach about it after each incident and nothing changes and there’s nothing left to say. If we didn’t change things after the murders of children, after the murders of a bible study group, or after murders of people out nightclubbing, we aren’t going to change anything after 58 people get murdered (and one commits suicide) in Las Vegas. We just aren’t, and nothing I might say in a sermon will change that.

So . . .

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Stand-Up Jesus and the M&M – Sermon for RCL Proper 12A – July 30, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 12A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; and St. Matthew 13:31-33,44-52. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Have you ever had a friend try to tell you about going to see a stand-up comedian’s show? When I lived in Las Vegas, this happened fairly often in my workplace. Someone would go to see the late Robin Williams, or Jon Stewart (before he took over the Daily Show), or any of several who made regular appearances on the Strip, and then on Monday morning over coffee they would try to tell us how funny the show was.

Jokes with punchlines, if my co-worker had a good memory and reasonable sense of comedic timing, could be pretty funny. But one-liners . . . not so much. One-liners are pretty much a you-had-to-be-there sort of thing; funny at the time and in the context, but they lose something in the retelling.

This section of Matthew’s Gospel always feels to me like that’s what the author is trying to do here. Just before the bit that we read this morning, Matthew has told the longer stories we heard last Sunday and the week before, the agricultural parables of the sower and of the wheat and weeds, together with their explanatory punchlines. Now he launches into the one-liners that Jesus told: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure, like a net, like a peanut M&M, like an Oktoberfest, like plaster that fell into a pipe organ. (OK, the last three aren’t from Jesus, but they could have been.)

These quick parables are offered in rapid-fire, quick succession, without explanation and without time for the reader or hearer to ponder or respond to them. That pondering and response comes later, if it comes at all.

Last week, Philip Yancey, a widely-respected and prolific Christian author, currently an editor-at-large at the magazine Christianity Today, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, entitled “The Death of Reading Is Threatening the Soul” (Washington Post, 7/21/2017) He began it with these words:

I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life.

“I used to read three books a week,” he said. But these days that is practically impossible for him, as it may be for many of us. “The Internet and social media have trained [our] brain[s] to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.” These rapid, one-liner parables seem almost designed for the social media age; nearly all of them in today’s reading can be trimmed and edited into the 140-character limit of a Twitter tweet (a couple don’t even need to be edited).

But these are not tweets! They need to be taken and understood in context; it’s just that the context isn’t supplied by the surrounding text, in this case Matthew’s gospel, as it is with most short quotations. The context of these short parables is the same as the context of one-liners in a comedy routine that fall flat when someone tries to tell them in the office on Monday morning; the context is in the moment of the telling and the hearing, and for us in the modern world reading Matthew’s re-telling of the one-liners, for us who are not sitting on the Galilean hillside in the moment of telling, our own hearing is the most important element.

Philip Yancey’s op-ed article was a plea to modern Christians to do the “hard work of focused concentration on reading.” He drew on the findings of modern neuroscience that it “actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” What Yancey (drawing on the work of writer Sven Birkets) calls “deep reading” “requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace;” this is what is needed to build the context for hearing the parables of Jesus. Says Yancey:

Modern culture presents formidable obstacles to the nurture of both spirituality and creativity. As a writer of faith in the age of social media, I host a Facebook page and a website and write an occasional blog. Thirty years ago I got a lot of letters from readers, and they did not expect an answer for a week or more. Now I get emails, and if they don’t hear back in two days they write again, “Did you get my email?” The tyranny of the urgent crowds in around me.

If I yield to that tyranny, my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places.

A wandering, creative mind, a mind filled with the products of deep reading rather than cluttered by the superficial demands of “the tyranny of the urgent,” is the context in which the rapid-fire, quick-delivery parables in today’s Gospel become capable of understanding.

“What then are we to say about these things?” asks Paul in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. He is, of course, referring to what he had earlier called “the sufferings of this present time,” (v. 18) not to Jesus’ parables. The question, however, applies equally. What are we to say about these parables? How can we say anything if we do not understand them? And how are we to understand them if we have not equipped our minds with the deep reading and varied experience needed to provide the context for our hearing? “Let anyone with ears hear,” says Jesus at the end of many parables; developing our imaginations and our creativity through study and experience is the way we grow those ears. It is the way we give context to these tweet-like one-liners that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, or a net, or a peanut M&M. (You thought I’d forgotten to come back to that, didn’t you?)

Notice that I didn’t say “reading of Scripture” or “Bible study” is how we grow those ears and develop that context. Reading the Bible is great, but the background to Jesus’ parables, the background to life is much broader than one small collection of 66 (Protestant canon), or 73 (Roman Catholic numbering), or 78 (Easter Orthodox reckoning) varied pieces of literature. I think everyone should read the Bible, but spiritual growth requires the building of a contextual foundation, and that requires reading more than the Bible and experience far beyond the walls of the church.

Our psalm today (Psalm 128) is a paean to family life, to the building of a posterity, to the work of insuring peace for all of God’s people through the faithfulness of the family. It speaks to the idea of work which, like deep reading, takes concentration, and time, and a slower pace. It took Jacob fourteen years of work just to marry his two wives, Leah and Rachel, to begin the family that was the foundation of the People of God; his story works well as a metaphor for the work of building the context for understanding God’s Word. The alternative psalm provided in the Revised Common Lectionary is a selection of verses from Psalm 105 including the admonition to “search for the Lord and his strength; [to] continually seek his face; [and to] remember the marvels he has done.” (vv. 4-5a) Deep reading of all sorts of literature, of science, of fiction, of poetry, of the daily newspaper . . . and experience in many and varied areas of life are among the places and the ways in which we can do that.

So Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a lot of things: a mustard seed, yeast, a pearl of great value, a treasure hidden in a field, a net cast into the sea. And then he asked his closest disciples, “Do you understand these things?” He did not tell them what the parables meant; he simply asked if they knew. “Yes,” they answered. To which he replied, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” He expected his disciples to have that experience and background, to have done the hard work of building a contextual foundation for understanding and interpreting the metaphors. He asks us the same question and expects of us the same foundation.

I could stand here and tell you what I think is the meaning of seed, yeast, pearl, or net, and I’ve done so many times over the past decade and a half. Do you remember? Probably not. Because the meaning of the metaphors is found only in context and the context for these bullet-point, tweet-like, one-liner-stand-up-routine parables is your own life, your own imagination, your own deep-reading developed creativity. “What then are we to say about these things?” is a question for you to answer.

And when we have each answered it, when we have wrestled with Jesus’ analogies for the kingdom of heaven, we can begin to develop our own.

“The kingdom of heaven is like an Oktoberfest a church congregation offered to the community.” It is an opportunity for the church to invite its neighbors and the residents of its city to enjoy themselves for an afternoon and an evening, to experience good food (maybe a little beer or wine), good company, good music (we hope), and good fellowship. It brings to our community a foretaste of that great party God has promised to everyone through the Prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Is 25:6) We believe and hope that our Oktoberfest, like the St. Nicholas Tea and St. Patrick’s Last Gasp, will be among those “intangible elements” which “significantly contribute to making place and to giving spirit,” which give “give meaning, value, emotion and mystery to” our common life in the City of Medina. (See International Counsel on Monuments and Sites, Quebec Declaration, 4 Oct 2008)

“The kingdom of heaven is like plaster that fell into a pipe organ.” It presented us with the reality of our stewardship of this building and this instrument; it encouraged us to find our own capacity to make music and sing God’s praise even when deprived of our traditional accompaniment. It prompted someone with no current connection to this parish but with fond memories of the organ to make a major donation to its restoration. Plaster falling into the organ reminds us of Psalmist’s encouragement, “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.” (Ps 47:6) The plaster falling into the organ declares with J.S. Bach, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” (Quoted in Wilbur, G., Glory and Honor: The Musical and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, Cumberland House, Nashville:2005, p. 1)

“The kingdom of heaven is like a peanut M&M.” I’m still working on that one. I believe it’s a good metaphor, though. The hard candy shell, the rich milk chocolate, the salty kernel at the center; they all speak to me of the spiritual discoveries of the faith.

“Therefore,” said Jesus, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Be like those scribes. Read deeply, experience life, do the hard work of becoming Christian leaders who can mine the wisdom of the ages, both the old and the new, both the religious and the secular, and proclaim the Gospel in context to the people around you. It requires study; it requires imagination and creativity; it requires deep reading and contemplation. But in the end, at the heart of it all, there is great reward; there is understanding, in our own context, of mustard seeds, and yeast, and nets, and pearls, and hidden treasures . . . like the peanut at the center of the M&M.

Amen.

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

Cancerous Distortion – Sermon for RCL Proper 11A – July 23, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 23, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 11A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 28:10-19a; Wisdom of Solomon 12:13,16-19; Romans 8:12-25; and St. Matthew 13:24-30,36-43. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Again, this week, we have another familiar parable in our Gospel lesson, the story of the wheat and the weeds. I will come back to it. But first, I’d like to tell you about my older brother who died 24 years ago.

Richard York Funston was born on July 27, 1943; this coming Thursday, he would have been 74 years old. Rick was a very, very smart man; I would even describe him as brilliant. He had a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Texas, a master’s in the same field from UCLA, and a PhD in political science specializing in constitutional law also from UCLA. He published five books on constitutional law and taught the subject in five universities, ending up as chair of the political science department and vice-president for academic affairs at San Diego State University. Had he lived, I’ve no doubt he would have been president of a major university.

But he did not live beyond his fiftieth birthday; in fact, he didn’t even get to that milestone. In October of 1992 he exhibited the first symptoms of some sort of brain dysfunction and was diagnosed as having suffered a stroke; three months later that diagnosis was proved wrong. He, in fact, was suffering from primary site brain cancer, glioblastoma multiforme, the same disease with which Senator John McCain has recently been diagnosed.

When Rick was diagnosed, I did some research into the disease and learned that, at that time, it was (and still is) considered incurable and invariable fatal. In 1993, 50% of patients died within six months of diagnosis; almost 100% percent, within two years. I’ve learned from the recent news about Senator McCain that medical science has extended the median survival to 18 months, but that outside life expectancy is still only about three years after diagnosis. Rick died on Father’s Day, June 21, 1993, less than five months after his accurate diagnosis. I spent the week before his death at his bedside.

So, I know all too well what John McCain and his family are facing and what they will be going through, and my heart goes out to them; they will daily be in my prayers. I would not wish what they are going through on anyone.

It’s because of Rick’s influence that I am the political junky that I am. He loved politics and we often discussed and debated the issues and races of the day. I have often wondered what he would make of 21st Century America and our current political climate. One of the things he taught me was to eschew what we have come to call “bubbles,” the self-insulating and self-reinforcing political and social circles in which we hear only those views that accord with our own and acknowledge only those facts which support our beliefs. So I read news reported by a variety of journals and read opinions and editorials written from a variety of points of view. I follow blogs and news-feeds from the Right, from the Center, and from the Left. And that is why I know that some self-identified “conservative Christians” have written that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice” and that “God is punishing him” for his political views. (See Alexander Nazaryan, Newsweek, 7/20/2017.)

That is pure, unadulterated . . . nonsense! It’s that sort of offensive rhetoric by self-proclaimed “conservative Christians” that turns people off (and against) religion. What sort of person actually thinks and teaches others that God works that way? A god who did would not be a god to worship; such a god would be worthy only of contempt. Such a god would be one to follow; such god would be one to be fought. If I had even the slightest scintilla of a belief that that’s the way God operated, I’d not only not be a religious person, I’d be an anti-religious crusader. I am sick to death of the twisted, anti-human, distorted muck some people pass off as the Christian faith.

Which brings me back to Jesus and the parable in this morning’s Gospel text.

It is believed by many scholars that, in the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the weeds in question are darnel, a type of grass sometimes called “poisonous darnel.” The darnel itself is not poisonous, but it harbors a destructive and deadly fungus called “ergot.” If the infected darnel is harvested along with the wheat or rye, the ergot gets into the good grain and any flour or meal made from it, and the result can be fatal.

The scientific name for darnel is lolium temulentus, the second word being Latin for “drunk.” The French name for darnel is ivraie from the Latin ebriacus meaning “intoxicated.” Both names refer to the drunken, potential deadly nausea caused by eating the infected plant. Ergotism, as the symptoms of eating the fungus are called, is characterized headaches and nausea, convulsions and painful seizures and spasms, hallucinations and psychosis, and tingling and burning in the extremities, sometimes called “St. Anthony’s Fire.” (Wikipedia) Interestingly, these can also be the symptoms of glioblastoma.

Darnel is common throughout the Middle East and infestations of grain fields are a constant danger. So Jesus’ parable would have struck home forcefully with his original hearers; they knew well what might happen to someone who ate that fungus-infected grain. Later, Jesus explained the allegorical meaning of the parable to the Twelve, “the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one.” (Mt 13:38)

In his commentary on this story, scholar Eugene Boring suggests that “we can surely see, shimmering behind [this parable], the experience of Matthew’s church – and ours, too.” He goes on to write:

It chronically comes as a shock to find that the world, that the family into which we are born, that even the church is not an entirely trustworthy place. The world has places of wonder, but alleys of cruelty, too. Families cause deep pain as well as great joy. The church can be inspiringly courageous one moment and petty and faithless the next. Good mixes in with bad. “Where did these weeds come from?” is a perennial human cry. (Commentary on Matthew, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume VIII, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1995, pg 311)

Where did these people, these self-proclaimed “conservative Christians,” these poisonous weeds who cancerously distort the Gospel, blaming a devastating disease on some warped notion of “godly justice” come from?

Part of me, the part that still remembers my brother’s suffering, the part of me that sat by his death bed, would like to go root them out, pull them up root, stem, and head like the bad weeds they are, simply exterminate them. But, of course, the other part of me pays heed to the rest of the parable, to the master’s order to his servants to leave the darnels be until the harvest. This is, writes Boring, “a realistic reminder that the servants [which is to say, you and me] do not finally have the ability to get rid of the weeds and that sometimes attempts to pluck up weeds cause more harm than good.” (Ibid.)

Our gradual this morning is not taken from the Book of Psalms, as it usually is. Instead, we have a reminder from the deuterocanonical book entitled “The Wisdom of Solomon” that God, the source of righteousness, does not judge unjustly, that instead God judges with mildness and governs with forbearance. “Through such works,” we say to God as we recite the text, “you have taught your people that the righteous must be kind, and you have filled your children with good hope, because you give repentance for sins.” (Wis 12:19)

Paul writes in the same spirit in this morning’s epistle lesson. Echoing the parable’s message that the world is “not an entirely trustworthy place,” he writes, “The creation [is] subjected to futility.” (Rom 8:20) But we know that creation, and we ourselves, will one day be freed of that futility:

We know [writes Paul] that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. (vv 23-25)

We could hope that our brothers and sisters, those so-called “conservative Christians,” could hear and learn that message. We could hope that they would stop broadcasting the perverse notion that God causes brain cancer, or earthquakes, or hurricanes, or floods, or whatever as punishment for human failings. We could hope that they would recognize what the great theologian Karl Barth stated so simply, that “God is either known by grace or he is not known at all.” (Church Dogmatics, II/1, 27)

We live in an imperfect world and we belong to an imperfect church, and there is very little we can do to change either of those facts; as much as we might wish to rip out and do away with those who distort the Christian message, the poisonous darnels among us, that isn’t our job. “We are given the task of living as faithfully and as obediently as possible, confident that the harvest is sure.” (Boring, op cit) We are to “wait for it with patience.”

But not with passivity! The master’s prohibiting the servants from weeding the field “is not a divine command to ignore injustice in the world, violence in society, or wrong in the church.” (Ibid.) No! We must stand in witness not only against “the world, the flesh, and the devil,” but also against other self-identified “Christians” who pervert the Gospel. Whenever we hear or witness such nonsense as suggestions that Senator McCain’s brain cancer is “godly justice,” we must answer clearly that it is not! We must have the courage of our Christian convictions and proclaim the truth of our faith in the face of such distortion. What we hope these so-called “conservative Christians” hear and recognize and learn, we must say and demonstrate and teach.

In this respect, last week’s opening prayer bears repeating: When we are faced with such twisted falsehood and misrepresentation, O Lord, “grant that [we] may know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them. Amen.” (The Book of Common Prayer 1979, Collect for Proper 10, page 231)

(Note: The illustration is a representation of glioblastoma cancer cells from Glioblastoma multiforme – stereotaxic radiotherapy brings promising results? by Aleksandra Jarocka, MD, and Anna Brzozowska, PhD.)

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

Good Soil? – Sermon for RCL Proper 10A – July 16, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 10A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; and St. Matthew 13:1-9,18-23. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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This is an old and familiar story, a comfortable story if you will … the parable of the sower. We’ve all heard it before and we know what it means; we know the four types of soil and we know where we fit into the picture the story paints. It helps that Jesus takes the time to explain it to his disciples (there are some verses edited out of our lectionary version of the Gospel lesson so as we heard it this morning this isn’t clear, but the situation is that Jesus tells the parable in public to the crowds on the beach near Capernaum, then later offers the explanation in private to the Twelve).

The parable, Jesus says, represents the variety of responses to the good news of the kingdom of heaven. Although we call it the parable of the sower, Jesus focuses his explanation on the types of soil into which the sower’s seed is cast. That “soil,” Jesus explains, is the human heart. In ancient Israel, the heart was thought to be the seat of personality; in one’s heart was where a person knew things, thought, decided, exercised one’s will, and acted; it was the center of human commitment; it directed one’s way of life.

The seed that falls on the path, said Jesus, represents those who hear the good news but do not understand it. Because of the hardness or dullness of their hearts, the evil one, who resists God’s purposes snatches it away. It is not clear, in the parable or in Jesus’ explanation, why the devil seems to be more powerful in influencing the human heart than is God’s word, but then that is not the point of the parable. That, perhaps, is a teaching Jesus meant to leave for another day.

The second response to the word of God is that of the person who readily receives it but does not endure as a disciple. This sort is represented by the seed that falls on the rocky ground and sprouts quickly but dies under harsh conditions. The presence of “trouble or persecution [that] arises on account of the word,” which Jesus has promised as the inevitable result of discipleship, causes the person to fall away. Because the values of God’s kingdom threaten and are at odds with dominant culture’s values and structures, the world “strikes back” and this sort of person cannot resist or survive the onslaught.

The seed that fall among the thorns and is choked by the weeds represents the third sort of response. This person, says Jesus, is the who hears but “the cares of the world and lure of wealth choke the word” so that it cannot flourish and bear fruit. Concerns of daily life or the lure of material gain and worldly success prevent God’s rule from breaking through and nourishing new life. As a result, the good news yields nothing.

And then there is the seed sown on good soil, those who hear and understand the word. We know who these good people are, don’t we? These are those like ourselves, whose hearts are pure and who embrace the good news, who fight off the devil, who endure difficulty and persecution, who do not define themselves in terms of worldly success and wealth. Right? These are the good people who are the good soil where the seed of God’s grace sprouts and grows and bears fruit.

Well, not really. For the past few weeks we have been reading the stories of the first family to hear the word of God’s reign, the first family to be invited into a kingdom covenant with God: Abraham and Sarah, their son Isaac and his wife Rebekah, and now today we hear about their sons Esau and Jacob. This family represents the soil in which the good news of God’s love was first planted eventually bore the fruit of the People of Israel.

Yes, eventually Abraham trusted in the Lord and it was accounted to him as righteousness, but initially Abraham and Sarah did not trust the Lord, so they used and then discarded Hagar the handmaiden, nearly killing her and Ishmael her son after Sarah finally birthed a son of her own, and that son, Isaac, Abraham also came close to killing. As for Isaac, about the only active things he is seen doing in the whole story of the family other than tending sheep, weeping when his mother dies, and then eventually burying his father, is move the family to Gerar during a time of famine and, in doing so, lie to King Abimilech about who Rebekah is. Otherwise, Isaac is portrayed as excessively passive. He allowed himself to be nearly sacrificed with no word of complaint; he accepted a wife selected for him by his father’s slave; and late in life he is cheated and hoodwinked by his wife and her favored son. And that son, Jacob, is a trickster and a cheat.

We learn in our Old Testament lesson today that Jacob and his brother Esau were twins who wrestled in their mother Rebekah’s womb, causing her great distress. Esau is born hairy and red, characteristics that link him to the people of Edom, whom tradition claims to be his descendants.

Esau turns out to be strong, comfortable in the wilderness, and skillful at hunting. Jacob is the second-born of the twins, but he is destined to be the ancestor of the 12 Israelite tribes. He is smooth-skinned and fair. When the twins are born, Jacob comes out with his hand around his brother’s foot. This detail foreshadows that Jacob will upset Esau’s status as the firstborn son and subvert the social customs and expectations that would favor the elder son.

His name, Jacob or “Ya’aqov” in Hebrew, is believed to be derived from the word ‘aqav, meaning “heel,” or from the similar word ‘aqov meaning “to trick” or “to cheat.” If the latter, today’s story of his bargaining for the firstborn’s birthright certainly illustrates its appropriateness. If the former, it is a pun which “works in English as well as in Hebrew. Jacob is indeed something of a ‘heel.’ He is a trickster, a man who schemes and plots, always looking for the advantage; in these chapters [of the Abrahamic family story], the advantage particularly over his twin brother Esau.” (Schifferdecker, Working Preacher, 2017)

Today’s reading from the Hebrew Scriptures is only half of the story of the cheating of Esau. On the cover of our bulletins this morning is a painting by an unknown artist of the 17th Century. It’s interesting to me that it purports to illustrate the story we heard this morning, but includes in it not only Esau and Jacob, but also Rebekah. Rebekah is not described in the text as being present, but in the painting she is artistically the most significant figure; she is the one on whom most of the light falls. This is because the artist is conflating this part of the story, in which Jacob firstborn’s birthright, with its conclusion, in which Rebekah (who scripture says favored Jacob) aids her younger son in tricking Isaac into giving him also the firstborn’s blessing. Jacob is not the only trickster and cheat in the family.

My point is that this family, from Abraham and Sarah through Isaac and Rebekah to Jacob, are not really people we would describe as pure in heart, or as those who endure difficulty and hardship with forbearance and fortitude, or as those we would expect to fight off the devil. But, nonetheless, they are the “good soil” in which the kingdom of heaven took root, eventually flourished, and produced the People of God.

So who are those folks whom Jesus, generations later, would call “the good soil”? “Who are those ‘who hear the word and understand it, who indeed bear fruit’ and yield an abundant harvest? In Matthew’s story it seems they are the least likely ones. Jesus tells the chief priests and elders, ‘the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’ (21:31-32). In the parable of the sheep and the goats, the righteous bear fruit by serving the ‘least of these,’ and even they are surprised to find that they have been serving Jesus (25:34-40).” (Johnson, Working Preacher, 2011)

Here’s the thing about soil – it isn’t good on its own. The soil that is beaten down under foot along the path can’t, by its own effort, become good soil. The soil that is rocky and shallow cannot make itself deep and rich. The soil that is thorny and choked with weeds can’t clear itself of those unwanted plants. And the soil that is good can’t claim that it is good by its own virtue.

In Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs, the first step is to admit that one is powerless over ones addiction, over the thing or things that have made a mess of one’s life. The second step is to accept the reality of a Higher Power, and the third is to turn one’s will and life over to God. I often think that in the New Testament there are three people whom Jesus either talks about or encounters who exemplify these steps. One is the tax collector who went to the temple to pray a simple prayer: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk 18:13) The second is the widow who also went to the temple and who “out of her poverty [contributed] everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:44) The third is the woman denounced as a sinner who bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. (Lk 7:38)

These people are the powerless soil, the “good soil,” in which the word of God, the good news of the kingdom of heaven, takes root and grows. The soil is not good by any worldly definition of “good”. These are not people who are pure in heart; these are not people who have lived blameless lives; these are not people who respected for their faith, their position in the community (secular or religious), or their success (by whatever measure may be applied).

The soil is good not by any virtue of its own, but because the sower cares for and works with the soil, and then sows abundantly. Abraham and Sarah are not very good people; they treated Hagar and Ishmael and even Isaac very badly, yet Scripture tells us that Abraham trusted in the Lord and it was accounted to him as righteousness. Isaac was a passive man victimized and cheated by his own family, yet he redug his father’s wells and received God’s blessing. Rebekah and her second-born son Jacob coveted and eventually received the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, but only because they cheated his brother and hoodwinked his father. They were not particularly good! None of them! As portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham and his family were deeply flawed human beings, yet they were the recipients of the Covenant. It took generations of the Lord’s attention and care for the descendants of Abraham to bear fruit.

And Jesus put his effort into disciples who looked similarly unpromising. “He squandered his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the demon-possessed, and all manner of outcasts.” (Johnson, Working Preacher, 2011) Yet his work with and among such as these yielded the fruit of the Church.

God’s work with the Abrahamic family, Jesus’ work with the outcasts of his generation, was like that of which the Psalmist sings:

You visit the earth and water it abundantly;
you make it very plenteous;
the river of God is full of water.
You prepare the grain,
for so you provide for the earth.
You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges;
with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase.
(Ps 65:9-11; BCP 1979, page 673)

The parable of the sower is an old story, a comfortable story, and we know where we fit into it. Or perhaps we don’t. We like to think we’re the “good soil,” but we are more likely the trampled down ground of the path, the rocky soil, or the patch filled with thorns and weeds. If we would be good soil, we must admit that we cannot do so of your own accord.

As the story of the first family invited into covenant with God makes clear, the soil is not good of its own virtue; it is the work of the sower that makes it good. The seed does not flourish because of the soil. The soil flourishes because of the seed.

(Note: The illustration is “Jacob offers a dish of lentels to Esau for the birthright” by an unknown 17th century artist after Gioacchino Assereto (1600 – 1649), it hangs in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, France.)

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

Once to Every Man & Nation – Sermon for Proper 9A – July 9, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, July 9, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 9A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 24:34-38,42-49,58-67; Psalm 45:11-18; Romans 7:15-25a; and St. Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and falsehood,
For the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
‘Twixt that darkness and that light.

James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was a lawyer, poet, college professor, and diplomat in the middle of the 19th Century. He graduated from Harvard College at the age of 19 in 1838, and was called to the Bar two years later in 1840. In 1855, he succeeded his friend Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as Professor of Modern Languages and Literature at Harvard. He is best remembered as one of the Fireside Poets, a group of New England writers who gained popularity in the first half of the 19th-Century.

Lowell’s political opinions often found expression in his poetry, and the old hymn we know as Once to Every Man and Nation is a part of one example. The words are originally from a much longer poem entitled The Present Crisis published in The Boston Courier in 1845 in protest of the impending U.S. war with Mexico. Some of Lowell’s words were rearranged by Garrett Horder, set to the hymn tune Ebenezer, and published in Horder’s Hymns Supplemental to Existing Collections in 1896.

I can’t help but think of the hymn’s opening lines, “Once to every man and nation comes the moment to decide,” every time I prepare for a baptism, every time I sit down to consider the lessons of the day in light of the once-in-a-life-time event they will accompany. Today, we have another part of the patriarchal story when Abraham’s unnamed servant – we’ll call him Eliezer, the name given Abraham’s servant in another part of Genesis – is sent on an important errand, to find a wife for Isaac. It is really the transition in Genesis from Abraham’s story to that of his son Isaac. The story itself subtly notes this transition when, at the beginning, Eliezer refers to Abraham as his master and then, at the end, names Isaac as his master.

It’s a long story and I won’t go through it in detail (after all, you just heard most of it read to you – there are some verses left out, but we won’t worry about those). The important thing to remember is that this is a story about making a decision – in fact, it is about many decision: Abraham decides to get a spouse for his son, but decides she must not come from among the Canaanite people among whom they live; he decides she must come from his relatives in his former home of Haran; Eliezer decides on a method by which he will discern the identity of the future bride and seeks God’s guidance; Rebekah, who comes to the well and does the thing Eliezer decided would be his sign, decides to accept the proposal that she travel to a foreign country and marry a man she has never met; Isaac decides to accept Rebekah as his wife and, the text tells us, “he loved her.” (Gen 24:67)

In his commentary on Genesis in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Lutheran scholar Terence Fretheim underscores the importance of human decision-making illustrated in this story. Taking issue with another author, Prof. Fretheim says,

One should not say that “the success or failure of the commission depends on whether God grants success or not.” Although success may well depend on God, the activity of human beings may occasion failure even though God intends success. * * * The author presents no claim that lack of success would mean that God had withheld kindness; it could simply result from human decision making. Divine providence does not mean that the future is somehow predetermined or that human decision making can never frustrate the divine designs. (Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994, pg pg 510)

Eliezer the servant is the figure in this drama whose decision tree is most obvious. “Given a difficult task, he does what he can and he leaves the rest to God. He travels to the homeland of [Abraham’s] family; he takes his stand at a likely place to meet young women; and then he prays. . . . [H]e watches and waits to discern God’s will. When the sign is fulfilled, [Eliezer] is quick to praise God for God’s faithfulness and [loving kindness]. Finally, he bears witness to others of that divine faithfulness.” (Working Preacher 2017)

Katherine Schifferedecker of Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, writes:

We could do worse than follow the example of Abraham’s servant when called to a particular task. Prepare. Pray. Wait. Watch for signs of God’s faithfulness. Then be quick to praise God and to witness to others of God’s faithfulness. Oh, and be generous. Generosity marks the actions of both Rebekah and the servant. (Working Preacher 2017)

But we must acknowledge with Prof. Freitheim that not every decision leads to a happy and successful outcome; failure and difficulty are also potential results of our decisions. We also have to turn Prof. Fretheim’s observation around and note that, while lack of success may not mean that God has withheld kindness, success does not necessarily mean that an enterprise or a decision has God’s blessing.

Lowell’s words as edited into a hymn by Horder continue:

. . . . to side with truth is noble,
When we share her wretched crust,
[Before] her cause bring fame and profit,
And ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses
While the coward stands aside.
Till the multitude make virtue
Of the faith they had denied.

These lines speak of defending truth when falsehood seems to rule. That they were written in 1845 illustrates how history, even if it doesn’t exactly repeat itself, seems to follow recurring themes. As Mark Twain is often reputed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” And that is particularly true in our personal lives, as St. Paul writes in that portion of the letter to the Romans that we hear this morning:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. * * * I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. (Rom 7:15,21)

The hymn speaks of making the decision to “side with truth” as leading to the sharing of a “wretched crust,” implying that taking the opposite side leads to fame, profit, and prosperity. The brave person chooses to take the side of truth alone, while a coward waits to see what the crowd may do.

Important, once-in-a-lifetime decisions are difficult to make and keep on one’s own (as Paul clearly suggests). This is why no one is ever baptized without sponsors and why, since the theological reappraisal of the sacrament of Baptism that led to the changes in the service of baptism incorporated in our current Book of Common Prayer, baptisms are not done privately but as part of the public worship of the whole People of God. The decision to be baptized is a momentous and once-in-a-lifetime choice, and it is a difficult one to maintain throughout life without help and support.

Today we welcome Braylen into the Household of God through this sacrament. As I wrote in our weekly e-mail newsletter, Baptism is the basis of our entire Christian life; it is the gateway to life in the Spirit and the doorway through which we access the other sacraments. Through Baptism we are freed from sin and reborn as children of God; we become members of Christ, are incorporated into the Church, and share in the church’s mission.

Braylen is only 10 weeks! That’s a lot for 10-week-old person to absorb! This, as I said, is why children (and adults) have baptismal sponsors, also called “Godparents.” Godparents at baptism make big promises to encourage their Godchild to grow in faith and commit to helping them understand how to live their life in a Christian way.

Godparents do not play a special role just on the day of a child’s baptism. To be a Godfather or Godmother is a life-long commitment which will involve special times and treats, but much more as well. Godparents are expected to:

  • Give time to their Godchild to talk to about the bigger questions of life – questions about hope, faith and love.
  • Model and encourage their Godchild to develop Christian values – being kind and compassionate towards others, being generous towards others in need with time or money and standing against things in the world that cause injustice and suffering.
  • Pray for their Godchild through the ups and downs of life and throughout their faith journey.
  • Show their Godchild by example how to make good choices in life, for themselves and for others.
  • Help their Godchild to learn more about the Christian faith, through the church and in other ways. Godparents should go to church with their Godchild, talk with them about the Bible, and help them learn how to pray.

Being a Godparent is a demanding role. If you are a Godparent, may you be blessed as you shepherd your Godchild through life. But all of us should remember that Godparents also do not make these decisions or take on these obligations alone. The entire Christian community joins with them. At every Baptism everyone in attendance is asked: “Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?” And all answer, “We will.” (BCP 1979, pg 303) Then all present join the candidate and the sponsors in affirming the promises of the Baptismal Covenant.

By the light of burning martyrs,
Jesus bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
With the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties,
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still and onward,
Who would keep abreast of truth.

. . . continues the third verse of the hymn. Baptism is the first step up those “new Calvaries . . . with the cross that turns not back;” it is the beginning of that trek “upward still and onward . . . keep[ing] abreast of truth.” It is not a trek undertaken alone. “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” (S. Baring-Gould, Onward Christian Soldiers, #562, The Hymnal 1982) It is a trek in which we join “the glorious company of apostles . . . the noble fellowship of prophets . . . the white-robed army of martyrs” by whose light we take journey. (Te Deum, BCP 1979, Morning Prayer, pg 95)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus compares the leadership of the then-present generation, the so-called “wise and intelligent,” to children in a market place. Some of the children want to engage in a game of a make-believe wedding; others among them want to play at a pretend funeral. They cannot make a decision. Jesus offers an alternative to both, a simpler way hidden from wise but open to “infants:” “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt 11:29-30)

This is not an offer of a life of ease, but rather a life delivered from the artificial burdens imposed upon us by the expectations of religious society. It is not a summons to be idle, but a call to learn a new way of understanding and living in accord with God’s will. It is, as Australian theologian William Loader says, “a call to lightness of being [in] contrast with the serious calls of those who interpret scripture as demand and stricture.” (First Thoughts)

“It is not that Jesus invites us to a life of ease. Following him will be full of risks and challenges, as he has made abundantly clear. He calls us to a life of humble service, but it is a life of freedom and joy instead of slavery.” (Working Preacher 2011) Our hymn’s last verse acknowledges the dangers of taking the side of truth:

Though the cause of evil prosper,
Yet ‘tis truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold,
And upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future,
And, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow,
Keeping watch above his own.

The decision to take Christ’s yoke is the decision to live with “Jesus under God’s gracious and merciful reign, free from the burden of sin and the need to prove oneself, free to rest deeply and securely in God’s grace.” (Working Preacher 2011) This is the decision which Braylen, through his parents and Godparents, is making today; it is the decision which he will be invited to affirm later in the Sacrament of Confirmation; it is the decision which we all make everyday.

In the last stanza of his original poem, James Russell Lowell exhorts his readers to be pilgrims, to launch our own Mayflower, and to steer boldly into the future. Today, we welcome Braylen into the Household of God to be a pilgrim with us and we set his course into God’s future, upward and onward, abreast to and yoked with the Truth. May his parents’ and Godparents’ decision lead to a life of love for Braylen as Eliezer’s decision to chose Rebekah lead to a life of love for Isaac. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is “Rebekah and Eliezer at the Well” by Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (1621–1674). It hangs in the National Gallery, London, UK)

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

Knight of Faith & the Dark Night of the Soul – Sermon for Proper 8A – July 2, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, July 2, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 8A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 22:1-14; Psalm 13; Romans 6:12-23; and St. Matthew 10:40-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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The great Anglican preacher Herbert O’Driscoll begins his reflections on our Old Testament lesson, the story of the testing of Abraham and the binding of Isaac, truthfully the near-murder of Isaac, with these words:

No one approaches this passage without feeling the great weight of it. It exudes darkness and mystery, and it brings before us a thousand questions, most of which have no answers. (The Word Among Us: Year A, Volume 3, Anglican Book Centre, Toronto:1999, pg 35)

In the late 1300s an unknown English author penned a short treatise entitled The Cloud of Unknowing basically arguing that “darkness and mystery,” those thousands of unanswerable questions, are really fundamental the nature of our relationship with God. (Our opening prayer at each Eucharist, the so-called Collect for Purity, is the opening prayer of The Cloud of Unknowing.) The book takes the form, in part, of a conversation between student and master. The student asks how one can think about God, and the master replies that a human being cannot actually do this:

[O]f all other creatures and their works, yea, and of the works of God’s self, may a man through grace have fullhead of knowing, and well he can think of them: but of God Himself can no man think. And therefore I would leave all that thing that I can think, and choose to my love that thing that I cannot think. For why; He may well be loved, but not thought. By love may He be gotten and holden; but by thought never. And therefore, although it be good sometime to think of the kindness and the worthiness of God in special, and although it be a light and a part of contemplation: nevertheless yet in this work it shall be cast down and covered with a cloud of forgetting. And thou shalt step above it stalwartly, but Mistily, with a devout and a pleasing stirring of love, and try for to pierce that darkness above thee. And smite upon that thick cloud of unknowing with a sharp dart of longing love . . . . “ (The Cloud of Unknowing, Evelyn Underhill, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 31)

The Spanish mystical poet, St. John of the Cross, made a similar point in his poem which he did not title but which has come to be called The Dark Night of the Soul. The first verse, as translated by A.Z. Foreman, a linguist at the University of Chicago, is this:

Once in the dark of night,
Inflamed with love and yearning, I arose
(O coming of delight!)
And went, as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose
(Poems in Found Translation)

St. John of the Cross, who published his poem with a couple of expository essays, said of the first stanza:

In this first stanza the soul relates the way and manner which it followed in going forth, as to its affection, from itself and from all things, and in dying to them all and to itself, by means of true mortification, in order to attain to living the sweet and delectable life of love with God; and it says that this going forth from itself and from all things was a ‘dark night,’ by which . . . is here understood purgative contemplation, which causes passively in the soul the negation of itself and of all things referred to above.

And this going forth it says here that it was able to accomplish in the strength and ardour which love for its Spouse gave to it for that purpose in the dark contemplation aforementioned. Herein it extols the great happiness which it found in journeying to God through this night with such signal success that none of the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh, . . . could hinder it; inasmuch as the aforementioned night of purgative contemplation lulled to sleep and mortified, in the house of its sensuality, all the passions and desires with respect to their mischievous desires and motions. (St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, E. Allison Peers, tr., PDF available at CCEL, pg 16)

In contemplating this bizarre story of Abraham almost sacrificing his son, we are forced to approach God with the same sense that the unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing and St. John of the Cross. We must read this and take it in through our love of God because we cannot make sense of this intellectually; if we try, we may end up not loving God because this God who seems to demand human sacrifice is not lovable.

Better folk than I have tried to make sense of this over the many centuries, the millennia since the story made its way into the foundational religious literature of Judaism and Christianity. Let me tell you about some of their attempts.

Although tradition says that Moses wrote the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), biblical scholars identified four “sources” or schools of authors for it. The earliest source is called the “Yahwist” because this writer (there may be more than one, but I’ll refer to each source as a single person just for ease of expression) habitually refers to God by that name; it is believed that the Yahwist was associated with Jerusalem during the united kingdom of Israel sometime before the year 950 BCE. The second source is called the “Elohist;” he won’t use God’s Name but substitutes the word “Elohim” (meaning “Lord God”). The Elohist is next historically, believed to be associated with the norther kingdom around the year 850 BCE. The third source is the “Deuteronomist,” so called because he is the author of Deuteronomy and some of the historical texts outside of the Pentateuch. The Deuteronomist is believed to have written during the reign of Josiah in the southern kingdom of Judah around the year 625 BCE. The last is the “Priestly” source, sometimes called the “Redactor.” He is believed to have taken the other three, edited them together and additional material of his own, about the year 500 BCE shortly after the Babylonian Exile.

I tell you all that because one of the ways scholars have tried to make sense of this story of Abraham and Isaac is to argue that it’s a mash-up, that the Redactor has taken an early Yawhist story, mixed it up with some bits from the Elohist, and added some bits of his own to create a story which emphasizes the obedience and submission of Abraham at the expense of the story’s depiction of the Almighty. The emphasis is on Abraham’s trust, not on God’s demand. “Abraham does not simply obey; he obeys because he trusts. He could have obeyed because he was ordered to do so; if God commands, he had better respond. But [the text] makes clear that he obeys because he trusts God, that God will be faithful and will act in his best interests.” (Terence E. Fretheim, Commentary on Genesis, The New Interpreters Bible: Volume 1, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1994, pg 499).

Another way faithful people have sought to make sense of the story is by adding to it themselves. In the rabbinic tradition there is the practice of authoring what are called midrashim. This is a genre of rabbinic literature which seeks to flesh out the characters of the Bible. The midrashic authors often sought to provide a sort of back story for the biblical characters. The sages invented these stories to explain the motivations of God and human characters, imagining their inner lives. Midrashim take roughly sketched biblical characters and fill in the blanks, making the biblical sketches into human figures with whom we can more easily identify. Some of the most famous midrashim have become so imbedded in the tradition that many people do not even realize they aren’t found in the Bible. (The pious legends of Joseph, Mary, and other saints are a similar sort literature.)

The opening words of today’s text, “After these things,” apparently can be understood in the Hebrew as meaning “after these words,” so the midrashic rabbis, wondering what that might mean developed some explanatory scenarios. One midrash on this text suggests that God and Satan had a bet about Abraham much like their wager about Job, i.e., will the righteous man, Abraham, kill his son when asked? Another imagines Isaac and Ishmael, Abraham’s older son born to Hagar the slave woman, arguing about whose circumcision is “better” – Ishmael’s because was done when he was a teenager and therefore able to refuse, or Isaac’s completed when he was an infant only eight days old. Isaac says he is willing to sacrifice every member of his body to God, and God thus tests Isaac through his order to Abraham. Another midrashic gloss on the story tells us that Isaac at the time of this incident was 37 years old and a willing participant in his near-sacrifice, not an innocent and unsuspecting child. Changing or trying to understand the story through editing, revision, and addition is a venerable tradition.

But the story pretty much stands “as is” in our biblical canon and although it is fun to imagine these back-stories, when we rely on them we don’t rely on Scripture. We rely, instead, on our own imaginations. The text remains stark and troubling, dark and unfathomable.

The 19th Century Danish Theologian Søren Kierkegaard in looking at this story called Abraham a “knight of faith.” A knight of faith is a person willing to make a move of resignation in which demonstrable love of God predominates over worldly happiness. The knight of faith does this in solitude, as Abraham does. Despite the fact that he loves his son, Abraham’s love of God is greater, so he resigns himself to giving up Isaac at God’s command, and he moves to do so without discussing his actions with Sarah or with anyone else. This is what Kierkegaard calls the “teleological suspension of the ethical.” Seventh-Day Adventist writer Jason Hines describes it this way:

When God asks us to do something that defies social convention or that seems out of the ordinary, if we decide to do it, it seems that we feel the need to justify our decisions to others. It is a human trait – we don’t want to seem crazy for doing whatever thing God just led us to do. However, the knight of faith realizes that the walk of faith is not always a group activity. Therefore there is no need to justify the action.” (Jason Hines, The Knight of Faith, Spectrum Magazine, April 25, 2013, online)

For the knight of faith, the ultimate deciding factor is not the ethical norm, but his individual relationship to God. To fulfill the telos – God’s ultimate purpose – Abraham’s faith in God is called upon to set aside normal canons of ethics and humanity. Here, the knight of faith encounters the dark night of the soul: Abraham, in John of the Cross’s words, “in order to attain to living the . . . life of love with God” must “go forth” from himself “and from all things,” including not only his beloved son, but also the ethical norms his community. One cannot do this intellectually; as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing put it, God “may well be loved, but not thought. By love may [God] be gotten and [held]; but by thought never.”

Herbert O’Driscoll, in his commentary on today’s lessons, noted that he could find little, if any, connection between this seemingly monstrous Old Testament tale of Abraham nearly killing his child and the gospel lesson, and on the surface he is right. But our gospel lesson today is the tale end of Jesus commissioning his apostles, which began in last week’s gospel reading with his telling them

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

For I have come to set a man against his father,
and a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt 10:34-39)

Now he tells them that there are others, outside their families but within the community of disciples, who will welcome and reward them. “The integral relationships between the disciples, Jesus, and God replace the disciples’ broken relationships with family and society. . . . [T]he call of discipleship does not fit very happily with ‘traditional family values,’ whether ancient or modern. The vocation of disciples necessarily relativizes all other relations and obligations – whether to party, corporation, or family – in favor of the new family that is the community of disciples.” (Stanley Saunders, Commentary on Matthew 10:40-42, Working Preacher, online)

The story of Abraham and Isaac, of course, is not history, it is metaphor. It is not meant to teach us about the characters in the story; it is meant to teach us about ourselves. As metaphor, I suggest to you that it represents the counter-cultural nature of Christian faith and action revealed in Jesus words in last week’s and this week’s gospel lessons. Just as Abraham had to turn away from and reject the ethical norms of his society to follow the command of God, so must the disciple of Christ be prepared to deny the cultural norms of his or her society. Again, as John of the Cross said, “in journeying to God” we must not allow ourselves to be hindered by “the three enemies, which are world, devil and flesh,” any more than Abraham was hindered by the ethical norms of his culture.

As Christians called “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ” (Catechism, BCP 1979, pg 855) we are to be salt, preserving agents actively working for that restoration in the midst of and rejecting a culture many perceive as decadent and decaying. We are to cooperate with Christ’s redeeming power working through us in ways that may contradict cultural norms and often flow counter to the cultural tide.

A commitment to being countercultural . . . isn’t always easy. Living differently can be hard. Going against the ebbs and flows of culture can create friction and sometimes provoke a hostile reaction to the good we are trying to create. Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon remind us that this should be expected, for “whenever a people are bound together in loyalty to a story that includes something as strange as the Sermon on the Mount, we are put at odds with the world.” (Gabe Lyons, What Does Being Countercultural Look Like?, Q Ideas, online; quoting Resident Aliens: A Provocative Christian Assessment of Culture and Ministry for People Who Know that Something is Wrong, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1989, pg 94)

The story of the binding of Isaac and the gospel story of Jesus’ commissioning of the apostles are both stories with what O’Driscoll called “great weight.” They exude a darkness and mystery that raise a thousand unanswerable questions; they call us to an alternative way of seeing our world, to protest and stand against what is wrong, to cry out against injustice, and to call for an end to corruption. They call us to stand for something better, to stand for the “restor[ation] all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” to stand for “the sweet and delectable life of love with God.”

(Note: The illustration is “Le Sacrifice d’Isaac” by Marc Chagall (1887-1985). It hangs in the Musée National Marc Chagall, Nice, France)

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

Questions of Hagar: Sermon for RCL Proper 7A (25 June 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 25, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 7A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 21:8-21; Psalm 86:1-10,16-17; Romans 6:1b-11; and St. Matthew 10:24-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty . . . .*

Today, June 25, is the feast day of James Weldon Johnson, the poet who penned those words, the first lines of his poem written in honor of the 100th birthday of President Abraham Lincoln. We no longer commemorate the saints on Sundays and so, instead of lessons “full of the hope that the present has brought us,” we have the lessons of our usual Sunday lectionary, including a story of slavery “full of the faith [and raising the questions] that the dark past has taught us.”

Our Old Testament Lesson today is from the 21st Chapter of Genesis, the story of the casting out of the slave woman Hagar and her son Ishmael, the first-born son of Abraham. To fully understand and appreciate the significance of this incident, however, we have to go back to the beginning of the story, even before Hagar’s name first appears in Scripture, back six chapters in Genesis. We have to go back to Abram questioning God, who has made a covenant with Abram. Abram, who is childless at that point, wants to know who his heirs will be, so God takes him out under the open sky and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.” (Gen 15:5)

In the next chapter (Ch 16) we learn that ten years go by during which Abram’s wife Sarai (who ages from 65 to 75 during this decade) bears no children. So she decides to take things into her own hands help God keep God’s promise: she “[takes] Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and [gives] her to her husband Abram as a wife.” (16:3) Sure enough, Hagar gets pregnant; she is the first woman other than Eve recorded in Scriptures bearing a child.

Now, as you may know, in the ancient middle east, women had no status except that which came through marriage, gained higher status by childbearing. So Hagar, who started out as a slave with lower status than Sarai, gains greater status and their roles are reversed. Sarai begins, therefore, to “[deal] harshly with her, and she [runs] away.” (16:6) But in the desert, she encounters God who tells her to return to Sarai and Abram, and promises her that she shall have “offspring that cannot be counted for multitude.” (16:10) Hagar calls God “El-Roi,” the God who sees, thus becoming the first and only person in Scripture to give God a name. The place where this happened is named for this event; it is called Beer-lahai-roi, the well of the God who sees. She follow’s God’s instructions, returns, and gives birth to a son is named Ishmael (a name which means “God hears”). Abram is 86 years old with Ishmael is born. (16:16)

Thirteen years pass and God again appears to Abram, repeating God’s promise to make Abram “exceedingly numerous:” “You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.” (17:2,4) God changes Abram’s name from Abram (meaning “exalted father”) to Abraham (“father of many nations”). God also instructs Abraham to stop calling his wife Sarai (which means “my princess”) and to call her Sarah (more generally “princess”) because, God says, “I will give her a son … and kings of peoples shall come from her.” (17:16) Abraham falls on his face laughing, as Sarah would later laugh listening behind a tent flap (18:12-25), and cries out, “Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (v. 17) Abraham begs God to bless Ishmael as his heir (v. 18), but God declines and predicts the birth of Isaac. Although Ishmael is not to be Abraham’s personal heir, he is made an heir to the covenant when, at the end of Chapter 17, God instructs Abraham to institute the practice of circumcision including himself and all the males in his household, slaves and relatives alike, including Ishmael.

Sarah does indeed become pregnant and Isaac is born and initiated by circumcision into the covenant with his father and his half-brother (21:1-3). So in our lesson, we are another three or so years further on. Isaac has been weaned, which according to Jewish tradition as set out in the Talmud can be any time between ages two and four. This means that Ishmael is about 17 years old now.

In the ancient middle east, Jews celebrated weaning with a large festive party serving a dish of wheat cooked in sugar and cinnamon, symbolic of the baby’s first solid food. In some Jewish communities, this “first food” was provided by a neighbor. When the baby accepted the offering, the mother would say, “May this be the last time you will be supported by others.” Wheat is also symbolic of fertility, so the feast celebrated not only the child’s independence, but also greeted the possibility of a new pregnancy. It was at such a feast that Sarah saw Ishmael “the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, playing with her son Isaac.” (21:9) Exhibiting the same sort of nastiness as she had when Hagar became pregnant, Sarah insists that Abraham “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not inherit along with my son Isaac.” (v. 10) Abraham is distressed by this, but God tells him not to worry, that God will look after Hagar and Ishmael, and so he casts out the slave woman and her son to (in James Weldon Johnson’s memorable phrases) tread the stony road, feel the bitter chastening rod, travel a way watered with their tears, and feel that hope unborn had died . . . until they are saved when God leads Hagar to find a spring of water.

This is the last we hear of Hagar in the Jewish Scriptures, but not quite the last of Ishmael. A few chapters later on we find that Isaac and Ishmael must have achieved some sort of reconciliation, for we are told that Abraham, at the age of 175, “breathed his last and died in a good old age, an old man and full of years, and was gathered to his people. His sons Isaac and Ishmael buried him in the cave of Machpelah, in the field of Ephron son of Zohar the Hittite, east of Mamre, the field that Abraham purchased from the Hittites.” (25:8-9) Interestingly, Isaac then settles at Beer-lahai-roi, the place where Hagar named God. The Hebrew Scriptures say nothing further about Ishmael, but do take time to list the generations of his descendants.

If we want to know more about Hagar and Ishmael, we have to turn to the Muslim scriptures and traditions, to the Holy Qur’an and the Hadith of Islam. There we would learn that she and Ishmael are the ancestors of the Prophet Muhammed, that the spring described in our story today still exists, that that spring is about 20 meters away from her tomb which Abraham and Ishmael built together, that her tomb – the Kaaba – is considered the holiest place in Islam, and that making a pilgrimage to her tomb, the Hajj, at least once in one’s life, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. She is revered as the matriarch of Islam and called “the mother of Arabs.”

Hagar, the Egyptian slave girl, and her son Ishmael, the outcast half-brother of the Patriarch Isaac and uncle of Jacob who became Israel, are our Scriptural connection to the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world who are our religious cousins, 3.3 million of whom are also our fellow Americans.

In trying to understand Hagar, I suggested to some clergy friends that she reminded me of Sally Hemming, whom I described as “the slave mistress of Thomas Jefferson.” (You may know the story of Jefferson and Hemming; she apparently bore him several children and DNA testing of some of their descendants has documented that.) My friend Wil Gaffney, who teaches Hebrew Scriptures at Brite Divinity School in Texas, took me to task. “An enslaved woman is not a mistress,” she said. “She had no legal or cultural right to refuse. Whatever consent she may have given (if she can even be said to have done so) was always constrained and negated by her enslavement.” (Facebook comment) And she’s absolutely right! We have to remember that about Hagar and about so many women in our history.

Phyllis Tribble, the late Episcopalian religious author, wrote about Hagar:

[A]ll sorts of rejected women find their stories in her. She is the faithful maid exploited, the black woman used by the male and abused by the female of the ruling class, the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the other woman, the runaway youth, the religious fleeing from affliction, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the shopping bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless woman, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare mother, and the self-effacing female whose own identity shrinks in service to others. (Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1984, page 28)

While Sarah may be the chosen and privileged “mother of many nations,” Hagar is the prototypical working mother. She is “the first woman to hear an annunciation, the only one to received a divine promise of descendants, and the first to weep for her dying child.” (Ibid.)

I think the easy thing to do with this entire story is to focus on Sarah. It is not wrong to do so, and there is something to be learned from her role in this drama. Her part in this tale is

. . . a warning against arrogance and the human tendency to want to control others. It is a commentary about the human tendency to accept a gift from God and then to act as if it were our own to defend and protect at all costs, even at the cost of other people.
* * *
[God’s] gift of [a child] was never really for Sarah herself even though God worked the miracle in her. The gift was really for the larger world, the world that would be blessed through the community that would emerge through this child, just as God had promised Abraham. To begin claiming special status for oneself based on the gift of God is radically to misunderstand the nature of the gift. (Dennis Bratcher)

Sarah’s part in this story teaches an important lesson. Hagar’s part, however, raises questions, questions that are uncomfortable and almost unanswerable. John Holbert, who teaches at Perkins School of Theology, asks the basic question, “What are we to make of such a sordid tale, one where the joy of laughter turns into the anger of disparagement and near murder?” (Patheos)

How can we not be angry with Sarah and her manipulative arrogance? As Baptist preacher Linda Pepe asks:

How can [we] not be angry at Abraham for listening to Sarah?
How can [we] not be angry at God for letting Abraham push Hagar and his firstborn son out of his life?
How could God allow what [we] perceive to be injustice, and selfishness, and manipulation on Sarah’s part to have such an impact on the innocent? (Theological Stew)

And when we ask those questions about Abraham and Sarah or any of the other flawed human beings we find in Scripture or in church history, we find that no matter how craven or evil they seem to us we are convicted of our own sinfulness and come to understand that we are no better than they.

When we ask such questions about Abraham and Sarah and their exclusion of Hagar and Ishmael, we must ask the same questions about the way our own society excludes and mistreats the surrogate mother, the resident alien without legal recourse, the runaway youth, the pregnant young woman alone, the expelled wife, the divorced mother with child, the bag lady carrying bread and water, the homeless person, the indigent relying upon handouts from the power structures, the welfare recipient, the Arabs and other Muslims, and all those others who are their spiritual descendants. We must question our own complicity in that exclusion and mistreatment.

Naomi Steinberg, author of Kinship and Marriage in Genesis (Fortress Press, 1993), suggests that at its core, the story of Hagar and Ishmael asks the question, “What does it mean to be a member of society – who’s in, and who’s out?” (U.S. News) As Pastor Pepe acknowledged, we never get the answer to those questions in the story itself “because the text doesn’t give us anything to satisfy.” (Theological Stew)

“Do you not know?” pleads St. Paul (Rom 6:8), and sometimes we have to answer back, “No, we don’t!” We don’t know what to make of Sarah. We don’t know what to do with the story of Hagar. We don’t know how to relate to our Muslim cousins who revere her. We don’t know how to deal with the indigent, uninsured welfare mother whom Phyllis Tribble says she represents.

Perhaps the answers come when we turn our attention to the last character in the drama, who is the first . . . to the God who sees (as Hagar named God in the desert), to the God who hears (remember the meaning of Ishmael’s name?) “Keep watch over my life,” cries the Psalmist, “Give ear . . . and attend to the voice of my supplications” (Ps 86:2,6) Perhaps the answer lies in turning to the God who sees the sparrow, who counts the hairs on every head (Matt 10:29-30), those of the chosen like Abraham and Sarah, those of the excluded like Hagar and Ishmael, those of the questioning and bewildered like you and me.

Perhaps when we give up our notions of what life ought to be like, perhaps when we stop trying to manipulate things as Sarah tried to do, perhaps when we truly follow the

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way . . .

relying not on our own devices, but on God to “keep us forever in the path,” perhaps then we’ll find the answer. Jesus said, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). Perhaps when we start trying to live in that way, “true to our God,” we’ll find the answers and learn how to live with Hagar and her son and their descendants, facing with them “the rising sun of our new day begun, [and] march[ing] on till victory is won.” Amen.

* The hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing is often referred to as the “Negro National Anthem” having been so designated by the NAACP in 1919. These are the full lyrics:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.

(Note: The illustration is “Hagar Offering Water to Her Son, Ishmael, in the Desert” by Charles Lock Eastlake (1793–1865) painted in 1842. It hangs in the National Trust Gallery in the Lake District, UK.)

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

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