Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Second Kings (Page 1 of 2)

Of Amos, John, and White Christian Nationalism – Sermon for Proper 10, RCL Year B

The United States is, at least ostensibly, a very religious country. Nearly two hundred years ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “there is no country in the world where … religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility and its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.”[1] While recent polling data demonstrate that the influence of religion seems to have declined, it remains a powerful force.

According to an average of all 2023 Gallup polling, about 75% of Americans identify with a specific religious faith, and 71% say that religion is either “important” or “very important” in their lives; over 40% attend religious services at least monthly, more than half of those weekly.[2]

But there is “important” and there is “important”; there is “religious” and there is “religious.” Is a religion “important” to someone in that that person spends a good deal of time observing its outward rituals, or is it “important” in that its moral precepts form a significant underpinning of his or her social behavior? Is a person “religious” because they make large donations or sacrifices and frequently attend significant rituals and ceremonies, or because he or she is an ethical and compassionate person who stands for justice and equity?

In de Tocqueville’s observations of America, it was the latter. He praised American religion for its comparative simplicity and its elimination of ritual: “I have seen no country,” he wrote, “in which Christianity is clothed with fewer forms, figures, and observances than in the United States.”[3] For the Prophet Amos in ancient Israel, the problem was the former. As biblical scholar and professor of Old Testament F.B. Huey, Jr., has noted:

Amos appeared on the scene in Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II, a time of relative peace and prosperity in both Israel and Judah. Some of the people enjoyed great wealth, but others experienced crushing poverty. The poor were oppressed, cheated, and exploited. Their rights were ignored. Immorality of every kind was openly and unashamedly practiced. Drunkenness, adultery, licentiousness, and self-indulgence had rotted the moral fiber of the nation.

However, the people could not be accused of neglecting religion. Ritualistic practices abounded. High places for worship of other gods were tolerated. Idolatry was not suppressed. [Professor John] Paterson’s classic statement best sums up the situation: “The people were oozing and dripping with religion of a kind.”[4]

About 170 years before Amos, around the year 930 BCE, the People of Israel had divided themselves into two kingdoms. The ten tribes whose territory was north of Jerusalem revolted against King Solomon’s son Rehoboam and formed a new kingdom, taking the name Israel, under Jeroboam I, who had been the official over Solomon’s public construction programs. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin, together with the Levites who served the Jerusalem Temple, remained loyal to Rehoboam and formed the southern Kingdom of Judah.

The northern kingdom established two centers of worship; one at Dan and the other at Shechem. The temples that were built at these places displayed statues of golden calves as symbols of God; they were even emblazoned with the four-letter ineffable name “YHWH”. Worship and sacrifice were performed by non-Levite priests appointed by the king.[5]

Jeroboam I was succeeded by several kings, nearly all of whom, according to Scripture, “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, walking in the way of Jeroboam and in the sin that he caused Israel to commit,”[6] some worse than others. And after 170 years, Jereboam II took the throne. His reign was one of military success and triumph against Israel’s enemies and neighbors, and of extraordinary wealth for the king and his aristocrats. Jewish tradition records

The triumphs of the king had engendered a haughty spirit of boastful overconfidence at home. Oppression and exploitation of the poor by the mighty, luxury in palaces of unheard-of splendor, and a craving for amusement were some of the internal fruits of these external triumphs.[7]

It is against this profligate extravagance, and the injustice and iniquity that accompanied it, that Amos spoke out.

Amos was a native of Judah, from the town of Tekoa, ten miles south of Jerusalem, but he was sent by God to prophesy in the Northern Kingdom. The central message of his prophecy is summed up in four verses in which God says:

I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings
and grain-offerings, I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.[8]

Amos testified to what has been called the “seamless relationship between ethical behavior and true worship, between justice and piety.”[9] The latter without the former is hollow and worthless. It’s no wonder Amaziah the priest told him to return to Judah and never prophesy in Israel again. I’m sad to say that I suspect that Amos would receive no better welcome in parts of modern-day America, for all our reported religiosity. In any event, for its injustice, its corruption, and its ritualistic but morally bankrupt religion, Amos prophesied the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel, and it came to pass.

Nearly eight centuries later, Judah had also ceased to exist and the whole of Palestine had been absorbed into the Roman Empire. The last king of anything that could be called a unified Jewish nation, Herod the Great, King of Judea, had died and the Romans (confirming instructions in Herod’s will) divided his client kingdom among his children. His youngest son, Herod Antipas, ruled, under the title of “Tetrarch,” a portion of what had been Jeroboam’s kingdom and, like Jeroboam, he had to contend with a prophet condemning the morality and injustice of both his political reign and his personal lifestyle.

Luke rather white washes or sugar coats John’s social justice prophecy, making it sound like an adult Bible Study class:

[T]he crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax-collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”[10]

But remember, John was also talking to the religious authorities, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and “all the people from Jerusalem,”[11] the same people he had just addressed as “You brood of vipers!” and called a bunch of rotten trees producing bitter fruit which God plans to chop down and throw into the fire![12] I would think the conversation was a little more heated than the polite Sunday School class Luke describes.

It was not John’s concerns about neglect of the poor, excessive taxation, or military oppression that got him arrested and beheaded, however; it was his criticism of the Tetrarch’s marriage. History tells us that Antipas occasionally paid heed to the outward norms and forms of contemporary Judaism: “[H]e is known to have celebrated Passover and Sukkoth in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, his subjects were not convinced by their leader’s piety.”[13] He’d been educated in Rome, venerated the Emperor Tiberius, and in his personal life, especially it seems in regard to marriage, he was pretty much culturally a Roman.

Initially, he was in a political marriage to Phasaelis, daughter of King Aretas IV of Nabatea, a neighboring country. But then he met Herodias, the wife of his half-brother Archelaus. They fell in love and each divorced their current spouse so they could marry the other. While marriage to the ex-wife of one’s living brother was not against Roman law, it was not acceptable under the Law of Moses. On top of that, Herodias was also his niece, the daughter of his other half-brother, Aristobulus. Again, marriage to one’s niece was permitted under Roman law, but outside the bounds Jewish propriety. John called him out on it, and this is what got John arrested and eventually beheaded.

Like Jeroboam and Amaziah, Herod Antipas and the religious leaders of Jerusalem adhered to the outward trappings of religion, but within those rituals there was little or no ethical content; worse, there was unrighteousness, injustice, and immorality. They were, as Jesus would later say, like whited sepulchres, “which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth.”[14]

Amos of Tekoa and John the Baptizer were followers of the God of Israel who called those who claimed to be their co-religionists to task. They sang from the same hymnal as all the prophets who called on God’s People to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with … God,”[15] and they invite us to sing from that hymnal, as well, for we also have co-religionists to correct.

There is, as you know, a growing movement in our country and within the church called “dominionism” or “Christian nationalism.” It is, primarily, a phenomenon of white evangelicalism. It is quite simply a heresy. Dressed up in the rituals and ceremonies of the Christian faith, it promotes something very different from the love, justice, and humility taught by Jesus and all the prophets before him. But we cannot, as many have tried, simply dismiss dominionism as “not Christian” anymore than Amos or John could wash their hands of Jeroboam, Antipas, and their religious leaders as “not really following the religion of YHWH.”
As historian Jemar Tisby says:

[W]hite Christian nationalism is Christian, not because it resembles Christ but because it’s in the church.

White Christian nationalists attend church. They may not be the kind of churches you would want to join, but they are there.

White Christian nationalists look to the same sacred text, the Bible, that other Christians do. It may not be how you interpret scripture, but it’s the same book.

White Christian nationalists would largely claim the resurrection of Jesus, the Trinity, and other core, historical Christian doctrines. They may not derive the same meaning from those theological principles as you do, but they believe them.

White Christian nationalists use Christian symbols and rituals—crosses, prayers, spiritual songs, and fasting. These may not soften their souls in the ways we’d expect, but they are present nonetheless.[16]

No, Christian nationalism does not “soften the souls” of its adherents; on the contrary, it rather remarkably hardens their hearts. As described by Evangelicals for Democracy, Christian dominionism

treat[s] minorities and non-Christians as second-class citizens [and promotes] voting restrictions on a massive scale; more aggressive police tactics targeting black and brown communities; prohibiting interracial marriage and transracial adoption; ending protections for the religious liberty of Jews, Muslims and other non-Christian faiths; … enacting policies that are hostile to immigrants and refugees [and] the belief that women should be subservient to men.[17]

Dr. Tisby argues that the dominionists’ “misuse of the term ‘Christian’” imposes on other believers, that is us, “the duty to set forth an alternative witness of the faith.”[18]

The message of the prophets, of Amos and John, is clear: the God of Israel, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, demands morality, ethical conduct, justice, and equity. When de Tocqueville described the contribution of the Christian religion in America he wrote that it “impos[ed] some degree of humaneness on [the country’s] competitive, materialistic society.” His description of religion in the early days of the Republic differs dramatically from the program of the Christian nationalists; he observed religion that “placed mankind’s objectives beyond the treasures of earth and the soul above the senses,” that “imposed on human beings some responsibility for the welfare of others and compelled them to contemplate concerns other than their own.”[19] This religion, with its “seamless relationship between ethical behavior and true worship, between justice and piety”[20] is and has always been the “alternative witness of the faith” in this nation that we, like Amos and John before us, are to proclaim to the rulers and the people of our time.

Amen.

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2024, to the people of Harcourt Parish (Church of the Holy Spirit), Gambier, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was guest presider and preacher.

The lessons for the service were Amos 7:7-15; Psalm 85:8-13; Ephesians 1:3-14; and St. Mark 6:14-29. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.

The illustration is an 18th-century Russian icon of the prophet Amos from the Iconostasis of Transfiguration Church, Kizhi monastery, Karelia, Russia.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Quoted in Norman A Graebner, Christianity and Democracy: Tocqueville’s Views of Religion in America, The Journal of Religion 56:3 (July 1976), p. 263

[2] How Religious Are Americans?, Gallup, March 29, 2024, accessed 11 July 2024

[3] Quoted in Graebner, op. cit., p. 265

[4] F.B. Huey,, Jr., The Ethical Teaching of Amos, Its Content and Relevance, Southwestern Journal of Theology, Vol. 9, Fall 1966, quoting John Paterson, The Goodly Fellowship of the Prophets (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York:1948), p. 25, online at Preaching Source, accessed 11 July 2024

[5] See 1 Kings 12

[6] 1 Kings 15:34 (NRSV)

[7] Emil G. Hirsch, Jeroboam, Jewish Encyclopedia, undated, accessed 11 July 2024

[8] Amos 5:21-24 (NRSV)

[9] Eldin Villafane, To Live in Justice: The Message of Amos For Today, Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, October 24, 2016, accessed 11 July 2024

[10] Luke 3:10-14 (NRSV)

[11] See Matthew 3:7 and Mark 1:5

[12] Luke 3:7,9

[13] Herod Antipas, Livius: Articles on Ancient History, August 4, 2020, accessed 12 July 2024

[14] Matthew 23:27 (NRSV). The term “whited sepulchres” is taken from the King James Version.

[15] Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

[16] Jemar Tisby, Is White Christian Nationalism Christian?, Footnotes by Jemar Tisby, January 17, 2024, accessed 11 July 2024

[17] The Truth About Christian Nationalism, Evangelicals for Democracy, undated, accessed 12 July 2024

[18] Tisby, op. cit.

[19] Graebner, op. cit., pp. 269-70

[20] Villafane, op. cit.

Of Thomas Jefferson, Ricky Bobby, and Archie Bunker – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year B

Here we are at the end of the first period of what the church calls “ordinary time” during this liturgical year, the season of Sundays after the Feast of the Epiphany during which we have heard many gospel stories which reveal or manifest (the meaning of epiphany) something about Jesus. On this Sunday, the Sunday before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday, we always hear some version of the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration, a story so important that it is told in the three Synoptic Gospels, alluded to in John’s Gospel, and mentioned in the Second Letter of Peter.

Six days before, Jesus had had a conversation with the Twelve in which he’d asked them who they thought he was. They had said that other people thought Jesus might be a prophet and that some thought he might even be Elijah returned from Heaven or John the Baptizer returned from the dead. Jesus put them on the spot, though, and asked, “But who do you say I am?”[1] Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.”

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Planning, Checklists, Budgets: Sermon for Pentecost 10, Proper 12B, July 29, 2018

In 2014, Evie and I were privileged to join a group of other pilgrims from Ohio and Michigan and spend not quite three weeks in Palestine and Israel visiting many of the sites we hear about in the Bible, especially the Christian holy places of the Gospel stories. One of those was a hilly place overlooking the Sea of Galilee called Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, a village had been there for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage.

The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called Mensa Domini (which means “the Lord’s Table”) and also known as The Church of the Primacy of Peter.

A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today and a graphic of that picture of loaves and fishes is on the front of your bulletin.

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“Jesus Saves, Do Justice”: Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B (Track 2) – June 17, 2018

Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.”[1] They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times![2]

But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.[3]

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Transfiguration and Multiverse – Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany, RCL Year B, February 11, 2018

Preachers often focus on Peter’s unthinking outburst offering to make three dwellings for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the mountain of the Transfiguration. Such booths would concretize his all-to-human desire to experience continually the radiance of God. Life, however, is not like that; it’s not all mountaintop highs. Life is full of ups and downs, both high mountaintops and low valleys.

My favorite artistic depiction of the Transfiguration is that by the High Renaissance painter Raphael. The top of Raphael’s painting portrays the glory and radiance described by the Evangelists Mark, Matthew, and Luke on the mountaintop, while the bottom shows what’s happening down below, what our lectionary reading leaves out. If we read further in Mark’s Gospel we find (as Paul Harvey might have said) the rest of the story:

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True Worship: Sermon for Pentecost 21, Proper 23C (9 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 23C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; and St. Luke 17:11-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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leper-medieval-manuscriptFor ten months, since the First Sunday of Advent 2015, we have been in Lectionary Year C, during which we’ve been following texts from the Gospel according to Luke. Luke’s Gospel , after telling of his birth and infancy, sets out Jesus’ original mission statement, which he adopted from the Prophet Isaiah and proclaimed in his hometown synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)

Throughout the year, Luke has given us profound glimpses of God’s grace alive in the world of 1st Century Palestine, encouraging us to open our eyes and respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This sort of awakening and response to grace forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

In July of 2014, Evelyn and I were privileged to visit the place where the healing of the ten lepers is said to have happened. A tradition stretching back nearly 2,000 years tells us that it was in the village of Burqin and the Christian church which stands there today is believed to be sited on the longest continually used place of Christian worship in the world.

In the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us that this place is in “the region between Samaria and Galilee.” I have to assume that Luke was ignorant of Palestinian geography. There is no such “region.” At best, there is a line on the map, a border, between Samaria and Galilee, nothing more. If Jesus was “passing through” such a region, he was simply stepping over an imaginary line separating one human-defined locale from the next. In the modern world, he might have been going through a checkpoint. There’s a wonderful word for doing that, for being in that in-between place, in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other – liminality. It is derived from the Latin word for “threshold.”

The village of Burqin is located almost exactly halfway between Nazareth in Galilee and Sychar (now called Nablus), the Samaritan city where Jesus spoke with the woman at Jacob’s Well. Today, it is a village of about 6,000 people; fewer than 100 of them are Christian, and all of those are members of the Greek Orthodox congregation that worships at that longest-used church in all the world.

When we visited there, we were treated to lunch in the home of church leaders Usama and Nadya. During our conversations with them, one of our party asked Nadya if they felt uncomfortable living as such a tiny minority among so many Muslims and if she had ever considered leaving. “These are our neighbors and friends; they are our families,” she replied, “why would we ever leave?” She told us how they visited in each other’s homes, watched each other’s children, and celebrated each other’s holidays. And then she said, “Besides, if we left, who would be the church?”

I was struck then and continue to be amazed at the wisdom of her answer, at her choice of verb: “Who would be the church?” In that liminal place, that small group of Christians is constantly in that in-between place. Visiting, working with, celebrating with, being family with their overwhelmingly numerous Muslim neighbors, they cross over and through so many thresholds; they are constantly in spiritual motion yet grounded in that longest-used place of worship.

Their stewardship of that place is phenomenal, by the way. It must rank as the most lovingly cared for and tended church I have ever entered! Not a speck of dust, not a single cobweb, not a trace of tarnish on any of the numerous silver lamps, candlesticks, icon covers, and other objects of devotion, not a thread torn or hanging loose from the linens or tapestries. It was clear that, like the Samaritan leper who was healed there, the members of that community returned again and again to give thanks through their loving stewardship of God’s gifts.

That’s one thing about this story that grabs my attention and excites my imagination, that it takes place in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other, that it is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

It is that sort of story in the other particular that grabs my attention, as well. This other thing is something that I’ve never seen touched on in any commentary on this text, and that is the way in which their disease unites the ten lepers. Although Luke as narrator and Jesus as character in the story comment on the citizenship or race of only the one leper, the implication is that the others are Jews. One commentator has suggested that the Samaritan turned back from going to the Temple to present himself to a Jewish priest because he would have been unwelcomed there, but the others continued on suggesting that they were Jews for whom there was no similar problem. If that is so, then for the ten the shared experience of leprosy had bound them together and had overcome the traditional enmity between Jew and Samaritan.

I’d never thought of that before but now, every day, I show up at a cancer center where I converse with two men I would never before have interacted with. The man who gets his radiation treatment before me drives a Cadillac on which there are two bumper stickers. One reads, “Hillary for Prison 2016” and the other bears only the word “Trump.” In other circumstances, I would be very unlikely to converse with this man. But, thrown together by the common malady of prostate cancer, I know that he is also 64 years old, that he has two daughters and that both are married, and that he has three grandchildren. I know his name. He and I wish one another well every day, even though we know that our political views are wildly disparate. The man who comes after me rides a Harley; he has bushy, unkempt grey beard and tattoos on his arms; he wears “muscle shirts” and grubby jeans and his wallet is attached to his belt loop by several inches of heavy stainless steel chain. In other circumstances, I would be equally unlikely to talk with him. But I know particulars of his life also and we greet one another as friends.

We three will move on from this experience when the linear accelerator has done its thing and we are “cured” of the cancer. Like the ten lepers, our small community of shared disease will break up, but none of us will ever be the same; I will remember them and I hope they will remember me. In some sense, we will remain a community.

That is what the ten lepers were and what they remained even as they moved off on that spiritual journey from one state to another, from leprosy to wholeness; they were a community. I suggest to you that they are an icon of the church. We are all of us, both individually and together, on a journey from some form of “leprosy”, a journey from some illness of spirit, a journey to wholeness and salvation. That iconic community returned a tenth, a tithe (if you will) of its substance to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, falling prostrate at his feet, and giving thanks. (The other nine, also, would offer thanksgivings if they went, as instructed, to the Temple priests: the Law required a thank offering of two male lambs, a ewe, a measure of fine flour, and a measure of oil.) Thus, in this sense also, this is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. David Lose, the Lutheran seminary professor whose writings I like so much, says of this story:

All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in … and it made all the difference.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper has something for which to be thankful, praising God with a loud voice.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper changes direction, veering from his course toward a priest to first return to Jesus.
In this light, this story serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend? (Lose. Emphasis in original.)

After the Samaritan saw that he was healed, the rest of his response is characterized by four actions: he turned back, he praised God, he prostrated himself in worship, and he gave thanks. This, again, is Luke encouraging us to open our eyes and giving us an example of how we ought to respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This is true worship, a road map for our response to God’s activity in our world: returning, praising, worshiping, and giving in thanks.

Echoing Luther, Prof. Lose asks, “What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living? It is the tenth leper turning back. For now as then, seeing makes all the difference.” It is the sort of awakening and response to grace that forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

And now I would like to invite parishioner ____________ to share some thoughts about his spiritual journey and thanksgiving.

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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.

Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered! – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered!

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 20, Year 1 (Pentecost 17, 2015)

Matthew 6:9-13 ~ Jesus said, “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.”

Today the Lord’s Prayer instruction from Matthew’s Gospel is paired in the Daily Office readings with the story of the death of Jezebel (with dogs eating her corpse) in the Second Book of Kings, and with Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about sex and marriage. It’s been three hours since I said the Office and read those lessons; I’ve had several cups of coffee and a high-fiber-high-protein breakfast. Despite that nourishment and caffeine, which should have kickstarted my brain, I confess to befuddlement. I don’t get the connection, any connection!

So that’s the take away today, not from the lessons themselves but from the Lectionary and its lack of connection between the readings that come up on the rota. In the Sunday Lectionary, one can generally find a linkage between at least two of the four readings (For non-Lectionary folk: the Eucharistic Lectionary for Sunday celebrations nearly always has four selections from Scripture – a lesson from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a lesson from the Epistles, and a lesson from one of the Gospels. Frequently, there is a thematic connection between the Old Testament readings and the Gospels), but not always. In the Daily Office Lectionary, thematic connections are even less common.

As a preacher I strive to find those connections when drafting my homilies for Sundays, and that influences my meditations on the Daily Office readings. Out of habit I try to find the linkages, the thematic relationships, the common message . . . and when it’s not there, I get bewitched, bothered, and bewildered. I become a simpering, whimpering child again . . . I want the lessons to make sense, together, not individually, and I’m angry with the Lectionary and whatever group of editors put it together!

Especially when I feel like I should be getting a good jolt of religion and spirituality with the Our Father but, instead, get Jezebel’s bloody death and Paul’s going on about people “aflame with passion.” I’m vexed again, perplexed again, and (frankly) oversexed again! Lead us not into temptation . . . .

Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered!

Laying Fractured on the Floor – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Laying Fractured on the Floor

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 19, Year 1 (Pentecost 16, 2015)

2 Kings 1:2 ~ Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay injured; so he sent messengers, telling them, “Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury.”

I don’t know what lattice the Anglican Communion has fallen through, but it sure looks like it may suffer the same fate as Ahaziah. The Archbishop of Canterbury, traditional “first among equals” head of the Communion, has invited the other 37 Primates of the Communion to meet with him to discuss some sort of restructuring of our common life in a way that would allow the differing provinces to be in communion with Canterbury although not with each other. (He has also invited the “archbishop” of the break-away “Anglican Church of North America” to attend.)

The conservative (that’s a loaded word, I know) Primates of the “Global South” (mostly African) provinces which several years ago formed something called GAFCON (originally an acronym for “Global Anglican Futures Conference”) have rebuffed the invitation because they refuse to sit at the same conference table (or the same Communion Table) with The Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church of Canada.

Maybe I do know what lattice the Anglican Communion has fallen through . . . it is the open-weave of cultural diversity. So long as the Communion was built with the relative solidity of English colonialism, all was well. When all of its provinces (other than a few rebellious folks like the Scottish and American Episcopalians) were “The Church of England in [fill in the blank],” all was well. When its provinces started to become independent and autocephalic (as their host colonies became independent nations) but still looked to England (and sometimes America) for guidance (and financial assistance), all was well.

But when those newly independent churches reached adolescence and early adulthood and began shrugging off the paternal arm of the English and American establishments, when the cultures of the former colonies reasserted themselves and the local leadership lost the thin gloss of British gentility, when the young churches began to flex their ecclesiastical muscle, fractures and gaps began to appear. The plaster of English churchmanship began to fall away from the apparently solid wall of Anglicanism leaving behind a lattice-work of cultural diversity and diversity’s evil twin, disparity.

The Communion fell through that fractured, lattice-work wall and, like a soft boiled potato pushed through a ricer, fractured itself. Laying injured like Ahazia, it called out to its gods, but not with a unified voice; the parts of the fractured body called out in many voices to many gods. Some parts called out to “inclusivity” and “toleration”. Some parts called out to “doctrinal purity”. Some parts called out to “covenant” and “structure”. All were valid “Anglican” appeals, but each seems not to have heard the Anglicanism in the others’ cries.

This remains the state of the Communion despite the Archbishop’s invitation to conversation. Like Ahaziah in his chamber, the Communion lays crippled on the floor still crying out to its various gods. This morning’s reading ends with Ahaziah’s death and his kingdom passing to his brother “because Ahaziah had no son.” Anglicanism, however, has many children and they seem hell-bent on continuing the fractious discord of diversity and disparity.

On the other hand, however, is the promise of the God to whom all the parties claim to call yet none seems clearly to have addressed, the God Incarnate who promised us that people (even members of our own family, of our own Communion) would “revile [us] and persecute [us] and utter all kinds of evil against [us],” but that on the other side of that would be a reward (Mt 5:11-12), something very like resurrection, I suspect. So, he said, stay salty and keep shining, even as we lay fractured on the floor.

Flesh and Blood – From the Daily Office – April 24, 2014

From the First Letter to the Corinthians:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Corinthians 15:50 (NRSV) – April 24, 2014.)

Human BodyI think I know what Paul is trying to say here, but I don’t like the way he’s saying it. I mean, I really have a theological issue with the assertion that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” I think the statement is just plain wrong. It states a dualism that relegates the material, specifically the human body, to realm of the damned, the unclean, the unworthy. In light of a creation story in which the Creator “saw everything that he had made [including that human flesh and blood], and indeed, it was very good,” I cannot accept the condemnation of our material being.

We have in our scriptural tradition an understanding that there have been human beings bodily “ascended” into the spiritual realms. “Elijah, because of great zeal for the law, was taken up into heaven,” says the First Book of Maccabees (1 Mac 2:58), and that is what Second Book of Kings describes: “Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” Elisha watched it happen and kept staring up until he could no longer see his master. (2 Kg 2:11-12) And then there is Enoch who “walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him,” (Gen 5:24) a statement which has always been understood to mean that he was taken, flesh and blood, into God’s eternal Presence.

Of even greater significance is the Ascension of Christ! As the Apostles stood “watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight,” and then a couple of angels assured them that he had “been taken up from you into heaven.” (Acts 1:9,11) This was Jesus in the same body that had been executed! That body still bore the wounds of crucifixion; he had invited Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” (Jn 20:27) That flesh-and-blood body which ascended had sat at table with his friends; after his Resurrection, that same flesh-and-blood body had eaten a piece of honey and shared some grilled fish. Paul goes on and on about earthly bodies and heavenly bodies, physical bodies and spiritual bodies, perishable bodies and imperishable bodies . . . but Jesus lived, died, rose, and ascended in one and same body!

I’m rather fond of the body I’ve lived in. It’s fat and out of shape and, truth be told, I wish it were better looking! But I’ve done a lot of stuff with this body and, like Henry Higgins with regard to Eliza Dolittle’s face, I’ve grown accustomed to it. It has been useful — it’s climbed holy mountains and visited sacred places; it’s lifted babies from their cribs and cuddled them; it’s hugged my wife and children; it’s helped old people into and out of bed; it’s held the hands of dying parents; it’s fed the hungry and built shelters for the homeless; it’s stood at the altar of God and ministered the Flesh and Blood of Christ. This flesh and blood has done some holy things. If I’m going to be gifted with life eternal, I’ll be happy to do so in this flesh and blood that has served me well, and with which I have done my best to serve God and God’s people.

I think I know what Paul was trying to say, but I wish he’d found a different way to say it because I think what he said is just wrong. Flesh and blood can inherit the kingdom of God. Indeed, I believe that flesh and blood have already inherited the kingdom of God. Here and now.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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