Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Zephaniah

Of Conscience and Risk – Sermon for RCL Proper 28A

John, your parish secretary, puts together a mailing every week that he sends to the clergy who will be joining you as presiders and preachers. He includes in that mailing some of the material from an Augsburg Fortress publication called “Sundays and Seasons,” which is a great lectionary resource. The illuminations that your lectors read before each Bible reading giving a little introduction about the lesson come from “Sundays and Seasons.” I’ve been familiar with the publication for a long time, though I’ve never been a subscriber: I used to participate in a weekly ecumenical lectionary study group that included Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopal clergy and our Lutheran colleagues often brought something from “Sundays and Seasons” into our discussions.

This week “Sundays and Seasons” offered this précis as an introduction to our gospel reading, which is Matthew’s Parable of the Talents:

Jesus tells a parable about his second coming, indicating that it is not sufficient merely to maintain things as they are. Those who await his return should make good use of the gifts that God has provided them.[1]

It’s now that time of year when clergy and church councils like to talk about stewardship of God’s gifts, and I am sure that you have heard many sermons that take exactly this approach to the Parable of the Talents;. I know that I have both heard and preached such sermons! But, having taken a closer look at the text recently, I that interpretation misses the mark. I don’t think this is a story about stewardship, at all: I believe it’s a story about conscience or, rather, the lack of conscience.

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Fatherhood and Laughter – Sermon for RCL Proper 6A

Our gospel lesson is the shortened version of Jesus’ commission to the twelve as he sends them out to do missionary work. As he continues with their instructions he tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,”[1] and then he warns them that those who follow him are likely to face all sorts of terrible strife, including bitterness and enmity within families.

“Brother will betray brother to death,” he says, “and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”[2]

It’s an odd lesson, I suppose, for Father’s Day, but of course Father’s Day isn’t on the church calendar and the Lectionary doesn’t take it into account. It’s simply a coincidence that this lesson about discord between fathers and sons should come up this morning, just as it’s a coincidence that the Old Testament lesson about the promise of a child to the elderly and barren couple Abraham and Sarah should be in the Lectionary rota today.

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Not Getting It Right: Sermon for Advent 3A (December 15, 2019)

When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . .  carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.

Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.

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Act Three (Pt 1): Fully Human – Easter Vigil 2017


A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Great Vigil of Easter, Saturday, April 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Exodus 14:10-31,15:20-21; Proverbs 8:1-8,19-21,9:4b-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 114; Romans 6:3-11; and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


Two weeks ago, the Sunday lectionary treated us to the entire long Gospel lesson of the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus and then last week the Daily Office lectionary repeated it in smaller bits over the course of several days. Last Sunday I suggested that Holy Week and Easter can be conceived as a three-act drama to which the Triumphal Entry of Palm Sunday is an overture.

The Lazarus story, like last Sunday’s Gospel, is part of that overture, the introduction to the three-act drama of celebration in which we have participated this week and in which we have come, this evening, to the third and final act. Lazarus has been much on my mind as we have prepared for this Easter celebration and for the baptisms we have just performed. I believe the story of Lazarus’ raising has much to teach us about what we have done here tonight in this third act, this Baptismal Vigil, this liturgy of welcoming and inclusion.

Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha of Bethany; they are a family which figures prominently in the Gospels as friends of Jesus. They are clearly people who believe in Jesus and in his mission, but their belief is much, much more than simply signing on to his program, a new approach to religion. This family really seems to know Jesus; he apparently stayed with them on several occasions. He lodged with them, ate with them, taught in their home. When word is sent to Jesus that Lazarus is ill, Lazarus is described to him as “he whom you love.” (John 11:3) Lazarus and his sisters are close to Jesus; they are practically family, may even be family.

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

Next, when both of the sisters greet Jesus (Martha’s greeting is earlier in the story), the very first thing each says is, “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died.” (John 11:21 & 32) Not “Hi, how are you?” Not “Welcome back.” Not “I’m so sorry we have to tell you.” What the sisters say is not really a greeting; it’s an angry, accusative confrontation. “You could have prevented this!”

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

The Lazarus story contains the shortest verse in the New Testament, famously rendered in the King James Version with only two words, “Jesus wept.” Some of the Judeans, John tells us, interpreted this as a sign of Jesus’ love for Lazarus; “See how he loved him!” they said. While I’ve no doubt that that is true, I suggest that, since John describes Jesus as angry and physically sick, we might consider another way to understand what is happening in this story.

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

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

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

We should feel that same way when we welcome a new member into the household of God through the Sacrament of Baptism. Symbolically, baptism is burial; in the oldest tradition of the church, full immersion baptism, we go down under the water in the same way a body is buried in the earth, then we come up out of the water as Lazarus came from his tomb, as Jesus came from his grave. Baptism is death, burial, and restoration to life all encapsulated in one short liturgical act. As St. Paul asks in his letter to the Romans which was read just a few minutes ago, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” The Prayer Book says in the blessing of the baptismal water, “In it we are buried with Christ in his death.”

St. Paul’s assurance that “if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his,” is echoed by the Prayer Books bold promise that by baptism we share in Jesus’ resurrection, and that “through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.” (BCP 1979, p 306) As Jesus called for Lazarus to be unbound from his funeral wrappings, as Jesus himself rose and set aside his shroud, through Holy Baptism our Lord calls us “from the bondage of sin into everlasting life” (ibid), into a new life of full humanity joined with those whom the Psalmist describes as having “clean clean hands and a pure heart, [those] who have not pledged themselves to falsehood nor sworn by what is a fraud, [those who] shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God.” (Ps 24:4-5)

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

When we baptized these children, we asked them and their baptismal sponsors (and we asked ourselves) some questions which are taken directly from the Apostle’s Creed, to which I referred earlier. These questions began with the words, “Do you believe . . . .”

A few years ago a colleague of mine said that he had once asked his congregation, when reciting the Nicene Creed, to say “We trust in” instead of “We believe in” since the original Greek could have been translated either way. He said he wondered if the church would be less fragmented if we had used “trust.” He suggested that there might have been far less of, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so I’m out of here,” or, “You don’t believe exactly what I believe, so you are out of here.” When we ask those questions of baptismal candidates and their Godparents, when we say the creeds ourselves, are expressing a deep affirmation of community whether we say, “We believe in . . .” or “We trust in . . .” Maybe we don’t “believe” exactly the same things that others here believe, but we all trust in the same God.

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

This is why we ask those questions of baptismal candidates. When we say, “Do you believe in” the three Persons of the Holy Trinity, we are not merely asking if the candidates (and the congregation who join them in answering) are assenting to certain doctrines about them; we are asking if they claim to be in a relationship of trust and love with God the Holy Trinity, and through God with the full community of human beings whom God loves and whom God has redeemed in all that long salvation history that we have heard read from the Hebrew Scriptures this evening. When we baptized these children, when we baptize any new member of the Christian community, we recognize them as part of that fully human community whom God invites to “lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight” (Prov 9:6), whom God promises to save, and gather, and bring home, and restore. (Zeph 3:19-20)

That full human community relationship, I believe, is why Jesus wept. To be sure, he grieved the death of his friend Lazarus, but he knew he was about to do something to change that; there was no reason to cry about that. But that in-rushing crash of realization of what it is to be a human being, of what it is to be fully human, that is enough to make anyone cry. The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story about Jesus’ full humanity, the full humanity he shares with and promises to us, the full humanity which gathered with friends and family at the Last Supper in the first act of this drama of redemption, the full humanity which was arrested and brutalized and crucified in the second act, the full humanity whose Resurrection we celebrate in this, the third act, the feast of Easter. It is into that Easter promise that we have baptized Kadence, Bryce, Hadley, and Joseph this evening. And that is why the Lazarus story figures so prominently in the church’s preparations for Holy Week and Easter, part of the overture of this three-part drama of redemption!

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

As they have been buried with Christ, they have begun to share in his Resurrection; may God bless them with the gift and the commission to be, like Christ, fully human. Amen.


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

Forgive Us Our Sins: Third of a Series – Sermon for Advent 3 (13 December 2015)


A sermon offered on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 13, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 [Isaiah 12:2-6]; Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:7-18. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)


derrystatueJohn the Baptizer came, Luke tells us, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Lk. 3:3) In today’s Gospel lesson, John tells the crowds who came to him, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (v. 8) Our catechism teaches us that repentance is required of us to receive the Sacraments. With regard to baptism, the catechetical requirement is that we “renounce Satan, repent of our sins, and accept Jesus as our Lord and Savior;” with regard to the Holy Eucharist, that we “examine our lives, repent of our sins, and be in love and charity with all people.” (BCP 858, 860) But John’s admonition and the Catechism’s requirements leave us wondering, “What exactly is ‘repentance’?”

It is something more than mere acknowledgment of transgression or wrong-doing, more than saying I’m sorry. The biblical and theological word for repentance is metanoia, which means a “turning around” or a changing of direction. We get a hint of this meaning in the invitation to confession used in earlier Anglican prayer books and still found in Rite One in our current Book of Common Prayer:

Ye who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways: Draw near with faith . . . . (BCP 330)

To repent is to turn from our path onto God’s “holy ways” and “lead a new life.”

John’s audience clearly knew that some amendment of life was part of what he was calling them to, for “the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?'” (Lk 3:10) His answers probably seem to us pretty common-sensical: share what you have, don’t take more than you deserve, don’t extort money, don’t make false accusations, be satisfied with your wages. That’s pretty much what the old prayer book invitation to confession said, too: follow the commandments, follow God’s ways, be on good terms with your neighbors. It’s common sense; it’s hard to do!

That’s why Jesus taught us to seek forgiveness, to repent every time we pray: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Which brings us to this, the next petition in our consideration of the Lord’s Prayer.

Now the truth is that hundreds if not thousands of books of several hundred pages each have been written about the Lord’s Prayer, and hundreds of those books are specifically about this petition, and only this petition. Perhaps that is because sin, the subject of this part of the prayer, is so fascinating. Perhaps it is because of the difference in terminology used by Luke and Matthew; Luke uses the Greek word hamartia, usually translated as “sin” although it actually means something else, while Matthew uses opheilemata, usually translated as “debt” which is pretty accurate, and neither uses the word which means “trespass,” which is paraptoma, a word found in Matthew’s follow-up commentary on the prayer, “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Mt. 6:14) “Trespass” made its way into the older liturgical version of the prayer because of the early English translation work of John Wycliffe and William Tyndale in the 15th Century.

So what do these two words tell us about sin? By the way, the English word “sin” comes from an old Germanic word meaning a failure to obey a rule and carries an inference of moral guilt; neither of the Greek words derives from anything like that. Hamartia comes from the sport of archery and means “to miss the mark”; opheilemata comes from business accounting and means a monetary debt. (The word meaning “forgive,” aphes, also comes from accounting and means cancelation of a debt.)

Bible commentator William Barclay, in his book The Lord’s Prayer (Westminster John Knox, Louisville:1998) explains hamartia this way:

Harmartia was not originally an ethical word; originally it meant quite simply a missing of the mark, as when a javelin, or an arrow, or a blow misses its mark. In this sense, sin is a failure to hit the mark, a failure to realize the true aim of life, a failure to be and to do that which we ought to have done, and which we could have been and could have done. (p. 86)

And of opheilemata he writes that Matthew was directly translating an accounting metaphor used by Aramaic speaking rabbis of Jesus’ time, probably the very word that Jesus used in his original teaching:

Now in the time of Jesus in Palestine the rabbis thought of sin almost exclusively as a failure in obedience to God. To them goodness was obedience, sin was disobedience. This is to say that man’s first obligation is to give God obedience; not to give obedience to God is to be in debt to God; and therefore their commonest word for sins was choba’, which in fact means debt. (p. 86)

Neither of the Greek terms necessarily carries a connotation of moral culpability. Certainly there are times when a person commits an intentional act which misses the mark of moral or ethical behavior, but there are many more times when we miss the mark because, like a trained archer, we aim carefully to do the right thing and then miss. Certainly there are times when a person intentionally fails to pay a debt, an unethical and perhaps even criminal thing to do, but there are many more times when we incur indebtedness because we have blundered or slipped through inadvertence.

These Greek words remind us that sinfulness is not about breaking rules; sinfulness is about harming relationships. This is why the great existentialist theologian Paul Tillich insisted that “sin does not mean an immoral act;” he suggested “that ‘sin’ should never be used in the plural, and that not our sins, but rather our sin is the great, all-pervading problem of our life.” (Quoted in Killen, R. Allan, The Ontological Theology of Paul Tillich, J. H. Kok, Kampen:1956, p. 185) That problem, he said, is separation: “To be in the state of sin is to be in the state of separation.” (Tillich, Systematic Theology, 2:46)

Thus the state of our whole life is estrangement from others and ourselves, because we are estranged from the Ground of our being, because we are estranged from the origin and aim of our life. And we do not know where we have come from, or where we are going. We are separated from the mystery, the depth, and the greatness of our existence. We hear the voice of that depth; but our ears are closed. We feel that something radical, total, and unconditioned is demanded of us; but we rebel against it, try to escape its urgency, and will not accept its promise. (Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations, Chapter 19: You Are Accepted.)

In trying to make that urgent escape, we stumble. We say the wrong thing, or perhaps the right thing in a wrong way, or we hear what another says differently than that other intended, and we both incur the debt of explanation. We do something we shouldn’t do or fail to do something we should; we miss the mark. We blunder off the path, transgress a boundary, and put things out of balance. We may not break any rule, but we hurt feelings and damage relationships. We exacerbate the sin of separation and increase our estrangement from ourselves, from others, and from God. Sin is not about breaking rules; sin is about harming relationships. Sin is separation.

God’s forgiveness, aphes, the cancellation of any debt, balances the books, moves the arrow from wherever it went astray and counts it a bull’s-eye. This is the promise of God set out by Zephaniah in today’s Old Testament lesson: “I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. . . . . I will change [your] shame into praise . . . .” (Zeph. 3:18-19) God’s forgiveness sets the pattern for our own; we are able to forgive others because we know that we are forgiven. So Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” in our liturgical version. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us” (Lk 11:4) is how Luke renders it; “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12) is Matthew’s version.

Mark, of course, does not tell us about Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer, but he does tell us that on the day after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, he instructed his disciples about the power of prayer and in that teaching said, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.” (Mk 11:25) In March of 2014, Pope Francis preached a homily on the feeding of the 5,000 in which he said this: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” It’s an insight that applies to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer, as well: “You pray for forgiveness. Then you forgive. That’s how prayer works.”

Last week, on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Facebook page, he posted a picture of a statue erected in Derry, Northern Ireland, of two men reaching across a wide gap and reaching for each other’s hand. The Archbishop’s caption for the photograph said,

Reconciliation is about our relationship with God and with each other. It’s people, communities and nations learning to live together with deeply-held differences in a spirit of love and respect. It’s working for justice and seeking truth in the light of God’s mercy and peace. It’s the very heart of the gospel.

Forgiveness is the first step of reconciliation; together, forgiveness and reconciliation are chief among the fruits of repentance John the Baptizer admonished his hearers, and us, to bear.

There is so much more that could be said about this petition! Hundreds of books of hundreds of pages have been written about it. Please forgive me for only scratching the surface.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Amen.


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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AD 85-100: The Fourth Gospel is written.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the song of all people. The song sings in the silence, and the silence did not overcome it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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!


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

To Boldly Go: Sermon for a Celebration of Ministry – St. Paul’s, Manhattan, Kansas – October 16, 2013


This sermon was preached on October 16, 2013, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Manhattan, Kansas, where Fr. Funston’s son, the Rev. A. Patrick K. Funston is rector. Fr. Patrick was installed as rector, and the appointment of the Rev. Sandra Horton-Smith as Deacon in the parish was also celebrated.

(The Episcopal Church sanctoral lectionary for the Feast of Hugh Latimer & Nicholas Ridley, bishops and martyrs: Zephaniah 3:1-5; Psalm 142; 1 Corinthians 3:9-14; and John 15:20-16:1.)


Ridley and LatimerI bring you greetings from the people of St. Paul’s Parish, Medina, Ohio, where I am privileged to serve as rector. Nearly all the active members of our congregation know and respect Patrick, and have asked me to convey their congratulations to him and to you, together with the assurance of their prayers, as you continue together in a new ministry only recently begun. Of course, none of them know Sandy, but we offer our greetings and prayers for her diaconal ministry among you, as well.

I suppose my son asked me to preach this evening because he believes that in 40 years of church leadership including 23 years in ordained ministry as a deacon, curate, associate rector, and now rector in four dioceses, I may have picked up one or two bits of useful information to pass along. I shall strive, Fr. Funston, to make it so.

Sandy, I have never been a vocational deacon and I have had only a little experience working with deacons in the course of my ministry; nonetheless, it is my hope there may be something in what I have to say that will be of use to you.

We are gathered this evening on the feast of two Anglican martyrs — Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer. They were bishops of the reformed Church of England put to death, by being burned at the stake, during the short reign and attempted Roman Catholic restoration of Queen Mary I, eldest daughter of Henry VIII. During her less-than-six years on the English throne, nearly 300 Protestants were killed, including these two bishops, so she is known to history as “Bloody Mary.”

The bishops’ martyrdom is most notable for the probably apocryphal story that Latimer, as the fires were lighted beneath them, reached to Ridley, took him by the hand and said, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.”

I’ll skip the other details of Latimer’s and Ridley’s lives and ministries; I bring them up really only to explain the otherwise incomprehensible choices of lessons for this service; one really must stretch to find anything remotely enlightening about parish ministry in Zephaniah’s “soiled, defiled, oppressing city” filled with faithless people and profane priests, or in the Psalmist’s languishing spirit and loud supplications. There may be (indeed there will be) times when both priest and people may feel like the Psalmist in the course of a pastorate (as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the work of ministry will be tested by fire), but dwelling on that hardly seems a constructive way to begin the relationship.

I must admit that I was tempted to use the bishop’s martyrdom as a metaphor for parish ministry, but thought better of it; it would be an incomplete metaphor, at best. I think I’ve found a much better metaphor, but before I get to it, I want to digress for a moment and tell you something about our experience, my wife’s and mine, in raising our son.

When Patrick was in junior high school and high school, his band and orchestra directors said to us, “Your son is a talented musician. He could have a great career in music.”

“Yes!” we replied, “Encourage him in that!”

When he was in high school and college, his mathematics instructors said to us, “Your son is a natural mathematician. He could have a great career as a professor or a theoretician.”

“Yes!” we replied, “Encourage him in that!”

When he decided to major in business, we heard from his fellow students and his professors that he had a great mind for economics and finances, and could make millions as a financial planner.

“Yes!” we said, “Encourage that!”

Earlier in his life, from about the age of 14 on, when he was active as an acolyte, and in youth group, and in the diocesan peer ministry program, people would come to us and say, “Patrick has all the skills and the personality to be a wonderful priest.”

“No!” we cried, “Please do not encourage him that way!”

It’s not that we didn’t want Patrick to become a priest; we’re delighted that he has found his calling amongst the clergy of the church and that he has been called to be Rector in this parish. However, his becoming a priest or Sandy’s becoming a deacon is not something we, any of us, including them, have any business “wanting.” It isn’t something that we or anyone should be “encouraging.” Ordained ministry is something to be discerned and what it is to be discerned is whether the potential priest or deacon can be anything else.

Every potential clergy person is asked, over and over again, “Why do you want to be clergy?” And every priest and deacon here tonight has answered that question. We may have phrased the answer differently, but for each of us it is the same. It’s not that the person called to the diaconate wants to be a deacon; it’s that she must be a deacon! It’s not that the person called to priesthood wants to be a priest; it’s that he must be a priest!

Presbyterian pastor and author Frederick Buechner spoke for us all when he answered the question in his book, The Alphabet of Grace:

“I hear you are entering the ministry,” the woman said down the long table meaning no real harm. “Was it your own idea or were you poorly advised?” And the answer that she could not have heard even if I had given it was that it was not an idea at all, neither my own nor anyone else’s. It was a lump in the throat. It was an itching in the feet. It was a stirring of the blood at the sound of rain. It was a sickening of the heart at the sight of misery. It was a clamoring of ghosts. It was a name which, when I wrote it out in a dream, I knew was a name worth dying for even if I was not brave enough to do the dying myself and if I could not even name the name for sure. Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you a high and driving peace. I will condemn you to death. (Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace, pp. 109-110)

Buechner’s last sentence does call to mind the martyrdom of Latimer and Ridley and so many others: “I will condemn you to death.” As a description of the call to parish ministry it is both terrifying and terrific!

The Christ we follow, the Christ we proclaim, the Christ who said, “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you,” does call us, does lead us to die! To die to selfishness, to die to ego. But through that death he leads us to life. We die to self to uncover what the Quakers call, “that of God within” or the “inner Teacher” … the True Self. Your call, Patrick, to priesthood and yours, Sandy, to the diaconate … our call to parish ministry is a call to continue dying to self and, as a result, to continue becoming truly alive.

It is, as any priest or deacon here will tell you, a painful process. To be clergy in Christ’s church is, as Paul made quite clear in his letters to the congregations in Ephesus and Rome, a gift; it is a wonderful, precious, costly, and painful gift. It will take you into the deepest intimacy with God’s people, with your people. At times you will be with them in the midst of their worst nightmares – death and divorce, devastating illness and the depths of despair. At times, you will feel put-upon and misused. At times, you will feel left out and neglected. At times, there will be conflict, and it will seem like it is consuming you alive. At times, it may seem that, a bit like Latimer and Ridley, you are being burned at the stake, because people will hurt you, sometimes intentionally and spitefully, sometimes negligently, often simply because they are in pain.

But as I said a moment ago, that would be an incomplete metaphor because the source of that pain is also the source of the most exquisite joy, when that same intimacy will privilege you with sharing God’s people’s, your people’s happiest and most blessed moments – when two people commit themselves to one another for life, when their children are born, when they get that long-sought promotion, when their kids graduate with honors, when children marry, when grandchildren are born, when these people among whom and with whom you minister know themselves to be God’s beloved.

Cherish those intimate moments — both the painful and the joyful — because they are moments of grace. Each of them is unique; never fall into the black hole of thinking you’ve “been there, done that.” There may have been similar moments . . . but that couple has never been married before and never will be again, that baby has never been born or baptized before and never will be again, that teenager has never graduated from high school before and never will again, that man has never died before and never will again. Each intimate moment, painful or joyful, is unique and no one has ever been there before. Each unique intimate moment, painful or joyful, is bursting with the promise and potential of God’s grace!

Do not fear those moments of graceful intimacy; cherish them because it is in them that you and the people of St. Paul’s Parish will die to self and become truly alive, to continue growing in boldness and righteousness, in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and even holiness. It is in those moments when we are in the presence of God, when we stand before the throne of grace.

I think you know, Patrick, that one of my favorite verses of Scripture is from the Letter to Hebrews: “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb. 4:16 KJV) So . . . if I say to you that our mission in parish ministry is to boldly go into those unique moments of grace where no one has gone before, you probably know that my metaphor for parish ministry is “the voyages of the Starship Enterprise.”

I read somewhere recently that one can consider oneself an unqualified success as a parent if you have raised your child to be a Star Trek fan; by that measure, Patrick’s mother and I were successful.

Star Trek Uniform SocksIn the original Star Trek series, the crew’s uniforms were color coded: gold uniforms were command; red uniforms were engineering and security; and blue uniforms were science and medical. Parish ministry entails all three. So, Patrick, I have a little gift for you — a set of three pairs of official Star Trek color-coded uniform socks to remind you of these aspects of pastoral ministry.

Gold — command: Patrick, the canons of your diocese (with which, you may recall, I have some familiarity) provide that as rector, “by virtue of such office, [you have] the powers and duties conferred by the General Canons of the Church, and in this connection shall exercise pastoral oversight of all guilds and societies within the parish, and [you are] entitled to speak and vote on all questions before these bodies.” (Canon IV.6, Diocese of Kansas) The canons provide that you are the chair person of the vestry and that you not only chair the annual meeting of the parish, you are also the final arbiter of who may vote at the meeting.

That’s a good deal of command authority and it should not be taken lightly. Remember two things about it. First, that you share it with others. The canons specify that the vestry “shall share with the Rector a concern and responsibility for the mission, ministry, and spiritual life of the parish.” (Canon IV.5.6(a)) But not only the vestry, all the good people this parish are your co-workers. As our catechism makes clear, “the ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons;” every single baptized person, every member of this church has a ministry. The Rector does not do it alone, nor should he.

You remember on Star Trek: TOS, Captain Kirk went on every away mission. That’s a model of poor leadership; the captain should not have commanded, or even been a part of, every away team. Trust the rest of the crew — the vestry, the staff, volunteers, all the people of the parish — to handle things.

Remember Paul’s opening words to the Corinthians in this evening’s epistle: “We are God’s servants, working together . . . .” You and the vestry and people of this congregation are God’s servants, working together. You as the Rector don’t have to do it all — you do have to know what is happening; you have to be in the information loop and be privy to all the information pertinent to the running of the church and to ministering with and among its members, but you don’t have do it all!

I suspect that if Jesus were to critique Kirk’s style of leadership, he might say something along the lines of “It will not be so among you; whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.” (Matt. 20:26) That is the second thing to remember about command authority in the church. Be like the 6th Century pope St. Gregory the Great and remember that as a leader in the church you are the “servant of the servants of God.”

The red uniforms were for those doing engineering and security, and there is a lot of that in parish ministry. Much of it, knowing where the boilers are and how they work, knowing where the circuit breakers and fuses are, knowing how to fix a leaky faucet or a squeaky hinge or a broken kneeler . . . much of it falls into the category of “things they didn’t teach us in seminary.” But there is also a lot of engineering and security that they did teach us.

The ministry of word and sacrament are the engineering and security jobs of the parish priest; preaching God’s word and celebrating God’s Sacraments, for which seminary did prepare us. They are central to any priest’s ministry, and to do them well takes time and it takes prayer.

Preparing a sermon can easily consume 10-15 hours per week. Similarly, planning liturgies, not only for regular Sunday services, but for weddings, funerals, holidays, and other special events takes time and care. Many people are willing to say their clergy should put in this kind of time, but the only way the rector can have this time is if other demands are otherwise taken care of. I have admonished Patrick not to be Captain Kirk going on every away mission. So I admonish you, the people of St. Paul’s Parish, that you must not expect him to make every pastoral visit, oversee every parish activity, make every administrative decision. As St. Paul wrote the Ephesians, each member of the church is given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift and each member must work to properly promoting the body’s growth. I encourage you to claim the shared ministry of the whole people of God and join with your rector and your deacons in providing pastoral care to one another, in managing parish activities, and in administrative governance.

Patrick, this obligation of the congregation means that you must answer it with a similar commitment. Just like Engineer Scott was always adjusting the “warp coils” and tuning the “dilithium crystals” (whatever those were), you must take time in prayer adjusting your spirit and tuning your psyche. Take the time your congregation gives you to prepare prayerfully for these “red uniform” ministries — preaching and sacramental celebration. Be like Captain Jean-Luc Picard in TNG; take private time in your “ready room;” spend time in conversation with God every day. Other things can wait or someone else can do them . . . but no one else can listen to God for you. You must spend your own time in prayer.

Sandy, I would say the same thing to you. Your engineering and security ministry will be different from Patrick’s, obviously. As a deacon, you are (I’m sure) familiar with the description of the role of the deacon as bringing the world’s needs to the attention of the church and taking the church’s ministry into service in the world. Deacons exemplify Christian discipleship, nurture others in their relationship to God, and lead church people to respond to the needs of the most needy, neglected, and marginalized of the world. Those are definitely “red uniform” tasks, and they too can only be done well with careful and prayerful preparation.

Prayer is also the “red uniform” ministry of whole congregation. The early 19th Century American Presbyterian preacher and seminary professor Gardiner Spring wrote in his book The Power of the Pulpit:

[H]ow unspeakably precious the thought to all who labor in this great work, whether in youthful, or riper years, that they are … habitually remembered in the prayers of the churches! Let the thought sink deep into the heart of every church, that their minister will be very much such a minister as their prayers may make him. If nothing short of Omnipotent grace can make a Christian, nothing less than this can make a faithful and successful minister of the Gospel!

We might express this thought differently today, but Gardiner’s point remains valid. Your prayers, good people, even more than their own, are the wellspring from which flows the water of God’s grace on which Patrick’s ministry as priest and Sandy’s as a deacon so much depend. If you wish their ministries to bear good fruit, do not forget to pray for them, and let them know that you are doing so!

Star Trek:TOS CrewWhich brings us, at last, to the blue uniforms, the science and medical corps of the star ship. Mr. Spock the Science officer and Doctor “Bones” McCoy always wore blue. One of the ancient terms that we still use for pastoral ministry is “the cure of souls,” the word “cure” having pretty much the same meaning as it has in medicine. Broadly speaking, this ministry is the care, protection, and oversight of the nourishment and spiritual well-being of the souls committed to the pastor’s care; it may be shared with others, with deacons or with lay ministers, but it is truly the ministry of the parish priest. It is in this “blue shirt” ministry that those wonderful, painful, joyful, intimate moments of grace that I spoke of earlier will happen.

It is customary at these services to ask the clergy about to be installed to stand for an admonition or a charge, but I’m not going to do that this evening. We aren’t here celebrating only the installation of the rector, or only the new ministry of these two clergy; we are celebrating the whole ministry of all the People of God in this parish. So I have a charge for all of you.

I know you expect me to say something like “explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, and boldly go where no one has gone before,” but that would just be too hokey, don’t you think?

No, I have rather more practical and down-to-earth advice.

Give each other time; give one another your attention; support one another with your prayers; respect yourselves and each other; and, most importantly, love one another. (Members of St. Paul’s, I can’t underscore the last one enough. You expect your clergy to remember your birthdays and your wedding anniversaries, to thank you when you perform some volunteer service, to greet you pleasantly when they see you at the grocery store. That’s only natural, and it’s right and proper that you do so. But, please, do the same for them! It is the most important thing the people of a parish can do for their clergy. Love Patrick and Sandy, their spouses and their families. Invite them into your homes. Remember their birthdays and anniversaries. Remember to say, “Thank you” once in a while. Believe me: it really is such little things that make all the difference.)

And, again, remember Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “We are God’s servants, working together.” So together represent Christ, bear witness to him wherever you may be and, according to the gifts given to each of you, carry on his work of reconciliation in the world.

If you do these things, you shall, by God’s grace, like Ridley and Latimer, light such a candle in Kansas, as, I trust, will never be put out.

Make it so! Amen!


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!


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

A Holy and a Broken Hallelujah – Sermon for Advent 3, Year C – December 16, 2012


This sermon was preached on Sunday, December 16, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Advent 3, Year C: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Canticle 9 (The First Song of Isaiah, Ecce Deus, Isaiah 12:2-6); Philippians 4:4-7; and Luke 3:7-18. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)


Broken Hallelujah LyricDid you pay attention to the words of the song we just sang as our sequence hymn? Listen to them again:

Comfort, comfort ye my people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load . . . .

(Hymn 67, The Hymnal 1982)

These are God’s words to the prophet Isaiah; we find them in the 40th chapter of Isaiah. They are God’s instructions to Isaiah, but I think every priest hears them personally when we are called on to minister to someone in times of trouble and loss. “Comfort, comfort my people; comfort those who are in sorrow.”

Since Friday morning when I, like many others, sat in stunned silence struggling to understand the horror of what had just happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, I have had a recurring vision of Christmas presents under Christmas trees in darkened homes, presents that will never be unwrapped. I see mothers and fathers sitting in that darkness mourning beneath a load of sorrow I don’t think I could ever comprehend, and I wonder if I as a priest or as a friend could speak any word of comfort to them. I have known the pain and brokenness of losing loved ones; I have known the sadness that comes with the death of parents and siblings. But I can only imagine (and I’m sure completely inadequately) the grief and agony a parent must feel when his or her child has been murdered; I can only imagine how broken those parents’ hearts must be, how broken they must feel. I don’t know if I could offer any comfort to them.

I have spent the past 48 hours following the news reports, weeping, screaming at the television, reading the statements of bishops and other clergy, enraged at the injustice of it, angry because as a society we seem unwilling (not incapable, unwilling) to do anything about the epidemic of gun violence that seems to sweep unchecked across our country.

This is not the way we are supposed to be on this, the Third, Sunday of Advent! In the tradition of the church, today is known as Gaudete Sunday or “Rejoicing Sunday” because in the medieval church the introit, the first words of the Mass, was Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete, the first words of our epistle lesson this morning: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice.” The same theme is struck in the Old Testament reading from the Prophet Zephaniah and in the Gradual taken from the Prophet Isaiah; these readings are meant to emphasize our joyous anticipation of the Lord’s coming. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart,” Zephaniah cries out, but when our hearts are broken how are we to do that? Here in the depths of dealing with a senseless act of brutality, there is damned little rejoicing in our broken hearts, there is damned little comfort. We are in the midst of a murderous gun violence epidemic and I find it hard to rejoice.

Consider what has gone on in just the past week: last Sunday a man fatally shot his security-officer wife, tried to kill another person, and then killed himself in an employee parking lot at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport; on Tuesday a masked gunman killed two people and seriously injured another in a Portland, Oregon, shopping mall; on Friday, the Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, the second worst mass shooting at a school in U.S. history; and yesterday, a gunman shot three people in a hospital in Birmingham, Alabama. Earlier this year we saw fatal mass shootings in Minneapolis, in Tulsa, in a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, in a theater in Colorado, in a coffee bar in Seattle, and in a college in California. It is painfully clear that this is an epidemic of violence, that all is not well in our country. Like our hearts, our society is broken.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are about 31,000 deaths from firearms annually in our country. Of those, 500 are accidental; another 300 or so are considered “legal” as the result of law enforcement actions; and the nature of about 200 cannot be determined. That means that about 30,000 intentional, illegal, fatal shootings occur in the United States in a year’s time; 62% of those are suicides; 38% are murders.

Speak ye to Jerusalem
of the peace that waits for them;
tell her that her sins I cover,
and her warfare now is over.

As someone who, everyday, tries to speak the word of God to people who need to hear it, I don’t know that I can do that! I don’t know if I could comfort those parents mourning beneath their dark load of sorrow, and I don’t know how I could tell you that our warfare, our plague of gun violence is over! Our warfare is not over; the slaughter goes on . . . one or two people here, thirteen theater-goers there, twenty children in Connecticut . . . the massacre continues more than 11,000 times a year. Yes, it is painfully clear that this is an epidemic of violence, that all is not well in our country. Like our hearts, our society is broken.

John the Baptizer warned the people who came to him that all was not well in their society, that it was broken. “Do not,” he told them, “begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor.'” Don’t think that because you are who you are that all is well and that all will be well; it is not and it will not be. Our society is broken! “And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?'” John’s answer was simplicity itself – do what you know to be right. If you have two coats, if you have extra food, and your neighbor has none, share. If you have taken on the job of tax collector, or if you are a soldier entitled to ask citizens for support, collect no more than you should, ask no more than is proper. Just do what you know to be right, do what you know ought to be done.

Every time one of these mass shootings occurs there is an outpouring of public grief, and there are expressions of sorrow and sympathy. Every time this has happened, however, we have been told that it is not the appropriate time to talk about strengthening our nation’s gun control laws; we are told that it is too soon to talk about doing something about gun violence; we are told that we have to give the families of the victims time to heal. But as John the Baptizer said to those who came to him at the Jordan, the time is now – “Even now,” he said, “the ax is lying at the root of the trees . . . .” There is no time like the present to do what we know to be right, to do what we know ought to be done.

I believe that that talk about time to heal is a sham. I don’t think anyone ever “heals” from the death of a loved one; one remains broken. I know that I have never “healed” from the deaths of my parents or of my brother or of any other person I loved; forever, after each death, there is a part of me that is and will always be broken. As a parent, I am very sure I would never “heal” from the murder of my child; I would be forever broken. But I know that life goes on and, through the grace of God, we are given the strength to live it, even as wounded, as broken, as broken-hearted as we may be. As Isaiah said, “Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid. For the Lord is my stronghold and my sure defense, and he will be my Savior.” The one who was broken on Calvary’s tree was broken that I, in my brokenness, might be made whole. Through his brokenness, in our brokenness, we are given the peace of God which passes all understanding.

Life goes on, and by the grace of our Savior we are given the strength to live it, and in it to do what we know to be right, to do what we know ought to be done. The only question is whether we have the will to do it.

Make ye straight what long was crooked,
make the rougher places plain;
let your hearts be true and humble,
as befits his holy reign.

Have we the will to do what we know to be right, to make what is crooked straight, to make what is rough plain? Are our hearts, broken though they may be, true and humble as befits our Savior’s holy reign?

Many of you know that I’m a great fan of the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and many of you are familiar with his song Hallelujah. In it there is this great line:

Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

And again, later in the song, the singer says of love,

It’s not a cry you can hear at night
It’s not somebody who has seen the light
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

In the funeral liturgy of our church, near the end of the service, the priest stands at the body of the deceased and says, “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” When each of those twenty children, each of those seven adults are buried, their families will hear those as cold and broken Hallelujahs! But as our Advent hymn reminds us in its conclusion,

For the glory of the Lord
now o’er the earth is shed abroad,
and all flesh shall see the token
that the word is never broken.

Our hearts may be broken; our lives may be broken; our society may be broken, but God’s word, God’s promise is never broken. The Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, he was broken . . . broken on the Cross that we might be made whole. Risen unbroken though still bearing the scars of our brokenness, he will return again so that we might sing not a broken, but a whole Hallelujah, a holy Hallelujah, so that we might “rejoice in the Lord always.”

I still don’t know if I could comfort those grieving parents, but I do know that I believe in God, that I believe God’s promise, and that I believe in Jesus Christ, the One who was broken that we might be made whole. It is his birth and its promise of wholeness that we prepare to celebrate in this Advent season. And because I believe, I know that I could, at least, be with those families in this time of grief, that I could sit with them, and that I could assure them in words just slightly changed from the end of Mr. Cohen’s song . . . .

There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.
* * * *
And even though it all went wrong
We’ll stand before the Lord in song
With nothing on our tongue but Hallelujah!