That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Celtic (page 1 of 5)

I Rise Today in the Gray Zone: Trinity Sunday Sermon, 11 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Trinity Sunday, June 11, 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; Song of the Three Young Men 29-34 (apocryphal verses found in some translations of Daniel 3); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and St. Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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This is “Trinity Sunday,” the only Sunday of the Christian year dedicated to a truly puzzling Christian doctrine, the peculiar Christian notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one. The late Jim Griffiss, the seminary professor with whom I studied systematic theology, once quipped that one could walk into any church on Trinity Sunday and hear heresy preached; that’s because there is no good or easy way to explain this doctrine. There’s also no way to really understand this doctrine as a matter of intellectual assent. But as a friend of mine said recently, “We [are called to] worship one God in Trinity, not understand one God in Trinity. Accept the Mystery, sing the Te Deum, and move on.” (Facebook discussion) I think he’s right. As a way of describing God, one must admit that the doctrine of the Trinity seems paradoxical, more than a little bit ambiguous, and frankly beyond explanation in a short (or even a long) sermon. So, we won’t be singing the Te Deum today, but I would like to use some poetry to explore how we can experience and worship the Triune God.

I was reintroduced during the past several months to the poetry of the Welsh Anglican priest R.S. Thomas and would like to begin our exploration of the Trinity with his poem The Bright Field (suggested to me for today by a seminary classmate).

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

I’ll return to Thomas’s Bright Field, but first let me tell you about some other reading I’ve done recently.

A few weeks ago, I was reading in the news about conditions in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world and learned that the Islamic State in Syria (“ISIS” or “Da’esh”) has coined a new term to describe Western civil society. An essay published by Da’esh leadership just after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris in 2015 called for the Extinction of the Grayzone, which is to say the secular West, which it described as the dwelling place of “hypocrites and deviant innovators.” (See Alternet) But the author of the news report I was reading offered a different take on the idea of a “gray zone” and suggested:

The gray zone is the zone of peaceful coexistence. Eliminating the gray zone and rendering a world as black & white as the flag of the Islamic state is the ultimate goal of fundamentalists on all sides. (Ahead of the News)

I filed that away as an interesting observation that might sometime be useful.

A few weeks later, this past week in fact, I was researching for this sermon, once again trying to find ways to explain the doctrine of the Trinity before deciding not to try to do so. In my researches I ran across a summary of an interview given several years ago by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold in which he lamented that when we put something other than the authority of scripture, the ancient creeds, the doctrine of the Trinity, and the nature of Christ at the center of our religious life we end up in a “very sorry situation” of division. He went on to describe our Anglican tradition as one which tries, instead, to be comprehensive:

The Episcopal Church is a questioning community. … It’s confident that Christ is at its center, and that gives it the courage to look at things that are difficult. It also is a church which has lived with open-ended questions. It doesn’t need to reduce things to absolutes. We can deal with shades of gray, we can deal with paradox and ambiguity without feeling that we are being unfaithful. (Father Jake)

In a word, we and our church are that “gray zone” which fundamentalists (and fundamentalisms) on all sides seek to eliminate; we model and offer to the world that “zone of peaceful coexistence” because we place the Trinity – this peculiar and confusing notion that God is one-in-three and three-in one – squarely at the center of life. And into this “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity every so often comes that brightness, that flash of illumination of which poet Thomas wrote, that miracle of the lit bush, transitory as youth but holding the eternity that awaits us. We experience the Trinity even though we may not understand it.

God the Holy and Undivided Trinity is the eternal, archetypal Community, in whose image and likeness we, both as a species and as individuals, are created. Sinfulness, described in the Genesis story of the Fall, has seriously compromised human participation in that community; in terms of the theological metaphor of perichoresis, which envisions the life of the Trinity as a dance, we have taken a misstep. Through God’s grace, in Christ and in Christ’s Church, humanity is re-created in the Divine image and likeness, and invited once again into that Community, back into the dance with the Divine.

I chose the hymn called St. Patrick’s Breastplate (and stipulated all seven of its verses) as our opening hymn because it exemplifies how broad that Divine Community really is. The lyrics of the hymn are Cecil Frances Alexander’s rhythmic and rhyming paraphrase of an original found in the 9th Century Book of Armagh and titled in Latin St. Patrick’s Irish Canticle. In truth, the original is not a canticle or a poem of any sort; it is a protection charm or prayer of the form called a lorica.

The short first verse invokes God as Trinity, the three-in-one and one-in-three, but is more than in invocation. In the original it says, “I arise today” into the power of God; in Alexander’s translation, “I bind unto myself.” I lay claim to, I enter into, I become a part of the holy Community. C.S. Lewis described this Christian experience this way:

An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get into touch with God. But if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him. You see what is happening. God is the thing to which he is praying – the goal he is trying to reach. God is also the thing inside him which is pushing him on – the motive power. God is also the road or bridge along which he is being pushed to that goal. So that whole threefold life of the three-personal Being is actually going on in that ordinary little bedroom where an ordinary man is saying his [ordinary] prayers. (Mere Christianity, Fount Paperbacks, London:1997, p.135)

Extraordinary! The brightness breaking through, as transitory as youth and yet the eternity that awaits us.

The second verse binds the singer to Christ, but in a remarkably holistic and complete way, laying claim to every aspect of the Incarnation of God, his birth and baptism, his death and resurrection, his ascension, and his future return on the last day. The lorica thus evokes the comprehensiveness that theologians call “the Christ Event,” the fundamental act of God in and through the flesh to redeem not only the individual but the whole of the cosmos, the entire created order. The third and fourth verses attest to this by invoking our ties to the religious and human community through all of time – cherubim, angels, and archangels; patriarchs and prophets; the apostles, and all the saints and martyrs in verse 3 – and to the community of nature – the stars, the sun, and the moon; fire and lightning; wind and sea; rocks and earth – in verse 4.

The theologian Raimon Panikkar describes the Trinitarian nature of reality. The Trinity, he says, is reflected in all of creation: in human beings we see the harmonious interrelationship of body, soul, and spirit, and in the physical world there is the triadic reality of space, time, and matter. “All beings,” he writes, “share what they are by being one with him, with the Son. All that exists, that is to say, all of reality, is nothing but God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Panikkar) Perhaps this is why the lectionary for Trinity Sunday always includes the reading of the Creation Story from Genesis; a reminder of our connection to the whole created order, a community which reflects its Creator.

The fifth verse of the hymn calls upon God’s various powers and aspects as protections against evils, both natural and human-caused – God’s vision, God’s hearing, God’s wisdom, God’s hand and shield. It is said that St. Patrick was inspired by St. Paul’s Letter to Ephesians when he first sang his lorica, by St. Paul’s admonition to

take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Eph 6:13-17)

As we lay claim to faith in the Trinity by reciting or singing St. Patrick’s Breastplate, we do as Paul commanded, being thus assured that we are protected from all evils, many enumerated in two verses of the lorica not paraphrased by Alexander into her hymn: the snares of devils, temptations of nature, those who wish us ill, “the charms of false prophets, the black laws of paganism, the false laws of heretics, the deceptions of idolatry, [and] spells cast by [witches], smiths, and druids.”

The penultimate verse of the hymn both calls for and acknowledges Christ to be in all things, especially in all of the people we meet throughout any day. It is a reminder of Jesus’ promised words at the last judgment: “Just as you did it [or did not do it] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it [or did not do it] to me.” (Mt 25:40,45) It also calls to mind St. Theresa of Avila’s timeless reflection:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

And it should also be a reminder that there are times for all of us when our lives (in Ben Sledge‘s unforgettable image) can be “a train wreck in a dumpster fire” and that at such times it is through other people’s eyes that Christ looks at us with compassion, through their feet that he walks to do good for us, that is through their hands that we receive his blessing. “Christ in hearts of all that love me, . . . in mouth of friend and stranger” is the sun breaking through to illuminate the small field of my life.

The last verse repeats the Trinitarian invocation of the first and reminds us that salvation is found not in the black-and-white of fundamental religious doctrine, but the “gray zone” of paradox and ambiguity, in the brightly lit “gray zone” of peaceful coexistence which is the dance of holy Community.

I want to end with another piece of poetry entitled Sonnet for Trinity Sunday by my friend, the English priest and poet Malcolm Guite:

In the Beginning, not in time or space,
But in the quick before both space and time,
In Life, in Love, in co-inherent Grace,
In three in one and one in three, in rhyme,
In music, in the whole creation story,
In His own image, His imagination,
The Triune Poet makes us for His glory,
And makes us each the other’s inspiration.
He calls us out of darkness, chaos, chance,
To improvise a music of our own,
To sing the chord that calls us to the dance,
Three notes resounding from a single tone,
To sing the End in whom we all begin;
Our God beyond, beside us and within.

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

Dreams of Samhain – From the Daily Office – October 31, 2014

From Ecclesiasticus:

The senseless have vain and false hopes,
and dreams give wings to fools.
As one who catches at a shadow and pursues the wind,
so is anyone who believes in dreams.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Sirach 34:1-2 (NRSV) – October 31, 2014)

Samhain IllustrationThe shadows tonight will be full of dreams moving from house to house, door to door, seeking handouts of candy or toys or whatever with a cry of “Trick or Treat!” We hope the wind will stay away, at least until America’s children’s annual celebration of the ancient Celtic feast of Samhain is completed.

As much as I like Ben Sira, I think he is too dismissive of dreams in this passage. He’s right to sound a note of caution against self-delusion (or buying into the fantasies and fallacies of others), but dreams are also the stuff of hope and aspiration. Young Joseph, son of Israel, became overseer of Egypt because of his ability to correctly interpret dreams. Another Joseph received the message that he would be foster-father to the Son of God in a dream. Dreams can be substantial!

So, parting company with Ben Sira, I say, “Believe in your dreams! Chase them!” Yesterday I wrote about using our imaginations and playing with metaphors to better understand the words of Scripture. Following our dreams is a further exercise of imagination. Imagination, as I see it, is our only way forward; without dreams and imagination we have no way to envision the future.

Forty-five years ago, when I was in college, I read a newly published book by Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner entitled The Ritual Process in which the author explored the idea of liminality, the experience of standing on a threshold leaving behind a known, accepted reality and entering into an as-yet-unknown, new reality. (I was reminded of that book this week when I found it cited in the footnotes of another, a text on the use of imagination in biblical exegesis and preaching.) That threshold is the place of shadows and wind; it can be a frightening place. To stand at that threshold demands that we dream and imagine; otherwise, we will never move through it.

Ben Sira is right, dreams give wings, not just to fools, but to everyone. Have the imagination and the courage to take those wings and fly! Fly through the threshold of shadow and wind into the unknown future.

I hope that is what the costumed children, the living dreams wandering the shadows tonight will do.

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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.

“Joshua” Is Not a Plan for Government – From the Daily Office – July 26, 2014

From the Book of Joshua:

Joshua summoned all Israel, their elders and heads, their judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years; and you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you. Therefore be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left, so that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow yourselves down to them, but hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have done to this day. For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations; and as for you, no one has been able to withstand you to this day. One of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, as he promised you. Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joshua 23:2-11 (NRSV) – July 26, 2014)

Map of Palestine 2007For the past several days, the Daily Office Lectionary has required us to read sections of the Book of Joshua detailing the conquest of the land “from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west.” I have dutifully read those lessons every day. I have been deeply troubled by them and by the suggestion (which I have seen some make on Facebook and other online sources) that the “history” set out in the Book of Joshua demonstrates God’s approval of the conquest of “biblical Israel” by the modern state of Israel. I have avoided writing anything about these lessons in these daily reflections on this blog.

I’ve decided I cannot be silent any further. I must protest such a gross misunderstanding these stories and at least two distortions on which it is based.

First, the modern state of Israel is not the ancient nation of Israel. One cannot say that strongly enough. The modern state of Israel is NOT the ancient nation of Israel. That ancient nation ceased to exist centuries ago; its people were dispersed through several other nations — this is what the term “the diaspora” refers to — its government collapsed — its territory was absorbed into a series of empires.

The modern state of Israel was created in 1948 following the campaign by modern Zionists, themselves mostly secular rather than religious Jews, for a Jewish homeland. That campaign pre-dated the Nazi holocaust, but the holocaust gave the Zionist program added urgency. In November 1947, bowing to intense lobbying by Zionist organizations and after years of terrorist activities by the Jewish Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi organizations in Palestine, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The final vote was 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions and 1 absent. European Zionists welcomed the plan; the Arabs of Palestine rejected the vote immediately, but their objections were ignored.

In a civil war extending from 1947 into 1949, the modern state of Israel was born. Nearly one million Arabs lost their homes and become refugees in other parts of Palestine or elsewhere in the Arab world. The new government of Israel shortly passed two laws: the Law of Return (1950), which grants citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world who immigrates to Israel, and the Entry into Israel Law (1952), which prevents the return of Palestinian refugees.

This is the modern state of Israel. It is NOT the ancient nation of Israel. There is no biblical mandate for the modern country’s existence, nor for its laws and actions. It is a modern political reality which the world, including the Arab world, must accept and with which it must deal, but it is not a God-endorsed, biblically-mandated reality.

The second distortion is the idea that the Book of Joshua is history. It is not. Technically, it is what is known in literary scholarship as an etiological myth. These are stories which provide a mythological explanation for certain events and customs (or natural phenomena) the origin of which has long been forgotten or is not understood. Other stories of this type are the Greek Illiad and Odyssey, the Irish stories of Cúchulainn, or even the American folk tales of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. Joshua is the ancient Hebrew equivalent of Achilles, Odysseus, Cúchulainn, or Paul Bunyan.

The Book of Joshua tells us something about human beings, something about human understandings of God, something about how humans behave in community (and in war); it tells us something of what some of the ancient Hebrews believed about their origins (which is partially contradicted by what others of them believed and is recorded in the Books of Chronicles). It tells us nothing, however, about actual historical events, nor about God’s endorsement or condemnation of them or of any of their enemies.

To suggest that modern governance of territory in the Middle East should be based on (or understood through the lens of) the Book of Joshua makes as much sense as suggesting that the modern governance of Greece should be based on Homer’s poems, that Irish foreign policy should be evaluated through the Cúchulainn stories, or that American environmental policy should derive from the tales of Paul Bunyan.

These are spiritual stories, not political ones. These are myths, not histories. These stories reveal truths, not facts. They should trouble us, perhaps inspire us, not direct us nor determine modern national governance.

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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.

I Arise Today: Sermon for Trinity Sunday – RCL, Year A – June 15, 2014

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On Trinity Sunday, the First Sunday after Pentecost, June 15, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 13 (Song of the Three Young Men 29-34); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Triquetra

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the Threeness
Through confession of the Oneness
Towards the Creator.

Although he probably didn’t actually write it, tradition credits St. Patrick of Ireland with the poetic charm called a “lorica” or “breastplate” which begins with these words, an invocation of the One, Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity whom we today celebrate. Since the time of St. Thomas a Becket, the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost has been set aside as day of special veneration of the Triune nature of the Godhead. Becket was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, and his first act was to decree that the anniversary of his consecration should be commemorated each year in honor of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from Canterbury throughout the whole of the western church.

Patrick continues:

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment of doom.

Our Gospel lesson today is the end of Matthew’s Gospel. In it Christ on the mount of the ascension, just before going up into heaven, gives the eleven remaining Apostles what has come to be known as “The Great Commission”:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

For Matthew mountains are what Celtic Christianity refers to as “thin places,” those places where the separation between the spiritual realm and the physical realm is narrowest, where the veil which separates heaven from earth is nearly transparent so that we have the feeling we could reach out and touch, even enter, the holy presence.

On a mountain, in such a place, Jesus calls his followers to a new beginning. The Eleven, standing proxy for all the followers of Jesus then and now, for you and for me, are called to be people moving in mission. It is important for us to note that this mountain is in Galilee, the place where Jesus began his ministry, the place from which he went forth but to which he returned, the place where he was grounded and rooted. The disciples, too, are from this place and their grounding in the Christian story is this same country where their journey began. Like them, we are called to claim our origins, to be rooted in the place where we entered the Christian story, not to be permanently bound there, but to draw strength from it as we venture out in mission into the wider world beyond. The place where we began as members of the community of Christ is, to each of us, an important place of foundation and also, perhaps, a thin place where we encounter the Triune God.

Patrick’s lorica continues:

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim
In obedience to the Angels,
In the service of the Archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of Holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous [people].

Here, St. Patrick claims membership in the Christian community as his source of strength, as his foundation, as the community in which his mission is grounded and from which it is nurtured.

In a few moments, we will do something we have not done since Lent . . . join together in the General Confession, jointly and publically acknowledging that as individuals and as a community we have failed to live up to our obligations, that we have sinned “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” And we will be forgiven that failure by God’s absolution which reconciles us and restores us to the community and fellowship of the Church. When, as presiding priest, I pronounce the words of absolution, I speak not on my own behalf but for the whole church to which Jesus gave what is called “the power of the keys” when he said to the Apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:19; cf. 18:18)

The words of absolution, which I speak as much to myself as to anyone, loose our sins, but also bind us into the beloved community:

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.

The community with which we are reconciled through confession and absolution is the community of the Trinity.

In the Triune Godhead all Christian community begins and finds its perfect expression. Humankind, as our Genesis reading reminded us, was and is created in the image of God. Thus, we are blessed with reason and skill; we are capable of experiencing emotion; and, like God, we have individual will and freedom of action. To be created in God’s likeness also means that we have the possibility of attaining holiness and immortality. To be created in God’s likeness further means that we are created to experience, participate in, and share interrelationship with others, for we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is not a static principal of faith; it is the way in which the church, through the revelation of God, has come to appreciate and express of the significantly dynamic nature of God in the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If we have been created in the image of God and if God is Trinity then at the deepest level of our being, we are communitarian, created not for ourselves, but for one another, for relationship with each other and with God.

Many look at the mystery of the Trinity as if it were a problem in differential calculus. They seem to have the attitude that if one solves the equation, they will have figured out God and earned their entry into heaven. But, as Benedictine poet Killian McDonnell writes, God is not a problem to be solved:

God is not a problem
I need to solve, not an
algebraic polynomial equation
I find complete before me,

with positive and negative numbers
I can add, subtract, multiply.
God is not a fortress
I can lay siege to and reduce.

God is not a confusion
I can place in order by my logic.
God’s boundaries cannot be set,
like marking trees to fell.

God is the presence in which
I live, where the line between
what is in me and what
before me is real, but only God

can draw it. God is the mystery
I meet on the street, but cannot
lay hold of from the outside,
for God is my situation,

the condition I cannot stand
beyond, cannot view from a distance,
the presence I cannot make an object,
only enter on my knees.

Which brings us back to confession, to reconciliation, and to community.

The community to which and in which we are to be reconciled is not only that of the church or that of the human commonwealth, it is the community of the whole of creation. This is why our round of readings from Sacred Scripture bids us on Trinity Sunday to hear the long lesson from Genesis recounting the days of creation as each part of the natural order is ordained by God and pronounced good. This is the community that Matthew’s Jesus claims when he asserts that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” “Heaven and earth” is a figure of speech called a merism, a manner of speaking by which the whole of something is referenced by enumerating its constituents or traits. In the Genesis creation story, heaven and earth comprise a single entity — God’s whole creation. We are a part of that community of creation and it is to that universal community that Patrick next looks in his lorica:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun
Brilliance of moon
Splendor of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock.

The whole of nature comprises the foundational community of strength and support upon which a follower of Jesus may depend, because this community finds its strength and support in paradigm community of the Holy Trinity by whom it was creation.

Genesis insists that there is one God, who is sovereign and powerful. Unlike the gods of other peoples in the ancient Middle East, the God of Israel had no specified area of competence. The creation in the first chapter of Genesis is, as one commentator has said, “fiercely monotheistic,” yet even in its insistence on the one God, not limited in space or time, Genesis reveals the Trinity. From this god, the God, a wind, the Holy Spirit, came forth and spread across the void. This god, the God, created everything. This god, the God, simply spoke the Word (“in the beginning was the Word,” said John of Jesus) and creation happened. It is to this god, the God that Patrick looks for strength and protection:

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s host to secure me
against snares of devils
against temptations of vices
against inclinations of nature
against everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and anear,
alone and in a crowd.

But we are never truly alone, nor are we ever really beset by these and the many other spiritual and physical dangers that Patrick goes on to list. St. Paul blessed and reminded his readers, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” are with us all. Jesus promised and reminded the Eleven (and through them, us), “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

These are not mere blessings or simple an appeals to get along with one another; these are exhortations to be the new creation that the Spirit of God equips us to be, a foundational community patterned on the Holy Trinity. Just as the Persons of the Divine Trinity are never alone, human beings are created with a need for one another, a need to communicate with one another. Our thirst to communicate ourselves to others, to be in authentic relationship with each other is never exhausted. The only difference between our community and that of the Trinity is that God’s Triune relationship is perfect and total whereas in our human reality communication and relationship are imperfect and partial. Paul’s appeal for the presence of Christ’s grace, God’s love, and the Spirit’s fellowship is an appeal to enter more to the divine love that creates and sustains the church, that perfects and completes our relationships. The Trinity is the very source of our life in Christ, and in Christ we are a new creation with whom Christ promises always to stay.

So in the lorica, Patrick extols the totality of Christ’s presence, the inescapabilty of Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Patrick writes:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie,
Christ where I sit,
Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of every [person] who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every [person] who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Patrick concludes as he began, invoking the One, Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity whom we today celebrate:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Towards the Creator.

“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.” (2 Cor 13:14 as used to conclude the Daily Office in The Book of Common Prayer, page 102)

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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.

Reality of Death – From the Daily Office – June 13, 2014

From Ecclesiastes:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (NRSV) – June 13, 2014)

Old Irish VillageI was listening to the radio yesterday. A golf club president was being interviewed about a professional golfer who had been killed in an air craft incident. I don’t golf or follow the game, so I have no idea who was being profiled, and that’s not relevant here. What is relevant is that the person being interviewed used the euphemism “he passed” to reference the golfer’s death.

This is a usage of the verb “to pass” that has become very prevalent in recent years. I don’t recall hearing it before the 1990s. “Passed away,” yes. Simple “passed,” no. And I find it interesting, but also disturbing and objectionable. Using “he passed” in this way is symptomatic of the modern denial of the reality of death. People don’t “pass.” They die! Unless killed by disease, accident, or misfortune, they grow old and die. And although our faith teaches us that “for [God’s] faithful people . . . life is changed, not ended,” it also acknowledged that “our mortal bodies will lie in death.” (Preface for a Eucharist in Commemoration of the Dead, BCP 1979, page 381) Modern culture, however, seems not to want to admit this, the truth and physical reality of death: according to contemporary society, human beings don’t die – they “pass.”

The refusal to face death was parodied by Monty Python’s Flying Circus in what has come to be know as The Pet Shop Sketch or The Dead Parrot Sketch in which John Cleese tries to return a deceased bird to a pet store run by Michael Palin, who denies that the bird is dead. When Palin tries to argue that the parrot is “pining,” an exasperated Cleese runs through several euphemisms for death:

‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!!He’s f*ckin’ snuffed it!….. THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

Qoheleth demonstrates the difference between poetry and euphemism in this marvelous metaphoric description of old age and decline. This is a man who knows the decline of age, who has seen death up close. Rather than euphemize it and sanitize it and avoid it, he confronts it, describes it, embraces it, almost caresses it in the same way one would a spouse, a lover, an old friend. “The strong men are bent . . . the daughters of song are brought low . . . the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails . . . the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken.” No “passing” here; this language faces the reality of death.

When I read this passage, I see in my mind’s eye a village in decline; in truth, I see the village portrayed in the Irish television (RTE) movie version of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1947 Irish-language play Cré na Cille (“Graveyard Clay”). The village, like the people in it, is old and tired; once vibrant life is slowed and winding down. Eventually, it will die as many of its residents have died. Like them, it is honestly facing (perhaps even looking forward to) its demise. (The play is narrated by the conversations of the dead beneath the soil of the cemetery. It’s a very imaginative piece of stagecraft and I do wish someone with an excellent understanding of Irish would translate it into English!)

Contemporary society seems to have lost the willingness to honestly face decline and death, to look forward to old age, to anticipate without dread the time when “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Instead of caring for our elderly at home, we warehouse old folks in nursing homes. When they die, we probably aren’t even there. Their bodies are shrouded and taken out a side door so the other nursing home residents can’t see what is happening. We pay “funeral home” employees to handle the washing of dead bodies and their preparation for burial, a task that used to be done by family members. We have sanitized and euphemized death into invisibility.

And, having done so, I wonder if that is why it is so easy for us as a country to send young soldiers into war. I wonder if that is why we glorify guns and violent games, and do practically nothing to prevent the school, work place, and church shootings which plague us. By avoiding the reality of death, have we made death a more present part of our reality?

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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.

Jesus the Jedi – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter (Year A) – May 4, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, May 4, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3,10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; and Luke 24:13-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Broken BreadSince the early 1970s this day, on the Episcopal Church calendar, this day on which we hear the story of Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has been known as Star Wars Sunday. It’s because Jesus is very much like a Jedi in this story. I mean, think about it . . .

In the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker is mentored first by Obiwan Kenobi, who dies, then by Yoda, who also dies. But both Obiwan and Yoda come back! They appear to Luke and others after their deaths, continue to teach and give sage counsel, and disappear. That’s what happens with Jesus in the story Luke tells us this morning.

It’s still Easter Sunday. (For us, we’re three weeks down the road, but for them it’s the afternoon of the same day on which Mary Magdalene and the others found the empty tomb.) Two disciples, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed (let’s call him “Bob” — although some feminists scholars suggest that the reason this disciple is not named is because she is a woman, so it might be “Bobbie”) are on their way to a village called Emmaus. Luke tells us this village is seven miles from Jerusalem; that’s a long walk — two or three hours. Sometime during this long afternoon journey, they are joined by a stranger whom they do not recognize; the stranger, Luke reveals, is Jesus but Cleopas and Bob can’t recognize him. They have a long talk with him about all the thing that have happened in Jerusalem in recent days, and he gives them sage counsel about the meaning of scripture, particularly the messianic prophecies. They arrive in Emmaus early in the evening and encourage their traveling companion to join them at dinner.

They sit down at an inn for the evening meal and the stranger takes the lead. He takes the bread served by the innkeeper, offers a blessing, and breaks the bread. Now, Cleopas and Bob realize who this is. As he does the same thing he had done with his followers just a few days before, their memory is tweaked and their eyes are opened (which suggests that Cleopas and Bob were in the upper room in Jerusalem on Thursday evening). That’s when they recognize him; that’s when they think they’ve figure out who he is — he’s Jesus the Jedi. And that’s when Jesus vanishes.

Why do you suppose that is? Why does Jesus disappear?

Well . . . let me remind you of what happened earlier in the day as the story is told by John. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, found it empty, and told Simon Peter. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (another unnamed follower!) also found it empty, and then returned to their home to tell the others. Mary, however, hung behind and encountered Jesus but, like Cleopas and Bob on the road to Emmaus, she did not recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. Only when he addressed her by name (perhaps because of the tone of his voice) was something in her memory triggered and she realized who he was. She called him “Rabbouni” (which means teacher) and apparently fell at his feet and grabbed hold of them, for Jesus says to her, “Don’t hold on to me.” I think he did so for the same reason he disappeared from the table at the Emmaus inn.

Similarly, remember what happened before they arrived in Jerusalem, when Jesus took Peter and James and John up the mount of the Transfiguration. While they were on the holy mountain, the three disciples witnessed Jesus in conversation with Elijah and Moses. Peter wanted to memorialize the event by building booths, monuments to concretize the moment. Jesus said, “No. We’re not going to do that.” Again, I think for the same reason he disappeared in Emmaus.

That reason is that we cannot pin Jesus down. Jesus cannot be contained; he will not fit neatly into our boxes. When we think we have him figured out, we find out we are wrong. Jesus . . . God is bigger than any notion of him we may have; God is bigger than our conceptions, bigger than our doctrines, bigger than our creeds. And every encounter with Jesus is singular and unique. We cannot hold onto him; we cannot concretize and cast the moment in stone.

We just sang as our sequence hymn the old chestnut In the Garden, and that hymn makes this very point. We, the singer, say that we would like to stay there in that garden, but Jesus will not allow that:

I’d stay in the garden with Him,
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

We cannot pin him down! We cannot cast the moment in stone. When we think we’ve got hold of him, we find we are wrong; he disappears and what we are left with are our own notions, our own ideas, our own doctrines, our boxes. Our boxes, however, are too small; God is too big for them.

And the chorus of the hymn reminds us of the singularity and uniqueness of every meeting with our Lord:

And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Every time we encounter Jesus, the experience is unique; none other (not even our earlier selves) has ever had that experience before.

I think that is why it is significant that Cleopas and Bob recognized Jesus as he broke bread. Every loaf of bread is unique, similar perhaps to other loaves but never, ever identical. And every occasion on which bread is share is singular and unique. It may be a family meal or a celebration of the Eucharist; it may be a formal banquet or just friends having a bite. Whatever the circumstances, the situation is one unto itself, not like any other, never to be repeated.

A couple of Christmases ago, Evelyn gave me a set of books about the elements of the Eucharist. One volume is entitled The Spirituality of Wine; the other, which I have here, is The Spirituality of Bread by Donna Sinclair. The author is a Christian (in fact, I think she is an Anglican). I’d like to read you some of what she has to say about the symbolism of bread. About bread and community, she writes:

Jesus may have been lent significance by his association with other gods of bread. But that doesn’t acount for the power of his celebration, which persists daily around the world.

Everywhere, the words are similar: “He took a loaf of bread and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them and said, ‘Take, this is my body.'” And, everywhere, people line up, blue-jean clad or robed, young or old, to receive bits of bread; or they sit in pews and pass tiny chunks on a plate; or they stand in a circle and murmur a blessing as a broken loaf moves from hand to hand.

Sometimes they gather around a sickbed.

Once, I sat in a circle of friends, in a smoky cabin in the bush, after a weekend of tending a woodstove and talking about dreams. We passed the bread around as gently as if it were the heart of the other, which it was.

The ritual has power. I get uneasy if I think I might be left out. Once, reporting on an event, I slipped up to take a photo of Archbishop Desmond Tutu serving Communion, and then paused anxiously. He winked and held out the bread.

Perhaps inclusion is this ceremony’s strength. This bread offers an enormous community, a family that stretches around the world and through the centuries. We don’t want to be left out.

We don’t want to be left out because we don’t want to miss the opportunity for that unique and singular encounter with Christ. Every celebration of Eucharist, like every sharing of bread and every meeting with Jesus, is a moment unto itself never to be repeated, never to be duplicated. We realize that in some way, that this encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread will never happen again, and we don’t want to be left out.

With regard to bread and sacrifice, Ms. Sinclair writes:

The celebration of Communion is also a powerful experience of metaphor. Bread as body. Wine as blood. Love as sacrifice.

In the Jesus story, it is clear that love has great requirements. There is a price to pay, in an oppressive era, for feeding the unwanted.

It may help to see another story, that of the Celtic Earth goddess Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg, one of the ancient peoples of pre-Christian Ireland.

When Tailtiu saw that her people were starving after an insufficient grain harvest, she took up an axe and, for a solid year, cleared a forest: “the reclaiming of meadowland from even wood by Tailtiu, daughter of Magmor,” is the way it is reported by the anonymous bard of The Dindsenchas, poems about Irish place names.

After the trees had been cut down, “roots and all, out of the ground,” the land became “a plain blossoming with clove,” presumably suitable for planting grain. But the cost was appalling. Tailtiu’s heart “burst in her body from the strain beneath her royal vest,” the bard says. The Celts loved their sacred groves, and the destruction to the enchanted richness of her forest must have broken Tailtiu’s heart.

Aware that she is dying, her courtiers gather around, and Tailtiu whispers her last command. She wants funeral games to be held in her honour each year, just before the harvest. And they are to be peaceful, she says, “without sin, without fraud, without reproach, without insult, without contention, without seizure, without theft.”

Thanks to her faithful foster-child Lugh (later associated with a bountiful harvest), Tailtiu’s wish came to pass. There was always an “unbroken truce” at her fair, and “men went in and came out without any rude hostility. Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks for maintaining of justice.”

Tailtiu had given up her beloved forest and her life for a vision not too different from that of Archbishop Oscar Romero or of Mondawmin, who brought corn to the Ojibway. “Unbroken truce” and “corn and milk in ever stead,” represent the commonwealth of peace, the kingdom Jesus told his friends was close by. New parents get a glimpse of this kingdom looking at their tiny baby. Their sudden understanding that they would do anything to keep this child safe is the closest we can come, perhaps, to understanding the sacrifice that is part of love’s potential.

Perhaps that’s the power of Communion bread. Some say that it commemorates Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins, but I don’t think so. I would be appalled by a god who asked for the death of his child, or any child. But like any parent, I believe I would die for my children’s lives, even as absurdly grown-up as they are now.

Perhaps this bread simply expresses our wish to live little closer to the ideal of Tailtiu, Jesus, or Mondawmin, who died to give their people enough to eat. None of us can stand up to greed or selfishness as strongly as we wish. But eating this ceremonial bread with others, who also want to be just and loving, makes us brave enough to try.

Maybe that’s why I am sometimes overwhelmed at these ceremonies. Maybe I am simply terrified by the high sacrifices love assumes. Certainly the part most touching to me in the story of my own bread-god, Jesus, is not his death, but his constant focus on compassion. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he commands. “Love your enemies.”

Every encounter with this God who commands us to love, every encounter with love is unique and singular. Every encounter with this God who commands us to love, every encounter with love is larger than we can describe. We cannot constrain love in our boxes. Whatever our notions, our doctrines, our creeds, our understandings . . . they are too small to contain love, to pin love down, to hold onto and control love. When we try, love disappears, and that is why Jesus disappeared from the dinner table in that inn in Emmaus.

Now . . . I have to confess that, on the church’s calendar, this really isn’t Star Wars Sunday. But as every Star Wars aficionado knows, today is Star Wars Day: “May the Fourth be with you.”

But may Jesus the Jedi . . . Jesus, known in the breaking of the bread . . . Jesus, whom we cannot hold onto and pin down . . . Jesus, unique and singular . . . may Jesus be with you. 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.

Why Everyone’s Irish Today – From the Daily Office – March 17, 2014

From the Book of Genesis:

When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, “Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do.” And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 41:55-57 (NRSV) – March 17, 2014.)

Orthodox Icon of St. PatrickIs it just coincidence that we read in Genesis of a famine on St. Patrick’s Day? This day of international Irish pride, when “everyone is Irish,” would just be the feast of another insignificant local saint but for the Irish diaspora, especially the Irish emigration to the United States in the mid-19th Century. And that would not have happened then and in such large numbers but for an Gorta Mór, the “Great Hunger,” the Irish potato famine.

The famine was the result of two things: a fungus-like organism called Phytophthora infestans, which killed off the potatoes throughout Ireland, and human indifference. It is estimated that at least a million people starved to death and two million more left the island. And it needn’t have happened. (My great-great-grandfather John Henry Funston came to America from Ireland during the Great Famine, so this is a personal story for me.)

At the time, the poor of Ireland had come to depend on the potato as a food staple. A single type, the “Irish lumper,” was grown throughout the country. It grew rapidly, produced large crops, and was loaded with nutrients. Humans could do quite nicely on a diet of potatoes and milk. But when the potato plants died off and the crop failed, there was nothing for the poor famers and their families to eat. Or so the story goes. In fact, the country was still producing and exporting more than enough grain crops and beef to feed the population; more than thirty shiploads of food grain (in addition to beef and several other food crops) where shipped daily out of Ireland bound for England during the famine years!

But the English governors would not make that food available to the lower class population. In deciding how to address the Famine, British administrators applied the popular economic theory of the day, laissez-faire capitalism (the French means “let it be”), which was based on a belief that the market would eventually solve all problems through “natural means.” It was not unlike the notions of today’s libertarians and those who insist that privatized public services will improve society. In fact, the language of “avoiding a culture of dependence” spoken by some modern critics of our social welfare “safety net” is a direct repetition of comments made by the British overseers of famine “relief” in Ireland at the time.

Those administrators made great efforts to avoid any interference with the perceived private property rights of British landlords. Throughout the entire Famine period, the British government would never provide the massive food aid Ireland needed because they believed that the business interests of English landowners and private businesses would be unfairly harmed by food price fluctuations.

What might have happened of they had considered the story of Joseph and Pharaoh, who opened their grain stores to the poor people of Egypt, and not just to them but to the Hebrews, as well?

For the most part, addressing the needs of famine ravaged Ireland was left to the church chairities and religious communities, as some now suggest relief of the poor should be done in our time and country; they were overwhelmed with the task. Some, to be quite frank, undertook it with grossly inappropriate attitudes and goals, requiring Irish Catholics to abandon their ancestral faith and “convert” to their particular Protestant dissenter sect. (Anglicans and Quakers decried the practice, but it was widespread.)

Some today suggest that our welfare and healthcare systems for the poor should be given over to churches and charities, that they are not the responsibility of the government. Plenty of economic and financial studies have shown that private and religious charities are inadequate to the task, that their resources are orders of magnitude below what would be needed. Furthermore, the story in today’s Genesis reading is one in which it is the government which comes to the aid of its people, not just its own citizens but “all the world.”

It may be just coincidence, but on this day when “everyone is Irish” I think we should stop and give thought to why that is; we need to understand that if the example of Pharaoh and Joseph in today’s Daily Office reading, the example of opening the grain stores to the hungry had been followed in 19th Century England and Ireland, we probably wouldn’t be celebrating St. Patrick as widely today.

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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.

Break the Chains – Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent (Year A) – March 16, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 16, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; Psalm 121; and John 3:1-17. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Croagh PatrickIn the Education for Ministry (“EfM”) program we engage in a process called “reflection” (“theological reflection” to be precise). In this process, we take a close look at a thing or a story, an incident from life, a passage of scripture, or an object we use everyday. One of the best group reflections I ever took part in started when someone put their mobile phone in the center of the table and said, “Let’s talk about this.”

In part of the process, we draw on what are called the “four sources” to illuminate the subject of our reflection. The sources are experiential – this is the “Action” source: things we do, think, and feel; positional – our attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and convictions; traditional – drawn from our Christian heritage, scripture, liturgy, hymnody, and so forth; and cultural – popular songs, movies, novels, commercials and advertisements, politics, etc.

As a result of engaging regularly in this process of reflection, I find myself almost immediately drawing from the four sources whenever I read the Bible.

For example, making a connections between scripture and popular culture, when I read Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” a popular song from the 1970s came right to mind:

Listen to the wind blow,
watch the sun rise
Run in the shadows
Damn your love, damn your lies
And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you sayin’
you would never break the chain
Listen to the wind blow,
down comes the night
Run in the shadows
Damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence
Damn the dark, damn the light
And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you sayin’
you would never break the chain
(“The Chain,” Fleetwood Mac, 1975)

Nicodemus, a Pharisee of the Sanhedrin, who has come to Jesus professing his great admiration and respect, cannot accept what Jesus tells him about spiritual rebirth and the Spirit of God; he asks, “How can these things be?” In Jesus’ response, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I almost hear in that response the refrain from Fleetwood Mac’s song, “Damn your love, damn your lies!”

Jesus had, on another occasion, condemned the Pharisees, of whom Nicodemus was one, for the way in which their religious rules confined and burdened people, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt. 23:4) “I can still hear you sayin’,” Jesus seems to be saying to Nicodemus, “You would never break the chain; you still won’t relieve people of the heavy burdens of your religious rules.” We know that Nicodemus did, eventually, come around, that he became a follower of Jesus, because John tells us later that he assisted Joseph of Arimathea at Jesus’ burial.

When I draw on the experiential or “action” source in considering these scriptures, both the psalm, with its opening declaration “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” and the gospel lesson, with Jesus’ words about the wind blowing, I remember my first summer studying in Ireland when my housemates and I climbed Croagh Padraig, the holy mountain in County Mayo where St. Patrick is said to have put an end to the druid religion in Ireland; according to legend he completed the forty-day Lenten ritual of fasting and penance there. It is also the place from which he is supposed to have banished snakes from Ireland forever. (The picture on the cover of the bulletin is of Croagh Padraig and the path pilgrims take to its summit.) The day we climbed the Reek (as it is called) was a cold and windy one, with the wind seeming to change direction as one ascended the mountain. At the top of the mountain is an oratory where, on Sundays, masses are offered throughout the day, especially on the last Sunday of August, a special day of pilgrimage in Irish tradition.

Climbing the Reek is not easy, though many people from the very young to the very old do it. The path up the mountain is mostly loose shale, the stones sharp, uneven, and unsteady; it is very easy to sprain and ankle, or to cut oneself on the rocks. Making the climb is, I think, a metaphor for the journey of life, filled as it is with many dangers – the physical: disease, injury, accident, war, infirmity, or natural disasters – the economic: recession, depression, unemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, insolvency, debt, or theft – the spiritual: doubt, sin, evil, corruption, fundamentalism, extremism, and false teachings of many kinds. It is these which today’s psalm addresses.

Psalm 121 is one of group of psalms (120 through 134) which are labeled “songs of ascent.” It is believed that these were songs which people sang while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the first two verses of this palm, a pilgrim about to set out asks the anxious question, “Where is my protection?” and answers it himself with a confession of faith in God, “My help comes from the Lord.” This is then affirmed by another person, possibly a priest, who (in verses 3-6) blesses the traveller with the assurance that the Lord who watches over Israel will watch over and protect him on his journey, and then (in the last two verses) assured him that God will continue to guard and protect the pilgrim for life and “for evermore.”

The German scholar Klaus Seybold suggests that these “songs of ascent” are folk songs from, as he puts it,

. . . the world of the simple person and the little people, of the farmer, the handworker, the mother with small children, the father of the family, who works from early until late, who experiences both tears and jubilation, who rejoices at the festivals and thinks about religious matters. These psalms are witnesses from everyday life, witnesses of folk poetry and folk piety. All of this makes them especially precious. (Quoted by James Limburg, “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners,” Word & World 5/2 [1985])

This is the same world that we inhabit, the world where (as my EFM mentor trainer Bud Holland recently put it) “our work is to move from rooms filled with fear in order to enter other rooms filled with fear,” rooms filled with all those physical, economic, and spiritual dangers I mentioned a moment ago. It is the Spirit of God, of whose protection Psalm 121 assures us, that enables us to meet those dangers and overcome those fears. It is the Spirit, coming and going through those rooms, through those fears, through those dangers, and enabling us to do the same, through whom, Jesus insists to Nicodemus, we must be born anew.

We do not empower ourselves to move through those rooms on our own. Our journey through those rooms is the journey of rebirth and we cannot do it on our own. We are unable to change anything about the journey we have taken, any more than a baby can control the process of being born. We cannot bear ourselves. Only the Spirit can do that. We lift up our eyes and our help comes from the One who ushers us from a world of fixed realities, from a world of chains we are unable (perhaps unwilling) to break into the realm of new birth, of new possibility.

Neither birth nor rebirth happen in an instant; they are the culmination of time and formation, of gestation and movement. Just as it takes time for the union of two tiny cells to ripen of into a new and unique human being, our salvation and sanctification takes time, a lifetime, to fulfill. And throughout that whole lifetime process of being born again, our help comes from the Lord who watches over us, preserves us from evil, and keeps us safe. I started this sermon with the poetry of Fleetwood Mac; I want to end with another poem, this one only recently published by Michael Coffey who, in addition to being a poet, is a Lutheran pastor. This bit of free verse, a rif on the story of Nicodemus, is entitled Airstream:

Be born of wind and water said the Teacher in the night
be new and swim and soar in the mystery of God now
so Nick polished his Airstream, took it out on the road
from Palo Duro Canyon to Big Bend and beyond
he deleted entries in his Google calendar, went offline
checked off incomplete tasks on his lists driving free
stopping where ever it seemed the flow was flowing
encountering strangers with deep pools of eyes
from time to time someone on the roadside
needed a tire change or a gallon of gas so he stopped
occasionally he met someone at a Waffle House
who sat alone, struck up a conversation, paid the tab
once he met a woman with a thin three-year old and
gave her a year’s worth of grocery money just like that
then he stopped and stayed a while in Death Valley heat
drank mango iced tea, absorbed desert wisdom like the sun
when he realized the tires were shot, trip was done, he gave
thanks for that day when he listened, trusted, and acted
gave thanks for letting go and for following the invisible wind
for spirit moving him fluid through life like wild water streams

“No one,” said Jesus, “can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” That is a long, long . . . lifetime long process, but through it all the Lord watches over us, guarding our goings out and our comings in, so listen to the wind blow, watch the sunrise, break the silence . . . break the chains. 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.

Chaotic Water – From the Daily Office – February 1, 2014

From the Gospel of John:

When evening came, his disciples went down to the lake, got into a boat, and started across the lake to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. The lake became rough because a strong wind was blowing. When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the lake and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land towards which they were going.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 6:16-21 (NRSV) – February 1, 2014.)

Blessing the Church Computer copyright Dave WalkerToday, February 1, is the ancient Irish feast of Imbolc, considered the beginning of spring and sacred to the goddess Brigid; it has become the commemoration of St. Brigid of Kildare, sometimes called Ireland’s “other patron saint.” (The lesson from John’s Gospel, however, is simply the Daily Office reading, not specific to the saint’s day.) Among the traditions of Imbolc (and, thus, of St. Brigid’s feast) is the visiting of holy wells, walking around them in prayer, and taking some of their water to be used to bless people and things.

For ancient peoples, the sea and other large bodies of water were vast, chaotic, and frightening places. In the ancient middle east, the sea was deified as Tiamat, goddess of primordial chaos and mother of the gods. In Irish mythology, the chaotic and dangerous sea separates the land of the living from the Otherworld, called Tír na nÓg (“Land of Youth”). Holy wells are viewed as places where the chaotic, spiritual dimension breaks into the everyday world.

Jesus’ walking on the water is a story told in three of the Gospels: Mark, Matthew, and John — Matthew adds Jesus inviting Peter to join him. It is a demonstration of the Lord’s mastery over the chaotic; Matthew’s addition of the invitation to Peter and Peter’s being able to do so until, as writer Madeleine L’Engle put it, “he remembered he didn’t know how” is symbolic of the empowerment Christ offers us to do the same.

Quantum Space-TimeIn a sense, we walk on the surface of chaos all the time. One of the learnings from quantum mechanics is that things are not nearly as solid as they seem. The everyday world seems to “float” on what has been called a “quantum foam.” The Greeks posited that if we continue to divide matter we get to atoms; if we divide atoms, we get electrons, neutrons, and other subatomic particles; if we try to divide subatomic particles, eventually we get to get quantum fields and even multidimensional vibrating strings. At the quantum level, reality is a quivering mass of quantum chaos. We walk on the surface of chaos all the time!

The story of Jesus (and Peter) walking on the water and the reality of the quantum chaos beneath our everyday lives should remind us that we do know how to do this. Water as a symbol of blessing is also a reminder of that; when we bless water and then use it to bless other things, like the Irish use the water from holy wells, we are declaring that we have the power and ability to deal with the chaos and to control the chaos in our lives.

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

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

The Hard Road to the Narrow Gate – From the Daily Office – June 1, 2013

From the Book of Deuteronomy:

You must follow exactly the path that the Lord your God has commanded you, so that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you are to possess.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 5:33 (NRSV) – June 1, 2013.)

Forest PathsConfession: I have never followed any path exactly as it was laid out by anyone . . . even, I’m sure, God. Ever. Could that be why I’ve never lived long in any one place? The longest I ever lived in any place was in an exurban area of Kansas City on the Kansas side of the state line in a house I hated. (It was a split-level; I don’t like split-level homes.) Maybe not following the straight-and-narrow is why I’ve been something of a vagabond; the two do seem to go hand-in-hand.

On the other hand, getting off “the beaten path” leads to wonderful discoveries and unique experiences. A few years ago when traveling Ireland, I decided to visit the Aran Islands. Most tourists head to Inis Mór, the largest of islands, where most ferries from County Galway dock and where Dún Aonghasa is to be found; many go to Inis Oírr, the smallest, where boats from County Clare dock. I chose to go to Inis Meáin, the middle island, the least touristy of the three. There I found An Seipéal Mhuire gan Smál agus Eoin Baiste — the Church of St. Mary Immaculate and St. John the Baptist.

The church is a newer church, built in 1939. I was entranced by stained glass windows which had a most remarkable jewel-like quality with brilliant colors. My poor skills at photography with my inexpensive digital camera couldn’t possible convey the beauty of those windows. I later learned that they were the work of Harry Clarke, considered Ireland’s greatest stained glass artist.

Altar Window - Church of St. Mary Immaculate & St. John the Baptist

Getting off the well-marked, well-travel road and taking a different path can be dangerous . . . but it can also be marvelous!

In any event, when I read Moses this morning I contrast his words with those of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (not the gospel lesson for today):

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

The easy road is the one well marked; the hard road to the narrow gate is difficult to find. It is the road less traveled about which Robert Frost wrote in The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Get off the highways! Explore the by-ways . . . they may lead to wonderful discoveries . . . and they may lead to the hard road to the narrow gate, the one few find.

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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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