That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Easter (page 1 of 4)

Lenten Journal 2019 (15 April)

Lenten Journal, Day 40

A picture of Fionna popped up on my Facebook “wall” this week. It has done so before. Whenever it does, it brings tears to my eyes. I am reminded how important having a dog is in my life. I remember my former companions: my first dog, Baron; the dog who kept me sane throughout college, Shadrak; the stray Cocker Spaniel we came to call “the best dog ever,” Josephine; and all the others.

It is said that Martin Luther was a dog-lover. He had a little dog named Tölpel (which is German for “fool”). He once said of dogs, “The dog is the most faithful of animals and would be much esteemed were it not so common. Our Lord God has made His greatest gifts the commonest.”

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Lenten Journal 2019 (14 April)

Lenten Journal, Day 39, Palm Sunday

Yesterday and the day before I wrote in this journal but did not post what I had written to Facebook as I have throughout the rest of Lent. Friday was our 39th wedding anniversary and Saturday, being the day before Palm Sunday, is when Evelyn and I remember the day our daughter disappeared (she was later found and all is well). What I wrote yesterday and Friday was simply too personal to put out on public social media.

Today we have stayed home from church because Evelyn has a rip-roaring upper respiratory infection. You should hear her cough! As we have done so, I have been thinking about the way we have commemorated Palm Sunday as married persons for the last 39 years. Except that year when Caitlin went missing, they have been invariably the same (as least for me): Saturday spent decorating the church with palms; Sunday the simple 8 a.m. distribution of palms within the context of Holy Communion; the later service a big production number beginning with a procession around the church and through the cemetery (if there was one nearby, as there has been here in Medina and was in San Diego), a choral Eucharist, the dramatic reading of the Passion Narrative.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (7 April)

St Paul Window, St Paul's Church, Medina, OhioLenten Journal, Day 32 – 5th Sunday in Lent

We went to a particular parish for church today because we had read that following the late service there would be a docent-led tour of their historic building. It is one we particularly like and in which we are especially interested, so we were really looking forward to it. But we were very disappointed. As we were driving home, I snarkily suggested to Evelyn that I had found my retirement volunteer gig – joining that congregation and becoming the docent to lead those tours.

More power to the person who was the docent! He was clearly uncomfortable doing what he was doing, but he had stepped up to the plate and taken his swing and done the best he could do. Perhaps it just wasn’t his fault that he hit a blooper. It certainly wasn’t his fault that his tour group included (a) an architect with more than a little knowledge of the style of the building, (b) an historic preservation scholar actually working on a master’s thesis about the building, and (c) a priest (me) with an interest in stained glass. The three of us “supplemented” his tour spiel and probably threw him off stride.

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Minted Iced Tea: Sermon for Sunday after the Ascension, May 13, 2018

Our gospel lesson today is from John’s story of the last supper. This is part of a long after-dinner speech that Jesus gives including a section known as the “high priestly prayer.” In it, among other petitions, Jesus asks God the Father to look after his disciples. He prays:

All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one. While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost . . . .[1]

As we gather today on this Sunday after the Ascension, essentially the last Sunday of the Easter Season, which also happens this year to be Mother’s Day on the secular, I am struck by how maternal this prayer sounds; it sounds like a mother leaving her children.

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Relationship Not Rules – Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018

Every year, for as long as any of us can remember, on the Second Sunday of Easter the church has told the story of Thomas, Thomas the Doubter, “Doubting Thomas” who wouldn’t believe that Jesus had risen, the poster child for those who are uncertain. But, believe me, Thomas gets a bad rap! He was no worse a doubter or disbeliever than any of the others, including Peter!

Consider this from the end of Mark’s Gospel:

Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.[1]

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The Folly of God – Sermon for Easter Day, April 1, 2018

Before coming to Ohio, my wife and I lived in the Kansas City metroplex. For reasons that still remain mysterious, I was somehow added to the mailing list for the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, which is called The Leaven. When we moved here, I expected that that would stop, but somehow they got my change of address, so I still get The Leaven. I suppose I could have asked to be taken off, but I enjoy reading some of the articles, especially a column written by the paper’s editor-in-chief Father Mark Goldasich. Fr. Goldasich often relates stories of people from around the archdiocese; some are funny, some are touching, and some, like this recently offered story, bring tears to your eyes:

One day a young man was shopping in a supermarket when he noticed an elderly lady who seemed to be following him. Whatever aisle he turned down, she turned down. Whenever he stopped, she stopped. He also had the distinct impression that she was staring at him.

As the man reached the checkout, sure enough, the lady was right there. Politely, he motioned for the woman to go ahead of him.

Turning around, the elderly lady said, “I hope I haven’t made you feel uncomfortable. It’s just that you look so much like my late son.”

Touched, the young man said, “Oh, no, that’s OK.”

“I know that it’s silly,” continued the lady, “but could I ask you to do something for me? Could you call out, ‘Goodbye, Mom,’ as I leave the store? It would make me feel so happy.”

The young man was glad to oblige. After the lady went through the checkout and was on her way out of the store, he called out, “Goodbye, Mom!”

The lady turned back, smiled and waved.

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“Squirrel!” – Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 2017

During my three days away taking the Education for Ministry training I needed to continue my certification as an EfM mentor this past week, I was reminded of an old story about children’s sermons:

A pastor was giving his children’s message at the beginning of a church service. For this part of the worship, he would gather all the children around him and give a brief lesson before dismissing them to Sunday school.

On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson on industry and preparation. He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children nodded eagerly.

“This thing lives in trees . . . (pause) . . . and eats nuts . . . (pause) . . . .”

No hands went up. “And it is gray . . . (pause) . . . and has a long bushy tail . . . (pause) . . .”

The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch . . . (pause) . . . and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited . . . (pause) . . . .”

Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well,” said the boy, “I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus . . . but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!”

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I See You: Sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, 28 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sunday after the Ascension, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 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: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10,33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11; and St. John 17:1-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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As I read our lessons for today and again as I heard them this morning, two verses in particular have leapt out at me. One from the Gospel of John in which Jesus says: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn 17:3) The other is from the story in the Book of Acts in which, after Jesus has been lifted up and a cloud has taken him out of the apostles’ sight, two suddenly-appearing “men in white robes” (angels, one presumes) ask the apostles, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11)

I want to explore the way in which these two verses are connected, but first let me ask you a question. Have you ever had a conversation that went like this?

“Hi, how are you?” asks an acquaintance.

“Fine, thanks! How are you?” you answer, but before you’ve even finished saying the word “fine” you friend has walked on and is paying not the slightest attention to you or your answer and clearly was not really interested in whether you are fine or not and is even less interested in telling you how they are doing.

What would you call the relationship such a dialogue evidences? I used the word “friend,” but that clearly overstates what such a lack of give-and-take demonstrates; I also used “acquaintance,” but I don’t think the conversation shows even that level of association. It’s more like the image in Longfellow’s The Theologian’s Tale:

Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing,
Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another,
Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
(Tales of a Wayside Inn, 1863)

You’ve had, I suspect, many conversations of greeting like that. I know I have.

In contrast to such transient and insignificant greetings, consider the way the fictional people of the planet Pandora in the 2009 science-fiction film Avatar greeted one another. Avatar was on TV Friday night. Perhaps you saw it; I did. Avatar was a big splashy tale of the clash of cultures, rapacious exploitative humans from Earth versus the apparently primitive but wise and environmentally attuned Na’Vi of Pandora. It had lots of CGI special effects, very effective use of 3D film technology, and a good action plot that kept viewers entertained. In the midst of all that there was a story about relationships, both relationships in general and a specific relationship, the love affair between the human Jake Sully and the Na’Vi native girl Neytiri.

In the Na’Vi cosmology, all life is connected through a personalized power they call “Ey’Wa.” Ey’Wa is not God – it’s unclear whether the Na’Vi have a god, and at one point Neytiri criticizes and even ridicules Jake when he addresses a prayer to Ey’Wa – but neither is Ey’Wa the impersonal and amoral “Force” of the Star Wars saga. In the world of theology, the Na’Vi understanding is most similar to the teaching called “panentheism,” literally “all-in-God-ism.” This school of thought affirms that although God and the world are distinct, that is, not the same, and although God transcends the world, the world is, nonetheless, “in” God; God is intimately connected to the world and yet remains greater than the world. (Panentheism should not be confused with pantheism, which understands God to be the world.) Some famous theologians associated with the idea of panentheism are the Lutheran Paul Tillich, Wolfhart Pannenberg in the Reformed tradition, the Evangelical Jurgen Moltmann, and the Roman Catholic writer Karl Rahner.

In any event, the Na’Vi’s understanding of Ey’Wa and their connection to her is expressed in their greeting, “I see you.” As the Na’Vi explain in the film, this greeting doesn’t mean ordinary seeing; it means “the Ey’Wa in me sees the Ey’Wa in you; the Ey’Wa in me is connecting with the Ey’Wa in you.” That greeting conveys a much, much greater sense of relationship than any “Hi, how are you? … Fine, and you?”

The conservative Roman Catholic New York Times op-ed writer Ross Douthat didn’t like Avatar at all. The week it came out (just before Christmas in 2009), he wrote a blistering critique of the philosophical underpinnings of its story, accusing the writers of offering a world-view in which human beings are nothing more than “beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality” in an agonized and deeply tragic position from which “there is no escape upward.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/21/opinion/21douthat1.html)

Now, I often find myself in disagreement with Mr. Douthat but I also often find his prose memorable and, having read his negative critique of a movie I rather enjoyed, I often think of it when I see the movie (which I did on Friday night). And his “no escape upward” quip sort of went “click” into the socket presented by that question from today’s lesson from the Acts of the Apostles: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?”

By far my favorite artistic representation of the Ascension is Salvador Dali’s The Ascension of Christ painted in 1958. Dali said that his inspiration for the painting

. . . came from a “cosmic dream’ that he had in 1950, some eight years before the painting was completed. In the dream, which was in vivid color, he saw the nucleus of an atom, which we see in the background of the painting; Dali later realized that this nucleus was the true representation of the unifying spirit of Christ. (Dali Paintings)

The viewer’s perspective is that of apostles, looking upwards at the bottoms of Jesus’ feet.

The feet of Christ point out at the viewer, drawing the eye inwards along his body to the center of the atom behind him. The atom has the same interior structure as the head of a sunflower. (Ibid.)

Dali explained to Mike Wallace in a 1958 television interview that he was intrigued by continuous circular patterns like sunflowers because they follow the law of a logarithmic spiral, which he associated with the force of spirit. (The Mike Wallace Interview, 4/19/1958) Dali often fused his conceptions of Christianity with the science of the mid-20th Century. So the sunflower-like nucleus of the atom was Dali’s representation of the unifying spirit of Christ, which in Dali’s nuclear mysticism connects everyone.

In the distance above the sunflower is the Dove, ready to descend from the clouds as on Pentecost which the church celebrates ten days after the Feast of the Ascension. Also there is a human face, specifically Dali’s wife Gala, who is crying. Dali often used Gala’s image to portray the Virgin Mary, the Queen of Heaven, but here she seems to represent the Father weeping over the Son’s departure from the Earth from the Father’s perspective in heaven.

So when I hear those two white-clad angels asking the men of Galilee why do they stood there looking up toward heaven, I think of Dali’s painting and I know why! There was so much to see, so much to stand in awe of, so much to be overwhelmed by! And yet the angels’ question is a poignantly valid one because, despite Mr. Douthat’s critique of the movie Avatar, there is no immediately available “escape upward.” There is, instead, this world in which we “beasts with self-consciousness, [we] predators with ethics, [we] mortal creatures who yearn for immortality” must get on with the business of living. There is this world into which Jesus sent his followers just before that moment of being lifted up with the command:

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. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Mt 28:19-20)

There is this world in which Jesus prayed to his Father that his followers might have eternal life, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (Jn 17:3)

There it is; the biblical definition of “eternal life.” Eternal life is to know God and Jesus. Professor Karoline Lewis of Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in her commentary on this gospel lesson asks:

What if it is that simple? How would that change what we imagine in this life? How would it affect our thoughts about and beliefs in our future life with God? How does this alter even our picture of God? Of course, what it means to “know” God is key, and to know God in the Fourth Gospel has no connection to cognitive constructions, creedal consents, or specified knowledge about God. Rather, knowing God is synonymous with being in a relationship with God. (Working Preacher Commentary, 2014)

Another commentator on this text points out that there are

. . . four great examples of discipleship in John are the Samaritan woman in ch. 4, the blind man in chapter 9, Mary in chapter 12, and Thomas, of all people, in chapter 19? What do they have in common? They participated in ongoing relationship and encounter with Jesus. Both the Samaritan woman and the blind guy have lengthy, increasingly deep dialogue with Jesus and as they do, they understand him more and more to the point where they “know” him and understand that he is the source of their lives and loves them like no other. This leads them to worship him and testify to others about him.

Mary is described as one whom Jesus loved (11:5) and John makes it clear and that she, her brother Lazarus and sister Martha regularly spent time with Jesus. Thomas may be a less obvious hero, but he’s a hero nonetheless in this Gospel. He sticks with Jesus even though he discerns trouble is in store (11:16); he asks questions when he doesn’t understand (14:5); he’s not gullible or prone to flights of fancy but he’s willing to believe when confronted with raw glory (chapter 20). On the basis of all of this, Thomas comes to fully know Jesus such that he declares him to be “My Lord and My God” (20:28). (Jaime Clark-Soles, Working Preacher Commentary, 2008)

How do we do that? How do we come to know Jesus the way these four great disciples did? How can we emulate the woman at the well, the man born blind, Mary of Bethany, or Thomas who is wrongly called “the doubter”? Unlike them, we don’t have Jesus walking around here with us. But we do have each other. And we do have all those people out there for whom he died and rose again, and to whom he sent us. And we are commended by John in his first epistle to “love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” (1 Jn 4:7) And John continues, “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. * * * God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (1 Jn 4:12,16b)

Which brings me back to the two angels and their question, and to the Na’Vi and their greeting, “I see you.” Jay Michaelson, a writer for The Huffington Post, in an editorial reply to Mr. Douthat’s criticisms suggested that the Na’Vi greeting is equivalent to the Hindu Sanskrit greeting, “Namaste.” Namaste literally means, “I bow to you” and is often translated to mean more fully, “The divine in me bows to the divine in you.” That is pretty similar to the Na’Vi explanation that “the Ey’Wa in me sees the Ey’Wa in you” and I suppose the screenwriters could definitely have had that in mind.

But there is another culture in our world which uses a more direct equivalent of the Na’Vi greeting, the Samburu people of Africa’s Serengeti about whom life-coach Terry Tilman writes in his essay entitled Connecting to the Soul:

About 20 years ago I was on a safari in Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda). As we traveled through the villages and Serengeti savanna I noticed a recurring event. When one of the indigenous people would approach another, they would pause, face each other, look directly in each others eyes for 5 -15 seconds, say something and then continue on their way. This would happen in populated villages and in very remote areas where there may be only one human every 20 square miles.

After a couple weeks of noticing this I asked one of our guides from the Samburu tribe what the natives were doing. He said they were greeting each other. “How are they doing that? What are they saying?” I asked.

“One of them says, ‘I see you.’ Connecting through the eyes, the other replies, ’I am here.’”

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My Samburu guide told me something else that I didn’t get at first. He said that in their language the greeting also meant something like, “Until you see me I do not exist. When you see me, you bring me into existence.” This speaks toward our deep connectedness and that we are in fact All One.

If you have seen Avatar, you know that the human character Jake Sully is a disabled Marine; he is confined to a wheelchair in his “real” human life. But his avatar, a synthetic body into which his conscience is temporarily transferred, is a fully functional Na’Vi male body. At the end of the movie, after Jake has rebelled against his superiors and championed the Na’Vi’s cause against Pandora’s exploitation by Earth, Jake’s crippled body is trapped in a damaged mobile laboratory. Neytiri finds him, breaks into the lab, and rescues him: “In the end, the real Jake is not his avatar. The real Jake is a man, unshaven and unkempt, without functional legs. And Neytiri sees this. As she holds the dying Jake, she tells him ‘I see you.’ This is what love is. Love is not trying to change the other person, to make them perfect, or to focus on their weaknesses. Love is seeing a person for who they are and embracing that person.” (The Everyday Thomist) Jake, of course, doesn’t die. Through a Na’Vi ritual and the connection with and through Ey’Wa, his consciousness is permanently transferred into the synthetic Na’Vi avatar, and he and Neytiri live happily ever after (one supposes).

Mr. Douthat complained that the panentheism of Avatar encourages us to avert our gaze from the “escape upward” that the Christianity of his conservative understanding affords, but that is precisely what the angels’ question and Jesus’ prayer encourage us to do. Eternal life is not found in “looking up toward heaven.” Eternal life is found when we see and know God and Jesus in those around us. Eternal life comes from knowing that we are not “ships that pass in the night, and speak each other [only] in passing,” but that we are, instead, deeply connected, that (as John wrote) “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Eternal life comes from knowing that we are all – as Jesus prayed and as Jesus taught – one, as he and the Father are one. (Jn 17:11)

I see you.

Amen.

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

Pray for Them, Then Tell Them: Sermon for Easter 6A, 21 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 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: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and St. John 14:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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A couple of years ago Pope Francis made a cogent observation about praying for those who are hungry: “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” (Little Book of Compassion, Hampton Roads, Charlottesville, VA:2017, pg 88) When I heard that, I remembered my Methodist grandfather’s teaching about prayer, “Never pray for something you aren’t willing to work for.” That came mind as I pondered the lesson from the Book of Acts this morning.

The story told by Luke in the reading is illustrated in our altar window. Paul, standing on the Hill of Mars or “Areopagus,” addressing the philosophers of Athens and telling them about the God of the Hebrews and his Son Jesus, drawing on Greek religion, philosophy, and poetry to do so. It is a model for our sharing of the gospel with others outside the Christian faith and for our sharing with other Christians of our peculiar Anglican expression of the faith; it has both positive and negative lessons to teach us.

It is a strong part of our tradition that we pray for those of other faiths and for those of no faith. For example, in one of the Prayer Book forms of the Prayers of the people we pray “for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him . . . that they may find and be found by him.” (BCP, pg 386) In another we pray “for those who do not yet believe, and for those who have lost their faith, that they may receive the light of the Gospel.” (BCP, pg 390) And when we pray for the dead, we included “all who have died in the communion of [the] Church, and those whose faith is known to [God] alone.” (BCP, pg 391)

A few days ago, the parish chapter of the Episcopal Church Women met and, as is their custom, we began their meeting with a celebration of the Holy Eucharist. That particular day was the feast of a missionary bishop, William Hobart Hare, who ministered among and with the Lakota Sioux in the Niobrara territory which we now know as the states of North and South Dakota. The epistle lesson for Bishop Hare’s commemoration is from Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he writes:

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? (Rom 10:13-15)

Or, to paraphrase the pope, “You pray for those who haven’t heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how prayer works.” We Episcopalians are pretty good at the praying, not so good at the telling. So let’s listen to what Paul says to the Romans and let’s look at how Paul told the Athenians.

First, some background. Why is Paul in Athens? Well, Paul has not come to Athens to preach; he’s come there to let things cool off in Thessalonica, where some folks upset with Paul’s preaching had “formed a mob and set the city in an uproar” (Acts 17:5), and in Beroea these same folks had “stir[red] up and incite[d] the crowds” (v. 13). So the local “believers immediately sent Paul away to the coast,” (v. 15) wait for his companions Silas and Timothy.

Athens was no longer the center of the world. “That center now was obviously Rome. Still, Athens’ vast history of intellectual and political and architectural vigor made it a destination place, and the perfect location for the confrontation of the new message of Jesus and the old message of the Greek philosophers.” (John C. Holbert, Perkins School of Theology) So Paul decides to preach at the place where philosophers meet to (in Luke’s words) “spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” (v. 21) In other words, Paul has been given an unplanned opportunity to share his understanding of Jesus, and that’s the first thing to learn from this episode: most opportunities to share our faith will be unplanned. They will be serendipitous. They will come about not because we are searching for occasions to be evangelists and missionaries, but simply because we are going about our daily lives and in some way will be given an opening.

Paul saw an opening and ventured into it, but he didn’t go into it unprepared. As he says, he had spent some time walking through the city, looking carefully at the objects of Athenian worship (v. 23). He learned about their religion so that he could share his own. Rather than dismissing their beliefs and, thus, dishonoring the religious hunger all human beings experience, Paul acknowledged points of common belief with them. For example, although the Greeks were polytheists, the concept of a creator deity was not unknown to them; laying this foundation of common ground is an important part of Paul’s witness.

Paul can do this because he is an educated man. He clearly knows his own religious background both as a Jew and now as a follower of Jesus, but his education must also have included Greek literature. We can conclude this because in this address he is able to draw on Platonic, Epicurean, and Stoic philosophy and even quotes the Stoic philosopher poet Aratus.

So here are a whole bunch of additional things we learn from this episode: (1) be prepared; you never know when these unplanned opportunities will occur, so be prepared. (2) Look for the common ground, which means (3) you have to know your own faith well and (4) you have to know at least a little about the faith and the circumstances of the other person or persons. The other person’s life circumstances are, in our world and context, probably more important to understand than their religious beliefs.

My Education for Ministry group is reading a book entitled My Neighbor’s Faith which the authors describe as a collection of “stories of interreligious encounter, growth, and transformation.” One of the vignettes describes the friendship between a conservative Southern Baptist and a left-wing cultural Jew who discovered that they “were both fathers of seriously handicapped daughters and both heavily involved in their care.” In their story, they describe how they would meet and talk for hours “often finishing each other’s sentences,” which is something I thought only married people did. They were able to do so, able to share their faith stories, because (and here is another lesson) they shared a common life experience.

On the negative side of the learnings from Paul’s Areopagus sermon is, I think, a warning to avoid assumptions.

Paul tells the Athenians that in his tour of their city he has seen an altar inscribed “To an Unknown God” and proceeds to equate this mysterious deity to the God of the Jews whom he then identifies as the father of Jesus Christ. What Paul seems not have appreciated, however, is that that isn’t what that altar was all about. The “unknown god” was “not so much a specific deity, but a placeholder, for [a god] whose name [was] not revealed.” In other words, if a Greek felt moved to make an offering of thanksgiving or propitiation or supplication to one of the gods but wasn’t sure which one to address, he or she would make that offering at the alter “to an unknown god.” As the German theologian Rudolph Bultmann asserted, “An altar to the unknown God would simply imply uncertainty as to the god to which it should apply.” (Kittel, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Volume I, 115-21) Or as Karel van der Toorn and his coauthors tell us:

Probably the most frequent motive to raise altars for (an) unknown god(s) was uncertainty or doubt about the identity of the god who had caused a certain event. In ancient religions it was of utmost importance to know the right name of the deity when invoking him/her or sacrificing to him/her. [The aim was] to prevent the god invoked from being offended…. (van der Toorn, Karel, et al, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids: 1999 p. 884)

So Paul, rather than appealing to his hearers’ religiosity, was instead calling out their possibly fearful religious ignorance. This may be why when all is said and done only two people who heard this sermon are named as expressing any interest in Christianity. So a negative lesson: don’t assume.

But don’t be afraid to speak! And here is the last lesson I want to suggest we take from Luke’s story of Paul at the Areopagus, a reminder of something Jesus said on many occasions and which Peter repeats in our epistle lesson today, ” Do not fear . . . do not be intimidated!” Specifically referring to unexpected opportunities to testify to one’s faith, Jesus said, “When they bring you before the synagogues, the rulers, and the authorities, do not worry about how you are to defend yourselves or what you are to say; for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that very hour what you ought to say.” (Lk 12:11-12) In our place and time, we are unlikely to be dragged before religious councils or secular authorities, but we will have opportunities to speak. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be intimidated! Don’t worry! The Holy Spirit will teach you what to say.

That is the promise of today’s gospel lesson: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth [who] abides with you, and he will be in you.”

So . . . lessons from the story of Paul at the Areopagus, lessons we who worship in a church building named for Paul and who every week look at this window depicting this story should learn and embody:

  1. Unplanned opportunities to share our faith abound.
  2. You never know when they will happen to you, so be prepared.
  3. Know your own faith well; study it, learn it.
  4. Know your audience; know something of their faith, if any, and of their life.
  5. Ground your message in shared experience, in the shared human hunger for meaning.
  6. Don’t make assumptions.
  7. Don’t be afraid.

There are many in our world who have not heard any story from our scriptures, let alone the gospel of Jesus. In September of last year, the religious demographer George Barna published a book entitled America at the Crossroads. In it he reported that 46% of American adults are not religiously affiliated. The current adult population of Medina County, Ohio, is about 106,000. Putting those two statistics together suggests that there are nearly 49,000 residents of this county who don’t go to church (and driving through my own neighborhood on a Sunday morning, I can well believe it). Barna also reported that 14% of the religiously unaffiliated “said they are open to trying a new church.” In our county, that would mean 6,800 adults who open to hearing from you about your faith and your church. (Barna data from Preaching; census data from Suburbanstats.org)

“How are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

As I mentioned earlier, Paul didn’t really have much success preaching in Athens. Luke tells us that some of his audience scoffed; some said they might like to hear more. Only two people are specifically named as responding positively to his sermon, a man named Dionysius and a woman named Damaris, and Luke says there were some others. (vv. 32 & 34) It wasn’t a very large harvest, but that hardly matters. We aren’t called to be successful; we are only called to be faithful. As the Psalmist says in this morning’s gradual, “Bless our God, you peoples; make the voice of his praise to be heard.”

You pray for those who have not heard the Good News, then you tell them. That’s how it works. Amen.

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

Not Sheep, Not Slaves: Sermon for Easter 4, 7 May 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 7, 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: Acts 2:42-47; Psalm 23; 1 Peter 2:19-25; and St. John 10:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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It’s the Fourth Sunday of Easter and that means it’s “Good Shepherd Sunday.” And that means that clergy throughout the church have, for the last week, been scratching their heads thinking, “This again? What can I do this time with the sheep-and-shepherd simile?” But, I’m not among them. For three days this past week, the clergy of this diocese have been in conference with our bishop, with a retired seminary president, and with a retired cathedral dean exploring exactly what we understand our ordinations to the diaconate and to the presbyterate to mean. That has kind of taken my attention off the “Good Shepherd” metaphor.

In addition, tomorrow will be the twenty-seventh anniversary of the day the Bishop of Nevada laid his hands on my head and said:

Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to Eric; fill him with grace and power, and make him a deacon in your Church. (BCP 1979, Ordination of a Deacon, page 545)

I suppose the clergy conference and tomorrow’s anniversary may be why, as I studied today’s lessons, it is verses 19 through 21 of the second chapter of the First Letter of Peter, the words “For to this you have been called . . .,” that caught my attention rather than anything in the Gospel text, and focused my thoughts on Peter’s admonitions to patient endurance of wrongful suffering. Of course, Peter’s instructions are not particularly addressed to the clergy. The way in which our Lectionary is edited, the implication is that they are addressed to Christians in general and, in a broad and inchoate sort of way, they are.

In next Sunday’s epistle reading, we will be treated to some of the verses that precede today’s lesson; we will hear verses 2 through 10 in which Peter will address us as “newborn infants,” describe us as “living stones” being built into a “spiritual building,” and assure us that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, [and] God’s own people.” What we did not hear today and will not hear next week and, in fact, never hear read in church on a Sunday as an official Lectionary reading are verses 11 through 18:

Beloved, I urge you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the desires of the flesh that wage war against the soul. Conduct yourselves honorably among the Gentiles, so that, though they malign you as evildoers, they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge. For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution, whether of the emperor as supreme, or of governors, as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should silence the ignorance of the foolish.
As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.

And only then, after these introductory verses, does the selection we heard read today begin with a word edited out of our reading, “For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly . . . .” As true as those words may be, they are not addressed to you or to me; they are specifically addressed to aliens, exiles, and slaves. They are addressed to the marginalized and the oppressed; they are addressed to those who must endure injustice because they are powerless to do anything else. These are words of comfort to those who cannot escape oppression, a reminder of St. Paul’s words that “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint.” (Rom 5:3-5) Certainly, we can learn from Peter’s words, but they are not addressed to us. We are not aliens, exiles, and slaves; we are not the marginalized or the oppressed; and we are not powerless.

The patient endurance of unjust suffering is not the life to which I was called as a deacon or as a priest, nor to which you have been called as a follower of Christ. As people who have power, and we do have power, we are called to do something about unjust suffering not simply endure it stoically or heroically.

I keep reading editorials and news analyses which assert that the outcome of the most recent US presidential election, the so-called “Brexit” vote of the electorate in the UK, and the rise of nationalist parties in Holland, France, and elsewhere in the European Union are the result of people rising up against an elite political class with regard to whom they have felt powerless. Well, I can’t speak to the situation in other countries, but I can call “Nonsense” on that assertion here in our own country. You and I and every other eligible voter in the United States are not powerless with respect to our elected politicians! We just aren’t!

What many voters in our country are is apathetic! What many voters in our country are is ill-informed! What many voters in our country are is disengaged! That’s not powerlessness; that’s surrender. Do you know what the percentage of eligible voters who actually bother to cast a ballot is? On average over the last 100 years, the turnout of registered, eligible voters in presidential elections is just over 55%. Expressed differently, that means that 45% of those who could have voted . . . didn’t. And the turnout in non-presidential elections is even worse. We are not a people without power; we are a people who have failed to exercise the power we have been given. We are not slaves patiently enduring unjust oppression; we are empowered people who have surrendered to political usurpation! When we do not exercise the power we are given, we “go astray like sheep.”

But, as Peter writes, we “have returned to the shepherd and guardian of [our] souls.” (1 Pet 2:25) We are followers of Jesus Christ who “calls his own sheep by name and leads them.” (Jn 10:3) Jesus who told us that on the last, great day, in his role as our shepherd, “he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . ” and to those who have truly followed him he will say, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mt 25:32,35-36)

In some metaphorical ways, we may be like sheep, but in truth we are not sheep. We are followers of Jesus Christ and, unlike sheep, we have the power to do all those things, the social power, the economic power, and the political power. We can, as our Free Farmers’ Market volunteers do, roll up our sleeves and distribute food to the hungry; as our Lay Eucharistic Visitors do, take time from our Sunday afternoons to call on sick and shut-in parishioners; as our greeters do, stand at the church door and welcome those unfamiliar to us. We can, as many of us do, give of our wealth to the church, to charities (such as the American Cancer Society, the SPCA, Let’s Make a Difference, Hospice of the Western Reserve, Project Learn, and many others), and to public institutions (such as PBS and NPR, the Medina Schools Foundation, and our universities’ and colleges’ alumni associations and foundations). And we can, as so few of our fellow citizens do, vote, participate in the political process informed by our Christian faith!

On that day 27 years ago tomorrow, the Bishop of Nevada said to me as every bishop says to those who stand before him or her to be ordained deacon:

As a deacon in the Church, you are to study the Holy Scriptures, to seek nourishment from them, and to model your life upon them. You are to make Christ and his redemptive love known, by your word and example, to those among whom you live, and work, and worship. You are to interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world. You are to assist the bishop and priests in public worship and in the ministration of God’s Word and Sacraments, and you are to carry out other duties assigned to you from time to time. At all times, your life and teaching are to show Christ’s people that in serving the helpless they are serving Christ himself. (BCP, page 543)

We are not aliens, or exiles, or slaves; we are residents, and citizens, and politically empowered voters in one of the greatest nations on Earth. We have the political power to serve Christ himself ensuring that our country responds to “the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world,” that it serves the helpless, feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger, houses the homeless, clothes the naked, and cares for the sick. If we truly follow Christ and live up to our baptismal promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP, Holy Baptism, page 305), neither we nor anyone in our country need ever endure unjust suffering.

The idea that “a nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members” is attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, the liberator of India, but he was not alone in expressing that sentiment. The anti-Nazi German pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer is often quoted as saying, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Author Pearl S. Buck wrote, “[T]he test of a civilization is the way that it cares for its helpless members.” (My Several Worlds: A Personal Record, Pocket Books, New York:1954, page 337) And Vice-President Hubert Humphrey said:

The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped. (Remarks at the dedication of the Hubert H. Humphrey Building, Nov 1, 1977, Congressional Record, Nov 4, 1977, vol 123, p. 37287.)

The Book of Acts tells us that the earliest Christians devoted themselves to the fellowship and teachings of Christ and his apostles, that they ordered their small society so that any who had need were provided for, and that (as a result) they had the goodwill of all the people. Some of them were slaves, but we are not. We are neither sheep nor slaves, but we can follow the example of those early Christians and order our society so that the needy are cared for. We have the power, and we have made the promise, to do that.

In that service 27 years ago, as in every ordination service, the bishop offered this prayer:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord . . . . (BCP, page 540)

It is through us, the followers of Jesus Christ, not as sheep nor as slaves, but as socially, economically, and politically empowered citizens of this great nation, that God accomplishes these things in our place and in our time.

“Truly I tell you,” the Good Shepherd will say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40)

Amen.

(The illustration is “The Good Shepherd” (1975) by Sadao Watanabe (1913-1996), a stencil print in the Mingei style.)

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

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