That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Easter (page 2 of 4)

Our Door-Blowing-Open God: Sermon for Easter 2, April 23, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Canon A. Brad Purdom III, Canon for Congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio, on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 23, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, while Fr. Eric Funston, rector, was attending his grandson’s baptism in Kansas.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:14a,22-32; Psalm 16; 1 Peter 1:3-9; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Like many (perhaps most) Episcopal churches, my first congregation had a set of large red doors on the front of their building. But also like many Episcopal churches, no one ever used them because all the members knew how to enter through a more convenient door near the parking lot.

And because they were never used, again like many Episcopal churches, the front doors had become stuck over the decades. They no longer opened at all.

But it got really hot in there, so one day when I was alone in the church, I threw my weight against those doors and busted them open. I remember a loud, frightening crack, but, lucky for me, they were more stuck than broken.

The next Sunday I opened those doors up as wide as they would go, and sure enough, the temperature dropped immediately as the morning breeze easily flowed. And the church looked . . . open for business. Win/win.

A few minutes later I met the choir at the back of the church next to those beautiful open doors, and headed down the aisle to begin the service. At the front, I turned around to face the congregation and proclaim the Opening Acclamation: “Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and blessed be those open doors!”

And you know what I saw: Two doors closed and locked. Two well-intentioned ushers had done their job . . . ensuring that we would not be in any way disturbed by that pesky world out there.

In the years since, I’ve come to think differently about what happened that morning than I did that day. That congregation had done exactly as we had taught them to do: made sure our little church was as it should be: snug . . . as a bug . . . in a rug: safe behind closed doors, a retreat from the distractions and dangers of the world.

This is the third of Jesus’ resurrection appearances in John’s Gospel. The first was to Mary at the tomb. The second was later that same day, behind locked doors, to everyone except Thomas. And this morning’s, the third, one week later and again behind closed doors.

But . . . this morning’s account is the last time in John’s Gospel that we see them hiding behind closed doors. It is the last time we see them retreating from the world, the last time we see them controlled by fear; in fact, the last time we see them anything but fully engaged in a wonderful though often dangerous world.

What happened? I think what happened was that moment so reminiscent of the Creation story when God breathed life into the human formed of mud from the river; the moment when Jesus breathed on his friends and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” For me that is the moment when the doors of that room, and of the disciple’s hearts and minds, blew wide open.

It is, of course, that same intimate breath of God that Jesus still breathes into us. Just as it was that same intimate breath of God that blew open the locked doors of that upper room once and for all and, I believe, is blowing open many once stuck sets of big red doors today.

The truth is, God has always been in the door-blowing-open business. And I think that’s exactly what God is doing today in the Christian church of western culture. You know, of course, that it is not just the Episcopal church that has lost its preeminence over the last fifty years. It is the entire Christian church in the developed Western world.

I have actually come to see that as a mostly good thing: not a curse but a corrective. I’m not saying there aren’t lots of other things going on that affect the relationship between church and culture, or that God is in any way punishing us. I’m just saying we’ve most certainly played our part.

The truth is that we did teach each other that our faith should be lodged behind locked doors and was private.

We did take faith formation of our children out of our homes and put it into the thirty minutes a week, or a month, they got in Sunday School.

We did develop a spirituality that understood the church’s purpose as providing a quiet, personal space to recharge enough to survive seven more days in the cold, hard world before getting back to some “us-time” among friends.

In fact, we did go down that kind of path so far and for so long that most of us didn’t even notice that so many of our big red front doors no longer opened. Talk about a metaphor!

But I said before that the breath, the Spirit, of God has always been in the door-blowing-open business. And I think we do notice those things now. I am confident your front doors open easily and wide!

And so do most of the front doors I encounter these days as I go to a different Diocese of Ohio church almost every week. I really do feel fresh breezes blowing through many of our churches.

Increasingly, everywhere I go, I see more and more of us getting that the church isn’t what happens to us in here nearly so much as it is what happens through us out there: as open-hearted, overtly Christian, people in the world.

The Spirit of God is breathing in and through us right now, and I believe American churches of most types are rediscovering our true purpose: to work alongside God in the world, restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

We can get all angry and judgmental with our non-Christian culture if we want to, but I think that is counterproductive. The church must always respond to the culture of its time and place.

That is what Jesus made possible for the disciples that morning when he breathed and filled them with the Holy Spirit. And that is what Jesus makes possible for us as he breathes upon us and fills us with that same Spirit again and again.

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Canon Purdom is the Canon for Congregations of Episcopal Diocese of Ohio.

Act Three (Pt 2): Monstrous Relief – Easter Day 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Festival Eucharist of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday, April 16, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24, and St. Matthew 28:1-10. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His Flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that – pierced – died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mache,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

I love that poem, John Updike’s Seven Stanzas at Easter from the collection Telephone Poles and Other Poems. I have read it here before and, doubtless, I will read it again.

Only a poet like Updike could use the word monstrous to describe the Resurrection of Christ and, in spite of its shock value, or perhaps because of it, it is the perfect word, an ambiguous word that captures the essence of the entire Triumphal Entry – Passover Supper – Crucifixion – Resurrection event, the three-act drama of redemption which we began to remember on Palm Sunday.

Monstrous can, and usually does, mean something like “frightful or hideous; extremely ugly; shocking or revolting; awful or horrible,” and those are certainly good words to describe the way the people of Jerusalem turned on Jesus, the way his disciple Judas betrayed him, the way his other followers denied and abandoned him, the way the authorities, both Jewish and Roman, abused and killed him, mocking, scourging, and finally crucifying him. It was all monstrous; there’s no doubt about that!

Monstrous, however, can also mean “extraordinarily great; huge; immense; outrageous; overwhelming.” And those are superlative ways to describe the fact of Christ’s Resurrection from the dead! It is a huge thing! It is immense, outrageous, overwhelming! Yes, the Resurrection is monstrous!

There are two people who are hardly ever thought of in all of this three-part drama, in all the majesty of Holy Week and Easter: one of them is mentioned briefly only by John in his story of Jesus’ Crucifixion; the other isn’t named at all. I refer to Mary and Joseph, Jesus’ mother and foster father.

Of course, we know nothing of Joseph during Jesus’ adult ministry; after that event in the Jerusalem Temple when Jesus was about 13, Joseph is never again mentioned in the Gospels. Some suppose this is because he had passed away, but I like to think that he was just back home in Nazareth working the family business, doing carpentry or carving stone, making tables and chairs or building homes, keeping the family provided for so that Jesus could go about his ministry and Mary could accompany him.

Mary is mentioned in John’s story of the Crucifixion as standing at the foot of the cross and being entrusted by Jesus to the disciple whom he loved. And the legend from which we get the 14th Station of the Cross and Michelangelo’s exquisitely beautiful Pieta is that when his body was removed from the cross she held him, dead, in her arms. But there is no mention of her or of Joseph at Jesus’ burial, nor are they mentioned in any of the accounts of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances.

That omission, for I am sure that is what it is, an omission, disturbs me. Two weeks ago was the 59th anniversary of my father’s death at the age of 39. I am now about the age his mother and father, my grandparents, were when he died. One of my clearest memories of childhood is his funeral. I remember how, as we were leaving the graveside, my grandparents hung back, how they could not step away from nor turn their backs on the grave that held their child’s lifeless body. When, at last, they accepted my Uncle Scott’s physical encouragement to do so, my grandmother said to my mother, “A mother should not outlive her child.” She would know that feeling again just a few years later when my Uncle Scott died of cancer.

And own my mother would know it, as well, when in 1993 my only sibling, my older brother Rick, died of brain cancer. I vividly remember doing exactly what my uncle had done, physically moving my mother and stepfather away from the grave, the grave they could not leave on their own. Later that day, my mother said to me, “You’re grandmother was right. A parent should not outlive her child.”

Having seen my grandparents and my parents at the graves of their children, I cannot believe that Mary and Joseph were not there when the stone was rolled into place, when Jesus was buried in that borrowed tomb.

Updike’s portrayal of the Resurrection and his admonition to us, “Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,” so aptly describe the entire event of Holy Week and Easter, because we cannot appreciate the overwhelming wonder of the Resurrection, this third act of the redemption drama, without taking into account the first two acts, all of the horror and ugliness they portrayed: Judas’ betrayal, the other disciples abandonment, Peter’s denial, the trial before Pilate, Christ’s scourging and humiliation, his bitter agony on the Cross, his final self-emptying in death, and his burial. It is all monstrous; painful and ugly and awful in the first sense of that wonderfully ambiguous adjective. And I cannot believe that his parents were not there, did not experience the whole monstrous lot of it!

And, just as I am puzzled by the absence of almost any mention of Mary and Joseph in the narrative of Christ’s death and burial, and I am astounded that there is no allusion to them in the Gospel accounts of that first Easter morning or any time after his Resurrection! The only word about either of them is in the first chapter of the Book of Acts and, again, it’s only Mary who gets mentioned. Luke, the author of Acts, says that following Christ’s Ascension forty days after his Resurrection the apostles “were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.” (Acts 1:14) That’s it, that one mention! I find that astonishing!

Apparently so have many Christians throughout the ages, because there is an extra-biblical tradition that the Virgin Mary was the first person to witness our Lord’s Resurrection. The Golden Legend, a medieval collection of stories about the saints, says that the first appearance of the resurrected Christ on Easter Day was to the Virgin Mary:

It is believed to have taken place before all the others, although the evangelists say nothing about it.. . . . [I]f this is not to be believed, on the ground that no evangelist testifies to it . . . perish the thought that such a son would fail to honor such a mother by being so negligent! . . . Christ must first of all have made his mother happy over his resurrection, since she certainly grieved over his death more than the others. He would not have neglected his mother while he hastened to console others.

St. Ignatius of Antioch (1st C.) claimed it was so, as did St. Ambrose of Milan (4th C.), St. Paulinus of Nola (4th C.), the poet Sedulius (5th C.), St. Anselm of Canterbury (11th C.), St. Albertus Magnus (13th C.), St. Bernardino da Siena (15th C.), and the bible scholar Juan Maldonado (16th C.) More recently, the late Pope John Paul II, in 1997 expressed his opinion that Mary “was probably the first person to whom the risen Jesus appeared.” (Gen. Aud., Wednesday, 21 May 1997)

We live through this three-act drama every year in a set series of events: triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, last supper and then the prayers at Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, weeping at the tomb on Holy Saturday, and then – of course – our liturgy and our hymns encourage us to express joy on Easter morning. In Matthew’s Gospel we are told that Mary Magdalene and the other Mary ran from the tomb “with fear and great joy,” but in our reading this morning from John a weeping Mary Magdalene, upon recognizing her risen teacher, literally clings to his feet in prostrate relieve; I wonder if that might have been the more common reaction of Jesus’ disciples and parents.

I believe that the legends and early fathers and the late pope are right, that the Risen Christ appeared to Mary and Joseph, as well as and probably before the eleven apostles and their friends, and that they would have been profoundly shaken, perhaps overwhelmingly frightened, and maybe eventually greatly reassured. But I’m not so sure that joy would be the best description of their initial reaction; perhaps the closest they might have come would have been relief.

We remember the three-act drama, as I said, in an orderly fashion. But if we know one thing about human beings, it is that we are not orderly creatures.

It may seem odd, but in just a few days, the Daily Office Lectionary will put us back to the beginning of Lent. At the end of the second week of Easter this year, the Daily Office gospel reading will be about Jesus’ temptations in the desert following his baptism.

That’s not odd, at all, really. Our spiritual life, like our emotional life, follows no particular schedule, no orderly progression. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – and people often think they follow an orderly progression, just like our Holy Week and Easter celebrations. But clinical experience has shown that a grieving person does not move neatly through them as if they were rungs on a ladder. One may move from denial to anger to bargaining and then return to denial; one may skip a stage only to return to it later; one may spend a good deal of time in one stage and only a short while in another. There is no orderly progression and I can well imagine that Mary and Joseph and the apostles and the women at the tomb were all experiencing that sort of emotional bouncing about, an emotional roller coaster the like of which probably none of us have ever known.

Our spiritual lives are the same. As one works through the process of enlightenment, of salvation, of spiritual growth, of whatever-one-calls-it, one does not follow a schedule. We may move back to an earlier stage, revisit issues we thought we’d dealt with.

St. Paul urged his friends in the church at Caesarea Philippi to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philip. 2:12-13) Nowhere does Scripture promise that this work will be neat and tidy. If anything, the witness of Scripture is that spiritual and emotional growth is a messy affair.

That is why I suggest that the closest the first witnesses to Jesus’ Resurrection might have come to joy would perhaps better be described as relief. The dictionary defines relief as “alleviation of pain, as the easing of anxiety, as deliverance from distress.” This is an appropriate experience and emotion for Easter Day, profound relief.

I think the joy comes later in the Easter Season and that it comes later in life as we live out our Easter faith. But in the immediate aftermath of the monstrous-ness of Holy Week, here in the third act of the drama of redemption, in the wake of the horrible ugliness of betrayal and death that occurred in the first two acts, one may simply not be ready to be jubilant and happy. In the face of our own sinfulness and spiritual dysfunction, in the reality of our own messy spiritual lives, we may not be ready for joy and gladness. But the fact of Christ’s Resurrection relieves us of grief and sorrow; it relieves us of sin and death.

The experience and impact of Easter Day is one of profound, overwhelming, (one might even say) monstrous relief.

Perhaps that is why Jesus stuck around for forty days, to continually reassure and sustain the disciples in their relief from fear and sorrow and grief, so that they could move into joy and gladness as time went on. Perhaps that is why in producing the third act of the drama of redemption the church offers not a single day, but a season of fifty days, so that as it progresses we can . . . like Mary and Joseph, like Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved, like all the apostles . . . move from shock into relief, from relief into joy, so that it provides a pattern with which we can handle the inevitable losses in our lives.

As life goes on and as the victory of life over death sinks in, Easter relief will grow into Easter joy, something that propels us toward action and compels us to invite others into the Resurrected life of our Risen Lord. As Christians, we have access through the relief of Christ’s Resurrection into a joy that is unshakable – for joy is really not an emotion; it is a virtue. Easter joy does not mean being happy all the time or being fine when times are difficult; Easter joy means being sustained by the power of the Resurrection.

What Easter means is that in the depths of our being, despite the circumstances we may face, despite any fears we may have, despite whatever may be tearing up our souls, despite whatever sin or spiritual malaise we may be suffering, despite whatever disorderly messes our spiritual lives may be in, we are able to get through them, to let go of them, and to find relief and eternal life in the Resurrected Christ, a life into which we invite others.

John tells us that on that first Easter morning, when Mary Magdalen fell at her Risen Lord’s feet, he admonished her, “Do not hold on to me; I am ascending to my Father.” It doesn’t sound to me like this woman who had just been grieving at his tomb was expressing joy, nor that Jesus’ was encouraging it. What I hear is Jesus offering comfort and relief.

It has been said that joy comes from letting go – letting go of our attachments, letting go of any thoughts that the present moment should or even could be different than it is, letting go of our expectations. Joy is the virtue of celebrating the present, of living in the moment, something to which we come through a process of detachment and release, something that we like Mary Magdalene let go of the old Jesus, the Jesus who died on the cross, and follow the now-Risen and ascended Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2)

Resurrection Day is not the end of the process; it is the beginning. “Do not be afraid,” Jesus said to Mary Magdalen. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells her not to hang on to him. In both gospels the message is, “Let go” – let go of me, let go of your fear.

Easter Day brings relief, overwhelming relief! Through that relief we are able to let go, to release our fears, our griefs, our worries, and our sorrows with absolute abandon, to be completely freed of our sinfulness! In letting go as the Easter Season and as our Easter faith progress, we are able to work out our salvation, for it is God who is at work in us, and ultimately find joy, unutterably ecstatic joy, huge, overwhelming, outrageous joy into which we are compelled to invite others!

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body . . .
Let us not seek to make it less monstrous!

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

(The illustration is The Resurrection Of Christ (Right Wing Of The Isenheim Altarpiece) by Matthias Grünewald, c.1512–16)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Intermission: We Cannot Know – Holy Saturday 2017

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A meditation offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Holy Saturday, April 15, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Lamentations 3:1-9, 19-24; Psalm 31:1-4,15-16; 1 Peter 4:1-8; and St. Matthew 27:57-66. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Today is Holy Saturday, perhaps the least thought upon, least looked upon day in the Easter Triduum. A moment when the pomp and majesty of events ceases; no betrayals, no protestations of loyalty, no meaningful dinner, no demonstrations of servanthood, no admonitions to love, no agony, no dying, and, as yet, no rising — merely dormancy on all fronts. It is the Intermission of the three-act drama of Redemption.

A time, as poet Emily Polis Gibson quoting T.S. Eliot says is a time to Be Still and Wait:

I said to my mind, be still, and wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love
For love would be love of the wrong thing; yet there is faith
But the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be light, and the stillness the dancing.
~T. S. Eliot, from “East Coker,” The Four Quartets

This in-between day
after all had gone so wrong
before all will go so right,
puts us between the rock
and the hard place:
all hope, love and faith is squeezed from us.
Today we are flattened,
dried like chaff,
ground to pulp,
our destiny with death sealed.

We lie still
like sprinkled spices
trying to delay
inevitable decay,
wrapped up tight
stone cold
and futile.
The rock is rolled into place
so we lie underneath,
crushed and broken.
We are inside,
our bodies like His.
We are outside,
cut off and left behind.
We cannot know about tomorrow,
we do not fathom what is soon to come:
the stone lifted and rolled away,
the separation bridged,
the darkness giving way to light,
the crushed and broken rising to dance,
and the waiting stillness stirring, inexplicably,
to celebrate new life.

“We cannot know about tomorrow . . . . ” Poet and essayist Aaron Brown says that Holy Saturday “dwells in [the] place where words fail, between the bookends of suffering and resurrection. When the defiance of loss gives way to numbness, we are left in a space where time seems to slow, indeed seems to stop altogether.” (Brown) It is truly an intermission.

And yet it is not a time of inactivity. While we, the actors and cast of the yearly remembrance of the drama seem to languish, our faith teaches that the one who has died is active. We confess in each recitation of the Creed that “he descended to the dead.” It is the time called “the harrowing of hell” when the souls of the righteous dead are freed. An ancient anthem of the day sings

Our shepherd, the source of the water of life, has died.
The sun was darkened when he passed away.
But now man’s captor is made captive.

This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.
He has destroyed the barricades of hell,
overthrown the sovereignty of the devil.
This is the day when our Savior broke through the gates of death.
(Responsory, Roman Rite Morning Prayer, Saturday of the Three Days)

The protagonist died, but the drama is not ended. This is merely Intermission, time to gather strength and prepare for the third act. Let us pray:

All-powerful and ever-living God, your only Son went down among the dead and rose again in glory. In your goodness raise up your faithful people, buried with him in baptism, to be one with him in the eternal life of your kingdom, where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.

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

Between Two Fires – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter – 10 April 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and St. John 21:1-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpg/1200px-Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpgIn Jerusalem, just outside the walled Old City to the south is a church built on the place where the house of Caiaphas, the high priest who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion, is believed to have been. The church is named St. Peter in Gallicantu; the name is from the Latin meaning, “St. Peter where the rooster crowed.” It is a reference, of course, to Peter’s three denials of Christ in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

In the interior of the church, in niches on either side of the altar, are two icons. One depicts that episode which gives the church its name; the other, the story which we heard in today’s gospel lesson. The icons are similar in that they both depict Peter and Jesus on either side of a charcoal fire.

In the first, the fire is quite small and several other people are gathered around it. Jesus and Peter are in the foreground. Jesus is bound and looking directly at Peter; Peter’s eyes, on the other hand, are downcast and he is holding up one hand, palm toward Jesus as if to fend him off. The icon is captioned in Latin “Non novi illum” (Lk 22:57) – “I do not know him.”

In the second, the fire is much larger and is accompanied by baskets of fish and bread. There are no other people around the fire; the other disciples are still in the boat some distance off shore. Jesus, again, is looking directly at Peter. Peter, in this picture, is looking directly at Jesus and holding his hand out to Jesus to receive a shepherd’s staff which Jesus is handing to him. This icon is also captioned, again in Latin, “Domine tu omnia scis tu scis quia amo te” (Jn 21:17) – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Some bible scholars believe that Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is an add-on, that the original text of this gospel ended with the statement at the end of Chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (vv 30-31) These scholars argue, and I think we have to admit, that that sounds pretty much like a definitive conclusion to the book. Thus, they argue that Chapter 21 from which we have heard today is either an afterthought that John felt compelled to add or the work of a second author, a false John who was apparently unsatisfied with the original text. However, I would suggest that Chapter 21 is neither an afterthought of John’s nor the forged addition of another: it is connected to the main body of John’s gospel by those charcoal fires and the number three.

Non novi illumOn that awful night, as all was being lost and his rabbi was being tried, mocked, and ultimately killed, Peter stood at that first charcoal fire and denied Jesus three times. As John tells the story in Chapter 18, Judas led the authorities to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was then taken away to Caiaphas’s courtyard and Peter, who had sworn that he would never deny Jesus, followed. The maid who watched the gate to the courtyard saw Peter and said to him, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

Peter replied, “No, I’m not.”

John then tells us, “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.” (Jn 18:18) There and here in today’s story in Chapter 21 are the only two places in all of the New Testament that fires are specifically described as being a “charcoal fire.” John is very deliberately contrasting these two scenes in his gospel.

A bit later, those with whom Peter was standing and keeping warm by the fire asked him if he were one of Jesus’ disciples; he replied, “No, I am not.” (Jn 18:25) And immediately another person asked Peter the same question and again Peter replied, “No.”

Just then, while Peter was still standing next to the charcoal fire in the courtyard, is when the crowed, confirming Jesus’ earlier word to Peter that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster’s call. Luke’s account tells us that at that moment, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Lk 22:61) That was when Peter realized what he had done and he was devastated: this is the moment depicted in the first icon in the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.

Peter left that first charcoal fire a broken man, weeping bitterly, and all alone. Eventually, he would re-connect with his fellow disciples. Eventually, with them, he would witness the empty tomb and encounter the Resurrected Jesus. Eventually, with Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, and two others John does not name, he would go fishing. Eventually, he would come to this beach and to the second charcoal fire.

Domine tu omnia scisLooking at Peter across this charcoal fire after their breakfast of grilled fish, Jesus would begin a conversation of three questions and three answers: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15)

What Jesus is asking is if Peter loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus. That is, after all, what Peter had said at dinner that night when he said that even if the others deserted Jesus he would never do that. But that, of course, is exactly what he did and more; he denied even knowing Jesus. So it must have been difficult for Peter to have this conversation at this charcoal fire remembering what happened at that charcoal fire.

Nonetheless, he answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” In words that can only be taken as a clear sign of forgiveness as much as they are of empowerment and commissioning, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.” But that doesn’t end the conversation!

Jesus asked Peter a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter must have wondered, and certainly we wonder, why Jesus would ask him the same question. Again, he answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” and again Jesus commissioned him, “Tend my sheep.”

And then, yet again, Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John changes the Greek verb here from agápe used in the first two questions to philía, naming in some circumstances a different sort of love, but whether that has any theological significance is a matter of debate. For us, today, it does not, but we should be aware of that change.)

John tells us that this third time, the question stings Peter. Says John, “Peter felt hurt . . . and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'” (v 17) And again, Jesus commissioned Peter, “Feed my sheep” but this time with a warning saying, in essence, “It will be dangerous and you will suffer at the hands of others.”

Jesus then ended the conversation with a simple, “Follow me,” an invitation ripe with forgiveness; whatever had happened at that first charcoal fire, it is put behind them; it does not matter. The three denials have been wiped away by three declarations of love and three commissions to service. All that matters now is that Peter follow his Master and live out the task he has been given.

The second icon illustrates this as Jesus passes the pastoral staff, the shepherd’s crook, to Peter who reaches out to receive it.

In Section IV of T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding the poet writes that we will all be “consumed by either fire or fire:”

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

The two charcoal fires of John’s Gospel, the two charcoal fires in the Gallicantu icons, show us the two fires of Elliot’s poem: the destructive fire of denial, or the life-giving, nourishing fire of resurrection, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The genius of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is that it is in the space between these fires, between the two icons, between these two stories in John’s Gospel that the people’s worship takes place, that our lives as the people of God are lived, wearing that “intolerable shirt of flame which human power cannot remove.”

What that placement of worship between those two icons says is that Peter represents all of us, that in a sense we are all Peters. All of us have committed ourselves, like Simon Peter, to follow Jesus. That commitment was made at our baptism and again at our confirmation; it has been reaffirmed again and again, as it was on Easter morning in the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, as it was last week when we joined in baptizing Anthony Jon and Laura May on whose behalf the promises of that covenant were made for the first time. But, just like Peter, we have all of us betrayed that covenant, broken those promises, and denied the Lord we have sworn to follow. But then comes that gentle but supreme act of absolution, uttered from the cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)

The image of the charcoal fires in the Gospel of John becomes an image of that divine mercy. One moment we’re warming ourselves at the fire of denial, potentially destroyed by the poor decisions we make, decisions that break our covenant promises. The next moment we’re with Jesus as he feeds us at the fire of mercy and forgiveness. The Lord is faithful to us even when we have not been faithful to him, and it is through his faith that we are healed and restored, and eventually, like him and with him, risen to new life.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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

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

God Is the Question – Sermon for Easter 2, Year C (3 April 2016)

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The-Doubt-of-St_Thomas-300x300Every year on the Second Sunday of the Easter season, we read the story from John’s Gospel of Thomas’s refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, but in each year of the Lectionary Cycle, it is coupled with different lessons from the Book of Acts and a different epistle lesson. So this year, in Year C of the cycle, we have heard of the confrontation between Peter and the high priest about the apostles’ teaching in the Temple, and we have heard part of the introduction of John of Patmos’ Revelation.

In the first, we see the clash between two parties each absolutely convinced of the truth of their conception of God: the high priest, speaking for the council, is absolutely sure that his God, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, had nothing to do with the itinerant rabbi from Galilee; Peter, speaking for the fledgling Christian community, is just as certain that his God, the Father of Jesus Christ, had everything to do with him. There is no way to avoid conflict between these two camps, their spokesmen, and their very different understandings.

In the reading from Revelation, John of Patmos gives us yet another view of God, whom he quotes as saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and who (says John) is and was and is to come. John’s God is a god of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

These lessons encourage us to grapple with the story and example of Thomas, the apostle whose insistence on solid evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection earned him the epithet “the Doubter,” but who in fact made the first post-Resurrection statement of convicted faith, crying out “My Lord and my God!” upon seeing Jesus.

My friend David Henson, a priest and journalist in North Carolina, says that “it hardly seems fair” to brand Thomas as “the archetypal doubter, the skeptic that demanded proof.” “He wasn’t the only disciple in the Christian gospels to express disbelief or doubt at the reports of resurrection.” (Easter for Doubters: The Unexpected Faith of Thomas, Patheos, April 1, 2013) And Professor David Lose, president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, agrees with him:

When you read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, you quickly realize that Thomas is not alone in his doubt. In fact, doubt isn’t the exception but the rule. No one – even after all the predictions – no one says, “Welcome back.” Or “We knew it.” Or even “What took you so long?” No. No one anticipates Jesus return and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.

Which makes me think that maybe doubt isn’t the opposite of faith but, actually, part of it, maybe even an essential part of it. (Faith and Doubt, Dear Working Preacher, April 8, 2012)

Last week in The New York Times, William Irwin, professor of philosophy at King’s College, a Roman Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an op-ed piece entitled God Is a Question, Not an Answer (The New York Times Opinionator Blog, March 26, 2016). In it he said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.

***

We should all feel and express humility in the face of the question even if we think the odds are tilted heavily in favor of a particular answer.

Thus, Prof. Irwin says, “The believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt.”

Today, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon, and welcome them into the household of faith, into the community which believes not only that there is a God, but that that God is most fully revealed to humankind in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the course of their lifetimes, they will explore with us what that means.

We could tell them, as many Christian preachers do, that “God is the answer.” They will encounter people like the Christian writer Dana Gatlin who begins one of her books with this firm statement and admonition:

In every human difficulty I have learned to center on God as the way out. God is the answer! ~ Center on God quickly, completely. God cannot fail! God loves you, right now is waiting to help you, and if you really put your trust in Him with all your heart, He will not fail you. Trusting in Him utterly, you cannot fail! ~ Whatever your dilemma or need may be, God is the answer. (God Is the Answer, Kansas City: Unity School of Christianity, 1940, p 7)

And they will encounter many others who witness that many in this life do in fact fail and that there always seem to be dilemmas which cannot be resolved and needs that are never met, and thus just as firmly assert that not only is God not the answer, but that there is no God. This conflict of certainties is not unlike that between Peter and the high priest about which we heard in the reading from the Book of Acts.

In this Easter season of alleluias we can sometimes be blinded to the reality of human doubts, fears, and pain, even our own. We tend to forget, as Professor Lose reminded us, that for the first disciples, for every one of them, not just Thomas, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place. The loud alleluias of Easter can make us forget that, as Prof. Irwin suggests, we “all exist along a continuum of doubt. Some of us will approach religious certainty at one extreme and others will approach atheistic certainty at the other extreme. Many of us will slide back and forth over time.” The story and example of Thomas serves as a reminder.

Poet Denise Levertov in her poem St. Thomas Didymus remembers another man in scripture who, like Thomas, expressed his doubts, a father who came to Jesus in the midst of fear and pain seeking healing for his child. Mark tells us the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus saying, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. * * * If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replied, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” In answer, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24)

Levertov imagines that Thomas witnessed this encounter and, remembering that Thomas’s name means, “the Twin,” names the father as Thomas’s “spiritual twin.” Her poem gives voice to Thomas’s doubts and their resolution:

In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teeth-gnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tight-drawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life.

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

(St. Thomas Didymus in Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire; Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, p 81)

In a moment, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon. Before we do so, their parents and Godparents will make some promises and commitments on their behalf and then, as the presiding priest, I will ask them and you some questions about belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” And each time the answer will be, “I believe.”

Perhaps for some of us, perhaps sometimes for all of us, the unspoken answer will be “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” The affirmations of the Creed, which is what those answers are, are not statements of certainty like those of Peter or the high priest, of the author who asserts that “God is the answer,” or of the atheist who insists there is no God. They are, rather, statements of faith, statements of hope, statements of trust in the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come, the God of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “You cannot be a [person] of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning . . . .” Therefore, he said, religious faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, 2007, p 105)

It is said that when the early 20th Century novelist and poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her life partner Alice B. Toklas at her bedside, Stein roused herself and asked, “What is the answer?” Toklas was unable to respond and sat there silent. “In that case,” Stein said, “What is the question?”

The question is God. God is the Question. When we welcome Laura May and Anthony Jon into the household of faith, we welcome them not to a life of nailed down certainty, but to a life of exploring the Question, in the course of which some lesser questions may be answered, but for the most part they will find that, like Levertov’s Thomas, their questions (and ours) will not so much answered as given their part in a vast unfolding design lit by the risen Son. Amen.

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The illustration is “The Doubt of St. Thomas” by the Chinese artist He Qi.

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

====================

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

Meeting the Author – Sermon for Easter Morning (RCL Year C), 27 March 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Resurrection Sunday, March 27, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:19-26; and St. Luke 24:1-12. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Anastasis IconLitigation attorneys and fishermen have something in common… We like to tell stories. Fishermen tell about “the one that got away.” Trial lawyers prefer to tell about the ones we got!

So … although it may not seem to have much to do with faith or religion or Easter … I’m going to tell you about the last medical malpractice claim I defended before retiring from active law practice.

Here’s what happened. A guy was out fishing at Lake Mead, the big reservoir on the Colorado River behind Boulder Dam in Southern Nevada, and stupidly scooped a rattlesnake out the lake (they swim … but you didn’t know that). Of course, it bit him on the forearm.

So he was taken to Boulder City Hospital where my client was an emergency physician.

Now you may not know this, but in most small proprietary hospitals, the emergency room doctors are not members of the hospital’s medical staff; they are contractors and they don’t have admitting privileges. So after he did what he thought was appropriate treatment (which was to stabilize the patient and administer ten vials of antivenom), he transferred the man’s care to the next available physician on the staff. That doctor, unfortunately, did not continue the antivenom therapy and the patient’s forearm muscle eventually necrotized and he lost much of the use of his arm. So, of course, he sued.

His attorney, who was an old friend of mine (we’d been associates together in the same law firm), named just about everyone you could think of as defendants in the law suit: the ambulance service, the hospital, my doctor, the second doctor, and a few other people. When I got the case from my client’s malpractice insurer, the first thing I did was call my colleague and do a little bit of what we call “informal discovery,” you know, just ask him about the case, about his evidence, his theory of liability, and so forth. I asked him if he was relying on any medical texts and he told me that he was using the third edition of the book Snake Venom Poisoning by Dr. Findlay E. Russell.

After our conversation, I went down to the University Medical Center, where I had library privileges, to see if they had the book; I discovered that there was a fourth edition which they had, so I checked it out. Back at my office reading the foreword, I learned that Dr. Russell was a faculty member at the University of Arizona Medical School in Tucson, so I called him on the phone. “Dr. Russell,” I said, “my name’s Eric Funston and I’m a lawyer in Las Vegas, Nevada. I’m defending an emergency physician in a snake bite case. May I ask if anyone has contacted you on behalf any of these people?” and I list the plaintiff and all the defendants. “No,” was Dr. Russell’s answer. “In that case, sir, may I retain your services as a consultant and possibly as an expert witness?”

Long story short, Dr. Russell, who Wikipedia even today says “was widely acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authorities on snakes and the pharmacology of snake venoms,” reviewed my case and said that my client had done everything to the highest standard of care. My old friend, the plaintiff’s attorney, agreed to dismiss the claim against my client, hired Dr. Russell to testify on the plaintiff’s behalf, and got a big verdict against the hospital staff doctor whose care was, in Fin Russell’s opinion, abysmally bad.

Now, I’m sure, you’re really wondering what that has to do with Easter. Bear with me, we’ll get to that. But before we do, let’s take a look at the way Luke tells the story of Jesus’ Resurrection.

He tells us that “the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee came to the tomb;” these would be “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and” others. The find the tomb open and empty, and they are spoken to by “two men in dazzling clothes,” who ask them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here, but has risen.” Terrified, the run to find the disciples and tell them what has happened. Luke doesn’t tell us about that conversation, but John tells us, that “Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” Luke then says that “these words seemed to [the disciples] an idle tale, and they did not believe [the women].” Our translation is rather generous and understated, by the way; the original Greek implies that they thought what she and the other women said was delirious, lunatic insanity, stark raving madness. They thought it was like a fairy tale out of a story book!

And, for us, that’s pretty much what it is, isn’t it? It’s something we know about only because it’s in this book of stories. Frankly, it is a little unbelievable; it’s hard to accept because it challenges and undermines everything we expect of reality. As Professor Anna Carter Florence, who teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary, said in an interview a few years ago, “If the dead don’t stay dead, what can you count on?” No wonder the disciples did not believe the “idle tale” of Mary Magdalene and the other women. So, folks, if you have a hard time with this notion of resurrection, that’s OK! You’re in good company. In fact, you’re probably in better company than the people who point to the story book and say, “I believe it because it’s in the Bible,” and then “urge you to get acquainted with the Bible personally” because “God [will] speak to you through its pages.” (Answers by Billy Graham) That may well be, but I tend to agree with Dr. David Lose, the president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, who said, “If you don’t find resurrection at least a little hard to believe, you probably aren’t taking it very seriously!”

What John tells us Mary Magdalene said to the disciples that first Easter morning may well have been the best sermon ever preached. Five short words, “I have seen the Lord.” “It’s hard to imagine a better sermon than [this]. Short and memorable and to the point. Mary’s sermon is a homiletical gem – and maybe the truest sermon ever preached.” (Karoline Lewis) And this is where my snake bite case informs my understanding of Easter and Christ’s Resurrection.

Mary Magdalene said, “I have seen the Lord.” She did not say, “Some men told….” She did not say, “I am personally acquainted with the Bible.” She said, “I have seen the Lord. I have seen ‘the author of peace and lover of concord.’ I have seen ‘the one through whom all things were made.’ I have ‘the author of our salvation.’”

Like my fellow attorney, the apostles had the book; they knew their Scriptures well. But Mary Magdalen had the Person; she had seen the Lord. As Marcus Borg says, “It as a fact of history that Jesus was experienced after his death as a living figure of the present and not just as a dearly-remembered figure of the past.” We can read the story book over and over again, until we know everything there is to know about Jesus as “a dearly-remembered figure of the past,” but until his Resurrection becomes more than a third-person account, until it is a first-person experience, there will always be that lingering doubt. This is why Peter Lockhart, a theologian in the Uniting Church of Australia, insists that the Resurrection “should be an intensely personal thing; that each one of us should feel and know and celebrate the mystery of the resurrection of Jesus.” Easter is the gift of encountering the resurrected Jesus in our own lives now, of entering into the eternal divine life now, of experiencing the power of the Holy Spirit now.

Like my colleague, we can read the book and be content, if a little doubtful, about what we read there. Or … we can search out the Author. From the very beginning, those who wish to be disciples of Jesus have had good reason to wonder about and even doubt the truth of the Resurrection, especially those who have only become “acquainted with the Bible.” But if we limit ourselves to that, to reading the stories of long ago, we ought to hear those two men in dazzling clothes asking us, as they asked the women, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” Look into the future among the living, move into that future! We know there will be tragedy, and trauma, and tedium, and disappointment; there will also be joy, and wonder, and love, and laughter. And in all of them, there will be Jesus. The Risen Christ, the author of peace and lover of concord, the one through whom all things were made, the author of our salvation, will be present. He will prevail in our individual lives, in the church, and in the world. For those who have made the effort to meet the Author, there is no doubt at all.

Resurrection is more than a third-person account, more than a story in a book; it is … it can be … it should be … a first-person experience, a meeting with the Author.

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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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.

Claim the Openness! Claim the Kingdom! – A Reflection on April, Politics, and Marriage

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A “Rector’s Reflection” offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector, in the April 2016 edition of the parish newsletter, St. Paul’s Epistle.

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wedding-rings1It’s April! When did that happen?

The Anglo-Saxons called April êastre-monaþ. (That funny looking letter at the end is called a “thorn” and is pronounced like “th”.) This literally means “easter month” and April was called this because it was sacred to the goddess Eostre. According the Venerable Bede (a very early English historian) this is why in the English language we call the feast and season of Christ’s Resurrection “Easter” rather than some variation of the Latin word for “Passover” which is most common among European languages. Of course, this is one of those oddball years when Easter did not, in fact, fall during the month of April.

In 1980, however, Easter fell on April 6. Why would I know this? Because Evelyn and I were married during April, 1980. On Saturday, April 12, in fact. It was the Saturday after Easter Sunday. For some reason, we had wanted to get married on March 15. Thirty-six years later I cannot for the life of me remember why we wanted to get married on the Ides of March, but that was the date. I went to see my parish priest, Fr. Karl Spatz, about that and he just looked at me with an expression of distaste: “That’s during Lent,” he said. “You don’t want to get married during Lent.” He was (and I wasn’t yet) a very high church Anglo-Catholic. So, we got married on the first available Saturday after Easter Sunday.

Here’s a good thing about getting married on Saturday in Easter Week: the Easter flowers and lilies are still really lovely and in full bloom. We had a lovely wedding and we’ve had a lovely marriage and I’m very grateful for it all. Fr. Karl was probably right to encourage us to not get married during Lent; Easter Season was a much better choice.

Easter and April are good times for just about anything. Although we English speakers gave the Anglo-Saxon name to the Feast of the Resurrection, we took the Romans’ name for this month. Etymologists tell us that Aprilis, the original Latin name, is derived from a word meaning “opening,” probably in reference to the opening of leaf and flower buds. To me, however, it suggests Christ’s open tomb.

This time of Resurrection and rebirth is also a time of opening. Opening ourselves to the world around us; opening ourselves to the graces and blessings that come from God the Father. The former news reporter Jon Katz, who writes a blog about living on a farm and raising dogs, and who has written numerous books about dogs, is also a poet. One of his pieces is entitled Open Up, Open Up:

I don’t want to live a small life,
open your eyes,
open your mind,
open your heart.
I have just come from the Dahlia garden,
the first Dahlia kissing me with its blood red mouth,
the wind-winged clouds roaring overhead,
exciting me,
sending me hurtling along, thinking I might perhaps catch a ride,
feel the wind in my face, but no,
the clouds rushed away, places to go.
So I carry these dreams only to you,
One of the last gifts I can ever bring to anyone
in this world filled with love and hope and risk and fear,
so do look at me, listen to me.
Open your soul, let it breathe,
Open your life, open your heart.
I don’t want to live a small life,
of warning and fear.

I don’t want to live that sort of life, either, but it has seemed to me, especially in the current presidential election cycle, that that is exactly the sort of life forced onto all of us by the world in which we live. Palpably since September 11, 2001, we have lived a life “of warning and fear.” That’s nearly a quarter of my life. It’s half of my children’s lives. And it’s the entire lifetime of all of our Sunday School children and many of our youth group members.

Thank God we’ve gotten rid of the color-coded threat-level gauges the government at one time encouraged every news service to broadcast, but even without those the world of warning and fear prevails. Much of this arises, I think, from the clash of personal rights and privileges in a society which has become increasingly and destructively individualistic. A former bishop of mine once remarked that it is a small step from insisting on one’s rights to insisting on being right, from insisting on being right to insisting on being in control, and that being in control is not meant for any of us who claim to follow Jesus.

Consider these admonitions:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Jesus in Luke 9:23)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Jesus in Mark 8:35)

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Paul writing in Philippians 2:3)

For the sake of openness to one another, we are not to insist on our own individual rights, but rather concern ourselves with the needs and well-being of others. Were we to do that, there would be no need for warnings and fears. We have been assured of that by God himself who constantly in both Old and New Testaments, through prophets, through apostles, through Jesus himself sends the same message:

“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid . . . .'” (Exodus 20:20)

“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread . . . .” (Deut. 31:6)

“The Lord is at my side, therefore I will not fear.” (Psalm 118:6, BCP)

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!'” (Isaiah 35:5)

“Do not fear, only believe.” (Jesus in Mark 5:36)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Jesus in Luke 12:32)

“So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?'” (Letter to the Hebrews 13:6)

When Evie and I got married, the current Book of Common Prayer had been fully official for less than a year (it was ratified by the 66th General Convention in September of 1979). Its marriage vows, however, were and are ancient and revered. We promised, as all marrying couples promise, to take one another as spouses “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” In a word, we committed, as do all married couples, to be open to one another in all circumstances.

Like all sacraments, the sacrament of marriage is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The outward and visible sign in marriage is the couple, the two people themselves, and the inward and spiritual grace they are a sign of is exactly the sort of God-empowered interpersonal openness that conquers warnings and fears. If two people can live together in this way, says this sacramental sign, then so can all people.

We’ve been able to do it for 36 years. For that I am grateful to God . . . and especially grateful to Evelyn. In this month of Resurrection, rebirth, and openness, I encourage you to think on that (and on all married couples who have done likewise) and realize the promise of the sacrament’s grace, the promise of openness: God’s promise that none of us needs to “live a small life, of warning and fear.”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

It’s April! Claim the openness! Claim the kingdom!

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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.

Remember and Rejoice: Sermon for the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (14 December 2015)

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A sermon offered at the Funeral of Sheryl Ann King (12/14/1967-12/09/2015) on Monday, December 14, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons selected by the family were Isaiah 25:6-9 ; Psalm 121; Revelation 21:2-7; and John 14:23-30.)

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funeralsprayA Native American proverb instructs us, “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced; live your life in a manner that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.” Today, on what would have been Sheryl Ann King’s 48th birthday, the world (you and me and everyone who knew and loved Sherry) is crying, but Sherry is rejoicing. “If you loved me,” Jesus told his followers, “you would rejoice that I am going to the Father” (Jn 14:28); we who love Sherry, let us rejoice (even through our tears) that she, too, has gone to the Father.

In the Jewish religion going back at least as far as the Babylonian exile it is a tradition that those mourning the death of a loved one recite a prayer called the Mourner’s Kaddish. The prayer begins with these words:

Exalted and hallowed be God’s great name in the world which God created, according to plan. May God’s majesty be revealed in the days of our lifetime and the life of all Israel – speedily, imminently, to which we say Amen. (ReformJudaism.org>

As the prayer continues to its conclusion, there is not a single mention of the loved one, no mention of the loved one’s passing, no mention of the mourner’s grief. The prayer is, in its entirety, a sanctification of God and a petition for peace. The rabbis tell us that this tradition arose to remind us, even in the midst of great sorrow, to rejoice and to give thanks.

Nonetheless, there is a very human need to acknowledge the loss of the one we love and in a prayer book of the Reform Jewish movement entitled New Prayers for the High Holy Days there is this lovely meditation:

At the rising sun and at its going down, we remember them.
At the blowing of the wind and in the chill of winter, we remember them.
At the opening of the buds and in the rebirth of spring, we remember them.
At the blueness of the skies and in the warmth of summer, we remember them.
At the rustling of the leaves and in the beauty of the autumn, we remember them.
At the beginning of the year and when it ends, we remember them.
As long as we live, they too will live,
for they are now a part of us.
As we remember them.
When we are weary and in need of strength, we remember them.
When we are lost and sick at heart, we remember them.
When we have decisions that are difficult to make, we remember them.
When we have joy we crave to share, we remember them.
When we have achievements that are based on theirs, we remember them.
For as long as we live, they too will live,
For they are now a part of us, as we remember them.
(Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer, We Remember Them, New Prayers for the High Holy Days, Media Judaica, New York:1970, p. 36)

What memories do you have of Sherry? I will always remember three things about her. The first is her competence and her drive. When Sherry was doing volunteer work here at St. Paul’s Church, I knew that if she said she would do something it would get done and it would get done well. (Parish priests really appreciate that and remember with special blessings those members on whom they can rely as one could rely on Sherry.) The second is that she loved to have a good time: she was a great hostess and she enjoyed a good party. I’m sure that she is just as pleased as she can be to be joining the saints in light at God’s great party, the one Isaiah described, that “feast of rich food, . . . of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” (Is 25:6).

The third thing I will remember is the way she always looked when she came back from her annual trip to Cancun. Sherry was someone who clearly enjoyed the sun! I have to admit to being somewhat amused when I realized that the family had selected a psalm with the verse, “The sun shall not strike you by day” (Ps 121:6)! I’m not sure Sherry would have gone for that, but I am sure she is now enjoying what Malachi prophesied, “For you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” (Mal 4:2) Sherry, we believe, is now in that place “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.” (BCP 1979, p 499)

And this is where our Christian faith takes us beyond the meditation in the Reform Jewish prayer book. We are assured that more than our memories sustains the lives of our departed loved ones; it is not “as long as we live” that they shall live, but forever. We are assured, because of the birth of Christ which we will celebrate in just a few days, because of his life, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension, that the way to eternal life has been opened to Sherry, to all of our loved ones gone before, and to all of us.

Sometimes when we bury the dead, we also celebrate the Holy Communion. In the Episcopal Church as part of that service, in the introductory preface to the consecration of the bread and wine, the priest presiding at the altar says these words:

Jesus Christ our Lord . . . rose victorious from the dead, and comforts us with the blessed hope of everlasting life. For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens. (BCP 1979, p 382)

This is our Christian hope and our assurance, that in Christ Jesus God has (as Isaiah prophesied) “swallow[ed] up death forever” (Is 25:8), and as John of Patmos heard the voice in heaven saying, “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)

So, our memories are precious and we cherish them, but it is more than our memories which sustain Sherry or any of our departed loved ones: through the love of God and the salvation of Christ, rest eternal has been granted to them, and light perpetual shines upon them. And we honor them with more than our memories; we honor Sherry not by living in the past, not only by remembering her, but by living into the future. When Queen Mother Elizabeth passed away in 2002, this meditation entitled Remember Me by David Harkins was included in the order of service. It seems to me appropriate today as we remember and celebrate Sherry’s life:

Do not shed tears when I have gone
but smile instead because I have lived.
Do not shut your eyes and pray to God that I’ll come back,
but open your eyes and see all that I have left behind.
I know your heart will be empty because you cannot see me,
but still I want you to be full of the love we shared.
You can turn your back on tomorrow
and live only for yesterday,
or you can be happy for tomorrow
because of what happened between us yesterday.
You can remember me and grieve that I have gone
or you can cherish my memory and let it live on.
You can cry and lose yourself,
become distraught and turn your back on the world,
or you can do what I want –
smile, wipe away the tears,
learn to love again and go on.
(See Poetic Expressions.)

The French novelist Marcel Proust once wrote, “Let us be grateful to people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” (Pleasures and Days, Hesperus Classics, London:2004, p 116) “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Jesus, “and do not let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27c) Instead, let them blossom, and let us rejoice and be grateful for the life of Sheryl Ann King. 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.

Enter Into Resurrection: Sermon for Easter Sunday 2015

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A sermon offered on Resurrection Sunday, April 5, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 and Mark 16:1-8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Anastasis Icon at Chora

I love poetry. There is something about the way poets describe the world that simply cannot be found in other forms of literature. Poets encourage us not to understand the world, but to experience it; not to be concerned with facts, but to comprehend Truth.

Recently, I’ve been introduced to the world of a Guatemalan woman named Julia Esquivel. Esquivel lived through the Guatemalan civil war which lasted from the 1960s into the 1990s and during which hundreds of thousands of people died in terror sanctioned by the Guatemalan government. Many of these simply “disappeared;” they were the “Desaparecidos,” taken away from their families and never seen again. Many families in Guatemala will never know what happened to their loved one; few of those responsible for the tragedies have stood trial and most never will. Darkness and evil often seem to entomb goodness and light. Into this hopelessness Esquivel’s poetry speaks a word of hope:

There is something here within us
which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest,
which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside,
it is the silent, warm weeping
of Indian women without their husbands,
it is the sad gaze of the children
fixed there beyond memory,
in the very pupil of our eyes
which during sleep, though closed, keep watch
with each contraction of the heart
in every awakening . . . .

What keeps us from sleeping
is that they have threatened us with resurrection!
Because at each nightfall,
though exhausted from the endless inventory
of killings since 1954,
yet we continue to love life,
and do not accept their death!

. . . . because in this marathon of Hope,
there are always others to relieve us
in bearing the courage necessary
to arrive at the goal which lies beyond death. . . .

Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep
to live while dying
and to already know oneself resurrected!
(From Threatened With Resurrection: Prayers and Poems from an Exiled Guatemalan, September 1982)

Isn’t that wonderful? To “know how marvelous it is to live threatened by resurrection!”

We, unfortunately, live in a world in which other things are threatened — in which the sorts of things that happened in Guatemala (and in many Latin American countries) in the late 20th Century continue to happen in many places. Human cruelty to other humans often astounds us; human indifference to the suffering of other humans amazes us. We live in a world where laws are passed to make it easy for privileged majorities to discriminate against minorities, to abuse those who are unusual, to despoil the lives those who are different, to bury the poor in their poverty, to entomb the stranger in hopelessness, to start wars in distant countries, to trouble us so that “there is something here within us which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest, which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside.”

Today, we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the One who “exhausted from the endless inventory of killings . . . continue[d] to love life, and [did] not accept . . . death,” the One in whose death and resurrection we acknowledge that, yes indeed, we are “threatened with” resurrection, the One in whom we “already know [ourselves] resurrected.”

I mentioned in our Parish Newsletter for April that one of my favorite contemporary American poets is Kentucky farmer Wendell Berry, and one my favorites among his poems is Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front:

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.

Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion – put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?

Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
(From The Mad Farmer Poems, January 2014)

Esquivel reminds us, in the face of a world of cruelty and death, that we are “threatened with resurrection” and that we should “already know [ourselves] resurrected;” Berry encourages us embrace that “threat” as a promise, to “expect the end of the world [and] laugh,” not merely to know ourselves resurrected, but to act upon that knowledge and “practice resurrection.”

That’s not easy to do in this world, no matter how simple Wendell Berry makes it sound. Sometimes the biggest barrier we face . . . is ourselves. The late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai writes about this in his short verse The Place Where We Are Right:

From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.

The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.

But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
(From The Selected Poetry Of Yehuda Amichai, Newly Revised and Expanded, October, 1996)

Every single human being on earth is convinced that he or she is right; that’s the nature of human beings and always has been. Judas was sure he was right; the chief priests and the scribes were sure that they were right; Pilate, the Imperial governor, was sure that he was right; the Roman soldiers were sure that they were right. We are always sure that we are right and, thus, we become the ones who pass the laws that make it easy to discriminate, to abuse, to despoil, to crucify, and to entomb beneath that hard and trampled place where we are right, where “there is something here within us which doesn’t let us sleep, which doesn’t let us rest, which doesn’t stop pounding deep inside.”

Yesterday, in our meditations for Holy Saturday, I shared with those assembled here that my favorite artistic depiction of Christ’s Resurrection is an Orthodox icon in which Jesus stands within the arch of his tomb ready to come out. Beneath his feet are the gates of Hell, broken and fallen into the form of a cross, and o either side of him are two other tombs, broken open. From them Christ is pulling two figures, a man and a woman representing Adam and Eve. They seem almost reluctant to leave their graves, but Jesus grasps them by their wrists and seems to strain to lift them. Behind them are ranged the prophets and patriarchs of Israel, the righteous dead awaiting resurrection. This liberation of those who were already dead is known as the “Harrowing of Hell,” which is the title of poet Denise Levertov’s contemplation of this icon:

Down through the tomb’s inward arch
He has shouldered out into Limbo
to gather them, dazed, from dreamless slumber:
the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling. Didmas,
neighbor in death, Golgotha dust
still streaked on the dried sweat of his body
no one had washed and anointed, is here,
for sequence is not known in Limbo;
the promise, given from cross to cross
at noon, arches beyond sunset and dawn.
All these He will swiftly lead
to the Paradise road: they are safe.
That done, there must take place that struggle
no human presumes to picture:
living, dying, descending to rescue the just
from shadow, were lesser travails
than this: to break
through earth and stone of the faithless world
back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home. He must return,
first, in Divine patience, and know
hunger again, and give
to humble friends the joy
of giving Him food – fish and a honeycomb.
(From A Door in the Hive, October 1989)

Levertov, I think, is probably right when she suggests that the work of freeing those trapped in Hell was, for Christ, easier than “break[ing] through [the] earth and stone of the faithless world;” breaking through where privileged majorities to discriminate against minorities, abuse those who are unusual, despoil the lives those who are different, bury the poor in their poverty, entomb the stranger in hopelessness, and start wars in distant countries; breaking through the hard and trampled place where we insist that we are right . . . but break through he does for he is the love that digs up the world so that whispers are again heard where the ruined houses of our lives once stood.

Do you doubt that? Do you have difficulty feeling that promise of resurrection? Do you not feel threatened with resurrection in your own life? Do you not know yourself already resurrected?

At the vigil service each year, in place of a sermon of my own, I follow the ancient tradition of the Orthodox church and read for those present an oration or homily from one of the early doctors of the church; today I read selections from St. Gregory Nazianzan’s Second Easter Oration. In part of that great speech, St. Gregory offers advice on how one can enter personally into the Resurrection; if one cannot comprehend the whole of the story, focus on that part which most resonates with you. This is what he wrote:

If you are a Simon of Cyrene, take up the Cross and follow.
If you are crucified with Him as a robber, acknowledge God as a penitent robber.
If even He was numbered among the transgressors for you and your sin, do you become law-abiding for His sake. Worship Him Who was hanged for you, even if you yourself are hanging; make some gain even from your wickedness; purchase salvation by your death; enter with Jesus into Paradise, so that you may learn from what you have fallen.
Contemplate the glories that are there; let the murderer die outside with his blasphemies; and if you be a Joseph of Arimathæa, beg the Body from him that crucified Him, make your own that which cleanses the world.
If you be a Nicodemus, the worshiper of God by night, bury Him with spices.
If you be a Mary, or another Mary, or a Salome, or a Joanna, weep in the early morning. Be first to see the stone taken away, and perhaps you will see the Angels and Jesus Himself.
Say something; hear His Voice. If He say to you, Touch Me not, stand afar off; reverence the Word, but grieve not; for He knows those to whom He appears first.
Keep the feast of the Resurrection; come to the aid of Eve who was first to fall, of Her who first embraced the Christ, and made Him known to the disciples.
Be a Peter or a John; hasten to the Sepulchre, running together, running against one another, vying in the noble race. And even if you be beaten in speed, win the victory of zeal; not Looking into the tomb, but Going in.
And if, like a Thomas, you were left out when the disciples were assembled to whom Christ shows Himself, when you do see Him be not faithless; and if you do not believe, then believe those who tell you; and if you cannot believe them either, then have confidence in the print of the nails.
If He descended into Hell, descend with Him. Learn to know the mysteries of Christ there also, what is the providential purpose of the twofold descent, to save all [humankind] absolutely by His manifestation.
(From Oration 45, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Volume 7, February 1996)

Become a part of the story in whatever way you can. If you cannot now comprehend the whole, grab hold of that fraction that resonates for you, but do not strive to understand, do not strive to be right, do not trample hard a place where flowers will never grow; instead, enter into the narrative, simply experience the truth, put your faith in two inches of spiritual humus where you may plant things you may not live to harvest. Remember that Christ is the love Who digs up the world, Who breaks through faithless earth and stone, expect the end of the world and laugh:
Accompany us then on this vigil
and you will know what it is to dream!
You will then know how marvelous it is
to live threatened with resurrection!
To dream awake,
to keep watch asleep
to live while dying
and to already know [your]self resurrected!

Christ is Risen! We are risen! Alleluia!

(Note: The illustration above is widely agreed to be the most striking exemplar of the traditional Byzantine Anastasis icon. It is the fresco in the apse of the arekklesion or funerary chapel, of the Monastery of Chora at Istanbul.)

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

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