That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: England (page 1 of 3)

National Apostasy 2018: Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 10B, July 15, 2018

Yesterday, July 14, was the 185th anniversary of the preaching a sermon which is said to have been the beginning of the Catholic revival in the Church of England. The sermon was preached at St. Mary’s Church Oxford by the Rev. John Keble, Provost of Oriel College and Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The sermon marked the opening of the Assize Court, the summer term of the English High Court of Justice. The Assize sermon normally would have addressed matters of law and religion, but in the summer of 1833 the Parliament of the United Kingdom was debating whether to abolish (or in the language of the time “suppress”) some dioceses of the Anglican Church of Ireland which, at the time, was united with the Church of England. It was an entirely financial issue in the eyes of Parliament, but Keble and several of his friends believed this to be an encroachment of the secular establishment upon the religious and an altogether wrong thing, and so it was this portending legislation that Keble addressed in his homily, which he titled National Apostasy. He began with these words:

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What Do You Suppose It Was Like? Sermon for Pentecost, May 20, 2018

What do you suppose it was like in Jerusalem on that Pentecost morning so long ago?

Did you watch the coverage of the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle yesterday? Did you see the crowds along the streets of London as they took their post-nuptial carriage ride? The narrow streets of ancient Jerusalem would have been something like that. Shoulder to shoulder people moving through the streets and alleyways, past vendors’ stalls, moving toward the Temple to make their festival offerings.

Our Christian holiday of Pentecost takes its name from the Greek name of the Jewish festival called Shavuot. The Hebrew name means “festival of weeks” referring to the fact that it takes place seven weeks after the Passover. The Greek name comes from words meaning “fifty days” referring similarly to its being the fiftieth day after Passover. Shavuot commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai seven weeks after the Exodus from Egypt remembered at Passover. This is why our Christian feast of Pentecost occurs fifty days after the Resurrection of Jesus which took place at Passover.

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The Work of Christ – Sermon at the Requiem for Elizabeth Scott Bres, January 28, 2018

You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.”[1] Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”

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A Bicentennial Epiphany: Sermon at Evensong – 6 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector and which inaugurated at the service its Year of Celebration marking the parish’s bicentennial.

(The lessons for the day are the Episcopal Church’s Daily Office Lectionary, Year 1: Psalms 96 & 100;
Isaiah 52:7-10; and St. Matthew 12:14-21.)

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St Paul's Church -- December 2013We are here tonight for two reasons. First, because this is the Feast of the Epiphany, one of the major feasts of the Christian Church and one we too often ignore, and second, because this is the inaugural event of our Year of Celebration during which we will mark the 200th anniversary of the founding of this parish.

Epiphany is one of those weird Greek-based words that is so weakly translated into English that we misunderstand its power. Generally, the word is translated as “manifestation” and by it we refer to the manifestation of God in Christ Jesus. In the western church, this Feast of the Epiphany has come to focus on the visitation of the Magi – in some places it is even called “Three Kings Day” or just “Kings Day” – and it is followed by a season of Ordinary Time during which other “manifestations” of Christ are the focus of the weekly gospel lessons: his baptism by John with the descent of the Spirit and the voice of the Father, his first miracle of changing water to wine at the wedding in Cana, the calling of the Twelve, and so forth. In the eastern church, it is called the Theophany, usually translated as “manifestation of God,” and it is the principal feast of the Incarnation in the eastern tradition where the focus is primarily on either Jesus’ birth or his baptism.

These words epiphany or theophany, however, mean so much more than what is suggested by the translation “manifestation.” They are compound words made up of, in the first case, the preposition epi– meaning “on” or “onto,” and in the second case, theo meaning “god,” combined with phanos,

… a word familiar to [us] from the English ‘fantasy’ and ‘fantastic’ and all that is suggested by the ‘light shows’ with which modern electronics have made [us] familiar – the word epiphany speaks to [us] of showing forth, breaking through, letting light shine forth. * * * This is a time to look up and out, to shine forth, to witness to something quite literally spectacular and that, of course, is the presence in our midst of the Light of the World. [1]

So that is one reason we gather to celebrate this evening, to celebrate the fantastic, spectacular manifestation of God in Christ, the Epiphany of our Lord!

You may wonder why, if this is Three Kings Day, none of our lessons mentioned the visitation of the Magi: we heard neither Psalm 72, which speaks of the kings of Tarshish, of the isles, of Arabia, and of Saba paying tribute and offering gifts, nor Matthew’s story of the wise men from the East bearing myrrh, frankincense, and gold. Instead, we have Isaiah’s prophecy praising the beauty of messengers’ feet and another story from Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus heals a crowd of people but then “order[s] them not to make him known.”

The simplest answer, of course, is that those lessons about kings and wise men are reserved for the celebration of the Eucharist, while the lessons we have heard are part of the daily rotation of Scripture for use at the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, the latter of which being the service we are offering tonight.

The more complicated, or perhaps deeper, answer is that tonight’s lessons remind us of the ministry of God’s People, a ministry of epiphany described in our Catechism as “represent[ing] Christ and his Church” and “bear[ing] witness to him wherever [we] may be.”[2] For that is what those beautiful footed messengers of Isaiah’s did with their proclamation of God’s reign and his comfort for a people in ruins, and it is what those people in Matthew’s gospel story did despite Jesus’ pleading with them not to do so; they manifested God, proclaimed God to those around them.

Which brings us to the second reason we gather this evening, to remember the founding of this parish and begin our year of celebration during which we will, in a number of ways, commemorate the first 200 years of the life of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, and look forward to our third century of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in this community.

So let us look back for moment some 200 years ago . . . rather let’s look back 241 years ago for the story of our congregation really has its beginnings in the origins of our republic. Had the Revolution of 1776 not happened, we very likely would not be here today. You know the story, of course, how some American colonists came to the reluctant conclusion that their government, the King, his ministers, and the parliament in London, England, were acting in tyrannical ways and that they were unlikely to change their behavior; how those American colonists decided that the only remedy was to rebel, over throw that government’s dominion in the thirteen colonies, and establish a new sort of local government; and how, against the odds and nearly everyone’s expectations, they succeeded.

You know all of that, but did you know that 32 of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence where members of the Church of England? That’s nearly 60% of the Founders who were Anglicans like you and me! And did you know that their chaplain, the chaplain of the Continental Congress which adopted that Declaration was the rector of a parish in Philadelphia, a man named William White?

Those men, those Anglicans, were reared in a religious tradition of public service, schooled in a theology of society, a peculiar worldview which teaches that the point of one’s life is not to locate oneself in some particular position of privilege, but rather to contribute to the transformation of the social order. Because of their Anglican ethos, they believed that the nation, whether it be the old Mother Country or the new nation they were conceiving, should reflect the merciful purposes of God: the comfort among the ruins of which Isaiah’s beautiful-footed messengers spoke, the healing of the sick which Matthew describes in this evening’s gospel, God’s everlasting mercy about which our Psalm sings today.

When they acted to sever their civil and political society from England, which they believed had fallen away from that tradition and that theology, they also severed their religious lives from the Church which had taught them that worldview. This was a serious matter for these men who were, many of them, vestrymen and leaders in their parishes. They belonged to a church which had preserved the ancient three-fold model of Holy Orders – bishops, priests, and deacons – which had preserved the traditional seven Sacraments – which believed with the ancient theologian Ignatius of Antioch in the centrality of the Eucharist and the unique role of the bishop in preserving the unity of the church. It was a serious matter because there were no Anglican bishops in North America, neither in what would become the United States nor in the still-loyal-to-Britain colonies of Canada.

After the Revolutionary War was ended and the new country was established, many of these men therefore turned their attention to the organization of Anglican Christianity in the new nation. In 1782, William White wrote a pamphlet entitled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered, in which he proposed a structure very similar to that which eventually came to be.

It is said that William White was the chief architect of our new kind of Anglican polity, a uniquely American, democratic way of being church. “Hierarchical rule [would be replaced] with egalitarian, democratic government,”[3] and bishops would be elected by majority vote of the laity and the clergy to be “servants of the Church and not its lords.”[4]

In 1784, the churches in Connecticut elected Samuel Seabury who sailed off for the United Kingdom and was eventually ordained a bishop by the Scottish Episcopal Church; he returned to Connecticut in August of 1785. In September 1785, the first General Convention of the Episcopal Church was held in Philadelphia, but it was a meeting only of the House of Deputies made up of lay and presbyteral representatives, Bishop Seabury not being in attendance; Mr. White presided.

In 1786, the churches in New York elected Samuel Provoost, who had fought in the Revolution and had succeeded William White as Chaplain of Congress, and the churches in Pennsylvania elected Mr. White. A year later, first Provoost and then White were ordained bishops at Lambeth Palace with the Archbishop of Canterbury presiding. In 1789, what is considered to be the third General Convention was held; it was the first in which a House of Bishops would meet. Bishop White presided, making him both the first President of the House of Deputies and the first Presiding Bishop. He later surrendered the chair to Bishop Seabury who served until his death about two-and-a-half years later; Seabury was succeeded by Provoost who also served for about two and a half years. He was then succeeded in 1795 by Bishop White, who thereby became not only the first Presiding Bishop but also the fourth. He served in that office for almost 41 years until his death in 1836!

During Presiding Bishop White’s tenure, some important things happened. Ohio was admitted to the Union in 1803 as the 17th State. Medina County was created in 1812.

In 1814, at the XIth General Convention of the Episcopal Church, the Rector of St. Peter’s Church in Plymouth, Connecticut, made an impassioned plea for the funding of mission activity and church planting in Ohio. His name was Roger Searle. Thereafter, with the blessing and support of the Bishop of New York, the Rt. Rev. John Henry Hobart, and of Presiding Bishop White, Searle left Connecticut and began planting churches in northeastern Ohio. In March of 1817, he met with a group of people living in the village of Weymouth who decided to organize themselves as the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina County; some of them may have been old enough to have been members of the Church of England before the Revolution. A month later, they built a small log cabin to serve as their church on Sundays and as a schoolhouse for the children of Weymouth during the week. That was the beginning of our parish!

On January 5, 1818, representatives of St. Paul’s, Medina would join with other Ohio congregations to adopt the constitution of the Episcopal Church and formally organized the Diocese of Ohio, the first diocese formed outside the borders of the thirteen original states. Although some hoped that Mr. Searle might be the first bishop of the new diocese, he supported the Rev. Philander Chase, who was elected as Ohio’s first bishop and consecrated to that office in 1819.

What they started here was a congregation and a diocese of the Episcopal Church, a manifestation (if you will) of that unique form of American Anglicanism championed by Bishop White, a way of being Christian that former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has described as “holding together in tension polarities that some [might be] eager to resolve,” a sort of “both/and” thinking and living “that keeps our hearts pumping and mission thriving. [T]he kind of tension that drives some of us crazy – what’s more important? – justice or mercy? inclusion or orthodoxy? ministry grounded in bishops or in baptism?” Our American Anglican way of following Christ takes “the long view [that] says that if we insist on resolving the tension we’ll miss a gift of the Spirit, for truth is always larger than one end of the polarity. Tension is where the Spirit speaks. Truth has something to do with that ongoing work of the Spirit, and it can only breathe in living beings capable of change and growth.”[5]

We are indebted to Presiding Bishop White, to Bishop Hobart, to the Rev. Mr. Searle, and to the men and women who formed that first congregation of St. Paul’s Church in Weymouth 200 years ago. They bequeathed to us that sometimes tense, but living and breathing, changing and growing, Anglican sort of Christian faith which emphasizes reason in religion; which advocates an alliance of religion and science supporting scientific developments and believing that true philosophy can never hurt sound divinity; which seeks to make the church as inclusive as possible by providing toleration for dissent; and which teaches that constraining inquiry and the freedom of the believer is neither necessary nor salutary. It is a Christian witness which insists on a practical, public morality which comforts those whose lives are in ruins, heals those who are sick, feeds those who are hungry, shelters those who are homeless, and embraces the Gospel with the innocence of the children it educates. This is the legacy bequeathed to us by White and Searle and those Weymouth Episcopalians two centuries ago.

For 200 years this parish, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, has been an epiphany, shining forth in our peculiar American Anglican way, and witnessing to that fantastic, spectacular truth that present in our midst is the Light of the World.

As we celebrate the Epiphany of our Lord Jesus Christ tonight, we look forward to continuing that ministry, “represent[ing] Christ and his Church” and “bear[ing] witness to him” into the next century. May God continue to bless us abundantly as we do. Amen.

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

Notes:

[1] Byron, William J., SJ, Epiphany, The Word Proclaimed: A Homily for Every Sunday of the Year – Year A (Paulist Press: Mahwah, NJ, 2013).

[2] American BCP 1979, Page 855.

[3] Podmore, Colin, A Tale of Two Churches, International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, Vol. 8:2, pp 124-54, 2008.

[4] Gundrum, James R., The General Convention: Understood Authority or Ecclesiastical Chaos, Arrington Lectures, University of the South, 1982.

[5] Closing Sermon, General Convention 2009.

Nostalgia Is a Lie: Brexit & Plowing (Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 8C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5:1,13-25; and St. Luke 9:51-62. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Brexit-flagsAs many of you know, this past week was a harrowing one for my wife and for me; specifically, Wednesday was one of those days you would rather not have to live through. In the afternoon, I was told by a urologist that I probably have prostate cancer, and later that night Evelyn nearly died from pulmonary embolism. She is OK now – I will be leaving right after this service to bring her home from the hospital – and my diagnosis will be either confirmed or proven wrong by a biopsy in about a month.

So all is well . . . but, really, I’d rather go back to Tuesday!

And I’m not the only one who’d like to start the week over!

No doubt, you have heard about this week’s “Brexit” referendum in Great Britain which decided whether the United Kingdom would continue to be part of the European Union. There were the Remainers or the “Ins” on the side of doing so, and the Leavers or the “Outs” on the side of exiting the Union. The “Outs” won to the shock and horror of nearly everyone else around the world.

The pound sterling lost more than 30% of its value in a matter of hours. Stock markets tumbled; the FTSE 100 index (the British equivalent of the Dow-Jones Industrial Average), which had closed the previous day at £6,388 opened the next morning at £5,789, a drop of more than 8.5%, inching back up during the day to a final loss of 3.15% The Dow itself closed down 610 points, its eighth-largest point loss ever.

In my humble opinion, the entire exercise of the referendum, from the decision by the Conservative government of David Cameron to hold it, to the very poor campaign run by the Remainers who simply didn’t believe they could lose, to the patently dishonest campaign waged by the Leavers, to the eventual outcome has been and is an exercise in monumental stupidity!

That the Outs’ victory was predicated on falsehood is the worst part of the whole mess. As Nick Cohen wrote in Saturday’s edition of The Guardian, the “politicians who [led the Vote Leave effort] knowingly made a straight, shameless, incontrovertible lie the first plank of their campaign. Vote Leave assured the electorate it would reclaim a supposed £350m Brussels takes from us each week. They knew it was a lie.” (EU referendum Opinion) Nigel Farage, one of those politicians, after the votes were counted and Leave had won, admitted that the assertion was (as he put it) “a mistake.” (USUncut)

The Brexit Leave campaign was a lie in another much more subtle way, as well, a way to which we on this side of the Pond are equally vulnerable. The campaign played upon the people’s nostalgia for a Great Britain that they believe used to exist: “We want our country back” was the campaign slogan of Mr. Farage’s UK Independent Party, and other Outs resurrected Margaret Thatcher’s early campaign slogan from the 1960s “Let’s Make Britain Great Again.” The day after the election, London’s Daily Star newspaper ran a picture of a bulldog (remember that Winston Churchill’s mascot was the British bulldog) with the headline “Now Let’s Make Britain Great Again.”

Nostalgia has been defined as the “yearning to return home to the past – more than this, it is a yearning for an idealized past – a longing for a sanitized impression of the past . . . – not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, [with] all negative emotions filtered out.” (Hirsch, Alan R., Nostalgia: a Neuropsychiatric Understanding)

And that brings us to today’s lessons, to Elijah’s call to Elisha to be his servant and apprentice prophet, to Jesus’ encounter with three potential disciples who wish to follow him but have other business to attend to before hitting the road. Elisha had such business as well – he wished to say good-bye to his parents – and Elijah allowed it (although the Hebrew is unclear; we cannot tell if he did so supportively or grudgingly).

Jesus was not so understanding. He told the first potential follower that to come with him would be hard and uncomfortable and, by not telling us that the man came along after that, Luke implies that this dissuaded the would-be disciple. When the second asked for a delay to bury his father, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury the dead;” not the most pastoral response! And to the third who, like Elisha wished simply to say farewell to family, Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

“Here, Jesus makes reference to the story of Elisha out plowing in the field that we encountered in the first reading. And so it seems that Elijah’s [enigmatic reply] was indeed scolding Elisha – or at least, Jesus is suggesting Elisha should have been scolded for his request to kiss his parents goodbye.” (Soltis, Kathryn Getek, The Tensions of Discipleship)

The text from the First Book of Kings doesn’t tell us whether Elisha did, in fact, kiss his parents. What it tells us is that he slaughtered the oxen with which he was plowing, cooked them over a fire made by burning his farming equipment, and fed them as a farewell feast to his co-workers. We sometimes speak of burning our bridges behind us; Elisha prophetically acted out such a burning – the destruction of the return path in this feast of boiled oxen. Nostalgia was no longer an option for the young prophet-to-be.

Elisha, a farmer who had plowed a field, seems to have known that you have to watch carefully in front of you to keep the furrows straight, that you have to look forward not behind. “Look backward and you will swerve one way or another.” (Rogness, Michael, Commentary on Luke 9:51-62) And so, to avoid doing so, he destroys that which might lure him to look backward.

Elisha knew this and so, too, did the people of Jesus’ time. Luke “attributes to Jesus a saying that would have been rather well-known in the ancient Mediterranean world. For example, in Hesiod’s Works and Days [a didactic poem written around 700 BCE], a plowman is described as one ‘who attends to his work and drives a straight furrow and no longer gapes after his comrades, but keeps his mind on his work.’ In other words, to look back from the plow (whether to family living or dead) was to risk cutting a crooked or shallow furrow and thus ruining the work altogether! There is no place for looking back or even trying to look in two directions at once (being ‘two-faced’); rather, would-be disciples must be single-minded in purpose, setting their faces like Jesus on the task at hand.” (Parsons, Mikeal C., Commentary on Luke 9:51-62)

Nostalgia, that bittersweet yearning for a past that never was, encourages us to be “two-faced,” because nostalgia is a lie. Nostalgia is never true. “Nostalgia is a dirty liar that insists things were better than they seemed,” writes the poet Michelle K. Another poet, Alessandro Baricco, writes, “It’s a strange grief… to die of nostalgia for something you never lived.” He continues:

What is nostalgia?
What is it for you?
Is it the other half of a whole…
a fraction of a whole,
which takes up more space than the rest…
Is it a perfect day…
the sun was shining even if it was stormy,
even if it was the darkest of night…
there was sun in your heart
and it lit everything up in a glow
which you will never forget…
which still shines…
but do you remember it as it was or as…
it felt in that blissful moment
when all was right in the world, in your world…
it feels now seen from a distance
which has changed what it was
because of where you are now…
you wish you’d enjoyed that moment
rather than wasting it…
you wasted it…
why…
because it wasn’t as good as…
but now it is…
better than…
so you make amends in retrospect…
Is it a perfect memory…
one which isn’t anything like
what actually happened,
but you like this version better…
time heals wounds
sometimes by blurring the truth
with pretty lies…

Have you ever been accused of lying
when you told the truth…
it was not what others wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever accused someone of lying
because they told the truth…
but it was not one you wanted to hear
and so it became a lie.
Have you ever wondered how much
of what you remember is true…
and how much is a lie.
So much gets clouded…
sometimes by very beautiful clouds…
in a cerulean sky…

Like all untruth, nostalgia is a trap! It is a trap, says author C.G. Blake in his advice to new writers, because “by living in the past, we cheat the present.” He continues:

I’m a big believer in living in the present. Learn from the past, yes. Revere loved ones who have passed on. Keep the past in our hearts, but keep our eyes looking forward. Don’t dwell on the past because no matter how hard you wish it, you’re never going to change it. You can only change your present and your future. (The Nostalgia Trap)

We’re never going to change the past. And we are never, ever going to go back to it, especially not to that sanitized impression of the past with no negative emotions that nostalgia offers us!

If we dwell on it, we are trapped. The Brexit Outs wanted to make their country “great again.” What they got was a monumentally stupid mess of unknown proportions that no one knows how to handle, a country in turmoil where the Prime Minister had no choice but to resign, a nation now fracturing as politicians in Scotland call for a second independence vote and politicians in Northern Ireland seek a poll on whether to leave the United Kingdom and become part of the Republic of Ireland. The Brexit Leavers wanted to “take back their country.” What they got was a free falling economy, a nearly 10% reduction in the value of their investments and pensions, and a very uncertain future. They were trapped by the false promises of nostalgia.

Don’t get me wrong! I understand the lure of nostalgia, the desire to go back to some simpler and emotionally better time, even one that never existed. As I said, I’d like to go back to Tuesday! But we are never, ever going to go back to – nor recreate – the past!

What sets us free from the nostalgia trap, what sets us free from any lie, from any untruth, is truth. “You will know the truth,” Jesus told his followers, “and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32) And the Truth tells us to get started on the important the work before us and to fix our gaze straight ahead, because “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

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

JOLT! – A Sermon for Proper28B, Pentecost 25, November 15, 2015

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28B, Track 1, RCL), November 15, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 1 Samuel 1:4-20; 1 Samuel 2:1-10; Hebrews 10:11-25; and Mark 13:1-8. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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JOLTWhen you sit there in the pew and I stand here in the pulpit and say to you “The Bible says this . . . .” or “The Church teaches that . . . .”, how do you know that I’m telling you the truth? When the writer of the Letter to Hebrews admonishes you to “approach [the sanctuary of God] with a true heart in full assurance of faith,” how do you have that assurance? When that writer, again, encourages you to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering,” how do you know what that confession is? And when Jesus commands you, “Beware that no one leads you astray,” how do you make the judgment to exercise that caution?

I submit to you that all of those questions have one answer: on-going Christian formation, lifelong Christian learning, adult Christian education, call it what you will it boils down to the same thing – using, on a regular basis, the sense, reason, and intellect with which God has endowed us to enter into ever-deepening understanding of our faith. And it begins, as our opening collect suggested, with hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the Holy Scriptures.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Proper 28, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 236)

One of the first things Thomas Cranmer, the first Reformed Archbishop of Canterbury, did after being appointed in 1533 was to convince King Henry VIII to publish an English translation of the Holy Bible and to authorize its public use. Cranmer hired Myles Coverdale to undertake the task and between April of 1539 and December of 1541 seven printings of this translation were made. Because of its large physical size, it was called The Great Bible. Copies of it were distributed to every church in England, chained to pulpits or lecterns, and there made available to any literate person who wished to come and read the Holy Scriptures for themselves. In addition, a reader was provided in every church so that the illiterate could hear the Word of God in plain English.

Cranmer then undertook, with the assistance of other bishops and scholars, to translate the church’s liturgy from medieval Latin into the common English of the day. He is the chief architect of The Book of Common Prayer, the first edition of which was published in 1549. Cranmer’s vision was of an English national church gathered in household units each morning and evening, gathered in parish churches each Sunday morning, reading through most of the Bible each year. His vision was of a Christian people who would be, in the words of one of our Lenten prayers, “fervent in prayer and in good works.” (Preface for Lent, BCP 1979, page 379) Fervent – on fire – energized for their mission “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and . . . to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world.” (Catechism, BCP 1979, page 855)

Our church continues that tradition with that same vision today through a Daily Office lectionary which leads us through almost the whole of Scripture over the course of two years and a Eucharistic lectionary (which we now share with many other mainstream Christian denominations) that guides us through most of the New Testament in a three-year cycle and much of the Old Testament in a six-year cycle. In this, we continue what Australian priest and author Adam Lowe calls the “extremely strong tradition” of “Anglican openness to the Bible.” (Blog entry October 29, 2010)

When Cranmer and his colleagues devised the annual cycle of prayer and reading embodied in the Prayer Book, they created also the cycle of weekly collects which begin Sunday worship services. On the First Sunday of Advent each year, their calendar of collects bid the church pray for God’s grace to “cast awaye the workes of darknes, and put upon us the armour of light.” (BCP of 1549) We still offer that same prayer on Advent 1. On the Second Sunday of Advent, they prescribed the original version of the collect which we now pray on this, the penultimate Sunday of the church year.

Although the “collect of the day” is (according to the rubrics in the BCP) normally said only by “the Celebrant,” today I asked that we all read that prayer together. I did so to underscore the corporate nature of that and every prayer said during worship; the Presider does not pray alone. The word “Amen,” in which the congregation joins at the end of every prayer, is a Hebrew word meaning “So be it.” It means, “Yes! We agree. We said that prayer with you. That’s our prayer.” So, this morning, we made it our prayer not only in agreement but in fact, our prayer and our commitment that we, each one of us and all of us together, will “hear [the holy Scriptures], read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them.” We Anglicans have all been making that commitment, at least once a year, for 466 years!

We’ve been making that commitment, but let’s be honest, we’ve not been very good at keeping it. Even though our church teaches (in the Charter for Lifelong Christian Formation) that “faith formation . . . is a lifelong journey with Christ, in Christ, and to Christ,” a lifelong process of “growth in the knowledge, service, and love of God as followers of Christ . . . informed by scripture, tradition, and reason,” I’ve been told by adult members of our church that (and I quote) “I don’t need any adult education.” Well . . . I can only tell you my experience.

When I moved back to Las Vegas as an adult in 1976 and, after a half-dozen years of not being active in the church, decided to attend Christ Episcopal Church, one of the first things I was invited to do was attend an adult education class. I’m glad I accepted the invitation. For the next dozen years I took part in at least one adult study every year, then I read for Holy Orders and got ordained, and for the last quarter century as a professional clergy person I have studied Scripture and church tradition nearly every day . . . and I still learn things. In fact, preparing for this sermon this past week I learned some things about The Great Bible that I hadn’t known before.

As I told you last week, because of my study of Scripture and church tradition, I believe that “God Loves Everyone – No Exceptions” is unqualifiedly true; for the same reason, I believe that “I don’t need any adult education” is unqualifiedly false. No one is ever too young, too old, or too knowledgeable to learn. And when we don’t make the effort and take the opportunity to do so, our fervor diminishes, the fire dies, the energy dissipates, and (in the words of our Ash Wednesday litany) we “fail to commend the faith that is in us” (BCP 1979, page 268).

So we have prayed every year for the grace to “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures, and by so praying have committed ourselves to undertake the lifelong Christian formation that that implies, but what do these five educational activities entail? English priest and poet Malcolm Guite has called them “five glorious verbs” which “deepen as they follow one another in intensity of engagement.” (Blog entry December 8, 2012)

Of hearing, Guite writes that this is “where most people, at the time of [our opening collect’s] composition would start; with hearing! Most people weren’t literate, and though the reformers had made sure a Bible ‘in a language understanded of the people’ was set in every church, most people had to hear it read aloud by someone else.” And many people are still there, at the hearing stage. We may hear the words proclaimed in worship and preached on from the pulpit, but though we may have a Bible in our homes, it is seldom opened. We really have to take the next step of our commitment: we have to read Holy Scripture ourselves.

Guite correctly notes that “the translation of the Bible into English was the single greatest spur to the growth of literacy in the English-speaking world and Bible translation remains today one of the great drivers of literacy and education with all the good that follows.” It was the Renaissance scientist Galileo Galilei who said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” (Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, 1615) When we fail to read the Bible, we do forego their use, but when we study Scripture and tradition for ourselves we honor these gifts of God, with all the literacy, education, and good that flow from them.

The third verb in our prayer is “mark,” which in Cranmer’s day meant simply to “pay attention.” I’m one of those people who actually does mark pages as I read. My books (including my study Bible) are filled with color-coded highlights and marginal notations. Guite suggests that the action flows in both directions, that when we study the words of God they “underscore in us those passages which are marked out by God to make their particular mark in us.”

We all know what “learning” is; it happens when (as the dictionary tells us) we “acquire knowledge of or skill in [something] by study, instruction, or experience.” Guite reminds us, though, that we often talk of “learning by heart” and drawing on that he describes learning ascreating pathways in and through our hearts. He tells the story of visiting an elderly woman suffering dementia when he was newly ordained:

At a loss as to how to pray I began to recite the 23rd psalm. Suddenly I became aware of a voice beside me, faint at first but growing stronger. It was the old woman joining in through laboured breath. I had a strong sense that the person speaking these words was not the wandered old lady but the little girl who had learnt them all those years ago. We made it to the end of the psalm together and she died peacefully as I was saying the Gloria. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” were the last words on her lips.

Though dimmed with age and dementia, the fervor, the fire, the energy of her learning still coursed the pathways in and through her heart.

And, finally, our collect commits us to “inwardly digest” what we hear, read, mark, and learn. Guite reminds us of Jesus words to Satan, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Mt 4:4) Says Guite, “We are to live on, and be sustained by scripture just as we live on and are sustained by bread, to take it in daily till it becomes transformed into part of the very substance of who we are, giving us new strength.” Daily, lifelong learning gives us the fervor, the fire, the energy needed for life.

Adam Lowe, whom I mentioned earlier, insists that this commitment to inwardly digest Scripture demands that we study it corporately. He suggests that the three spheres in which we encounter the Bible – personal study and devotion, in small study groups, and as a worshiping community – are not separate but complementary, and that we need all three to fully “digest” the Scriptures. We learn best when we learn together. Lowe says, “We are to read [Scripture] in fullness and in depth, with each other, and also with God; with our hearts, heads, and hands. Not just that the sound may reach our ears, but be so inwardly digested that it transforms our lives and is reflected outwards and onwards.”

This is the goal of the Episcopal Church’s commitment to lifelong Christian formation, fostering and sustaining spiritual transformation so that we, individually and corporately, may live “into the reality that we are all created in the image of God and carry out God’s work of reconciliation, love, forgiveness, healing, justice, and peace.” (Charter for Lifelong Faith Formation) To that end, I am delighted that our vestry has taken seized opportunity for us to be one of five parishes working with the Vibrant Faith consultancy group to pilot a program of event-centered intergenerational Christian learning that we at St. Paul’s, Medina, are calling JOLT! – The Joy Of Learning Together!

The goal of JOLT! is to (in the words of our parish vision statement) “Set Hearts on Fire with Jesus Christ” so that all of us may

  • Grow in our relationship with God;
  • Live as disciples of Jesus in all areas of our lives;
  • Develop an understanding of the Bible;
  • Deepen our spiritual lives and practices;
  • Engage in service and mission to the world; and
  • Participate in the life and ministries of the church.

In short, the goal of JOLT! is to continue and to live into the vision of Archbishop Cranmer, the vision with which our Anglican tradition began, to form us into a people “fervent in prayer and good works,” a people who “hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Holy Scriptures, a people who when admonished to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering” know exactly what that means, a people who when commanded to “beware that no one leads you astray” know very well how to exercise that caution.

I encourage you to be a part of JOLT! Participate in the first JOLT! Event on December 9, because it is unqualifiedly true that no one is ever too young, too old, or too knowledgeable to learn, and we learn best when we learn together.

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.

More Prophets, Fewer Fools – From the Daily Office Lectionary

More prophets, fewer fools.

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

1 Kings 22:8a ~ The king of Israel said to Jehoshaphat, “There is still one other by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah son of Imlah; but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.”

Ahab was unhappy that the prophet Micaiah would not, like the other prophets, play his Yes-Man. He did not like being contradicted. Who does? Who likes to have his plans criticized or his closely held beliefs mocked and held up to scorn?

Medieval and Renaissance English monarchs had jesters or “licensed fools” whose job was not precisely that of the prophets, but whose function was both to amuse and criticize the king or queen and his or her ministers with subtle mockery. Sometimes the mockery has too subtle; Queen Elizabeth I is said to have disciplined her jester for being insufficiently severe. Sometimes it was not subtle enough; Charles I threw his jester out of court for insulting too many influential people.

The office of jester disappeared with the English civil war. Apparently the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell did not have much of a sense of humor; he did not suffer fools gladly. Politics has been the poorer ever since.

Which brings us to the present day, which has seen a rebirth of the office of fool or jester, but with a not-so-subtle twist – the office of supreme executive and the office of fool seem to be merging into one, or at least the current crop of candidates so suggests.

Politics appears as poor as ever. We could do with more prophets and fewer fools.

Don’t Carry All That Baggage – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Saturday in the week of Proper 11, Daily Office Year 1 (Pentecost 8, 2015)

Mark 6:7-9 ~ He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

A few years ago I took a sabbatical. It was my first (and, so far, only) sabbatical in 40 years of professional life, 25 of them in ordained ministry. I went to England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland for a total of three months. The first two weeks I visited pre-Christian and early Christian sites in southern Scotland, northern and western England, and Wales. Then I flew from Edinburgh to Dublin. Checking in for the flight, I learned that I had misunderstood an airline website and my baggage was overweight. Substantially overweight! The fees and penalties amounted to nearly £300! (I paid more for my baggage to go one way than for myself to fly round-trip.) I’d brought books for a course of study I was undertaking in Ireland; I’d brought a summer’s worth of clothing; I was carrying a heavy CPAP machine I use while sleeping; I was way, way overweight. I could have carried nothing, ” no bread, no bag, no money in [me] belt,” and purchased everything in Ireland for less than those airline penalties. I guess I would have needed the money, but the bread, the bag, and everything else I didn’t need.

We carry so much that we don’t need. That’s what this story always says to me. We carry so much that we don’t need, that gets in our way more than it helps, that weighs us down and impedes us, that distracts us from what we are supposed to be doing. Jesus is clearly telling his disciples, originally the Twelve and, through them, us, that we don’t need all that stuff. We need some good footwear and something to lean on when we’re weary, and that’s about it. Anything else we may need we can acquire along the way; in fact, the promise of the story is that we will acquire it – it will be provided when it is needed.

When my two-month sojourn in Ireland was ended and I flew back to Scotland to join my wife for a two-week end-of-sabbatical vacation, I left behind most of what I had paid £300 to ship there. Books I could purchase again in the US, I gave to a school library. Clothing I wouldn’t need for those last two weeks, I gave to church to pass on to the needy. A second bag no longer needed, I gave to my landlady who had admired it. Things I was keeping but didn’t need to travel with, I shipped home. The CPAP machine I took back to Scotland, but for that I had pared my possessions down to one backpack; I was carrying again the same spare load I had carried on my first three-month trip to Europe when I was 16 years old. Following Jesus’ lightweight travel advice, I received the promise of the Psalmist: “He satisfies you with good things, and your youth is renewed like an eagle’s.” (Ps 103:5)

Take Jesus’ advice: don’t carry all that baggage!

Questions from the Press – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday in Lent – Year A – March 23, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday in Lent, March 23, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-11; and John 4:5-42. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Russian Icon: Woman at the Well and ZacchaeusFour interesting things happened this week. The first was our monthly Brown Bag Concert. During the construction of our Gallery addition to the Parish Hall, the attendance at the concerts had dropped off. Tuesday’s was the first since construction has been completed and we were unsure what sort of turn out we would see. Well, as it happened, we had over 100 people in this church for that concert! What a great thing!

The second thing was the death of Fred Phelps on Wednesday, March 19. The so-called Reverend Mr. Phelps was the so-called pastor of the so-called Westboro Baptist Church. I say “so-called” so many times because I believe Mr. Phelps was essentially self-ordained, and he founded the Westboro congregation which, despite its name, is not recognized by any national or regional Baptist convention. If you don’t recognize those names, Fred Phelps and his congregation are the people who show up with picket signs at the funerals of servicemen and other notable people, picket signs which read “God Hates [Homosexuals]” (only they use a much viler term on their signs). There’s a meme floating around the internet that reads, “Live your life in such a way that Fred Phelps will picket your funeral.” I recommend that.

In the days surrounding his death, my gay and lesbian friends were having quite a discussion of whether anyone should picket his funeral. Another Facebook meme answered that question: it was a cartoon of God saying, “I give you a new commandment: you shall not stoop to Fred Phelps’ level.” That’s where I came down on the question. We pray for the repose of Mr. Phelps’ soul, as we do for anyone who died; we pray that he find in death the peace he seemed not to find in life and which he denied to so many.

His death nearly coincided with what would have been the 86th birthday of another Fred, Fred Rogers, the man who assured children that everyday “it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.” What a contrast these two Freds present: the man who invited everyone to be his neighbor and the man who wanted almost no one to be his. I had a little vision when I heard of Fred Phelps’ death that he had arrived at the Pearly Gates to be greeted by Fred Rogers saying, “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, Fred, and everybody’s here!”

The third thing was our “St. Patrick’s Last Gasp” Irish Festival yesterday. It was a great party and a smashing success. Ray and I were trying to figure out how many people actually attended and we think that, at the highest point, we probably had more than 250 people in this building – here in the church, in the parish hall, in the dining room – if we’d had 25% more people, we couldn’t have moved. That’s a great problem to have!

The fourth interesting thing that happened was that our diocesan communications office contacted me and asked if I would be one of seven Episcopal clergy in the Cleveland metropolitan area to answer some questions posed by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Sure,” I said and set about answering their questions. After doing so, I thought I ought to share my answers with you so you won’t be surprised when you open the paper someday soon and see what your rector is quoted as saying . . . because although their questions start innocently enough, they escalate rather quickly to address some thorny issues in our tradition and in our society.

I will get to addressing today’s Gospel lesson, trust me, but I want to share those answers with you first. So here they are . . . .

What is my favorite Easter tradition?

My favorite tradition is the Great Vigil of Easter celebrated as an evening service on Saturday evening or as a sunrise service on Resurrection Sunday. At St. Paul’s, Medina, we celebrate the Vigil in even numbered years on Resurrection Eve Saturday evening, and in odd numbered years on Sunday at sunrise. This year is our Saturday evening year and the service will begin after sundown at 8 p.m. Beginning the service in the dark with the lighting of the new fire, processing the Paschal Candle through the dark church, the church coming to light as other candles are lighted one from another, and finally the sanctuary fully lighted as the cry of “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” is sounded, the sun just rising (when we do it at sunrise), and the bells ringing . . . all of that brings me great joy. It speaks to me more clearly of the Light of Christ than any other tradition we observe at Easter or at any time during the church year. Of course, the Sunday morning Festival Eucharist (which will start at 10 a.m.) is great fun, as well!

How do I feel about the way Easter is celebrated in popular/secular culture?

I think the secular traditions of Easter (bunnies, eggs, new bonnets, a new set of dress clothes for the kids, lots of candy) are fine. They are celebrations of the new life of springtime. I’ve gotten out of the habit of calling our church celebration “Easter” and more often refer to it as “Resurrection Sunday” or “Resurrection Season,” so the term “Easter” actually speaks more to me of the secular festivities than of church observance, but the popular Easter traditions and the Christian celebration of Christ’s Resurrection all celebrate the joy of life returning. Human beings in all religious traditions (and those in none) have been celebrating springtime for millennia, and all that we do is good fun and spiritually uplifting. I don’t think the popular traditions detract from the religious significance at all.

What is the relationship between the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion (including the Church of England)?

The Episcopal Church is one of the many churches around the world which trace their lineage to Christ and the Apostles through the historic Church of England, a family of churches called “the Anglican Communion.” The U.S. Episcopal Church is the second such offshoot of the Church of England; the Scottish Episcopal Church, which ordained our first bishop, was the first. As Anglicans, we are a part of a reformed catholic tradition which separated from the Roman Catholic Church as a political act during the reign of England’s King Henry VIII, not as a result of theological reform or protest. The Episcopal Church is the only Anglican church in the United States officially recognized as such by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, and the Anglican Consultative Council (our international “instruments of unity”).

What does it mean for the Episcopal Church to allow gay & lesbian weddings when the state of Ohio does not legally recognize these unions?

In considering this question, I think we should make a distinction between the civil contract of marriage, which is a creature of law defined by state statutes and constitutions, and the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, which is the church’s blessing of a committed, loving relationship of two adult persons. Currently, the Episcopal Church does not offer this sacramental blessing to same-sex couples; we offer a service of blessing and life-long commitment. A study group has been appointed by our highest governing body, the General Convention, to reflect upon our theology of matrimony and make recommendations as to whether the sacrament can and should be extended to same-sex couples; I believe that it should.

Although state law (wrongly, in my opinion) currently denies same-sex couples the right to form the civil contract, that law cannot prohibit the church from offering its blessing to anyone or for any purpose; that would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Therefore, the church is free to and does offer a service of blessing to couples who wish to make solemn vows of life-long commitment one to the other. The church’s blessing does not (and should not be understood to) constitute the formation of the legal contract of marriage. When in a traditional wedding ceremony the husband and wife make their promises, in the Episcopal Church, the first part of the service before the reading of Scripture and the making of the religious vows, is the formation of the contract; after that is done, Scripture is read, prayers are offered, and the religious vows are made and sanctified during the sacramental service of blessing.

By the way, I don’t like to use the term “gay wedding” or “lesbian wedding” because the wedding or commitment ceremony is just that, a ceremony, regardless of the gender or sexual orientations of the persons involved; the couple may be both of the same sex or of opposite sexes, but the nature of the commitments they make to each other in the religious vows — to rely upon God, to love and support one another, to care for each other, and so forth — are the same, neither gay nor lesbian nor straight.

What does “God loves you. No exceptions.” mean to me in a culture that’s spiritual but not religious or with little to no religious affiliation?

Well, I think the statement speaks for itself and would mean the same thing whether the surrounding culture were highly religious or completely secular; God’s love for everyone is not culture dependent. As a statement of belief of the Episcopal Church in this diocese, it means that everyone is welcome. As a former Presiding Bishop of our church once said, “There will be no outcasts in this church,” meaning no one is excluded from participating in our worship, our educational programs, or the social life of the church community. A few weeks ago we put up on our church sign this invitation: “You can belong before you believe.” There is welcome here for the “spiritual but not religious,” the unaffiliated, the disaffiliated, the questioner, the doubter . . . everyone. We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we love exploring the questions and we offer a safe place for those with questions to do so. Although he’s not an Episcopalian, the author Brian McLaren speaks for our tradition when he writes in one of his books that the church should offer responses to questions, not answers; answers cut off conversation, while responses invite further discussion. The Episcopal Church offers responses. We think that’s what God does, too; God responds.

Considering the Gospel story of the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well

Which brings us to today’s Gospel reading, a very long reading setting out the longest conversation Jesus has with anyone in any of the four Gospels. It’s amazing that Jesus had this conversation at all. First of all, he is speaking with a Samaritan. The Samaritans were the descendants of those who were left behind when the important families of Jerusalem and the country were taken into exile in Babylon. Those who got to stay in Israel had intermarried with the surrounding Canaanite peoples and continued to worship God according to the first four Books of Moses; they built a temple on Mt. Gerizim not far from the city of Sychar where this conversation took place and offered their sacrifices there. When the exiles returned and restored the temple in Jerusalem, they launched a campaign of “racial purity” demanding that those with “foreign” wives divorce them; adding the Book of Deuteronomy to the Scriptures, they also insisted that sacrifices could only be made at the Jerusalem temple. The Samaritans rejected these demands and “bad blood” existed between the two groups. By Jesus’ time, there was real hatred and enmity between them; John is a master of understatement when he says, “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.”

Not only was Jesus’ conversational partner a Samaritan, she was a woman! If we accept the Gospel’s naming of Jesus as a Rabbi, he was breaking all sorts of laws and traditions by conversing with a woman, even if she were a good and faithful Jew. Rabbis simply did not speak to any woman to whom they were not related; it just wasn’t done. And this particular woman, apart from being a Samaritan, was also a woman of (shall we say) besmirched reputation. She had been through five failed relationships and had entered into yet another with a man not her husband (how Jesus knows this I’m not sure, but he knows it).

So this poor woman was everything Jesus should have had nothing to do with, and yet there he is carrying on a conversation as if they were old friends. No wonder the disciples were astonished when they returned.

A fifth interesting thing happened this week. I was introduced to a Russian Orthodox icon depicting this Gospel story, and the interesting thing about it is that the icon writer chose to depict not only this story, but also the story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus, you remember, was the Jewish tax collector who climbed a tree so that he could get a look at Jesus as he walked through a crowd in the Jewish city of Jericho. (Luke 19:1-27) Just as with the woman at the well, Jesus spoke to Zacchaeus. And he didn’t just talk to him; he walked up to the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, come down because I’m going to have dinner with you.”

Now, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, a lacky of the hated Roman occupiers of Israel. We all, I’m sure, have our opinions of the agents of the I.R.S. and as we get closer to April 15, that opinion is probably going to get pretty bad. But whatever we may think of contemporary revenue agents, what the Jews thought of Jewish tax collectors was a thousand times worse. They were collaborators working with oppressive Roman Empire which had invaded and occupied the Jewish nation. They were given what was for practical purposes a license to steal. The Roman authorities would tell them what they were to collect, but they could take more and did; they excess was what they lived on. So they were as hated and as outcast among their own people as a Samaritan would have been.

I believe that is the reason the Russian iconographer depicted the two stories on the same panel; he was illustrating that for Jesus there were no outcasts. For God incarnate in Jesus, there are no outcasts. Despite what Fred Phelps may have taught in his church, the Gospel story we heard this morning and the story of Zacchaeus demonstrate that God hates no one. As that diocesan bumper sticker and billboard about which the Plain Dealer asked says, “God loves everyone. No exceptions.” In Christ’s church, in this church there will be no outcasts. Ever.

Amen.

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

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

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

From the Book of Genesis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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