That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Evangelism (page 1 of 5)

The Bread of Justice: Sermon for Pentecost 11, Proper 13B, August 5, 2018

At the end of our gospel lesson this morning, Jesus said to the crowd, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus answered, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”[1] This is the beginning of Jesus’ long discourse on bread which takes up nearly the whole of Chapter 6 of the Gospel according to John and of which we will hear parts for all of the month of August.

A few verses further on, Jesus will say again, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven.” And he will add, “Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh. . . . Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”[2]

The Jews, John tells us, disputed among themselves as Jesus was delivering this lengthy dissertation on bread. I think we can understand why! The very idea of consuming human flesh is off-putting, even disgusting, and would have been extremely objectionable to the Jews; no wonder they grumbled and mumbled, complained and disputed. Even as a metaphor, the statement demands a lot from Jesus’ followers!

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Planning, Checklists, Budgets: Sermon for Pentecost 10, Proper 12B, July 29, 2018

In 2014, Evie and I were privileged to join a group of other pilgrims from Ohio and Michigan and spend not quite three weeks in Palestine and Israel visiting many of the sites we hear about in the Bible, especially the Christian holy places of the Gospel stories. One of those was a hilly place overlooking the Sea of Galilee called Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, a village had been there for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage.

The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called Mensa Domini (which means “the Lord’s Table”) and also known as The Church of the Primacy of Peter.

A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today and a graphic of that picture of loaves and fishes is on the front of your bulletin.

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Prophetic Community: Sermon for Pentecost 7, Proper 9B, July 8, 2018

In today’s gospel lesson from the sixth chapter of Mark, Jesus has come home to Nazareth immediately after last week’s two stories of healing. Apparently he is there for at least a few days and when the Sabbath comes he does as he has done elsewhere: he goes to the synagogue. In Luke’s version of this story, Jesus is given a scroll from the prophet Isaiah and reads from it:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” [1]

And goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” [2]

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Mad-Libs with John the Baptist – Sermon for Advent 3, RCL Year B

One of the commentaries I read this week about our gospel lesson was written by a Lutheran serminary professor named Jan Schnell Rippentrop. She noted three things about John the Baptizer’s self-description in the Fourth Gospel:

  1. He’s very clear about who he isn’t (not the Messiah, not Elijah, not the prophet);
  2. He cites a verse or two of Scripture that inspires him and defines his life (the passage from Isaiah); and
  3. He says what he does (he baptizes people in witness of their repentance).

She suggested that this would be a good thing for all of us to do: “Can these same three methods,” she asks, “help us claim our identity within our vocation to bear witness to Jesus?” (Working Preacher Commentary, 2017) Rippentrop recommended that we all prayerfully consider and complete three fill-in-the-blank statements (sort of like that old party game “Mad-Libs”):

“I am not ___________________.”
“This scripture will tell you something about me: _____________”
“If you want to really know what I’m about, you’d have to know that I do this: _____________________________________________.”

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How To Be Good: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit who empowered the disciples to proclaim the Good News to peoples from many lands speaking many tongues: we now pray for those in many lands speaking many languages who have been hurt or killed by terrorist violence in the past fortnight in: London (England), Kabul (Afghanistan), Mosel (Iraq), Minya (Egypt), Khost (Afghanistan), Mastung (Pakistan), Gao (Mali), Borno State (Nigeria), Raqqa (Syria), Mogadishu (Somalia), rural Colombia, Manila (Philippines), Baghdad (Iraq), Basra (Iraq), Portland (Oregon, USA) and Manchester (England). May God grant eternal rest to the departed, healing to the injured, and comfort to those in grief. And since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies, we pray also for those who have committed these violent acts, and for those who may be contemplating additional violence. May God change their hearts and shed abroad the gift of peace throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs (13:14). The word translated there as “teaching” is Torah, the Hebrew name for the Law of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The biblical tradition tells us that seven weeks after the Passover the Hebrews camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, met God, and returned with the Torah inscribed on stone tablets. Therefore, the Jews celebrate on the fiftieth day after Passover the feast called Shavuot, which literally means “the feast of weeks.” It is also called “the feast of the giving of the Law” and “the feast of first fruits” because it also became a celebration of the barley harvest and a time of prayer for the success of the wheat harvest; it was a time when the tithe of the barley harvest, the first ten percent of the grain was brought to the Levites in obedience to the Torah’s requirement: “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)

When worship became centered on the Jerusalem Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot became a pilgrimage feast, one of the three annual festivals on which every male Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, which explains why there were so many people “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) in the streets of Jerusalem when the disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went out to proclaim the Good News. They were the Jews of the Diaspora and for many of them, Greek rather than Hebrew was the language in which they read Scripture and worshiped, and they called this feast “Pentecost,” a word which means “fiftieth day.” They had returned to Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Passover to offer their tithes at the Temple in gratitude for the giving of the Law.

A rabbi of the time famously described the Torah as a “disciplinarian” or “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:22). Writing in Greek, the word he used was paidagogos, a word describing someone in Greek society, usually a family slave, who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of growing boys. In other words, the paidagogos’ obligation was to teach the boys to be good. This was the purpose of the Law given at Mt. Sinai. A modern rabbi writes that one should immerse oneself in the Torah

to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a Godly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within . . . you, [until God’s] thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are [God’s]. (Tzvi Freeman, What Is Torah?)

That is what we as Christians believe happened in the event described by Luke in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, a sharing of the Holy Spirit of God until God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts and they had no alternative but to speak them to the world around them.

That First Century rabbi of whom I spoke was none other than our own parish Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Galatians. He would continue to say that with the coming Christ we are freed from the discipline of the schoolmaster, and instead are led by the Holy Spirit to bear the “fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Another word that describes this fruit is “virtue,” which St. Augustine of Hippo defined as “a good habit consonant with our nature.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Virtue)

The “fruit of the Spirit” should not be confused with the gifts of the Spirit. In the epistle reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul details many of the gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in other tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, 1 Cor. 12:8-10), one of which seems to have been exhibited by the disciples, the ability to speak in other languages. While these gifts are important for a variety of reasons, what is most important about them is that they are, Paul says, “given . . . for the common good.” (v. 7)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his listeners to be good, to do good to all, to enemies as well as friends, saying:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:37-38)

To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, echoing the words the Book of Proverbs applied to the Torah, Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the water of life which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) And in today’s gospel lesson in a similar metaphor, he says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38) This is what Pentecost is all about; this is what happened that morning in Jerusalem; the disciples were given a share of the Holy Spirit of God until, as that contemporary rabbi said, God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts, until the Torah of the wise became a fountain of life and flowed out of them like living water to the world around them.

So the Law was given to teach us to be good and the Holy Spirit empowers us to be good, but how do we actually be good?

An author whose poetry has often graced the pages of The Christian Century, a magazine to which I have subscribed for many years, offered an answer to that question a few years ago. His name was Brian Doyle; he lived in Portland, Oregon, taught at the University of Portland, and edited Portland Magazine. He died a week ago from the same sort of brain cancer which killed my own brother several years ago, so I took particular note of his passing. At his requiem day before yesterday at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, mourners were given a copy of an essay he wrote and published in his 2013 book The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press, Chicago:2013). The essay is entitled How to Be Good. I would like to read part of it to you now:

First, pick up your wet towel and at least, for heavenssake, hang it up to dry. And wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn’t have to be shining and spotless, that would be fussy and false, but at least don’t leave little mounds of your neck hairs like dead insects for your partner and children to find. At least do that. It’s the little things; they aren’t little. You knew that. I am just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from the street, where it fell broken and almost unrecognizable, and she saw it as a holy being and she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn’t little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and was thus holy beyond our ken. Or in the morning, when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say thank you to the harried girl with the Geelong Cats logo tattooed on her forehead. At least look her in the eye and be gentle. Christ liveth in her, remember? Old Saint Paul said that, and who are we to gainsay the testy little gnarled genius? And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving, yes, you are peeved, and yes, he could be chasing down murderers, but be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault, you could have checked the scores later, and for another, Christ liveth in him. Also in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man under the clock at Flinders Street Station, and in the foulmouthed man at the footy, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation and have detested since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful vulgar elephantine couch to yet another of his shabby flats, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so and who could blame you? But Christ liveth in him. Speak hard words into your closet and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch, for the ninth blessed time, and do not credit yourself with good works, for you too are a package of small sins and cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta, but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the kids’ team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear and give them away. Sell the old machinery and turn it into food for those who starve. Express gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write the minister and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is care for the bruised among us, not pose on television. Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter but we know that they matter. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like sharp swords against the squirm of despair and violence. The Church is you. Christ liveth in you. Do not cloak Him but let Him be about His business, which is using the tools the Creator gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love given and granted; savor that and disburse that which is not important. Use less, slow down, write small notes. All the way to heaven is heaven, said old Catherine of Siena, and who are we to gainsay that slight smiling genius? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance. If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out in the open. Try to forgive even that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I do not know how that can be so but it is so. You and I know that. I am only reminding us. Be who only you are. Rise to what you dream. Do not cease with joy. That is the nature of the gift we were given. It is the most amazing and extraordinary and confusing and complicated gift that ever was. Never take it for granted, not for an instant, not for the seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness and generosity and kindness and mercy. Also humor. Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what He said could happen if we loved well. He did not mean loving only the people you know. He meant every idiot and liar and thief and blowhard and even your cousin. I do not know how that could be so, but I know it is so. So do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Ready? (Page 15)

On this fiftieth day, this feast of the first fruits, this day of bringing our tithes and offerings of thanksgiving before God, this celebration of the giving of the Torah and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the church, let us begin again to be good, and let goodness be in us like the Torah of the wise, a spring gushing up to eternal life, running over, and flowing out, a river into the world around us, so that “justice [may] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us begin again to be good, you and me, today! Ready?

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

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

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sunday after the Ascension, the Seventh Sunday of Easter, May 28, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 1:6-14; Psalm 68:1-10,33-36; 1 Peter 4:12-14,5:6-11; and St. John 17:1-11. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Mt 28:19-20)

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

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

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

Another commentator on this text points out that there are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see you.

Amen.

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

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

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Sixth Sunday of Easter, May 21, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 17:22-31; Psalm 66:7-18; 1 Peter 3:13-22; and St. John 14:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

That’s Not How It Works! – Sermon for Pentecost 18 (Proper 21B) – 27 September 2015

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A sermon offered on Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 21B, Track 1, RCL), September 27, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Esther 7:1-6,9-10;9:20-22, Psalm 124, James 5:13-20, and Mark 9:38-50. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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BeatriceIf you’re like me, you usually ignore television commercials; like my wife, you may even mute the sound on your TV when they come on. But every once in a while there will be one that is just so good you have to give it credit, you watch it when it comes on because it’s just a really good piece of little film making.

One such little story that I think is brilliant is a commercial for Esurance entitled Beatrice in which an older lady, standing in front of her living room wall which is plastered with photographs of her vacation, she says, “Instead of mailing everyone copies of my vacation photos, I’m saving a ton of time by posting them to my wall.” She goes on to extol her quick on-line insurance and when her friend, who has a very puzzled and concerned look on her face, responds that she’s saved more, Beatrice says to her, “I ‘unfriend’ you.” And the friend replies, “That’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works.”

That, I suggest to you, is Jesus’ message to his misguided disciples when they “saw someone casting out demons in your name, and . . . tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” It’s like they are saying, “Hey, Jesus! We saw this guy doing this . . . so we ‘unfriended’ him!”

The disciples are quite pleased with themselves. Like later generations of church members, their aim is to preserve the purity and orthodoxy of the Jesus’ movement by silencing the ministry of someone they consider an outsider, by delegitimizing someone who is not like them, by cutting off the other. They are surprised when Jesus rebukes them for their narrow-mindedness and limited understanding of Jesus’ mission

“That’s not how it works,” says Jesus, “That’s not how any of this works. Whoever is not against us is for us.” That is a radical statement of hospitality and inclusion.

Jesus then launches into these hyperbolic instructions to remove body parts. I used to believe that Jesus in this, as in other passages, was making use of a rabbinic teaching technique which scholars have named “Semitic hyperbole.” After all, Jesus was a native speaker of Aramaic (although his words have been transmitted to us in the koiné Greek of the New Testament) so we can assume that Jesus said this originally in Aramaic in which hyperbole was an accepted way of making a point. Speakers of Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic) use hyperbole so often and in such grossly exaggerated forms that to an English speaker it almost seems to border on lying.

By exaggerating something beyond the bounds of rationality, speakers of these languages catch our attention, stating truths in a “bigger than life” way and waking us up to the reality of life, to the reality of our own lives. G. K. Chesterton noted that Jesus was a master of the hyperbole: “Christ had even a literary style of his own . . . The diction used by Christ is quite curiously gigantesque; it is full of camels leaping through needles and mountains hurled into the sea.” (Orthodoxy, John Lane: New York, 1908, pp 271-72)

However, hyperbolic though this language is, I don’t think Jesus is actually using hyperbole as a teaching tool in this case. I think he’s just being sarcastic. I think he’s saying, “Go ahead! Cut off your nose to spite your face! Go ahead! You’ll see how pointlessly self-defeating your behavior is. You will only hurt yourself in the effort to correct or punish someone else.”

Because . . . that’s not how it works. That’s not how any of this works!

It is not by cutting off hands or feet, or by plucking out eyes that an individual is healed or saved; similarly, it is not by cutting off another or by stopping another’s ministry that the community of faith is grown. “Whoever is not against us is for us.” Healing and salvation happen through relationship, through radical hospitality and radical inclusion.

James, in our epistle lesson today, writes: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” Salvation is not accomplished by hacking away; salvation is accomplished by grafting on, by relationship, by hospitality, and by inclusion.

“The prayer of faith will save the sick,” writes James, “The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” The quality of our prayer lives influences others; it creates relationships and opens pathways for divine energy. We achieve well-being for ourselves and for others by reaching out and grafting on, not by cutting away. No one who does a deed of power in Jesus’ name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of him or of his church, and anyone who promotes abundant life is on God’s side, whether it be by liturgical laying on of hands such as we will offer here today, or by reiki massage, or social action, or Zen meditation, or chemotherapy, or Tai Chi, or yoga, or whatever . . . even by something as simple as offering a cup of cool water to thirsty child. God is present and moving in all things, in all healthful, health-giving, hospitable, and inclusive relationships.

There is, I believe, a reason that our lectionary links James’ message of healing in relationship with today’s gospel story of radical inclusion, and that reason lies in the often overlooked relationship between the words “hospital” and “hospitality.” The linguistic connection between these words is no accident. As early as the 4th Century, it was common for Christian congregations to have “houses of lodging for strangers.” Later, medieval monasteries and convents carried on this tradition, and it was common for a member of the community to serve as “hospitaler,” the one who extended hospitality to strangers. Sometimes this meant caring for the travelers’ injuries and ailments. Thus, these “houses for the lodging of strangers,” these “hospitals,” became the first infirmaries where the other was welcomed and healed in Jesus’ name.

This mission of hospitality is not simply a sideline of the Christian mission, an add-on or plug-in, if you will, but rather the heart of it. As David Atkinson and his co-authors write in the New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology:

[C]are for the stranger goes hand in hand with preaching the gospel. ~ The Bible’s insistence that the Lord’s people should be hospitable highlights several vital, lasting theological and ethical principles. One is stewardship: showing hospitality is simply good caretaking, distributing the Master’s resources where they are most needed. Another is the imitation of God: being hospitable is being like God, who treated his people so generously when they were strangers in Egypt. And a third is grace: as God lavishes his love on those who deserve none of it, so Christians must provide hospitality for those who cannot earn or repay their generosity. (Atkinson, David, J., et al., New Dictionary of Christian Ethics & Pastoral Theology, Inter-Varsity Press, 1995, p 517)

“Hey, Jesus! We saw a guy healing in your name, but he wasn’t one of us and he wasn’t doing it our way, so we ‘unfriended’ him!”

“That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works! Whoever is not against us is for us!”

Jesus ends the conversation, and Mark ends the entire episode, with an obscure and confusing metaphor about salt. “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

morton-saltThe Bible is full of metaphors which can be lost on modern American Christians, and this is one of them. We buy our salt (sodium chloride) in neat blue boxes from the supermarket; it’s purified, though it may be mixed with a small amount of an additive to make it run smoothly and flow freely. It may have a bit of granulated sugar added to it because pure salt is too salty for modern tastes! And it may have iodine added to it as a protection against goiter and other iodine deficiency issues; sea salt naturally contained iodine, but highly processed and refined salt does not.

This modern “pure” salt is incredibly stable and does not lose its saltiness. But salt which is mined from deposits such as one might have found in First Century Palestine is not pure. It is an amalgam of sodium chloride with other salts and minerals. If this mixture becomes wet, the sodium chloride can dissolve and leech away. The remaining substance looks the same but the salty flavor is lost and it cannot be brought back.

Followers of Jesus are called to be salty and, like that First Century salt, people are amalgams; we are not pure in any way. And we certainly can lose our “saltiness” as the “dampness” of life dilutes and leeches it away, or if (as Jesus has sarcastically suggested) we start cutting away bits and pieces of our lives.

What is the “saltiness” that we are meant to retain? What is the human “saltiness” that Jesus is concerned cannot be restored? Jesus words are often taken to be spiritual and lofty and, since salt was a required part of the grain and incense offerings in the Temple, this “salt” metaphor is often understood in that way.

However, another definition of “salty” is “down-to-earth,” and a third is “coarse” in the sense of colorful, spicy, racy, risqué, naughty, vulgar, or even rude. I don’t really know if “salt” had those connotations in Jesus’ time, but I do know that salt was considered symbolic of friendship, loyalty, and hospitality, all of which Jesus valued.

Time and time again the Gospels remind us that Jesus was a down-to-earth and hospitable sort of guy. He want to dinner parties and wedding receptions, and had a good time. He told jokes, most of which we don’t get because we’ve lost the cultural references (like the impure salt metaphor). He was condemned by the religious people for associating with sinners and was publicly criticized as a “winebibber,” the quaint King James English term for “drunkard.”

This all suggests to me that the “saltiness” that Jesus here speaks of is not some lofty, holy preservative of morality; it’s that down-to-earth hospitable conviviality that builds community and makes life fun. It might be what the French call “joie de vivre.”

There’s a series of advertisements for Dos Equis beer in which the corporate spokesman, described in the ads as “the Most Interesting Man in the World.” He’s not quite as entertaining as Beatrice and her “wall,” but he does memorably advise consumers, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”

I think Jesus is more entertaining than Beatrice and more interesting that the beer man and, in this gospel story, I see him looking into the camera, perhaps thinking of the parties and weddings he has attended and of the sinners he has befriended, of the hospitality and inclusiveness he is trying to teach his disciples, and saying, “Stay salty, my friends.”

Because that’s how it works! That’s how all of it works! Be hospitable, stay in relationship, reach out, include the stranger, do not cut off things or people. “Whoever is not against us is for us! . . . Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Amen.

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Note: This sermon includes a somewhat edited version of a previously published Daily Office meditation.

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

Leavening the Lump – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Leavening the Lump . . . .

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 15, Year 1 (Pentecost 12, 2015)

Acts 24:22 ~ But Felix, who was rather well informed about the Way, adjourned the hearing with the comment, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.”

Paul, a Roman citizen demanding his rights, is brought before Felix the governor after being accused of starting a riot in the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish authorities lay out their case; Paul makes his defense; the governor postpones judgment. In recording the scene, Luke (the author of Acts) makes this parenthetical remark which is easily overlooked, that Felix “was rather well informed about the Way,” i.e., about the claim of some Jews (and now a few Gentiles) that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, and the way of life lived in consequence of that belief.

Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judaea, a Greek freedman, divorced and remarried to a divorced woman, known for cruelty and licentiousness, more than willing to accept bribes and look the other way, under whose governorship the province experienced a significant increase in criminal activity, “was rather well informed about the Way.” How could that be?

Felix was governor of Judaea for only six or seven year, 52-58 AD, about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although the Christian faith had spread (this trial takes place about six years after Paul’s trip to Athens, for example), it was still a small community, so how is it that the Roman governor, a pagan from the imperial city itself, in office and in the province only a few years, is “well informed about the Way”?

I suggest there’s only one way for this to be true: early Christians talked about their faith, shared their story with others, and spread the gospel in their daily lives. I’m not suggesting that any member of the church actually had spoken directly to Felix, but rather that (if I may use one of Jesus’ own metaphors) like yeast in a lump of dough knowledge of the Christian story spread through the community as neighbor talked to neighbor, Jew talked with Gentile, Palestinian native spoke to Roman occupier, and so it goes.

Some 2,000 years later, we live in a society where many claim to be “rather well informed about the way” but few are. There is a lot of talking about Christianity, but precious little of that talk is accurate and few who talk it actually live it. It may be that Antonius Felix was rather better informed about the Way than are many modern Christians and certainly better than the “nones” among us.

There is only one remedy for this: yet again, the yeast must leaven the lump.

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