Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Freemasonry

Chiseled – Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, RCL Year B, March 4, 2018

Here they are. The “Big Ten”! The words of Exodus[1] that Right-wing fundamentalists want to chisel in granite and put in American courthouses unless, of course, they prefer the similar (but not quite the same) version in the Book of Deuteronomy.[2]

My sort of go-to guy on the Old Testament is a Lutheran scholar named Terence Fretheim, who is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota. My first grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures was from a short, two-volume study guide he wrote with co-author Lutheran pastor Darold H. Beekman entitled Our Old Testament Heritage.[3] A couple of years ago, Fretheim wrote a short online commentary on today’s Old Testament lesson in which he said:

The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places.[4]

This is why the version set out in Deuteronomy is slightly different.

Continue reading

Wilderness – From the Daily Office – May 1, 2014

From the Book of Exodus:

As Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked towards the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Exodus 16:10 (NRSV) – May 1, 2014.)

Painted Desert Wilderness AreaTwo days ago we celebrated the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist and the Gospel lesson for use at the Eucharist was the opening of his Gospel which relates the story of Jesus’ baptism following which, Mark says, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness,” (Mk 1:12) so the word “wilderness” caught my attention today.

Years ago I read a commentary on the book of Revelation in which the author asserted that the wilderness is the true home of the People of God, that it is in the wilderness that the People find their true identity. Here in this verse we find the Hebrews looking towards the wilderness where they find the glory of God. Is that our true identity? St. Irenaeus wrote, “Gloria Dei est vivens homo,” which means “The Glory of God is a living person,” sometimes translated as “The Glory of God is the human fully alive.” Is that what the Hebrews spied in the wilderness? Is that what the Redeemer was compelled by the Spirit to discover out there with the wild beasts?

Yesterday I read an essay comparing the scientific theory of “dark matter” and “dark energy” to the doctrine of Original Sin, and suggesting that both spring from a human “primal desperation to make sense of our overwhelming ignorance.” The author suggested, “Truth lives in a lot of places – but we often just cannot seem to find out exactly where.” In the wilderness, where there is an absence of distraction, where our ignorance becomes more evident, where the Spirit drove Jesus, where the Hebrews encountered the Glory of God, perhaps truth is more readily apparent. And the truth will make us free (Jn 8:32), free to be truly alive.

I am a member of the Masonic fraternity (although these days not a very active one). In Freemasonry, the tools of stone masonry are given symbolic meanings. Among the first tools to which a new Mason is introduced is the common gavel. We are told that in operative masonry this tool breaks off the rough corners of the stone to better fit it to the builder’s use. Freemasons are to use it metaphorically to divest ourselves of the “vices and superfluities of life,” thereby becoming better fit as “living stones” to be used by the Supreme Architect of the Universe. The reference, of course, is to the First Letter of Peter in which the Apostle admonishes us:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Pet 2:4-5)

It seems to me that in the wilderness those “vices and superfluities,” which I think are all those things we use to cover up or deny our “overwhelming ignorance,” naturally fall away — the work of using that gavel to remove them is much easier. The wilderness is a sort of quarry where we are cut away from all that we have accumulated, all that we have used to deny our ignorance; we are trimmed of that excess to become the building stones of that “spiritual house” of which Peter wrote. Little wonder that the Hebrews looked to the wilderness and saw God, little wonder the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness to be fitted for his ministry, little wonder we find our true identity there. Stripped of the doctrines, theories, and metaphors with which we cover our ignorance, we find that we don’t need them. Without them we are living stones, living human beings, a spiritual house, a royal priesthood, truly alive, the glory of God.


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


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

Justice Begins At Home – From the Daily Office – June 6, 2013

From the Book of Deuteronomy:

You shall appoint judges and officials throughout your tribes, in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall render just decisions for the people. You must not distort justice; you must not show partiality; and you must not accept bribes, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, so that you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 16:18-20 (NRSV) – June 6, 2013.)

Hands Through Prison BarsJustice. When I was initiated into the “free and accepted” fraternity of Masons, I was taught that justice is “that standard or boundary of right which enables us to render to every man [sic] his just due without distinction.” Justice, I was told, “is not only consistent with divine and human laws, but is the very cement and support of civil society.” Furthermore, my instructor continued, justice in large measure “constitutes the really good man, so should it be the invariable practice of every Mason never to deviate from the minutest principal thereof.”

As a child in Sunday School, I learned that justice is a quality of the kingdom of Heaven made real in the church’s practice of acceptance and equality. But that really wasn’t true in the church of the early 1950s – not everyone was accepted and not everyone was equal. In fact, I don’t think I would be too far off the mark to say that the Christian church then and now has done a pretty lousy job of teaching, by word and example, what justice, on an individual and personal basis, is. The Masons’ initiatory instruction probably does a better job of personalizing the idea of justice than does any teaching of the church.

We’re pretty good at teaching about “social justice” and addressing justice as a global goal. There are several books and websites where one can read something similar to this (copied from a popular church website):

It is central to the Christian faith that God desires a world in which justice is done. However, the past hundred years have revealed the scale of injustice in the world to be greater than anyone had previously imagined. Global forces that are deeply unfair determine the destiny of the world’s poorest people and cause damage to the planet’s environment. War and suffering follow. This has led to a planet on which, every eight seconds, a child in the developing world dies from diarrhea because his or her community has dirty water. When seen through God’s eyes, this and many similar issues are an outrage.

Striving for justice and working for peace, particularly for the world’s poorest people, are at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The good news he came to announce was that suffering and oppression could be brought to an end. Christians believe that their faith should lead them to be the people who help bring that about.

The challenge Christians face is to have a personal way of life that does not add to the world’s problems. This means adopting a simple lifestyle in which the world’s resources are not wasted, buying goods that have been fairly traded, and changing habits that damage the environment. In the richer parts of the world many of them support and give money to organizations that are seeking to improve the conditions of the world’s poorest people, to end conflicts, and to preserve the planet.

I have no real quibble with what this says about justice on a global scale. My concern is, “What do we do about justice in our personal lives and in our most intimate local communities, our parish churches?”

This became an issue in my parish when a church member was arrested, and the fact of the arrest and the nature of the charges were splashed across the front page of the local newspaper’s Friday morning edition. The details are unimportant; what is important is how the rest of the church will deal with this parishioner and other members of the family.

On reading the newspaper, I contacted the family; on Saturday, I visited the arrestee at the county jail. I assured them all of my prayers. But then, in the privacy of my study, I began to wonder, “Should I say anything about the situation in church? Should I rework my sermon for Sunday?” At our early service, I said nothing; but just before our principal service, because of something I was asked by another member, I knew I had to address the issue. Our practice is to make announcements before beginning our worship, so when those were concluded, I said something along these lines:

You may have read Friday’s paper or have learned otherwise that a member of this congregation has been arrested and jailed. None of us know the details, so none of us really has anything to say. What I would ask is that we not speculate, not gossip, not spread rumors, and not judge. Instead, let us keep our fellow member and the family in our prayers, and allow the justice system to do its job. Let’s remember that as Americans we are bidden to treat everyone as innocent until proven guilty, and as Christians we are bidden to forgive even the guilty.

Was that enough? I asked some colleagues; I asked friends on Facebook: “Do you know of resources to help a pastor lead a congregation through dealing with the rather public and embarrassing arrest of a parish member?”

Pretty much deafening silence followed . . . .

I searched the internet.

Pretty much nothing there . . . .

I did learn that there is something called Prison Ministry Awareness Sunday among North American Orthodox Christians. This year, an encyclical from the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops sets the observation on June 9 and calls on members of Orthodox faith communities to participate in the church’s ministry to those who are in prison, and to support and encourage “those who bring the Gospel of hope and salvation to the incarcerated.” Their letter begins with these words:

We greet you in the surpassing joy of the Risen Christ. By the grace of God, we are blessed to observe the Sixth Sunday of Pascha, which this year falls on June 9, as Prison Ministry Awareness Sunday. We embrace the diakonia of prison ministry in keeping with the example of our Risen Lord Jesus Christ, the Great Physician of our souls, who did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance; who ate in the houses of thieves and forgave the sins of harlots; and who said that, when we visit those in prison, we are in truth visiting Him, the Lord of Glory. (Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, emphasis in original.)

I believe the Orthodox bishops are on to something. How we handle the arrest and incarceration of a parishioner should be informed by Jesus’ description of the Last Judgment in the 25th chapter of Matthew. When he says, “I was in prison and you visited me” by visiting “one of the least of these who are members of my family,” we should hear his words as addressing the full experience of arrest, arraignment, trial, and sentence. As anyone goes through that process, we should see that person as bearing Jesus’ identity, and however we relate to that person and his or her family will reveal how we relate to Christ. This is especially true of those who are our brothers or sisters in the local Christian community.

Concern for global social justice is well and good, and it certainly has and deserves a place in the teachings and practice of the church. But in light of our parish experience, I believe that, like charity, justice begins at home. How we treat one another in these difficult circumstances in the intimate setting of our parish communities is foundational of our efforts to promote justice in the wider sense.

I’m troubled that there seem to be so few resources available to clergy and church members providing guidance in these circumstances. The Sentencing Project reports that “the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people currently in the nation’s prisons or jails — a 500% increase over the past thirty years.” Surely this is something that will increasingly occur in our parishes. We need to address it.


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


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

Enduring Enlightenment – From the Daily Office: Ash Wednesday – February 13, 2013

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 12:12-4 (NRSV) – February 13, 2013.)

Running the RaceThe author of the Letter to the Hebrews is using an athletic metaphor, and borrowing from the Hebrew Scriptures, to make a point about endurance.

Taking up his own earlier metaphor of “running with perseverance the race that is set before us” (12:1), he echoes the Prophet Isaiah, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.'” (Isa. 35:3-4a) He draws from the Proverbs, “Keep straight the path of your feet . . . .” (Prov. 4:26)

Endurance, also known as “fortitude,” is one of Christianity’s four cardinal virtues. In Freemasonry (yes, I’m a Freemason), this Christian virtue is defined as “that noble and steady purpose of mind, whereby we are enabled to undergo any pain, peril, or danger, when prudentially deemed expedient.” As a subject of preaching, I’m afraid, this virtue gets rather short shrift in today’s church. I suppose that may be because the church reflects the popular culture which, with its emphasis on self-expression and instant gratification, emphasizes a sense of entitlement to ephemeral happiness and comfort.

As we begin Lent, it is well to reflect on this virtue. This period of forty days is meant to be our spiritual union with Jesus in his time of desert testing. If ever there was an example of endurance or fortitude, it has to be those days of temptation in the arid land beyond the Jordan. Endurance is a part of our Christian heritage, going back to Jesus and beyond him into the centuries-long story of the endurance of Israel, God’s chosen people.

Endurance is also one of the four Buddhist virtues, although in that religious tradition it is called “eternity”. It is regarded as a quality of inner being which allows the practitioner to remain unswayed by the ever-changing circumstances of life while confidently challenging him- or herself toward enlightenment. It leads, it is said, to another of the Buddhist virtues, happiness, a kind of contentment that can withstand the ups and downs of human existence including death. This is quite different from the vacuous “happiness” of the modern age, that insipid self-indulgence buoyed by unprecedented affluence and rampant consumerism.

This Lent let us eschew the world’s “happiness” and strive for that eternal happiness common to the Christian and Buddhist faith traditions, that noble and steady purpose of mind, that quality of inner being, that eternal endurance that leads to enlightenment, that leads to God.


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


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

Lady Wisdom & Questions God Is Never Going to Ask – Sermon for Pentecost 12, Proper 15B – August 19, 2012


This sermon was preached on Sunday, August 19, 2012, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(Revised Common Lectionary, Proper 15B: Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; and John 6:51-58)


Proverbs 9 by David WierzbickiAs I may have mentioned here before, I spent many of my childhood summers in the southeastern Kansas town of Winfield with my paternal grandparents, C.E. and Edna Funston. Winfield was my parents’ hometown, both of them were raised there and my mother had been born there. Her maternal grandparents, Hinrich and Harmke Buss, were immigrants from that area of Germany right next to Holland called “Ostfriesland”. My father was born in Dodge City, and he and his folks moved to Winfield when he was just a few months old; they were relative newcomers but my grandfather soon became a prominent citizen.

Anyway, one of the things I remember about Winfield is the way newcomers, or anyone someone was meeting for the first time, were almost invariably asked two questions. I once discussed this with a friend who was born and raised in South Carolina and she said it was the same in her hometown, that these are what she called “very Southern questions.” That makes sense because in an odd way, southeastern Kansas is much more Southern than it is midwestern. My mother used to all that part of Kansas “lap land” – meaning that it is were Oklahoma and Arkansas lap over into Kansas.

So there were these two questions that people asked when first meeting another person. The first was, “Who are your people?” Winfield was an agricultural center and not much else. There was no industry or manufacturing that would bring people to town. There was farming and the businesses that support farming, all of which were family owned. So if somebody new came to town to work in on a farm or in a farm-supporting business, it was assumed you must be part of the family. So, who are your people? The answer placed you in a particular social context. So I would say, “Well, my mother is Betty Sargent, one of the Buss cousins.” Anyone local would then know I was a descendant of Henry Buss. My greatgrandfather had had two families. One set of children were born to first wife Mary – she had 14 kids who lived; another set of 13 living children were born to Harmke, my greatgrandmother. According to his obituary, all of those children were alive when Henry died and he left approximately 200 acres of land to each of them. Doing the math, you get the idea that he had acquired a lot of farmland (something over 5,000 acres) and that he (and his children after him) were influential in the local economy. As I mentioned before, on the paternal side my grandparents were comparatively new to the town, but they had become very active members of the Methodist Church and my grandfather, an active Mason, had risen in those ranks as well. So if I continued to my inquirer, “And my father is C.E. and Edna Funston’s youngest son,” he or she would immediately know I was related to a Past Master of the Lodge and an elder in the Methodist Church.

Because of that, I wasn’t often asked the second question, “Where do you go to church?” But I could have been because it really wasn’t a given that I would have been a Methodist. The Busses were members of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Sargents belonged to the Disciples of Christ; I could have been either of those – but the truth was, except for those summer months with the Funstons at the Methodist Church, I really didn’t go to church as a kid.

In any event, those questions served to place someone in a social context, to define in the questioner’s mind who they were and where the fit. And the truth is they aren’t just “Kansas questions” or “Southern questions”. They are everywhere questions. In the fall of 2005, Evie and I took our first trip to Ireland and, as part of that trip, visited County Donegal as I was in search of Funstons in the area where I believe my Funston great-greatgrandfather originated. In Donegal Town itself, we happened to stop into a woolen sweater store run by a man named Sean McGinty. Mr. McGinty asked about our trip and I was explaining to him my family connection to the area. He turned to his wife Mary and said, “You’re from Pettigo; weren’t there some Funstons in Pettego.” She thought for a moment and replied, “Yes . . . . but they weren’t our people.” — They weren’t our people, meaning they weren’t Roman Catholic. The Irish Funstons were and still are Church of Ireland – Anglicans . . . Protestants. “Who are your people?” “Where do you go to church?” They or something like them are human questions; the help us to put people in their place, to categorize one another, to define each other. They are human questions.

But they are not God’s questions! Long before St. Paul would write to the Galatians that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female,” (Gal. 3:28) the compiler of the Book of Proverbs would make the same point in the 8th and 9th Chapters of that book, part of which we read today. In these chapters we read of Lady Wisdom, one of the most intriguing characters in all of the Old Testament. In the 8th Chapter, before the part we heard this morning, she tells us herself:

When [God] established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deep, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race. (Prov. 8:27-31)

She was, she tells us, a “master worker” helping God to create all that is. And in our reading this morning from Chapter 9, we see her as “the hostess with the mostest” who is ready to throw a party, to do the honors at a great feast. She has “slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine, she has . . . set her table,” and she sent her servants out to invite her guests. In fact, she herself stands in her doorway, in the highest places of the town calling,

“You that are simple, turn in here!” To those without sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” (Prov. 9:4-6)

Note that she doesn’t ask, “Who are your people? Where do you go to church?” She doesn’t ask if any are Jew or Greek, slave or free, black or white, straight or gay, Republican or Democrat, Catholic or Protestant, none of that matters . . . all she asks is that we be “simple” and “without sense.”

Now that’s a bit disconcerting and, frankly, I think the translation belies the true meaning of the invitation. The Hebrew here is, “Mi-phethi yasur henah chasar-leb ‘am’rah lo.” The word translated as “simple” (and sometimes as “naive”) is phethi. It’s root is the word pawthaw, which means “wide open”. An alternative and more positive understanding of this word is “open-minded”. The term “without sense” (sometimes rendered “lacking understanding”) is chasar-leb. Chasar means “without” or “lacking”. Leb (rendered here as “sense” or “understanding”) is most often translated as “heart” because in the ancient Hebrew understanding the heart was believed to be the seat of comprehension and emotion. This is not simple understanding or sense, this is passionate belief, enthusiastic commitment; in a negative sense we might say “bias” or “prejudice”.

Lady Wisdom is not inviting simpletons or the foolishly naive into her parlor; she is inviting the open-minded, those who have no preconceptions, no intolerant prepossessions. Lady Wisdom, God’s master worker, does not care if you are Jew or Greek, Irish or German, black or white or Asian or Native American, straight or gay or lesbian or transgendered, Democrat or Republican or Socialist or Libertarian. Lady Wisdom, God’s master worker, doesn’t care who your people are; she cares about whose you are! She doesn’t care where you go to church; she cares that you are the church, the People of God! She wants you to be open-minded, to come without prejudice or preconception. Her invitation is reminiscent of the Prophet Isaiah’s, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord.” (Isaiah 1:18 – KJV) She invites us to come and learn.

She has set her table; she is ready to host her party. “Come, [she says] eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Lay aside immaturity, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Lady Wisdom’s celebration is the marriage feast of the Lamb; her invitation is to that very supper Jesus would share with his disciples and shares with us throughout all the ages. St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians the words we recite each time we gather at this Table:

. . . that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Cor. 11:23-2)

And here in John’s Gospel today he promises that “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.” (John 6:54-56)

To this Feast we are all invited without regard to who our people may be, without regard to where we go to church. To this Feast today we welcome Nathan Joseph Daley who is to be baptized. No one here will ask, “Who are your people?” but if anyone ever does, Nathan can answer “The People of God” . . . and if he wants to be more specific, he can say “The Episcopalians!” No one here will ask, “Where do you go to church?” but if anyone ever does, Nathan can answer, “St. Paul’s!”

Someone else may ask those questions of Nathan or of you or me, but God is never going to ask them! God will ask, “Are you open-minded? Are you free of bias and prejudice?” God will ask, “Are you filled with the Spirit? Do you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs? Do you sing and make melody to the Lord in your heart? Do you give thanks at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ?” (Questions drawn from Ephesians 5:18-20) God will ask, “Do you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? Do you strive for justice and peace among all people? Do you respect the dignity of every human being?” (Questions drawn from the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, pg. 305)

With God’s help, Nathan and we will grow and learn to do these; through God’s grace, he and we will feast on Bread and Wine, and “lay aside immaturity, and live and walk in the way of insight.”

Let us pray:

Grant, Lord God, to Nathan who is about to be baptized into the death and resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ, and to those who already have been baptized, that, as we have put away the old life of sin, so we may be renewed in the spirit of our minds, lay aside immaturity, and live and walk in the way of insight, righteousness, and true holiness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sermon on the Sunday I Left for Sabbatical…. (June 26, 2011)

There is a lot happening at St. Paul’s Parish this morning – it would seem to be a lot more than one might expect to find going on in a church on a summer Sunday! If this is your first visit to our parish and you are not one of the members of Medina Lodge #58, Free & Accepted Masons of Ohio, who are our guests today, you may be wondering what sort of church this is, what is all this activity! Well, let me tell you ….

First – it is the last Sunday of the month and that means that, in addition to our regular weekly offerings, we take up a collection called “the 2-cent-a-meal offering” to fund hunger relief work in this parish and throughout the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. Nick Magee, who oversees our Free Farmers Market food pantry ministry, sent me an email yesterday with the half-year statistics on that ministry. His spreadsheet showed that yesterday 221 people were provided with food by this parish, which just happens to be the average number of clients served each week the Free Farmers Market is open. In the first half of 2011, our food pantry has provided a week’s worth of groceries to 2,646 persons; nearly twenty thousand pounds of food have been distributed. A word of congratulations to Nick and the Free Farmers Market volunteers – the food pantry was recognized by the Akron Community Foundation last month which awarded it a grant of $4,000! It continues to be a vital and necessary ministry in our community and I encourage you to be as generous as the Akron foundation.

Second – also because it is the last Sunday of the month, this is the Sunday on which we offer prayers for healing and when we bless the work of our knitting circles. For those who are ill or injured, we offer unction and the laying on of hands here at the communion rail following the distribution of Holy Communion. You can also come forward to receive unction and prayer on behalf of someone else, someone unable to be here. The knitted items are, for the most part, prayer shawls made for the comfort of those recovering from illness or injury, warm garments (hats, scarves, and gloves) for merchant marine seamen served by the Episcopal Church’s Seamen’s Institute, and baby blankets for the newborn (many of which we now have or are soon expecting in this parish, by the way. Congratulations again to Nick Magee and to his wife Sian who this week welcomed Finn Griffiths Magee into the world and into their family.)

Third – this past week marked the 20th Anniversary of my ordination into the priesthood and my wife Evelyn and our Senior Warden Barbara Baird cooked up a scheme to have a reception acknowledging that milestone during our usual “coffee hour” after this service. Ladies, I’m very grateful to you for doing so. As I said in a post on Facebook on Tuesday, the actual anniversary, I am extremely grateful and humbled by the gift and privilege of priesthood which permits those of us in this office to share with each of you and all of you the milestones of your lives, to celebrate with you in times of joy and to grieve with you in times of misfortune and sorrow, to preside at our faith’s most significant acts of worship, and to participate in all the small but meaningful ways we form community. My wife secretly arranged for our children, Caitlin and Patrick, to be here for this reception, and Patrick (who was recently ordained a deacon and in a few months will himself be ordained a priest) is serving at the altar with me today – our first time to do so together.

Fourth – later this week … to be precise in four days, seven hours, and fifteen minutes (but who’s counting?) … I will be flying to Scotland to begin three months of sabbatical studying Celtic Christianity, learning more of the Irish Gaelic language, visiting ancient British, Scottish and Irish ruins, and translating and arranging some ancient Irish hymns. So the anniversary reception is also something of a going away party. Please join us in the Parish Hall after this service for the party!

Finally – as we have done for the past few years, St. Paul’s Parish is hosting our friends from the local Masonic Lodge whom I mentioned earlier and whose custom it is to worship together on the Sunday closest to the feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. Thus, we are using the lessons assigned to that feast not those of the usual Sunday lectionary, and singing songs which might seem to some more fitting for the season of Advent than for the middle of summer. The members of the Lodge do so because modern American Freemasonry regards both St. John the Evangelist and St. John the Baptist referring to them jointly as “the Holy Saints John of Jerusalem.”

Why, you may ask, would Masons, who insist that our fraternity is not a religious institution, thus venerate these saints? Why would Masons gather together in worship on this particular Sunday?

As every Mason knows, one of the symbols found in a lodge room is a certain point within a circle, bounded by two parallel lines, with the volume of sacred law displayed atop the circle. Christopher L. Hodapp, the author of the book Freemasons For Dummies, has suggested that this is one of the least understood Masonic emblems. On his internet blog, he writes:

The symbol is actually based on an old astrological and alchemical symbol. The point in the center represented the Earth, which was thought to be the center of the universe. The heavens were believed to spin around the Earth, represented by the circle. The two lines represented the summer and winter solstices, the longest and shortest days of the year. For thousands of years, these days were celebrated as pagan feast days all over the world, and they were especially important to farming societies, because they were the astronomical methods of determining planting seasons.

In about 300A.D., the [Christian] Church began to dedicate popular pagan feast days to the saints. June 24th, the longest day of the year, was declared St. John the Baptist day, while December 27th, the shortest day, was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. Collectively, Masons refer to them as the Holy Saints John.

Operative Freemasonry was first developed when Roman Catholicism was the prevailing religion, and these feast days continued under the Church of England. It was common for guilds and other trade groups to adopt a patron saint or two. Some Masons picked both Saints John, and over the centuries Masons commonly celebrate their feast days with banquets. And curiously, even though Freemasonry today is non-denominational and non-sectarian, American Masons have retained these customs of old. ….

John the Baptist was zealous, while John the Evangelist was learned, and by picking both of them as patron saints, Masons symbolically united both passion and reason.

The symbol also shows the Volume of Sacred Law at the top. In Masonry, the point represents the individual, and the circle is the boundary of his actions. Taken as a whole, the symbol implies that a Mason should consult the sacred texts of his own religion to achieve the proper balance between passion and intensity on one side, and knowledge and education on the other. In other words, he should balance education, excitement and faith to effectively subdue his passions. In a way, it is a graphic representation of the conscience.

Zeal and learning, passion and reason, excitement and education … the effective blending of these supposed opposites into effective action and ministry … this is what is going on here at St. Paul’s Parish today.

It is all well and good to be zealous and passionate about the need to feed people, but to get it done people like Nick and the other Free Farmers’ Market leaders have to do the reasonable work, really the hard work of figuring out what’s needed, ordering it, stocking it, and organizing volunteers to actually get it done. The proper balance between passion and intensity on one side, and knowledge and education on the other, effectively accomplishes the mission of the church – people are fed.

It is all well and good to love to knit and want share what one makes with the excitement and intensity that our knitting circles display, but without someone to take on the job of learning where the shawls, the gloves and scarves, and the baby blankets are needed, and how to get them there, all that excitement and intensity goes nowhere. The proper balance between passion on one side, and knowledge and education on the other, effectively accomplishes the mission of the church – the ill are comforted and lonely seamen are kept warm.

Today, in commemorating St. John the Baptist, we honor the zealous, passionate, excited side of this equation; we honor the forerunners, the visionaries, the pioneers, the people who “dream dreams and see visions,” those who go to the mountain-top and cry out “Behold!”

It has been said of visionaries that what they do is make the untrue become true. Author Ken Zaretsky puts it this way:

If you say something you know isn’t true and just leave it at that, then you are a liar.

If you believe that untruth, then you are delusional.

On the other hand, if you say something you know isn’t true; then not only believe it but also make it true, you are a visionary! Visionaries are deserving of praise and accolades from friends, peers and the public.

There are fine lines between liars, delusional individuals and visionaries. After all, what is the difference between making something up and making something up?

The first difference is intent. A liar conjures an image. He or she might see it. He might get others to believe in it. But he doesn’t believe it himself. The liar has no intention to make anything happen.

Like the liar, the delusional person also has an image. He or she can see it and, unlike the liar, believe it. It’s possible that she can also get others to believe in it. But she doesn’t do anything beyond believing because, to the delusional person, the image already exists in reality.

A visionary has an image of the ideal. The visionary sees the image, believes it and gets other people to believe in it. Then the visionary works to make the image come to life.

Visionaries see and proclaim an inspired and inspiring positive picture of the future, with a clear sense of direction as to how to get there. They keep communicating the vision to create an energy that sometimes they, but more often others, use to bring their vision into physical reality. Nelson Mandela, for example, clearly held a positive vision of a racially harmonious South Africa during his 28 years in jail and helped bring it into reality peacefully – to the amazement of the world.

Visionaries inspire use to be better than we are and help us identify with what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” This was the power of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Visionaries often have the ability to see higher spiritual forces at work behind the scenes of events, and they align with the vision of these redemptive forces. Both George Washington and Winston Churchill spoke about the help they received from a “guiding hand.” Churchill said, “…we have a guardian because we serve a great cause, and we shall have that guardian as long as we serve that cause faithfully.”

Vision, it has been said, is an energy field that brings new realities into form. Visionaries tap into and transmit that energy to people, giving us a new sense of hope and confidence, helping us to believe in ourselves and work to create a better world.

More than twenty years ago I had a vision of the priesthood, a sense of call to the ministry of hope and confidence, to the work of creating a better world, to the gift of sharing with God’s people their times of joy and their times of misfortune and sorrow, to the privilege of presiding at our faith’s most significant acts of worship, and to the simple good fun of participating in all the small but meaningful ways the church forms community. I am very grateful for every minute of the twenty years that I have lived out that vision in this and other parishes, but let me be honest and tell you that after twenty years of managing tight budgets, chairing vestry meetings, rehearsing and solemnizing weddings, baptizing babies, leading bible studies, sitting beside hospital beds, and burying the dead … it’s time for a break. So I am also especially grateful for the opportunity to take these next several weeks of time away from the church.

I do so confident that this church will do just fine without me, that things will be (as I am wont to say) “Just peachy!” I know that they will be because our vestry, our lay leadership is a bunch of visionaries. They dream dreams and see visions and generate the energy make them come true. They are neither liars nor delusional, what they purpose they accomplish. They have dreamed a dream and seen a vision of a growing St. Paul’s Parish with and expanded and improved building, and they are going to see it accomplished. They have a clear sense of direction as to how to get there and over these coming weeks they will communicate that vision in way that I am sure will create the energy that they and you will use to bring that vision into reality.

Today, in commemorating St. John the Baptist, we honor the zealous, passionate, and excited leadership of the church; we honor the forerunners, the visionaries, the pioneers, the people who “dream dreams and see visions,” those who go to the mountain-top and cry out “Behold!”

The Vestry has begun closing its meetings with a prayer for vision attributed to Sir Francis Drake, the explorer who claimed North America on behalf of Queen Elizabeth the First and whose ship’s chaplain offered the first Christian worship on North American soil. I’m going to close my sermon today with that same prayer.

Let us pray:

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrived safely because we sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim. Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes, to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love. Amen.

(This sermon is also posted at The Theology Diner)

What’s at the Core? (Sermon for St. John’s Day)

On June 27, 2010, my parish hosted the local Masonic Lodge at its later worship service, as explained in the sermon below. The lessons for the Revised Common Lectionary for the day (Pentecost 5, Proper 8C) were 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; and Luke 9:51-62. At the later service, however, we used the lessons from the Episcopal Church’s Common of Saints for the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist: Isaiah 40:1-11; Acts 13:14b-26; Psalm 85:7-13; and Luke 1:57-80. The following sermon was written to preach at both services with either set of lessons.


Today at the 10:00 a.m. service we will be commemorating St. John the Baptist.

We are hosting the local lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, whose custom it is to attend church together on the Sunday closest to the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, also called “St. John’s Day.” In the Gospel lesson for that service, John’s father, the priest Zechariah (who had been rendered mute before John’s birth), utters a prophecy on the day John is circumcised. He says to his infant son:

You, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke, the writer of the Gospel, then concludes, “The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”
In our Gospel at this [our early] service, we encounter Jesus, John’s cousin and Lord, the one for whom John was the forerunner, as Jesus encounters a variety of people who offer to follow him … after taking care of other business. Again, our Gospel writer is Luke:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

These two stories from Luke’s Gospel speak to us about what is central and what is not.

Today in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, and indeed in nearly all mainline Christian denominations, we are engaged (as we have always been) in a discussion about what is central to the Christian faith … what is core doctrine and what is not?

Some centuries ago, someone in the church laid down the maxim, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This has been attributed variously to St. Augustine, to John Wesley the founder of Methodism, to John Amos Comenius the founder of the Moravian Church, and to Peter Mederlein a 16th Century Lutheran theologian. I don’t really know who first said it, but it’s a good rule to follow. The problem is in determining what is central to religion, what is essential, and what (on the other hand) is peripheral or non-essential.

Today’s Gospel stories, whether of John the forerunner or Jesus his cousin and Lord, are guides for us in considering that question.

John was the son of a priest for whom one would have thought the religious establishment was central and essential. As Luke tells us, he “grew and became strong in the spirit.” As the son of a priest, it would have been expected that he would become a priest – the priesthood in Ancient Judaism was hereditary. Like his father, he would be expected to learn the rituals and to take his regular place in the rotation of priests serving in the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple, to be at the very center of power in the Jewish religion. Instead, he retreated into “the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”

In the religious world of John’s and Jesus’s day there were two important and powerful groups of Jewish leaders, both of whom are mentioned in the Gospels: The Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees were a priestly group, Aaronites, associated with the leadership of the Temple in Jerusalem; they claimed descent from Zadok, the high priest who had anointed King Solomon. Their approach to religion focused primarily on properly performing the Temple rites; they emphasized that portion of the Law of Moses which dealt with sacrificial ritual and did not believe in an afterlife. Most importantly, they rejected the so-called “Oral Torah” or “Talmud”, which concerned the daily life of Jews and which was revered by the Pharisees. For the Sadducees the center of power and authority, the Temple and its rituals was all important. John was, by birth, a Sadducee but he rejected all of that.

The Pharisees, in contrast to the Sadducees, embraced and emphasized the “Oral Torah” and its many and detailed rules for daily life, and they did believe in a resurrection and an afterlife. The Pharisees are the ancestors of today’s Rabbinic Jews with their rules of “keeping kosher.” The Pharisees believed that all Jews in their ordinary life, and not just the Temple priesthood or Jews visiting the Temple, should observe rules and rituals concerning home life, purification, and family relationships. For them, the center of religious power and authority was the Synagogue where the everyday Jew was taught to obey, and where they the Pharisees enforced, the rules of daily living.

Jesus the Rabbi was probably a Pharisee, or at least more sympathetic to their understanding of religion than that of the Sadducees. Nonetheless, in the encounters between Jesus and the three persons who want to follow him in the regular lectionary Gospel today, we find Jesus rejecting precisely these things: he has no “home life” (for unlike a bird or a fox, he has no home!); he has no concern for purity (“let the dead bury the dead”); and he couldn’t care less about family relationships (turning back to bid a parent farewell renders one unworthy of following him). Just as John, who would blaze his trail, rejected his Saddusaic heritage and its concept of the center of religious life, Jesus rejects his Pharisaic origins and its understanding of the core of religion.

Or were they? Were they rejecting their roots entirely or were they instead rejecting those peripheral things which those traditions had wrongly placed in the center of the Jewish faith? Were they instead rejecting the non-essentials with which others had covered over and obscured the essential? The non-essentials, whether ritual temple sacrifice or kosher laws of daily life, were central to the power structures of the day, but not to religion as John and Jesus saw it.

The Sadducees had put Temple ritual and sacrificial system at the center of their version of the Jewish faith. John rejected all of that. When the Sadducees and the Pharisees came out to see what he was doing at the Jordan River, he called them both a “brood of vipers” and admonished them to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”
“The answer to sin,” he said, “is not offering some animal on the Temple altar! The answer to sin is repentance, turning back toward God! Having a contrite heart and washing here in the Jordan is more effective than any Temple sacrifice.” “Repent!” he said, because “one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

That One, his cousin Jesus, also encountered the Sadducees and the Pharisees together. On one occasion the Sadducees put to him a rather silly question about the afterlife, imagining a woman who had seven husbands: Whose wife would she be in the here-after? Jesus dealt handily with that question and was then asked by a Pharisee, “What is the greatest commandment?”

Most folks understand that question to mean “Which of the Ten Commandments is most important?” or “Which of the many many rules of daily living in the Talmud is most important?” I believe that Pharisee was asking something very different. I believe he was asking, “Is the Saddusaic emphasis on the Laws of ritual sacrifice and Temple rite the central core of our religion, or is the Pharisaic emphasis on living a pure and holy daily life with all its minute rules at the core of our faith?”

And Jesus answered in a way that made it quite clear that he and his cousin John were right on the same track. “Neither,” was his answer.
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

God was his answer, as it had been John’s answer and as it should be our answer.

The essential core of our faith is love of God and those whom God loves. About that we are and must be united! Everything else, temple rituals, religious rites, rules of daily living and purity of conduct, questions of whether to use vestments or not, what color they should be if we do, who can be ordained or not, who can be married or not, whether to use candles or not, whether to have music, and if we do whether it can be accompanied by musical instruments, and all the other things we debate …. those are peripheral, the non-essential. With regard to those we can disagree and we must give each other the liberty to differ. And in all things we can and must treat one another with charity and good will. As St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law with regard to such things.”

“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Amen.


(Copyright 2010, The Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston)