Our gospel lesson is the shortened version of Jesus’ commission to the twelve as he sends them out to do missionary work. As he continues with their instructions he tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” and then he warns them that those who follow him are likely to face all sorts of terrible strife, including bitterness and enmity within families.
“Brother will betray brother to death,” he says, “and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved.”
It’s an odd lesson, I suppose, for Father’s Day, but of course Father’s Day isn’t on the church calendar and the Lectionary doesn’t take it into account. It’s simply a coincidence that this lesson about discord between fathers and sons should come up this morning, just as it’s a coincidence that the Old Testament lesson about the promise of a child to the elderly and barren couple Abraham and Sarah should be in the Lectionary rota today.
This sermon was first preached on Easter Sunday, 2001, at St. Francis of Assisi in the Pines Episcopal Church, Stilwell, Kansas, where I was rector from July 1993 to June 2003. I had thought it lost when that parish abandoned its internet domain after I left that position. However, at the urging of a friend, I searched for it on the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine,” and was surprised to find it. I have updated some of the references and corrected some mistakes to publish it here. I have always thought it a pretty good sermon, and I guess others have thought so, too: in the course of researching sources to update the footnotes, I found that a rather large chunk of it had been reproduced in full, without attribution, as the pastor’s 2019 Easter letter in the newsletter of a Roman Catholic parish in Scotland.[A] (As my fellow Anglican cleric Charles Caleb Cotton wrote in 1824 – and Oscar Wilde later quoted and expanded – “Imitation is the sincerest [form] of flattery.”[B])
Easter is a joke. Amen.
(The Preacher steps out of the pulpit, perhaps even returns to his chair, then returns to the pulpit.)
OK … I guess I should explain that. What is a “joke”? Princeton University’s WordNet Dictionary says, in one of its definitions, that a joke is an “activity characterized by good humor.” Can you think of a better way to characterize the resurrection of Jesus than as an “activity characterized by good humor”? The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth was God’s activity of the highest and best humor!
I wrote in our newsletter, The Canticle, that the Sunday we call “Easter” is really not a separate feast day; it is the third part of a three-day celebration that begins at sundown on the previous Thursday, the day we call “Maundy.” This three-day celebration is called by an ancient Latin name, “the Triduum.” The Triduum is a single celebration in three acts. We have arrived at Act Three in the drama of redemption.
While making a presentation at a conference about teaching English as a second language, an expert in the field remarked that one of the difficulties is that there are many instances in English when a double-negative renders positive meaning and this is confusing for non-English speakers. “It’s fortunate,” she said, “there’s no way in English that a double positive can convey negative meaning.”
From the back of the room a voice spoke up, “Yeah, right.”
Now when that story is written, the sarcasm of that double positive giving negative meaning is hard to indicate; in fact, it is impossible. And yet it will probably be understood by a native speaker. For the non-English speaker, however, discerning the sarcasm and humor is difficult. Inflection and tone of voice can and do drastically alter meaning and understanding.
Lenten Journal, Day 14
She was known to her friends as “Jo” or “Josie”. She was Josephina Magdalena Ekaterina von Binkerstaff-Wigglesbutt, Countess von Binkerstaff. Jo was a wealthy heiress (the Stilwell Wigglesbutts, you know) who, like Lady Grantham of Downton Abbey, had married into a failing aristocratic family (the Blaues Tel von Binkerstaffs) to prop up their fortunes. Widowed early, she became a patron of arts endowing several museums in her late husband’s memory.
She was also our first cocker spaniel, a stray we adopted while living in Blue Valley, Kansas (hence the “Blaues Tel” part of her story). We still remember Jo with considerable love and refer to her as “the best dog ever.” With Josephine began our tradition of inventing silly aristocratic names and outrageous histories for our canines.
Lenten Journal, Day 3
I have a morning ritual; I suppose everyone does. I get up in the darkness of 5 a.m. and carefully, quietly walk down the stairs from our bedroom to the den and kitchen (a combined “great room” as our house is laid out). I turn on the coffee maker which has been set up the night before, then I sit down in my recliner to await its task completion. My dog, Archbishop Dudley, a black cocker spaniel, rouses himself (he sleeps in the den) and comes to me; I lift him onto my lap and the two of us fall asleep.
When the coffee maker wakes me with its signal that the brew is ready, I put the dog to floor, slip a coat onto me and a leash onto him, and go for a short walk around our cul-de-sac. The dog does what he must and we return home; he gets his breakfast and I get my first cup of coffee along with a handful of pills. While I drink it, I read scan my online subscriptions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, and (occasionally) the Los Angeles Times, and read a few news reports and op-ed pieces. Then I check out Facebook.
Christology is one of those odd words of the Christian tradition that one doesn’t hear much in church but which one hears a lot in academic circles. Christology is defined as “the field of study within Christian theology which is primarily concerned with the ontology and person of Jesus as recorded in the canonical Gospels and the epistles of the New Testament.” That’s really helpful, isn’t it? Begs the questions, “What is theology? What is ontology? What is a ‘canonical Gospel’?”
Christology in its basic form is just the attempt answer some deceptively simple questions: Who was Jesus? Who is Jesus? Who will Jesus be? What did he do? What is he doing now? What will he do in the future?
Today’s lessons from the Prophet Isaiah, the Letter to the Hebrews, and the Gospel according to Mark present us with three different Christologies: the suffering servant of Isaiah, the high priest following in the footsteps of the Old Testament character of Melchizedek, and the kingly messiah following in the line of David the Shepherd King of Israel. Jesus debunks the latter in his conversation with James and John, the sons of Zebedee, but it remains a prominent feature of Christian understanding. All three shape our understanding of who Jesus was, who he is today, and who he will be tomorrow.
Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.” They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times!
But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.
Before coming to Ohio, my wife and I lived in the Kansas City metroplex. For reasons that still remain mysterious, I was somehow added to the mailing list for the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas, which is called The Leaven. When we moved here, I expected that that would stop, but somehow they got my change of address, so I still get The Leaven. I suppose I could have asked to be taken off, but I enjoy reading some of the articles, especially a column written by the paper’s editor-in-chief Father Mark Goldasich. Fr. Goldasich often relates stories of people from around the archdiocese; some are funny, some are touching, and some, like this recently offered story, bring tears to your eyes:
One day a young man was shopping in a supermarket when he noticed an elderly lady who seemed to be following him. Whatever aisle he turned down, she turned down. Whenever he stopped, she stopped. He also had the distinct impression that she was staring at him.
As the man reached the checkout, sure enough, the lady was right there. Politely, he motioned for the woman to go ahead of him.
Turning around, the elderly lady said, “I hope I haven’t made you feel uncomfortable. It’s just that you look so much like my late son.”
Touched, the young man said, “Oh, no, that’s OK.”
“I know that it’s silly,” continued the lady, “but could I ask you to do something for me? Could you call out, ‘Goodbye, Mom,’ as I leave the store? It would make me feel so happy.”
The young man was glad to oblige. After the lady went through the checkout and was on her way out of the store, he called out, “Goodbye, Mom!”
The lady turned back, smiled and waved.
You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.” Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”
From the Psalter:
Clouds and darkness are round about him,
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary [Morning Psalm] – Psalm 97:2 (BCP Version) – August 12, 2014)
“Comedian Robin Williams, the Oscar and Grammy winner known for his rapid-fire delivery, was found dead in his home after an apparent suicide, authorities said.” — NBC News
Five AM Walking the Dog
The clown is silent; the laughter stilled.
The last mad improvisation was fatal;
Often wisdom behind silliness
but I cannot see any sense
hidden in this.
In desperation, the jester demanded
attention in a world whose madness
was crazier than his own; the clouds
and darkness hiding any glimpse,
any chance of righteousness, no
justice visible, no
hope perceived, no
more wrestling with the black dog
A world in need of jesters
is one poorer as I walk beside
my black dog and try to make sense.
Moon glows small silvery yellow
disc behind mist behind
clouds behind dark behind
chill beyond thought beyond
sense below perception below
knees kneeling on cold wet
grass weeping beneath
the silence of the jest
praying in the darkness beneath
the silence of the clouds.
“Mork, calling Orson;
Mork, calling Orson . . . .”
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.