That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ireland (page 1 of 6)

Our Immigrant Lord: For the Parish Newsletter, December 2016

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

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thirstednot-jesusindesert2A few years ago I read an essay about the trials and tribulations of relocation, particularly from region to region within our country. In it the author made the comment that when relocating to the South, there were two invariably asked questions of the newcomer: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” These, he said, are quintessentially Southern inquiries which serve to position the interrogated in a place’s social network and milieu. The assumptions, of course, are that no one would relocate to a town where they did not have “people” (i.e., family members) and that everyone goes to church somewhere.

I’m not sure, after making several regional locations myself, that those are only Southern questions. They seem to be universally asked, in one form or another, of newcomers to every American community. In fact, they may be quintessentially human questions asked around the world!

In 2005, when Evelyn and I made our first trip to Ireland, one of my goals was to find distant relatives, members of the Funston clan whose ancestors had stayed there when my great-great-grandfather had come to America. So we visited the places I believed he might have come from, the Funston township lands of Counties Donegal, Tyrone, and Fermanagh. During our stay in the city of Donegal we happened to visit a woolen goods store run by a delightful man named Sean McGinty. We entered the shop just as Sean was closing up for the day and he graciously stayed open so we could peruse his sweaters, tweeds, and other goods. Of course, that meant he was going to be late to dinner . . . and, as a result, his wife Mary came looking for him.

We’d been in conversation with Sean before Mary arrived and told him of my search for Funstons. He said he thought there might be some living in Pettigo, a small village on the border of County Donegal and County Fermanagh. When Mary came into the shop, he drew her into our conversation and asked her, “Mary, you’re from Pettigo. Were there any Funstons living there?” She thought for a moment and then replied, “Aye! But they weren’t our people.” I knew immediately what she meant: they weren’t members of the Catholic Church. And that would have been right! My ancestor was a member of the Anglican Church of Ireland and his descendants are still Anglicans!

So there were those same two concerns: “Who are your people?” and “Where do you go to church?” They are the questions still being asked of newcomers to our communities wherever we may be, whether we are in the South of the United States, in Ohio, or somewhere in Europe. As so many people are on the move because of war, political unrest, and economic necessity, as so many are labeled “immigrant” and “refugee,” they are increasingly divisive and exclusive questions.

“Who are your people?” . . . “Where do you worship?” . . . What is your ethnic background? . . . What is your religion? . . . Instead of being asked to position the newcomer within the social milieu of his or her new home, the questions and their answers too often lead to the erection of social barriers, sometimes even physical walls. Instead of being welcoming questions of inclusion, they are the defensive or belligerent interrogations of exclusion.

Recently in the Christian press, particularly those journals which cater to a more conservative audience, there has been a lot of discussion about the assertion that Jesus was an immigrant and refugee. It is a common enough hermeneutic drawn from the story of the Holy Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt as related in Matthew’s Gospel: “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” (Matt 23:13 NRSV) It occurred to me that it may be a useful reminder that the Son of God was an immigrant from the very start, that he was not and is not a native resident of our world; he is from elsewhere, from heaven, from the very Throne of God.

As Dr. John Marshall, a Southern Baptist minister in Missouri, recently wrote: “Our Savior was an immigrant. He left His home in Heaven to become a stranger in the very world He created. There was no room for Him in the Bethlehem inn (Lk 2:7). He came to His own people, but they received Him not (Jn 1:11).” (Marshall) As we prepare once again to welcome him in the annual celebration of his Incarnation, we do well to remember that and to remember that he remained an immigrant and a refugee throughout his life.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, a land dominated by the Roman empire through a client ruler named Herod the Great. Apparently Mary, Joseph, and Jesus remained there for a couple of years before fleeing to Egypt where they lived until Herod died about four to six years after that. When they left Egypt, they returned not to Bethlehem but to Nazareth in Galilee, which was under the rule of Herod’s son, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. Jesus grew up, then, as a resident of Galilee; when he undertook his ministry to Jerusalem (which is in Judea), although he was returning to the country of his birth, he was an immigrant into Judea.

Judea, by the way, during Jesus’ life and ministry was ruled not by a local king but directly by the Romans. Herod the Great was succeeded by his son Archelaus, who had the title of “Ethnarch of Judea.” Archelaus died less than ten years after succeeding his father. After his death, a series of Roman governors or “Prefects” ruled, the last of whom during Jesus’ life was Pontius Pilate.

In truth, Jesus spent most of his time on the move. Both Matthew and Luke report him saying to a potential follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20; Lk 9:58) Jesus was not a settled person and, interestingly enough, neither are his followers (us) supposed to be. This goes back to the Jewish roots of our faith, a reminder of which is found in the Torah’s instructions for eating the Passover feast: “You shall eat it [with] your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.” (Ex 12:11) We are always to be ready to be on the move.

Our parish patron, St. Paul, takes up this theme in his letters. He reminded the Philippians that we are not to set our mind on earthly things because “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philip 3:19-20) And he promised the Ephesians that we are “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” (Eph 2:19) Theologians Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon expanded on this notion in their book Resident Aliens (Abingdon, 1989), arguing that today the church is not “a service club within a generally Christian culture,” but rather “a colony within an alien society.” (pg. 115)

How might this inform and shape our Advent preparations and our Christmas celebrations? What if we understood that we are not getting ready to welcome Jesus into our settled existence, our cozy homes and our warm hearths, our abundant feasts and our lovely dining rooms? Rather, we should be preparing for our immigrant Lord Jesus to invite us to join him on the road, to eat with him hastily consumed meals wearing our sandals and holding our walking sticks, to sleep with him in places where we have no place to put our heads. What might we do differently to get ready for the anniversary of his Incarnation and for his promised return? What might we do differently for all who, like him, are refugees and immigrants?

Who are our people? The people of God whoever they are and wherever they may be, temporarily settled in “a colony within an alien society” or on the road. Where do we worship? Wherever we find our Lord, in church, in a refugee camp, in places we cannot even imagine. Every year Advent and Christmas challenge us with what Hauerwas and Willimon call “the greatest challenge facing the church in any age” which is to be “a living, breathing, witnessing colony of truth.”

May that challenge be our blessing in 2016! May each of us, and all of us together, be living, breathing witnesses to the Truth!

(Note: The image is a digital painting by an internet blogger calling himself Horseman. I could find no further information about it or him.)
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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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

Restoring Wholeness: Sermon for Pentecost 17, RCP Proper 19C (11 September 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 19C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Exodus 32:7-14; Psalm 51:1-11; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; and St. Luke 15:1-10. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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little-lost-lamb-59319I’d like you all to take your Prayer Books in hand and turn with me to page 855 which is way in the back of the book in the section called The Catechism or Outline of the Faith. At the top of the page are three questions about the mission of the church and the answers to those questions that we as Episcopalians teach. I’m going to read the questions; I’d like you to read the answers:

Q. What is the mission of the Church?
A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.
Q. How does the Church pursue its mission?
A. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.
Q. Through whom does the Church carry out its mission?
A. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

Following those questions are a few more about the specific ministry of the various orders (lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons); I invite you to read those on your own.

For now, just keep in mind that the church’s mission is to restore people to unity with God and one another; we have a word for that – it’s called reconciliation. Remember that the church carries out that mission in prayer, worship, and proclamation, and by promoting justice, peace, and love. And, finally, remember that the church does so not as an institution, but through the individual ministries of its members, not as a collective like the Borg of Star Trek but as individuals with distinctive skills, talents, and interests (as Capt. Kathryn Janeway of the USS Voyager often instructed the former Borg drone Seven-of-Nine).

As you keep all that in mind, let me tell you a story about myself as a younger man, about thirty years younger. Back then I was not ordained; I was a practicing attorney living in Las Vegas, Nevada, with Evelyn and our children. Patrick was three years of age and Caitlin was one. One day I decided to take my son to the circus; more accurately, I took him to Circus Circus Casino. Now normally one does not take a 3-year-old to a casino, but Circus Circus is (or at least was) a special sort of casino. Housed in a building made to look like a “big top”, it had a mezzanine circling the gaming floor and on this mezzanine was an arcade filled with all the circus and carnival attractions you can name. Over the gaming floor was a trapeze rig on which gymnasts swung and flew with reckless abandon, while on the mezzanine midway barkers sought to attract patrons to shooting galleries, ring-toss games, and the like. My toddler was in awe of the whole thing.

We stopped for a few minutes to watch the trapeze artists and at some point I looked down and discovered that my son was no longer at my side. He was right there – and then he wasn’t! I know that most, if not all parents, have experienced something similar. That moment when your child has gone missing and you begin to experience every emotion known to humankind . . . in spades! Adrenaline courses through not only your body but your soul; you are in a physical and spiritual panic! “Where is my child!?!?” Fear and worry, hope and hopelessness, confusion and sadness . . . it’s all there, all jumbled together. It’s almost impossible to function and yet function you must; you have to find your child!

As it turned out, Patrick was only about eight feet away. The trapeze wasn’t nearly as exciting as the ring-toss game where, if his father had a good eye and a steady hand he might throw a plastic ring around a jelly jar and Patrick would get the gold fish living therein. When, after an eternity of maybe two or three minutes, I finally found him, a whole new rush of mixed emotions set in – relief, anger, joy, love – and I found myself kneeling on the floor holding him by the shoulders and yelling at him, adding to the circus noise of the crowded casino.

A security guard about my age, probably a father himself, had seen my panicked search and started to come over, arriving about the same time that I’d found Patrick. As I was shouting my lecture about not leaving Dad’s side, the guard put his hand on my shoulder . . . and that’s all it took. It calmed me down; the anger fled and the relief, joy, and love flooded in. I hugged my son tightly to me and vowed never to lose him again.

If you’re a parent, perhaps you’ve had a similar experience; as I said, I imagine most if not all parents have done so. Or perhaps you’ve been through that situation where you’ve worked for days on a project at work or school only to have a co-worker or a fellow student do something that renders all your effort of no worth at all. You’ve just lost all that time and work, and the feeling of futility that washes over you is just mind-numbing and drains you of all sense of worth and well-being. If you could, you’d drop-kick that colleague right out the front door. But then, perhaps another workmate, perhaps a supervisor or a teacher, makes a gesture or says a word and you realize that you really have no reason for anger. This is just the way things go sometimes and whatever the other worker or student may have done probably wasn’t done to hurt you; that’s just life. You pick up and you move on.

If you’ve had experiences like these, you know how the shepherd or the woman in Jesus’ parables this morning felt. You know how Yahweh felt at Sinai in our story from the Book of Exodus.

In the latter, Moses has left the Hebrews encamped at the base of Mt. Sinai while he has climbed the mountain to converse with Yahweh; he will eventually be bringing down the Law, the Commandments etched on stone by God’s own self. Moses is on the mountain for forty days and forty nights during which the Hebrews begin to feel themselves abandoned. They probably go through that whole gamut of emotions that a lost child, or a parent looking for a lost child, feels . . . but this story really isn’t about them . . . . Anyway, they feel abandoned because of Moses’ long absence and so they turn to his brother, Aaron the Priest, and say, “Make us a god!”

Aaron complies; Aaron seems like the type who is always easy going and willing to compromise and so he does as they ask, taking their jewelry and gold money and fashioning a god for them, the Golden Calf. This comforts them and so they begin to celebrate with revelry, the Bible tells us; that’s singing and dancing and some things we don’t generally talk about in church.

Meanwhile, Yahweh distracted by his conversation with Moses doesn’t notice his children wandering off. When he looks down, however, he finds them gone and, worse, when he finds them they aren’t just distracted by a ring-toss game and some goldfish. They are worshiping an idol!

Shauna Hannan, Associate Professor of Homiletics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California, says that we should stop referring to this text as the “golden calf” incident and begin calling it the “God changes God’s mind at the request of Moses” incident. (Hannan) One of the things that strikes me about this incident is how very much Yahweh acts like an angry parent in this episode.

Something I found myself doing early in parenthood was referring to our kids as “my son” or “my daughter” when they were behaving well, but when they misbehaved I would turn to Evelyn and say, “Do something about your son (daughter)!” Back in Chapter 20, Yahweh said to the Hebrews, “I am the Lord your God, [I’m the one] who brought you out of the land of Egypt,” (v. 2) but now he says to Moses, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.” (32:7) I can really relate to Yahweh’s doing that!

And not only does God sort of disown these folks! Prof. Hannan points out that

God calls them names: stiff-necked people. And worse, God wants to be left alone to wallow in anger and to “consume” the idolaters. If that is not enough, God seems to bribe Moses to leave him alone (32:10). If Moses does so, God will make of him a great nation. Anger, tirade, blame, name-calling, destruction, bribery; this is not God at God’s best. (Hannan)

But Moses steps in like that security guard at Circus Circus, or like the supervisor at work or the teacher at school, and says a calming word. “Turn from your fierce anger,” he says, “Calm down. Remember your promises to Abrahan, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses figuratively lays a hand on Yahweh’s shoulder. Callie Plunket-Brewton, who teaches at the University of North Alabama, says Moses here serves as a model for the Church, bearing witness to God’s faithful compassion and urging reconciliation between God and God’s people, although in this peculiar circumstance it is Yahweh himself to whom Moses is witnessing! (Plunket-Brewton)

Five years ago, on the Sunday closest to the anniversary of the September 11 tragedy at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, of which today is the 15th anniversary, I was invited to preach at St. Paul’s Church of Ireland Parish in the town of Banagher, County Offaly, Ireland. The lessons for that day were from the first chapter of the Book of Proverbs, in which Lady Wisdom cries out to passersby, “How long will you love being naive?” (Prov. 1:22) and from the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel in which Peter tries to stop Jesus from going to Jerusalem and Jesus responds, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (Mk 8:33)

I suggested to my Irish audience that there is a parallel between the way the British authorities responded to Ireland’s Easter Uprising of 1916 and the way we in America responded to the actions of Al-Qaeda on September 11. They and we were naive, and when they and we experienced the tragic loss of life and the overwhelming loss of control that those events represented, we did, indeed, set our minds on human things, on revenge and retribution, rather than on divine things, on restoring all people to unity with God and each other, on promoting justice, peace, and love. So Ireland found itself in nearly a century of sectarian strife and eventually the deadly and devastating Troubles of Northern Ireland. And we have found ourselves 15 years later still battling terrorists, still fighting in the Gulf States, still engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq in the longest armed combat in our nation’s history, and trying not to get deeply involved in the directly consequent civil war in Syria.

If only someone had raised their voice, if only someone had laid their hands on our nations’ shoulders and said, “Turn from your fierce anger. Calm down. Remember your promises . . . .” Eventually the Irish and the British were able to end their bitter relationship and the Troubles which made Northern Ireland a hell-on-earth; we hope and pray that we will be able to do the same in and with the Gulf States and those who live there.

I said that the reading from Exodus is really not a story about the Hebrews. It is a story about God, about Yahweh, a god who understands those feelings of loss, who knows what it is to feel loss-engendered anger and to want retribution and revenge, and who turns away from those things to seek reconciliation instead.

The parables that Jesus tells in our selection from Luke’s Gospel are also stories about God, about God and loss, and not (as we often think) about us. Though they are often called the parables of the “lost sheep” and the “lost coin,” they ought to be called the parable of the shepherd who went in search of a sheep and of the woman who cleaned her house looking for a coin. That would take the focus off the thing that is loss and put it properly on the one who does the finding.

However, we do have to consider the things that are lost and what that means. Karoline Lewis, who writes a weekly internet column about the lectionary texts entitled Dear Working Preacher, noted this week that “the state of being lost is a rather ambiguous determination in life.” Being lost can mean being misplaced, or misdirected, or misguided, or wasted. “A definition of ‘lost’ seems as broad as its incidences: unable to be found; not knowing where you are or how to get to where you want to go; unable to find your way; no longer held, owned, or possessed.” (Lewis)

On Thursday afternoon I was driving to Brook Park and listening to Terry Gross’s NPR show Fresh Air as she interviewed an author named Steve Silberman about his book NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity. (Available online) As they talked about the autism spectrum, it occurred to me that there might be a similar continuum of “lostness” that could help us understand these bible lessons. It seems to me that at one end of such a lostness spectrum are the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai. They are lost by reason of their own decision; they are, as Yahweh said, stiff-necked people and their lostness is the consequence of their own actions, their own impatience, rejection, and alienation. In short, the Hebrews at the foot of Mt. Sinai are lost because of sin.

At the other end of the spectrum is the coin, about which we might ask, “How does a coin sin? How does a coin lose itself?” and the simple answer is that it can’t.

And somewhere in the middle of our lostness continuum is the sheep, who wandered away from the flock not out of rejection or alienation, but simply because sheep are rather dull-witted and naive. It has wandered off not through sinful intent, but through silly innocence.

The wonderful thing that these stories demonstrate is that the mechanism of lostness, the reason the Hebrews, the sheep, or the coin are lost, is irrelevant. What these stories show is that the one who feels their absence, the one who is concerned about their lostness, God, is going to find them. Influenced by the intervention of Moses, by his witness to God’s own ministry of reconciliation, “the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people,” and instead restored Godself to unity with them. The shepherd sought and found the lost sheep and rejoiced. The woman sought and found the lost coin and rejoiced. The emphasis in all these stories is on the finding and the restoration of relationship, on the one committed to that end.

Jennifer Copeland, a Methodist minister, wrote several years ago in The Christian Century magazine:

The lost sheep and the lost coin are more than the prized possessions of their owners; they are also parts of a whole. The sheep belongs to the flock and the coin to the purse; without them the whole is not complete. The search, then, is a quest for restoration and wholeness. In this sense, all of us who are part of God’s creation should be just as anxious as God until the lost are restored and we are made whole again by their presence. (Clean Sweep, The Christian Century, September 7, 2004, p. 20)

Prof. Hannan suggests that this emphasis on wholeness is also the “shocking and profoundly hopeful news” of the Exodus passage, the news “that God sticks with us; God continues to claim us as God’s own despite” everything. (Hannan)

On this 15th anniversary of those terrible events that are summed up in the simple numbers “9-11,” in this 13th year of armed conflict that has flowed from them, let us remember that our mission as a church, our mission as individual members of the church, has that same emphasis of reconciliation and wholeness:

The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ. The Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love. The church carries out its mission through the ministry of all its members.

In today’s Daily Office gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus admonishes his hearers, “Be reconciled to your brother or sister.” (Matt 5:24b) I can think of no better way to memorialize all who died September 11, 2001, and in the conflict and violence that has followed.

To close, I would like to offer a prayer for this anniversary co-authored by my friends Deacon Scott Elliott of the Diocese of Chicago and Fr. Bob Winter, a retired priest of this diocese.

Let us pray:

O God of mercy, justice, and love, you have taught us to love even those with whom we are at enmity: As we gather in the Name of your Son to celebrate your goodness and grace, we remember the great evil done in your Name on this day. In your mercy, relieve our hearts of the burden of shock and horror and help us to remember that we, your children, are likewise called to be merciful; help us, as children of the Just One, to respond to your call to be people of justice; help us, as the beneficiaries of your love, to remember your command to love the whole world in your Name. All this we ask in the Name of the Prince of Peace. Amen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Joshua” Is Not a Plan for Government – From the Daily Office – July 26, 2014

From the Book of Joshua:

Joshua summoned all Israel, their elders and heads, their judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years; and you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. The Lord your God will push them back before you, and drive them out of your sight; and you shall possess their land, as the Lord your God promised you. Therefore be very steadfast to observe and do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right nor to the left, so that you may not be mixed with these nations left here among you, or make mention of the names of their gods, or swear by them, or serve them, or bow yourselves down to them, but hold fast to the Lord your God, as you have done to this day. For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations; and as for you, no one has been able to withstand you to this day. One of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, as he promised you. Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Joshua 23:2-11 (NRSV) – July 26, 2014)

Map of Palestine 2007For the past several days, the Daily Office Lectionary has required us to read sections of the Book of Joshua detailing the conquest of the land “from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west.” I have dutifully read those lessons every day. I have been deeply troubled by them and by the suggestion (which I have seen some make on Facebook and other online sources) that the “history” set out in the Book of Joshua demonstrates God’s approval of the conquest of “biblical Israel” by the modern state of Israel. I have avoided writing anything about these lessons in these daily reflections on this blog.

I’ve decided I cannot be silent any further. I must protest such a gross misunderstanding these stories and at least two distortions on which it is based.

First, the modern state of Israel is not the ancient nation of Israel. One cannot say that strongly enough. The modern state of Israel is NOT the ancient nation of Israel. That ancient nation ceased to exist centuries ago; its people were dispersed through several other nations — this is what the term “the diaspora” refers to — its government collapsed — its territory was absorbed into a series of empires.

The modern state of Israel was created in 1948 following the campaign by modern Zionists, themselves mostly secular rather than religious Jews, for a Jewish homeland. That campaign pre-dated the Nazi holocaust, but the holocaust gave the Zionist program added urgency. In November 1947, bowing to intense lobbying by Zionist organizations and after years of terrorist activities by the Jewish Haganah, Irgun, and Lehi organizations in Palestine, the UN General Assembly passed Resolution 181 calling for the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. The final vote was 33 to 13, with 10 abstentions and 1 absent. European Zionists welcomed the plan; the Arabs of Palestine rejected the vote immediately, but their objections were ignored.

In a civil war extending from 1947 into 1949, the modern state of Israel was born. Nearly one million Arabs lost their homes and become refugees in other parts of Palestine or elsewhere in the Arab world. The new government of Israel shortly passed two laws: the Law of Return (1950), which grants citizenship to any Jew from anywhere in the world who immigrates to Israel, and the Entry into Israel Law (1952), which prevents the return of Palestinian refugees.

This is the modern state of Israel. It is NOT the ancient nation of Israel. There is no biblical mandate for the modern country’s existence, nor for its laws and actions. It is a modern political reality which the world, including the Arab world, must accept and with which it must deal, but it is not a God-endorsed, biblically-mandated reality.

The second distortion is the idea that the Book of Joshua is history. It is not. Technically, it is what is known in literary scholarship as an etiological myth. These are stories which provide a mythological explanation for certain events and customs (or natural phenomena) the origin of which has long been forgotten or is not understood. Other stories of this type are the Greek Illiad and Odyssey, the Irish stories of Cúchulainn, or even the American folk tales of Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. Joshua is the ancient Hebrew equivalent of Achilles, Odysseus, Cúchulainn, or Paul Bunyan.

The Book of Joshua tells us something about human beings, something about human understandings of God, something about how humans behave in community (and in war); it tells us something of what some of the ancient Hebrews believed about their origins (which is partially contradicted by what others of them believed and is recorded in the Books of Chronicles). It tells us nothing, however, about actual historical events, nor about God’s endorsement or condemnation of them or of any of their enemies.

To suggest that modern governance of territory in the Middle East should be based on (or understood through the lens of) the Book of Joshua makes as much sense as suggesting that the modern governance of Greece should be based on Homer’s poems, that Irish foreign policy should be evaluated through the Cúchulainn stories, or that American environmental policy should derive from the tales of Paul Bunyan.

These are spiritual stories, not political ones. These are myths, not histories. These stories reveal truths, not facts. They should trouble us, perhaps inspire us, not direct us nor determine modern national governance.

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

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

I Arise Today: Sermon for Trinity Sunday – RCL, Year A – June 15, 2014

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On Trinity Sunday, the First Sunday after Pentecost, June 15, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Genesis 1:1-2:4a; Canticle 13 (Song of the Three Young Men 29-34); 2 Corinthians 13:11-13; and Matthew 28:16-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Triquetra

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity
Through belief in the Threeness
Through confession of the Oneness
Towards the Creator.

Although he probably didn’t actually write it, tradition credits St. Patrick of Ireland with the poetic charm called a “lorica” or “breastplate” which begins with these words, an invocation of the One, Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity whom we today celebrate. Since the time of St. Thomas a Becket, the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost has been set aside as day of special veneration of the Triune nature of the Godhead. Becket was consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury on the Sunday after Pentecost, and his first act was to decree that the anniversary of his consecration should be commemorated each year in honor of the Holy Trinity. This observance spread from Canterbury throughout the whole of the western church.

Patrick continues:

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension
Through the strength of his descent for the Judgment of doom.

Our Gospel lesson today is the end of Matthew’s Gospel. In it Christ on the mount of the ascension, just before going up into heaven, gives the eleven remaining Apostles what has come to be known as “The Great Commission”:

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.

For Matthew mountains are what Celtic Christianity refers to as “thin places,” those places where the separation between the spiritual realm and the physical realm is narrowest, where the veil which separates heaven from earth is nearly transparent so that we have the feeling we could reach out and touch, even enter, the holy presence.

On a mountain, in such a place, Jesus calls his followers to a new beginning. The Eleven, standing proxy for all the followers of Jesus then and now, for you and for me, are called to be people moving in mission. It is important for us to note that this mountain is in Galilee, the place where Jesus began his ministry, the place from which he went forth but to which he returned, the place where he was grounded and rooted. The disciples, too, are from this place and their grounding in the Christian story is this same country where their journey began. Like them, we are called to claim our origins, to be rooted in the place where we entered the Christian story, not to be permanently bound there, but to draw strength from it as we venture out in mission into the wider world beyond. The place where we began as members of the community of Christ is, to each of us, an important place of foundation and also, perhaps, a thin place where we encounter the Triune God.

Patrick’s lorica continues:

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim
In obedience to the Angels,
In the service of the Archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of Holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous [people].

Here, St. Patrick claims membership in the Christian community as his source of strength, as his foundation, as the community in which his mission is grounded and from which it is nurtured.

In a few moments, we will do something we have not done since Lent . . . join together in the General Confession, jointly and publically acknowledging that as individuals and as a community we have failed to live up to our obligations, that we have sinned “by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” And we will be forgiven that failure by God’s absolution which reconciles us and restores us to the community and fellowship of the Church. When, as presiding priest, I pronounce the words of absolution, I speak not on my own behalf but for the whole church to which Jesus gave what is called “the power of the keys” when he said to the Apostles, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Mt 16:19; cf. 18:18)

The words of absolution, which I speak as much to myself as to anyone, loose our sins, but also bind us into the beloved community:

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.

The community with which we are reconciled through confession and absolution is the community of the Trinity.

In the Triune Godhead all Christian community begins and finds its perfect expression. Humankind, as our Genesis reading reminded us, was and is created in the image of God. Thus, we are blessed with reason and skill; we are capable of experiencing emotion; and, like God, we have individual will and freedom of action. To be created in God’s likeness also means that we have the possibility of attaining holiness and immortality. To be created in God’s likeness further means that we are created to experience, participate in, and share interrelationship with others, for we are made in the image of the Holy Trinity.

The Doctrine of the Trinity is not a static principal of faith; it is the way in which the church, through the revelation of God, has come to appreciate and express of the significantly dynamic nature of God in the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If we have been created in the image of God and if God is Trinity then at the deepest level of our being, we are communitarian, created not for ourselves, but for one another, for relationship with each other and with God.

Many look at the mystery of the Trinity as if it were a problem in differential calculus. They seem to have the attitude that if one solves the equation, they will have figured out God and earned their entry into heaven. But, as Benedictine poet Killian McDonnell writes, God is not a problem to be solved:

God is not a problem
I need to solve, not an
algebraic polynomial equation
I find complete before me,

with positive and negative numbers
I can add, subtract, multiply.
God is not a fortress
I can lay siege to and reduce.

God is not a confusion
I can place in order by my logic.
God’s boundaries cannot be set,
like marking trees to fell.

God is the presence in which
I live, where the line between
what is in me and what
before me is real, but only God

can draw it. God is the mystery
I meet on the street, but cannot
lay hold of from the outside,
for God is my situation,

the condition I cannot stand
beyond, cannot view from a distance,
the presence I cannot make an object,
only enter on my knees.

Which brings us back to confession, to reconciliation, and to community.

The community to which and in which we are to be reconciled is not only that of the church or that of the human commonwealth, it is the community of the whole of creation. This is why our round of readings from Sacred Scripture bids us on Trinity Sunday to hear the long lesson from Genesis recounting the days of creation as each part of the natural order is ordained by God and pronounced good. This is the community that Matthew’s Jesus claims when he asserts that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” “Heaven and earth” is a figure of speech called a merism, a manner of speaking by which the whole of something is referenced by enumerating its constituents or traits. In the Genesis creation story, heaven and earth comprise a single entity — God’s whole creation. We are a part of that community of creation and it is to that universal community that Patrick next looks in his lorica:

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun
Brilliance of moon
Splendor of fire
Speed of lightning
Swiftness of wind
Depth of sea
Stability of earth
Firmness of rock.

The whole of nature comprises the foundational community of strength and support upon which a follower of Jesus may depend, because this community finds its strength and support in paradigm community of the Holy Trinity by whom it was creation.

Genesis insists that there is one God, who is sovereign and powerful. Unlike the gods of other peoples in the ancient Middle East, the God of Israel had no specified area of competence. The creation in the first chapter of Genesis is, as one commentator has said, “fiercely monotheistic,” yet even in its insistence on the one God, not limited in space or time, Genesis reveals the Trinity. From this god, the God, a wind, the Holy Spirit, came forth and spread across the void. This god, the God, created everything. This god, the God, simply spoke the Word (“in the beginning was the Word,” said John of Jesus) and creation happened. It is to this god, the God that Patrick looks for strength and protection:

I arise today
Through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s host to secure me
against snares of devils
against temptations of vices
against inclinations of nature
against everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and anear,
alone and in a crowd.

But we are never truly alone, nor are we ever really beset by these and the many other spiritual and physical dangers that Patrick goes on to list. St. Paul blessed and reminded his readers, “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit” are with us all. Jesus promised and reminded the Eleven (and through them, us), “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

These are not mere blessings or simple an appeals to get along with one another; these are exhortations to be the new creation that the Spirit of God equips us to be, a foundational community patterned on the Holy Trinity. Just as the Persons of the Divine Trinity are never alone, human beings are created with a need for one another, a need to communicate with one another. Our thirst to communicate ourselves to others, to be in authentic relationship with each other is never exhausted. The only difference between our community and that of the Trinity is that God’s Triune relationship is perfect and total whereas in our human reality communication and relationship are imperfect and partial. Paul’s appeal for the presence of Christ’s grace, God’s love, and the Spirit’s fellowship is an appeal to enter more to the divine love that creates and sustains the church, that perfects and completes our relationships. The Trinity is the very source of our life in Christ, and in Christ we are a new creation with whom Christ promises always to stay.

So in the lorica, Patrick extols the totality of Christ’s presence, the inescapabilty of Jesus’ promise, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Patrick writes:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie,
Christ where I sit,
Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of every [person] who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every [person] who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

Patrick concludes as he began, invoking the One, Holy, Blessed, and Glorious Trinity whom we today celebrate:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Towards the Creator.

“The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.” (2 Cor 13:14 as used to conclude the Daily Office in The Book of Common Prayer, page 102)

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

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

Reality of Death – From the Daily Office – June 13, 2014

From Ecclesiastes:

Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain; on the day when the guards of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the women who grind cease working because they are few, and those who look through the windows see dimly; when the doors on the street are shut, and the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low; when one is afraid of heights, and terrors are in the road; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails; because all must go to their eternal home, and the mourners will go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 (NRSV) – June 13, 2014)

Old Irish VillageI was listening to the radio yesterday. A golf club president was being interviewed about a professional golfer who had been killed in an air craft incident. I don’t golf or follow the game, so I have no idea who was being profiled, and that’s not relevant here. What is relevant is that the person being interviewed used the euphemism “he passed” to reference the golfer’s death.

This is a usage of the verb “to pass” that has become very prevalent in recent years. I don’t recall hearing it before the 1990s. “Passed away,” yes. Simple “passed,” no. And I find it interesting, but also disturbing and objectionable. Using “he passed” in this way is symptomatic of the modern denial of the reality of death. People don’t “pass.” They die! Unless killed by disease, accident, or misfortune, they grow old and die. And although our faith teaches us that “for [God’s] faithful people . . . life is changed, not ended,” it also acknowledged that “our mortal bodies will lie in death.” (Preface for a Eucharist in Commemoration of the Dead, BCP 1979, page 381) Modern culture, however, seems not to want to admit this, the truth and physical reality of death: according to contemporary society, human beings don’t die – they “pass.”

The refusal to face death was parodied by Monty Python’s Flying Circus in what has come to be know as The Pet Shop Sketch or The Dead Parrot Sketch in which John Cleese tries to return a deceased bird to a pet store run by Michael Palin, who denies that the bird is dead. When Palin tries to argue that the parrot is “pining,” an exasperated Cleese runs through several euphemisms for death:

‘E’s not pinin’! ‘E’s passed on! This parrot is no more! He has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace! If you hadn’t nailed ‘im to the perch ‘e’d be pushing up the daisies! ‘Is metabolic processes are now ‘istory! ‘E’s off the twig! ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisibile!!He’s f*ckin’ snuffed it!….. THIS IS AN EX-PARROT!!

Qoheleth demonstrates the difference between poetry and euphemism in this marvelous metaphoric description of old age and decline. This is a man who knows the decline of age, who has seen death up close. Rather than euphemize it and sanitize it and avoid it, he confronts it, describes it, embraces it, almost caresses it in the same way one would a spouse, a lover, an old friend. “The strong men are bent . . . the daughters of song are brought low . . . the grasshopper drags itself along and desire fails . . . the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken.” No “passing” here; this language faces the reality of death.

When I read this passage, I see in my mind’s eye a village in decline; in truth, I see the village portrayed in the Irish television (RTE) movie version of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s 1947 Irish-language play Cré na Cille (“Graveyard Clay”). The village, like the people in it, is old and tired; once vibrant life is slowed and winding down. Eventually, it will die as many of its residents have died. Like them, it is honestly facing (perhaps even looking forward to) its demise. (The play is narrated by the conversations of the dead beneath the soil of the cemetery. It’s a very imaginative piece of stagecraft and I do wish someone with an excellent understanding of Irish would translate it into English!)

Contemporary society seems to have lost the willingness to honestly face decline and death, to look forward to old age, to anticipate without dread the time when “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the breath returns to God who gave it.” Instead of caring for our elderly at home, we warehouse old folks in nursing homes. When they die, we probably aren’t even there. Their bodies are shrouded and taken out a side door so the other nursing home residents can’t see what is happening. We pay “funeral home” employees to handle the washing of dead bodies and their preparation for burial, a task that used to be done by family members. We have sanitized and euphemized death into invisibility.

And, having done so, I wonder if that is why it is so easy for us as a country to send young soldiers into war. I wonder if that is why we glorify guns and violent games, and do practically nothing to prevent the school, work place, and church shootings which plague us. By avoiding the reality of death, have we made death a more present part of our reality?

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

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

Jesus the Jedi – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter (Year A) – May 4, 2014

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This sermon was preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, May 4, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Acts 2:14a,36-41; Psalm 116:1-3,10-17; 1 Peter 1:17-23; and Luke 24:13-35. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Broken BreadSince the early 1970s this day, on the Episcopal Church calendar, this day on which we hear the story of Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has been known as Star Wars Sunday. It’s because Jesus is very much like a Jedi in this story. I mean, think about it . . .

In the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker is mentored first by Obiwan Kenobi, who dies, then by Yoda, who also dies. But both Obiwan and Yoda come back! They appear to Luke and others after their deaths, continue to teach and give sage counsel, and disappear. That’s what happens with Jesus in the story Luke tells us this morning.

It’s still Easter Sunday. (For us, we’re three weeks down the road, but for them it’s the afternoon of the same day on which Mary Magdalene and the others found the empty tomb.) Two disciples, one named Cleopas and the other unnamed (let’s call him “Bob” — although some feminists scholars suggest that the reason this disciple is not named is because she is a woman, so it might be “Bobbie”) are on their way to a village called Emmaus. Luke tells us this village is seven miles from Jerusalem; that’s a long walk — two or three hours. Sometime during this long afternoon journey, they are joined by a stranger whom they do not recognize; the stranger, Luke reveals, is Jesus but Cleopas and Bob can’t recognize him. They have a long talk with him about all the thing that have happened in Jerusalem in recent days, and he gives them sage counsel about the meaning of scripture, particularly the messianic prophecies. They arrive in Emmaus early in the evening and encourage their traveling companion to join them at dinner.

They sit down at an inn for the evening meal and the stranger takes the lead. He takes the bread served by the innkeeper, offers a blessing, and breaks the bread. Now, Cleopas and Bob realize who this is. As he does the same thing he had done with his followers just a few days before, their memory is tweaked and their eyes are opened (which suggests that Cleopas and Bob were in the upper room in Jerusalem on Thursday evening). That’s when they recognize him; that’s when they think they’ve figure out who he is — he’s Jesus the Jedi. And that’s when Jesus vanishes.

Why do you suppose that is? Why does Jesus disappear?

Well . . . let me remind you of what happened earlier in the day as the story is told by John. Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, found it empty, and told Simon Peter. Peter and the disciple whom Jesus loved (another unnamed follower!) also found it empty, and then returned to their home to tell the others. Mary, however, hung behind and encountered Jesus but, like Cleopas and Bob on the road to Emmaus, she did not recognize him; she thought he was the gardener. Only when he addressed her by name (perhaps because of the tone of his voice) was something in her memory triggered and she realized who he was. She called him “Rabbouni” (which means teacher) and apparently fell at his feet and grabbed hold of them, for Jesus says to her, “Don’t hold on to me.” I think he did so for the same reason he disappeared from the table at the Emmaus inn.

Similarly, remember what happened before they arrived in Jerusalem, when Jesus took Peter and James and John up the mount of the Transfiguration. While they were on the holy mountain, the three disciples witnessed Jesus in conversation with Elijah and Moses. Peter wanted to memorialize the event by building booths, monuments to concretize the moment. Jesus said, “No. We’re not going to do that.” Again, I think for the same reason he disappeared in Emmaus.

That reason is that we cannot pin Jesus down. Jesus cannot be contained; he will not fit neatly into our boxes. When we think we have him figured out, we find out we are wrong. Jesus . . . God is bigger than any notion of him we may have; God is bigger than our conceptions, bigger than our doctrines, bigger than our creeds. And every encounter with Jesus is singular and unique. We cannot hold onto him; we cannot concretize and cast the moment in stone.

We just sang as our sequence hymn the old chestnut In the Garden, and that hymn makes this very point. We, the singer, say that we would like to stay there in that garden, but Jesus will not allow that:

I’d stay in the garden with Him,
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.

We cannot pin him down! We cannot cast the moment in stone. When we think we’ve got hold of him, we find we are wrong; he disappears and what we are left with are our own notions, our own ideas, our own doctrines, our boxes. Our boxes, however, are too small; God is too big for them.

And the chorus of the hymn reminds us of the singularity and uniqueness of every meeting with our Lord:

And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

Every time we encounter Jesus, the experience is unique; none other (not even our earlier selves) has ever had that experience before.

I think that is why it is significant that Cleopas and Bob recognized Jesus as he broke bread. Every loaf of bread is unique, similar perhaps to other loaves but never, ever identical. And every occasion on which bread is share is singular and unique. It may be a family meal or a celebration of the Eucharist; it may be a formal banquet or just friends having a bite. Whatever the circumstances, the situation is one unto itself, not like any other, never to be repeated.

A couple of Christmases ago, Evelyn gave me a set of books about the elements of the Eucharist. One volume is entitled The Spirituality of Wine; the other, which I have here, is The Spirituality of Bread by Donna Sinclair. The author is a Christian (in fact, I think she is an Anglican). I’d like to read you some of what she has to say about the symbolism of bread. About bread and community, she writes:

Jesus may have been lent significance by his association with other gods of bread. But that doesn’t acount for the power of his celebration, which persists daily around the world.

Everywhere, the words are similar: “He took a loaf of bread and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them and said, ‘Take, this is my body.'” And, everywhere, people line up, blue-jean clad or robed, young or old, to receive bits of bread; or they sit in pews and pass tiny chunks on a plate; or they stand in a circle and murmur a blessing as a broken loaf moves from hand to hand.

Sometimes they gather around a sickbed.

Once, I sat in a circle of friends, in a smoky cabin in the bush, after a weekend of tending a woodstove and talking about dreams. We passed the bread around as gently as if it were the heart of the other, which it was.

The ritual has power. I get uneasy if I think I might be left out. Once, reporting on an event, I slipped up to take a photo of Archbishop Desmond Tutu serving Communion, and then paused anxiously. He winked and held out the bread.

Perhaps inclusion is this ceremony’s strength. This bread offers an enormous community, a family that stretches around the world and through the centuries. We don’t want to be left out.

We don’t want to be left out because we don’t want to miss the opportunity for that unique and singular encounter with Christ. Every celebration of Eucharist, like every sharing of bread and every meeting with Jesus, is a moment unto itself never to be repeated, never to be duplicated. We realize that in some way, that this encounter with Christ in the breaking of the bread will never happen again, and we don’t want to be left out.

With regard to bread and sacrifice, Ms. Sinclair writes:

The celebration of Communion is also a powerful experience of metaphor. Bread as body. Wine as blood. Love as sacrifice.

In the Jesus story, it is clear that love has great requirements. There is a price to pay, in an oppressive era, for feeding the unwanted.

It may help to see another story, that of the Celtic Earth goddess Tailtiu, queen of the Fir Bolg, one of the ancient peoples of pre-Christian Ireland.

When Tailtiu saw that her people were starving after an insufficient grain harvest, she took up an axe and, for a solid year, cleared a forest: “the reclaiming of meadowland from even wood by Tailtiu, daughter of Magmor,” is the way it is reported by the anonymous bard of The Dindsenchas, poems about Irish place names.

After the trees had been cut down, “roots and all, out of the ground,” the land became “a plain blossoming with clove,” presumably suitable for planting grain. But the cost was appalling. Tailtiu’s heart “burst in her body from the strain beneath her royal vest,” the bard says. The Celts loved their sacred groves, and the destruction to the enchanted richness of her forest must have broken Tailtiu’s heart.

Aware that she is dying, her courtiers gather around, and Tailtiu whispers her last command. She wants funeral games to be held in her honour each year, just before the harvest. And they are to be peaceful, she says, “without sin, without fraud, without reproach, without insult, without contention, without seizure, without theft.”

Thanks to her faithful foster-child Lugh (later associated with a bountiful harvest), Tailtiu’s wish came to pass. There was always an “unbroken truce” at her fair, and “men went in and came out without any rude hostility. Corn and milk in every stead, peace and fair weather for its sake, were granted to the heathen tribes of the Greeks for maintaining of justice.”

Tailtiu had given up her beloved forest and her life for a vision not too different from that of Archbishop Oscar Romero or of Mondawmin, who brought corn to the Ojibway. “Unbroken truce” and “corn and milk in ever stead,” represent the commonwealth of peace, the kingdom Jesus told his friends was close by. New parents get a glimpse of this kingdom looking at their tiny baby. Their sudden understanding that they would do anything to keep this child safe is the closest we can come, perhaps, to understanding the sacrifice that is part of love’s potential.

Perhaps that’s the power of Communion bread. Some say that it commemorates Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins, but I don’t think so. I would be appalled by a god who asked for the death of his child, or any child. But like any parent, I believe I would die for my children’s lives, even as absurdly grown-up as they are now.

Perhaps this bread simply expresses our wish to live little closer to the ideal of Tailtiu, Jesus, or Mondawmin, who died to give their people enough to eat. None of us can stand up to greed or selfishness as strongly as we wish. But eating this ceremonial bread with others, who also want to be just and loving, makes us brave enough to try.

Maybe that’s why I am sometimes overwhelmed at these ceremonies. Maybe I am simply terrified by the high sacrifices love assumes. Certainly the part most touching to me in the story of my own bread-god, Jesus, is not his death, but his constant focus on compassion. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he commands. “Love your enemies.”

Every encounter with this God who commands us to love, every encounter with love is unique and singular. Every encounter with this God who commands us to love, every encounter with love is larger than we can describe. We cannot constrain love in our boxes. Whatever our notions, our doctrines, our creeds, our understandings . . . they are too small to contain love, to pin love down, to hold onto and control love. When we try, love disappears, and that is why Jesus disappeared from the dinner table in that inn in Emmaus.

Now . . . I have to confess that, on the church’s calendar, this really isn’t Star Wars Sunday. But as every Star Wars aficionado knows, today is Star Wars Day: “May the Fourth be with you.”

But may Jesus the Jedi . . . Jesus, known in the breaking of the bread . . . Jesus, whom we cannot hold onto and pin down . . . Jesus, unique and singular . . . may Jesus be with you. Amen.

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

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

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

From the Book of Genesis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Break the Chains – Sermon for the Second Sunday of Lent (Year A) – March 16, 2013

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This sermon was preached on the Second Sunday in Lent, March 16, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Genesis 12:1-4a; Romans 4:1-5,13-17; Psalm 121; and John 3:1-17. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Croagh PatrickIn the Education for Ministry (“EfM”) program we engage in a process called “reflection” (“theological reflection” to be precise). In this process, we take a close look at a thing or a story, an incident from life, a passage of scripture, or an object we use everyday. One of the best group reflections I ever took part in started when someone put their mobile phone in the center of the table and said, “Let’s talk about this.”

In part of the process, we draw on what are called the “four sources” to illuminate the subject of our reflection. The sources are experiential – this is the “Action” source: things we do, think, and feel; positional – our attitudes, opinions, beliefs, and convictions; traditional – drawn from our Christian heritage, scripture, liturgy, hymnody, and so forth; and cultural – popular songs, movies, novels, commercials and advertisements, politics, etc.

As a result of engaging regularly in this process of reflection, I find myself almost immediately drawing from the four sources whenever I read the Bible.

For example, making a connections between scripture and popular culture, when I read Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit,” a popular song from the 1970s came right to mind:

Listen to the wind blow,
watch the sun rise
Run in the shadows
Damn your love, damn your lies
And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you sayin’
you would never break the chain
Listen to the wind blow,
down comes the night
Run in the shadows
Damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence
Damn the dark, damn the light
And if you don’t love me now
You will never love me again
I can still hear you sayin’
you would never break the chain
(“The Chain,” Fleetwood Mac, 1975)

Nicodemus, a Pharisee of the Sanhedrin, who has come to Jesus professing his great admiration and respect, cannot accept what Jesus tells him about spiritual rebirth and the Spirit of God; he asks, “How can these things be?” In Jesus’ response, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” I almost hear in that response the refrain from Fleetwood Mac’s song, “Damn your love, damn your lies!”

Jesus had, on another occasion, condemned the Pharisees, of whom Nicodemus was one, for the way in which their religious rules confined and burdened people, “They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.” (Matt. 23:4) “I can still hear you sayin’,” Jesus seems to be saying to Nicodemus, “You would never break the chain; you still won’t relieve people of the heavy burdens of your religious rules.” We know that Nicodemus did, eventually, come around, that he became a follower of Jesus, because John tells us later that he assisted Joseph of Arimathea at Jesus’ burial.

When I draw on the experiential or “action” source in considering these scriptures, both the psalm, with its opening declaration “I lift up my eyes to the hills,” and the gospel lesson, with Jesus’ words about the wind blowing, I remember my first summer studying in Ireland when my housemates and I climbed Croagh Padraig, the holy mountain in County Mayo where St. Patrick is said to have put an end to the druid religion in Ireland; according to legend he completed the forty-day Lenten ritual of fasting and penance there. It is also the place from which he is supposed to have banished snakes from Ireland forever. (The picture on the cover of the bulletin is of Croagh Padraig and the path pilgrims take to its summit.) The day we climbed the Reek (as it is called) was a cold and windy one, with the wind seeming to change direction as one ascended the mountain. At the top of the mountain is an oratory where, on Sundays, masses are offered throughout the day, especially on the last Sunday of August, a special day of pilgrimage in Irish tradition.

Climbing the Reek is not easy, though many people from the very young to the very old do it. The path up the mountain is mostly loose shale, the stones sharp, uneven, and unsteady; it is very easy to sprain and ankle, or to cut oneself on the rocks. Making the climb is, I think, a metaphor for the journey of life, filled as it is with many dangers – the physical: disease, injury, accident, war, infirmity, or natural disasters – the economic: recession, depression, unemployment, outsourcing, downsizing, insolvency, debt, or theft – the spiritual: doubt, sin, evil, corruption, fundamentalism, extremism, and false teachings of many kinds. It is these which today’s psalm addresses.

Psalm 121 is one of group of psalms (120 through 134) which are labeled “songs of ascent.” It is believed that these were songs which people sang while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the first two verses of this palm, a pilgrim about to set out asks the anxious question, “Where is my protection?” and answers it himself with a confession of faith in God, “My help comes from the Lord.” This is then affirmed by another person, possibly a priest, who (in verses 3-6) blesses the traveller with the assurance that the Lord who watches over Israel will watch over and protect him on his journey, and then (in the last two verses) assured him that God will continue to guard and protect the pilgrim for life and “for evermore.”

The German scholar Klaus Seybold suggests that these “songs of ascent” are folk songs from, as he puts it,

. . . the world of the simple person and the little people, of the farmer, the handworker, the mother with small children, the father of the family, who works from early until late, who experiences both tears and jubilation, who rejoices at the festivals and thinks about religious matters. These psalms are witnesses from everyday life, witnesses of folk poetry and folk piety. All of this makes them especially precious. (Quoted by James Limburg, “Psalm 121: A Psalm for Sojourners,” Word & World 5/2 [1985])

This is the same world that we inhabit, the world where (as my EFM mentor trainer Bud Holland recently put it) “our work is to move from rooms filled with fear in order to enter other rooms filled with fear,” rooms filled with all those physical, economic, and spiritual dangers I mentioned a moment ago. It is the Spirit of God, of whose protection Psalm 121 assures us, that enables us to meet those dangers and overcome those fears. It is the Spirit, coming and going through those rooms, through those fears, through those dangers, and enabling us to do the same, through whom, Jesus insists to Nicodemus, we must be born anew.

We do not empower ourselves to move through those rooms on our own. Our journey through those rooms is the journey of rebirth and we cannot do it on our own. We are unable to change anything about the journey we have taken, any more than a baby can control the process of being born. We cannot bear ourselves. Only the Spirit can do that. We lift up our eyes and our help comes from the One who ushers us from a world of fixed realities, from a world of chains we are unable (perhaps unwilling) to break into the realm of new birth, of new possibility.

Neither birth nor rebirth happen in an instant; they are the culmination of time and formation, of gestation and movement. Just as it takes time for the union of two tiny cells to ripen of into a new and unique human being, our salvation and sanctification takes time, a lifetime, to fulfill. And throughout that whole lifetime process of being born again, our help comes from the Lord who watches over us, preserves us from evil, and keeps us safe. I started this sermon with the poetry of Fleetwood Mac; I want to end with another poem, this one only recently published by Michael Coffey who, in addition to being a poet, is a Lutheran pastor. This bit of free verse, a rif on the story of Nicodemus, is entitled Airstream:

Be born of wind and water said the Teacher in the night
be new and swim and soar in the mystery of God now
so Nick polished his Airstream, took it out on the road
from Palo Duro Canyon to Big Bend and beyond
he deleted entries in his Google calendar, went offline
checked off incomplete tasks on his lists driving free
stopping where ever it seemed the flow was flowing
encountering strangers with deep pools of eyes
from time to time someone on the roadside
needed a tire change or a gallon of gas so he stopped
occasionally he met someone at a Waffle House
who sat alone, struck up a conversation, paid the tab
once he met a woman with a thin three-year old and
gave her a year’s worth of grocery money just like that
then he stopped and stayed a while in Death Valley heat
drank mango iced tea, absorbed desert wisdom like the sun
when he realized the tires were shot, trip was done, he gave
thanks for that day when he listened, trusted, and acted
gave thanks for letting go and for following the invisible wind
for spirit moving him fluid through life like wild water streams

“No one,” said Jesus, “can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” That is a long, long . . . lifetime long process, but through it all the Lord watches over us, guarding our goings out and our comings in, so listen to the wind blow, watch the sunrise, break the silence . . . break the chains. Amen.

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

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

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

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