That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Marriage (page 1 of 4)

The Trinity Comes to Dinner: Sermon for Trinity Sunday, June 16, 2019

There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Father George has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theology is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise. Back when I was a curate getting the Trinity Sunday assignment, my rector encouraged me with the sunny observation that, listening to a sermon in almost any church on Trinity Sunday, one could be practically guaranteed to hear heresy.

As I started preparing to preach on this Trinity Sunday, however, I thought, “I have an out, a handy escape hatch” because today is not only the church’s feast of the one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, it is also the secular, some say “Hallmark,” holiday of Father’s Day. So, I thought, “I’ll talk about Father’s Day and if the Trinity decides to show up, well … that’ll be fine.”

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Lenten Journal 2019 (30 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 24

Before I met my wife, I played racquetball a couple of times a week. I backpacked and went wilderness camping in the desert with friends. I rode a 15-speed bike to work. I was a downhill skier.

Before she met me, my wife played tennis. She went camping in the mountains of northern Nevada with her family. She rode her 12-speed bike across the continental US. She was a Nordic cross-country skier.

When we dated, we talked about these activities, imagining that we would share them with one another. We never did them as a couple . . . but we talked about them.

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Weddings & Marriages: If I Were Preaching, Epiphany 2, 20 January 2019

On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. – John 2:1-2

I know that the natural inclination of preachers during the season of ordinary Sundays after Epiphany is to focus on the gospel stories of “manifestation” and we certainly have one this week, the miracle of water-into-wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. The story is ripe with focus possibilities: the miracle itself, the presence of the Holy Spirit as the activating force of Jesus’ power (suggested strongly this year by the lectionary pairing of this gospel tale with Paul’s listing of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12), the always popular look at the relationship between Mary and her son, Jesus’ attitude toward his public ministry at this time.

What is seldom preached on this Sunday is the context of the story: a wedding! So I think I might go there this week if I were preaching. The lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures positively invites us to do so; marriage is Isaiah’s metaphor (as it is other prophets’) for the relationship between God and Israel:

For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.[1]

I’ve been thinking a good deal recently about the nature of the marital estate. I recently had major orthopedic surgery (a total knee replacement) and find myself absolutely unable to attend to many of the everyday activities of life, some of them quite mundane, some quite intimate and personal. I am dependent upon my spouse to whom I have been married now for nearly 40 years. As she attended to one of my needs the other day, I quipped, “Ah yes, I remember well that part of the service where we promised to do this for each other” (which, of course, we hadn’t). We make formal promises in weddings to love and honor, to cherish and comfort, to faithfully keep one another “in sickness and health,”[2] but we don’t get into the nitty-gritty details. Perhaps we’ve been counseled in advance of the wedding as to what these vows mean and what that nitty grit might be, but no pre-marital instruction can cover everything.

My father-in-law probably didn’t realize in 1947 that those promises would commit him 50 years later to caring for an invalid wife suffering from Alzheimer’s disease for the last eight years of their marriage, feeding her, bathing her, wiping her bottom, and all while she tried to fight him off because she didn’t know him. Those vows long before the onset of my mother-in-law’s disease had become water under the bridge, replaced by the fine, strong wine of human love and commitment. And though she hasn’t (I hope) had quite the same level of difficulty to handle, my in-law’s daughter follows in her father’s footsteps taking care of her temporarily invalided husband.

So . . . if I were preaching this week, I’d consider that context, a wedding. Weddings become marriages, brides become wives, grooms become husbands; those are transmutations, transformations, and differences as profound as water become wine. That alchemy of marriage manifests the Lord in our midst everyday.

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Notes:
Click on footnote numbers to link back to associated text.

[1] Isaiah 62:5

[2] The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 424

Guardians of Praise – Sermon Pentecost 20, Proper 22B, October 7, 2018

Our gradual this morning asks a question of God about human existence:

What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?[1]

Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the prince of Denmark in the play Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![2]

I have always been certain that Shakespeare was riffing on Psalm 8.

The prayer book version of the Psalm uses the word “man” in the generic sense asking the question about all of humankind, then literally translates the Hebrew ben adam as “son of man” recalling to us a term Jesus often applied to himself. While that may make a certain amount of liturgical sense, it distorts the importance of the Psalm. As translated in the New Revised Version of scripture, Psalm 8 asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” This is a little closer to the initial meaning of the verse, but the original Hebrew is not pluralized. This translation loses the awe and wonder of a singular individual gazing up at the night sky and overwhelmed by the presence of divinity.

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Train Tracks & Ties: Perspective – Sermon for Pentecost 5, Proper 7B (June 24, 2018)

Our Old Testament lesson this morning is a very small bit of the Book of Job, that really sort odd bit of Biblical literature that tells the story of a wager between God and Satan. Some scholars believe that it may find its origins in an earlier Babylonian work known as the Poem of the Righteous Sufferer, that the Jews in Exile became familiar with the older Babylonian story and adapted it to their own theology.

Job begins with a scene in the heavenly court where God is in conversation with character called, in Hebrew, ha-satan which is translated into English as Satan. However, this is not the Devil of later Christian mythology, the ruler of Hell portrayed by Milton or Dante or even Walt Disney (in the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in the movie Fantasia). Rather, ha-satan is a sort of heavenly district attorney or prosecutor who goes “to and fro on the earth, and … walking up and down on it,”[1] scoping out sin and iniquity and bringing it to God’s attention for judgment.

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“Jesus Saves, Do Justice”: Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6B (Track 2) – June 17, 2018

Our kids this week have been “Shipwrecked,” but they’ve also been “rescued by Jesus.”[1] They’ve been learning the truth of that promise emblazoned on neon crosses at innumerable inner-city rescue missions in nearly every English-speaking country in the world, “Jesus saves,” through the metaphor of being lost at sea and washed up on a deserted island. That’s something that happened to St. Paul at least three if not four times![2]

But, unfortunately, St. Paul’s experiences at sea are not in the lectionary this week. Our readings from the bible have nothing to do with ships or the ocean or being lost or getting rescued and aren’t really easy to tie to what the kids have been doing with all these shipwreck decorations in the church. Instead of shipwrecks, the readings this week give us trees. Ezekiel reminds us of one of God’s metaphors for Israel, the noble cedar planted on a mountaintop spreading its branches to provide homes for the birds and winged creatures of every kind (which represent all the nations of the world), producing mighty boughs and the plenteous fruit of righteousness and justice.[3]

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A Meditation on Mortality (for the parish newsletter)

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

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firefliesThe week of the summer solstice was an interesting one in the Funston household.

The night of the solstice there was what is known as a “strawberry moon,” a phenomenon which only occurs when a full moon coincides with the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice, longest day of the year. The moon takes on an amber or pinkish glow which astronomers explain is caused by the setting sun’s positioning, affecting the angle at which the sun’s rays pass through Earth’s atmosphere and, thus, the apparent coloration of the moon.

The name “strawberry moon” was given by the Native American Algonquin tribes of northern Michigan and Canada. They believed that a full moon in June signified that it was time to start picking fruits, including strawberries. It is also known as the Rose, Hot, or Honey Moon (the latter being the origin of the name given a newly married couple’s post-wedding get-away). The last time there was a “strawberry moon” was during the so-called “summer of love” in 1967.

Biblically, the summer solstice and the nearest full moon are associated with punishment and death. It was taught by the rabbis in their commentaries on Scripture that this was the time when Moses disobeyed God and was told he could not enter the Promised Land with the rest of the Hebrews, but would die instead.

I made note of the “strawberry moon” as I took Dudley for his last walk of the evening before going to bed. I also noticed a large number of fireflies winking in the trees and lawns of our neighborhood. Fireflies always remind me of two things: summers spent with my grandparents in Winfield, Kansas, during the 1950s, and burying my late brother in 1993, also in Winfield which was his home town. The night after his burial in late June, the fireflies were more numerous and more active than I had ever seen them before, nor have I ever seen that many since!

So the “strawberry moon” and the fireflies were, in a sense, a reminder of mortality. The next day, I was scheduled to visit a urologist at the request of my primary care physician. The reason: elevated prostate specific antigen levels in my blood. “Not a big deal,” I thought. I have always had a high PSA level. However, after taking my history, asking a lot of personal questions, and conducting an examination, the urologist told me that I have the classic signs and symptoms of prostate cancer and referred me for a biopsy. That will happen later this month.

“Still,” I thought, “No big deal.” Prostate cancer is slow growing and can often be left untreated without any real impact on a man’s health. However, given my family history of various sorts of cancers, it’s a matter of some (though not a lot of) concern.

I thought that would be the big medical news of the day until late that night. I had gone to bed and was sound asleep when Evie woke me up gasping for breath and obviously very anxious. We headed for the hospital where, eventually, it was discovered that she had two pulmonary emboli, blood clots, in her left lung. (See note below.)

That was yesterday. As I write, she is still in the hospital and will be for a few days while the doctors try to determine how and why she developed these clots.

So in the course of 24 hours, we have both been reminded of our own mortality and, I have to say, I think we’re taking it rather well. Several years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an article about how we modern human beings face the reality of our own mortality (Facing Your Own Mortality, 9 Oct 1988).

The article contrasted a 60-year-old woman “stricken by two life-threatening ailments – insulin-dependent diabetes and breast cancer” – with a man in his 60s, a doctor “crippled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – Lou Gehrig’s disease.”

The woman, the author wrote, “stares death down every day. Despite the odds against her, she accepts the possibility of her imminent death with astonishing serenity. When she was diagnosed with cancer, she did not ask, as many patients do, ‘Why me?’ Instead, she thought, ‘Why not me? Rather than crying about your affliction, you have to live every minute you have as a gift.’”

The man, on the other hand, was described as “unable to overcome his anger at being crippled.” He “refused to acknowledge his encroaching impairment. He became hostile toward those around him. As his condition forced him to give up his practice, his anger often exploded. His wife, his full-time caretaker, bears the brunt of his fury. She has confided to friends with great sadness that she awaits the time when both of them will be released from the prison of terminal illness.”

What is it that makes it possible for some of us to face our own deaths with equanimity while others become anxious and angry? I believe the answer is faith, not necessarily the Christian (or even religious) faith, but that sense that life has meaning and that there is a greater purpose in the universe than simply our own meagre existence.

As I write on June 23 for the July issue of The Epistle, today’s Daily Office Lectionary texts included a selection from the Letter to the Romans in which Paul writes, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, be-cause God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom 5:3b-5) That, it seems to me, is the essence of faith, the sure and certain hope that (as Paul writes later in the same letter) “all things work together for good for those who love God.” (8:28)

I used to have a congregant (in another parish) who frequently asked me, “What will happen when I die?” I would answer her, “Martha, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t know because I haven’t been there yet; I don’t care because there’s not much I can do about it.” Jesus asked his followers, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matt 6:27) He clearly didn’t think so, for his follow up instruction was, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

It is that attitude of faith, to live for today and not worry about tomorrow, that I think allows some to face death with calmness and composure. I commend it to you.

Live for today! Enjoy the summer!

(Note: Yesterday, the day after this was written, I was told by the attending physician that Evie had “a lot of clots, so many clots” in both her lungs. He said that if I hadn’t brought her to the emergency room on Wednesday night, but had opted to wait until morning, she would probably have died. So, take it from me, don’t dismiss even a little unexplained shortness of breath! – Return to Text)

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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.

A Wedding Homily – Sunday, 15 May 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston at the Blessing of the Civil Marriage of Christopher William White and Robert William Powell, May 15, 2016, to the people assembled at First Congregational Church, 91 South Main Street, Sunderland, MA.

(The lessons for the service were: the poem who are you, little i by e.e. cummings; an excerpt from The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams; and a portion of the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1–10, NRSV). These lessons are set out below after the sermon.)

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marriagestoleWhy are we here? Well, for a wedding, of course. But, more specifically, you may be wondering why an old Episcopal priest from Ohio is here in an 18th Century Puritan meeting house trying to do 21st Century Anglo-Catholic ritual. The short answer is that Chris asked me to. Chris was my music director at St Paul’s Church in Medina, Ohio, when he was a student at Oberlin (which his mother reminded me yesterday was just a few weeks ago), and we’ve been friends ever since.

The long answer to why we are all here is that we love these two men, that we wish them well, that we want to support them in this endeavor called “marriage,” and that we are asking God to bless them today and throughout their life together which (we hope) will be for life.

We’ve been treated to some readings, not all from Scripture, which they have chosen and which speak to them and to us about this thing they are doing.

First, that delightful little poem by e.e. cummings, who are you little, i – a bit of verse which reminds us of the magic of childhood which we sometimes seem to lose as we age. Cummings reminds us that it is never lost, but that it does often get buried under the pressures of adult life, and as anyone who is married will tell us, there are few adult demands more pressing than those of marriage. Chris and Rob have each just promised “to love [the other], comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health,” and to be faithful to him for life. Those are heavy promises, heavy obligations; they can weigh us down and bury the “little, i”. Another poet, Mary Oliver, has an answer to that concern which I will share with you in a moment.

Then we heard that wonderful excerpt from everyone’s favorite childhood book, Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit in which the Skin Horse observes that love is what makes us real and that people with hard edges or sharp corners, or break easily, seldom become real, and in which we see the Rabbit become real as his hair is loved off, his tail becomes unsewn, and the pink is kissed off his nose.

Chris and Rob have paired these readings with the Beatitudes, Jesus’ list of people who are blessed not because of anything they do but because of who they are. This is not Jesus’ social program; he’s not laying out a course of conduct by which we can earn blessedness. It occurred to me as I went over these three readings that what Jesus is doing is describing people whose “little, i” has not been buried (or, if it was buried at one time, it has been dug up again); he describing those who either never had sharp edges, or whose sharp edges have been softened and worn away, whose hair has been loved off by others, who have been hugged by others so tightly that their joints are loose and shabby, whom people have kissed so often that the pink has rubbed off their noses. And he is here promising that the reward for being loved like that is blessedness, what the Skin Horse calls “reality.” That is what we hope for Rob and for Chris when we ask God to bless them in this thing, this relationship we call “marriage.”

Marriage in the eyes of the State is a contract; two people make mutual promises and if they fail live up to those promises, the law will take action. If one or both of them later decide they don’t want to honor the contract, they have to go to court to be relieved of its obligations. In the eyes of the church, however, marriage is much more – it is what we call a “sacrament.” A sacrament, we say, is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”

So what is the outward and visible sign of marriage? When I ask that question in confirmation classes, the most common answer is “the rings.” Good answer, but not exactly right.

I’m wearing stole which has on it three symbols connected with marriage. The interlocked rings, a funny looking thing that looks like a capitol-P with a crossbar, and palm branch. Although the rings are not the outward and visible sign, on this stole they represent that sign, which is the couple themselves. The sacramental sign of marriage is the two people who live together in the sacramental relationship; they symbolize the grace of human companionship, the possibility of love and peace between individuals so deep and so profound that they (in Jesus’ words) “become one flesh.” They are living symbols of the hope and possibility that all humanity can do that as a world-wide community. In the Skin Horse’s word, they make it real.

But they do not do that as a couple alone, they do that with through the grace and empowerment of God; thus, the second symbol, which isn’t a P-with-a-crossbar. This symbol is a stylized combination of the Greek letter Chi and Rho, the first two letters of the word “Christ”. It reminds us that God a part of, a party to, and a partner in every marriage. In token of that reality, Chris and Rob will share the sacrament of the Eucharist today, another sacrament reminding us of Jesus’ words “Remember, I am with you to the end of the ages.”

The third emblem on my stole is a palm branch. Some of you will remember the story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem which the church celebrates every year on the day called “Palm Sunday.” The people along his path from the Mount of Olives, through the Kidron Valley, and into the Holy City spread his path with branches of palm and waved branches as they sang “Hosanna!” and wished him well. On this stole, this palm branch represents the crowds who support Chris and Rob; in other words, you and all the people you represent! A marriage does not exist in a vacuum; it is a social contract, a sacrament, a way of life lived out in the context of a community and the married couple rely upon that community. Each of these men will not be able to live up to that promise to love, comfort, honor, keep and be faithful to the other unless you help them do it. That’s why we began this service not just with their vows, but with yours. You were asked: “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” and you answered loudly and whole-heartedly, “We will!” They are going to rely on that promise . . . a lot!

So, I suggested that e.e. cummings’ concern about our buried “little, i” has been answered by another poet, Mary Oliver. I will close with her answer, the poem “I worried.”

I worried a lot. Will the garden grow, will the rivers
flow in the right direction, will the earth turn
as it was taught, and if not how shall
I correct it?

Was I right, was I wrong, will I be forgiven,
can I do better?

Will I ever be able to sing, even the sparrows
can do it and I am, well,
hopeless.

Is my eyesight fading or am I just imagining it,
am I going to get rheumatism,
lockjaw, dementia?

Finally I saw that worrying had come to nothing.
And gave it up. And took my old body
and went out into the morning,
and sang.

Chris . . . Rob . . . your “little, i” (like all of ours) is in constant danger of being buried under the concerns of life, none of which are heavier than the promises you have made to be responsible in love to and for one other special person. But you have not made those promises alone; you have the grace and support of God, and you have the love and support of this community of family and friends. So don’t let that heaviness bury you . . . just love one another through rheumatism and lockjaw and dementia and hair being rubbed off and the pink being kissed away; just get up every day and go out into the morning and sing.

The Readings:

who are you, little i by e.e. cummings

who are you, little i

(five or six years old)
peering from some high

window; at the gold

of November sunset

(and feeling: that if day
has to become night

this is a beautiful way)

From The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

That night, and for many nights after, the Velveteen Rabbit slept in the Boy’s bed. At first he found it rather uncomfortable, for the Boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the Rabbit could scarcely breathe… But very soon he grew to like it, for the Boy used to talk to him, and made nice tunnels for him under the bedclothes that he said were like the burrows the real rabbits lived in. And they had splendid games together, in whispers… And when the Boy dropped off to sleep, the Rabbit would snuggle down close under his little warm chin and dream, with the Boy’s hands clasped close round him all night long.

And so time went on, and the little Rabbit was very happy-so happy that he never noticed how his beautiful velveteen fur was getting shabbier and shabbier, and his tail becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off his nose where the Boy had kissed him.

And one night Nana grumbled as she cleaned the rabbit off with a corner of her apron. “You must have your old Bunny!” she said. “Fancy all that fuss!”

The Boy sat up in bed and stretched out his hands. “Give me my Bunny!” he said. “You mustn’t say that…. He’s REAL!

The Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10, NRSV)

1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

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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.

Claim the Openness! Claim the Kingdom! – A Reflection on April, Politics, and Marriage

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

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wedding-rings1It’s April! When did that happen?

The Anglo-Saxons called April êastre-monaþ. (That funny looking letter at the end is called a “thorn” and is pronounced like “th”.) This literally means “easter month” and April was called this because it was sacred to the goddess Eostre. According the Venerable Bede (a very early English historian) this is why in the English language we call the feast and season of Christ’s Resurrection “Easter” rather than some variation of the Latin word for “Passover” which is most common among European languages. Of course, this is one of those oddball years when Easter did not, in fact, fall during the month of April.

In 1980, however, Easter fell on April 6. Why would I know this? Because Evelyn and I were married during April, 1980. On Saturday, April 12, in fact. It was the Saturday after Easter Sunday. For some reason, we had wanted to get married on March 15. Thirty-six years later I cannot for the life of me remember why we wanted to get married on the Ides of March, but that was the date. I went to see my parish priest, Fr. Karl Spatz, about that and he just looked at me with an expression of distaste: “That’s during Lent,” he said. “You don’t want to get married during Lent.” He was (and I wasn’t yet) a very high church Anglo-Catholic. So, we got married on the first available Saturday after Easter Sunday.

Here’s a good thing about getting married on Saturday in Easter Week: the Easter flowers and lilies are still really lovely and in full bloom. We had a lovely wedding and we’ve had a lovely marriage and I’m very grateful for it all. Fr. Karl was probably right to encourage us to not get married during Lent; Easter Season was a much better choice.

Easter and April are good times for just about anything. Although we English speakers gave the Anglo-Saxon name to the Feast of the Resurrection, we took the Romans’ name for this month. Etymologists tell us that Aprilis, the original Latin name, is derived from a word meaning “opening,” probably in reference to the opening of leaf and flower buds. To me, however, it suggests Christ’s open tomb.

This time of Resurrection and rebirth is also a time of opening. Opening ourselves to the world around us; opening ourselves to the graces and blessings that come from God the Father. The former news reporter Jon Katz, who writes a blog about living on a farm and raising dogs, and who has written numerous books about dogs, is also a poet. One of his pieces is entitled Open Up, Open Up:

I don’t want to live a small life,
open your eyes,
open your mind,
open your heart.
I have just come from the Dahlia garden,
the first Dahlia kissing me with its blood red mouth,
the wind-winged clouds roaring overhead,
exciting me,
sending me hurtling along, thinking I might perhaps catch a ride,
feel the wind in my face, but no,
the clouds rushed away, places to go.
So I carry these dreams only to you,
One of the last gifts I can ever bring to anyone
in this world filled with love and hope and risk and fear,
so do look at me, listen to me.
Open your soul, let it breathe,
Open your life, open your heart.
I don’t want to live a small life,
of warning and fear.

I don’t want to live that sort of life, either, but it has seemed to me, especially in the current presidential election cycle, that that is exactly the sort of life forced onto all of us by the world in which we live. Palpably since September 11, 2001, we have lived a life “of warning and fear.” That’s nearly a quarter of my life. It’s half of my children’s lives. And it’s the entire lifetime of all of our Sunday School children and many of our youth group members.

Thank God we’ve gotten rid of the color-coded threat-level gauges the government at one time encouraged every news service to broadcast, but even without those the world of warning and fear prevails. Much of this arises, I think, from the clash of personal rights and privileges in a society which has become increasingly and destructively individualistic. A former bishop of mine once remarked that it is a small step from insisting on one’s rights to insisting on being right, from insisting on being right to insisting on being in control, and that being in control is not meant for any of us who claim to follow Jesus.

Consider these admonitions:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” (Jesus in Luke 9:23)

“For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Jesus in Mark 8:35)

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.” (Paul writing in Philippians 2:3)

For the sake of openness to one another, we are not to insist on our own individual rights, but rather concern ourselves with the needs and well-being of others. Were we to do that, there would be no need for warnings and fears. We have been assured of that by God himself who constantly in both Old and New Testaments, through prophets, through apostles, through Jesus himself sends the same message:

“Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid . . . .'” (Exodus 20:20)

“Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread . . . .” (Deut. 31:6)

“The Lord is at my side, therefore I will not fear.” (Psalm 118:6, BCP)

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!'” (Isaiah 35:5)

“Do not fear, only believe.” (Jesus in Mark 5:36)

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Jesus in Luke 12:32)

“So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?'” (Letter to the Hebrews 13:6)

When Evie and I got married, the current Book of Common Prayer had been fully official for less than a year (it was ratified by the 66th General Convention in September of 1979). Its marriage vows, however, were and are ancient and revered. We promised, as all marrying couples promise, to take one another as spouses “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” In a word, we committed, as do all married couples, to be open to one another in all circumstances.

Like all sacraments, the sacrament of marriage is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” The outward and visible sign in marriage is the couple, the two people themselves, and the inward and spiritual grace they are a sign of is exactly the sort of God-empowered interpersonal openness that conquers warnings and fears. If two people can live together in this way, says this sacramental sign, then so can all people.

We’ve been able to do it for 36 years. For that I am grateful to God . . . and especially grateful to Evelyn. In this month of Resurrection, rebirth, and openness, I encourage you to think on that (and on all married couples who have done likewise) and realize the promise of the sacrament’s grace, the promise of openness: God’s promise that none of us needs to “live a small life, of warning and fear.”

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

It’s April! Claim the openness! Claim the kingdom!

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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.

Abundant Grace (Cana, Weddings & Primates) – Sermon for Epiphany 2, 17 January 2016

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A sermon offered on the Second Sunday after Epiphany, January 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 36:5-10; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; and St. John 2:1-11. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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As I begin this sermon today, I would like to call your attention to two verses of Psalm 36 which we all recited together just a few minutes ago:

6 Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
your justice like the great deep; *
you save both man and beast, O Lord.
***
8 They feast upon the abundance of your house; *
you give them drink from the river of your delights.

God’s righteousness extends to all of humankind and beyond; it extends to all of created life, all the “beasts” whom God saves together with human beings. All humans, all of creation “feast upon the abundance of God’s house” and “drink from the river of God’s delights.” I want you to fix that notion, that fundamental Christian belief firmly in your minds.

I have to confess to you that sometimes when I am preparing a sermon I ignore one or sometimes two of the lessons set out in the Lectionary and which are read in church. This week I gave a lot of thought to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthian church and to Paul’s partial list of the abundant varieties of gifts, but I pretty much ignored Isaiah’s prophecy. I read it, but actually forgot about, forgot even what it said, as I was researching for this homily. As a result, during the 8 a.m. service I actually started laughing as the Isaiah lesson was read:

You shall be called My Delight Is in Her,
and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you,
and your land shall be married.
For as a young man marries a young woman,
so shall your builder marry you,
and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride,
so shall your God rejoice over you.
(Isa 62:4-5)

I should have paid more attention to Isaiah and his metaphor of marriage, for “marriage” is the word of the week, at least in Anglican Communion circles.

I’ll come back to that, but first I want to explore briefly the gospel story from John today, the familiar story of Jesus’ first act of power in John’s gospel, the changing of water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. This is such a rich story with so much to explore. For example, we could spend hours discussing the relationship between Jesus and his mother, a principal player in the story who is never named: John never calls her “Mary,” just “the mother of Jesus.” The dynamic between Jesus and Mom is fascinating! One of my clergy colleagues in our discussion group remarked, “I could never have talked to my mother like that! If I had . . . I can’t imagine!” But we don’t have time for that exploration this morning, so let’s move on.

A commentator on this gospel did the calculations about the amount of wine involved here. John tells us there were six stone jars filled with clean water (it would have to be clean water if it was for the Jewish ritual of washing hands, face, and feet before eating, which is what John means when he says “the rites of purification”). Obviously some had been used, for Jesus has the servants refill the vessels to the brim. So there is about 180 gallons of water there which become 180 gallons of wine. That’s a lot of wine! It turns out to be nearly 1,000 bottles. A bottle of really good wine these days can run over $100, maybe as high as $150. That’s $150,000 worth wine Jesus gave this couple for a wedding present. Talk about God’s abundance!

Now let’s think about Galilee and this village of Cana. From our perspective 2,000 years removed, we hear about Galilee or look at a map of “The Holy Land at the Time of Jesus” and we tend to think about the whole place as “Jewish territory.” But in Jesus time, that wasn’t so. Judea was Jewish territory (albeit Jewish territory occupied by the Roman Empire) but Galilee wasn’t. It was a much more culturally and ethnically mixed place. It was Gentile territory. It was where the Samaritans, whom the Jews didn’t particularly like, lived. It was where the land trade routes passed, where traders of all nations were constantly on the move and where some of them had settled. It was where brigands and thieves and highwaymen who preyed on the trade caravans hung out; Herod the Great twice sent his army into the Galilee to clear out that criminal element. And, of course, like Judea it was an occupied territory of the Roman Empire, so there were Roman soldiers stationed there.

Cana was a small village in this (I suppose we could say) cosmopolitan, ethnically mixed region. We don’t really know where this village was located. Archaeologists and bible scholars think it could have been one of four different places. A couple of them are just ruins these days, but in Jesus’ time they were all functioning villages. None, however, was very large – all probably had populations of less than 1,500 people, certainly not more than 2,000, and their populations would have included all that mix of people, as well as the Jews who lived there. And the Jews themselves were not a monolithic group. They were divided into what we might call “denominations” or better “political parties.” There were the Sadducees and the Pharisees about whom we read in the New Testament; there might have been Essenes, although they tended to separate themselves out of the settled towns but there might have been Essene sympathizers; there might have been Zealots, radicalized Jews who wanted to cleans their lands of Gentiles; and there were probably just ordinary, everyday Jews not aligned with any of these groups, people just getting on with life. They and their Gentile neighbors lived together, traded together, socialized, and went about the business of getting on.

When there was a major event in the life of a village family, like a wedding, perhaps the religious part of it would involve only the family and their co-religionists, but the celebration after? What we would think of as the reception? That would involve everybody; that was a major village-wide social event. We tend to think of wedding banquets as starting after the ceremony and ending sometime late in the evening after the couple has departed for their wedding night and their honeymoon. Not so in First Century Palestine. Back then wedding feasts could last five, six, seven days!

John’s story of this wedding feast begins in our translation with the words, “On the third day there was a wedding . . . . ” and that has puzzled commentators for generations. On the third day of what? What is John talking about? Some Greek scholars suggest that what this really means is “On the third day of the wedding feast . . . .” Folks had been partying, eating, drinking, and by the third day, they’d consumed all the wine. So Jesus steps in and with abundant grace provides more than sufficient wine so that this mixed community of Sadduceic Jews and Pharisaic Jews, of Essene Jews and Zealot Jews, of Jews and Gentiles, and maybe even some Roman soldiers thrown in, this mixed bag of people could continue to celebrate and have a good time celebrating a wedding.

So . . . about that Anglican Communion news. It’s about weddings. Specifically, it’s about same-sex weddings. At last summer’s General Convention, the governing body of the Episcopal Church, after doing nearly 40 years of theological study and reflection, decided that the sacrament of Holy Wedlock could be offered to same-sex couples. And because of that, something was done by the assembled chief pastors, the Primates, of the 38 provinces of the Anglican Communion who met in Canterbury this past week.

Exactly what that “something” is is unclear. It’s especially unclear if one read the headlines in the secular press and that’s in large part because the secular news agencies have never really understood the vague, sort of ghostly nature of the Anglican Communion. It’s a there-but-not-there sort of thing. It exists, but it’s very hard to describe. As a result we saw a variety of headlines describing what happened.

The most outrageous of them was found on the website of Katehon.com (which describes itself as an international geopolitical think tank); their headline read, “Anglicans Excommunicate the Episcopalians.” Well, no. That’s not what happened; nobody excommunicated anybody. Other headlines used less sensational terms: “suspend,” “sanction,” “punish.” None of them accurate. The Archbishop of Canterbury got into a verbal sparring match with some reporters when he insisted that the appropriate word was “consequences” and a reporter insisted that what had happened was a “sanction.” Specifically what Archbishop Welby said is:

We are not sanctioning them. We do not have the power to do so. We simply said, if any province, on a major issue of how the Church is run or what it believes, is out of line, there will be consequences in their full participation in the life of the Communion. (Church Times)

So how did we arrive at this and what does it all mean? To answer that, I think it might be helpful to briefly summarize the vague thing that is the Anglican Communion. As I said, it’s an international family of 38 national or provincial churches, nearly all of whom trace their liturgical and structural heritage, their leadership models, and their theology to the English reformation and the Church of England. Most them were established either through the spread of the British Empire or through missionary activity from England or, in some cases, from the American Episcopal church. Each of them is independent and self-governing; none of them can dictate to any other of them how to organize itself, how to govern itself, or how to offer its worship, sacraments, and teaching within its own provincial boundaries. These 38 independent provincial churches are, we like to say, linked by bonds of affection and respect, and mutual and cooperative ministry. Over the years, however, it has been helpful to think in terms of, and to create, what have come to be known as “instruments of unity.”

Historically, the first of these is the Archbishop of Canterbury, not the present incumbent nor any individual occupant of that See, but the See itself. As the Primate of the first Anglican Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury is the primus inter pares, the first among equals of the 38 chief pastors of the provincial churches; it is he who convenes two other of the “instruments of unity.” In historical order the first of these is the Lambeth Conference, the first of which was convened in 1867.

This is a decennial (every ten year) conference of diocesan bishops who meet to discuss matters of mutual interest: theology, church order, social justice. (They also have tea with the queen.) After a couple of weeks of meetings, they issue reports about what they have discussed; they do not legislate and they have no power to do so. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Lambeth Conference has no juridical or hierarchical authority over any member province; their reports are merely summaries of their talks, sometimes evincing agreement on particular matters.

The third “instrument of unity” is called the Anglican Consultative Council, created in 1971. The Council is made up of elected representatives of the provinces, both lay and ordained, and meets every three years. It’s steering committee meets more often. It’s self-defined role is

to facilitate the co-operative work of the churches of the Anglican Communion, exchange information between the Provinces and churches, and help to co-ordinate common action. It advises on the organisation and structures of the Communion, and seeks to develop common policies with respect to the world mission of the Church, including ecumenical matters. (Anglican Communion)

Like the other “instruments of unity,” the ACC has no legislative or executive authority over any member province.

The most recently created of the “instruments of unity” is the Primates’ Meeting. It was established in 1978 by Donald Coggan, the 101st Archbishop of Canterbury, as an opportunity for “leisurely thought, prayer and deep consultation.” (Anglican Communion) The Primates have met every other year since then, and sometimes more often as invited by Canterbury.

We often hear our Communion compared to the Roman Catholic Church, but the comparison is inapt. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not a pope. The Primates’ Meeting is not a college of cardinals. The Lambeth Conference is not a Vatican council. And the Anglican Consultative Council is not a curia. Again, I emphasize that none of these “instruments of unity,” including the Primates’ Meeting, have authority to dictate, legislate, or impose rulings upon any member province.

But that is what the Primates’ Meeting has attempted to do with these “consequences” for our action with regard to the full inclusion of our gay and lesbian members in the sacramental life of the church. What they have done is asked (they used the verb “require” but they really don’t have the authority to require) that for a period of three years no member of the Episcopal Church sit on any international ecumenical body representing the Anglican Communion in its relationship with other Christian bodies. We will still be active in such ecumenical endeavors in our own province, just not on the international stage. They have also asked that we, the Episcopal Church, during those three years, not participate in any inter-Anglican committees dealing with matters of theology or polity.

They’ve done so, as I said, because we have taken the steps of ordaining qualified LGBT members of the church and of sacramentally blessing the unions of same-sex couples. We did so not because of the pressures of secular society or culture. We did so because in 1978 and again in 1988, with rather prescient foresight, the Lambeth Conference adopted a resolution encouraging – remember that conference cannot legislate, it can only recommend – encouraging the member provinces of the Anglican Communion to reflect theologically on the place of LGBT persons in the life of the church. Specifically, it said:

This Conference: 1. Reaffirms the statement of the Lambeth Conference of 1978 on homosexuality, recognising the continuing need in the next decade for “deep and dispassionate study of the question of homosexuality, which would take seriously both the teaching of Scripture and the results of scientific and medical research.” 2. Urges such study and reflection to take account of biological, genetic and psychological research being undertaken by other agencies, and the socio-cultural factors that lead to the different attitudes in the provinces of our Communion. 3. Calls each province to reassess, in the light of such study and because of our concern for human rights, its care for and attitude towards persons of homosexual orientation. (Resolution 64 of the 1988 Lambeth Conference)

We did that work and we came first to the conclusion that we needed to honest and open and acknowledge that we (and, in fact, the whole of Christianity) has been ordaining gay men and (when permitted) lesbian women for a long time, but in a closed and closeted way; we needed to be up-front with the world about that. And we now are. As many of you recall, the Episcopal Church approved the ordination of the first openly gay, partnered man as a bishop in 2003, the Rt Rev. Gene Robinson, now-retired Bishop of New Hampshire.

Then over the past decade we have studied the question of same-sex marriage and, at this summer’s General Convention, made the (admittedly) major decision to offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. It is for doing the work requested of us by one “instrument of unity,” that another “instrument of unity” has imposed “consequences.” And I’m OK with that. The rest of the Anglican Communion is still working on the assessment the 1978 Lambeth Conference encouraged us to undertake. Some provinces, such as the Canadian church, the churches in New Zealand, Australia, and Southern Africa, perhaps even the Church of England will, I believe, come to the same place we have come in the not-too-distant future. Other provinces may be further behind. But we are on the forefront, on the cutting edge of what is (I believe) a matter of both social justice and grace and, as I have elsewhere commented about this, when did justice, or the gospel, ever come without a price?

As I reflected on these consequences of our church’s decision in favor of inclusivity in light of today’s lessons, I kept coming back to two things . . . First, the Psalm and those verses which remind us that God’s salvation is boundless, encompassing “both man and beast,” and that all drink from the abundant river of God’s delights. The “consequences” imposed by the Primates’ Meeting, it seems to me, are at odds with that vision of God. Second, I remembered the mixed bag of guests likely to have been at the wedding feast in Cana of Galilee and I remarked upon the fact that John gives us no information about how Jesus responded to his invitation. Did he ask, “Who else is invited?” Did he make sure that only people who lived up to some standard of purity would be amongst those with whom he would be dining and drinking? I kind of doubt it. Certainly, after converting 180 gallons of water into enough wine for everyone to continue partying for a few more days, he placed no restrictions on which of the guests might enjoy it.

God’s abundant blessings are given without restriction, overflowing and excessive, and available to everyone.

One additional thought . . . and I know this may seem to come from out of left field . . . but do you remember what the Episcopal Church teaches is the standard of giving for church members? Of course, you do! It’s the tithe, based on the practice required in the Law of Moses. Various verses in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus required the ancient Jews to deliver the first tenth of their produce, of their crops and of their newborn livestock, to the Temple. But what would happen if a faithful Jew lived too far from the Temple? Suppose he lived in Alexandria or Cairo, in Damascus or Tehran, in Oslo or Tokyo. What was he to do? Any ideas?

[Suggestions of store-housing or giving to the poor.]

Those are good suggestions, but they’re wrong. Here is what the 14th Chapter of Deuteronomy says:

If, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. (Deut. 14:24-26)

This is our God. A God who encourages us to enter into joyous fellowship, who shares abundant grace with all of creation, who invites – indeed, commands! – everyone to party. Everyone!

That is the theology we, the Episcopal Church, have arrived at: that everyone is invited to share the grace of God. For that, we have suffered consequences. But despite the sensationalist and grossly inaccurate headlines: we are still Anglicans. We are the most traditional of Anglicans!

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.

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