That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Music (page 1 of 5)

Simple Wisdom: Sermon for Pentecost 18, Proper 20B, September 23, 2018

The collect for today from The Book of Common Prayer:

Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.[1]

On the positive side, the side of “things heavenly,” there is what James calls the “wisdom from above [which] is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”[2] On the negative side, the side of “things that are passing away,” there is “wisdom [which] does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, [and] devilish.”[3] The text from Jeremiah and the Gradual Psalm remind us what this sort of “negative wisdom” leads to. How do we learn wisdom and how do we learn to choose one sort over the other?

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Relationships: Sermon for Trinity Sunday, May 27, 2018

Some of you may have heard of Brooks’s law, which has to do with the time it takes to complete a software project. It’s similar to the general law of diminishing returns in economics. Professor Fred Brooks of the University of North Carolina first proposed the law in 1975; it holds that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”[1] Each additional worker must be trained and adding more workers increases the need for intercommunication between them so that, at some predictable point, the efficacy of adding more members to a task group is cancelled and doing so lengthens, rather than shortens, the schedule.[2]

I didn’t know about Professor Brooks and his law until I started researching this sermon, and I only learned about it because in the early pages of his book he cites the Anglican theologian Dorothy Sayers and her theology of the Trinity. I will come back to Ms. Sayers and her helpful analogy for the Trinity, and later I’ll return to Brooks’s law, but first I want to share with you some of the metaphors for the Trinity, that peculiar understanding of God that we Christians hold and that we focus on each year on this, the first Sunday after the Feast of Pentecost.

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Sweet, Sweet Spirit: Homily for the Requiem of Organist Roberta Stamper, 8 Sept 2017

Sweet Holy Spirit, sweet heavenly dove,
stay right here with us,
filling us with your love. Amen.

(Please, be seated.)

I wonder if you remember a few years ago when the Broadway actress and singer Patti Lupone performing in a revival of Gypsy stopped the show, broke the “fourth wall,” and berated an audience member who was using his cell phone? She launched into what has been called a “blistering tirade” and “legendary rant,” and had the spectator thrown out of the theater. Her moment of ignominy is preserved forever on YouTube. (Radar Online)

In contrast, there is a story about Wynton Marsalis playing at the Village Vanguard in New York City’s Grennwich Village in 2001 told by The New Republic‘s music critic David Hajdu:

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Stand-Up Jesus and the M&M – Sermon for RCL Proper 12A – July 30, 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 30, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 12A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 29:15-28; Psalm 128; Romans 8:26-39; and St. Matthew 13:31-33,44-52. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Have you ever had a friend try to tell you about going to see a stand-up comedian’s show? When I lived in Las Vegas, this happened fairly often in my workplace. Someone would go to see the late Robin Williams, or Jon Stewart (before he took over the Daily Show), or any of several who made regular appearances on the Strip, and then on Monday morning over coffee they would try to tell us how funny the show was.

Jokes with punchlines, if my co-worker had a good memory and reasonable sense of comedic timing, could be pretty funny. But one-liners . . . not so much. One-liners are pretty much a you-had-to-be-there sort of thing; funny at the time and in the context, but they lose something in the retelling.

This section of Matthew’s Gospel always feels to me like that’s what the author is trying to do here. Just before the bit that we read this morning, Matthew has told the longer stories we heard last Sunday and the week before, the agricultural parables of the sower and of the wheat and weeds, together with their explanatory punchlines. Now he launches into the one-liners that Jesus told: The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, like yeast, like a treasure, like a net, like a peanut M&M, like an Oktoberfest, like plaster that fell into a pipe organ. (OK, the last three aren’t from Jesus, but they could have been.)

These quick parables are offered in rapid-fire, quick succession, without explanation and without time for the reader or hearer to ponder or respond to them. That pondering and response comes later, if it comes at all.

Last week, Philip Yancey, a widely-respected and prolific Christian author, currently an editor-at-large at the magazine Christianity Today, published an op-ed piece in The Washington Post, entitled “The Death of Reading Is Threatening the Soul” (Washington Post, 7/21/2017) He began it with these words:

I am going through a personal crisis. I used to love reading. I am writing this blog in my office, surrounded by 27 tall bookcases laden with 5,000 books. Over the years I have read them, marked them up, and recorded the annotations in a computer database for potential references in my writing. To a large degree, they have formed my professional and spiritual life.

“I used to read three books a week,” he said. But these days that is practically impossible for him, as it may be for many of us. “The Internet and social media have trained [our] brain[s] to read a paragraph or two, and then start looking around.” These rapid, one-liner parables seem almost designed for the social media age; nearly all of them in today’s reading can be trimmed and edited into the 140-character limit of a Twitter tweet (a couple don’t even need to be edited).

But these are not tweets! They need to be taken and understood in context; it’s just that the context isn’t supplied by the surrounding text, in this case Matthew’s gospel, as it is with most short quotations. The context of these short parables is the same as the context of one-liners in a comedy routine that fall flat when someone tries to tell them in the office on Monday morning; the context is in the moment of the telling and the hearing, and for us in the modern world reading Matthew’s re-telling of the one-liners, for us who are not sitting on the Galilean hillside in the moment of telling, our own hearing is the most important element.

Philip Yancey’s op-ed article was a plea to modern Christians to do the “hard work of focused concentration on reading.” He drew on the findings of modern neuroscience that it “actually takes less energy to focus intently than to zip from task to task. After an hour of contemplation, or deep reading, a person ends up less tired and less neurochemically depleted, thus more able to tackle mental challenges.” What Yancey (drawing on the work of writer Sven Birkets) calls “deep reading” “requires intense concentration, a conscious lowering of the gates of perception, and a slower pace;” this is what is needed to build the context for hearing the parables of Jesus. Says Yancey:

Modern culture presents formidable obstacles to the nurture of both spirituality and creativity. As a writer of faith in the age of social media, I host a Facebook page and a website and write an occasional blog. Thirty years ago I got a lot of letters from readers, and they did not expect an answer for a week or more. Now I get emails, and if they don’t hear back in two days they write again, “Did you get my email?” The tyranny of the urgent crowds in around me.

If I yield to that tyranny, my life fills with mental clutter. Boredom, say the researchers, is when creativity happens. A wandering mind wanders into new, unexpected places.

A wandering, creative mind, a mind filled with the products of deep reading rather than cluttered by the superficial demands of “the tyranny of the urgent,” is the context in which the rapid-fire, quick-delivery parables in today’s Gospel become capable of understanding.

“What then are we to say about these things?” asks Paul in today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans. He is, of course, referring to what he had earlier called “the sufferings of this present time,” (v. 18) not to Jesus’ parables. The question, however, applies equally. What are we to say about these parables? How can we say anything if we do not understand them? And how are we to understand them if we have not equipped our minds with the deep reading and varied experience needed to provide the context for our hearing? “Let anyone with ears hear,” says Jesus at the end of many parables; developing our imaginations and our creativity through study and experience is the way we grow those ears. It is the way we give context to these tweet-like one-liners that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, or a net, or a peanut M&M. (You thought I’d forgotten to come back to that, didn’t you?)

Notice that I didn’t say “reading of Scripture” or “Bible study” is how we grow those ears and develop that context. Reading the Bible is great, but the background to Jesus’ parables, the background to life is much broader than one small collection of 66 (Protestant canon), or 73 (Roman Catholic numbering), or 78 (Easter Orthodox reckoning) varied pieces of literature. I think everyone should read the Bible, but spiritual growth requires the building of a contextual foundation, and that requires reading more than the Bible and experience far beyond the walls of the church.

Our psalm today (Psalm 128) is a paean to family life, to the building of a posterity, to the work of insuring peace for all of God’s people through the faithfulness of the family. It speaks to the idea of work which, like deep reading, takes concentration, and time, and a slower pace. It took Jacob fourteen years of work just to marry his two wives, Leah and Rachel, to begin the family that was the foundation of the People of God; his story works well as a metaphor for the work of building the context for understanding God’s Word. The alternative psalm provided in the Revised Common Lectionary is a selection of verses from Psalm 105 including the admonition to “search for the Lord and his strength; [to] continually seek his face; [and to] remember the marvels he has done.” (vv. 4-5a) Deep reading of all sorts of literature, of science, of fiction, of poetry, of the daily newspaper . . . and experience in many and varied areas of life are among the places and the ways in which we can do that.

So Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven is like a lot of things: a mustard seed, yeast, a pearl of great value, a treasure hidden in a field, a net cast into the sea. And then he asked his closest disciples, “Do you understand these things?” He did not tell them what the parables meant; he simply asked if they knew. “Yes,” they answered. To which he replied, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” He expected his disciples to have that experience and background, to have done the hard work of building a contextual foundation for understanding and interpreting the metaphors. He asks us the same question and expects of us the same foundation.

I could stand here and tell you what I think is the meaning of seed, yeast, pearl, or net, and I’ve done so many times over the past decade and a half. Do you remember? Probably not. Because the meaning of the metaphors is found only in context and the context for these bullet-point, tweet-like, one-liner-stand-up-routine parables is your own life, your own imagination, your own deep-reading developed creativity. “What then are we to say about these things?” is a question for you to answer.

And when we have each answered it, when we have wrestled with Jesus’ analogies for the kingdom of heaven, we can begin to develop our own.

“The kingdom of heaven is like an Oktoberfest a church congregation offered to the community.” It is an opportunity for the church to invite its neighbors and the residents of its city to enjoy themselves for an afternoon and an evening, to experience good food (maybe a little beer or wine), good company, good music (we hope), and good fellowship. It brings to our community a foretaste of that great party God has promised to everyone through the Prophet Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Is 25:6) We believe and hope that our Oktoberfest, like the St. Nicholas Tea and St. Patrick’s Last Gasp, will be among those “intangible elements” which “significantly contribute to making place and to giving spirit,” which give “give meaning, value, emotion and mystery to” our common life in the City of Medina. (See International Counsel on Monuments and Sites, Quebec Declaration, 4 Oct 2008)

“The kingdom of heaven is like plaster that fell into a pipe organ.” It presented us with the reality of our stewardship of this building and this instrument; it encouraged us to find our own capacity to make music and sing God’s praise even when deprived of our traditional accompaniment. It prompted someone with no current connection to this parish but with fond memories of the organ to make a major donation to its restoration. Plaster falling into the organ reminds us of Psalmist’s encouragement, “Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises.” (Ps 47:6) The plaster falling into the organ declares with J.S. Bach, “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” (Quoted in Wilbur, G., Glory and Honor: The Musical and Artistic Legacy of Johann Sebastian Bach, Cumberland House, Nashville:2005, p. 1)

“The kingdom of heaven is like a peanut M&M.” I’m still working on that one. I believe it’s a good metaphor, though. The hard candy shell, the rich milk chocolate, the salty kernel at the center; they all speak to me of the spiritual discoveries of the faith.

“Therefore,” said Jesus, “every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” Be like those scribes. Read deeply, experience life, do the hard work of becoming Christian leaders who can mine the wisdom of the ages, both the old and the new, both the religious and the secular, and proclaim the Gospel in context to the people around you. It requires study; it requires imagination and creativity; it requires deep reading and contemplation. But in the end, at the heart of it all, there is great reward; there is understanding, in our own context, of mustard seeds, and yeast, and nets, and pearls, and hidden treasures . . . like the peanut at the center of the M&M.

Amen.

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

A Christmas Lamb Chop: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2016

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are the second set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Christmas in Year A: Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; and St. Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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lambchop1I was in the pet supply aisle at Giant Eagle several days ago getting food for the Archbishop (that’s our black cocker spaniel, Lord Dudley of Ballycraic, the Archbishop Canine of Montville) when I found, right in front of the Beneful which is his favorite meal, a bin filled with these: dog toys in the likeness of a lamb dressed for Christmas. And not just any lamb! This is Lamb Chop, the somewhat snarky puppet introduced to the world by the late Shari Lewis in 1957.

As many of you know, this is something I do every year for this Christmas Eve sermon . . . find something to be a sort of “focus object” or trigger for our Christmas Eve meditations. Lamb Chop just seemed perfectly suited. This Christmas toy suggested four poetic associations to me: one is the title given Jesus by John the Baptizer, “the Lamb of God;” a second was a familiar nursery rhyme; the third was a romantic English poem; and the fourth, a song that Lamb Chop sang on the Shari Lewis television show, all of which can help us explore and understand the Incarnation of God in Christ Jesus.

So, the first thing that comes immediately to mind when we look at a lamb, whether Lamb Chop the puppet dressed up for Christmas or an actual lamb in the fields is the statement made by John the Baptizer in the Gospel of John: “[John] saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn 1:29) That seems an odd way to refer to a grown man, which Jesus was at the time.

The 20th-century bible scholar Joachim Jeremias suggested that a way to understand John’s statement is that he probably used the Aramaic word talya. Jeremias says that “lamb” (amnos in the Greek in which the gospel is written) is a translation of this Aramaic word, which can also be translated “boy,” “child” or “servant.” When Jesus was described as the talya of God, Aramaic speakers of the earliest church would have heard “child” of God, or “son” of God, or “servant” of God, or “lamb” of God. When that gospel story was written after Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, the image of the sacrificial lamb of the Hebrew tradition resonated with the author. (See America)

According to some widely accepted Christian theologies, the sacrifice of the cross is the very reason for which Jesus was born. I’m not entirely sure that’s the case; I suspect that God the Father would much rather have had Jesus followed than killed, but certainly God made use of Jesus’ Crucifixion and through it opened for us the way of salvation. In any event, some people think that the nursery rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, the second thing called to mind by our Christmas Lamb Chop, is about Jesus’ birth as the sacrificial lamb of God. You know the one:

Mary had a little lamb,
a little lamb, a little lamb
Mary had a little lamb,
Its fleece was white as snow.

It’s not really about the Virgin Mary and the birth of Jesus, however. It was written by Sarah Josepha Hale of Sterling, Massachusetts, in 1830, and is said to describe an actual event of a pet lamb visiting the local schoolhouse. (See Wikipedia) Nonetheless, we can learn something about our Christian faith by considering the lamb of that story.

The rhyme continues that the lamb followed Mary and “everywhere that Mary went the lamb was sure to go.” Although I don’t believe that the Son of God was born necessarily or primarily to be a sacrifice, I am sure he was born to be followed; I’m certain Christ came into Creation to teach us how to live life God’s Way. He is the Word given to us to lead us to salvation. The little lamb in the nursery rhyme trusted Mary and followed her, and that is what God wants us to do, to trust and follow the Son so that, with the Son, we may live the abundant life of the Kingdom of Heaven that God constantly offers us. This is what makes his birth so important to us and why we celebrate the Incarnation in our many special ways.

So, anyway, I picked up this Christmas Lamb Chop dog toy and the first thing I did was check to see where it was made. I’m very careful not to give the Archbishop, Lord Dudley, anything made overseas. (I’m sure you’ve heard about the toxins found in dog toys and treats made, for example, in China.) Doing so, I thought of another bit of lamb-inspired poetry, one by the English Romantic poet William Blake. You may know it; it is entitled simply The Lamb. It is, in essence, a question asked of a lamb by a child:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Blake’s poem is a deceptively naive child’s song. Beginning with a descriptive, pastoral stanza, it moves quickly to focus on the abstract spiritual matter of Creation. The child’s guileless but profound question – “Who made thee?” – echoes the deep and timeless question that all human beings have about our origin. It reminds us of the opening lines of John’s Gospel with its abstract account of the Incarnation:

In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him,
and without him not one thing came into being.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us,
and we have seen his glory,
the glory as of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth
(Jn 1:1-3,14)

In Blake’s poem, this profound truth is presented with the naiveté of a child’s puzzle revealing the child’s confidence in a simple and innocent Christian faith. Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mk 10:15) Christmas is a time for us all to experience once again our childlike wonder at the simple beauty that is the Incarnation.

But our Christmas dog toy can trick us! We have to beware of oversimplifying the Incarnation. I read recently about “a Christmas display . . . at [a shopping] mall: giant plush bears robed as Mary and Joseph, beaming at a swaddled Baby Jesus bear in the manger.” Theologian Fredrica Mathewes-Green, who described this display, said of it,

If there was once grand mystery around the Incarnation, it has long since dispersed. Three jolly bears now convey everything we know or expect to know. It is a scene plump with stupidity. Jesus as a cookie. God as a pet. (Patheos)

This, she says, “is very bad news,” because “a circle of cuddly bears is useless at helping us deal with pain. It cannot help us grasp searing heartbreak.” Neither can a puppet, even a nice Christmas Lamb Chop puppet, but it can serve as a warning and a reminder!

Tracy Dugger, an Episcopal priest in Florida, has written about what she calls “meat puppet theology,”

. . . the idea that our bodies are machines simply being utilized and driven around by our minds. The mind/soul is the control, and the body is subservient. This way of thinking about the mind/body connection is wrong, and leads us into some pretty wrongheaded [ideas]. (The Young Anglican)

“The ultimate example of why bodies are important,” she says, is the simple fact that “JESUS HAD ONE! Jesus was Incarnate. Not only was Jesus, Son of God, begotten by the Holy Spirit, He was knit together in Mary’s womb. Jesus was a man of flesh and blood, as well as God from God, light from light.”

Mathewes-Green puts it this way:

God came down in a suit of skin and bones, and walked and talked and offended people, and finally they tortured him to death. And by that death he destroyed death; he rescued us and gave life everlasting and every other good thing. Into this universe crammed with pain we say that God came down, because he loves us with the kind of love that we can only understand by thinking of how a parent loves. (Patheos)

In an Advent meditation offered earlier this week, Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminded us that parental love and every act of kindness is an action of the body. He wrote: “The Spirit of God animates us, but it all happens in the flesh: every deed of kindness, every act of generosity, every word of encouragement happens in the flesh. Every embodiment of Christ’s grace or truth or love happens in the flesh – or it doesn’t happen.”

Tonight, tomorrow, as we celebrate the Word becoming flesh, we celebrate that bodily parental love . . . the love of mother and father tending their newborn child; the eternal love of the Father sending the Son to redeem us. As we celebrate the birth of Jesus to Mary, we celebrate also the truth we recite every Sunday (and this evening) in the Nicene Creed:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father . . .
(BCP 1979, Pg 358)

Jesus was born in Bethlehem once for all time; the Son of God is eternally begotten of the Father and both, as we say in the Creed, for our salvation.

lambchop2Which brings me to the fourth and last bit of poetry our Christmas Lamb Chop brought to mind, which is a song Lamb Chop and Shari Lewis taught their viewers during the 1992 season of the PBS show Lamb Chop’s Play-Along. Some of you may know the song and can sing along:

This is the song that doesn’t end
Yes, it goes on and on my friends
Some people started singing it
Not knowing what it was
And they’ll continue singing it
Forever just because . . .
(Repeat)

There is a contemporary Christmas carol by Canadian folksinger Bruce Cockburn entitled The Cry of a Tiny Babe which expresses the timelessness and eternality of Jesus’ birth in its refrain:

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe
(Cry of a Tiny Baby YouTube)

In the last book of the bible, St. John of Patmos recorded his many visions, the last of which was of the Lamb:

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. * * * Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever. (Rev 21:22-26,22:3-5)

Our Christmas Lamb Chop reminds us that salvation is a song that doesn’t end, that “redemption rips through the surface of time,” and that our Christmas carols are but a faint echo of the multitude’s song of worship before the throne of the Lamb for ever and ever. Mary had a little lamb, the Lamb of God, the Word made flesh through Whom all things were made, Who came down for our salvation, and Whose song of redemption doesn’t end. Yes, it goes on and on, my friends.

Merry Christmas!

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

Stairway to Heaven – Sermon for Easter 4C – April 17, 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, and St. John 10:22-30. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Stairway to HeavenThere’s a lady who’s sure
All that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven
When she gets there she knows
If the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for . . .

As I read and pondered both the vision of heaven in John of Patmos’ Revelation and the words of Jesus – “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me” (Jn 10:27) – I could not get the words of Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven out of my head!

The metaphor of God’s Presence – and of our future and eternal life with God – in a place “beyond the sky” may be the oldest metaphor in the human lexicon. It is shared, in some form, by every culture on earth. Our distant ancestors standing at night and gazing at the moon and the stars, watching the sun as “wide he goes through empty heaven with repose” (RL Stevenson, Summer Sun), or facing “the fierce wind, while mid-day lightnings prowl [and] untimely thunders growl” (Wm Wordsworth, Composed During A Storm) conceived of the sky as a place of unspeakable and unimaginable power, the dwelling place of the gods.

But we have been there; we “have slipped the surly bonds of earth, and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;” we have “trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space.” (JG Magee, Jr, High Flight) Men have walked on the moon and our machines are even now wondering the surface of Mars; our probes have studied the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn, and then left the planetary system entirely moving on “through corridors sublime, the [realms] of interstellar space and [the passageways] of time.” (And Have the Bright Immensities, The [Episcopal] Hymnal 1982, Hymn 459) We know that beyond the blue dome of our earthly sky is not some otherworldly domain filled with angels and gods, but the physical reality of the Solar System, the Milky Way galaxy, and the limitless universe. And, yet, the metaphor of heaven up there beyond the sky where we may get to go when we die, that metaphor still captures our imaginations and our spirits.

Our lesson from the Book of Revelation today is the second half of a two-part vision shown to John in Chapter 7 of the book; it begins with the words “After this. . . .” – “After what?” we may ask. In the first eight verses of the chapter, John is shown the “servants of our God [marked] with a seal on their foreheads,” an army numbering 144,000 – 12,000 from each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. These represent what we traditionally call “the church militant,” defined theologically as Christ’s “disciples [who] are pilgrims on earth” (CCC 954), who are “engaged in constant warfare against the world, the flesh and the devil” (Turner, H.M., The Genius and Theory of Methodist Polity, A.M.E. Church, Philadelphia:1885, online). In other words, you and me and every other Christian currently alive, the people doing Jesus’ work on earth right now. Bible commentator Christopher C. Rowland of Oxford University tells us that the number, 144,000, is neither exclusive nor limiting; instead, like all of the numbers and measures in the book, it is a sign of God’s possession and ownership of the earth and its people. John’s numbers are not “a measure of the success of human endeavours.” (NIB, Vol. XII, page 620)

It is after this part of the vision that John then sees the “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:9) This is “the church triumphant,” those who have died and “are in glory, contemplating ‘in full light, God himself triune and one, exactly as he is.’” (CCC 954) In a word, these are the “saints in heaven.”

John says that “one of the elders” in his vision describes them as those “who have come out of the great ordeal.” (vv 13-14) Early translations use the term “great tribulation” and many have suggested that this refers to some kind of organized persecution that may have been experienced by John’s original audience. But other scholars suggest that “the ‘tribulation’ (thlipsis) of Revelation’s [original] audience was not state-sponsored persecution but rather the social, economic, and religious marginalization of those who refused to participate in the Roman imperial system.” (Barbara Rossing) Thus, the lesson for us “is not that all Christians must shed blood as a form of testimony but rather, all Christians are candidates for tribulation in some form or the other, and in whatever comes their way, it is paramount to follow the Lamb’s way.” (Israel Kamudzandu)

Laurence Hull Stookey, Professor at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C, in his book on the liturgical calendar, reminds us that these saints seen by John are not there by their own merit: “Men and women do not by sheer determination and self-discipline become saints. Sanctity is a divine gift. It is indeed the power of the resurrection at work in human lives. * * * We are saints because God’s sanctity is at work in us, not because on our own we have come to great spiritual attainment.” (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, Abingdon Press, Nashville:1996, pp. 141-42)

In terms of Led Zeppelin’s famous song, we cannot build or buy a stairway to heaven on our own; we can only get there by “follow[ing] the Lamb’s way,” by hearing the Shepherd’s voice, being known by him, and following him. But if we listen to the Shepherd, what do we learn about heaven? What do we learn about where and when it is? Is it, as John’s vision suggests, only accessible after death? Is it, as John’s vision and Led Zep’s song and all the myths and legends of heaven suggest someplace beyond the sky?

Here’s an interesting thing . . . look the word “heaven” up in the New Testament and review all the times Jesus uses it and you will notice something fascinating: Jesus never refers to heaven in anything other than the present tense. Heaven is always now, never then. It’s not in the past; it’s not in the future; it’s now. And the other thing you will notice is that it is not far away: “The good news [is that]‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’” (Mt 10:7) “The kingdom of God has come to you.” (Mt 12:28) “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near.” (Mk 1:15) “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Lk 6:20)

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27) He’s really just repeating something he said earlier in this same chapter: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.” (Jn. 10:14-15) In John’s Gospel, “knowledge is not a cognitive category, but is a category of relationship.” (O’Day, Gail R., NIB, Vol. IX, p. 670) Those who hear his voice and follow him belong to Jesus and are in relationship with him in the same way that Jesus is in relationship with the Father. This kind of relationship “does not mean to be acquainted; rather, it means to have a living bond.” (Haenchen, Ernst, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Fortress Press, Philadelphia:1984, Vol. 2, p. 48)

And what is that “living bond”? Bishop Charles Grafton, early 20th Century bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac, answered that in his commentary on the Catechism: “The Holy Spirit is the living bond which unites us in Baptism to Christ’s nature.” (Grafton, Charles C., A Catholic Atlas: Or Digest of Catholic Theology, Longmans Green, New York:1914, Vol. III, p. 112) It is through the action of the Holy Spirit that we are in relationship with Jesus and hear the voice of our Shepherd, or as the great 17th Century bible commentator Matthew Henry put it: “The great Shepherd of the sheep knows all that are his, guards them by his providence, guides them by his Spirit….” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary, online) The Spirit, as Jesus reminded Nicodemus late one night, “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” (Jn 3:8) So we must listen carefully to hear the voice of our Shepherd.

“It is [a] voice which is especially precious in times of struggle and pain. And it is one we sometimes have to work harder to hear in better times when other voices especially seem to drown it out.” (Janet Hunt) Thus, “we tend to hear God’s voice better when we do so in community with others than when we are listening alone.” (Eric Mathis)

Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven ends with these words:

Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow
And did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll

Our “stairway to heaven” lies on the wind; it depends on the Spirit, who blows where she will and cannot be controlled, but who conveys to us the voice of our Shepherd. “And as we wind on down the road,” as we follow our Shepherd on the path he sets, “all are one and one is all;” we are all in that relationship, that living bond, with God and with one another. And we are not in want. We are cared for and protected, for our Shepherd is also our “strong rock, a castle to keep [us] safe . . . [our] crag and [our] stronghold.” (Ps 31:3) A rock that will not roll.

This is the kingdom of heaven – where we are – on the path with our Shepherd, hearing his voice, and being in relationship with him. We need not buy or build, indeed we cannot buy or build a stairway to get there; we are already here. “The kingdom of God has come to [us].” (Mt 12:28) When the Shepherd speaks and we hear his voice and follow, heaven it is not far away; it is here, always here, never there. Heaven is not in the past, nor is it in the future. It’s always now, never then. It’s here and it’s now.

Let me close by quoting a song about a hundred years older than Stairway to Heaven, a hymn first published in 1883:

Oh, not in far-off realms of space,
the spirit hath its throne;
in every heart, it findeth place,
and waiteth to be known.

Thought answereth alone to thought,
and soul with soul hath kin;
the outward God he findeth not
who finds not God within.

And if the vision come to thee,
revealed by inward sign,
earth will be full of Deity,
and with his glory shine.

Thou shalt not wait for company,
nor pitch thy tent alone:
the indwelling God will go with thee,
and show thee of his own.

O gift of gifts, O grace of grace!
That God should condescend
to make thy heart his dwelling-place,
and be thy daily friend.

(Hosmer, F.L., The Indwelling God, in Sacred Songs For Public Worship, Savage, M. J., ed., Geo. H. Ellis, Boston:1883, p. 35)

Rejoice! The kingdom of heaven has come to you! No stairway required. 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.

The Great Dance with the Christ-about-to-be-Born: Sermon for Christmas Eve 2014

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A sermon offered, on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; and Luke 2:1-20. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Dachshund Plush ToyTonight we gather once again to celebrate a memory, the memory of the birth of Christ, the Christ who is about to be born again as he is every year. We don’t really know if he was born at this time of the year; in fact, most scholars agree he wasn’t. But that doesn’t matter. It isn’t the date that we celebrate; it is his birth, then and in our lives each time we remember.

I have mentioned in this pulpit before my memory of a childhood incident in which my brother, clothed in a cowboy outfit he’d received at Christmas, wondered in a neighborhood bar and, when told that the bar did not serve minors, retorted “I’m not a miner; I’m a cowboy!”

I remember that incident as if it was yesterday. I can see that set of cowboy clothes. I know the bar where it occurred. That memory is as clear as clear can be.

But here’s the weird thing about that memory: That incident happened four years before I was born.

I think probably everyone has memories like that, constructed memories, memories which are ours, but are of events which we did not experience; that’s what it is to be a part of a family, of a community. We share the collective memories of the group and make them our own. Celebrating the Nativity each year at this time is like that, a memory and a future we have made our own because we are part of God’s family.

My first real personal memory is also a Christmas memory. The Christmas I was three years old I got a puppy, a dachshund puppy my father named “Baron.” Baron was probably about ten weeks old and what a mess he made of our Christmas! We had Baron for five years, but when my father passed away and my mother decided that we would move to southern California, Baron had to be given away. Still, one always remembers one’s first dog!

So imagine how delighted I was a few days before Thanksgiving when Evelyn and I went shopping at Aldi and I found this! [Holds up stuffed plush toy dachshund dressed in green Christmas attire] A Christmas dachshund! Like a visit from my first Christmas dog. And imagine my further delight when I squeezed his foot and discovered that he plays this Christmas classic:

[Toy plays truncated version of C+C Music Factory’s Everybody Dance Now]

Everybody dance now
Da da da, Da!
Da da da, Da!
Dance till you can’t dance
Till you can’t dance no more
Get on the floor and get warm
Then come back and upside down
Easy now, let me see ya
Move
(Let your mind)
Move
(Put me online)
The music is my life

Okay, so maybe it’s not so much a Christmas classic . . . . But it did remind me of the Great Dance, a classic metaphor for the actions of God, and how that metaphor can help us to understand and enter into the joy of the God’s Incarnation in the Christ-about-to-be-Born.

This is nothing new, of course; the old Cornish Christmas carol portrays the birth of Christ as an invitation to the Dance.

Tomorrow shall be my dancing day;
I would my true love did so chance
To see the legend of my play,
To call my true love to my dance;
Then was I born of a virgin pure,
Of her I took fleshly substance
Thus was I knit to man’s nature
To call my true love to my dance.
Sing, oh! my love, oh! my love, my love, my love,
This have I done for my true love.

The metaphor of the Great Dance portrays the cosmos as rhythmic, trustingly and lovingly attuned to and following the lead of its Creator. The concept of the Great Dance is found throughout human cultures and predates Christianity. It is found in Plato who wrote, “The dance, of all the arts, is the one that most influences the soul. Dancing is divine in its nature and is the gift of the gods.” The Roman poet Lucian wrote of the dance of the heavenly bodies which came into existence at creation. The Hindu God Shiva is called “Lord of the Dance,” and his eternal dance creates, destroys, and recreates all things. The spiritual practices of many tribal cultures involve communal dance. King David, the Second Book of Samuel tells us, “danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Sam 6:14) as the Ark of the Covenant was brought into Jerusalem. The last of psalms enjoins us to dance:

Praise [God] with the blast of the ram’s-horn; *
praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance . . . .
(Ps 150:3-4a, BCP Version)

In his book To a Dancing God, theologian Sam Keen, wrote that human flesh “has a natural sense of the sacred.” (Harper & Row, 1970, pg 153) When human flesh dances it joins in patterns and takes on memories and dreams of a future that are not originally its own.

Are you a dancer? Do you and your beloved enjoy a turn on the dance floor from time to time? Do you remember what it was like when you were first learning to dance? Tentatively and awkwardly you took your position on the floor, shuffling your feet not knowing where to put them, raising your arms, hands trembling, feeling like an idiot. Where do your hands go? Where do your feet go? Which way should you look? At first, this strange position with arms outstretched in an awkward formal embrace of your partner, your feet oddly placed on the floor, is a position of vulnerability and humility. But eventually, whatever the form you may have been learning – foxtrot, two-step, waltz, tango, whatever it may have been – eventually you learned it; your body learned it; your body with its “natural sense of the sacred” becomes a part of the Great Dance, remembers the steps and moves that were not originally your own.

Those of you who know me well know that for relaxation I like to read science fiction. It was through science fiction that I was introduced to the great Anglican apologist Clive Staples Lewis. Most people become familiar with Lewis because of the Narnia stories and then move on to read The Screwtape Letters and then possibly Lewis’s Christian apologetics such as Mere Christianity or his memoir Surprised by Joy. My first encounter with Lewis was his science fiction trilogy and in that work was where I first read about the Great Dance.

The story of the trilogy centers on an Oxford Don named Elwin Ransom who, in the first book entitled Out of the Silent Planet, voyages to Mars and discovers that Earth is exiled from the rest of the solar system. Ransom learns of and meets angelic beings called eldila who oversee the solar system on behalf of the Creator (who is called “the Old One”). One of these eldila, a being known as the Bent Oyarsa, has turned (as modern Hollywood would put it) “to the Dark Side” and taken control of earth. In the second book, entitled Perelandra, Ransom journeys to Venus. Near the end of the book, Ransom is shown the Great Dance by the eldila. At first, they describe it to him and then he begins to experience it for himself. This is the way Lewis tells it: one of the eldila says to Ransom –

The Great Dance does not wait to be perfect . . . . We speak not of when it will begin. It has begun from before always. There was no time when we did not rejoice before His face as now. The dance which we dance is at the centre and for the dance all things were made.

Others of the eldila speak of the Dance and then Ransom begins to see it for himself. Lewis describes it this way:

And now, by a transition which he did not notice, it seemed that what had begun as speech was turned into sight, or into something that can be remembered only as if it were seeing. He thought he saw the Great Dance. It seemed to be woven out of the intertwining undulation of many cords or bands of light, leaping over and under one another and mutually embraced in arabesques and flower-like subtleties. Each figure as he looked at it became the master-figure or focus of the whole spectacle, by means of which his eye disentangled all else and brought it into unity – only to be itself entangled when he looked to what he had taken for mere marginal decorations and found that there also the same hegemony was claimed, and the claim made good, yet the former pattern not thereby dispossessed but finding in its new subordination a significance greater than that which it had abdicated. He could see also (but the word ‘seeing’ is now plainly inadequate) wherever the ribbons or serpents of light intersected, minute corpuscles of momentary brightness: and he knew somehow that these particles were the secular generalities of which history tells – peoples, institutions, climates of opinion, civilisations, arts, sciences, and the like – ephemeral coruscations that piped their short song and vanished. The ribbons or cords themselves, in which millions of corpuscles lived and died, were things of some different kind. At first he could not say what: But he knew in the end that most of them were individual entities. If so, the time in which the Great Dance proceeds is very unlike time as we know it. Some of the thinner more delicate cords were beings that we call short-lived: flowers and insects, a fruit or a storm of rain, and once (he thought) a wave of the sea. Others were such things as we also think lasting: crystals, rivers, mountains, or even stars. Far above these in girth and luminosity and flashing with colours from beyond our spectrum were the lines of the personal beings, yet as different from one another in splendour as all of them from the previous class. But not all the cords were individuals: some were universal truths or universal qualities. It did not surprise him then to find that these and the persons were both cords and both stood together as against the mere atoms of generality which live and died in the clashing of their streams: but afterwards, when he came back to earth, he wondered. And by now the thing must have passed together out of the region of sight as we understand it. For he says that the whole solid figure of these enamoured and inter-inanimated circlings was suddenly revealed as the mere superficies of a far vaster pattern in four dimensions, and that figure as the boundary of yet others in other worlds: till suddenly as the movement grew yet swifter, the interweaving yet more ecstatic, the relevance of all to all yet more intense, as dimension was added to dimension and that part of him which could reason and remember was dropped farther and farther behind that part of him which saw, even then, at the very zenith of complexity, complexity was eaten up and faded, as a thin white cloud fades into the hard blue burning of the sky, and simplicity beyond all comprehension, ancient and young as spring, illimitable, pellucid, drew him with cords of infinite desire into its own stillness. He went up into such quietness, a privacy, and a freshness that at the very moment when he stood farthest from our ordinary mode of being he had the sense of stripping off encumbrances and awaking from trance, and coming to himself. (Lewis, C.S., Perelandra, Scribner:NYC, 2003, pp. 183-88)

This, then, is the Dance into which the Christ-to-be-Born invites us.

In a book of the Christian apocrypha called The Acts of St. John, we are told that after the Last Supper Jesus came down from the table and danced a ring dance with his twelve disciples. The picture here is of the disciples united with their Rabbi in the mystery of atonement. Sounding through the dance is the voice of Christ, the Logos, the original Word that was there at the beginning, that came to dwell among us, that will be there at the end, imparting the essence of divine mystery through the Great Dance described so brilliantly by Lewis.

Perhaps because of that dance scene in The Acts of St. John, Christian writers, musicians and poets have repeatedly used the image of the dance. Theologians use the Greek word perichoresis, which means “dancing around,” to describe the way in which the Three Persons of the Blessed Trinity relate one to another. In the Trinity’s dance, “each of the divine persons centers upon the others. None demands that the others revolve around him. Each voluntarily circles the other two, pouring love, delight, and adoration into them. Each person of the Trinity loves, adores, defers to, and rejoices in the others. [This] creates a dynamic, pulsating dance of joy and love.” (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Penguin: New York, 2009, p. 215) Creation is a dance with the inner life of the Trinity written all through it and the Christ-about-to-be-Born invites us to join the dance, to share the memories and dreams of God, to be part of the family of God.

Early Fathers of the Church often commented on the dance as a means of worship and of linking the faithful to the angels and blessed souls in Paradise. The Fourth Century bishop, St. Basil of Caesarea wrote, “Could there be anything more blessed than to imitate on earth the ring-dance of the angels . . . . ?” And, although the attribution may be spurious, there is a poem in praise of the dance credited to St. Augustine of Hippo:

I praise the dance,
for it frees people from the heaviness of matter
and binds the isolated to community.
I praise the dance,
which demands everything:
health and a clear spirit and a buoyant soul.
Dance is a transformation of space,
of time,
of people,
who are in constant danger
of becoming all brain, will, or feeling.
Dancing demands a whole person,
one who is firmly anchored in the center of his life,
who is not obsessed by lust for people and things
and the demon of isolation in his own ego.
Dancing demands a freed person,
one who vibrates with the equipoise of all his powers.
I praise the dance.
O man, learn to dance,
or else the angels in heaven will not know what to do with you.

“Tomorrow shall be my dancing day,” sings the Christ-about-to-be-Born in the old Cornish Christmas carol. In a more contemporary song many of you will know, the Christ-about-to-be-Born says:

I danced in the morning when the world was begun.
I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun.
I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth;
At Bethlehem, I had my birth.
Dance, then, wherever you may be;
For I am the lord of the dance, said he.
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be;
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.
(Lord of the Dance by Sydney Carter)

The Christ-about-to-be-Born invites us to join the Great Dance, to share the memories and dreams of God and to be part of the family of God.

Or as Baron the Christmas Puppy would put it [sings]

“Everybody dance now! A-a-a-a-men! A-a-a-a-men! A-a-a-a-men!”

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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.

“You Have Died (a Little)” – A Sermon for Easter Morning – April 20, 2014

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This sermon was preached on Easter Sunday, April 20, 2014, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day were: Jeremiah 31:1-6; Psalm 118:1-2,14-24; Colossians 3:1-4; and John 20:1-18. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Shrouded CorpseSeveral days ago, as I was reading again the Easter story and the sections of the Holy Scriptures appointed for this year, I had the radio on and tuned to my favorite oldies station.

I was prayerfully considering and trying to figure out what Paul was saying to the Colossians when he wrote these words that we heard in the Epistle lesson for today: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) I was trying to figure out what Paul meant by “hidden with Christ.” The Greek word is krypto and in addition to “hidden” it can also mean “secret” or “not noticed.” It is the origin of words like cryptogram and cryptography and also of crypt, a synonym for tomb. What does Paul mean? Is he saying our life is buried with Christ? Or that, somehow, the Christian life is a “secret” or that it goes “unnoticed”?

So I was pondering all of that and my oldies station played a very old and familiar song:

It hurts to be in love when the only one you love
Turns out to be someone who’s not in love with you
It hurts to love her so when deep down inside you know
She will never want you, no matter what you do

And so you cry a little bit
Oh, you die a little bit
Day and night, night and day
It hurts to be in love this way

Some of you are old enough to recognize the lyrics of It Hurts To Be In Love by Gene Pitney, a Top Ten hit from 1964.

And then, right after that song, the radio station played the one which has this as the refrain:

Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his words
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing me softly with his song

That was a Number One hit for Roberta Flack in 1973.

Those songs played just as I was prayerfully considering and trying to figure out what Paul was saying to the Colossians when he wrote: “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) Now I don’t really think that God speaks to me through the radio or in the lyrics of popular songs, although it’s possible that God does. However, that coincidence of lyrics and Biblical text did take me down a path of revelation that I’d like to share with you this morning.

Those songs and songs like them – you can probably name several popular melodies going back to Cole Porter’s 1944 tune Every Time We Say Goodbye (“Every time we say goodbye, I die little”) or before – songs that mention this sense we have all had of “dying a little” because of a broken heart, because of the loss of a loved one, because of a disappointment in life. I think that’s why these songs become popular. We’ve all had that sense of “dying a little inside” for these and for many other reasons. And so Paul writes to the Colossians and to us:

“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

In his historical play Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare has his title character observe that “a coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once.” (Act 2, Sc. 2) Ernest Hemingway took Shakespeare to task about that. In A Farewell to Arms he wrote:

‘The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one’…. (The man who first said that) was probably a coward…. He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave. The brave dies perhaps two thousand deaths if he’s intelligent. He simply doesn’t mention them.

I think the truth is that everybody, valiant or cowardly, everybody dies many little deaths throughout our existence on this earth. Each and every one of us is “killed softly” in myriad ways by the circumstances of life. We have, as Paul wrote to the Colossians, died . . . many times over.

Sometimes those little deaths are the result of our own actions; sometimes they are the result of other’s actions; sometimes they happen because that’s just the way the world is. The world, though created by God to be good, is out of kilter; it is, we say theologically, fallen. The world and everything in it, including you and me, are not in the proper relationship with our Creator. We are not in proper relationship with one another. We call that “sin.” And sin, as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, has weight, a weight that clings to us like dirt, and each time we experience one of those little deaths a little more weight, a little more dirt is tossed on until, as Paul wrote in this simple verse in the letter to the Colossians, we are buried.

“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

Think about the weight of all that sin, all that dying, experienced in little ways every day by all the people who have ever lived . . . think of that weight crashing down
through the centuries,
through the millennia,
through all of time and all of space,
crashing down to a single hour,
a single moment,
a single instant,
on a hill outside of Jerusalem,
on a single man,
a man hanging on a cross
who cried out
“It is finished!”

“You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

They took him down from the cross and laid him in a tomb and on the day after the Sabbath the women came and found the tomb empty. We know that story so well. It is the foundational story of our faith. We know it so well and yet we have to be reminded of it again and again because those little deaths seem to keep happening and hiding it from us. “Our life is hidden;” it gets buried under that weight; it goes unnoticed.

Anastasis IconIn the Eastern Orthodox tradition, icons of the Resurrection depict Christ rising from the tomb with a whole crowd of people. To one side of him crowned and haloed are King David and King Solomon; on the other, we see Abel the first martyr of creation carrying a shepherd’s crook and Moses the first prophet of the Old Covenant. Also present is John the Baptist, who is both the first prophet and the first martyr of the New Covenant. Beneath Christ’s feet, the gates of hell lie broken, often forming a cross. And from two tombs, Adam and Eve are rising, but not of their own accord; Jesus holds them by the wrists and is pulling them from their graves.

The mythological proto-parents of our race, the ancient kings, the prophets and martyrs . . . this little crowd represents all of humankind . . . you and me and all the people who have ever lived, all the people who have ever died any kind of death, whether physical death or the little daily kinds of dying we all have experienced . . .
we are all there,
all being pulled from death,
pulled from out of hiding,
pulled from where we are buried,
pulled from where the life God wants for us is unnoticed,
all rising with Christ to new life.

“In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, . . . ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’” (1 Cor. 52,54-55) “You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”

We celebrate Easter, the historical fact of the Resurrection of Christ, not because it is something that happened 2,000 or so years ago, although it is certainly that. We celebrate the Resurrection because it is something that happens every day. “You have died . . .” Every day in myriad little ways, as those popular songs and our own experience reminds us, we die a little. Every day our life is obscured and hidden; every day our life is made secret even from us and the life God wants for us goes unnoticed.

But . . .
“It is finished!”
That seemingly endless round of sinful little deaths is over;
it crashed down through time and space
to that one instant
on that one cross
and it was done with,
conquered!
“It is finished!”

Every day Jesus, rising from the tomb, grabs us by the wrist and pulls us from the grave. “I came,” said Jesus, “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) Every day, he pulls us up out of the little deaths of sin into the resurrection of that abundant life. “Death has been swallowed up in victory.” “It is finished!”

“When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory,” wrote Paul. (Col. 3:4)
Christ has been revealed; we are revealed with him in glory.
Christ is risen.
We are risen!
Death is conquered!
“It is finished!”
We are free!
Alleluia!

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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.

Salted with Fire – From the Daily Office – April 8, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

Jesus said: “For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 9:49-50 (NRSV) – April 8, 2014.)

Fiery Human FiguresAs Mark constructs his version of the story of Jesus, the Lord has just advised his followers to cut off body parts that might cause them to sin saying it is better to enter Heaven maimed than to be thrown into Hell where “the fire is never quenched.” To this admonition, then, Mark adds this statement about salt.

Has Mark just taken some disparate sayings of Jesus both of which talk of fire and put them together? That’s one theory. Or is Mark accurately relaying a conversation between Jesus and his disciples and, if so, is Jesus suggesting that everyone will be “salted” with hellfire and is he saying that this is a good thing?

The hellfire in question is the fire of Gehenna; the Greek word translated as “hell” in the passage is géennan. This is a reference to the valley of Hinnom, south of Jerusalem, where the filth and dead animals of the city were cast out and burned; thus, it is a metaphor or symbol for wickedness and its destruction.

The “salting” of which Jesus speaks may be simple seasoning, or it may be the use of salt as a food preservative. If the latter understanding applies, Jesus would seem to be saying that everyone will be “preserved” through the purging, the burning away of wickedness and sin. And this makes sense immediately following upon his startling admonition to cut off and dispose of hands, feet, or eyes which might cause one to “stumble.”

A common image for living through troubles and hardships is “going through the fire.” It’s a biblical metaphor drawn from the prophet Isaiah: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isa 43:2) Another prophet, Zechariah, understood such “walking through fire” to have the purgative and preservative effect to which Jesus seems to be alluding: ” I will put [the remnant of Israel] into the fire, refine them as one refines silver, and test them as gold is tested. They will call on my name, and I will answer them. I will say, ‘They are my people’; and they will say, ‘The Lord is our God.'” (Zech 13:9)

One of my favorite hymns, How Firm a Foundation, includes a verse based on this prophecy:

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

I believe it is to this “refining by fire” that Jesus’ deceptively simple statement, “Everyone will be salted with fire,” refers. At one time or another, everyone will be “salted” with hellfire, and as troublesome and even painful as that may be at the time, it is a good thing.

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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.

Mysterium Tremendum et Fascinans – From the Daily Office – March 22, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

People came to see what it was that had happened. They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid. Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it. Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 5:14b-17 (NRSV) – March 21, 2014.)

Falling SnowThe story of the reaction of the people to the curing of the Gerasene demoniac is, I think, unique among the healing stories in the Gospels. Most of the time when people hear of or witness one of Jesus’ healings, he is then swamped by crowds and sometimes has to flee them. Here, we are told that he is begged to go away. As I read the passage, I thought of Isaiah’s reaction to his call: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5) These folks are those who realize they are “a people of unclean lips.” Like Isaiah, they fear being in the presence of holiness.

And yet . . . they were attracted to it initially. It was they who “came to see” what was going on. That is the nature of holiness; it attracts and it repels. Rudolph Otto, a great early 20th Century Lutheran theologian, defined “the holy” by these characteristics. He coined the term “the numinous” (derived from the Latin numen, “divine power”) and described it as a “non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self.” (The Idea of the Holy, 1917)

Otto used the Latin phrase mysterium tremendum et fascinans to describe the “object” of this experience. Mysterium (“mystery”) denotes the wholly Other which can be experienced only with blank wonder or stupor. Tremendum (“awe inspiring” or “terrifying”) describes the absolute unapproachability of God in whose presence one appreciates a sense of one’s own nothingness and utter dependence. Fascinans (“fasinating” or “attractive”) signifies the holy’s potent charm which draws us to it despite our fear.

For many, this is the experience of walking into a sacred space, a place where God’s majesty has been revealed before. Places of worship, religious architecture and art, great church music are some of the human attempts to reflect the mystery of God and often form the backdrop for the experience Otto describes. But Otto was quick to point out that more often the experience comes in non-religious settings. The numinous may be and often is experienced in our appreciation of a mountain vista, the changing colors of autumn leaves, the flight of migratory birds, or the awesome majesty of lightening and thunder.

Yesterday at 10 a.m., when the National Weather Service and all the commercial weather forecasters predicted a partially sunny day with ambient temperatures getting above 50F, I looked out my office window and saw snow falling thickly and the ground blanketed in white! I had that “non-rational, non-sensory experience” of which Otto speaks, that sense of the utter unknowability and unpredictability of creation. No matter how much we study and how much we learn (at least so far in human existence) there is still that part of reality that we don’t know and don’t understand. For all of our experimentation and hypothesizing, for all of our theoretical mathematics, there is still that millionth of a billionth of a trillionth of a second at the beginning of time about which we know nothing. For all of our biological and medical and chemical knowledge and experimentation, there is still that glimmer in my lover’s eyes, there is still that lilt in my daughter’s laughter, there is still so much that warms my heart and soul that cannot be explained, that is and can be appreciated only in a non-rational and non-sensory way.

It is fascinating and attractive, and it is, as my kids are wont to say, awesome!

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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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