That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Tag: James

Eternal Now: Homily for the Requiem of Hildegarde B_____, 24 November 2018

We are gathered here today to honor and remember our friend and sister in Christ, Hildegarde B_____; to give thanks for her life and witness; to pray for her repose and for comfort for those who love her; and to praise God for God’s ineffable goodness. As many of you know, at times like these I turn to the work of the poets to help me process and understand the events of life. We have in our readings from Holy Scripture the work of the poet called “Qoheleth the preacher”, the famous opening of the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, set to music by Pete Seeger in the 1950s and made popular in the 1960s by The Byrds. Hildegarde selected that reading both for her husband Earl’s funeral and for her own.

I’ll come back to the words of Qoheleth in a moment, but the poem that came to mind as I considered what I might say about or learn from Hildegarde is one by the contemporary British artist, poet, and cyclist Carlo Castelvecchio entitled A Ride Through Time:

I ride through time,
Stretching it out with surreal distortion,
I ride for freedom,
I am immortal, freedom from the fear of death,
I push myself to the limit of my mortal frame,
then transcend that human pain,
enter into that fourth dimension.

My wheels no longer touch the ground,
they’re floating on passionate effort,
a whole-hearted, single-minded effort,
the rhythm of a perfect circle,
a pulsing rhythm that rises above the world’s woes.

Movement brings freedom.

Unfettered yet fitting in perfectly,
unconventionally conventional,
an independent form of movement.

I know exactly how far I have traveled,
I can feel how far I have moved.

Allow the spirit of your surroundings to feed your movement,
the harder I push the more I merge with my surroundings,
my aim is to reach that point of effortless movement,
turbo boosted blood pumping round my muscles,
my spirit is one with my body,
brain, muscles and spirit in total harmony,
producing a pure single-minded effort,
human body, trees, mountains, rivers, spirits and bike.[1]

She was a strong woman, a strong-willed woman, sometimes abrasively so. She was opinionated and not unwilling to share those opinions, which she was quite convinced were correct and, if you disagreed with her, you were simply wrong. She might occasionally have been what one would call “cantankerous,” sometimes “curmudgeonly,” but mostly she was just forthright and plain spoken, take it or leave it as you would. Her name was Martha __________.

(I’ll bet you thought I was describing someone else….)

Martha __________ was the director of the Altar Guild at St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church where I was rector for ten years before coming to Medina. She was also a very active participant in every educational offering ever made at St. Francis Church. Bible studies, Anglican or Episcopal history courses, Lenten soup-supper programs, whatever, Martha took part in them all and in every one, eventually, Martha would get us around to what she really wanted to talk about: “What I want to know,” she would ask, “is what’s going to happen when I die?” I came to think of that, and still think of it, as “the Martha __________ question” – “What’s going to happen when I die?”

About three weeks ago around noon on a Friday, Jennifer B_____ called me to ask if I could stop by her mother’s room at Brookdale; Hildegarde wanted to talk to me. “Sure,” I said, “but not today. Would tomorrow be all right?” She said it would and so on Saturday morning, I went to see Hildegarde. After an exchange of pleasantries, we got around to what she wanted talk about. I could see it coming a mile away . . . the Martha __________ question! “What’s going to happen when I die?” Now, it’s the Hildegard B_____ question . . . and I gave Hildegarde the same answer I gave Martha.

What I told them, and what I tell you, is that I don’t know what happens when we die! I haven’t done that yet; I haven’t been there yet. However, what I could tell them and what I now tell you is what I believe, what I understand our faith to teach. First, I believe that everyone who dies rests in the Lord in a place – or perhaps it’s better to say a state of being – we name Paradise, and we rest there until what the church calls “the last great day,” the day of the general resurrection when (as the Evangelist Luke put it paraphrasing the prophet Isaiah) “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”[2] On that day, we will be reunited with our loved ones and together we will stand before the throne of God. On that day, we will face judgment about which Jesus told us:

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.[3]

But on that day we will also find mercy and forgiveness, for we are called to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy,”[4] and “mercy triumphs over judgment.”[5] Thus, St. Paul could rightly assure us

. . . . that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[6]

In the end, I believe, and I believe our faith teaches us, that we will be united with God in love.

That, of course, is from the human perspective of time, of chronos as it was called by the Greeks. It is this chronological time about which Qoheleth wrote when he said that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die . . . a time to mourn, and a time to dance . . . a time for war, and a time for peace.”[7] In Hildegarde’s life there was a time to be born, a time to experience the exotic sights and sounds of Tehran as a teenager in the early ‘50s, a time to fall in love with Earl B_____, get married, raise a family, a time to complete a couple of degrees and to teach high school English, a time to know the joys of piloting her own plane and to bicycle across the hills and through the valleys of Michigan and Ohio. This is how we humans experience time and so we think in terms of the Martha McEldowney question.

But there is another way to think of time and that is how we believe God sees it, what theologians call kairos, another Greek word for time. In Greek, it means “the critical time” or “the opportune moment.” Theologically, it is what theologian Paul Tillich called “the eternal now”[8] in which all those times listed in Ecclesiastes, all the times of our lives are the same moment, now. This is what the author of the letter to the Hebrews hints at when he says that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”[9] This is what John of Patmos tried to express when he described God as the one “who is and who was and who is to come.”[10] This is what we try to express in our liturgy when we end a psalm with the Gloria Patri saying, “Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.”[11]

We struggle to describe kairos, though occasionally we are able to perceive it through our prayer or our music. Sometimes we feel it during worship; in Eastern Orthodox theology, Divine Worship is understood to be an intersection of chronos and kairos. We are, however, limited creatures, trapped in chronos, and so we cannot fully experience God’s “eternal now” until that “last great day” when, as our lesson from the First Letter of John puts it, God “is revealed, [and] we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.”[12]

That is what I believe, and what I believe our faith teaches us, that in the end we will be united with God in love, and experience God’s kairos. As St. Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”[13]

In that “eternal now,” we will (as our gospel lesson promises) abide in Christ’s love, just he abides in the Father’s love.[14] We will, as cyclist-poet Carlo Calvecchio wrote, “ride through time . . . immortal . . . free from the fear of death . . . in total harmony” with our Creator and with one another.

I believe that was what Hildegarde experienced in her cycling, the harmony about which Calvecchio wrote, and I believe that is what she is experiencing now, what we will all experience when our chronos finally and eternally intersects God’s kairos.

As I was looking for Calvecchio’s poem, I found another short piece by another cyclist poet with whose words I will close. This is October Warm by Michael Blotzer:

I cannot turn
down the road
to the house
where dinner waits

The morning’s frost
into October warm evaporated
and the road stretches through red and gold
to a sky as blue as the black of space

The rhythm of heart and lungs
of legs and cranks
the whisper of chain and gears
of tires on pavement
form a mantra that chants

There is no past
no future
there only
is.[15]

As our Book of Common Prayer expresses it, in death “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.”[16] “Death [is merely] the gate of eternal life [through which] we [will be] reunited with those who have gone before.”[17]

And that, Hildegarde – and Martha – and all of you, that is what I believe and what I believe our faith teaches us happens when we die. No past, no future, only God’s eternal now, reunited with all who have ever been important to us and, in the words of our opening hymn, filled with God’s goodness and lost in God’s love. Hildegarde, the Christian hope is that some day we will see you again and confirm that what I told you is true!

Let us pray:

Almighty God, with whom still live the spirits of those who die in the Lord, and with whom the souls of the faithful are in joy and felicity: We give you heartfelt thanks for the good examples of all your servants, who, having finished their course in faith, now find rest and refreshment. May we, with all who have died in the true faith of your holy Name, have perfect fulfillment and bliss in your eternal and everlasting glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[18]

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This homily was offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on November 24, 2018, at the Requiem Mass for Hildegarde B_____ at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston was rector.

The lessons used for the service (selected by the family of the decedent) are Ecclesiastes 3:1-8; Psalm 23; 1 John 3:1-2; and St. John 15:9-12.

The illustration is Bicycle Day by John Speaker, available for purchase here. Used here with permission of the artist.

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

[1] Bicycling Poetry, Bicycle Life, online

[2] Luke 3:6

[3] Matthew 25:31-33

[4] Hebrews 4:16

[5] James 2:13

[6] Romans 8:38-39

[7] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2,4,8

[8] See Tillich, Paul, The Eternal Now (Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York:1963)

[9] Hebrews 13:8

[10] Revelation 1:8

[11] Daily Morning Prayer: Rite Two, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 80

[12] 1 John 3:2

[13] 1 Corinthians 13:12-13

[14] John 15:10

[15] Bicycling Poetry, op. cit.

[16] Proper Preface: Commemoration of the Dead, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 382

[17] Burial of the Dead, Rite Two, Opening Collect, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 493

[18] Burial of the Dead, Rite Two, Additional Prayers, The Book of Common Prayer 1979, page 503

Blind Bartimaeus – Sermon for Pentecost 23, Proper 25 (28 October 2018)

Two weeks ago, Mark told us the story of the rich man who came to Jesus asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”[1] Today, in contrast, we have the story of Blind Bartimaeus.

The rich man came asking what he could do to earn salvation. Jesus gave him what turned out to be an impossible task, give up his wealth for the benefit of the poor, then come and follow Jesus. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, sits at the side of the road and simply calls out to Jesus asking for mercy. Though the crowd tries to silence him, Jesus hears him and asks what he wants. “To see again” is his reply and this request is immediately granted. “Go,” says Jesus, “your faith has made you whole.” The rich man is told to give everything up and then follow, but he goes away. Bartimaeus, in a sense, is given everything when his vision is restored and told to go away, but he follows.

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Protecting God? Sermon Pentecost 19, Proper 21B, September 30, 2018

Today the Lectionary gives us what, at first glance, are two stories about leadership, but what they really are are stories of people trying to protect God (or God’s appointed leader) in inappropriate ways

First, we have the story from the Book of Numbers which tells of the complaints of hunger voiced by the Hebrew wanderers to Moses. I have to admit that, growing up in Nevada as I did, I always thought that “fleshpots” was a much more lascivious word than it turns out to be; all it means is “stewpots.” The people yearned for the foods with which they had become familiar in Egypt.

Living along the Nile, they had been able to fish and get that source of protein for free. When they worked on whatever project they were assigned as “slaves of Pharaoh,” apparently they were fed from the fleshpots. Bible commentator Adam Clark writes, “They were doubtless fed in various companies by their task masters in particular places, where large pots or boilers were fixed for the purpose of cooking their victuals.”[1] They had grown used, perhaps, to receiving a ration of a stew probably made of lentils, some sort of grain, and mutton flavored with leeks, garlic, and onions. Even though they were getting manna from God, they longed for the familiar flavors of Egypt, the familiar certainties of slavery. As a colleague of mine has commented, “You can take the people out Egypt, but you can’t take Egypt out of the people.”

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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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The Socratic Method, Jesus, and Birmingham – Sermon for Pentecost 17, Proper 19B, September 16, 2018

Fifteen years ago when I came to Medina for the first time in my life to meet the people of St. Paul’s Parish and, with them, make the mutual determination whether our life-paths were to converge, Earl and Hildegarde picked Evie and me up at the Cleveland airport. They first took us to Yours Truly Restaurant where we had a bite of lunch and then they brought us here, so that we could see the church.

I walked into this worship space and, quite forgetting that the patron saint of the parish is Paul the Apostle, I looked up at the altar window and I thought, “Why do they have a stained-glass window of Socrates?” As some of you may know, there is a bust of Socrates by the Greek sculptor Lysippus in the Louvre museum in Paris that the man in that window looks a good deal like; I suspect the 19th Century artisan who made that window took it as his inspiration. Of course, it’s not Socrates in the window; it’s Paul holding forth amongst the philosophers of Athens at the Hill of Mars, a story told by Luke in the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts.

Nonetheless, I thought of Socrates and our window this week as I contemplated this Sunday’s lessons, two of which (the prophecy of Isaiah and the Letter of James) discuss the ministry of teaching and one of which tells the story of Jesus’ instructing the Twelve.

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Transforming Generosity: Jesus & the Syrophoenician Woman – Sermon for Pentecost 16, Proper 18B, September 9, 2018

Last week we began our parish’s annual fund campaign with the theme “Transforming Generosity.” You should have received your pledge card for 2019 together with a letter about the nature of stewardship and generosity. There was an article in the newsletter similar to that letter, and early in the week you received an email (if you receive email) which is repeated on an insert in your bulletin this morning. Your parish leadership team has asked and will continue to encourage you to do two things that may seem contradictory: first, to make your financial commitment for 2019 earlier than usual, and second, to take your time in doing so. Our hope is that you will submit your estimates of giving on or before the first Sunday in November, but that you will give real prayerful and careful consideration to how your financial support of your church reflects your relationship with God. Stewardship, as that letter said, is not a matter of fund raising; stewardship is a matter of spiritual health. The “Transforming Generosity” theme hopes to inspire you to be a faithful steward and so to give as an expression of your relationship with God.

So, I’d hoped to preach a stewardship sermon this week, but . . . alas . . . the Lectionary saddles us this Sunday with a story that doesn’t much lend itself to discussing stewardship and generosity; it’s the story of Jesus basically insulting a Syrophoenician woman who comes to him begging healing for her daughter. Instead of doing so, he says to her, “It is not fitting to throw the children’s food to the dogs.”[1] I have wrestled with this text from Mark more times than I like (at least ten times as the lectionary has cycled round in my thirty years of ordained ministry) and I have yet to win. Scholars have been wrestling with this text for two thousand years and I don’t think they have won either. There are just no commentaries which offer any sort of exegesis of the story that I find satisfactory; either Jesus’s use of the term “dog” to refer to the Gentile woman is excused away or it is ignored. The commentaries which acknowledge the rudeness, the downright vileness of the comment do no more than that; there’s little or no help in resolving our dilemma.

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Teach Your Children (Labor Day): Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 17B, September 2, 2018

You, who are on the road
must have a code
that you can live by.
And so become yourself
because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well . . . .

If you are as big a fan of the folk rock of the 1970s as I am, you will recognize the opening lines of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit Teach Your Children.[1] Graham Nash who wrote the song has said that it was inspired by a 1962 photograph take by Diane Arbus of a young boy in New York’s Central Park playing with a toy hand grenade. I have no reason to disbelieve that, but I wonder also if today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led through Sinai to the brink of the Promised Land, might also have been in Nash’s mind. The song is a neat paraphrase of what Moses says.

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