Category Archives: Anglican Comment

Sunday Morning at Home

It’s very strange to be sitting in my den at 8:00 a.m. on a Sunday morning!

The past two days, northeastern Ohio received a considerable about of snowfall – nearly 20″ in our area.  This is not large for some areas, but for us, at the end of the winter season (with the municipalities run out of road salt), this is a load!  Three local counties, including our own, either ordered or requested that people stay off the roads — emergency traffic only.

So, like our neighbors the United Church of Christ congregation, the Foursquare Gospel chapel,  the Lutheran parish, and others … we canceled our morning services.  (An evening service is as yet undecided.)

For a clergy person, sitting home on a Sunday morning doing nothing is bizarre!  In a few minutes, my wife will probably get up — we will read the Daily Office together (which we do every other day of the week), and then we will watch one of the Sunday morning TV news-and-talk shows (probably CBS’s Sunday Morning).

This is, I suppose, how many of the 80% of Americans who don’t attend religious services spend their Sunday mornings.

I have to admit that I can understand why people would prefer to laze about, relax, not jump out of bed, shower, shave, down a quick cup of java, and rush off to church.  (To say nothing of getting the kids out of bed on yet another morning….)  Yes, I can understand that.

And yet, I don’t understand it, because right now for me there is something missing.  The fellowship, the music, the liturgy of Holy Communion, the sense of connection with God and with men and women who share that connection … that’s what’s missing.  An easy morning with the television and the newspaper simply cannot take the place of that connection.

Sunday morning at home just doesn’t compare with Sunday morning at church!

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Preaching Extemporaneously

I did not post sermons for October 28, nor for November 4, because on both occasions I did not preach a prepared sermon.  In fact, I would have to say that I did not preach at all.

On October 28, I did what I called “a factual instruction” on tithing using some of the elements set out in my posting here of October 19.  I witnessed to the fact that my wife and I are tithers and what that means for us, and I invited the congregation to join us in dreaming what might happen, what could happen, what would happen if every parish household tithed.

On November 4, I preached briefly, extemporaneously on the meaning of All Saints Day, tied it to the democratic nature of our denominational polity, and invited those present to ask questions about the way we live together as a church.  It was an interesting experience, especially given the secular media’s coverage of recent events in the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh.

Preaching extemporaneously is always a dangerous exercise, and often a scary experience…. I’m usually surprised with what comes out of my own mouth and, frequently, when I think I’ve been simply struggling to say anything of value … that’s when I get some the greatest compliments about my sermon.  Go figure!

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God Is a Nag! (Sermon for Proper 24c, October 21, 2007)

What is this parable about? Jesus told this parable to his disciples “about their need to pray always and not lose heart;” at least that’s what Luke tells us this parable is about. But I’m not so sure this is a parable about prayer.

Does Jesus really mean that we are supposed to nag God? Is that what it means? Does it mean that if we harass God enough, if we beg long enough, if we keep asking for something often enough, God will finally give in and give us what we want?

I don’t think so. I think this is a parable about something else and the key to what it’s about is found in a phrase in our lesson from Jeremiah that is also repeated in the Second Letter to Timothy. Twice in this short piece from Jeremiah, the prophet writes (on God’s behalf) “the days are surely coming…” And the author of this letter to a young bishop giving him advice on how to do his ministry uses the phrase “the time is coming.”

Could this parable be about the time, the days that are coming?

There are two clues in Luke’s Gospel that it just might be. The first is a missing word!

Our Gospel lesson today comprises the first eight verses of Chapter 18 of Luke’s Gospel. But the people who edited our book of eucharistic lessons left our the very first word. Your bulletin insert, which copies the lesson as shown in the reading book, indicates that the first word of verse one is Jesus … but it’s not! The first word in the eighteenth chapter of Luke is Then.

When a lesson, a paragraph, a sentence begins with the word then, that usually suggests that the words that come before it are nearly as important as the words that come after it. So we ought to look at Chapter 17 as we try to make sense of this first story in Chapter 18, don’t you think? If we did that, we’d discover that Jesus tells this parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow in the context of a conversation with the Pharisees.

The Pharisees have come to Jesus and asked him a question. “Jesus,” they said. “You’re a smart guy. Perhaps you can tell us. When is the Kingdom of God coming?” Jesus’s answer is typically ambiguous, at least in the Greek Luke was writing in. Some translators say the Greek words in Jesus’s answer mean, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a personal thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that the individual is spiritually growing or spiritually mature. Other translators say the Greek means, “The Kingdom of God is among you.” That would mean that the Kingdom of God is a community thing, that it is here in the sense of and to the extent that our relationships one with another and with the world around us are spiritually authentic. Of course, the beauty of New Testament Greek is that it can and probably does mean both of those things!

So Jesus tells the Pharisees that the Kingdom of God is, in some sense, already here. Then he turns to his closest associates, the disciples, and says, “But it’s also not here yet….” And goes on to warn them that they really don’t want to be around when it arrives! The “day of the Son of Man,” says Jesus, is going to be really unpleasant. And then … then is when he tells this parable.

This isn’t a parable about prayer at all … it’s a parable about the Kingdom of God which Jesus ends with a question, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

But the parable must have something to do with prayer! So let’s consider two questions. First, how does God answer prayer? Second, why do we pray?

Note that my first question is not, “How do expect God to answer prayer?” I can tell you that … we take it for granted that God is going to answer our prayers in the way we have packaged for Him. We give God multiple-choice test with three answers: “Yes,” “No,” or :Wait.” We do that every time we make a petition, as we will do in our prayers of the people in a few minutes:

“God, there are some people who are sick and need to be comforted and healed. What’s your answer? Yes? No? Later?”

“God, there are some people in danger because of that stupid war over in the Middle East. Keep them safe, OK? What’s you answer? Yes? No? Later?”

“God, there are some people who are celebrating birthdays and anniversaries. Shield them in their joy! What’s your answer? Yes? No? Wait?”

Of course, we only ever acknowledge it when God says “Yes” to our prayers. I was recently with a friend whose mother just came home from the hospital. We were talking about what a miracle that was because she had been very ill and not expected to survive. “Isn’t it wonderful,” he said, “that God answers prayers? Praise God for that.”

I wondered if he would still have said “Praise God” if God’s answer to the prayers for his mother’s healing had been “No.”

But God doesn’t answer our prayers with a “Yes,” “No,” or “Wait!” God’s answers in another way … but before I get to that, let’s consider the other question.

Why do we pray?

We do not pray to tell God about something God doesn’t already know. We do not pray in order to give God advice. We do not pray so that we can convince God to do something he wasn’t going to before.

We pray to conform our will to God’s. That was what Jesus taught his disciples when they asked to teach them to pray, “Thy will be done.” That was the prayer he exemplified in his own life, especially in the Garden at Gethsemane when prayed, “If it is possible let this cup pass from me, yet not my will, but thine.”

And that, the reason we pray, the confirming of our lives to God’s will, is why when God answers prayer the answer is most often not “Yes,” or “No,” or “Wait.” The answer is most often “You”:

“God, there are some sick people who need comforting.”
“Oh … You! You take care of them.”

“God, there are some people in danger in that war.”
“Oh … You! You find a way to work for peace.”

“God, there are some people who are hungry.”
“Oh … You! You feed them.”

“God, there are some people having birthdays.”
“Oh … You! You go celebrate with them!”

Which brings us back to the parable.

A way to understand parables is to ask ourselves two things. Where is God in the parable? And where are we in the parable? In this parable, there are two characters. Which one is God? Is God the unjust judge who has no regard for anyone not even himself? That doesn’t seem very likely, does it? So that must mean God is the widow seeking justice. And if God is the widow, then that must mean ….

Prayer is about God transforming our lives. And like the widow seeking justice, God can be something of a nag until that happens. But if we go to God constantly in prayer, and if our prayer is made with the intent that we seek to conform our lives to God’s will, then the question with which Jesus ended the parable will be answered in the affirmative. We will be people of faith.

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Church Pledges, Tithes … Dreams

OfferingThis is that time of year that I am sure most clergy like just about as much as having a tooth pulled without anesthesia; it is that season when we endure the annual campaign to get parishioners to pledge their financial support of the church for the coming year.

Members of my parish will soon be receiving a letter and a flyer encouraging them to think about the “rainbows” all about us in our lives and in the church. The letter will suggest that they find the rainbows that encourage them to come to our church for worship and fellowship and celebrate those rainbows with their pledge … with the biggest pledge they have ever made.

In another week or so, the parishioners will receive another letter, another flyer, and a pledge card for 2008. This letter may also include a budget worksheet setting forth some of the possibilities and priorities of the vestry for mission and ministry (whether it does will depend upon actions taken at the vestry meeting on October 22, 2007).

When a Christian considers how much to pledge and how much to give to his or her church, the Episcopal Church teaches that the starting point is “the tithe” – the biblical call to return to God, through the religious establishment, one tenth (10%) of our earnings. In the July 2001 issue of Networking, the newsletter of the Episcopal Network for Stewardship, Terry Parsons (Stewardship Officer of the Episcopal Church), set forth these facts about tithing in an article entitled The Give and Take Connection:

Did you know that if Christians in the United States had tithed in 1998, they would have contributed an additional $131 billion to their churches? International organizations that deal with health matters estimate that $2.5 billion annually could stop an estimated 11.1 million deaths of children under the age of five that take place each year. These are the so-called preventable deaths due to things like starvation and the lack of immunization as well as what most U.S. parents consider ordinary medical care. That’s right. We could have prevented the deaths of approximately 30,410 children each day and still had $128.5 billion left over! We could have spent $7 billion providing primary education for the world’s children who are currently without it and doled out another $70 to $80 billion providing basic services for the rest of the world’s population in need of same. Still, we would have had a princely $40.5 to $50.5 billion or so to lavish on ourselves in the form of priests, musicians, youth leaders, lay leadership training and Christian formation, plus we could repair leaky roofs, wheezing organs and rusty plumbing, and then do new construction and assorted other maintenance and ministry needs here at home. Sounds downright miraculous, doesn’t it? And all it takes is a faithful ten percent from each of us.

Wikipedia reports the following about our city, based on the 2000 census:

The median income for a household in the city was $50,226, and the median income for a family was $57,435. Males had a median income of $42,437 versus $26,893 for females. The per capita income for the city was $21,709. About 5.1% of families and 5.7% of the population were below the poverty line, including 7.1% of those under age 18 and 6.2% of those age 65 or over.

Our parish has approximately 160 active member households. If each of those households earned only the per capita income shown in these data, and if each of those households pledged a tithe, the parish’s income from pledged contributions would be $347,360! If each of those households earned the per household median and tithed, the total pledged income would be $803,680.

That’s something to think about! It certainly demonstrates that what Terry Parsons wrote about is true in our church and our community!

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Get Going! Sermon for October 14, 2007

The following is the sermon I will preach tomorrow (Sunday, October 14, 2007):

The experience of being a candidate for the episcopate is over. Episcopalians in Nevada selected another nominee and so the journey for Evelyn and me is ended. It was a good journey, a voyage of discovery. We learned things about our home state we might never have known. We met and formed relationships with interesting people, one of whom is the new bishop of Nevada. We discerned things about the church there and about ourselves. We grew and we changed, and that is the most important thing.

It really does not matter that I was not elected bishop. That was never the guaranteed end of the journey, as I kept cautioning all of you. No end of any journey is ever guaranteed. But what is guaranteed is that along the path of every journey we will learn things, we will find new things, we will meet new people. Every journey is a voyage of discovery and an opportunity for growth and change.

The people of God in exile in Babylon were on a journey – not one they took voluntarily, but nonetheless a journey. They had a choice about the journey, as every traveler does. They could sit at the side of the road or they could move on. If they had chosen the first alternative, they would die. The Babylonian conquerors would have killed them. End of journey! No learnings, no discoveries, no growth. Just death.

Their journey did not end when they arrived at the place of exile elsewhere in the Babylonian empire. In truth, it had just begun. About 4,000 important Jewish men and there families were moved from Jerusalem and its environs to various places near the city of Babylon, perhaps 18,000 people or so in all. They originally expected their exile to be short, but Jeremiah the Prophet, who wrote to them the letter described in today’s Old Testament reading, suggested otherwise. He expected it to be at least 70 years in length and perhaps as long as seven generations. So on behalf of God, he wrote them some advice.

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

In a word, Jeremiah’s (and God’s) advice is simple: “Get on with your lives. Don’t just sit there and stagnate. Move forward.” In other words, the journey continues, continue to journey. And, again, the people of God had a choice about the journey. They could sit or they could move on. And, again, the consequences of sitting would have been the same: no learnings, no discoveries, no growth. Just death.

This is also the lesson we can take from today’s story in Matthew’s Gospel. This is not a parable, a story told by Jesus with some esoteric meaning we have to dig deep to find. This is simply the report of one of his many works of healing, but in it we find again the message that it is the journey, not the destination, that holds promise.

Remember what happened. Jesus was traveling through the countryside and encounters a group of ten lepers who call out to him. Rather than simply wave his hand or do some bit of what might look like magic, he says to them “Go show yourselves to the priests.” This, of course, meant that they had to make a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. This was in accord with the Jewish law which requires that a person afflicted with a skin disease and therefore considered “unclean” and an outcast, must be examined by and certified by a priest as healed before they may re-enter society.

The thirteenth chapter of Leviticus sets forth the regulations and instructions on how a person with any form of skin eruption was to be handled. Such a person was to be taken to one of the priests for examination to determine if the eruption might become an infectious skin disease. Such an eruption made on ceremonially unclean, so after the first such examination the person would be placed in isolation for seven days. Then another priestly examination was performed. If the problem had cleared up, the priest would perform ritual cleansing lasting another seven days, an animal sacrifice would follow, and then the priest would issue a pronouncement that the formerly infected person was now clean. It was this procedure to which Jesus sent the ten lepers, but it was not this procedure which worked the healing. It was the journey which worked their healing. As Matthew tells us, “And as they went, they were made clean.” And one of them, the Samaritan, discovered something … he learned who Jesus was and that the destination was not as important as the journey, so he turned away from his intended path to the Temple and made his way back to Jesus, to give thanks and perhaps to learn more.

The lepers, like the People of God taken to Babylon, had a choice to make. They could sit at the side of the road or they could move on. If they had chosen the first alternative, they would die. Their disease, or its complications, would have killed them. End of journey! No learnings, no discoveries, no growth. Just death.

Most sermons that I have heard or read about this story from Matthew’s Gospel focus on the need to give thanks and make a hero of the thankful Samaritan. There is nothing wrong with that focus and I believe we all need to examine our own consciences from time to time to ask whether we have given sufficient thanks for the blessings we have received during our life’s journeys. However, today I want to focus not on the cured Samaritan leper’s thankfulness, nor on our own. I would like to focus our attention on the lepers at an earlier time in the story and on the People of God in exile in Babylon. I want to look at them at the point where they had to make their decision to move, their decision to get on with life, their decision to be on the journey not just sitting at the side of the road. And I want to suggest to you that that is precisely the point where we at St. Paul’s Parish are and where we have been for some time … and that we have to make a decision. We have to decide whether to get on with life’s journey or continue to sit, as we have done for years, at the side of the road doing nothing but getting closer to death.

“Wait,” you will say to me. “We haven’t just been sitting here. Since you became our rector nearly five years ago there have been lots of changes at St. Paul’s.” True, we’ve fiddled around with a lot of stuff in the past few years. We’ve changed service times and Sunday School schedules, and changed them again, and yet again. We’ve added music to services and taken music away. We’ve altered the content and shape of the liturgy, and we’ve changed it again. We’ve redesigned the bulletins, and we’ve re-redesigned them. We’ve added a midweek service and we’ve moved it around. We’ve fiddled around a lot.

But all our fiddling has been done while we sat at the side of the road! If you’ll pardon a rather graphic image, I think what we’ve been doing is nothing more than sitting like lepers picking at the scabs on our sores. Why do I think that? It’s simple … every Sunday morning I’m required by the canons to record the attendance showing two numbers in particular – how many people were here and how many communions we served. Every year in January, I’m required by the canons to add all those figures up and average them and fill out a form for the national church. And every year we compare those Sunday morning figures and those annual averages to what was recorded and reported during prior years … and do you know what? For years … many, many years … more years than many of us have been here … those figures haven’t changed! Oh, they may go up a little, or down a little at times, but for the most part over the course of years those numbers have remained stable, static, unchanged and unchanging. St. Paul’s just sits at the same level, at the same place at the side of the road.

And there are other figures and other reports which show the same thing … Annual pledges – Every year, about 100 households in this congregation make pledges (which means that about another 100 don’t!) Every year, those 100 households pledge just about the same level of anticipated giving. Every year, based on those pledges we adopt a budget and except for things we have no control over, like insurance premiums or diocesan assessment, that budget stays the same. In the five years that I have been here, we have not given the staff any sort of salary increase. In the five years that I have been here, we have not hired a new staff person. In the five years that I have been here, we have not increased our budget for outreach or social ministry. In the five years that I have been here, we have not spent a dime on evangelism except in 2005 when I applied for and got a special grant from the diocese to try a direct mail campaign for a few months. In the five years that I have been here, for many years before that, our pledged support of the spread of the Gospel and our budget to do God’s work in Medina have remained stable, static, unchanged and unchanging.

Living things … including living and lively churches … do not remain stable, static, unchanged and unchanging. Living things … including living and lively churches … are like the People of God in Babylon or like the lepers sitting at the side of the road. They make a choice: sit and die, or move, change and live. Living things … including living and lively churches … chose to get moving, chose to change, and chose to live.

We are going to make that choice. St. Paul’s is going to get moving. St. Paul’s is going to live. St. Paul’s is going to grow. And that means St. Paul’s is going to change.

I suspect that when the People of God hit the road for Babylon, it was painful. I suspect that when the People of God began building homes in Babylon, it was painful. I suspect when the lepers got up from where they were sitting and moved their disease-riddle bodies, it was painful. I suspect that when St. Paul’s starts to move, to grow and to change, it will be painful.

No .. That’s not true … I don’t suspect it … I know it will be painful for some. And I know that some will not like the changes and some will complain.

In another story from the Gospels, Peter complained when Jesus told the disciples that their journey would take them to Jerusalem and probably to his death. Jesus rebuked him, and demanded that Peter recognize that his complaining was standing in the way of God’s work. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said to him. Those are some of the strongest words in all of scripture, spoken to a man we know Jesus loved with all his heart. It was painful for Peter, but the work of the kingdom of God is serious, and Peter and every disciple of Jesus Christ has to learn to lead, follow, or get out of the way. I imagine one or more of the lepers also complained when their comrades prodded them to do as Jesus commanded, but their complaints did not deter the others and complaints will not deter St. Paul’s from following Jesus’s commandments either.

“Go,” he said to the apostles just before he ascended to Heaven. “Go and make disciples of all people, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

Go … healing and life and blessing are found not by sitting at the side of road, not in being static and unchanged and unchanging, but in the journey and the challenges it presents. “Go,” said God to the Jews in exile. “Go,” said Jesus to the lepers. “Go,” he said to the apostles. “Go,” he says to St. Paul’s, Medina … and we are going to get going!

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Nevada Episcopal Election

This is what I had posted on my parish website:

The election of a bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada, in which Fr. Funston was nominee, resulted in the call of the Very Rev. Dan Edwards of Macon, Georgia, to assume that post, succeeding the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts-Schori, who left Nevada in 2006 when elected Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Upon learning of the election results, Fr. Funston said:

I have been deeply humbled and honored by the invitation of the people of the Diocese of Nevada to participate in their discernment and call of a new bishop. My wife Evelyn and I are both natives of Nevada, and the state and its people hold a special place in our hearts. The state song says Nevada is “the land of a thousand thrills;” for the church it is also the land of at least a thousand tasks! I know that Fr. Edwards will work effectively with Nevada’s Episcopalians and others of faith to accomplish them. I am grateful that he has accepted God’s call and the Episcopal Diocese of Nevada’s invitation to do so. I am also grateful to the other nominees for their friendship and their generosity of spirit in taking part in this discernment process; any one of them would also have made a fine bishop, and I hope and pray that they will be given this opportunity in other dioceses.

Though I would have enjoyed being Nevada’s bishop, my call is to be rector of St. Paul’s. I look forward to many more years here working with the people of this parish and the Medina community to answer God’s call to ministry in this place. We have much work to do here! Let’s get on with it!

Fr. Funston thanks the people of St. Paul’s Parish for their support during the time of discernment now ended.

Truth: I’m saddened. I had hoped to go home.

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Prophetic Book Titles?

I was sitting in our parish library eating lunch with my wife  …. we do this nearly everyday – she takes her lunch hour from work, drives through McDonald’s and picks up a couple of their grilled chicken Caesar salads, and joins me at the church office.

Anyway … I was sitting in the library eating lunch with my wife and looking at the order of the books on the shelves.  Sometimes it seems to me that the order of the titles are quite humorous, but today I wondered if three book titles taken together might be speaking a word of warning from the Almighty!

There on the shelf, in this order, were these titles:

The Church as Moral Decision-Maker
Countdown to Disaster
Death

“Lordy!” I thought. “When the church gets into this morality thing too heavily, it almost always ends in disaster, and disasters frequently result in deaths. I wonder what is going to die when we finally sort out our current moral dilemma.”

I am, of course, thinking about the current kerfluffle in the Anglican Communion about the full inclusion of gay-lesbian-bisexual-and-transgendered human beings. 

To be honest, this is not something that I think about on a daily basis.  I’m not GLBT, so it isn’t a personal matter to me.  I think about it when someone brings it to my attention.  Yesterday, the women’s book study group asked me to join them and try to explain the conflicts to them.  (A newer member of the congregation had been reading the secular newspapers’ accounts of our Anglican spat … always a dangerous activity!)

From their comments and questions, it became clear to me that they (like many others) seem to believe this “thing” started in 2003 with the election of Gene Robinson to be the Bishop of New Hampshire.  “Good Lord!” I said, “No!  This goes back many many years.”

Others believe it started with Lambeth 1998 and the (in)famous Resolution 1.10.  Also, No!  If this current conflict can be laid at the foot of any official action of the church, I would suggest it be laid at the feet of Lambeth 1968!  The bishops at that conference wisely noted that there were (and are) GLBT (well… they said “homosexual”) human beings in our communities (secular and ecclesial) and that the church was going to have to deal with that fact.  They suggested a process of study and listening and discernment.

It seems to me that the churches of North America followed that advice and, having done so, more than 30 years later found themselves at a place in their corporate lives where the American church could be comfortable electing and confirming the election of a partnered gay man as bishop and the Canadian church could be comfortable offering to bless the committed relationships of partnered gay men and lesbians. 

Did the rest of the Anglican Communion do so?  Did those who are now critical of the North American churches for “failing to follow Lambeth 1998″ follow Lambeth 1968?

Was Lambeth 1968 acting as a “moral decision-maker” in recommending that process of discernment, and was that recommendation the start of a “countdown to disaster”, and is that countdown going to end in the “death” of the Anglican Communion as we know it?

The conservative evangelical archbishops of some provinces on the African continent, who have banded together and called themselves CAPA (“Conference of Anglican Provinces in Africa” I think is what that stands for, although it doesn’t include all of the African churches), are calling for the cancellation or postponement of Lambeth 2008.  They want the Primates to meet in emergency session, to adopt an “Anglican Covenant” (presumably the version authored by Abp. Drexel-Gomez and his “drafting group”), require all provinces to sign on to, then reschedule Lambeth, and only the bishops in signatory provinces would be invited.  Alternatively, I presume, they will boycott Lambeth.

Either action would mean the end of our loosely-held-together family of churches.  No longer could we claim to be united by “bonds of mutual respect and affection” (although, I have to admit I wonder if we can claim that now).  It would be the “death” of the Anglican grouping of churches.  Something would take its place, of course, but it would be something very different.

These are the things that looking at a shelf full of books and reading their titles makes me think about …. maybe I need to take the afternoon off.

 I think I’ll do that.

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We are worthless slaves.

Today is the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. In the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel lesson for today is Luke 17:5-10:

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”

This is a very troublesome passage for many.

I think one way to understand it is to ask oneself some questions:

When driving through town, you come to a light-controlled intersection and the light is red. You stop and wait for the green light. It comes. You proceed at legal speed through the intersection and go on your way.

What do you expect to happen? What do you expect the police or the city’s mayor to do because you stopped in obedience to the traffic signal?

Or this … On April 15, you complete all those forms produced by the Internal Revenue Service, correctly reporting your income and accurately computing the taxes you own. You write a check for the amount calculated and enclose it with the forms which you mail to the IRS before the midnight deadline.

What do you expect to happen? What do you expect the Internal Revenue Commission or President Bush to do because you obeyed the Internal Revenue Code and paid your tax?

What did the Pharisees expect to happen because they had adequately live up to the purity code? What did the Sadducees expect to happen because they had offered the proper sacrifices and performed the temple rituals in conformity with the holiness code?

We surely don’t expect our mayor to invite us to supper because we obeyed the traffic signal, or the president to invite us to tea because we paid our taxes. But the Pharisees expected rewards in the afterlife if they obeyed the purity code, and the Sadducees expected to live well in the present if they performed correctly under the holiness code. And an awful lot of people seem to expect the rewards of Heaven and the Resurrection because they live up to (their own idea of) what the Baptismal Covenant requires.

To this Jesus asks, “Why do you expect a reward for doing simply what is required of you? The slave in the field tilling the soil or tending the sheep does not expect to be seated at table with the master. Neither should you. Say to yourselves, ‘We are worthless slaves; we only did what was required of us.’”

It isn’t the following of rules and regulations, whether they be the 613 mitzvot of the Hebrew bible or the obligations of the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer, that will get us through the Pearly Gates and into the rewards of Heaven. It’s something called “grace” — the unmerited, unearned favor of God freely bestowed.

Jesus was once asked what the greatest commandment is and he responded with what Anglicans call “the Summary of the Law”:

Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)

In rabbinic teaching, the 613 mitzvot of the purity code and the holiness code represent “fences” about these two great commandments. If we obey the codes, we are prevented from taking that further sinful step that might break the commandments. One supposes the Pharisees and the Sadducees might similarly have conceived of their rules and regulations.

But Jesus saw those rules for what they are, not fences around the commandments of God, but fences (or perhaps chains) around the slaves who sought to obey them. Their rules and regulations enslaved them, making them unable see that proper relationship with God and with our neighbor is not a matter of obeying codes, but of loving God and neighbor. The prophet Micah had said as much when he wrote:

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

It’s that simple. If we would simply do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, we wouldn’t have to worry about the 613 mitzot, or the promises of the Baptismal Covenant, or any other list of do’s and don’ts. If we would simply acknowledged the abundance of God’s unearned, unmerited favor bestowed freely on us, and live in a spirit of gratitude and thankful generosity, we would not (we could not) fail to obey the two great commandments.

Because we are blind, we see only the fences, only the chains, only rules and regulations, only the obligations of law and covenant … and if we only do what is required of us, we are worthless slaves. The slave in Jesus’s story today worked hard in the fields, tilling the soil and tending the sheep, and when he came in, his master did not invite him to the table but rather ordered him to serve still further. But we are invited to the table!

May God bless us with sight to see that that is so, that we are invited to the table by a loving Father, and that we have been invited to the table all along … even before we went out to till the soil and tend the sheep. May we know that we have this invitation so that our tilling and tending and other service is offered, not in a spirit of obligation performed, but in a spirit of thanksgiving offered. May we know that we are not worthless slaves, but beloved children invited to our Father’s table without regard to how well we live up to our own rules and regulations.

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Lost Friends

While we were away in Nevada, one of the pillars of our parish passed away unexpectedly as a result of what should have been a minor injury. A man in his 80s, he took a bit of a fall and hit his head. He felt fine immediately after and thought nothing of it. However, because he was taking a fairly significant dosage of Coumadin, what would have been a minor bump on the head for most people, for him resulted in a fatal cerebral hemorrhage and a massive subdural hematoma. A couple of hours after the fall, he was unconscious and two days later his family was deciding to remove life support….

A colleague who had been associate pastor in my parish under a former rector filled in for me and handled the Requiem. After we returned, I officiated at the committal of his ashes in a military-honors ceremony.

Since our return, another older member of the parish has passed away from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and we have scheduled her funeral for next week.

Meanwhile, other old friends are retiring and moving away ….

Whether by relocation or death, the loss of friends causes some feeling of diminishment. The world is a smaller, paler, poorer place without their presence. I know full well and good that they are not gone … those who have moved elsewhere are only a phone call or an email message away. Those who have passed on are not dead (“life is changed, not ended” as the eucharistic preface for funerals says), but living in God’s nearer Presence. Yet … the sense of loss and loneliness is no less real.

At the committal of my friend’s ashes, I read this meditation by Canon Henry Scott Holland, a part of his sermon entitled “The King of Terrors” preached on the death of King Edward VII:

I have only slipped away into the next room

I am I and you are you

Whatever we were to each other

That we are still

Call me by my old familiar name

Speak to me in the easy way you always used

Put no difference into your tone

Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow

Laugh as we always laughed

At the little jokes we always enjoyed together

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me

Let my name be ever the household word that it always was

Let it be spoken without effort

Without the ghost of a shadow in it

Life means all that it ever meant

It is the same as it ever was

There is absolute unbroken continuity

What is death but a negligible accident?

Why should I be out of mind

Because I am out of sight?

I am waiting for you for an interval

Somewhere very near

Just around the corner

All is well.

 

I know full well that this piece is sentimental and sappy, and lifted out of the context of Holland’s sermon it fails to give a full portrait of his theology. Nonetheless, it is comforting and it is a reminder of the truth that for God’s faithful people “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.”

 

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Returned from Walkabout

We have returned home from our trip through the Nevada desert with the nominees for Bishop of the Diocese of Nevada and several members of that diocese’s search, transition, and standing committees.

It was a wonderful, exhilarating, exhausting, eye-opening experience.  Both my wife and I were born and grew up in Nevada, and it is both a significant honor and a very humbling experience to be invited to stand as a candidate in the election of the next bishop.

We were amazed at the changes in our home state and diocese since we left 14 years ago. The growth in the urban areas of Las Vegas and environs, and the Reno/Sparks/Carson City area is phenomenal.  On the other hand, the decline of the rural communities, many of which are significantly smaller, was heart-rending.  As important as the cities are, the real strength of Nevada and the greater part of its heritage is found in the old mining camps and ranching centers of the state.  These communities (especially the churches in them) need the support and assistance of the urban centers. I’m sure, though, Nevada’s story is no different from other states — growth of urban areas and decline of rural communities is happening throughout the country.

The episcopal election in the Diocese of Nevada is scheduled for October 12, 2007.  God has already chosen the next bishop … it is up to the people of the church in Nevada to listen prayerfully and carefully, and let us all know who that choice is.

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