That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Acts (page 2 of 8)

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.

Between Two Fires – Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter – 10 April 2016

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Third Sunday of Easter, April 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, and St. John 21:1-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/5b/Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpg/1200px-Church_of_Saint_Peter_in_Gallicantu.jpgIn Jerusalem, just outside the walled Old City to the south is a church built on the place where the house of Caiaphas, the high priest who oversaw Jesus’ crucifixion, is believed to have been. The church is named St. Peter in Gallicantu; the name is from the Latin meaning, “St. Peter where the rooster crowed.” It is a reference, of course, to Peter’s three denials of Christ in the courtyard of the high priest’s house.

In the interior of the church, in niches on either side of the altar, are two icons. One depicts that episode which gives the church its name; the other, the story which we heard in today’s gospel lesson. The icons are similar in that they both depict Peter and Jesus on either side of a charcoal fire.

In the first, the fire is quite small and several other people are gathered around it. Jesus and Peter are in the foreground. Jesus is bound and looking directly at Peter; Peter’s eyes, on the other hand, are downcast and he is holding up one hand, palm toward Jesus as if to fend him off. The icon is captioned in Latin “Non novi illum” (Lk 22:57) – “I do not know him.”

In the second, the fire is much larger and is accompanied by baskets of fish and bread. There are no other people around the fire; the other disciples are still in the boat some distance off shore. Jesus, again, is looking directly at Peter. Peter, in this picture, is looking directly at Jesus and holding his hand out to Jesus to receive a shepherd’s staff which Jesus is handing to him. This icon is also captioned, again in Latin, “Domine tu omnia scis tu scis quia amo te” (Jn 21:17) – “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Some bible scholars believe that Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel is an add-on, that the original text of this gospel ended with the statement at the end of Chapter 20: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (vv 30-31) These scholars argue, and I think we have to admit, that that sounds pretty much like a definitive conclusion to the book. Thus, they argue that Chapter 21 from which we have heard today is either an afterthought that John felt compelled to add or the work of a second author, a false John who was apparently unsatisfied with the original text. However, I would suggest that Chapter 21 is neither an afterthought of John’s nor the forged addition of another: it is connected to the main body of John’s gospel by those charcoal fires and the number three.

Non novi illumOn that awful night, as all was being lost and his rabbi was being tried, mocked, and ultimately killed, Peter stood at that first charcoal fire and denied Jesus three times. As John tells the story in Chapter 18, Judas led the authorities to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus was then taken away to Caiaphas’s courtyard and Peter, who had sworn that he would never deny Jesus, followed. The maid who watched the gate to the courtyard saw Peter and said to him, “Aren’t you one of this man’s disciples?”

Peter replied, “No, I’m not.”

John then tells us, “Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself.” (Jn 18:18) There and here in today’s story in Chapter 21 are the only two places in all of the New Testament that fires are specifically described as being a “charcoal fire.” John is very deliberately contrasting these two scenes in his gospel.

A bit later, those with whom Peter was standing and keeping warm by the fire asked him if he were one of Jesus’ disciples; he replied, “No, I am not.” (Jn 18:25) And immediately another person asked Peter the same question and again Peter replied, “No.”

Just then, while Peter was still standing next to the charcoal fire in the courtyard, is when the crowed, confirming Jesus’ earlier word to Peter that Peter would deny him three times before the rooster’s call. Luke’s account tells us that at that moment, “the Lord turned and looked at Peter.” (Lk 22:61) That was when Peter realized what he had done and he was devastated: this is the moment depicted in the first icon in the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu.

Peter left that first charcoal fire a broken man, weeping bitterly, and all alone. Eventually, he would re-connect with his fellow disciples. Eventually, with them, he would witness the empty tomb and encounter the Resurrected Jesus. Eventually, with Thomas, Nathaniel, James, John, and two others John does not name, he would go fishing. Eventually, he would come to this beach and to the second charcoal fire.

Domine tu omnia scisLooking at Peter across this charcoal fire after their breakfast of grilled fish, Jesus would begin a conversation of three questions and three answers: “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” (Jn 21:15)

What Jesus is asking is if Peter loves Jesus more than the other disciples love Jesus. That is, after all, what Peter had said at dinner that night when he said that even if the others deserted Jesus he would never do that. But that, of course, is exactly what he did and more; he denied even knowing Jesus. So it must have been difficult for Peter to have this conversation at this charcoal fire remembering what happened at that charcoal fire.

Nonetheless, he answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” In words that can only be taken as a clear sign of forgiveness as much as they are of empowerment and commissioning, Jesus responded, “Feed my lambs.” But that doesn’t end the conversation!

Jesus asked Peter a second time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter must have wondered, and certainly we wonder, why Jesus would ask him the same question. Again, he answered, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you,” and again Jesus commissioned him, “Tend my sheep.”

And then, yet again, Jesus asked, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” (John changes the Greek verb here from agápe used in the first two questions to philía, naming in some circumstances a different sort of love, but whether that has any theological significance is a matter of debate. For us, today, it does not, but we should be aware of that change.)

John tells us that this third time, the question stings Peter. Says John, “Peter felt hurt . . . and he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.'” (v 17) And again, Jesus commissioned Peter, “Feed my sheep” but this time with a warning saying, in essence, “It will be dangerous and you will suffer at the hands of others.”

Jesus then ended the conversation with a simple, “Follow me,” an invitation ripe with forgiveness; whatever had happened at that first charcoal fire, it is put behind them; it does not matter. The three denials have been wiped away by three declarations of love and three commissions to service. All that matters now is that Peter follow his Master and live out the task he has been given.

The second icon illustrates this as Jesus passes the pastoral staff, the shepherd’s crook, to Peter who reaches out to receive it.

In Section IV of T.S. Elliot’s poem Little Gidding the poet writes that we will all be “consumed by either fire or fire:”

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre –
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

The two charcoal fires of John’s Gospel, the two charcoal fires in the Gallicantu icons, show us the two fires of Elliot’s poem: the destructive fire of denial, or the life-giving, nourishing fire of resurrection, reconciliation, and forgiveness. The genius of the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu is that it is in the space between these fires, between the two icons, between these two stories in John’s Gospel that the people’s worship takes place, that our lives as the people of God are lived, wearing that “intolerable shirt of flame which human power cannot remove.”

What that placement of worship between those two icons says is that Peter represents all of us, that in a sense we are all Peters. All of us have committed ourselves, like Simon Peter, to follow Jesus. That commitment was made at our baptism and again at our confirmation; it has been reaffirmed again and again, as it was on Easter morning in the reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant, as it was last week when we joined in baptizing Anthony Jon and Laura May on whose behalf the promises of that covenant were made for the first time. But, just like Peter, we have all of us betrayed that covenant, broken those promises, and denied the Lord we have sworn to follow. But then comes that gentle but supreme act of absolution, uttered from the cross: “Forgive them, Father, they don’t know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)

The image of the charcoal fires in the Gospel of John becomes an image of that divine mercy. One moment we’re warming ourselves at the fire of denial, potentially destroyed by the poor decisions we make, decisions that break our covenant promises. The next moment we’re with Jesus as he feeds us at the fire of mercy and forgiveness. The Lord is faithful to us even when we have not been faithful to him, and it is through his faith that we are healed and restored, and eventually, like him and with him, risen to new life.

Thanks be to God. 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.

God Is the Question – Sermon for Easter 2, Year C (3 April 2016)

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A sermon offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday of Easter, April 3, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; and St. John 20:19-31. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The-Doubt-of-St_Thomas-300x300Every year on the Second Sunday of the Easter season, we read the story from John’s Gospel of Thomas’s refusal to accept the testimony of his fellow disciples, but in each year of the Lectionary Cycle, it is coupled with different lessons from the Book of Acts and a different epistle lesson. So this year, in Year C of the cycle, we have heard of the confrontation between Peter and the high priest about the apostles’ teaching in the Temple, and we have heard part of the introduction of John of Patmos’ Revelation.

In the first, we see the clash between two parties each absolutely convinced of the truth of their conception of God: the high priest, speaking for the council, is absolutely sure that his God, the God of the Hebrew Scriptures, had nothing to do with the itinerant rabbi from Galilee; Peter, speaking for the fledgling Christian community, is just as certain that his God, the Father of Jesus Christ, had everything to do with him. There is no way to avoid conflict between these two camps, their spokesmen, and their very different understandings.

In the reading from Revelation, John of Patmos gives us yet another view of God, whom he quotes as saying, “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” and who (says John) is and was and is to come. John’s God is a god of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

These lessons encourage us to grapple with the story and example of Thomas, the apostle whose insistence on solid evidence of Jesus’ Resurrection earned him the epithet “the Doubter,” but who in fact made the first post-Resurrection statement of convicted faith, crying out “My Lord and my God!” upon seeing Jesus.

My friend David Henson, a priest and journalist in North Carolina, says that “it hardly seems fair” to brand Thomas as “the archetypal doubter, the skeptic that demanded proof.” “He wasn’t the only disciple in the Christian gospels to express disbelief or doubt at the reports of resurrection.” (Easter for Doubters: The Unexpected Faith of Thomas, Patheos, April 1, 2013) And Professor David Lose, president of Lutheran Seminary in Philadelphia, agrees with him:

When you read through the resurrection accounts of all four gospels, you quickly realize that Thomas is not alone in his doubt. In fact, doubt isn’t the exception but the rule. No one – even after all the predictions – no one says, “Welcome back.” Or “We knew it.” Or even “What took you so long?” No. No one anticipates Jesus return and when he shows up, everyone doubts. Everyone.

Which makes me think that maybe doubt isn’t the opposite of faith but, actually, part of it, maybe even an essential part of it. (Faith and Doubt, Dear Working Preacher, April 8, 2012)

Last week in The New York Times, William Irwin, professor of philosophy at King’s College, a Roman Catholic school in Wilkes-Barre, PA, wrote an op-ed piece entitled God Is a Question, Not an Answer (The New York Times Opinionator Blog, March 26, 2016). In it he said:

People who claim certainty about God worry me, both those who believe and those who don’t believe. They do not really listen to the other side of conversations, and they are too ready to impose their views on others. It is impossible to be certain about God.

***

We should all feel and express humility in the face of the question even if we think the odds are tilted heavily in favor of a particular answer.

Thus, Prof. Irwin says, “The believer should concede that she does not know with certainty that God exists. There is no faith without doubt.”

Today, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon, and welcome them into the household of faith, into the community which believes not only that there is a God, but that that God is most fully revealed to humankind in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Over the course of their lifetimes, they will explore with us what that means.

We could tell them, as many Christian preachers do, that “God is the answer.” They will encounter people like the Christian writer Dana Gatlin who begins one of her books with this firm statement and admonition:

In every human difficulty I have learned to center on God as the way out. God is the answer! ~ Center on God quickly, completely. God cannot fail! God loves you, right now is waiting to help you, and if you really put your trust in Him with all your heart, He will not fail you. Trusting in Him utterly, you cannot fail! ~ Whatever your dilemma or need may be, God is the answer. (God Is the Answer, Kansas City: Unity School of Christianity, 1940, p 7)

And they will encounter many others who witness that many in this life do in fact fail and that there always seem to be dilemmas which cannot be resolved and needs that are never met, and thus just as firmly assert that not only is God not the answer, but that there is no God. This conflict of certainties is not unlike that between Peter and the high priest about which we heard in the reading from the Book of Acts.

In this Easter season of alleluias we can sometimes be blinded to the reality of human doubts, fears, and pain, even our own. We tend to forget, as Professor Lose reminded us, that for the first disciples, for every one of them, not just Thomas, there was fear, doubt, pain, and confusion before there was understanding and joy at what had taken place. The loud alleluias of Easter can make us forget that, as Prof. Irwin suggests, we “all exist along a continuum of doubt. Some of us will approach religious certainty at one extreme and others will approach atheistic certainty at the other extreme. Many of us will slide back and forth over time.” The story and example of Thomas serves as a reminder.

Poet Denise Levertov in her poem St. Thomas Didymus remembers another man in scripture who, like Thomas, expressed his doubts, a father who came to Jesus in the midst of fear and pain seeking healing for his child. Mark tells us the story of the man who brought his son to Jesus saying, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid. * * * If you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus replied, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” In answer, the man cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:17-24)

Levertov imagines that Thomas witnessed this encounter and, remembering that Thomas’s name means, “the Twin,” names the father as Thomas’s “spiritual twin.” Her poem gives voice to Thomas’s doubts and their resolution:

In the hot street at noon I saw him
a small man
gray but vivid, standing forth
beyond the crowd’s buzzing
holding in desperate grip his shaking
teeth-gnashing son,

and thought him my brother.

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak
those words,
Lord, I believe, help thou
mine unbelief,

and knew him
my twin:

a man whose entire being
had knotted itself
into the one tight-drawn question,
Why,
why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,
why is this child who will soon be a man
tormented, torn, twisted?
Why is he cruelly punished
who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth
was not so close
as that man I heard
say what my heart
sighed with each beat, my breath silently
cried in and out,
in and out.

After the healing,
he, with his wondering
newly peaceful boy, receded;
no one
dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,
the swift
acceptance and forgetting.
I did not follow
to see their changed lives.
What I retained
was the flash of kinship.
Despite
all that I witnessed,
his question remained
my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,
known
only to doctor and patient. To others
I seemed well enough.

So it was
that after Golgotha
my spirit in secret
lurched in the same convulsed writhings
that tore that child
before he was healed.
And after the empty tomb
when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,
told me
that though He had passed through the door like a ghost
He had breathed on them
the breath of a living man –
even then
when hope tried with a flutter of wings
to lift me –
still, alone with myself,
my heavy cry was the same: Lord
I believe,
help thou mine unbelief.

I needed
blood to tell me the truth,
the touch
of blood. Even
my sight of the dark crust of it
round the nailholes
didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through
to that manifold knot in me
that willed to possess all knowledge,
refusing to loosen
unless that insistence won
the battle I fought with life.

But when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unravelling,
I witnessed
all things quicken to color, to form,
my question
not answered but given
its part
in a vast unfolding design lit
by a risen sun.

(St. Thomas Didymus in Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire; Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, p 81)

In a moment, we will baptize Laura May and Anthony Jon. Before we do so, their parents and Godparents will make some promises and commitments on their behalf and then, as the presiding priest, I will ask them and you some questions about belief: “Do you believe in God the Father?” “Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?” “Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?” And each time the answer will be, “I believe.”

Perhaps for some of us, perhaps sometimes for all of us, the unspoken answer will be “I believe, help thou mine unbelief.” The affirmations of the Creed, which is what those answers are, are not statements of certainty like those of Peter or the high priest, of the author who asserts that “God is the answer,” or of the atheist who insists there is no God. They are, rather, statements of faith, statements of hope, statements of trust in the God who is the Alpha and the Omega, who is and was and is to come, the God of multiple times, multiple places, and multiple possibilities.

The Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote, “You cannot be a [person] of faith unless you know how to doubt. You cannot believe in God unless you are capable of questioning . . . .” Therefore, he said, religious faith “is a decision, a judgment that is fully and deliberately taken in the light of a truth that cannot be proven.” (Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, New York: New Directions Books, 2007, p 105)

It is said that when the early 20th Century novelist and poet Gertrude Stein lay on her deathbed, her life partner Alice B. Toklas at her bedside, Stein roused herself and asked, “What is the answer?” Toklas was unable to respond and sat there silent. “In that case,” Stein said, “What is the question?”

The question is God. God is the Question. When we welcome Laura May and Anthony Jon into the household of faith, we welcome them not to a life of nailed down certainty, but to a life of exploring the Question, in the course of which some lesser questions may be answered, but for the most part they will find that, like Levertov’s Thomas, their questions (and ours) will not so much answered as given their part in a vast unfolding design lit by the risen Son. Amen.

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The illustration is “The Doubt of St. Thomas” by the Chinese artist He Qi.

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.

Sermon for the 199th Annual Meeting: Conversion of Paul (24 January 2016)

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A sermon offered on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, January 24, 2016, to the 199th Annual Meeting of the members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Acts 26:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; and St. Matthew 10:16-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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An enemy whom God has made a friend,
A righteous man discounting righteousness,
Last to believe and first for God to send,
He found the fountain in the wilderness.
Thrown to the ground and raised at the same moment,
A prisoner who set his captors free,
A naked man with love his only garment,
A blinded man who helped the world to see,
A Jew who had been perfect in the law,
Blesses the flesh of every other race
And helps them see what the apostles saw;
The glory of the lord in Jesus’ face.
Strong in his weakness, joyful in his pains,
And bound by love, he freed us from our chains.
(Apostle by poet and priest Malcolm Guite)

A lovely sonnet getting at the contradictions and paradoxes of Saul the Pharisee, dedicated persecutor of the church, who became Paul the Apostle, greatest promoter of the church’s gospel. In lyrically detailing those polarities, Malcolm Guite gives us a hint at what is meant by “conversion.”

If we look up “conversion” on the internet, we find (in Wikipedia, for example) that there are definitions pertaining to its use in law, in finance and economics, in linguistic and computing, in sports and entertainment, and (of course) in religion. However, I think the Wikipedia article on religious conversion gets it sadly wrong.

We read there that religious conversion is “the adoption of a set of beliefs identified with one particular religious denomination to the exclusion of others. Thus ‘religious conversion’ would describe the abandoning of adherence to one denomination and affiliating with another.” (Wikipedia) That’s wrong. Conversion has nothing to do with “sets of beliefs;” adopting one of those in place of another is simply changing one’s mind. And it isn’t about abandoning one denomination for another; that’s simply changing clubs.

Conversion has to do with something much, much more. And I would suggest to you that it is something over which the person converting has really very little control. We do not convert; we are converted.

Certainly that is the case with Saul. His conversion as he describes it here to King Agrippa (and as Luke, the author of Acts, describes it earlier in Chapter 9), this is not conversion over which Saul has any control at all! I’m sure, though, that he was open to it. I’m sure that, as a faithful Jew, Saul prayed the daily Amidah (or “Standing Prayer”) which includes this petition: “You graciously bestow knowledge upon man and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from you, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are you Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.” (chabad.org) I rather doubt, however, that he expected it to be answered in quite so dramatic a fashion.

Religious conversion is a matter of being; it implies a new reference point for the convert’s self-identity, a complete change of direction. Whatever had been the pole star of the convert’s moral compass, another utterly replaces it. While there is a moment of conversion, an experience of being turned toward the new reference point, conversion is not complete unless it is appropriated, adopted, lived into by the convert; it is after the moment of conversion that “the adoption of a set of beliefs” or the affiliating with a new religious community takes place. Thus, conversion is never a one-and-done. Conversion does not end in the moment; it continues for a lifetime.

Saul became Paul, his baptismal name taken as token of that change in his being, that reorientation toward a new pole star, Jesus the Christ. We can see his living into all that that entails as he works out his new theology in his letters to the churches.

His example is for us. Each of us is, like Paul, living into a conversion. We may have come to our Christian faith by our upbringing rather than through a distinct moment of conversion. We may have been baptized as infants never to have known a moment when the direction of our life was changed. We may have come to faith slowly, perhaps we are not even sure we are there yet! Nonetheless, as members of the Christian community, like Paul, we are called to grow into the implications of conversion.

As the great Presbyterian story teller Frederick Buechner has written in his book Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABC’s of Faith, Scripture is filled with many examples unlike the great conversions such as Paul’s:

There are a number of conversions described in the New Testament. You think of Paul seeing the light on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19), or the Ethiopian eunuch getting Philip to baptize him on the way from Jerusalem to Gaza (Acts 8:28-40). There is also the apostle Thomas saying, “My Lord and my God!” when he is finally convinced that Jesus is alive and whole again (John 20:26-29), not to mention the Roman centurion who witnessed the crucifixion saying, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Luke 23:47). All these scenes took place suddenly, dramatically, when they were least expected. They all involved pretty much of an about-face, which is what the word conversion means. We can only imagine that they all were accompanied by a good deal of emotion.

But in this same general connection there are other scenes that we should also remember. There is the young man who, when Jesus told him he should give everything he had to the poor if he really wanted to be perfect as he said he did, walked sorrowfully away because he was a very rich man. There is Nicodemus, who was sufficiently impressed with Jesus to go talk to him under cover of darkness and later to help prepare his body for burial, but who never seems to have actually joined forces with him. There is King Agrippa, who, after hearing Paul’s impassioned defense of his faith, said, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28, KJV). There is even Pontius Pilate, who asked, “What is truth?” (John 18:38) under such circumstances as might lead you to suspect that just possibly, half without knowing it, he really hoped Jesus would be able to give him the answer, maybe even become for him the answer.

Like the conversions, there was a certain amount of drama about these other episodes too and perhaps even a certain amount of emotion, though for the most part unexpressed. But of course in the case of none of them was there any about-face. Presumably all these people kept on facing more or less the same way they had been right along. King Agrippa, for instance, kept on being King Agrippa just as he always had. And yet you can’t help wondering if somewhere inside himself, as somewhere also inside the rest of them, the “almost” continued to live on as at least a sidelong glance down a new road, the faintest itching of the feet for a new direction.

We don’t know much about what happened to any of them after their brief appearance in the pages of Scripture, let alone what happened inside them. We can only pray for them, not to mention also for ourselves, that in the absence of a sudden shattering event, there was a slow underground process that got them to the same place in the end.

There is another conversion in the story of Paul’s conversion. It is not in our reading today but in Luke’s version in Chapter 9; he tells us of Ananias, to whom the Lord appeared commissioning him to teach Paul. Ananias objects at first; “No way,” he says. The Lord’s words, however, convince him to do as he is bidden and he becomes Paul’s teacher. Paul, after receiving Ananias’s instruction, preaches in the synagogues that Jesus is Lord. These two men, Paul and Ananias, represent two different communities, the new community of the disciples and the old community of the synagogue, both of which are transformed by gospel of Jesus, the risen Lord. The two conversions are a vision, a sign, of how the name of the risen Lord takes shape and unfolds in the lives of believers and communities of believers.

These stories of Paul, of Ananias, of the rich young man, of Nicodemus, and the others, invite us to consider how we look at our own world, who we respond when God takes our “no way,” and our “we’ve never done that before” and transforms them into “yes.” God gives us new vision, God rearranges our ways of seeing, being, and acting. God changes our world.

We know this to be true in our community, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church of Medina, Ohio, a constituent congregation of the Diocese of Ohio, of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and (still, despite the demands of some foreign primates) of the Anglican Communion. We have seen this community, this parish grow, change, change directions, build, renew, and adapt, all in response to God’s “yes” even when many of us might have said “no way” and even when many of us did say “we’ve never done it that way before.”

And look where God’s “yes” has brought us. Fourteen youths and adults were confirmed or received this year; five persons were baptized. They represent a 3% growth in the registered membership of the parish. Our weekly attendance in 2015 increased 5% over 2014’s average attendance. There were twice as many marriages last year compared to the year before, 20% more home communion visits, and nearly 70% more weekly prayer services.

Free Farmers’ Market, our largest outreach ministry, fed over 4,000 people, distributing almost 50,000 pounds of food during the year. We helped sustain the Summit-Medina Battered Women’s Shelter with numerous gifts-in-kind including bathroom and kitchen supplies, personal hygiene and laundry items, and new clothing for women and children. We contributed over $1,200 to the United Thank Offering and made a grant (through the Gentlemen’s Cake Auction) to a local elementary school (Garfield) to create a college vision experience for their Fourth Graders. 2015’s 9th Annual Cake Auction, by the way, increased the total for that program to over $18,000 in monies raised for ministries outside the parish.

Our youth group, the Episcopal Youth Community of St. Paul’s Parish, has grown to over twenty young people who have traveled on mission trips, attended diocesan and national youth events, taken part in Happening and other youth retreats, and hosted the annual Homelessness Awareness Sleep-Out and raising hundreds of dollars for the homeless shelter program in our community. St. Paul’s youth program is recognized as one of the premier ministries to, for, and by teens in this diocese.

Financially, this has been a banner year. We began the year thinking we were going to spend over $18,000 more than we would have available through donations and other income. Well, we did end with a deficit, but not nearly so large as we thought: as the Treasurer’s Report will show, it ended up being only $6,000. We made up two-thirds of the anticipated deficit. For the coming year, based on the outstanding charitable generosity of our members and the good financial stewardship of the vestry and the staff, we have seen an increase in anticipated income, a decrease in anticipated expenses, with a deficit of only $8,000 anticipated. If we do as well in the coming year as we have done in the past year, we will overcome that budgetary deficit and end with the year with an operating surplus. Despite this year’s operating surplus, we nonetheless have seen an increase in the parish’s overall financial health. We are almost $55,000 wealthier at year’s end than we were at the beginning; about half of that is a decrease in our indebtedness, the other half is an increase in our savings.

We have seen where God’s “yes” can bring us. Looking to the future, what can we foresee? What do we imagine what God is going to do with St. Paul’s Parish? Where is God leading us? What will be our response when God says to us, as he said to our Patron Saint, “Get up and Go, because I have chosen you and am commissioning you for the life of my community?” What will be our response when Jesus says to us, as he said to the first apostles, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves?”

I know what our response will be, because we have already given it many times. It will be the same as St. Paul’s, the same as Ananias’s: “Yes, Lord!” And “God, our own God, [will] give us his blessing, [and] all the ends of the earth [shall] stand in awe of him.” 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.

Just Like Adam; Just Like Jesus – Sermon for 1 Epiphany (10 January 2016)

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A sermon offered on the First Sunday after Epiphany (The Baptism of our Lord), January 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Isaiah 43:1-7, Psalm 29, Acts 8:14-17, and Luke 3:15-17,21-22. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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James B. Janknegt, Baptism of JesusWe’ve heard this Gospel story before. We all know what happens (at least in the Synoptic Gospels) after Jesus is baptized: a voice is heard from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22) and then Jesus goes into the desert for forty days of retreat where he grapples with temptations.

As Matthew and Mark tell the story, they move immediately from the baptism to the desert. But Luke, who tells of the baptism near the end of Chapter 3 and of the desert retreat at the beginning of Chapter 4 of his Gospel, does something unexpected. After the portion we heard this morning, right after the voice of God is heard declaring the Sonship of Jesus, right at the end of Chapter 3, he adds these verses which (for obvious reasons) are almost never read in worship services:

Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work. He was the son (as was thought) of Joseph son of Heli, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Melchi, son of Jannai, son of Joseph, son of Mattathias, son of Amos, son of Nahum, son of Esli, son of Naggai, son of Maath, son of Mattathias, son of Semein, son of Josech, son of Joda, son of Joanan, son of Rhesa, son of Zerubbabel, son of Shealtiel, son of Neri, son of Melchi, son of Addi, son of Cosam, son of Elmadam, son of Er, son of Joshua, son of Eliezer, son of Jorim, son of Matthat, son of Levi, son of Simeon, son of Judah, son of Joseph, son of Jonam, son of Eliakim, son of Melea, son of Menna, son of Mattatha, son of Nathan, son of David, son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, son of Amminadab, son of Admin, son of Arni, son of Hezron, son of Perez, son of Judah, son of Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham, son of Terah, son of Nahor, son of Serug, son of Reu, son of Peleg, son of Eber, son of Shelah, son of Cainan, son of Arphaxad, son of Shem, son of Noah, son of Lamech, son of Methuselah, son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God. (Lk 3:23-38)

Why does he do that? Mark doesn’t even bother to give a genealogy and Matthew (who gives us a slightly different list of Jesus’ ancestors) put his genealogy right at the beginning in Chapter 1. So why, do you suppose, does Luke give us a genealogy and plop it down here at the end of the story of Jesus’ baptism, interrupting the narrative flow from baptism to desert to temptation? And why does he call Adam “son of God”?

I posed that question in an online clergy discussion group and some of my colleagues’ responses are these:

“All are ‘sons (and daughters) of God.’ The question is to what degree is Jesus uniquely so? A reboot… a second Adam? (That is, of course, a Biblical concept.) A ‘new’ first born? But we all share that heritage – to what degree? Is the giving of the Spirit in fact a third Genesis of sorts?”

“I always thought Luke’s point in tracing Jesus to Adam, rather than to David or Abraham, was to state that Jesus is universal savior, identified as he is as Son of Adam, rather than (merely) Son of David or son of Abraham.”

“It’s the Creation narrative Lite for Gentile readers — the point being that God is the source of all life.

Those are all good answers and they encapsulate pretty much the scholarly and traditional understandings of why Luke plops the genealogy down in this place, between baptism and temptation: Jesus, only begotten son of God, is contrasted with Adam, the first created son of God, and we as created children of God descended from Adam and as adopted children of God baptized into Jesus share in the nature of both!

We definitely share in the nature of Adam and others listed in this genealogy. Phil Ryken, the president Wheaton College who has recently gotten some bad press for his (in my opinion) wrong decision to discharge a professor who suggested that Christians and Muslims worship the same God, has been quoted as writing this about the men listed in Luke’s genealogy of Jesus:

They were guilty of the same kinds of sins as we are. All these men were sinners. It’s nice to think that our ancestors were noble and good, and that they did something heroic. This is one of the reasons people like to study their family trees. Whether they were heroic or not, the people who came before us were just as deeply flawed as we are. We can infer this from the mere fact that they were human beings, but we can also prove it from the pages of the Bible. Consider some of the skeletons in the family closet as recorded in the Old Testament: Terah, the father of Abraham, was an idolater; Abraham was a liar; Jacob was a cheater and a thief; Judah traded slaves and consorted with prostitutes; David was a murderer and an adulterer. We usually remember these men as heroes, but they were also scoundrels, all the way back to Adam. At the tap root of the family tree, like any genealogy, the one in Luke’s Gospel records a long line of sinners. (Citation unknown; quoted in a sermon published on line.)

I think Dr. Ryken was wrong about firing the professor, but I think he’s right about human nature and “the skeletons in [our] family closet.” Just like these ancestors of Jesus, we all are people who make mistakes, make bad decisions (like wrongfully discharging an instructor), do bad things; we share in the nature of Adam.

My friend Mark Sandlin, an ordained Presbyterian elder in North Carolina, yesterday posted online a part of his sermon for today. He is saying to his congregation:

The Jewish and Christian religious stories are stories underlined with the constant reality of seeking out something, searching for something. Adam and Eve seek out knowledge. Noah seeks shelter from the storm. Abraham and Sarah seek out the unknown land God sends them to. Joseph seeks to understand the king’s dreams and bring his family back together. Moses seeks to bring his people to the promised land. David seeks to become the leader God clearly believes he is. The prophets seek to bring the people of God back to God’s ways. Jesus seeks to show us what love looks like and teach us God’s ways. Paul seeks to grow the church in the ways of God. We are seekers. It is our story. We cannot escape it. We should not try. We Christians are seekers. Always have been. Always will be. It’s in our ancestral DNA. (Posted on Mark’s Facebook page)

Mark might disagree with me if I were to say that he and Dr. Ryken are saying the same thing, but the truth is that often in our seeking, we seek in the wrong places, or we seek the wrong things, and we end up making the bad decisions and mistakes Dr. Ryken describes Jesus’ forebears making. Again, it’s that human nature that we all share with Adam as created children of God.

But from the earliest days of the church, it has been the Christian understanding that we also share in the nature of Jesus. In the second century, Irenaeus, bishop of Lyons (c. 130–202) said that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.” (Against Heresies, Book V, Preface) His contemporary, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165) taught that Christians are “children of the Most High” because, in the beginning human beings “were made like God, free from suffering and death” and, therefore, “deemed worthy of becoming gods and of having power to become sons of the highest.” (Dialogue with Trypho, Ch. 124)

Justin was quoting Psalm 82 in calling us “children of the Most High,” but he might have been quoting our Psalm from today, which (unfortunately) the Prayer Book mistranslates. In the first verse of our gradual for today, Psalm 29, the psalmist commands, “Ascribe to the Lord, you gods, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.” The Hebrew words translated here as “you gods” are “bene Elohim,” more correctly translated as “sons (or children) of the Almighty.” Psalm 29 is believed to be derived from a very early liturgical hymn extolling the Canaanite god Baal or a similar ancient Near Eastern “storm deity,” and thus addressed originally to “heavenly beings” or lesser gods, but we might understand it to be addressed to us, to those whom God describes in today’s reading from Isaiah:

Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, “Give them up,”
and to the south, “Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth –
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”
(Isa. 43:6-7)

We were created for glory, descendants of Adam formed by and made children of God, and our original created goodness is renewed by Jesus in whom we are adopted children of the Most High. No wonder that “in the temple of the Lord all are crying, ‘Glory!’ ”

This, I believe, is why Luke interrupts the flow of action in his telling of the Gospel story, why unlike Mark and Matthew, he doesn’t move directly from baptism to temptation. He finishes the story of Jesus’ baptism and then adds, almost as an explanatory footnote, “O, by the way, this is who this guy is. He’s a human being, just like you; descended from a bunch of fallible, flawed human beings, just like you; a descendent of Adam, the original created son of God, just like you.” Only after offering us that reassurance does Luke go on to tell us about the forty days in the desert, a story in which we learn that there’s something about Jesus that isn’t just like us, that he is able to resist temptation. And the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say on radio) is that through his faithfulness and through our faith in him, we can become (by adoption) just like him. Telling the story in this way – baptism-genealogy-temptation – is Luke’s way of saying that God “became what we are in order to make us what he is himself.”

Thus, it is Luke’s way of underscoring the central message of the Gospel, which we hear in our readings today in the Old Testament lesson: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you.” (Isa. 43:1) If we had to put the Gospel of Jesus Christ into one phrase, it would have to be, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s what Gabriel said to Mary (Lk 1:30); it’s what the angel said to Joseph (Mt 1:20); it’s what the angels said to the shepherds in Bethlehem (Lk 2:10); it’s the first word the angel spoke on Easter morning: “Don’t be afraid” (Mt 28:5). It is what the risen Christ said to his disciples: “Do not be afraid. I am with you always.” (Mt. 28:10,20)

It’s one thing to say it, however, and it’s another thing to believe it. That, too, is part of the human nature we’ve inherited from Adam; we know all about our ancestors, people like Abraham the liar, Jacob the cheat, and David the adulterer; we know all about how badly they screwed up, and we’re afraid we might do it, too. But remember the words of God, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” (Isa 43:1) Remember that we share not only Adam’s nature, but Jesus’ nature as well.

A well-known theologian once confessed that he was plagued many nights by a terrible dream. He dreamed that he was traveling in some distant city, and he ran into someone with whom he had gone to high school. In the bad dream, the person would say, “Henri, Henri, haven’t seen you in years. What have you done with your life?” This question always felt like judgment. He’d done some good things in his life, but there had also been some troubles and struggles. And when the old schoolmate in the dream would say, “What have you done with your life?” he wouldn’t know what to say, how to account for his life. Then one night he had another dream. He dreamed that he died and went to heaven. He was waiting outside the throne room of God, waiting to stand before almighty God, and he shivered with fear. He just knew that God would be surrounded with fire and smoke and would speak with a deep voice saying, “Henri, Henri, what have you done with your life?” But, then, in the dream, when the door to God’s throne room opened, the room was filled with light. From the room he could hear God speaking to him in a gentle voice saying, “Henri, it’s good to see you. I hear you had a rough trip, but I’d love to see your slides.” (Note: this story has been used by many preachers; I’ve not been able to find an original source.)

I think there is truth in that dream. I think that’s exactly what will happen, that God will say to each one of us, “It’s good to see you! You are my child. I hear you’ve had a rough trip, but I’m pleased with you and I’d love to see your pictures.”

So, don’t be afraid. God has redeemed you; God has called you by name; you are God’s. Just like “. . . Nathan, son of David, son of Jesse, son of Obed, son of Boaz, son of Sala, son of Nahshon, son of Amminadab . . .” and all the rest of them. Just like Adam. And just like Jesus. 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.

Caring vs Rules: A Sermon for Proper 27B, Pentecost 24 (8 Nov 2015)

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A sermon offered on Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27B, Track 1, RCL), November 8, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Ruth 3:1-5;4:13-17; Psalm 127; Hebrews 9:24-28; and Mark 12:38-44 . These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. The collect for the day, referenced in the sermon, is found at the same site.)

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The Widow's Mite by RembrandtI get letters. Sometimes they’re really nice letters. And sometimes they’re not. Today, I want to tell you about a letter and how it caused me to rethink the two stories of women in today’s lectionary readings: First, the end of the story of Ruth from the biblical book named for her, and second, the story of Jesus watching and commenting upon the sacrificial giving of a widow in the Jerusalem temple.

The Book of Ruth is a very simple story. As Dr. Alphonetta Wines, a Methodist theologian, has said:

The genius of the book of Ruth begins with its literary simplicity. In chapter one, Naomi’s troubles are relentless as one by one, famine, displacement, and bereavement steal her joy, turning her into a bitter woman. In chapter two Ruth ekes out a living for Naomi and herself. Both are abundantly blessed in the process. In chapter three, Ruth, at Naomi’s bidding, encounters Boaz on the threshing floor. In chapter four, the birth of Ruth’s child Obed brings Naomi joy that she thought would never be hers again. What began in misfortune has turned out to be a blessing for generations to come. (Working Preacher Commentary)

It’s simplicity, however, obscures for us its very radical messages: one of hope for women in a patriarchal society where the rules are all stacked against them, and another for inclusion of the stranger and the alien for it tells us this foreign woman, Ruth the Moabite, was the great grandmother of Israel’s King David and, thus, an ancestor of his descendent whom we believe to be the Son of God.

The story of the widow in the temple is another study in simplicity. Jesus is in the temple teaching, very clearly teaching against the scribes whom he criticizes for their opulent and self-serving ways. Having just criticized the scribes for “devouring widows’ houses,” he watches this particular widow turn over to those same scribes everything she possesses. Jesus seems to praise her for giving “out of her poverty . . . everything she had,” while criticizing wealthier donors who merely “contribute out of their abundance.”

This story has been used countless times a “stewardship sermon” text to encourage sacrificial giving by modern Christians. However, while I certainly want to encourage your generosity to the church, I think that’s a misuse of the text. Elsewhere, Jesus has encouraged such giving (as when he tells the wealthy young man to “sell all you have and give the money to the poor”) but I don’t believe that that is his intent here. Rather, in this story he is (I believe) teaching a lesson about two approaches to religion, a lesson also taught by the whole story of Ruth.

I came to this conclusion on Friday. Two things happened on Friday. The first was my practice of reading every morning from Daily Office lectionary; the second was the letter I just mentioned, which was delivered to the church office by our mailman on Friday afternoon.

The Daily Office Old Testament readings for the past couple of weeks have been from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah telling the story of the return of Jerusalem’s exiles from Babylonia and their rebuilding of the Temple; the Gospel readings have been from Matthew’s Gospel. On Friday, the latter was the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread, while the lesson from Ezra told of the sacrifice made in thanksgiving for the completion and dedication of the restored temple:

At that time those who had come from captivity, the returned exiles, offered burnt-offerings to the God of Israel, twelve bulls for all Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven lambs, and as a sin-offering twelve male goats; all this was a burnt-offering to the Lord. (Ezra 8:35)

In my Daily Office meditation on Friday, I wrote that the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story from Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is a striking illustration of two very different understandings of religion: on the one hand, religion as rules; on the other, religion as caring.

In our contemporary society and for the past several years, it’s been fashionable amongst some people to make a distinction between being “spiritual” and being “religious.” Those who study modern religion, such as the Pew Institute, even have a classification, “SBNR,” as one of their demographic categories, the “spiritual but not religious.” That distinction, I think, is what is addressed by our bible stories today; I don’t think Ruth or Naomi or Jesus or the widow in the temple would ever make that distinction, however. They would never divorce spirituality from religion. They might, however, make a distinction between these two kinds of religious practice: religion as rules versus religion as caring.

You know that I love looking into word origins, what is technically called “etymology”. Usually when I do this in a sermon I ask you to consider the original Greek of the New Testament, or the Hebrew of the Old Testament, but today I want to look at the English word religion, its root and derivation, and what we mean by it. If we look in the dictionary we will find that it is defined as “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster) Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, offers this definition: “A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.”

The British Broadcasting Corporation, as part of their web presence, has a really good subsection for reporting religious news from all over the world. On the homepage of that religious news section, the BBC includes this statement:

Religion can be explained as a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (BBC.co.uk)

Notice what is common to all these definitions: beliefs about gods (or at least the supernatural), regulations of conduct, and ritual ceremonies. In other words, they are all about religion as rules. Only at the end, and only as a optional element, does the BBC definition include anything about morality or social behavior or anything that could be called “religion as caring”.

These definitions apply fully to the conduct of the scribes Jesus talks about in the Gospel lesson: they “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and . . . for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” They also apply to the Israelite society into which Naomi and Ruth come from Moab, a patriarchal society dominated by religious regulations, the Law of Moses, which denied independent livelihood to women. Beliefs, regulations, rituals: religion as rules.

The first recorded use of the word religion in the English language was in the 12th Century to describe the state of life of those bound by monastic vows and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, but in both uses the emphasis is on religion as rules. Our word religion derives from the Latin word religionem which Roman philosophers, such as Cicero and Lactantius, used to connote a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods; St. Jerome used it in the Latin vulgate translation of the Bible to render a Greek word meaning “religious ceremonies” (threskeia, Acts 26:5 & James 1:26-27).

The root of the Latin word religionem, however, was a matter of some dispute amongst those same Roman writers. Some believed it came from the verb religare which means “to bind up,” which is what rules do. Others, however, argued that it derived from relegere meaning “to read again” or “to read carefully,” that it is related to the word religiens meaning “careful”, the opposite of negligens, or negligent. This second derivation suggests that religion is less about rules than it is about caring.

The beliefs-rules-and-rituals understanding of religion is the way a lot of people, like the temple scribes and like early Israelite patriarchal society, understand religion. When this is our understanding, we end up following rules that lead the grossly over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock described in Friday’s Old Testament reading, we end up following rules that leave widowed women unable to provide for themselves, and we end up with religious leaders who make a show of their piety but who “devour widows’ houses.” Religion, understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies, produces such results . . . and it produces that second thing that happened on Friday, this letter delivered to the church office by our mailman that afternoon. [Note: the letter may be viewed here as a PDF file; the highlighting is in the original as delivered.]

In the November issue of our parish newsletter, we published an article about applauding during worship services which my colleague, the Rev. Peter Faass of Christ Church, Shaker Heights, had written. In it Fr. Faass commented that he invites applause when introducing married couples and, in that, made oblique reference to the fact that following this summer’s General Convention the Episcopal Church now offers marriage to same-sex couples. He recommended, however, that most of the time applause should not be offered during worship because what we do in the liturgy is not done as a performance for the congregation, but rather as an offering to God. What Peter suggested was that

instead of applause it would be best to offer a moment of silence after a pleasing offering; a moment when we may reflect on the gifts God has given to the person who is offering them up in the liturgy. In that silence let’s offer thanks. In that stillness let’s hear God’s applauding approval. [Note: Fr. Faass’s entire article can be read in PDF format in the parish newsletter here.]

Apparently we have a neighbor who reads our newsletter and who often drives by our building because that’s who this letter is from. In it, our neighbor takes us to task not only for Fr. Faass’s points, but also for our sign on which we have, from time to time, put the statement which has become a sort of unofficial motto of our diocese: “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

The letter begins, “It seems that Episcopalians are proud of being Episcopalians, but ashamed to be Christian. That explains why they find it so easy to stray from Scriptures, and hold so tightly to ‘tradition.'” The writer condemns us as “heavily influenced by popular culture” and then goes on to proof-text from Scripture why, in our correspondent’s opinion, same-sex marriage is contrary to his understanding of religion citing particularly the story of Adam and Eve. He then suggests that Fr. Faass is incorrect about God’s applause saying, “It may very well be that God is not only not applauding, but is sickened by ‘the liturgy,'” and he cites the prophets Amos and Isaiah who condemned the festivals, sacrifices, and assemblies of unfaithful Israel.

With respect to our sign, our neighbor informs us that “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions” is simply not true, that there are, in fact, human beings whom God not only doesn’t love but whom God positively abhors. He cites one of the Psalms for this proposition.

This [the letter] is religion understood as that which binds, religion as rules; this is Scripture understood as a set of binding regulations proscribing behavior, prescribing some rituals and prohibiting others, and denying not only basic dignity but even the love of God to many of God’s children. This is the religion of the temple scribes.

To this sort of religion, Jesus contrasted the religion of the widow in the temple. No law, no rule required her make her offering of “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.” This is not her tithe (that would have been paid at a different time and in a different way). This is not a sin offering or a burnt offering (that would have entailed the sacrifice of some animal). This is nothing more nor less than a gift of thanks, given “out of her poverty” because she cared for the God on whose blessings she depended, because she cared for the faith that was in her. Because she cared, she gave; “out of her poverty [she] put in everything she had.” This is religion as caring.

I could answer this letter. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes that when Jesus told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son” (Jn 3:16) he didn’t put any qualifications or restrictions on that statement. I could write to our neighbor and tell him that the Episcopal Church believes with our parish patron, St. Paul, 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 [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:38-39) I could do that. I could answer this letter, but I think the better response is for us as a church community to continue doing what we are called to do, to continue living a religion that emphasizes caring rather than rules.

Our correspondent admonished us that it is incumbent upon every Christian “to set the good example of following after Christ,” and he referenced the Letter of James: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (Jm 1:27 NRSV) What James is saying is that religion is caring, and the Episcopal Church could not agree more strongly!

Imagine how different this world might be if the caring, rather than the binding rules aspect, were the general understanding of religion! If we understood religion to mean “caring,” rather than “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” I really don’t think there would be any people who would describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” When the story of Ruth is understood not as a story about the rules of ancient Israelite society but, as Dr. Wines suggested, as the story of “a blessing for [all] generations to come” . . . when the story of the widow in the temple is understood not as a story about following the rules of stewardship, but as a story of giving as an act of caring . . . when the whole Bible is understood not as a book of rules and regulations, but as a collection of stories about God’s love . . . then it is clear that, contrary to our neighbor’s letter, Episcopalians do not “stray from Scripture.”

Our calling as “Episcopalians [who] are proud of being Episcopalians, [and who are positively delighted] to be Christian” is to demonstrate, to live out, and to invite others into what our new Presiding Bishop likes to call “the Jesus Movement,” a religion of caring, not a religion of rules. Like the widow in the temple, we are called to give out of our poverty all that we have and all that we are, and to invite into our self-giving not only those who are like ourselves, but also and especially those are different, the stranger, the alien, the one who is not like us, without regard to his or her social status, race, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, or anything else because nothing “in all creation, [is] able to separate [any of] us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord,” because “God Loves Everyone. No Exceptions.”

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.

Under the Protection of the Dioscuri – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Under the Protection of the Dioscuri . . . .

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 16, Year 1 (Pentecost 13, 2015)

Acts 28:11 ~ Three months later we set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island, an Alexandrian ship with the Twin Brothers as its figurehead.

One of the things I most love about Holy Scripture are the odd little details that its writers throw in; this is true for both Hebrew and Christian Scriptures in the Bible, and it is true for the Scriptures of other faiths. I sometimes wonder if there is point to them, or if they are just odd little details, the sort of thing someone would write down in their diary without much thought other than to report a stray fact.

This is particularly so with Luke’s mention of the ship’s figurehead of the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux. Is this just something he noted in his journal and then repeated when transcribing his diary notes into his history for Theophilos? Or is he saying something about the faith of the Alexandrian ship captain and his crew? Something about Paul’s (and his own) open-mindedness in sailing on a Gentile ship under the protection of pagan demi-gods? Something about the Dioscuri themselves.

The myths about the Twins, the children of Leda and Zeus (who seduced their mother in the form of a swan) are varied and contradictory. One story holds that both are the sons of Zeus; another version says that only Pollux is and that Castor is the son of Leda’s earthly husband Tyndareus. Thus, only Pollux is “naturally” a demi-god but it is said that Pollux bargained with his father to give like status to his half-twin Castor. They have an ambiguous relationship with immortality being required, after their earthly life, to spend half of their time in Pluto’s realm of the dead, Hades, while allowed to spend the other half alive on Olympus with Zeus. They are said to be helpers of humankind, particularly of travelers and sailors; their intervention is sought during times of crisis.

Is Luke suggesting something, some parallelism perhaps, in specifically noting that he and Paul are bringing to Rome the Gospel of the Son of Yahweh on board a ship under the protection of the sons of Zeus? Probably not; his mention of the figurehead of the Twin Brothers is probably just one of those odd little details one records in a diary.

Learning, Ignorance, Insanity – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Learning, Ignorance, Insanity

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Tuesday in the week of Proper 16, Year 1 (Pentecost 13, 2015)

Acts 26:24 ~ While [Paul] was making this defense, Festus exclaimed, “You are out of your mind, Paul! Too much learning is driving you insane!”

I confess to a fondness for this verse and often wonder can too much learning drive a person insane? I don’t think so, but it’s certainly worth contemplating. It may just be a matter of perspective; perhaps in some circumstances the actions of a learned person can appear irrational to those lacking knowledge which the educated person possesses. In any event, with two masters degrees and two doctorates, I’m hardly the person to scoff at education.

In fact, I believe in life-long education and continue to take classes when I can and to read and study new things. Each year I find a subject about which I knew only a little and strive to learn more. Last year, I read several texts on quantum mechanics, string theory, and the nature of the universe (or the multiverse, according to some). Did I understand it all? Of course not! There times when what I was reading seemed absolutely crazy, but I continued my course and I think I’m a better person for having done so. This year, I am reading the history of Palestine and Israel from a variety of perspectives.

I don’t believe that too much learning leads to insanity. But I do believe that ignorance can produce irrational conduct. Consider, for example: the anti-vaccination craze, denial of human causation of climate change, so-called “creation science,” congressional refusal to fund federal research into gunshot injuries as a medical issue, a state legislature’s refusal to allow its state agencies to properly measure changes in sea level along its coasts, laws requiring doctors to give their patients misinformation about birth control and abortion, etc. We now live with governmental policies affecting nearly every facet of our lives adopted by people who say, “I am not a scientist, but . . . . ” and then enact laws regarding the very scientific issue about which they have confessed ignorance. That’s crazy!

I don’t believe that too much learning leads to insanity, but I do believe that too little does. You are out of your mind, America! Too little learning is driving you insane.

Leavening the Lump – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Leavening the Lump . . . .

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 15, Year 1 (Pentecost 12, 2015)

Acts 24:22 ~ But Felix, who was rather well informed about the Way, adjourned the hearing with the comment, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.”

Paul, a Roman citizen demanding his rights, is brought before Felix the governor after being accused of starting a riot in the Jerusalem Temple. The Jewish authorities lay out their case; Paul makes his defense; the governor postpones judgment. In recording the scene, Luke (the author of Acts) makes this parenthetical remark which is easily overlooked, that Felix “was rather well informed about the Way,” i.e., about the claim of some Jews (and now a few Gentiles) that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, and the way of life lived in consequence of that belief.

Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judaea, a Greek freedman, divorced and remarried to a divorced woman, known for cruelty and licentiousness, more than willing to accept bribes and look the other way, under whose governorship the province experienced a significant increase in criminal activity, “was rather well informed about the Way.” How could that be?

Felix was governor of Judaea for only six or seven year, 52-58 AD, about twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus. Although the Christian faith had spread (this trial takes place about six years after Paul’s trip to Athens, for example), it was still a small community, so how is it that the Roman governor, a pagan from the imperial city itself, in office and in the province only a few years, is “well informed about the Way”?

I suggest there’s only one way for this to be true: early Christians talked about their faith, shared their story with others, and spread the gospel in their daily lives. I’m not suggesting that any member of the church actually had spoken directly to Felix, but rather that (if I may use one of Jesus’ own metaphors) like yeast in a lump of dough knowledge of the Christian story spread through the community as neighbor talked to neighbor, Jew talked with Gentile, Palestinian native spoke to Roman occupier, and so it goes.

Some 2,000 years later, we live in a society where many claim to be “rather well informed about the way” but few are. There is a lot of talking about Christianity, but precious little of that talk is accurate and few who talk it actually live it. It may be that Antonius Felix was rather better informed about the Way than are many modern Christians and certainly better than the “nones” among us.

There is only one remedy for this: yet again, the yeast must leaven the lump.

The Jews of Asia, Watts, & Monoliths — From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Thursday in the week of Proper 14, Year 1 (Pentecost 11, 2015)

Acts 21:27 ~ When the seven days were almost completed, the Jews from Asia, who had seen [Paul] in the temple, stirred up the whole crowd.

When I was a kid growing up in Las Vegas I knew there were some people called “the Jews.” That is about all I knew about that particular group of people. My family knew a couple of Jewish families; my dad was friends with Sammy Davis, Jr., who was a black Jew and I knew that that was somehow really different. But I didn’t know anything about different sorts of Jews; they were all one group in my childish understanding.

When I went away to boarding school, I met and befriended a young Jewish man who introduced me to the American varieties of Judaism: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstruction. His family went to a Reform synagogue and, he told, were Sephardim by ancestry, thus introducing me to the difference between Sephardim and Ashkenazim. In my senior year, my English class read Leon Uris’ recently published novel “Exodus” and these differences took on more meaning, and the concept of the Sabra was introduced to my understanding.

In college, I read Martin Buber and learned of the Hasidim and the ultra-Orthodox; I also took a course about the founding of Israel and learned about the Mizrahim (Jews from eastern Arabic, Persian Gulf countries), the Maghrebim (Jews from North Africa), and the Falasha (black Jews from Ethiopia).

So when I read the words “the Jews from Asia” in today’s Acts reading, I wondered which of these modern divisions of Judaism and ethnic Jewry (if any) they might have represented. That I am currently reading a new text on the history of Israel probably encouraged that.

And then I wondered how many modern American Christian readers of the Acts lesson appreciated the existence of such divisions. We are so prone to monolithic thinking. I know from Bible study conversations over the past 30 years of ministry, that when we read the words “the Jews” in the Christian Scripture we Christians tend to create in our minds a united block of co-religionists who rejected and then opposed the teachings of Jesus and his disciples.

We do the same when someone says, “The early church ….” Again, in our minds we create this mythical monolithic united religion which even a short course in Christian history will demolish.

We do the same when someone says, “The Muslims ….” Monolithic thinking, even in the face of news reports reminding us that there are differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites, between Arab Muslims and Iranian Muslims, between radical Iraqi jidahists and moderate American imams.

We whites do it at the mention of “African Americans” and blacks do it at the mention of whites. We know better but, initially, as if it’s part of some human hard-wired programming that we must constantly over-write, we do it anyway.

“The Jews of Asia” stirred up a riot in the Temple precincts on flimsy and false premise that Paul had taken a Gentile, Trophimus the Ephesian, into the Temple. The police were called; Paul was arrested; the riot was put down. As I listened to the radio news this morning, I was informed that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Watts riots, a civil disturbance with perhaps more justification, and certainly more damage, than the Biblical riot.

I was not quite a high school freshman living in another part of the Los Angeles metroplex in August of 1965. That was back when I still thought of “the Jews” as a singular, monolithic group; I thought of black Americans the same way. I remember the riots. I remember “our” fear of “them.” God help us, not much seems to have changed in fifty years! In all honesty, not much has changed in two thousand years. That hard-wired pre-programmed initial response of monolithic thinking, both about “us” and about “them,” whoever the “us” is and whoever the “them” is, is still with us, still a part of us, still in control of us.

When I was in seminary, I had a dormitory neighbor named Elizabeth, a doctoral student from Australia. I had the privilege of hearing her preach a children’s sermon one day on the parable of the lost sheep. She gathered the community’s children around her and asked them if they knew how God counts people. They all said “No,” of course, and she proceeded to point directly at each child saying, “One … one … one … one …” Her point for the children was that each one of us can be a lost sheep and that in God’s eyes each one of us is “number one,” the most important, the one God will take all the time necessary to search for and find.

As I think about our reading today and “the Jews from Asia” and the Watts riots, I remember Elizabeth’s children’s sermon and draw another inference: for God there are no monolithic groups, there are only individuals gathered into a flock. It is one of Jesus’ many lessons for us to learn, remember, re-learn, and remember again as we constantly over-write that programming; there is no “us” and there is no “them.” There are no monoliths!

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