That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Ezra

Community Choice: Sermon for Pentecost 14, RCL Proper 16C (21 August 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, August 21, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 16C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 103:1-8; Hebrews 12:18-29; and St. Luke 13:10-17. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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borderwallOur reading from the Book of Isaiah today is the second half of chapter 58, a chapter which begins with God ordering the prophet to “Shout out,” to “do not hold back,” to “lift up [his] voice like a trumpet” with God’s answer to a question asked by the people of Jerusalem: “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” (Isaiah 58:1,3a)

God’s answer is simple: “You serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. [Y]ou fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.” (vv. 3b-4)

The rest of the chapter, including the portion we heard today, is simply an expansion on that answer including (in this reading) God’s promise that a change of civic behavior, a change in the ruling elite’s treatment of the poor will be answered with prosperity for all. They had to choose what kind of community they were going to be. That was an important lesson for the ruling class to learn; it is an important lesson for us to learn. To fully understand the importance of this lesson, however, requires some placement of this prophecy in historical context.

The Book of Isaiah is not the work of a single prophet. Based on internal evidence and other historical data, scholars believe that in contains the oracles of at least three prophets or schools of prophets. The first, sometimes called “Proto-Isaiah,” comprises chapters 1 through 39. This writer lived and worked in Jerusalem before the Babylonian Exile. Chapters 40 through 54 are believed to have been written during the Exile recording the prophecies of the second or “Deutero-Isaiah.” The last of the book, chapters 55-66, contains short oracles of several post-Exilic prophets who are collectively known as third or “Trito-Isaiah.”

These “Third Isaiah” prophets were at work during the rebuilding of the Temple under the direction of Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor, whose names we know as the titles of the history books which tell that story. Professor Brian Jones of Wartburg college describes the social milieu of the time in this was:

Rebuilding the temple and the city was moving slowly, perhaps stalled completely. Leadership within the community was contested. Divisions and violent quarreling hindered progress in both physical and social restoration. Drought and food shortages exacerbated the social strife and made rebuilding difficult. Economic and social inequity – homelessness, hunger, lack of clothing – threatened the stability and identity of the returned community. (Jones, Working Preacher Commentary)

In addition, there was conflict between the returnees and those who had never left. The returnees disagreed about how welcoming their community should be to the locals who had remained; the leaders (particularly Ezra) were not welcoming at all.

Ezra and Nehemiah took an exclusivist position, regarding those who had remained and intermarried with other peoples to be less than Jewish. For example, “one of the first measures Ezra took was to make an ultimatum forcing all Jewish men to divorce their non-Jewish wives or at least have the women convert. Whoever refused would be excluded from the community.” (Jewish History, Ezra and Nehemiah) Ezra focused the people’s attention on rebuilding the Temple; Nehemiah focused on building a wall around Jerusalem. These, they believed, would bind the people as a nation and strengthen them to stand against their neighbors, friend and foe alike.

Others, however, promoted an inclusive viewpoint. For example, the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of a non-Jewish Moabite woman who married into Israel and became an ancestor of King David, was written during this period. The “Third Isaiah” prophets were of this viewpoint; they argued, as our reading makes clear, that welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, and meeting the needs of the afflicted were more important than building walls and, in the long run, would lay a foundation of prosperity for many generations.

Of course, Ezra and Nehemiah were in charge so the Temple and the wall were built, but the prophets turned out to be correct. The Temple and the wall did bind the people together, but Israel as a nation was never restored to the glory of the Davidic kingdom and for most of the next three hundred years was under the control of foreign empires ending, in Jesus’ time, with the Romans.

What Ezra and Nehemiah and their successors did accomplish was the creation of a relatively united and ritually pure Judaic religion, a faith which bound the people one to another and to their God. They might have minor disagreements about the relative importance of the festivals and sacrifices of the Temple as opposed to the rules and rituals of daily life, the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, but in the end they were all Jews sharing one religion.

This was the religion into which Jesus was born, about which he taught, and the reform of which he sought. Our lesson from Luke’s Gospel today is a story of his effort to accomplish that reform.

As was his Sabbath custom, Jesus was teaching in a synagogue, the local religious meeting hall; Luke doesn’t tell us what village or town he was in, but somewhere in the region of Galilee. As he was teaching, a woman who was (the Greek tells us) “bent over double,” apparently with considerable curvature of her spine, entered. He called her to him and said, “You are freed,” not cured, freed, and laid his hand on her; she then stood up straight. Actually, was the Greek says is that “she was straightened.” It doesn’t say that Jesus straightened her, or that she straightened herself, simply that “she was straightened.” By what? By freedom and into freedom.

Of course, this astonishing event raises a commotion. The “leader of the synagogue,” a direct spiritual descendant of Ezra and Nehemiah, objects. Jesus, he argues, has violated the rules; he has done work (assuming that healing someone is work) on the Sabbath. Jesus answers in true rabbinic fashion employing what is known as arguing from the lesser to the greater. He reminds the leader and those around them that it is not a violation of the law to free a farm animal on the Sabbath so that it may drink; if this, the lesser thing, is permitted, then it must also be true that to free a Jewish woman, a “daughter of Abraham,” from her ailment, the greater thing, is also permitted.

Many commentaries make not of the fact that this woman, by reason of her spinal curvature, her being bent over double could never have looked anyone in the eye, could not have seen the horizon, could only look at her feet and the few feet of ground that lay before her. She was cut off from the world around her. The leader of the synagogue and other spiritual descendants of Ezra and Nehemiah were similar blinded by their rules and traditions.

The rules of the Sabbath on which the synagogue ruler bases his objection are not to be found in the Law of Moses; they are not in the Torah. Instead, these are the mitzvoth d’rabbanan, the man-made laws intended by the rabbis to be a fence or wall around the Torah, lesser (but just as strenuously enforced) ritual rules that insured one did not break a commandment of the Scriptures.

Although this gospel story is often presented as just one more of Jesus’ healing miracles, I suggest to you that it is much, much more. It is a story of liberation, not only of the woman herself, but of all those who were present and all those, like ourselves, who have heard it through the ages. In this story, Jesus frees them and us from the bondage of inflexible rules, from the walls we have built around our hearts and our spirits.

The leader of the synagogue and generations of tradition had made the ritual observance of the Sabbath more important than the people for whom the Sabbath was meant. Sabbath (the Hebrew word literally means “rest”) was intended to give the people of God freedom from the demands of everyday life; it was to be a time of rest, relaxation, and refreshment. But in trying to guard that time of liberation, the rabbis had built their wall of rules, their “fence around the Torah,” rituals which were more restrictive, more demanding than the strictures of daily life. It is not in this text but in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus says to the Pharisees, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), but that is certainly the message of this story. The Sabbath is no reason to refuse healing and liberation to a “daughter of Abraham.” As St. James would later write to the church, “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.” (James 1:26)

We often focus too much on the “keeping unstained” and too little on the care of the poor. That was the problem the Third Isaiah oracles sought to address, the focus on the wall of security around the city and on the purity of the temple. A Quaker preacher in North Carolina has written about our Isaiah lesson as follows:

If ever there was an unambiguous prophetic signpost for the people of Israel that would show them the way to a restored relationship with Yahweh, Isaiah’s message in Chapter 58:10 was it: “If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…”

While so many of the Old Testament prophets’ messages are filled with jeremiads of doom and gloom, this positive passage is exceptional in that it holds out the conditional promise of personal and community restoration and reconciliation, expressed poetically as a “watered garden” (v.11). The condition was clear: first the Israelites had to feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted, and treat their neighbors as they would themselves like to be treated. The power of this poetic passage speaks volumes for the spirit of love, compassion, and neighborliness which God expects God’s people to demonstrate as they go about feeding the hungry in their communities. The hungry were not to be subject to a “means” test, speak only one official language, or show documents to prove they were not “illegal” before they were to be fed. They were to be fed simply because they were hungry.

God does not say here, “The poor you have with you always, so relax, take your time, pay your bills, balance your budget, play the lottery, fill up the SUV, take a vacation, and, if there are any crumbs left on the table, offer pennies to the hungry.” Rather, God clearly gives feeding the hungry top priority on the daily agenda of God’s people rather than fighting terrorism and protecting one’s job security, life insurance, college savings program, or retirement investment.

The bottom line in this text from Isaiah is not maximization of profits, but feeding the hungry and comforting the afflicted. (Ed King, Member, Chapel Hill Friends Meeting)

As for the Third Isaiah prophets, so too for Jesus. “God’s time,” writes Lutheran pastor Amy Lindeman Allen about the gospel story, “is a time that, no matter when it is observed (and, for Jesus and the synagogue leader, this would have been a Saturday) and no matter how it is observed in the particulars, it is always and only about life.” This story demonstrates that for Jesus, Sabbath is “always about God’s people and their well-being, and not simply about the ‘rules’ and the way we wish things ought to be.” (Political Theology)

These stories today are coupled with a frankly strange bit of prose cut out of the Letter to the Hebrews. The writer of the letter contrasts two mountains, Sinai where the Law was given and Zion to which those finding freedom in Christ are invited. The first place is “ominous for the eye and the ear with burning fire, darkness, gloom, windstorm, [and the] noise of trumpets.” (Peeler, Working Preacher Commentary) The second is a place of life and light, of festivity, of angels, and of “the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven.” The author of Hebrews encourages us to accept the invitation, “See that you do not refuse!” We are being offered a kingdom, a community that cannot be shaken, a community where the finger is not pointed, where evil is not spoken, where the hungry are fed, the afflicted cared for, the stranger welcomed, where bones are made strong, where backs are straightened and youth is renewed.

These lessons today are about our communities, religious and secular, local and national, and the role and function of our laws, our rules, and our traditions; they test our claims about what could and should be practiced within our communities, and about who is allowed within our walls. They ask us, and demand that we answer. What kind of community – what kind of church, what kind of city, what kind of state, what kind of nation – do we want to be? An exclusive community encircled by walls and bound by restrictive rules, or an unshakeable inclusive community of life and light and freedom. The choice is ours. 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.

Religion Is Caring – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Religion Is Caring

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 26, Year 1 (Pentecost 23, 2015)

Ezra 8:35 ~ 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.

Matthew 14:19b-20 ~ Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.

I don’t usually quote from two of the Daily Office lessons in these little private meditations of mine (they “feel” private, anyway; I seldom get any replies or comments). Today, however, the contrast between the grossly exorbitant – one is tempted to say “wasteful” – sacrifice in the story of Ezra and the frugal but plentiful picnic in Matthew is so striking, I had to mention it. It seems to me that what these two contrasting lessons do is illustrate two different understandings of religion.

“Religion” as a concept seems to be pretty universally understood as a set of beliefs, to which may be attached ceremonies, rituals, and moral codes. Just take a look at a few of the definitions or comments one finds on major websites:

“A religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence.” (Wikipedia)

“An organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods.” (Merriam-Webster)

“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)

“For good or for evil, faith factors into our everyday functioning: We’ve evolved to believe. Religion can help us make sense of our world, provide motivation, and bind us together.” (Psychology Today)

The Psychology Today comment ends with an oblique reference to the commonly understood origin of the English word “religion” which is, I think, instructive in considering the different pictures or religion in today’s lessons.

If one delves into the etymology of the word, one finds its earliest use in Anglo-French, first, to describe the state of life bound by monastic vows, and only later to describe the pious conduct all persons, lay and “religious” alike, indicating a belief in a divine power, and still later to describe the institutions which foster and encourage such pious behavior.

It is derived from the Latin “religionem” which connotes a respect for the sacred and reverence for the gods. Roman philosophers and other writers used it, also, to refer to conscientiousness, sense of right, moral obligation, modes of worship, and the ritual observances of cults. However, they seem in disagreement about its origins.

The Roman grammarian Servius (“ad Virgil”) and the Christian philosopher Lactantius (“De Rerum Natura”) both believed it came from “religare” which means “to bind up.”

Cicero (De Natura Deorum), however, argues that it comes from “relegere” meaning “to read again” or “to go over again in reading, speech, or thought.”

Another source of the English word, perhaps another stream flowing into its meaning, comes from a Germanic root, “rak” through the Old English “reck” meaning “to have a care for.” The Latin word, “religiens” meaning “careful” (as the opposite of “negligens,” negligent) would support this understanding, and give credence Cicero’s derivation which implies careful consideration.

Which brings us back to the two stories in today’s lectionary readings. It seems to me that they illustrate these two alternative approaches to religion. Ezra’s over-the-top sacrifice of nearly 200 head of livestock results from religion understood as a set of binding rules proscribing behavior and prescribing rituals and ceremonies. Jesus’ feeding of the multitude with a few fish and loaves of brad illustrates religion understood as caring.

Obviously, the general understanding of “religion” in English-speaking countries comes from the “bind up” perspective. The dictionary definition, “an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods,” makes that abundantly clear.

How different might all those definitional quotations above might be if the “caring”, rather than the “binding” aspect, were the general understanding of religion. And how sad that it is not. One is reminded of James’s admonition: “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)

Next time I am asked “What is religion?” my answer will be “Religion is caring.”

Home Demolition – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Home Demolition

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Wednesday in the week of Proper 25, Year 1 (Pentecost 22, 2015)

Ezra 6:11 ~ Furthermore, I decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of the house of the perpetrator, who then shall be impaled on it. The house shall be made a dunghill.

In the Sixth Century BCE, the Jews returned from the Exile and rebuilt the Jerusalem Temple under the patronage of Darius the Great, the reigning Persian Achaemenid emperor. This line is found in the decree which was issued by Darius instructing his governors to see that the temple work was completed despite the opposition of the Samaritans, who had offered to be part of the rebuilding effort but whom the Jews would not permit to do so because they considered them unclean. (Samaritans were descendants of Israelites who had been left behind and who had intermarried with non-Jewish peoples. Although they kept the Law of Moses, the returning Jews did not consider them pure enough to take part in the restoration.)

The destruction of the homes of those who oppose the actions of Jews in the Holy Land is not merely an historic or biblical footnote. It is a present reality. In 2014 the Civil Administration of the Israel Defense Force destroyed the homes of 969 Palestinians on the West Bank. In January of this year, Israel destroyed 77 buildings belonging to Palestinians in the West Bank, leaving 110 people, roughly half of whom were children, homeless. Home demolition has been a frequent occurrence reported in Palestinian news throughout the year, although it is seldom mentioned in American media. Often the justification is that one member of the household has been accused (not proven, simply accused) of actions in opposition to Israeli occupation.

This morning I wonder if the inspiration for home demolition, or at least part of the inspiration, might be this obscure biblical passage. I don’t know, but it’s something to ponder . . . . So much terrible behavior can be justified by reference to ancient scriptures. When will we learn that these stories are not necessarily models of how we should act today; often they are stories of modes of being we are called to grown beyond and to leave behind. I suspect this is true of the decrees of a foreign king who, though he made the restoration of the Temple possible, was not a spokesman for the God who made hospitality, generosity, and forgiveness part of his Law. Home demolition surely violates that Law.

Dog Crap, the Temple, and Love – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Dog Crap, the Temple, and Love

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 24, Year 1 (Pentecost 21, 2015)

Ezra 3:10 ~ When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel . . . .

So I haven’t written one of these random meditations for a week . . . and instead of starting this one early in the morning as I usually do (so that they are sort of sleep befuddled first impressions of the Daily Office lessons more than anything else), I went out to do yard work.

I was reminded of another verse of scripture: “You shall have a designated area outside the camp to which you shall go. With your utensils you shall have a trowel; when you relieve yourself outside, you shall dig a hole with it and then cover up your excrement.” (Dt 23:12-13) We have a “dog yard” on the west side of our house; it is our “designated area outside the camp” and it is my privilege to clean it up every Friday on my day off. After doing that, I mow the lawn.

The yard clean up is the foundation, if you will, of my day off. After that is accomplished, I can relax and enjoy the day; I can rejoice and praise the Lord. Foundations, it seems to me, are like that. The work of digging footings, laying foundation stones (or blocks of concrete, or pumping in concrete), making sure the work is level, providing for proper drainage, and so forth, is all very hard work. And then it gets covered up and no one ever sees or thinks about it again, unless something goes wrong. Picking up dog crap is like that. It’s gross and unpleasant work, and no one ever thinks about it . . . unless it doesn’t get done and the stuff piles up. Getting that unpleasant but necessary work done, the work that makes everything else possible, the very important and absolutely necessary work that no one notices when all is well, that is good reason to praise the Lord.

This was not, of course, my initial thought reading the lessons this morning; this only came to me after the dog yard was cleaned and the lawn was mowed. My initial thought was a question: Did St. Paul have this scene in mind when he wrote to the Corinthians, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”? (1 Cor 13:1) Was he thinking of noisy temple rituals when he wrote of actions lacking the foundation of love?

For love is the true foundation of all good. On its website, a Canadian food ministry in which the Anglican Church of Canada is a part includes a prayer beginning with these words: “Creator God, we know that love is the foundation of creation and all life, your love and ours. We know that all things are possible with love – that the least becomes the most important, the last becomes the first.” Done with love even the grossest and most unpleasant of jobs, even most hidden and little recognized work, becomes the most important. Picking up dog shit, cleaning up the latrine, digging ditches, laying stones . . . done with love they are the foundation of the temple and worthy of praise and celebration.