That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Leviticus (page 1 of 2)

The ‘ahab Commandments – Sermon for Proper 25A, Pentecost 21 (October 29, 2017)

A lawyer asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”1

You’ve probably heard the old tale that “the Eskimo language has hundreds of words for snow.” If you research that, you’ll find it’s not true for the very basic reason that there is no single Eskimo language; there’s Inuit and Aleut and Yupik and Kalaallisut and Inuktitut and others and multiple dialects of all of them. In fact, there are eleven different languages spoken by the people grouped together under the title “Eskimos,” and most of them have up to thirty dialects. So, yeah, there are a lot of words for snow among the Eskimos in the same way there are a lot of words for snow among Europeans. (By the way, did you know that the native peoples of North America who live above the Arctic Circle don’t actually like to be called “Eskimos”? That is not a word in any of the languages; it’s an Algonquin word meaning “eaters of raw flesh” and they really don’t like it.)

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How To Be Good: Sermon for Pentecost Sunday, 4 June 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Pentecost Sunday, June 4, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from the Revised Common Lectionary: Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104:25-35,37; 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13; and St. John 7:37-39. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit who empowered the disciples to proclaim the Good News to peoples from many lands speaking many tongues: we now pray for those in many lands speaking many languages who have been hurt or killed by terrorist violence in the past fortnight in: London (England), Kabul (Afghanistan), Mosel (Iraq), Minya (Egypt), Khost (Afghanistan), Mastung (Pakistan), Gao (Mali), Borno State (Nigeria), Raqqa (Syria), Mogadishu (Somalia), rural Colombia, Manila (Philippines), Baghdad (Iraq), Basra (Iraq), Portland (Oregon, USA) and Manchester (England). May God grant eternal rest to the departed, healing to the injured, and comfort to those in grief. And since Jesus taught us to love and pray for our enemies, we pray also for those who have committed these violent acts, and for those who may be contemplating additional violence. May God change their hearts and shed abroad the gift of peace throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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“The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life,” says the Book of Proverbs (13:14). The word translated there as “teaching” is Torah, the Hebrew name for the Law of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The biblical tradition tells us that seven weeks after the Passover the Hebrews camped at the foot of Mt. Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, met God, and returned with the Torah inscribed on stone tablets. Therefore, the Jews celebrate on the fiftieth day after Passover the feast called Shavuot, which literally means “the feast of weeks.” It is also called “the feast of the giving of the Law” and “the feast of first fruits” because it also became a celebration of the barley harvest and a time of prayer for the success of the wheat harvest; it was a time when the tithe of the barley harvest, the first ten percent of the grain was brought to the Levites in obedience to the Torah’s requirement: “All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the Lord’s; they are holy to the Lord.” (Lev. 27:30)

When worship became centered on the Jerusalem Temple in Jerusalem, Shavuot became a pilgrimage feast, one of the three annual festivals on which every male Jew is commanded to make a pilgrimage to the Temple, which explains why there were so many people “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs” (Acts 2:9-11) in the streets of Jerusalem when the disciples of Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, went out to proclaim the Good News. They were the Jews of the Diaspora and for many of them, Greek rather than Hebrew was the language in which they read Scripture and worshiped, and they called this feast “Pentecost,” a word which means “fiftieth day.” They had returned to Jerusalem on the fiftieth day after Passover to offer their tithes at the Temple in gratitude for the giving of the Law.

A rabbi of the time famously described the Torah as a “disciplinarian” or “schoolmaster” (Gal. 3:22). Writing in Greek, the word he used was paidagogos, a word describing someone in Greek society, usually a family slave, who was charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of growing boys. In other words, the paidagogos’ obligation was to teach the boys to be good. This was the purpose of the Law given at Mt. Sinai. A modern rabbi writes that one should immerse oneself in the Torah

to gain a sense of how the Creator of the Universe relates to His creations. To think in a Godly way. It is a sharing of spirit, until the same preferences and desires breathe within . . . you, [until God’s] thoughts are your thoughts and your thoughts are [God’s]. (Tzvi Freeman, What Is Torah?)

That is what we as Christians believe happened in the event described by Luke in today’s reading from the Book of Acts, a sharing of the Holy Spirit of God until God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts and they had no alternative but to speak them to the world around them.

That First Century rabbi of whom I spoke was none other than our own parish Patron Saint, Paul of Tarsus, writing to the Galatians. He would continue to say that with the coming Christ we are freed from the discipline of the schoolmaster, and instead are led by the Holy Spirit to bear the “fruit of the Spirit [which] is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” (Gal. 5:22) Another word that describes this fruit is “virtue,” which St. Augustine of Hippo defined as “a good habit consonant with our nature.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Virtue)

The “fruit of the Spirit” should not be confused with the gifts of the Spirit. In the epistle reading today from the First Letter to the Corinthians, Paul details many of the gifts of the Spirit (wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in other tongues, and the interpretation of tongues, 1 Cor. 12:8-10), one of which seems to have been exhibited by the disciples, the ability to speak in other languages. While these gifts are important for a variety of reasons, what is most important about them is that they are, Paul says, “given . . . for the common good.” (v. 7)

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus instructed his listeners to be good, to do good to all, to enemies as well as friends, saying:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back. (Lk 6:37-38)

To the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well, echoing the words the Book of Proverbs applied to the Torah, Jesus promised that those who follow him will receive the water of life which “will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (Jn 4:14) And in today’s gospel lesson in a similar metaphor, he says, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” (Jn 7:38) This is what Pentecost is all about; this is what happened that morning in Jerusalem; the disciples were given a share of the Holy Spirit of God until, as that contemporary rabbi said, God’s preferences and desires breathed within the disciples, until God’s thoughts were their thoughts, until the Torah of the wise became a fountain of life and flowed out of them like living water to the world around them.

So the Law was given to teach us to be good and the Holy Spirit empowers us to be good, but how do we actually be good?

An author whose poetry has often graced the pages of The Christian Century, a magazine to which I have subscribed for many years, offered an answer to that question a few years ago. His name was Brian Doyle; he lived in Portland, Oregon, taught at the University of Portland, and edited Portland Magazine. He died a week ago from the same sort of brain cancer which killed my own brother several years ago, so I took particular note of his passing. At his requiem day before yesterday at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Portland, mourners were given a copy of an essay he wrote and published in his 2013 book The Thorny Grace of It (Loyola Press, Chicago:2013). The essay is entitled How to Be Good. I would like to read part of it to you now:

First, pick up your wet towel and at least, for heavenssake, hang it up to dry. And wipe the sink after you shave. The sink doesn’t have to be shining and spotless, that would be fussy and false, but at least don’t leave little mounds of your neck hairs like dead insects for your partner and children to find. At least do that. It’s the little things; they aren’t little. You knew that. I am just reminding you. Like the dead sparrow that the old lady across the street picked up from the street, where it fell broken and almost unrecognizable, and she saw it as a holy being and she gently dug it into her garden of fading flowers. A little act, but it wasn’t little. It sang quietly of respect and reverence for what had been alive and was thus holy beyond our ken. Or in the morning, when you rush into the shop for coffee, at least say thank you to the harried girl with the Geelong Cats logo tattooed on her forehead. At least look her in the eye and be gentle. Christ liveth in her, remember? Old Saint Paul said that, and who are we to gainsay the testy little gnarled genius? And the policeman who pulls you over for texting while driving, yes, you are peeved, and yes, he could be chasing down murderers, but be kind. Remove the bile from your tongue. For one thing, it actually was your fault, you could have checked the scores later, and for another, Christ liveth in him. Also in the grumpy imam, and in the surly teenager, and in the raving man under the clock at Flinders Street Station, and in the foulmouthed man at the footy, and in the cousin you detest with a deep and abiding detestation and have detested since you were tiny mammals fresh from the wombs of your mothers. When he calls to ask you airily to help him lug that awful vulgar elephantine couch to yet another of his shabby flats, do not roar and use vulgar and vituperative language, even though you have excellent cause to do so and who could blame you? But Christ liveth in him. Speak hard words into your closet and cast them thus into oblivion. Help him with the couch, for the ninth blessed time, and do not credit yourself with good works, for you too are a package of small sins and cowardices, and the way to be good is not to join the Little Sisters of the Poor in Calcutta, but to be half an ounce better a man today than you were yesterday. Do not consider tomorrow. Consider the next moment after you read this essay. Do the dishes. Call your mother. Coach the kids’ team. Purge that closet of the clothes you will never wear and give them away. Sell the old machinery and turn it into food for those who starve. Express gratitude. Offer a quiet prayer for broken and terrified children. Write the minister and ask him to actually do the job he was elected to do, which is care for the bruised among us, not pose on television. Pray quietly by singing. We do not know how prayers matter but we know that they matter. Do not concern yourself with measuring and calculating, but bring your kindness and humor like sharp swords against the squirm of despair and violence. The Church is you. Christ liveth in you. Do not cloak Him but let Him be about His business, which is using the tools the Creator gave you and only you to bring what light you can. You know this. I am only reminding you. Work with all your grace. Reach out. Do not rest. There will be time and time enough for rest. Care for what you have been given. Give away that which you treasure most. The food of the spirit is love given and granted; savor that and disburse that which is not important. Use less, slow down, write small notes. All the way to heaven is heaven, said old Catherine of Siena, and who are we to gainsay that slight smiling genius? Remember that witness is a glorious and muscular weapon. What you see with your holy eyeballs and report with the holy twist of your tongue has weight and substance. If you see cruelty, call it by its true name. If you hear a lie, call it out in the open. Try to forgive even that which is unforgivable. That is the way forward for us. I do not know how that can be so but it is so. You and I know that. I am only reminding us. Be who only you are. Rise to what you dream. Do not cease with joy. That is the nature of the gift we were given. It is the most amazing and extraordinary and confusing and complicated gift that ever was. Never take it for granted, not for an instant, not for the seventh of a second. The price for it is your attentiveness and generosity and kindness and mercy. Also humor. Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness. What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you. It advances the universe two inches. If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words. You and I know this is possible. It is what He said could happen if we loved well. He did not mean loving only the people you know. He meant every idiot and liar and thief and blowhard and even your cousin. I do not know how that could be so, but I know it is so. So do you. Let us begin again, you and me, this afternoon. Ready? (Page 15)

On this fiftieth day, this feast of the first fruits, this day of bringing our tithes and offerings of thanksgiving before God, this celebration of the giving of the Torah and the coming of the Holy Spirit, this birthday of the church, let us begin again to be good, and let goodness be in us like the Torah of the wise, a spring gushing up to eternal life, running over, and flowing out, a river into the world around us, so that “justice [may] roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” (Amos 5:24)

Empowered by the Holy Spirit, let us begin again to be good, you and me, today! Ready?

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

Be Holy, Be Perfect – Sermon for Epiphany 7, 19 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 19, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Leviticus 19:1-2,9-18; Psalm 119:33-40; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11,16-23; and St. Matthew 5:38-48. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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pinkperfectionWhen the Prayers of the People are offered later in this service you will hear a name you’ve never heard before, and you will hear that the person named was buried in our memory garden this week, and you will wonder, “Who is Indra?” (“Indra” is not the child’s real name.)

Indra was born on February 1, 2017. And Indra died on February 1, 2017. Whether she was stillborn or expired a few minutes after her birth is unknown. Indra suffered Turner Syndrome and was born in her parents’ automobile as they were driving to the Emergency Room. In any event, she was not living when they got to the hospital.

Because of her father’s cultural traditions, the family was not involved in her burial and do not know the whereabouts of her ashes. Only the funeral director and I were present. It was the shortest, simplest funeral I’ve ever conducted, but in many ways it was perhaps the saddest and hardest burial I have done in 27 years of ordained ministry.

I was going to start this sermon with the declaration that being a priest is hard, but then I was asked to handle Indra’s burial and I thought perhaps that telling you about her and her funeral would illustrate that better than my simply whining to you about how hard it is to be priest.

It’s not this stuff, this Sunday stuff, that is hard. This is easy. Just follow the Prayer Book, follow the Lectionary, choose some hymns that fit the lessons, ask David to pick some other music, say a few words about Scripture, and share some Bread and some Wine. That’s easy.

And funerals and weddings are usually pretty much the same. Just follow the recipe; like cooking, it all pretty much takes care of itself.

But, sometimes, it’s not. Funerals usually aren’t hard, but Indrah’s fast, simple, no-family-to-deal-with burial was incredibly hard.

Sitting with someone in hospital who is facing their death is hard; sitting with a family whose loved one is facing death is even harder. Counseling two people getting married is hard; counseling two people getting divorced is harder. Getting over being angry with God is hard; helping someone else get over being angry with God is harder.

I don’t really know how handles those situations. I don’t really know how to do this stuff and I’m never sure I’ve done it right. If putting together a Sunday service is like cooking, this sort of stuff is more like baking. I was tempted to say there are no rule books for this sort of thing, but the truth is that there are lots books. There are lots of recipes. There are too many, in fact, and they seem to all give contradictory advice.

I say it’s like baking because I am always looking for the secret to flaky pie crusts or to a successful soufflé. One of my grandmothers swore by using lard in her crusts; the other used butter. My mother said to use vinegar in the dough, but my aunt insisted that ice water was the trick. And as hard as making a good pie crust is, baking a soufflé is even worse. Follow the recipe, but get the slightest thing just a wee bit “off” and what might have been a glorious dessert is a hopeless disaster, and more often than not, you have no idea what you did wrong.

Some of being a priest, a lot of being a priest actually, is like making pie crust or baking a souffle. Do it right – everything is great. Do the slightest thing wrong – it’s a complete mess. And constantly live in fear of that slight, wrong thing.

I think the priests in Solomon’s Temple had it easier. They had Leviticus. Most of us aren’t very familiar with Leviticus. It is, for the most part, a book of rules, of very detailed rules. So we don’t read it in church very much.

We Episcopalians are fond of saying that our worship is among the most biblical of all Christian denominations. We are often criticized for not taking the Bible more seriously and those not familiar with our liturgy accuse us of ignoring it. When that happens, we often fire back that our Prayer Book is about 80% scriptural and that we read through the Bible using a Lectionary so that (and I’ve heard clergy say this) “we read all of the Bible in three years.”

Except that’s not true. We don’t read all those genealogies. There are some of the Psalms that we don’t consider appropriate for Sunday worship, although we do read them in the Daily Offices. And there’s Leviticus from which we read, I think, only two short lessons in the whole three years of the Lectionary cycle. Today is one of those two times. Nonetheless, it is a book worth knowing and knowing about. I commend it to you; it is especially good for reading late at night when you can’t get to sleep . . . .

Very briefly, this is what you’ll find in Leviticus. First, there are six chapters on various kinds of offerings and sacrifices, then two chapters instructing priests how to handle all the different sorts of offerings and sacrifices. This is followed by four chapters on the history of the Aaronic priesthood.

Next are five chapters on uncleanness with which the Temple priests were expected to deal, unclean animals, the uncleanliness of women caused by childbirth, various unclean diseases (such as leprosy) and how the priests were to cleans them, if possible, and (my favorite) unclean bodily discharges. (Maybe the Temple priests didn’t have it easier, after all. I’m quite happy that you don’t come to me with your unclean diseases, your weeping ulcerous sores, and your other bodily discharges! That would be really hard . . . .)

After the uncleanness chapters, there is one chapter detailing the Day of Atonement.

Then comes something scholars call “the Holiness Code,” ten chapters for the not-priests, for the people of God. Ten chapters of practical rules for living a righteous life. One of them, from which we heard today, concerns neighborliness and begins with this admonition, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

Do you know why I became a priest? Yes, I had that sense of call and went through the discernment “process” and all of that (twice, actually, but that’s another story). But . . . really . . . when I look back on it, I realize that I left my life as a trial lawyer and went into the ordained ministry because, as hard as it is, it’s easier than being a lay person. As hard as it sometimes is to be a priest, to be a “professional Christian” in the church, it’s harder still to be a lay Christian in the world.

There are no good rule books for priests, or too many contradictory rule books, but there are expectations and there are permissions. There is a stereotype and there are prescribed situations. There is “safety within the walls” of the church, within the set of circumstances in which a priest finds him- or herself.

That’s not true in the world. In the the wide open, free wheeling, anything-can-come-at-you-world where you not-priests have to do your ministry, you have the much harder job.

You can tell that just by look at the Book of Leviticus: there are five chapters of rules for priests, but there are ten for the not-priests! The people of God have twice as much to do as the priests of God.

And you can tell it just by reading the Catechism of the Episcopal Church (it’s in the Prayer Book back around page 845 or so, in that part of the book no one ever seems to open). It asks there who the ministers of the Church are and answers that it’s everyone: lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons. The ministry of priests, it says, is to “share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” (Book of Common Prayer, page 856)

That’s a piece of cake when you compare it to the ministry of the laity. According to the Catechism, your job, oh People of God, is “to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever [you] may be; and, according to the gifts given [you], to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take [your] place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.” (BCP, page 855) Now that is hard work!

The Jewish bible scholar and rabbi Jacob Milgrom said that the point of the Book of Leviticus is that holiness is not the responsibility of priests alone. In this book, and especially in the Holiness Code, “the domain of the sacred expands, embracing the entire land, not just the sanctuary, and all of Israel, not just the priesthood.” Israel, he said, attains holiness and priests strive to sustain it. (Milgrom, J., Leviticus: A Book of Ritual and Ethics, Fortress Press, Minneapolis:2004, pp 175, 178)

Although priests are not allowed by the rules in Leviticus to make any mistake, attaining holiness takes a lot more work than sustaining it. What we priests do in the sanctuary merely sustains holiness; what the People of God do in the world, that is how holiness is attained. That’s much, much harder!

It takes love … It takes loving even people we don’t really like, even people we can’t stand! Indeed, the word used in Hebrew text is not exactly “neighbor;” it is not limited to those who are geographically nearby. The Hebrew word is more akin to “fellow” and seems to be much more expansive. Thus, when a lawyer questions Jesus about the Law, Jesus is able to cite the rule from Leviticus (19:18), “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” and then illustrate it with a story involving someone from another country, a hated foreigner, the Good Samaritan. (See Luke 10:25–37)

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus quotes (or, actually, misquotes) the same verse from Leviticus, adding words that aren’t in the original: “You have heard that it was said,” he says, “‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” (Mt 5:43)

Now to be fair to Jesus, he doesn’t actually say he’s quoting Leviticus, just “you have heard it said.” That last bit about hating enemies could just be a rabbinic gloss; it could just be folk wisdom. In any event, it was (and is) the way people act. Jesus acknowledges human nature by beginning this bit of the Sermon on the Mount (and that’s what this is, the end of the first chapter of that long sermon) with commentary on what’s called “the lex talionis,” that eye-for-an-eye rule. But the lex talionis isn’t about enemies; that’s a rule of justice not of war. “An eye for an eye” deals with retribution toward a neighbor who has violated social norms. Jesus dispenses with that (saying, basically, don’t follow the lex talionis, don’t seek retribution or revenge) and now moves beyond it; he leaves the neighborhood, so to speak.

Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Love those whom you fear, even those you think might kill you, even the hated foreigner.” He’s saying that “enemy” is not really a separate class, that the world isn’t divided into neighbors and enemies. Although some people would like to do that, although some people have always done that (it’s human nature, after all), the world isn’t carved up that way. Jesus is saying (I think) that “enemies” are simply a class of “neighbors;” that enemies and neighbors are all “fellows;” that the division – neighbors here, enemies there, those we’re unsure about in some holding pen over there – doesn’t hold water.

And then, echoing Leviticus’ “Holiness Code,” especially the first verses of the neighborliness rules of Chapter 19 – “Be Holy because God is holy” – Jesus says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mat 5:48)

That’s heavy stuff! And remember the Leviticus command and Jesus’ admonition are not directed to the priests; these are directives for the whole People of God, for the laity.

It’s hard work . . . but as Kathryn Schifferdecker, who teaches Old Testament at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, says these verses are as much promise as command:

“You shall be holy.” It is both command and promise. And to believe that promise is to begin to be formed into the people God calls us to be, a people living out in our day-to-day lives genuine love for God and for our neighbors. (Working Preacher)

You will be holy. You will be perfect. It’s a promise – so act on the promise; live as if you believe the promise. And keep this in mind, “holiness” is just another way to say “wholeness” and “perfection” is just another way to say “completion.” The promise of holiness is an instruction to strive for wholeness; the promise of perfection is a command to work toward completion.

What Leviticus and Jesus ask of us is that we be fully human, that we be as whole and complete a human being as each of us can be. And the way we do that is to love our neighbor, even the neighbor who seems to be our enemy, even the neighbor of whom we are afraid, even the neighbor we think may kill us.

When I was kid, I helped my stepdad restore old homes. I think my parents invented to the practice of “flipping,” buying old fixer-uppers, rehabbing them, and then selling them hopefully at a profit. From the time I was about 10 years old until I went away to college, we lived and fixed up in a different house every year. The last thing we would do was to paint the interiors. My stepdad encouraged me to do that very neatly and carefully because, he would say (and I had no idea that he was referencing scripture), “Paint covers a multitude of sins.”

He was parodying the First Letter of Peter, “Love covers a multitude of sins (4:8).” Peter goes on to say, “Serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (v. 10).” Just be human, be yourself, be the best you you can be, loving your neighbor and using whatever gifts you have been given. I know that’s hard; it’s really hard. But with the help and grace of God, you can do it.

“You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” It is a promise more than it is a command. With the help and grace of God you will be holy; you will be perfect.

And the glorious thing is – the Gospel truth is – that through the grace of God you already are!

Amen!

(Note: The illustration is Camelia Japonica, “Pink Perfection,” a camellia cutlivar dating from the late 18th Century; it was one of the most popular flowers of the Victorian Age.)

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

An Unpreached Clergy Installation Sermon in the Time of Donald Trump

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A homily which will NOT be offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on Friday, November 18, 2016, to the people of a neighboring parish in Ohio, at the celebration of the new ministry of the Rev. George ___________ as rector. (I have not disclosed names or locations as they are, frankly, irrelevant to this soon-to-be-unpreached sermon.)

(The lessons on which this sermon is based are Joshua 1:7-9; Psalm 134; Ephesians 4:7,11-16; and St. John 15:9-16)

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Note: When first asked to preach at George’s celebration of new ministry, I penned this sermon. After a few days, I decided to go in a different direction and, using only a few bits and pieces of what I had written here, cobbled together with other material, I crafted another sermon which I will preach. Nonetheless, I believe this homily to have merit and, therefore, publish it here. (I will publish the actual sermon once it has been delivered.)

donald-trump-prune-faceOn the day after the general election, a Presbyterian clergyman in Iowa, a married gay man, found a computer-printed note tucked under his car’s windshield wiper addressed to “Father Homo.” The text of the note began with the question “How does it feel to have Trump as your president?” and was both belittling and threatening. The same day a softball dugout in Island Park in Wellsville, New York, was defaced with graffiti reading “Make America White Again,” accompanied by a large swastika. The next day, students at nearby Canisius College, a Jesuit institution, found a black baby doll with a noose tied around its neck in the freshman dormitory elevator, and students at Wellesley College in Massachusetts witnessed two young white men drive a truck through their campus flying a Trump campaign banner, yelling “Make American Great Again,” and spitting on African-American young women.

Last Sunday, St. David’s Episcopal Church in Bean Blossom, Indiana, was vandalized by someone who painted a swastika, an anti-gay slur, and the words “Heil Trump,” on its walls, and in Silver Spring, Maryland, a sign for the Episcopal Church of Our Saviour’s Spanish-language service was marked with the words “Trump nation. Whites only.”

Meanwhile, thousands of people have taken to the streets in New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Atlanta, Miami, and even Akron, Ohio, brandishing signs reading “Not My President” and “Dump Trump.”

“Now, wait,” you’re probably thinking, “none of that has happened here (where we are celebrating), nor in Medina (where my church is), so why are you bringing it up?”

Well, in the three verses which precede the opening sentence of our Epistle Lesson this evening, St. Paul wrote these words which will, I think, be very familiar to all of you:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6)

The primary focus of the letter to the Ephesians is the church’s ministry of reconciliation and our call to unity. The letter stresses that members of the church are to make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (4:3) We are all given gifts, as we heard in the portion read tonight, to equip the saints for ministry “until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (4:13)

And we are to do that in the context of a nation in which threatening notes are left on minister’s cars, public recreation facilities are defaced with messages of racial hatred, students are made to feel unsafe on their college campuses, and churches are tagged with anti-gay or anti-immigrant graffiti, a nation where thousands protest because they cannot accept the outcome of a national election. We are called to be a community of unity (not of uniformity, but of unity), a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict.

It is within this wider context that the community of St. [Swithun’s], has called the Rev. George __________ to be its rector.

In those three verses, which form a sort of explanatory preamble to the first verse we heard read (verse 7), the word “one” is used seven times! It is the drum-beat of a hymn to the church’s unity which crescendos with the oneness of God, the “Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” In the first three chapters of the letter, Paul has identified God as the source of the church’s identity; here, he identifies the oneness of God as the source, foundation, and ultimate goal of the church’s unity and our ministry of reconciliation.

In the Greek, verse 7 (the first verse we heard from the letter) also begins with the word “one.” It’s not possible to translate that parallelism into English, but to fully appreciate Paul’s thrust we might add a couple of words to our translation. We might underscore Paul’s point by rendering it not simply as “each of us was given” but more emphatically as “each one of us was given” a gift of grace for this work. Paul is bringing his notion of oneness back to our individual experience – each one of us experiences God’s grace in the larger context of the church’s ministry and goal of unity and reconciliation.

In an opinion piece published Monday in the Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, the provisional bishop of Bethlehem and Bishop of Northwest Pennsylvania, the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, wrote:

[T]he news is full of public figures talking about reconciliation. *** [B]ut before we strike up a rousing chorus of “Kumbaya,” I hope we will pause to make sure we understand that real reconciliation requires deep self-examination, an ability to acknowledge both when one has been wronged and when one has done wrong, and the willingness to behave and communicate in new ways. (Rowe)

I believe that what Bishop Rowe is saying is an echo of God’s words to Joshua as he took over leadership of the Hebrews from Moses: “Be strong, be courageous, be careful; do not to the right or to the left.” (Josh 1:7) That’s hard work, but God’s message to Joshua is God’s message to us: “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (1:9)

While no one, at least so far as I am aware, has tagged any churches in this community with anti-gay or anti-immigrant or pro-Trump graffiti, and while no one, at least so far as I am aware, has marched through the streets of this town in protest of the election’s results, I would be willing to bet that this community, and even this parish, has within it both those who voted for Trump and are rejoicing, and those who voted for Clinton and are in grief. This is the reality of human community and of the church; as I said a moment, we are a community of unity not of uniformity, called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of such division and conflict.

I don’t know and don’t really care how any of you voted; I don’t know and don’t really care how Father George voted. There have always been divisions and differences of opinion within the church; there have always been black and white and several shades of grey and many colors in between; there have always been yesses and there have always been noes; there have always been those who want to push forward and those who want to hold back. And regardless of where a rector may personally stand on any of those spectra, he or she is called into the midst of them to be pastor, guide, companion, and counselor to the whole of the community.

Because no matter what may be happening in the larger world, babies are still being born, children are still growing up, teens and young adults are still going through the changes and passages of life, young men and women are still getting married, older people are, too! And people are still getting sick and dying . . . and, George, they are counting on you to be their pastor, guide, companion, and counselor through it all. No matter where they or you stand on those many spectra of opinion, demographics, politics, or economics, they will invite you into some of the most intimate and sacred moments of their lives.

And it is in those intimate and sacred moments that the reality of reconciliation occurs. Connections, sacramental connections are made between people at different points on those various spectra of opinion; a web of relationship comes into being which fosters and upholds the work of reconciliation to which all are called.

So, George, “Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Or, as the apostle Paul wrote to the young bishop Timothy for whom this parish is named, “God [does] not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

But, good people of St. [Swithun’s], George does not do this alone! As St. Paul continues in his letter to the church in Ephesus, while some are given the charism of being pastors and teachers, to “each [and every one] of us [grace is given] according to the measure of Christ’s gift . . . to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

“Who are the ministers of the Church?” asks our Catechism. “The ministers of the Church,” it answers, “are lay persons, bishops, priests, and deacons.” The ministry of the laity, it continues

is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church. (BCP 1979, page 855)

“To carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world . . .” and we are right back where we began: we are called to be a community of reconciliation in a context of division and conflict. In a world where so many are “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming,” we, all of us, are call to “speak[] the truth in love.” (Eph. 4:14-15) George will do that; so must you.

George, as you may know, is named for the Patron Saint of England whose red cross emblazons our Episcopal Church flag and shield. What you may not know is that St. George is also the patron saint of Palestine. A few years ago, my wife and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and among the places we visited was the village of Burkin which sits on the boundary between Samaria and Galilee.

There, we visited the tiny Church of St. George, which commemorates the spot on which Jesus healed ten lepers. (Luke 17:12-19) It is the fourth oldest continuously in use worship space in the world! There has been a church on that spot since the early Fourth Century! It is under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Our host was Usama, a member of the Greek Orthodox congregation. One could tell that he and the other members of St. George’s Church are very proud of their heritage. Their worship space is immaculate. The silver is polished; the cloth hangings and altar vestments are clean and bright; the icons are dusted. Pride of place is patent in every corner.

The worship space is tiny – our group of eighteen people more than half filled it. It is probably very crowded on Sundays for the Divine Liturgy and at other times of Orthodox worship. This congregation has a membership of 65 people. They are the only Christians in a town of over 7,000 population. Their witness is astounding!

Usama and his wife Neda hosted us to lunch in their home. The tables were filled with tomato and cucumber salad, yoghurt, pita, and chicken and lamb shwarma served on heaping platters of seasoned rice. There was enough to feed a group five times our size.

Several of us had two or three helpings of the delicious food when Usama’s wife, Neda, came around and piled one more serving on everyone’s plate: “Eat,” she said, “how do I know you liked it if you leave some behind?” It was all in good fun, and the graciousness and vibrancy of their hospitality was overwhelming.

We talked with them about the dwindling of their congregation, what it is like to be a Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim community. Someone in our group asked if they had ever considered leaving Burkin. “No,” Neda replied quickly, “If we left, who would be the church?”

It was a brilliant response, “Who would be the church?” Not ”Who would take care of the church?” Not “Who would polish the silver?” Not “Who would do whatever ….” but “Who would be the church?” Who would be the community of reconciliation in that context of division and conflict?

Usama and Neda and their brothers and sisters in Burkin are called to be that community there; you and George are called to be that community here. So I want to be very clear what it means to be a community of reconciliation in a world of division and conflict. It does not mean to simply make nice and live in an uneasy peace with those with whom we disagree; it does not mean to accept what cannot be accepted; it does not mean to approve what cannot be approved.

Reconciliation does not take place in a vacuum, nor in a fog of niceness; reconciliation can only take place within a context of, and when it incorporates the elements of, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and the healing of relationships.

In the sacramental rite of reconciliation, “evidence of due contrition” must be shown and the Confessor may require that “something to be done as a sign of penitence and [an] act of thanksgiving.” (BCP 1979 page 446) In the invitation to the general confession in our older prayer books and in Rite One of the current Prayer Book, the presider calls on those

. . . who do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbors, and intend to lead a new life, following the commandments of God, and walking from henceforth in his holy ways. (BCP 1979 page 330).

This is the prophet’s call to change. Standing in the web of reconciliation, addressing one another and those outside our community who stand at different points on the various spectra of politics, economics, and demography, our work of reconciliation is the work of a prophet.

For example, the Old Testament law commands, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) As ministers of reconciliation we are obligated by our baptismal promises to treat resident aliens in this way, to call others to do so, and to resist those who would treat immigrants, refugees, or ethnic minorities in any other way.

The prophet Micah told us that what is required of us is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) As Christian ministers of reconciliation it is incumbent upon us to do so, to encourage others to do so, and to seek to change systems and practices that do not promote justice and loving kindness.

Jesus was once asked, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” And he replied “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39) In fulfillment of these commandments, our ministry of reconciliation requires that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 1979, Page 305) call others to do so, and oppose those who would thwart those goals.

Jesus suggested that the Father blesses those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit those in prison, and turns away those who fail to do such things. (See Matt. 25:32-46) Our ministry of reconciliation demands that, like Jesus, we say to those who refuse to do these things “Depart from me, I do not know you,” until they change and do what they can for the least of his brothers and sisters.

When Jesus was arrested, one of his disciples drew a sword and cut off someone’s ear, but Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt. 26:52). Our ministry of reconciliation must include a prophetic echo of Isaiah and Micah calling on the manufacturers, purveyors, and wielders of weapons to “beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” (Isaiah 2:4; Micah 4:3)

You, good people of St. [Swithun’s], have called George to join you in this prophetic ministry of reconciliation; with him you are called to be the church in this place at this time, a community of unity and reconciliation in the larger conflicted and divisive context of this age. To you, Jesus says, just as surely as he said to his first disciples, “You did not choose me but I chose you. …. Go and bear fruit that will last,” the fruit of the prophetic ministry of reconciliation.

It is common at the end of these sorts of homilies to give a specific charge to the clergy person whose new ministry is being celebrated so, George, I invite you to stand, and as friend to friend, presbyter to presbyter, long-winded preacher to long-winded preacher, I can offer no better advice than that given by St. Paul in his first letter to a new pastor, Timothy:

Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, [and] gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life . . . keep the commandment without spot or blame . . . [and] guard what has been entrusted to you. (1 Tim. 6:11-12,14,20)

Amen.

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

The photograph of President-elect Donald J. Trump is from the Library Grape website.

We Do Not Have The Privilege – Sermon for Advent 1 – November 30, 2014

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On the First Sunday of Advent, Year B, November 30, 2014, this sermon was offered to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day, RCL Advent 1B, were Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; and Mark 13:24-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Racism Is So YesterdayWhen Philip told Nathanael that he had found the Messiah and that he was the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, Nathanael’s immediate response was, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Obviously Nazareth had a reputation, and not a good one. I often wonder if, as Jesus was making his way through the Holy Land, especially early in his ministry when he wasn’t well-known, people would ask him, “What was it like growing up in Nazareth?”

All of my life, whenever I tell my story to folks, they have asked, “What was it like growing up in Las Vegas?” And I have always answered, “Like growing up anywhere else. Las Vegas, when you get off the Strip, was just like anywhere else. It was hometown America.” Las Vegas at the time was smaller than Medina is today; the population of Las Vegas in the early 1950s was only about 25,000 people.

Although there was an airport by then, visitors to Las Vegas usually either drove across the desert or rode the Union Pacific Railroad. The line from Salt Lake City to Los Angeles went through Las Vegas; the railroad ran through town north-to-south and the business and hotel district now know as “the Las Vegas Strip” grew up parallel to, and east of, the tracks.

That’s the side of the tracks I grew up on; on the other side, “the Westside,” was where black people lived. Whites didn’t go there, and Negroes (as black Americans were then politely called) didn’t come to the east side of the tracks except to work, mostly in low paying service jobs as janitors, maids, cooks, porters, and doormen. Yes, indeed, the Las Vegas of my childhood was hometown America. Just like any other town in this country was, and just like many still are. Need I mention the St. Louis metropolitan area and its suburb of Ferguson? Need I mention the Cleveland metroplex and the westside neighborhood near the Cuddell Recreation Center? Need I mention, even, Medina itself?

Yes, I think I need to. A few years ago, our nation elected a black man to be president and many proclaimed that we now lived in a “post-racial” world, that racism is “so yesterday.” Throughout the whole of Barack Obama’s presidency, however, the rhetoric and behavior of many have demonstrated just how wrong that judgment was. We do not live in a “post-racial” society. The shooting deaths of black men and boys, Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, John Crawford in Beavercreek, OH, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH, all by white police officers, and the choke-hold death of Eric Garner, a black man in the custody of white officers of the New York Police Dept., together with the perceived failures of the justice system and the social unrest which have followed, have demonstrated just how wrong that judgment was. We do not live in a “post-racial” world.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Elsewhere, ISIS in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan murder those who differ from themselves, Jewish nationalists in Israel pass laws denying basic human rights to Palestinian Arabs, and Buddhist monks in Myanmar threaten to kill Muslim children, demonstrating just how wrong that judgment continues to be not only in our own country but throughout the world. We do not live in a “post-racial” world. Racism is not “yesterday;” it is today!

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Meanwhile, epidemics such as the ebola crisis in Africa have caused social upheaval, ethnic conflict, and calls for borders to be closed and walls to be raised between nations. Really quite silly notions about vaccines have led people to refuse them and diseases once thought nearly eradicated are being seen again, such as polio and bubonic plague.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Weather extremes are being felt throughout the world and sea levels are rising threatening populations in low-lying areas in the South Pacific Islands, southeast Asia, various parts of Africa and South America, and even in our own country, and these things seem to be the result of our poor stewardship of the earth’s environment. At least, that’s what the great majority of the world’s climate scientists tell us.

“Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Jesus said, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines . . . Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death . . . There will be suffering, such as has not been from the beginning of the creation . . . [and] after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” (Mk 13:8,12,19,24-25)) Therefore, “Keep awake!” said Jesus, “Keep alert!”

Are we seeing the end-times? Are these things that are happening – the racial and ethnic conflicts, the wars, the epidemics, the weather crises, the floods – are these those fig-tree signs that “when [we] see these things taking place, [we] know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the very gates”? (Mk 8:29) I don’t think so, but who’s to say? As Jesus made quite clear, “about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (v. 32)

So I don’t know if these are the signs of the end, but I do know this, that these are the signs of things that displease God. And when God is displeased, watch out! When God is displeased, God “tear[s] open the heavens and . . . the mountains . . . quake at [God’s] presence.” (Is 64:1) It is when God is angry that stars fall from heaven and the powers of the heavens are shaken. We do not want to face an angry God!

And yet we cannot dismiss God’s indignation. We would like to. We would like to focus only on the loving God proclaimed by Jesus, not that angry God that Isaiah and the Psalmist remind us of. We would like to, but we can’t because when we blind ourselves to the potential of God’s anger, we blind ourselves to the things that provoke God’s anger. We fail to see (and thus to deal with) the racism which is endemic our society; we fail to see (and thus to deal with) our poor stewardship of creation; we fail to see (and thus to deal with) the illnesses and diseases which are pandemic among populations less fortunate than ourselves.

I’ll be honest with you. I don’t want to talk about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, the shooting of John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, or the chokehold death of Eric Garner in New York City. I don’t want to talk about the response of the justice system to those deaths and whether or not it functioned properly in not punishing, in some way, the police officers responsible for those deaths. I don’t want to.

In the same way, I don’t want to remember that when my father’s client and friend Sammy Davis, Jr., came to Las Vegas to perform in the Strip casino showrooms he was not allowed to enter those casinos through the front door but had to come in through the service entrance. I don’t want to remember that when Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington played in Las Vegas they were not allowed to stay in the hotels that hired them but had to put up at boarding houses on the Westside. I don’t want to remember that when Cab Calloway played at a casino bar in Las Vegas in 1954 he was refused a drink at that same bar during a break in the performance.

I don’t want to talk about or remember these things and, I suspect, neither would most people in this church this morning. Frankly, a large fraction of the white society in which we live would, likewise, prefer that we not do so. We believe that we enjoy the privilege of not talking about, remembering, or doing anything about those things, that those things really don’t affect us, that they really aren’t any of our business. The families of Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, and Eric Garner, and the communities within which they lived, however, do not have that privilege. Black performers who succeeded Davis, Armstrong, Ellington, and Calloway, who now can enter the casino through the front door, stay in the hotel, and drink at the bar, who are the beneficiaries of the groundbreaking they did, do not have that privilege.

And, truth be told, neither do we. If we do not remember and talk about these things, we will have failed to see and deal with the racism, the conflict, the poor stewardship of humankind that is all around us; we will have failed to follow Jesus’ admonition in today’s Gospel to “keep alert” and to “keep awake.” We will have failed to follow the second great commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves.” We will have failed to heed to word of God recorded in the law of Moses: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him” (Ex 22:21); “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself” (Lev. 19:34); “You shall not pervert the justice due to [anyone]” (Deut. 24:17). We simply are not allowed to think of or to treat any human being differently from ourselves. We do not have the privilege not to talk about, not to remember, not to do something about the injustices done to others, whatever their race or color, whatever their religion, whatever their sex or sexual orientation.

Nathanael asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The world today is asking, “Can anything good come out of Ferguson? Out of Beavercreek? Out of Cleveland? Can anything good come of the shooting deaths of young black men by white police officers?” I pray that it can: we have had enough of the bread of tears; we have had enough of the derision of neighbors; we have had enough of the laughter of scorn. Some good must come from these things and it must start with our realization that we do not have the privilege to stand by and think these things have nothing to do with us.

We do not have the privilege to think of or to treat anyone differently from ourselves. We do not have the privilege not to talk about, not to remember, not to do something about the injustices done to others. If we do that, we fail to keep alert and to keep awake, and we risk the anger of the God who tears open the heavens and makes the mountains quake.

Are the things we are seeing signs of the end-times? No, I don’t think so. Are they signs to which we need to pay attention? Things we need to do something about? Oh, yes! Very much so!

“O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember [our] iniquity forever.” (Is 64:8-9) “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.” (Ps. 80:18)

Amen.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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

The Monday of a Three-Day Weekend – From the Daily Office – May 30, 2014

From the Book of Leviticus:

They shall compute with the purchaser the total from the year when they sold themselves to the alien until the jubilee year; the price of the sale shall be applied to the number of years: the time they were with the owner shall be rated as the time of a hired laborer.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 25:50 (NRSV) – May 26, 2014)

German war cemetery, Neuville-St-Vaast, Pas-de-Calais Copyright David CrosslandToday is Memorial Day according to the calendar: in my mind, it’s really not, it’s just the Monday “holiday” that replaced Memorial Day which ought to be on Friday of this week. Yes, in that regard, I’m a traditionalist; I don’t hold with the change made by Federal law back when I was in college, a change that moved Memorial Day and a couple of other significant civil holidays (Washington’s birthday, for example) from their real dates to a variable Monday, creating “three-day weekends”.

As a student, of course, I thought that creating three-day weekends was a great idea, but as I’ve grown older I think back to fond memories of May 30th Memorial Days with my mother tending my father’s grave, days that were a disruption in the normal flow of everyday life, days that jarred us into awareness, days that forced us to recollect his military service and the sacrifices he and his comrades had made. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that.

We have lost something, and what I think it is is the dissonance of that interruption and awareness that it brings. When Memorial Day fell whenever it would, forcing us in the middle of the week to take time from work and school or on a Saturday disrupting our weekend gardening or sporting events, we took notice. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that.

The Episcopal Church doesn’t have special lessons for the commemoration of Memorial Day; this is a secular holiday, not a religious one. So when we sit down to offer our prayers in formal worship on this day this year we have three choices: the Daily Office lessons for Monday in the sixth week of Easter; the daily Eucharistic lectionary; or the lessons for the commemoration of St. Augustine of Canterbury. (In another year on another date, these options would change.) None of these offer anything one could count as particularly appropriate to the day, but I am struck by how grossly inappropriate the Levitical discussion of slavery and the redemption of slaves is . . . grossly inappropriate and yet very instructive.

One cannot deny that the Bible approves of slavery, however that evil may be embodied in a culture. Although slavery as practiced by the Hebrews was different from that of the Roman Empire and both were very different from that practiced in the American South before the Civil War, Holy Scripture was easily used to justify an inhumane practice. What was ignored in American slavery was the Bible’s insistence that slaves be treated fairly, that they or their kin be able to redeem them, and that the price of redemption be just. That’s what today’s Old Testament reading is all about, setting a redemption price that would be just and equitable.

I suppose, if I were more of a historian, my meditations on the relationship between this text and Memorial Day might have focused on the fact that the holiday’s historical origins are found in the aftermath of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery in this country. There might be some appropriate and instructive linkage between this discussion of a reasonable price to free a slave and the horribly unreasonable cost of thousands of soldiers’ lives to free the American slaves. But I’m not that much of a historian and my initial thoughts on reading the text were more personal: I remembered those Memorial Days with Mom at my father’s grave, those special disruptions in our day-to-day lives and I wondered about the cost of moving the holiday from a set date to a variable Monday.

It seems to me that, in one sense, the alteration in the holiday has exacted too high a price and in another has cheapened the remembrance. The high price paid is in our forgetfulness and its consequences. That the day has become just another Monday of a three-day weekend, a day for gardening and sporting events and picnics, helps us to forget — or more accurately, encourages us to not remember — the horrors of war and the sacrifices of those who fight, are wounded, and die. Forgetting — or not remembering — the unjust and inequitable price of past wars, we are more willing to send our young men and women into another one.

The change also cheapens our loved ones’ loss. My father was badly wounded in France in World War II: shrapnel nearly destroyed his right leg. Surgeons were able to save it and, after more than a year of rehabilitation and therapy, he was able to walk, but I never knew him not to walk without a painful and pronounced limp. I suspect that that pain was one reason he drank to excess, self-medicating himself into numbness, oblivion, and eventually an early death; another was probably what he witnessed around him on the battlefield. A day of remembrance barging into and making a mess of our daily lives is not a high price to pay to remember the sacrifice he made and the larger sacrifices made by those who died in battle. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that. It’s too easy; it’s cheap. And to me, the son of veteran who paid much too high a price, it’s offensive.

The Law of Moses may have approved of slavery, but it didn’t cheapen human lives. It insisted that the price of a human being be justly and equitably determined. The Monday of a three-day weekend doesn’t do that.

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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.

Sabbath with Frank Lee – From the Daily Office – May 23, 2014

From the Book of Leviticus:

For six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 23:3 (NRSV) – May 23, 2014)

Rest Area Highway SignI am an absolutely faithful believer in the biblical concept of sabbath. I am also one of its worst offenders. No matter what day I choose to be my day “away from the office,” at least 50% of the time I will end up doing something work related. Today, for example, a Friday, is supposed to be my day off. What will I be doing? Giving my time to the church as a volunteer working on the refurbishment of the undercroft which is being converted to office space (laying peel-and-stick carpet tiles, to be precise). — This raises the interesting issue: “Can one volunteer at one’s place of employment?” I suspect the answer is “No” because whenever I am on the church property or in the church building I am “the rector,” not just some Joe who’s helping out.

If there isn’t something of that nature to do, there are (potentially) wedding rehearsals, Friday evening social events, Good Fridays (OK, only one of those each year), and other things that interfere. But is any other day a good day for clergy to take off? If there is, I haven’t found it in 24 years of ordained ministry. No matter what day I have selected as my “day off,” it has been subject to interruption and disruption. So keeping sabbath is rather difficult to do. One has to be very intentional about it, which is why God enjoined it on everyone in the Hebrew community in the Law of Moses. Left each to our own devices, we fail to do it; if everyone is doing so, one has lots of community support.

Several years ago I had a colleague whose appointment book a couple of times each week included some time with “Frank Lee.” Her parish staff were told in no uncertain terms that when she was away for her meeting with Mr. Lee she was not to be called, ever. Nothing was important enough to disturb her time with him. After a couple of years working with her, the parish secretary became very curious as to who this Mr. Lee was. He wasn’t on the parish rolls; he never came to the church office; he never called; the rector never called him. Who was this strange man the rector would go away to spend a few hours with?

My friend informed her that Frank Lee was nobody. Not a nobody, but quite truthfully nobody. He didn’t exist. He was simply a place marker for some inviolable personal sabbath time. His name was derived from a famous movie line: “Frank Lee, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” My colleague had determined that her sabbath time was so important that she truthfully did not give a damn about anything else during those few hours.

The parish secretary breathed a sigh of relief, my friend says. She’d thought the rector was having an affair! Which is both funny and sad. It’s sad that a priest has to resort to subterfuge of this sort to get that personal sabbath time; it’s sad that taking it could lead to suspicion of infidelity.

I’m not able to sustain the effort needed to maintain a “Frank Lee” of my own. Like most clergy, I’m too willing to set aside personal time to attend to the needs of my parishioners, the diocese, the clergy association, or whatever. I don’t say “No” when and as often as I should and then I end up resenting my lack of personal time. I know that this is common among parish priests and pastors because I hear my colleagues saying the same things when we get together for coffee, conversation, and mutual support.

It’s funny, though, that in those conversations no one calls anyone to account! As supportive colleagues in ministry what we ought to be doing is not commiserating with one another; we ought to be supporting one another in claiming those times with Frank Lee and strongly, forcefully encouraging one another to do so. As the ancient Hebrew community of old supported (and Jewish communities of today support) one another in honoring the sabbath, we should support and encourage one another to take our personal sabbath times. (Our denominational judicatories should do the same, but often do not.)

So, brother and sister priests and pastors, get some time of complete rest, hold for yourself a holy convocation, do no work, take personal sabbath time, get together with Frank Lee!

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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.

I’m Done with the Cassock-Alb – From the Daily Office – May 22, 2014

From Gospel according to Matthew:

Why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. * * * Do not worry, saying . . . “What will we wear?”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Matthew 6:28-29,31 (NRSV) – May 22, 2014)

Priest Vesting for Mass“In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” This aphorism has been variously attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo, to Menno Simons the spiritual father of the Mennonites and the Amish, to Richard Baxter of the Moravians, and various others.

To the best of my knowledge, it has never been attributed to an Anglican or an Episcopalian. And with good reason! Witness a current dust-up over the cassock-alb.

Yesterday, a colleague and fellow ecclesiastical blogger posted a humorous but serious entry entitled Cassock Albs Are Destroying the Church. Cassock-albs are a modern bit of liturgical vesture which combine the virtues of two medieval garments (the cassock and the alb) and permit the abandonment of a third (the amice), which is rendered unnecessary. They have become ubiquitous since their introduction several decades ago; nearly every church supply company offers one or more versions of the garment. They are what I wear and what our altar servers and liturgical assistants wear, as well.

My colleague’s opinion piece argues that the cassock-alb symbolizes sloppiness, laziness, haste, and lack of care in preparation for worship; calling it “the strip mall of vestments,” he decried the cassock-alb as “an innovation for the sake of comfort that too much resembles other short-cuts we might take in our spiritual and devotional life.” His Facebook notice of this essay resulted in a slurry of posts either agreeing with him (most did since he seems to be followed mostly by a high church Anglo-Catholic crowd many of whom cherish many things about the ritual of an earlier era in the church) or arguing the merits of the cassock-alb (not many modernists, however).

I considered writing a humorous point-by-point rebuttal, but decided not to for a variety of reasons including lack of time and my conviction that debating things like vestments is one of the shortcomings of our tradition. As I have often said, we Anglicans and Episcopalians get our knickers in a twist over really very silly things; there was a time when members of this church excommunicated each other because one or the other either put candles on the altar or didn’t. (In the 1800s, at least one bishop-elect — James DeKoven — failed to receive sufficient canonical consents because of his support of candles and other elements of catholic ritual in the celebration of Holy Communion.)

In the past four decades we have fought about the rather more serious issues of prayer book revision, ordination of women, and the full inclusion of homosexual and transgendered persons, but we have also wrangled over such ridiculous issues as which direction clergy should face while leading worship, whether communicants should stand or kneel, and what position a person’s hands should be in while at prayer. It occurred to me that if anything is “destroying the church,” it is our inability to agree to disagree, to treat as irrelevant and unworthy of debate those minor things on which we differ and concentrate on those matters central to the faith on which we agree. So, I decided not to write in the cassock-alb’s defense.

Indeed, even though I posted a comment or two on my colleague’s Facebook entry, I simultaneously thought what that string of remarks about the merits or demerits of a bit of priestly vesture would look like to a non-church member. If I were a non-Christian (or even a non-Episcopalian) happening upon that conversation (and I’m sure each of the participants has non-Christian friends who might have taken a look at it; I know I do), I would have shaken my head in disbelief at the pettiness of it. If this is what Episcopalians consider important enough to argue about vehemently, I would want nothing to do with those people! So I determined to add nothing further to the evidence that Episcopalians fail to allow liberty in non-essentials and certainly do not practice charity in all things (especially not in regard to vestments and ritual).

Then I came upon today’s Daily Office gospel lesson and I am encouraged to say at least one more thing about the cassock-alb debate. In this lesson from Matthew, Jesus tells his followers, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” (Mt 6:25) Jesus goes on to assure his hearers that God will provide. I’m not convinced, however, that Jesus is referring simply to concern about food and clothing, in general. Certainly, I don’t believe that he is telling them to do nothing about taking care of their own health and well-being; on several occasions he advised his disciples to attend to preparations, to be alert, to take care of that which God has entrusted to them, so this is not a man to instruct people to abandon common sense self-care! What I think he is referring to are the ritual concerns about food and clothing in the Law of Moses, rituals that had become overly important in the teachings of the Pharisees, for example.

Most non-Jewish people are aware of kosher restrictions on diet which derive from the Torah: not to eat pork or shellfish, not to eat red meat with dairy, and so forth. Many may not be aware that there are ritual rules regarding clothing, as well. For example, “You shall not wear clothes made of wool and linen woven together.” (Dt 22:11) Some of these rules came to be applied specifically to ritual clothing, the tallit (prayer shawl), for example: “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner.” (Num 15:38)

I believe it is overweening concern for these ritual niceties of food and clothing that Jesus is criticizing in his admonition not to worry about what one will eat or what one will wear. Sometime later, Jesus did so explicitly, condemning the scribes and Pharisees because “they do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” (Mt 23:5) Cassocks, albs, amices, surplices, and cassock-albs are the tallits, the phylactories, and the fringes of our tradition. Our concerns about them are very much the same as the Pharisees’ concerns, and I suspect that Jesus is just about as impressed with our vestment debates as he was with theirs.

So I’m done with the cassock-alb. I’m still going to wear them and provide them for my liturgical staff and volunteers; I believe they are a perfectly acceptable modern alternative to medieval garments that are no longer convenient, meaningful, or necessary. But I’m done debating about it, and about whether and when to wear eucharistic vestments versus choir garb, whether and when to kneel, whether and when to raise one’s hands, whether and when to use candles, and all the rest of that.

It is not the cassock-alb that is destroying the church! It is public disagreement over vesture and other equally silly things that is doing so. Let’s stop it, shall we?

(By the way, the aphorism about unity, liberty, and charity most likely was first penned by Rupertus Meldenius, a 17th Century Lutheran, during the Thirty Years War.)

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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.

Curmudgeonly Conversations – From the Daily Office – May 21, 2014

From Book of Leviticus:

You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my sabbaths: I am the Lord your God.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 19:3 (NRSV) – May 21, 2014)

Muppet Curmudgeons Statler and WaldorfTime for me to put on my curmudgeon hat and unload a rant I’ve been promising myself for the better part of two weeks. It’s a matter of respect for elders, so this verse which links reverence of parents with reverence of God is a perfect entrée for me to set down what’s been bugging me.

Three times in the past couple of weeks I answered our home phone and was immediately asked: “Is Charles there?” (I could go off on another tangent about telephone etiquette and how inappropriate and rude it is to respond to someone’s “hello” with this sort of question, but that’s a cranky-old-man discussion for another time.)

There’s only one Charles who lives in our home, me. I don’t use my first name, so I immediately know this is someone who doesn’t know me. Since the caller has not first identified herself — all three calls were from women and I think all were probably in their 20s or early 30s, I ask, “Who’s calling please?” In one case it was a charity seeking contributions; in the second it was a lawn service looking for customers; the third, a vendor of “retirement services,” whatever those are.

Once I ascertained who was calling, I responded as I usually do, “This is Mr. Funston. What can I do for you?” In every case, the young woman replied, “Well, Charles . . . .” And that’s when I began to think about someone’s lack of respect for elders (especially someone who has implied by his self-identification that this call is not a “first-name basis” conversation).

I’ll grant that the charity solicitor probably would have no way to know the age of the person she was called. The lawn service lady wouldn’t either, although the fact that she was calling homeowners might have suggested that many, if not most, of her contacts would be older than her. The lady drumming up business for “retirement services,” however, was surely calling a defined demographic: the cranky and curmudgeonly, the decrepit, those nearing the time of kicking the bucket, the people whose useful working life is coming to an end . . . in short, people older than her!

When did it become acceptable to call strangers, especially older strangers, by their first names? When did it become acceptable for people to adopt a false attitude of familiarity toward those, especially their elders, with whom they are not familiar at all? And (to quoted verse leads me to ask) is this failure of respect for others (especially elders) related to the amply demonstrated decrease in the percentage of the population which describe themselves as “religious”?

In William Langland’s 14th Century allegory of Christian maturation, The Vision of Piers Plowman, respect for elders is portrayed as one of the stages along the way to salvation, one through which the pilgrim must pass before being able to show respect for God. So I am clearly not the first to wonder about this relationship, the connection set out so plainly in the linkage made in this verse from Leviticus.

In the Muslim tradition of adab (which can be loosely translated as “etiquette,” “good manners,” or “proper behavior”), it is a sign of respect to the Creator when we respect and love others simply because, like us, they are human. It is a part of adab to let one’s elders speak first in daily conversations and situations. In Islamic tradition, the Prophet Mohammed is sometimes quoted as saying, “To show respect to an old Muslim with white hair manifests true respect for God.” In the Holy Qur’an, one can find a sentiment not dissimilar to today’s quoted verse from Leviticus; for example, “We have enjoined upon man care for his parents. * * * Be grateful to Me and to your parents.” (Surat Luqman 31:14)

Is there a connection between respect for one’s parents and other elders and respect for God? The holy texts suggest there is. Is there a relationship between a decline in respect for one’s elders and a decline in the population which is religious? One might need to have become a decrepit old curmudgeon to think so . . . so I guess I qualify and I do believe that.

What I can’t believe is how much I sound like my grandfathers! (I won’t get started on how contemporary parents — particularly my generation, the boomers — have failed to teach these things. That would keep me here all day and into next week!)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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

The Scapegoat – From the Daily Office – May 20, 2014

From Book of Leviticus:

When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Leviticus 16:20-22 (NRSV) – May 20, 2014)

ScapegoatThe scapegoat! One of the little-known but very often mentioned figures of the Old Testament is the scapegoat. If I were a betting man, I would bet that very few people actually know the origin of this term that nearly everyone has used at some time or another. Well, here it is in Israel’s ancient ritual of atonement.

The scapegoat is one of two that Aaron has taken from the flock for the atonement ritual. Part of yesterday’s Old Testament reading explained how he was to make the choice between the two:

He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin-offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel. (Lev 16:7-10)

Who or what “Azazel” may be, or even what the word means, is a matter of debate and has been for centuries. Azazel is identified in the Talmud as a demon, and this understanding repeated in the pseudepigraphic apocalypse, the Book of Enoch. (Some elements of the recent Russell Crowe movie Noah, particularly “the Watchers” who assist Noah, were taken from this book.) But some scholars of the Hebrew language suggest that, instead, the word is an emphatic form of an ancient root, azel, which is believed to mean “to remove.” It may be what is called a “reduplicative intensive” meaning not merely “to remove,” but “to remove completely.”

If the goat is sent off into the desert to be eaten by a demon, that’s one thing. That means the innocent scapegoat, although set free, dies because of someone else’s wrong doing. But if there is no demon, if the goat is just set free “to remove completely” another’s fault, what does that mean? It occurs to me that (if there’s no demon to catch and destroy it) the goat gets away.

“You got away with it!” I remember childhood friends saying that to one another when we thought we had pulled the wool over our parents’ or teachers’ eyes, when we had committed some discretion and it apparently had gone unnoticed because no one was punished. “He got away with murder,” people said of O.J. Simpson. When someone “gets away” with something, we human beings both celebrate and revile that fact — I guess it depends on how flagrant the misdeed is.

The scapegoat, on Israel’s behalf, gets away with Israel’s sin (assuming no devouring demon). The sins aren’t actually removed, except in the sense that the goat carries them into the desert; what happens is that God choses not to notice them. In fact, God’s detailed directions for this ritual mean that God actively conspires with the People to let them, through the scapegoat, get away with their wrong-doings.

Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life, has suggested that, when we are baptized into the body of Christ, Jesus wraps us with his love, and that when God looks at us, God sees Jesus, sees Jesus’ perfection and, therefore, doesn’t see our sins. I’ve come to a rather different belief. I think God sees us in all our glorious imperfection; God is aware of our indiscretions and our short-comings. But God chooses to overlook them, just as God chose to let the Hebrews “get away” with their iniquities through the setting free of the scapegoat.

As an adult, I look back on the childhood misbehavior of me and my friends, and I now know perfectly well that we hadn’t fooled anyone. Our parents and our teachers knew what we were up to; they let us get away with it. They hoped (rightly, I hope) that we would grow up and put aside such behavior. I believe that that was God’s hope with respect to the Hebrews and is God’s hope with respect to human beings in general. God hopes we’ll grow up.

But the fact that we still create scapegoats sometimes makes me wonder.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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

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