That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Numbers (page 1 of 2)

Daily Habits: Sermon for Holy Name Day, 1 January 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, January 1, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are the second set of readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for Holy Name Day in Year A: Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; and St. Luke 2:15-21. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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holy_name_picToday on the secular calendar is New Year’s Day, but that’s not true in the church. We celebrated a new church year several weeks ago on the First Sunday of Advent. In the church, January 1, being eight days after the Feast of the Incarnation, is the day on which we celebrate Jesus’ Jewishness. We call it, these days, the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus; it was formerly called the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ because that is what Luke’s Gospel tells us was done. It was a very Jewish thing to do.

We sometimes forget (and there are people who would like to completely ignore) that Jesus was a Jew, a very devout and observant Jew. Apparently his parents were, as well. They had him circumcised on his eighth day of life in accordance with Leviticus 12:3. The ceremony is called a “bris milah” (which means “Covenant of Circumcision”):

While the circumcision is performed, the child is held by a person called a sandek. In English, this is often referred to as a godfather. It is an honor to be a sandek for a bris. The sandek is usually a grandparent or the family rabbi. Traditionally, a chair (often an ornate one) is set aside for Elijah, who is said to preside over all circumcisions. Various blessings are recited, including one over wine, and a drop of wine is placed in the child’s mouth. The child is then given a formal Hebrew name.

It is not necessary to have a minyan for a bris, but it is desirable if feasible. (Judaism 101)

It’s kind of disappointing that Luke doesn’t tell us who the sendak was or whether there was a minyan or (if there was) who the ten men were.

Luke does tell us that later, thirty-three days to be exact, Mary and Joseph took the child to the Jerusalem Temple where they made the mandatory sacrifice of two pigeons, since they were too poor to afford a lamb. We celebrate this event on February 2 in a feast called by some churches the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and by others the Purification of the Blessed Virgin. Luke tells us also that every year Mary and Joseph would go to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover; it was on one of these trips when Jesus was 12 years old that he was inadvertently left behind and was later found in learned conversation with the doctors of the Law. Luke tells us all of these things in the second chapter of his gospel.

What Luke, and to a lesser extent the other gospels, demonstrate is that Jesus came from a very devoted and observant Jewish family and that he himself continued that pattern throughout his life. He regularly attended synagogue services on the Sabbath. He prayed frequently. He commended observance of the Law and declared that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, [would] pass from the law until all is accomplished.” (Mt 5:18; cf Lk 16:17) In his devotion to his Jewish faith, what Jesus modeled and taught was the regular practice of religion, the cultivation of a habit of religious observance, a life of spiritual discipline.

But, we might think, Jesus was and is God! One would think that if anyone could take a pass on spiritual discipline, it would be God. However, as Paul writes in our selection from the letter to the Philippians this morning, he “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself.” (Philip 2:7-8) Part of his human humility was this habit of regular religious and spiritual practice.

Our gradual this morning speaks of human existence in terms that seem somewhat at odds with a sense of human humility:

What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?
You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;
You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet . . . . (Ps 8:5-7, BCP Version)

Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the character Hamlet in Act II, Scene 2, of that play:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!

I have always been certain that Shakespeare was glossing on Psalm 8.

The psalm, in our Prayer Book version, speaks of human mastery over creation; the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible translates this as “dominion.” The Hebrew word is mashal, which is sometimes translated as “authority.”

Presbyterian pastor and theologian Matthew Stith argues that our dominion or authority over the creation should “look like the loving stewardship,” though it seldom has (Stith). Episcopal theologian Elizabeth Webb makes the same point when she writes:

To be human is to be responsible for our fellow creatures, and we must take that responsibility with the utmost seriousness. * * * [A]t the same time that Psalm 8 recognizes our dominion, it also reminds us of our humility. We are each still that awestruck person gazing in wonderment at the stars. We bear the image of God; we are not God. Our finitude and fallibility must be kept in mind as we exercise our responsibility. We are also reminded that we are a part of the creation over which God has granted us dominion. We do not stand apart from our fellow creatures, but we stand with them. (Webb)

Perhaps this is why Shakespeare’s Hamlet does not stop where I ended quoting the character. Instead, he tells Guildenstern and Rosencrantz that “Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither” declaring humankind to be nothing more than the “quintessence of dust.”

And, yet, this is dust which God blesses. God instructed Moses to teach his brother Aaron the priest a particular blessing, one we heard in our reading from the Book of Numbers, one which I’m sure is familiar to all of us:

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. (Num 6:24-26)

This blessing is taught as part of the instructions for the Hebrews’ preparations for leaving Mt. Sinai where they have been camped for almost a year. This blessing is designated for their journey from Sinai to the land of promise; it was to be said daily throughout their journey.

Terence E. Fretheim, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul, Minnesota, tells us that the climactic word of the benediction, shalom, has wide-ranging connotations. Citing Professor Dennis Olson’s commentary on the Book of Numbers, Fretheim says the richness of the word includes “prosperity (Psalm 37:11; Proverbs 3:2), longevity, happiness in a family (Psalm 128:6), safety, security (Psalm 4:9; 122:6-8), good health (Psalm 38:4), friendship (Jeremiah 38:22), and general well-being.” (Fretheim, quoting Olson, Numbers, [Louisville: John Knox, 1996] 42-43)

That the Aaronic blessing was to be said over the Jewish people daily brings us back to the teaching and model of Jesus put before us by Luke the Evangelist: a devout and observant Jew who cultivated the daily habit of spiritual and religious practice. Today, in this Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, we celebrate his Jewishness, his daily devotion to his faith. Today, as we celebrate our secular New Year, let us resolve to follow his example and renew in the coming year our own daily devotion to God. As you do so, everyday

The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Amen!

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

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.

Thirsty: A Walking Tour of Jerusalem – From the Daily Office – June 26, 2014

From the Book of Numbers:

Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 20:2-5 (NRSV) – June 27, 2014)

We have nearly come to the end of our second day in Israel, which has actually been our first full day. We began with what was described to us as a typical Palestinian breakfast — cheeses, pita, hummus, olives, pickled baby eggplant, fresh tomatoes and cucumbers, yogurt, hardboiled eggs, and a sautéed mixture of green olives, grape tomatoes, and mushrooms. There was also labneh, a salted yogurt cheese with herbs (in this case, I think it was a combination of basil and mint). It was all very different from our standard breakfast fare, and all very good.

Next on the agenda was a video of a 60-Minutes report from last year about Christians in the Holy Land. There a fewer of them than there used to be. Why that is so is an issue for debate. The Israeli government asserts that it is because of Muslim violence; the Christians we have met say that’s not true. That it is because of Israeli government policies. Perhaps the best analysis was the man who said that Christianity and the Christian community in this land are being lost through “collateral damage” in the conflict between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs (who are mostly Muslim).

After that we began a walking tour of Jerusalem. St. George’s Cathedral Close is outside the Old City about a mile at the intersection of two roads which both lead to gates of the Old City: Nablus Road and Salah Eddin Street. Nablus Road leads north from the Damascus Gate; Salad Eddin Street leads north-northwest from Herod’s Gate; they cross at St. George’s Cathedral.

We walked our the “back gate” of the close (which is the front gate of St. George’s College) south through a business district (mostly the businesses were closed because it is Friday – the Muslim weekly holy day – and because today is the start of Ramadan – the Muslim holy month). Before getting to Herod’s Gate, we turned on Sultan Sulayman Road and walked west, across the street from the Old City walls. We entered the Old City through Damascus Gate and down “the Cardo,” the main north-south artery through the city.

Nearly every “street” (they are all foot traffic paths) through the city is a suq (marketplace) with stores hawking a variety of products; they are noisy, crowded, exciting, vibrant, and very alive places. Everyone seems to be quite friendly, but one suspects everyone is trying to lure you in for a sale.

It was a very hot day – temperatures are in the 90s (Fahr.) – and this is arid, high desert. We were cautioned many times to drink water. And so this episode of the Hebrews complaining to Moses and Aaron about their lack of water, today’s Old Testament lesson for the Daily Office, seemed a fitting introductory scripture for my summary of our activities. Every place where we could find a bit of shade and every entry into a building was welcome; every time we made a stop, I pulled my water bottle from my backpack and took a drink. Returning to our rooms, Evie and I each bought a 1.5 liter bottle of water and we downed them pretty quickly. The metaphor of water as God’s grace makes so much sense in a desert environment like this, and our thirst for rehydration is a reminder of our thirst for God.

The most striking thing of the day for me was the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. As I mentioned to our pilgrimage group during our sharing at Compline this evening, there was one part of that visit that made a huge impression. The church which was once one large space built by the Emperor Constantine’s mother St. Helena has been torn apart and subdivided by centuries of sectarian difference. It is now divided up into spaces claimed by Armenian Christians, Ethiopian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic (here called “the Latins”), Syrian Christians, and others. The only space jointly used is the actual Holy Tomb itself.

At set times during the day, each group holds prayers, and throughout the day deacons from each of the traditions come by to cense the Tomb. While I waited for others in our group, I watched the Roman, Armenian, and Greek deacons each come and do their ministry, each make the offering of incense, each swinging their thuribles in distinct ways. I was impressed with the way each went about this job with dedication, devotion, and singularity of purpose, unfazed by the crowds and the chaos of tourists and pilgrims. But I was also saddened by the fact that, because of the same sectarian division that had carved up the once magnificent space into smaller chapels, they could not do their ministry together. What could be a model for peace and reconciliation in this land which sorely needs it was yet another example of human division.

A fun thing for me today happened at the Western Wall. After I had gone to the wall and offered my prayers, impressed by the thousands and thousands of prayers written on slips of paper that pilgrims (perhaps of many faiths) had tucked into the joints and cracks in the stone, I was standing waiting to rejoin my wife. Two women came up to me and started asking me something in Hebrew! I could only shrug and say, “I’m sorry.” Then the younger, in what I believe to be an Israeli accent, said to me, “O, you’re not from here! You’re not a Jewish boy!” I admitted that I was not, but thanked her for calling me a boy!

A final impression of the day — Compline this evening with our group. As we began, a loudspeaker from a nearby mosque was broadcasting the sound of verses of the Holy Qur’an being chanted, and then more of the traditional Ramadan fireworks sounded. Our prayers were added to these manifestations of praise of God. Meanwhile, the sabbath of the Jews was underway. In this dry, arid land where water is life, three major world faiths come together in prayer, perhaps involuntarily, perhaps with tension, certainly with division, and clearly in this place with enmity . . . and yet at that moment, we were all united like different herds of thirsty animals coming together at a desert oasis or at a spring in time of drought. We ought to be able to learn from this!

And that is my prayer for the people of Israel and Palestine as Ramadan begins, that peace and reconciliation might come to this place and that, at long last, as the Psalmist once wrote, “Jerusalem . . . [will be] at unity with itself.” (Ps. 122:3, BCP Version)

Photos from our day can be found in this Facebook gallery:

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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.

One Is Never Too Old – From the Daily Office – June 24, 2014

From the Book of Numbers:

The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households — everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods. So they with all that belonged to them went down alive into Sheol; the earth closed over them, and they perished from the midst of the assembly. All Israel around them fled at their outcry, for they said, “The earth will swallow us too!” And fire came out from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men offering the incense.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 16:32-35 (NRSV) – June 24, 2014)

Chinese Hair QueueBelieve it or not, I’ve actually had the last of these selected verses quoted to me as part of an argument against the use of incense in the church. I was in a conversation with someone about our use of incense in “high church” liturgies, being told (among other things) that incense was fine when we were younger and acting like hippies but now that we are older and mature we should put aside such childish ways, when this chestnut was pulled out. Since I’ve studied the Old Testament (as most clergy have) I knew my critic was misusing the text.

Such a reading is hard to square with other parts of Scripture in which the use of incense as an honorable offering to God is approved. For example, speaking through the Prophet Malachi God says, “For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts.” (Mal 1:11)

It’s even harder to harmonize with those places were the burning of incense in religious ceremonies is not only approved, it is commanded. For instance, in the Book of Exodus Moses is commanded to make an altar for incense upon which Aaron is to burn incense two times every day: “Aaron shall offer fragrant incense on it; every morning when he dresses the lamps he shall offer it, and when Aaron sets up the lamps in the evening, he shall offer it, a regular incense offering before the Lord throughout your generations.” (Ex 30:7-8)

And more than that, that reading doesn’t accord with the verse’s own context, and that’s what I’m thinking about today. The story of Korah’s and his followers’ destruction at the hand of an angry God has nothing to do with incense. The burning of incense although it figures prominently in the story is really incidental to the story; Korah and his tribe were destroyed because of their pride, because they sought to usurp the priesthood of Aaron which was not and never would be theirs. In the story, Aaron also burns incense to the Lord and his offering is accepted; further, shortly after this incident Aaron stops a plague among the people through the burning of incense. Clearly, incense is perfectly acceptable to God.

So to say that “fire coming out from the Lord and consuming the two hundred and fifty men offering incense” is an indictment of the use of incense in worship is proof-texting of the worst type, inconsistent with other scriptural references and inconsistent with its own context.

I recall a joke (or maybe it’s a true story) about a preacher who abhorred the traditional Chinese men’s hairstyle holding forth in California in the late 1800s urging Chinese immigrants to abandon the queue or “topknot.” All Chinese men, but particularly those who had converted to Christianity, he argued, should cut off their queues because Christ himself had uttered the words, “Topknot go down!” And he was correct, sort of. What Jesus had said was, “Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take what is in his house . . . .” (Mt. 24:17) Picking and choosing the Bible’s words out of context is not a new phenomenon.

The only way to combat proof-texting is knowing the Scriptures oneself. Jesus is our model in this regard. Tempted by the devil after his baptism, he was able to answer each of Satan’s references to Scripture with counter-references of his own. (Matt. 4) If we are to respond to misuses of Scripture, we must know it ourselves.

Now, I don’t agree with my incense critic about old age and maturity being a reason to give up incense, but I suppose there might be something to that. Perhaps given the respiratory problems some older folks have, one can be too old for incense. However, one is never too old for Christian education and Bible study!

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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.

Taste & See – From the Daily Office – June 20, 2014

From the Book of Numbers:

And they came to the Wadi Eshcol, and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them. They also brought some pomegranates and figs. That place was called the Wadi Eshcol, because of the cluster that the Israelites cut down from there.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 13:23-24 (NRSV) – June 20, 2014)

Cluster of GrapesHave you ever noticed how one of the most common sorts of souvenirs to be brought back from a trip is food? Every time we travel, my wife and I, we bring back food. Sometimes the authorities thwart us, but we try.

For example, when we made our first trip to Ireland a few years ago, we fell in love with some Irish sausages and with Irish bacon. In the duty-free shop at Dublin’s airport, however, we found a big sign on the meat products refrigerator advising that they could not be brought into the United States. We contented ourselves with some chocolates and some Irish whiskey.

When I was a kid, as I may have mentioned before, I spent summers in Kansas with my paternal grandparents. At the end of the summer my grandparents would often drive me back to Las Vegas and then on to southern California to visit their relatives and my maternal grandparents in the Los Angeles metroplex. Leaving Kansas, my grandfather would pack up some vegetables (especially tomatoes) from his garden into an ice-filled galvanized Gott can (the original Gott cans were made in my grandparents’ town).

Along the road, the ice would be replenished and the produce would stay fresh all the way to Nevada and California. When we got to the California border, there was an agricultural check-point on the highway at (I think) Yermo (or maybe it was Barstow). An officer of the state ag service would ask, “Do you have any fresh fruits or vegetables?” and my strict, up-standing Methodist grandfather, with a straight face and his oh-so-honest-sounding voice would answer, “No, officer.” Off we would drive with our illegal booty of garden produce. A little thing like preventing crop blight was not going to prevent our food souvenirs getting to their final destination.

And at the end of their trip those tomatoes and other veggies produced such delight! It was almost religious the way my maternal grandmother would receive her friends’ gift of a vine-ripened tomato, tenderly caress it, wash it gently, slice and serve it with the lunch she had prepared to welcome us. The look of sheer joy on her face as she tasted her first bite of it, the taste of her home town.

The taste of food reminds us of the places we have been; like the sound of music or certain smells, a taste can incite a flood of memories. Food also anticipates. We, my wife and I, are headed to the Holy Land in a short while. A few weeks ago, our tour organizer hosted a dinner at a near-by Middle Eastern restaurant so that we could meet other group members, hear a bit about our itinerary, and in the meal we shared get a foretaste of what we can expect to enjoy when we are there.

Moses sent spies over into Canaan and they came back with grapes, pomegranates, and figs to prove the land the Hebrews were entering was a bountiful one; like them, we are looking forward to entering the Promised Land. They named the place Eshcol (“cluster”) because of those grapes. One presumes that Moses and the other leaders tasted those fruits and knew the goodness of the land and of God who was giving it to them; they anticipated the future.

We do the same sort of thing each time we gather in worship and share the Eucharist. In it is the taste both of memory and of expectation. Every celebration of Holy Communion is both a memorial of what God has accomplished and a preview of what God has promised. In the Eucharist the past and the future irrupt into the present; our fellowship in the Eucharist with God and with all Christians across time and space is both a remembrance of Christ and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet.

“Taste and see that the Lord is good;” says the Psalmist, “happy are they who trust in him!” (Ps 34:8) Taste and see.

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

Pray Naked – From the Daily Office – September 4, 2012

From the Book of Psalms:

Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind.

From the Book of Job:

Job answered: “But I would speak to the Almighty, and I desire to argue my case with God.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Job 12:3; Psalm 26:2 – September 4, 2012)
 
Bliss Dance, Statue at Burning Man Festival 2010 (Northern Nevada)This morning I was struck by the absolutely opposite attitudes displayed in these two readings. The morning psalm invites God to try the worshipper; the first reading of the day demands the right to try God. I think these poles really do represent the spiritual pendulum on which most humans swing; they circumscribe our ambivalent and ambiguous relationship with the Almighty.

At least they describe MY relationship with God! Some days my prayer life, my ministry, my personal life, my bodily feeling, all of it just seems great. “Bring it on, God! Whatever you want my to do today, I can handle it!” The next day I can feel just like Job: “Why me, God? I have been truly put-upon; I have been emotionally mistreated.” I come before God with the words of Moses:

Moses said to the Lord, “Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? * * * I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once – if I have found favor in your sight – and do not let me see my misery.” (Numbers 11:11-12,14-15)

I’m just like Job; I want to “speak [with God] and let come on me what may.” (Job 12:13) And so I do; I talk to God!

It’s called praying. Prayer comes in many forms. Whether I am telling God to “bring it on,” to test me, or whining about how hard it all seems and pleading my case, what I am doing is praying. Praying isn’t all praise and hallelujah; praying isn’t all supplication and intercession; praying isn’t all thanksgiving and gratitude. Praying runs the gamut of human emotion. Praying, at its best and most honest, is a conversation with God, baring the soul and the psyche in whatever condition they may be, trusting that God will handle them with love, gentleness, and care, sometimes tough love, sometimes a rough gentleness, but always with care.

This means that prayer is often difficult. It isn’t easy to bare the soul, to open the psyche, because there are things I’d rather not face. When I was in seminary, one of our classes in church history included a discussion of the ancient practice of nude baptism. Following that class, a group of us had some t-shirts made with the words “Pray Naked” emblazoned across the chest; they were certainly conversation starters when we wore them in public! They were a joke, but like most humor there is a kernel of seriousness buried therein. In genuine prayer we strip ourselves of all those things in our souls, our psyches our hearts which keep us from true openness before God, from true fellowship with Jesus.

Whether we are challenging God to try us, challenging God to be tried by us, pleading with God, praising God, thanking God, crying before God, or laughing with God, our souls, our hearts, the whole of our being should naked before God. Wherever you may be in the pendulum swing of your ambivalent and ambiguous relationship with God, pray naked!

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

Standing with Moses – From the Daily Office – July 12, 2012

Moses said:

The Lord said to me, “Enough from you! Never speak to me of this matter again! Go up to the top of Pisgah and look around you to the west, to the north, to the south, and to the east. Look well, for you shall not cross over this Jordan. But charge Joshua, and encourage and strengthen him, because it is he who shall cross over at the head of this people and who shall secure their possession of the land that you will see.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Deuteronomy 3:26a-28 – July 12, 2012)

God had made it abundantly clear to Moses that he wasn’t going to be allowed to cross over into the Holy Land. He would be allowed to see the Promised Land from the opposite side of the river, but not to enter it. Despite Moses’ requests, God’s mind was not going to be changed, as this divine outburst of temper makes clear. ~ There have been times in my career – maybe I should say “careers”, because it was true when I was a businessman and when I was a lawyer, as well as during my ministry as a parish priest – that I have felt like Moses standing on Mt. Pisgah: I can see where this business, firm, community is (or ought to be) headed, but I am pretty sure I’m not going to get there with them. ~ A colleague and I once made note of a common occurrence in parish ministry: the aftermath of a building program. It seemed to us (and later we both personally experienced) that once a pastor has led a congregation through a building program and the building is up and running, the pastor leaves. Like Moses’ life, his or her ministry among that people is at an end. We were never sure why that was, and even having been through the experience I’m still not sure. ~ Moses (and his brother), of course, died without entering the Promised Land because of his lack of faith: the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “”Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Num. 20:12) Is it because clergy lose faith (maybe faith in their communities) during a building program? Is it because the community loses faith in the clergy? I remember reading (several times) about how the stress of designing and building a home can be a cause of divorce; maybe something of the same dynamic is at work in the pastor/parish relationship during a church building program. ~ In any event, whether a building program or a change of ministry direction or a shift in church style, I’m pretty sure that every church leader (clergy and lay, I’m sure, but probably more the clergy) has felt, at some time, that he or she could see a vision of the church’s future that he or she was probably not going to be joining in. And if it hasn’t happened yet, I’m confident that it eventually will. When that happens, clergy, know that you are in good company! You are standing with Moses atop Mt. Pisgah!

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

The Example of Balaam – From the Daily Office – July 6, 2012

From the Book of Numbers:

Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. Balak said to Balaam, “I summoned you to curse my enemies, but instead you have blessed them these three times. Now be off with you! Go home! I said, ‘I will reward you richly,’ but the Lord has denied you any reward.” And Balaam said to Balak, “Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will; what the Lord says, that is what I will say'”?

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 24:19-13 – July 6, 2012)

We’ve been following the story of Balak and Balaam from the Book of Numbers for a few days, although I’ve not been writing about it here. In truth, I find it a little dull. But Balaam’s words this morning strike me as pertinent to what’s going on in my denomination (the Episcopal Church) in Indianapolis this week: “What the Lord says, that is what I will say.” Balaam will not simply parrot whatever blessing or curse Balak wants; he will say what he understands God to want him to say. ~ A lot of resolutions are being debated at the General Convention and many of them will be referrals to standing or special committees and task forces with instructions for study and report. That’s all well and good, some actions of the church need study and careful consideration before they are taken. But all too often these referrals are not for disinterested and unbiased reflection. Take, for example, the question of whether the church should bless the committed relationships of couples who are of the same sex (“same-sex marriage” as some call it). ~ Before I continue, I need to be on record as believing that the church should offer such blessings, just as we do for committed couples of opposite sexes. ~ It is likely that some committee (the Standing Liturgical Commission, probably) will be asked to study the question of our theology and understanding of marriage. Good. But it will probably, in the same resolution, be tasked (in fact, I think there’s a resolution pretty much saying) to report back with suggested liturgies for such blessings. Bad. The outcome of the theological study is simply presupposed in the task! This isn’t a resolution to study the theology of marriage; it’s a resolution to provide a theological justification for same-sex marriage. ~ I suspect that another issue before the Convention, whether Holy Communion should be open to those who are not yet bapized members of the Christian faith, will result in a similar “study-and-report” referral. ~ Committees and task forces asked to do that should not also be given the job of preparing materials which can only be based on a pre-supposed outcome. When the Convention does so, it stands in the same position as Balak demanding that Balaam utter the blessings and curses of his choosing. Committees and task forces need to be free, like Balaam, to say not what the General Convention presupposes they will say, but what they understand God wants them to say. ~ By the way, Balaam had a donkey who could see angels and who tried to steer him away from danger. Most committees also have an ass or two who can do the same thing; pray God they do their job! ~ (Parenthetical closing remark: I don’t otherwise suggest that our committees emulate the confused, untrustworthy, and idolatrous Balaam, a man whom Peter described as being one who “loved the wages of iniquity” [2 Peter 2:15]. But insofar as he spoke God’s message without bias, go for it!)

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

I Don’t Believe in that God! – From the Daily Office – June 26, 2012

From the Book of Numbers:

Then the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: Separate yourselves from this congregation, so that I may consume them in a moment. They fell on their faces, and said, “O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one person sin and you become angry with the whole congregation?”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 16:20-22 – June 25, 2012)

So the story of Korah’s rebellion (which lead me yesterday to give thought to the current leadership crisis in the Episcopal Church) continues in today’s reading and Moses (now with Aaron) is again falling on his face! This time because God, righteously unhappy with the Hebrews because of Korah and his companions, decided to simply wipe them out. Moses and Aaron made the case that this would be (to coin a phrase) overkill. So God relented and decided only to wipe out Korah, his companions, and their families. The rebels “together with their wives, their children, and their little ones” (v. 27) stood before their tents and then “the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, along with their households – everyone who belonged to Korah and all their goods.” (v. 32) And just for good measure, 250 Levites who’d been standing around with censers (as instructed by God through Moses) were consumed by fire which “came out from the Lord.” (v. 35). I probably don’t need to tell you that I find this story more than a little troubling! This vengeful warrior god taking out his pique on a large number of people, including small children, is not the god I particularly want to worship! ~ I once had a parishioner who was part of my team of lectors (folks who assist in worship by reading the lessons from Holy Scripture) who refused to read from the Old Testament: “I don’t believe in that god,” she would say. Well, I thought, neither did Marcion, but the church decided he was wrong, that the God of the Old Testament is the same God who is the Father of Jesus Christ, that we do worship that God, and we have to wrestle with the discomfort these ancient writings inflict upon us. Still, I didn’t insist that she read the Old Testament lessons. After all, this sort of reading (as I said) makes me more than a little uncomfortable, too! ~ And that is at it should be. The Hebrew Scriptures are the story of a people’s developing understanding of their God and their relationship with God. That story will have and does have the same sorts of violent and unpalatable events any human history will have. This is why the historical-critical method of studying the Bible is important, for it enables us to grasp what it actually meant to live as one of the Chosen People in any given era. The more accurately we understand the world of the Hebrews, the Israelites, or the church, the more we can see how the people of the Bible understood themselves to be in relationship with God. ~ A daily meditation on the Scriptures is not the place to wrestle with and resolve the difficulties and discomforts passages such as this episode from Numbers create. However, it is a place to suggest that approaching the biblical picture of God with a recognition that the Hebrews progressed in their apprehension of God, appreciating the historical circumstance of the Bible’s stories, allows us to see these stories in as positive a light as possible. Seen in this light, the more brutal parts of the Bible may still communicate valid insights – even to us. We simply don’t have the luxury of saying “I don’t believe in that God”! Rather, we have the responsibility to wrestle with these pictures of God.

Needed: Some Face Falling! – From the Daily Office – June 25, 2012

From the Book of Numbers:

Leaders of the congregation . . . confronted Moses. They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, “You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Numbers 16:2-4 – June 24, 2012)

Moses “fell on his face.” This is biblical language for expressing great despair and sadness, not the reaction to a leadership confrontation a modern person would expect. Anger? Yes. Hostility? Yes. Yelling and shouting and public protestation of one’s rightness? Yes. Falling prostrate on the ground in desperate sadness? Not so much. ~ It would appear that in the confrontation of Korah and his compatriots, Moses felt personal responsibility. He believe that what had gone wrong with the Hebrews was his fault. He seems to have believed that he himself had created an atmosphere which had led to less-than-perfect delegated administration and justice. ~ Unfortunately a leadership crisis in the Episcopal Church isn’t resulting in similar behavior from the church’s leadership. In recent months the two highest officials of the church (the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies) have had a public squabble over when and how one or the other might communicate with other persons in the church (the cause of the dispute was a video the PB made and sent to members of the House of Deputies, apparently without a “heads-up” to the PHoD). More recently, proposals for the church’s budget for the coming triennium have raised concern among many church members. In response to the first criticisms, the Executive Council issued a statement which was wholey inadequate (in my opinion) and failed to take responsibility. Then the PB (apparently distancing herself from the Executive Council of which she is actually a member and the chair) has come out with her own budget proposal. Now one or more members of the council have their backs up, writing blogs and making statements about being stabbed in the back. In all of this, there hasn’t been a lot of “falling on one’s face” going on. ~ The incident described in the Book of Numbers was really all about Korah’s personal grievances, suitably disguised for public consumption. Moses could have fired right back at him. But Moses suspected that his own earlier mistakes might be the cause of Korah’s uprising, that it was his failure which had created a setting in which discontent could germinate and ultimately promote the Levite rebellion. So, in humility, Moses admits accountability. Might a little of Moses’ humility be a good idea for the current crop of spiritual leadership? ~ Several church members recently have written blogs analyzing the budget and the business of the up-coming General Convention. Would that the Episcopal Church’s bishops, Executive Council, Presiding Bishop, deputies to General Convention, et al. would read these and consider their own roll in creating the situation in which the church finds itself. But I’m afraid they are too busy pointing the finger at one another, blind-siding one another, accusing one another of stabs in the back, playing turf wars, and engaging in cat-fights and pissing-contests. ~ We could use a little less of that sort of thing and a lot more falling on faces!

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