That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Israel (page 2 of 5)

Era of Delusion – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Era of Delusion

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

Nehemiah 6:8 ~ Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind.”

Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, enemies of Nehemiah and opponents of the rebuilding of Jerusalme, wrote to Nehemiah and tried by various means to end his efforts. Finally, Sanballat wrote warning Nehemiah that he would write to King Artaxerxes of Persia, Nehemiah’s patron, that Nehemiah was planning to set himself up as a rival king. It is in response to that threat that Nehemiah writes this letter.

Today, the national news services reported that representatives of the campaigns of several of the presidential candidates vying for one of our two major party’s nomination had met about the format and conduct of debates. The candidates, it is said, are unhappy about the way earlier debates, hosted by their party’s national committee and moderated by reporters from different news services, have been handled. Their complaint (in my opinion) boils down to the simple fact that they don’t like the questions they have been asked and the challenges the news people have made, some of them sounding occasionally like, “No such things as you say have been done; you are inventing them out of your own mind.”

We live in an era of delusion. Candidates make things up; one candidate made the statistically outrageous claim that 92% of job losses during the current president’s first term were suffered by women (never mind that the cause of those losses were the policies of the former president elected from her party). When challenged, she refused to justify her claim, later making the absurd defense that the numbers might have been wrong when she claimed them but had been right an earlier time, and finally today acknowledging that they were erroneous all along. Her initial defense, however, was that she and her questioner simply had a difference of opinion.

This is a frequently heard defense when challenges are made to factually inaccurate claims, that it is all just a matter of belief or interpretation and that one is entitled to one’s own opinion. The often heard retort to that is, “Yes, you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.” You are not entitled to go around “inventing them out of your own mind.” Someone who does that is delusional and not fit to lead or govern.

Sanballat, who was a Samaritan, was never able to defeat Nehemiah. He is believed to have retreated to a village at the base of Mt. Gerizim and to be the Samaritan leader responsible for the building of the Samaritan temple on that mountain. It is this temple to which the Samaritan woman at the well, with whom Jesus converses in John’s gospel, refers.

From the time of the exiles return up to Jesus’ time and even into our own times, there has been “bad blood” between Jews and Samaritans. There are many reasons for that and not a few of them can be laid at the feet of the Jews. But among them are the simply untrue assertions of Sanballat, the things invented out of his own mind. This is what happens when people refuse to acknowledge and agree on facts, on the reality which jointly confronts them. Opinions may differ, but facts are facts; if we cannot agree on the facts, there is no foundation for mutual trust, no foundation for reconciliation.

In our era of delusion, with politicians and their supporters inventing things out of their own minds, is there any hope for mutual trust, for mutual governance and shared leadership . . . or are we doomed to generations, to centuries of our Nehemiahs battling with their Sanballats?

Home Demolition – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Home Demolition

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

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

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

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

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

Vineyards and Soccer Fields – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Vineyards and Soccer Fields

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Monday in the week of Proper 19, Year 1 (Pentecost 16, 2015)

1 Kings 21:1-3 ~ Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.” But Naboth said to Ahab, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”

As the story of Ahab, Naboth, and the vineyard continues, Ahab pouts about Naboth’s refusal, so Jezebel (Ahab’s wife) contrives away to steal the land. Naboth is framed for a religious infraction and then executed by stoning; as the land ends up without an owner, Ahab takes possession of the vineyard. The prophet Elijah, however, condemns the royal conspiracy and Ahab repents. Eventually, the Lord decrees: “Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.” (1 Kg 21:29)

Ahab and Jezebel were not the first rulers to covet the lands of another. That is a continuing pattern of human behavior. Consider this little reported news item from last week: “[Israeli] bulldozers began demolishing Christian-owned lands in the beautiful Cremisan Valley in August to make way for a massive three-story wall that will separate a historic monastery and its monks from the convent, school, and Palestinian people they serve. The monastery and fertile convent fields will be annexed to Israel, which has already taken more than 70% of Bethlehem’s farmland. Fifty-eight Christian families will lose their orchards, farms and livelihoods.” (Independent Catholic News, 11 Sept 2015)

As part of the Israeli confiscation of lands, the building of a soccer field for the children of the Palestinian village of Wadi Foquin (a project being funded by the United Methodist Church) was ordered to stop. In what seems more a biblical metaphor than the official act of a modern nation-state, the halt-construction order was placed under a rock on the field. (See photo here) I wonder if it read, “Give me your soccer field, so that I may have it for a security wall, because it is near my house.” If not, perhaps it should have: the Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land is no more legitimate than Ahab’s and Jezebel’s taking possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

No, Ahab and Jezebel were not the first rulers to covet the lands of another, nor were they the last.

Foundations in the Forest – From the Daily Office Lectionary

Foundations in the Forest . . . .

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

Psalm 122:1-2 ~ I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord.” Now our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.

When our choir, acolytes, liturgical assistants, and clergy gather for prayer just before the opening procession of Sunday worship, I will often use a prayer which begins with a paraphrase of these verses. As I do so, in my mind’s eye I see the forest going by the bus window as we drove from Jericho up to Jerusalem in the summer of 2014. My first and so far only trip to the land of the Holy One.

The forest is non-native, mostly European pines and Australian eucalyptus. It is a young forest with only several decades, not centuries, of growth. There is little, if any, undergrowth and peering through the trees when can see unnaturally regular formations of stone. These are the ruins and foundations of Palestinian villages emptied and bull-dozed into nothingness during the ethnic cleansing of Israel during the Jewish State’s “war of independence” in 1948. I am told that there are families in the refugee camps who still possess deeds from the Ottoman Turks testifying to their ownership of homes in these now-nonexistent towns, who still hold on the keys of front doors which can no longer be found let alone opened.

We made the journey up to Jerusalem a couple of times on that trip but we never stopped along the way to actually walk into that forest, to step into those village foundations, to experience that history and that obliteration of history. So now I am reading the history of Palestine and Israel from 1880 onward by a number of authors; I am reading classic Zionists, post-Zionists, neo-Zionists, anti-Zionists; I am reading both Muslim and Christian Palestinians, Palestinian refugees, and Palestinian citizens of modern Israel. I will never comprehend the breadth and depth of Middle Eastern and Holy Land history, not even of the short 130 or so years of Zionism and its effect on the Land.

But I am coming to appreciate two things. First, how tragic and sorrowful is this psalm which ought to be a cry of joy: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you.'” (v. 6) There are so many of several faiths who love Jerusalem yet none can prosper in the absence of a shared vision of “the peace of Jerusalem” for which we all pray. Second, how woefully inadequate is my own education and, by extension, that of all! This morning I read some newspaper articles, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor apropos of the nuclear arms deal negotiated with Iran; several viewpoints were expressed and as I read each one I thought, “Yes, but do you know?” or “Have you considered the comments of [some other writer]?” or “No! That’s simply not true!”

We each focus our vision on a few facts; we cannot, or perhaps we choose not to, see them all. As a result, we do not see a full and complete picture. As an old saying has it, we cannot see for the forest for the trees. But we must see the forest, for in amongst its trees are the foundations of the future, the solution that must be built. “Peace [will never] be within your walls [nor] quietness within your towers” (v. 7) until we do so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pray for Ali Dawabsheh – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 12, Year 1 (Pentecost 9, 2015)

2 Samuel 5:6-8 ~ The king and his men marched to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, even the blind and the lame will turn you back” – thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, which is now the city of David. David had said on that day, “Whoever wishes to strike down the Jebusites, let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates.” Therefore it is said, “The blind and the lame shall not come into the house.”

This morning in Jerusalem, Jewish “Settlers” burned a Palestinian home. An 18-month-old toddler was burned to death and three other members of his family were injured. Will the Settlers claim to be acting in the tradition of David? Will the “city of peace” ever know peace? ~ The psalm says, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: ‘May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls and quietness within your towers.'” (Ps 122:6-7) Those who love Jerusalem are of many faiths, many traditions; why can’t they (we) find common ground there?

The child’s name was Ali Dawabsheh. Pray for Ali and for his family.

Overflowing Abundance: Sermon for the Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B, 26 July 2015)

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A sermon offered on Ninth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 12B, Track 1, RCL), July 26, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 11:1-15; Psalm 14; Ephesians 3:14-21; and John 6:1-21. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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Tabgha Mosaic FloorSo this is a very familiar story, right? Actually, two very familiar stories. We all know about the feeding of the 5,000. All four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – tell it with slightly varying details. We all know about Jesus walking on the water. Three of the four gospels – Mark, Luke, and John – include that tale, again with slightly varying details. We sometimes mix up those variations, but basically the stories are the same so no big deal.

The problem is that we know the stories so well that we don’t know what we don’t know about them. We think we know the whole story, but we don’t! And one of the things we don’t know, as Evie and I discovered when we were in Palestine last summer, is the geography of the feeding of the multitude. So I thought start with a sort of geography lesson, if that’s OK with you? OK?

OK.

I want you, first, to think about what you know about Lake Erie. You know that it’s up there, north of us somewhere. You know that at one end (the western end) are Detroit and Toledo and at the other (the eastern end) is Buffalo. You know that the far shore is a foreign country called Canada, and you know pretty well where the cities and towns are located along the American shore.

So now I want you take Lake Erie and rotate it 90 degrees. Buffalo is now at the lower end; Toledo is at the top; the foreign country called Canada is still on the far shore. If we come down the near shore from Toledo, we’ll come to (among other places) Maumee, Sandusky, Lorain, Cleveland, Ashtabula, Erie.

By rotating Lake Erie, we’ve oriented it in the same way the Sea of Galilee is oriented and, by a strange coincidence, many of the places we know of along the shore of the Sea of Galilee are in relationship to one another in much the same way as places we know along the shore of Lake Erie! So … Bethsaida – you remember Bethsaida, it’s where Jesus healed a blind man and it was the hometown of Philip, Andrew, and Peter – Bethsaida would be about where Detroit is. Capernaum, which Jesus sort of made his home base and where Peter actually seems to have lived, would be about where Toledo is. A place called Tabgha, which is probably where the feeding of the 5,000 took place, would be about where Sandusky is. Gennesaret, which is where Mark says the apostles were headed when they saw Jesus walking on the water, would be about where Cleveland is. Tiberias, a resort city built by Herod Antipas (the king who beheaded John the Baptist), would about where Erie, Pennsylvania, is. Finally, go way away from the lake to Cincinnati, that would be about where Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown would be.

Except … shrink everything by at least a factor of ten, because that’s how much bigger Lake Erie is than the Sea of Galilee; that’s how much bigger Ohio is than the region of Galilee. So, now, Cincinnati/Nazareth, instead of 250 miles from the lake is 25 miles away, and Toledo/Capernaum, instead of being about 40 miles from Sandusky/Tabgha is less than 3 miles away. And the other distances are similarly reduced, but remember . . . they didn’t have cars and interstates; they would have been walking or riding a donkey on dirt paths, or maybe sailing or even rowing a fishing boat on the lake.

So let me tell you about Tabgha. Until 1948, when the Israelis uprooted its residents, there was a village there and had been for centuries; now it is simply an agricultural area and a place of religious pilgrimage. The name is a corruption of the Greek name of the place, Heptapegon, which means “seven springs;” its Hebrew name is Ein Sheva, which means the same thing. It is venerated by Christians for two reasons; on a bluff overlooking the place is where the feeding of the multitude is believed to have occurred and on the beach is where the Risen Christ is thought to have had a grilled fish breakfast with Peter during which he asked him, three times, “Do you love me?” At each location, there is a shrine and a church: the first is called The Church of the Multiplication; the second is called “Mensa Domini” (the Lord’s Table) and also known as the Church of the Primacy of Peter.

A Fourth Century pilgrim from Spain named Egeria reported visiting, in about 380 CE, a shrine where the Church of the Multiplication now stands; in her diary, she tells us that the site had been venerated by the faithful from the time of Christ onward. Shortly after her visit, a new church was built there in which was laid a mosaic floor depicting the loaves and fishes. That floor still exists today – a picture of it is on the front of your bulletin.

The reason I spend so much time on the geography of the place is this: we all know the story of the feeding of the 5,000, but sometimes we think to ourselves, “It probably wasn’t that big a crowd.” We think John and the other evangelists, or whoever first told the story, may have been exaggerating. But consider: it’s only about an hour’s walk from Capernaum to Tabhga, only an hour from Genessaret, only an hour and a half from Chorazin, maybe two hours from Bethsaida or Tiberias, perhaps several hours from Nazareth and more distant towns. But if one had a donkey or a horse, or if one could come over the water by boat, the time would be considerably less. If Jesus and his companions were there for several hours, word could easily have spread and people from all those places and more could have come to see this famous prophet and miraculous healer. Each of those places I’ve named was an important agricultural or fishing site, a residential center, a political center; each had a fairly large population for the time. It’s entirely possible that, hearing that this famous teacher was there, a crowd of thousands could have gathered there, a crowd of thousands who dropped what they were doing and headed out to see, not thinking about supplies or provisions, a crowd of thousands without enough to eat.

So there they are. Jesus has been teaching and healing, and it’s getting late, and people are getting hungry, and there’s nowhere to buy anything. Philip and Andrew are getting worried; they don’t know what a big crowd of hungry people might do, so they talk with Jesus about it. They want him to send the people away. After all, there’s nothing nearby, but (like I said) it would only take these people an hour or two to walk back home or to someplace where food could be found. But Jesus says, “No. They’re here because we’re here; we have to take responsibility for that and feed them.” Andrew says, “We’ve checked the supplies and all we have are these two fishes and five loaves (which, by the way, we didn’t bring; some boy brought them as his lunch, some boy with more smarts than a group of grown men).”

Jesus assures them it will be enough, tells everyone to sit down, blesses the food, and the picnic starts. Sure enough, there is enough. More than enough. Jesus, being environmentally aware, instructs the apostles to pick up after themselves and the crowd, and they gather the leftovers (all four of the gospels tell us) into twelve baskets. The Greek word used is kophinos, which the lexicon tells us is a wicker basket, probably a large one like a hamper. Twelve large hampers of leftovers! This isn’t simply a story about miraculously feeding a big bunch of people with a small amount of food…. this is a story about overfeeding a big bunch of people. This is a story about God’s abundance.

When Evie and I lived in Las Vegas, back before I was ordained, we used to go to a restaurant there called Keller’s. One of the things I liked about Keller’s (besides the really great food and their superb wine cellar) was that if you took home any leftovers, they made it an event. They were proud that you were taking home their food. Instead of a paper sack or styrofoam box, you got a work of art. Someone in the kitchen obviously knew the art of origami, so your bit of leftover chicken breast might come back to you packaged in a graceful silver swan; your second helping of trout, in a beautiful gold fish; your half-a-piece of cheesecake in a gorgeous multi-colored gift box.

I’ll bet that as people left the field at Tabgha that afternoon, they were sent home with leftovers, some more of the bread and fish to see them on their way. I’m pretty certain they didn’t get Keller’s origami packaging, but I like to visualize the scene that way with those thousands of people carrying silver foil swans, gold paper fish, and multi-colored paper gift boxes. Although I’m sure they didn’t have those pretty packages in their hands, they carried something even more precious as they made their way back to Bethsaida (up there about where Detroit would on Lake Erie) or Capernaum (sort of where Toledo is) or Genneserat (kind of where Cleveland is) or the longer journeys to Tiberias (about where Erie would be) or even distant Nazareth (far away like Cincinnati).

They carried the abundant, overflowing grace of God, what Paul called “the riches of [God’s] glory.” They carried the assurance in their hearts that they had been cared for with “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and that they had been “filled with all the fullness of God.” They knew, because they had seen the evidence with their own eyes, tasted it with their own tongues, and carried it away in their own hands, that the power of God “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”

Today, we are going to baptize Tatum E________ K_________; today, we are going to welcome her into the household of God in which that promise of abundance is realized; today, we are going to assure her that, as Mark says of the crowd in his telling of this story, God in Christ Jesus has abundant compassion for her. Whatever may happen in her life, whatever stormy seas she may sail, she has only to look (as the apostles looked from their boat) to see that Jesus is there and he will calm the storm.

These are familiar stories; they are familiar because they are important; they are so important that all four of the gospels tell them. They are important because remind us, they assure us of God’s overflowing, abundant love and grace of which there is always more than enough.

Let us pray:

O God, your Son Jesus Christ fed the crowds out of his copious compassion; he stilled the stormy seas with his plentiful power; and he prepared his disciples for the coming of the Spirit through the abundant grace of his teaching: Make our hearts and minds, and especially Tatum’s heart and mind, ready to receive the overflowing blessings of your Holy Spirit, that we may be filled with your grace and strengthened by your Presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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

Choices – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 11, Daily Office Year 1 (Pentecost 8, 2015)

1 Samuel 31:8-10 ~ When the Philistines came to strip the dead, they found Saul and his three sons fallen on Mount Gilboa. They cut off his head, stripped off his armor, and sent messengers throughout the land of the Philistines to carry the good news to the houses of their idols and to the people. They put his armor in the temple of Astarte; and they fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan.

The Greek historian Herodotus gave us the name “Palestine,” which he adapted from an Egyptian word “pelesset” which named a sea people who may or may not have been the forerunners of the people named “Philistines” in the Hebrew Scriptures. The Roman Empire solidified Palestine’s place in geography by adopting the name for its eastern Mediterranean province which included the ancient lands of Israel and Judah.

So who are today’s Palestinians? Are they the descendants of the Philistine warriors who so brutally butchered Saul’s body (although they had not killed him)? Or are they (as Mitri Raheb argues) the descendants of the am haaretz, the “people of the land” named frequently in the biblical books of Kings, Chronicles, Leviticus, and Ezekiel, and less frequently elsewhere in the Hebrew writings? For that matter, who are the Jews? Are they the am haaretz? Today there are black Jews, asian Jews, and hispanic Jews, in addition to European ashkenazis and Middle Eastern sephardim. There are diaspora Jews and sabras.

Modern Palestine and contemporary Israel are not the nation-states of the Bible, nor are the people who call them “home” the people of the Bible. What they are, both the nation-states (whether recognized or not) and their residents, are entities which look back to myths and histories of the Bible (and the Qur’an and other texts) and lay claim to parts of those stories. What they are, both the nations and the peoples, are people who choose to be enemies of other people who lay claim to other parts of the same stories.

We choose to be who we are, individually and corporately. Both individuals and groups base their present on selective choices of the past and thereby chart their futures. We can make other choices. The ancient Philistines, happening upon the bodies of Saul and his weapon bearer and his sons, none of whom they had killed, chose to claim those deaths as their own responsibility and, thus, charted a course for generations yet unborn. Each generation, each person has the choice whether to be bound by the choices made by those before them.

Can we choose to be different? Must I, descendent of Irish Protestants, continue the enmity in which they chose to hold Irish Catholics? No, I need not. Must Palestinians and Israelis, whatever their ancestry, continue the enmity their forebears chose? I choose to believe otherwise; I pray that others can, as well.

Do We Lack Madmen? – From the Daily Office Lectionary

From the Daily Office Lectionary for Friday in the week of Proper 10, Yr 1 (Pentecost 7, 2015)

1 Samuel 21:15 ~ Do I lack madmen, that you have brought this fellow to play the madman in my presence?

“Do I lack madmen?” asked Achish, King of Gath, when David, pretending to be mad, was brought before him. Consider what has been brought before us in recent days . . . . ~ Members of Congress condemn an important nuclear arms agreement before even reading it simply because they believe it not perfect and (more importantly) because they are in the habit of opposing everything the president (from the other party) champions. Perfection thus becomes the enemy of good and party politics the enemy of governing. ~ White citizens stand at the side of the road in Oklahoma and wave Confederate battle flags as the black President of the United States drives by. Free speech and public expression become the enemy of patriotism and simple good manners. ~ The Pope issues a statement on the moral implications of human activity causing climate change and calling for repentance and change of behavior; his decree is meant with opposition by fossil-fuel industry spokespersons (and from politicians given large donations by that industry) who suggest that the Pope leave science to the scientists. Business becomes the enemy of religion and ethics. ~ The bishops of the Episcopal Church refuse to even consider the possibility of taking a position with regard to the Israeli occupation of Palestine out of fear that church-run hospitals and schools might be impacted by government reprisals. Medical and educational ministries become the enemy of prophetic action. ~ Do we lack madmen? Have we ever lacked madmen?

Neither Hot Nor Cold: A Sermon of Ecclesial Disappointment – 12 July 2015

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A sermon offered on Seventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 10B, Track 1, RCL), July 12, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are 2 Samuel 6:1-19; Psalm 24; Ephesians 1:3-14; and Mark 6:14-29. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page. Note: The Revised Common Lectionary provides that the first lesson is 2 Samuel 6:1-5,12b-19.)

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Israel-Palestine MapWhy do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. (Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters [New York: Harper & Row, 1982], pp. 40-41.)

I wonder if Ms. Dillard might not have had in mind the episode recounted today in our reading from the Second Book of Samuel. Confession: The Lectionary edited out the verse that describe the death of the priest Uzzah and the circumstances and causes thereof. I put them back in because they explain the sudden reluctance of David to take the Ark of the Covenant into his city, and his three-month delay in doing so. With Uzzah’s death David, as the writer of Second Samuel tells us, got a notion of “what sort of power we so blithely invoke,” of what sort of power he was bringing into Jerusalem, and it frightened him.

After all, what had Uzzah done. Nothing disrespectful of God, that’s for sure. If anything, he saved the Almighty the indignity of the Ark tumbling out of the ox cart and falling to the ground. All he had done was reach out to steady it when it was jostled by the oxen; he was doing only what comes naturally when one is moving a large, heavy object over rough terrain. And for this, for touching the Ark with the most innocent and benign of intentions, he was stricken dead. At first, David was angry with God about that; apparently he cursed up a storm because the place gets renamed “Perez-uzzah” which means “outburst about Uzzah” – could be God’s outburst that killed Uzzah, more likely it’s David’s outburst of anger after Uzzah is dead. Once he vents, however, David becomes frightened; we are told, “David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, ‘How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?'” So, he leaves the Ark right there in the care of a foreigner, Obed-edom the Gittite, for three months. David has realized that he may need a crash helmet when dealing with the power of the Almighty.

And then there’s John the Baptizer. John knew all too well the Power he’s been dealing with; he’d talked directly with God (“The one who sent me to baptize with water said to me,” he claimed – Jn 1:33) and John spoke to earthly power on God’s behalf. He said to the crowds that came out to him, to the scribes and the Pharisee, the priests and the Sadducees, to all who came to him at the River Jordan, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (Lk 3:7-9) John knew there was danger, terrible danger when one becomes involved with Almighty God. It was the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews who said it, but John knew well, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:31) Because even if the power of God doesn’t kill you, the ministry demanded of you by God may well put you in harm’s way . . . and that, in the end, is what happened with John.

Speaking truth to power, John publicly denounced Herod Antipas for his sinful, adulterous relationship with his half-brother Philip’s wife Herodias, who also happened to be Antipas’s niece. For that public reproof, John was arrested and held for a time in prison; the Gospel lesson tells us that Herod protected John after his arrest because he feared him! – Even Herod Antipas felt the danger of involvement with the Almighty at second hand, the danger of dealing with God’s anointed prophet. But in the end, tricked by his own foolish behavior, Antipas must order John beheaded; for John the ax is laid not at the foot of the tree, but at the base of his neck. As Ms. Dillard might put it, “The waking god drew John out to where he could never return.”

We, the Episcopal Church, take this dangerous prophetic step out to where we might never return every time we make a statement or take an action and proclaim to the world, “We do this because we are called to do so by our Lord and our God.” I do it every time I step into this pulpit and dare to preach a sermon. You do it every time you take a stand on an issue or behave in a particular way and say, “I do this because I am a Christian, because I am an Episcopalian.” Our church does it when it meets in deliberative council, in vestry meetings, in diocesan conventions, or as we have just done in our triennial General Convention; we do it when we issue public statements on important issues of the day.

We feel like we have done it now in the aftermath of our 78th General Convention because, for example, we have taken the bold step of opening our marriage liturgies to same-sex couples. However, I would suggest to you that that was not a very prophetic step after all. We had already, several years ago, declared that gay and lesbian persons are beloved children of God entitled to the full ministry of and to full inclusion within the body of the faithful. We underscored that a dozen years ago when we approved the election and consecration of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. When we declared last week that same-sex couples could marry in the church, we were only continuing down a path we had already been walking, a path which (frankly) the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and the United States Supreme Court had just walked before us. It’s easy to be prophetic when others have already done so before you.

We feel like we have taken a prophetic stance because 1,500 bishops, deputies, and other Episcopalians marched the streets of Salt Lake City to protest against gun violence and to call for rational handgun licensing laws and for background checks on all gun sales including gun show and private transactions. We feel like we have done so because, a few days after that protest march, the General Convention passed a resolution making that same call; but in all honesty it’s a call we have made before. We have been on record as a church in support of reasonable regulation of gun manufacture, sale, and ownership for nearly 40 years; we have passed resolution after resolution urging registration, licensing, and insuring of handguns, as well as the banning of civilian sale and ownership of automatic and semi-automatic weapons since at least 1976. And we have not been alone among the churches in doing so. It’s not particularly original or prophetic to do and say again that which you and many others have done and said many, many times.

We feel like we have been prophetic in the House of Bishop’s election of Michael B. Curry of North Carolina to be our Presiding Bishop, our first black Presiding Bishop! But, folks, we have had black bishops in the Episcopal Church for over 140 years since the consecration of James Theodore Holly to be Bishop of Haiti in 1874. Neither God nor the world would be out of line in telling us that Bishop Curry’s election is not particularly prophetic and asking, “What took you so long?”

It’s not that these are not important and vital issues; they are. It’s not that our voice, added to so many others, is not worth raising about these issues; it is. It’s not that we should not be taking a stand on these matters; we should. We should and we have and we will continue to do so, but we are not being particularly prophetic when we do so. We are merely doing what comes naturally moving a large, heavy institution over the rough terrain of difficult issues. Like Uzzah steadying the Ark of the Covenant, it may be dangerous, but it’s not particularly prophetic.

We did have the opportunity to be prophetic, but we failed to take it. A resolution numbered D016 was offered for our consideration. It would have called upon our church and our leadership to

work earnestly and with haste to avoid profiting from the illegal occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, and [to] seek to align itself with, and learn from, the good work of our Ecumenical and Anglican Communion partners, who have worked for decades in support of our Palestinian Christian sisters and brothers and others oppressed by occupation. (Resolution D016 as originally proposed)

It did not call for divestment from Israeli investments. It did not call for the boycotting of products made in the occupied territories. It did not call for sanctions against Israel. It did not call upon us to join the “BDS” movement as it is called – Boycott, Divest, Sanction. It was opposed on the grounds that it did, but in truth it did not.

We could have taken such action; we could have joined BDS although the resolution did not call for it. Alternatively, we could have proclaimed that, instead of doing that, we would work through positive investment and constructive engagement with both Israelis and Palestinians to foster reconciliation and peace. Or, we could simply have done as the resolution sought and undertaken a time of intentional study and discernment as to what our ministry as a church with important ties to the Holy Land might be, how we might try to encourage healing in that broken, wounded, and bleeding place. We could have done any of those things, any of those prophetic things. But do you know what we did?

We ducked the issue. We played it safe. We closed off debate. We failed to act. The House of Bishops rejected Resolution D016 so the House of Deputies never had a chance to consider it and, thus, we did nothing. – We should know better! As Paul wrote to the Ephesians,

With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (Eph 1:8b-10)

We know that! We have declared as much in our catechism that “the mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ,” and that “the Church pursues its mission as it prays and worships, proclaims the Gospel, and promotes justice, peace, and love.” (BCP 1979, page 305) We are a church for whom the ministry of reconciliation should come as naturally as reaching out to steady the cargo on an ox cart came to Uzzah. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we did nothing…. We are a church who believes itself to speak like John the Baptizer prophetically to power on any number of subjects. And yet with respect to our brothers and sisters in Israel and Palestine, we said nothing….

As a church meeting in deliberative assembly and praying for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we did nothing, we said nothing to promote justice, peace, love, and reconciliation in the Holy Land.

When John of Patmos had the vision recorded in the Book of Revelation, he was instructed to deliver a message from Jesus to the church in Laodicea. He was told to write these words to them: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16) With regard to those living in the land where Jesus was born, where he lived and taught and loved and died, where he rose from the dead for our salvation . . . with regard to our brothers and sisters living in that land, our General Convention action (or, really, lack of action) was lukewarm; it was tepid; neither hot nor cold, worthy only to be spit out.

I love my church. I love what we do in our synods and our conventions. I love that we take positions, sometimes unpopular positions. I love that we take risks with power, the kind of risks that Uzzah took, the kind of risks that John the Baptizer took, the kind of risks for which we should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers and holding signal flares. But we failed to do that with regard to the occupation of Palestine and the strife existing between our Israeli and Palestinian brothers and sisters, and I am disappointed in the church I love. As the Rev. Winnie Varghese, a priest from New York who was one of the supporters of Resolution D016, wrote after its rejection: “I will never understand why we would not listen … to our brothers and sisters truly on the ground, the lay and ordained Palestinian Christians who have been displaced; who work for justice; and who ask for our help.” (Huffington Post, July 10, 2015) Nor will I. I will never understand.

Let us pray:

Lord our God, the earth is yours and all that is in it, so we lift up our heads, we open our gates, and we give you glory; the Psalmist asked who could stand in your holy places and answered his own question saying, “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart;” give us clean hands and pure hearts that we may follow through on the promises made at our baptism, promises to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ,” to “respect the dignity of every human being,” and to “work for justice and peace;” give us grace that we, as the Episcopal Church, may do so in solidarity with those who have dedicated their lives to justice for Palestinians and security for Israel, that we may be either hot or cold, never tepid or lukewarm; give us the strength to do what should come naturally and to speak prophetically in your name; all this we ask through your Son, our Savior, the King of Glory. Amen.

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

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