That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Palestine (page 1 of 4)

True Worship: Sermon for Pentecost 21, Proper 23C (9 October 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, October 9, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 23C of the Revised Common Lectionary: 2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Psalm 111; 2 Timothy 2:8-15; and St. Luke 17:11-19. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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leper-medieval-manuscriptFor ten months, since the First Sunday of Advent 2015, we have been in Lectionary Year C, during which we’ve been following texts from the Gospel according to Luke. Luke’s Gospel , after telling of his birth and infancy, sets out Jesus’ original mission statement, which he adopted from the Prophet Isaiah and proclaimed in his hometown synagogue:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18-19)

Throughout the year, Luke has given us profound glimpses of God’s grace alive in the world of 1st Century Palestine, encouraging us to open our eyes and respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This sort of awakening and response to grace forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

In July of 2014, Evelyn and I were privileged to visit the place where the healing of the ten lepers is said to have happened. A tradition stretching back nearly 2,000 years tells us that it was in the village of Burqin and the Christian church which stands there today is believed to be sited on the longest continually used place of Christian worship in the world.

In the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us that this place is in “the region between Samaria and Galilee.” I have to assume that Luke was ignorant of Palestinian geography. There is no such “region.” At best, there is a line on the map, a border, between Samaria and Galilee, nothing more. If Jesus was “passing through” such a region, he was simply stepping over an imaginary line separating one human-defined locale from the next. In the modern world, he might have been going through a checkpoint. There’s a wonderful word for doing that, for being in that in-between place, in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other – liminality. It is derived from the Latin word for “threshold.”

The village of Burqin is located almost exactly halfway between Nazareth in Galilee and Sychar (now called Nablus), the Samaritan city where Jesus spoke with the woman at Jacob’s Well. Today, it is a village of about 6,000 people; fewer than 100 of them are Christian, and all of those are members of the Greek Orthodox congregation that worships at that longest-used church in all the world.

When we visited there, we were treated to lunch in the home of church leaders Usama and Nadya. During our conversations with them, one of our party asked Nadya if they felt uncomfortable living as such a tiny minority among so many Muslims and if she had ever considered leaving. “These are our neighbors and friends; they are our families,” she replied, “why would we ever leave?” She told us how they visited in each other’s homes, watched each other’s children, and celebrated each other’s holidays. And then she said, “Besides, if we left, who would be the church?”

I was struck then and continue to be amazed at the wisdom of her answer, at her choice of verb: “Who would be the church?” In that liminal place, that small group of Christians is constantly in that in-between place. Visiting, working with, celebrating with, being family with their overwhelmingly numerous Muslim neighbors, they cross over and through so many thresholds; they are constantly in spiritual motion yet grounded in that longest-used place of worship.

Their stewardship of that place is phenomenal, by the way. It must rank as the most lovingly cared for and tended church I have ever entered! Not a speck of dust, not a single cobweb, not a trace of tarnish on any of the numerous silver lamps, candlesticks, icon covers, and other objects of devotion, not a thread torn or hanging loose from the linens or tapestries. It was clear that, like the Samaritan leper who was healed there, the members of that community returned again and again to give thanks through their loving stewardship of God’s gifts.

That’s one thing about this story that grabs my attention and excites my imagination, that it takes place in that “space” which is neither one thing nor the other, that it is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

It is that sort of story in the other particular that grabs my attention, as well. This other thing is something that I’ve never seen touched on in any commentary on this text, and that is the way in which their disease unites the ten lepers. Although Luke as narrator and Jesus as character in the story comment on the citizenship or race of only the one leper, the implication is that the others are Jews. One commentator has suggested that the Samaritan turned back from going to the Temple to present himself to a Jewish priest because he would have been unwelcomed there, but the others continued on suggesting that they were Jews for whom there was no similar problem. If that is so, then for the ten the shared experience of leprosy had bound them together and had overcome the traditional enmity between Jew and Samaritan.

I’d never thought of that before but now, every day, I show up at a cancer center where I converse with two men I would never before have interacted with. The man who gets his radiation treatment before me drives a Cadillac on which there are two bumper stickers. One reads, “Hillary for Prison 2016” and the other bears only the word “Trump.” In other circumstances, I would be very unlikely to converse with this man. But, thrown together by the common malady of prostate cancer, I know that he is also 64 years old, that he has two daughters and that both are married, and that he has three grandchildren. I know his name. He and I wish one another well every day, even though we know that our political views are wildly disparate. The man who comes after me rides a Harley; he has bushy, unkempt grey beard and tattoos on his arms; he wears “muscle shirts” and grubby jeans and his wallet is attached to his belt loop by several inches of heavy stainless steel chain. In other circumstances, I would be equally unlikely to talk with him. But I know particulars of his life also and we greet one another as friends.

We three will move on from this experience when the linear accelerator has done its thing and we are “cured” of the cancer. Like the ten lepers, our small community of shared disease will break up, but none of us will ever be the same; I will remember them and I hope they will remember me. In some sense, we will remain a community.

That is what the ten lepers were and what they remained even as they moved off on that spiritual journey from one state to another, from leprosy to wholeness; they were a community. I suggest to you that they are an icon of the church. We are all of us, both individually and together, on a journey from some form of “leprosy”, a journey from some illness of spirit, a journey to wholeness and salvation. That iconic community returned a tenth, a tithe (if you will) of its substance to Jesus, praising God with a loud voice, falling prostrate at his feet, and giving thanks. (The other nine, also, would offer thanksgivings if they went, as instructed, to the Temple priests: the Law required a thank offering of two male lambs, a ewe, a measure of fine flour, and a measure of oil.) Thus, in this sense also, this is a story in spiritual motion from one state to another, a spiritual journey culminating in thanksgiving.

Martin Luther was once asked to describe the nature of true worship. His answer: the tenth leper turning back. David Lose, the Lutheran seminary professor whose writings I like so much, says of this story:

All the lepers were healed; one, however, saw, noticed, let what happened sink in … and it made all the difference.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper recognizes Jesus, his reign and his power.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper has something for which to be thankful, praising God with a loud voice.
• Because he sees what has happened, the leper changes direction, veering from his course toward a priest to first return to Jesus.
In this light, this story serves as an invitation to believers – then and now – to recognize that what we see makes all the difference. In the face of adversity, do we see danger or opportunity? In the face of human need, do we see demand or gift? In the face of the stranger, do we see potential enemy or friend? (Lose. Emphasis in original.)

After the Samaritan saw that he was healed, the rest of his response is characterized by four actions: he turned back, he praised God, he prostrated himself in worship, and he gave thanks. This, again, is Luke encouraging us to open our eyes and giving us an example of how we ought to respond to God’s grace alive in the world today. This is true worship, a road map for our response to God’s activity in our world: returning, praising, worshiping, and giving in thanks.

Echoing Luther, Prof. Lose asks, “What is true stewardship, worship, and Christian living? It is the tenth leper turning back. For now as then, seeing makes all the difference.” It is the sort of awakening and response to grace that forms the foundation of Christian stewardship.

And now I would like to invite parishioner ____________ to share some thoughts about his spiritual journey and thanksgiving.

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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.

Complexity Is Not An Excuse: Sermon for Pentecost 8, Proper 10C (10 July 2016)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Proper 10C of the Revised Common Lectionary: Deuteronomy 30:9-14; Psalm 25:1-9; Colossians 1:1-14; and St. Luke 10:25-37. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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The Second Continental Congress voting for independenceLast Monday, we celebrated our country’s 240th birthday in a way that is quite different from other celebrations of what we might call “national identity days” around the world.

The French, for example, will have a similar celebration later this week on July 14, Bastille Day, which commemorates the storming of the Paris prison by armed revolutionaries.

England celebrates a major holiday in November called “Guy Fawkes Day” –

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

The day commemorates the attempt, the failed attempt to blow up the Parliament.

The Soviet Union celebrated May Day as a great “international workers’ holiday;” it commemorated the Haymarket riot in Chicago in 1886 when police shot and killed four striking laborers.

Russia now celebrates a large national holiday on May 9 called “Victory Day” which commemorates the defeat of Germany in World War II.

Mexico’s Independence Day is September 16, which commemorates the date on which a radical priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costillo led an armed assault on the jail in the small town of Dolores in the state of Guanajuato.

Each of these national days commemorates an act of violence: the storming of a jail, a war, a riot, an attempted bombing. Our “national identity day,” on the other hand, celebrates something different: July 4 is not the anniversary of “the shot heard around the world” when our war for self-government started, nor is it the anniversary of the Battle of Yorktown where we finally defeated the British and won our independence.

What we celebrated on Monday is simply the anniversary of a vote taken in the Second Continental Congress. That’s all that happened on July 4, 1776. The delegates to the Congress voted to accept the text of the Declaration of Independence. They didn’t even sign it on that day; they just voted to accept it. What we celebrated on Monday is the ability of people to work together democratically, to overcome division and disagreement, and to reach wise decisions through conversation, compromise, and consensus, securing freedom and liberty for all.

What we, as a nation, have endured during the rest of this week is something else . . . .

In our gospel lesson today, a lawyer approaches Jesus with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus, in good rabbinic (or Socratic) form, responds with a question, “What do you read in the Law?” The lawyer answers, “Love God . . . and love your neighbor.” Jesus tells him he has answered correctly and seems to be ending the conversation, but the lawyer persists, as lawyers are wont to do, asking, “But who is my neighbor?”

At this point, Jesus changes the nature of the conversation. It is no longer a law school question-and-answer session. Instead, Jesus tells a story . . . a story which we no longer hear with the jarring surprise and astonishment undoubtedly experienced by Jesus’ first audience. We no longer hear the word “Samaritan” as they did, and this parable is part of the reason why.

I have a friend who is the business manager for a charity in Kansas City called “Samaritan’s Purse.” It’s a great name. It calls this very story to mind, and it illustrates precisely what the word “Samaritan” means to us: it means someone who aids or assists another, particularly another who is in a crisis. But that is not what it would have meant to the lawyer who questioned Jesus or to those who overheard their conversation.

The Samaritans were and are (there still are Samaritans living in Palestine today) a group whose ethnic and religious roots are the same as the Jews. Both groups claim to be descendants of Abraham and Isaac; Jews claim descent through Judah; Samaritans claim descent through the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Samaritans claim to be the true preservers of the ancient Hebrew religion; Jews make that claim for themselves, and Samaritans as syncretists and heretics who are, moreover, racially impure.

That latter claim derives from the time of the Babylonian Exile during which the exiled Jews claimed to have maintained racial purity while they accused Samaritans, who remained in Palestine, of having intermarried with Assyrian immigrants producing a mixed-breed “race” inferior to the Jews. The Jews of Jesus’ time refused even to acknowledge Samaritans as a “tribe” or a “nation”; they called them a “herd”. Jews made fun of the name of a principal Samaritan city, Shechem, referring to it instead as “Sychar,” a word which may have meant either “drunkenness” or “falsehood.” (See Sychar in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, online) “A widely current proverb, which is recorded in the Talmud, said that ‘a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than swine’s flesh.’” (See Korb, Scott, Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, Riverhead Books:New York, 2011, pp 138-40)

This then is how Jesus’ first audience, the lawyer and the bystanders, and Luke’s first readers would have heard this parable: it is a story about someone receiving aid from a member of an inferior race characterized by drunkenness and lying, from whom receiving even the simplest gift makes one accursed and impure. This is a story about racial division and about love and neighborliness reaching across an almost unbridgeable ethnic and religious separation.

And it directly addresses the terrible things that have happened in our nation during this week after the Fourth of July, the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police, and the deaths of five police officers at the hands of a troubled sniper.

The Old Testament lesson today is from Moses’ farewell discourse to the Hebrews, the ancestors of both the Jews and the Samaritans, as they are ending their long journey out of slavery in Egypt and into the promised land of liberation and freedom. Moses reminds them that “God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings” if you just obey the law (that’s a collective “you,” by the way; a promise to the community, not to any one individual). This is the same law that Jesus and the lawyer have agreed is summarized in two short admonitions: “love God” and “love your neighbor.” And then Moses pauses and asks the Hebrews a rhetorical question: “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you . . . ?” It is not, he reminds them, far away: “The word is very near to you,” he says, “it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.”

Mark Labberton, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, summarizes and paraphrases Moses’ words in this way: “Get on with doing with you already know to do. Stop with the excuses, already! Give up waiting for someone else from somewhere else to come and do what in fact you already know to do in your heart and mind.” And then Labberton comments: “We hate that. We say we just want to know what to do, but we don’t. We prefer a good excuse. Moses says that excuses, however, are not a viable, defensible option. He should know. We would rather whine about needing to wait for more insight. We would rather lose ourselves in alleged complexity.” (The Art of Deflection) But complexity is not an excuse! In any event, it’s not complex! As Jesus says, it’s as simple as “Love God. Love your neighbor.”

From the fall of 1966 through the spring of 1969, I was a cadet in the Army ROTC at St. John’s Military School in Salina, Kansas. Among the many things that we were taught in that program was how to use and take care of a variety of weapons, including the M-16, a rifle we are now more familiar with in its civilian variant, the AR-15. A couple of times each academic year we were required to demonstrate our proficiency with the weapon, which meant not only firing it at gradable targets, but also showing that we could disassemble it and put it back together within regulation time, blindfolded. The weapon is a complex piece of equipment; it has a lot of parts. But once you learn the rules, the steps of disassembly and reassembly, it’s simple to do. I haven’t touched that (or any) weapon in 47 years, but I’m pretty sure I could still take one apart and put it back together because I learned the rules by heart; they are etched in my mind even nearly a half-century later. I always qualified as a sharpshooter or better, and never failed the disassembly-reassembly test. Complexity is not an excuse.

The events of the past week, the week after the Fourth of July, scream “Complexity!” at us. There are so many parts that we must address. Like the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles of First Century Palestine, we live in a racially, ethnically, religiously, and economically divided society, and we are terrified by it . . . some more than others. My heart broke this week as I watched Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile the man who was shot dead in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, tell a reporter, “I always told him, ‘Whatever you do, when you get stopped by the police: comply. comply, comply, comply. Comply – that’s the key thing in order to try to survive being stopped by the police.” (NY Daily News) This is what is known in the black community as “the talk.”

Reporter Jazmine Hughes in article entitled What Black Parents Tell Their Sons About the Police wrote:

Every black male I’ve ever met has had this talk, and it’s likely that I’ll have to give it one day too. There are so many things I need to tell my future son, already, before I’ve birthed him; so many innocuous, trite thoughts that may not make a single difference. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t try to break up a fight. Don’t talk back to cops. Don’t ask for help. But they’re all variations of a single theme: Don’t give them an excuse to kill you.

I wonder if Samaritan parents, whose sons were looked down upon by the surrounding Jewish community as drunks, liars, and animals as unclean and accursed as swine, felt similarly compelled to lecture their children; I wonder of the Good Samaritan had gotten “the talk.”

I cannot imagine what it must be like for parents to feel they have to say such things to their sons, and it is certainly not my place to tell those parents they are wrong the believe that. Frankly, I don’t believe they are wrong but, even if I did, the law written on our hearts does not call on us to argue with our neighbor; it calls us to love our neighbor. If we believe our neighbor misperceives us, we must answer what we think is a wrong perception not with corrective argument, but with corrective love.

The racial divide which separates neighbor from neighbor is not the only issue the events of the past week have illuminated, although it is the one most directly addressed by Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel. There are other issues highlighted by the terrible coincidence that in Dallas a troubled combat veteran of the Gulf wars shot and killed, among others, two other veterans of the same conflict. Micah Johnson, the sniper, had served in Afghanistan; Patrick Zamarippa, one of the dead officers, was a Navy veteran of the Iraq war, and Brent Thompson, another of those killed, was a police operations instructor who had served in both Afghanistan and Iraq. These facts raise issues about the militarization of our police forces, the mental and emotional care (or lack of it) given our veterans, and the ease with which troubled persons (like vets possibly suffering from PTSD) can obtain weapons; these are all among the problems leading to last week’s events. The situation is complex but, Moses reminded the Hebrews, complexity is not an excuse.

My friend the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, who teaches theology at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas, wrote on Facebook on Friday:

We need to address gun culture in this country. We need to address racism in this country. We need to change police culture and tactics in this country. We need to build bridges between police and the communities they police. And we need to mourn, lament, pray, prophesy, and preach. We need to do the work that needs doing for ourselves, our children, and our society. No matter who is against us and this work, though the forces of hell array against us, we must do this work or none of us shall survive. (Facebook status, July 8, 2016)

And our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, addressing the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada on Friday said:

Just in the last week, a child of God was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; just in the last week, a child of God was killed in St. Paul, Minnesota; and just last night, [in Dallas, Texas] children of God were killed. * * * Enough is enough. * * * Our culture, our society, our world, is begging us, “Show us another way.” (Anglican Journal)

In this week after the Fourth of July, that other way is what we celebrated on the Fourth of July . . . working together, overcoming division and disagreement, and reaching wise decisions through conversation, compromise, and consensus, securing freedom and liberty for all. That other way is the way described by the questioning lawyer and illustrated by Jesus’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “[L]ove the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

The issues we must tackle are many and complex but, as Moses reminded the Hebrews, complexity is not an excuse; we must do this work or none of us shall survive.

Love God. Love your neighbor. Change the world.

Let us pray:

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 1979, page 815)

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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.

Transfiguration and Conversation: Sermon for the Last Sunday after Epiphany (7 February 2016)

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A sermon offered on the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, February 7, 2016, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Exodus 34:29-35, Psalm 99, 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2, and St. Luke 9:28-43a. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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mttaborchurchAs many of you know, Evie and I were privileged to make a pilgrimage to the holy places of Palestine summer before last and one of the sites we visited was Mt. Tabor, the traditional “Holy Mountain” on which the Transfiguration is believed to have taken place.

Mt. Tabor is quite tall and quite steep. It is what’s called an inselberg or isolated “island mountain” rising nearly 2,000 feet above the Kfar Tavor plain which it dominates. To get to the top, you have to get out of your large tour coach and board smaller (and quite dilapidated) eight-passenger mini-vans piloted by maniacal Bedouins who drive you at break-neck speeds up a road with several sharp switch-back turns to the Franciscan monastery and church at the summit. (Making that ascent “transfigured” Jesus in my mind’s eye from the rather scrawny figure we often see on crucifixes into a very fit, muscular mountaineer! He and his disciples must have been in really good shape to make that climb!)

The Church of the Transfiguration is one of several in the Holy Land built for the Franciscans by the early 20th Century architect Antonio Barluzzi, who accomplished there what Peter sought to do in the story we heard from Luke’s gospel. As one comes to the entrance of the church, before actually entering the main church, one finds to one’s left a separate chapel dedicated to Moses, and to one’s right, a chapel dedicated to Elijah. There is no direct communication between the chapels and the main church. As much as I admire the architecture of Barluzzi, and think some of his churches in Palestine are wonderful, I think he got this one wrong, because I have come to believe that communication is what the Transfiguration is all about. Before I get to that, however, I need to talk about time and eternity, for they form the backdrop of the communication in question.

I have, a few times in the past several months, shared with you the poetry of an English priest named Malcolm Guite, and want to do so again this morning. This is his sonnet entitled Transfiguration:

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.
(Transfiguration: a glimpse of light before Lent)

I love Guite’s first two lines: “For that one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet . . . .”

In the ancient Greek language and in the Greek of the New Testament, there are two words both translated into English as “time.” The first is chronos; this is measurable time with, as one writer has put it, “the future passing through the present and so becoming the past.” This word is the root of such English words as chronic, chronicle, and chronology. Chronos is characterized by the itemized, studied measurement of time. The word is used 54 times in the New Testament. When Luke, for example, uses it, it is in the context of measurable time, as when he says a traveler went away for a “long time” (Lk 20:9). Interestingly, when Satan tempts Jesus with all the kingdoms of the world “in a moment of time,” it is this measurable form of time that Luke names (Lk 4:5).

Perhaps picking up on Luke’s implication, Fr. Patrick Reardon, an Orthodox pastor and theologian, has said of chronos:

Because it is made up of some things that don’t exist anymore [the past] and other things that don’t yet exist [the future], [chronos] is a true image of non-existence, a veritable icon of death. In fact, only dead time can be measured. Moreover, chronos is, in this respect, rather ghoulish. Even dead, it continues to feed on us. We may speak of “killing time,” but it invariably ends up killing us. Chronos is, therefore, an image of everlasting death, what the Bible calls the “bottomless pit,” or hell. What is hell but the reign of death in ongoing, unending sequence? (Orthodoxy Today)

The alternative to measurable time, chronos, is kairos, a word used 81 times in the New Testament, almost always to refer to “the proper time,” to signify a chosen moment as when, in Luke’s gospel, the angel of the annunciation tells Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, that events will be “fulfilled in their proper time.” (Lk 1:20) Kairos is “time as a moment, time as occasion, time as qualitative rather than quantitative, time as significant rather than dimensional.” (Reardon) Kairos is always a “now.” Says Fr. Reardon:

Kairos, because it is present, is an icon of eternal life. To experience the now, after all, one must be alive. The dead know nothing of now. Therefore, the now, the kairos, is an icon of the life of heaven. Indeed, eternal life is an everlasting now, in which there is no sequence, no before and after.

It is to kairos, to eternity, that Guite refers, I believe, when he describes the Transfiguration taking place in “one moment, ‘in and out of time,’ on that one mountain where all moments meet.”

In the Transfiguration, eternity irrupts into time. The Lutheran Greek scholar Rob Myallis reminds us that the Greek for “brilliant” “has tucked within it the word ‘astra’ [as in] ‘astronomy.’ Jesus is bright like the stars. Interestingly, the only other place this word appears in the whole Bible is [in the Greek Septuagint translations of] Ezekial and Daniel, perhaps a reminder that transfiguration has an eschatological bent – it is the future breaking in and not simply the past catching up!” (Lectionary Greek)

What Peter and James and John saw on that mountain top, what we are privileged to see with them through the evangelists’ reports, is a vision of the climax of history, of the end of chronos time, and in its place a vision of the eternal now of kairos. Eternity, longed for by prophets, seers, and visionaries, is realized in the Transfiguration of Jesus. Heaven and earth meet in the Transfiguration; past, present, and future meet without dissolving the distinction between them.

Baptist theologian Alan Culpepper in his commentary on Luke in The New Interpreter’s Bible says, “The transfiguration is like a composite of the whole Gospel tradition. In one scene we hear echoes of the baptism of Jesus, Jesus’ passion predictions, Jesus’ fulfillment of the Law and prophets, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and his ascension and future coming.” (Vol. IX, p 207) From his birth and baptism to his ascension and his expected return, Jesus’ Incarnation is summed up in the Transfiguration which allowed his disciples, and allows us, to see him clearly.

The pieces all fall into place in this remarkable moment of kairos when the past, present, and future meet. In that moment, eternity irrupts into time, kairos overwhelms chronos, and past, present, and future are crystal clear. Little wonder the disciples are bedazzled by star-bright brilliance!

And what happens in this moment of eternity is a conversation. Luke, adding to the stories of Matthew and Mark who also report the Transfiguration, is very careful to tell us that this event took place in the context of prayer. In the very first sentence of his tale he says, “Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray.” Prayer, as we all know, is conversation with God. St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, often used the Spanish word conversar to describe prayer. Conversar means “to converse,” “to talk with.” Its simplest meaning in English is sincere talk between persons, the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the other person. It is in this conversational context that the Transfiguration takes place.

It is exemplified by the appearance of Moses and Elijah with whom Jesus discusses his departure. It is often said that they represent the Law and the prophets and their fulfillment in Jesus. Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, however, suggests otherwise. In her footnotes to Luke in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, she says this is unlikely, that instead they probably represent the elect, all the righteous people of God. (p. 120) They are human beings in intimate conversation with God Incarnate in Jesus the Christ.

How often do we imagine prayer to be nothing more than us talking to God? We who are formed in the Anglican tradition of “common prayer,” of saying together words from a book, often fall into this trap. I know a lot of Episcopal clergy who freeze up when asked to pray in public without a Prayer Book close at hand: “I don’t know how to pray extemporaneously; I don’t know the words to say,” they will explain in moments of candor. But if our prayer is truly to be the kind of comfortable, satisfying conversation in which we truly get to know the one with whom we are conversing, then our prayer should be at least as much listening as it is speaking. If God were to say nine words to us, what would they be? I suspect they would be the same ones said to Peter and James and John, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

We cannot all have experiences like the Transfiguration in our prayer lives, nor should we expect to do so. But the Transfiguration challenges us to seek something higher in prayer than speaking mere words in the hope that God might possibly somehow listen to us. Our daily prayer should include not so much talking and more listening, more communicating in hopes of hearing, of sensing, of knowing the powerful presence of God in our lives.

And that is where Peter got it wrong when he blurted out, not knowing what he was saying, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” That is where Antonio Barluzzi, brilliant architect that he was, got it wrong when he realized Peter’s ambition and built those chapels, separate and apart and not communicating with the nave of the Church of the Transfiguration. If the Transfiguration teaches anything, it is that dramatic experiences of Christ’s glory, glimpses of eternity, instances of kairos come in the dynamic reality of communication. Experiences of the glory of God are only possible if lived together, in community. Nobody, not even Jesus, could shine alone! The Transfiguration shows that it is only when we are together that God’s radiance can light ours and others lives. It is only in the intimacy of holy conversation with God and with one another that we find that “one moment, ‘in and out of time’,” that place “where all moments meet,” where we get “that glimpse of how things really are.”

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.

Save and Deliver: Fourth of a Series – Sermon for Advent 4 (20 December 2015)

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A sermon offered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are Micah 5:2-5a; Canticle 15 [Luke 1:46-55]; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45. These lessons may be found at The Lectionary Page.)

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hen-with-chicksLanguages and the study of languages fascinate me – if you didn’t know that before this series on the Lord’s Prayer, you probably know it now – and I am therefore always keenly aware of the difficulty of fully appreciating the Holy Scripture if we only consider the meaning of the English translation.

In the 1950s the social scientist Noam Chomsky proposed the idea that the ability to communicate complex data with our fellows is one of the characteristics that distinguishes human beings. He went so far as to propose that all humans, unlike all other animals, are genetically programmed with a limited set of rules for organizing language; this became known as “the Universal Grammar.” Chomsky’s idea became received wisdom and pretty much the basis for all academic study of linguistics despite the fact that there was not a shred of objective, empirical data to support it.

In fact, there is now plenty data contrary to Chomsky’s notion. We now know that a variety of animal species are able to communicate among themselves and convey very complex information to one another. Furthermore, studies of human languages around the world have repeatedly demonstrated that there are no linguistic universals; instead, there is abundant variation at all levels of linguistic organization. For example, there is a language spoken by one small group of people on one of the South Pacific islands in which verbs have no tenses; we would, I suppose, say that the verbs are all in the present tense but that would be misleading because their verbs, in fact, carry no sense of time. That sense is expressed, instead, by adjectives, and specifically by color adjectives; the color variation ascribed to the subject and object of a verb conveys the idea of past, present, or future.

Can you imagine how difficult it is to translate from that language into English, or vice versa? A direct translation

I bring this up because, although the difficulties are not nearly so great in the translation from Greek to English (which we must do to read the New Testament in our own language), such difficulties are nonetheless there, and especially so as we consider the last of the petitions in the Lord’s Prayer: “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,” in the older liturgical form; “save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil,” in the newer.

Some of the difficulties that confront us are (a) Greek words which can be translated in more than one way; (b) Greek word order which differs from, and is less important than, word order is in English; and (c) the fact that biblical Greek uses no punctuation, leaving us to guess about phrases and sentences. (I’ll only address the first today, but the others are also present here.) And, then, there is the overarching matter that Jesus, in teaching us to pray, is also teaching us something about God and such teaching is always contingent, partial, and problematic; no human language can encompass the reality of God. Any human attempt to describe God, even Jesus’, is incomplete and may be ultimately misleading.

In today’s Gospel, Mary pregnant with Jesus visits her kinswoman Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptizer. Elizabeth greets her, commenting on how active her own baby becomes at the sound of Mary’s voice and then praising Mary as “blessed” because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary’s answer is the Magnificat, the song which we recited as our Gradual, in which she says of God that God casts down the powerful, scatters the proud, and sends the rich away hungry, but that God lifts up the downtrodden, feeds those in need, and remembers those with whom God has made covenants. This doesn’t mean that God has nothing to do with the rich, nor that God ministers only to the poor, nor that God is not active in the lives of those outside of God’s covenants. It gives us a picture of God’s commitment to justice, but only a partial picture.

The same is true of the Lord’s Prayer. This petition (like all of the petitions in this prayer) is loaded with more meaning than we are aware of. Methodist theologians William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in their book Lord, Teach Us, say this about this petition:

Words like “save” and “trial” and “deliver” are words of crisis. They remind us that to pray this prayer means to be thrust into the middle of a cosmic struggle. At this point the temperature rises within the Lord’s Prayer. Things are not right in the world. It is as if something, someone has organized things against God. You pray this prayer faithfully, attempting to align your life to it and the next thing you know, it’s like you are under assault.

How often is salvation presented as some sort of helpful solution to everything that ails us. “Lonely? Come to Jesus and get that fixed.” “Alcoholic? Come to Jesus and be delivered of your addiction.” “Confused? Join the church and find all the answers.” In such a presentation of the gospel, salvation is the resolution of all your problems, the way to fix whatever ails you.

But this petition, in which we ask for salvation, deliverance and help in time of trial reminds us that salvation in Christ is an adventure, a journey, a larger drama. Praying this prayer is the beginning of problems we would never have had had we not met Christ and enlisted with Christ’s people. The forces of evil do not relinquish their territory without a fight and, in being saved, God’s newly won territory is you. (Willimon, Wm. H., and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us, Abingdon, Nashville:1996, ch. 8)

“At this point the temperature rises . . . . ” What a great way to present the tensions of this petition and of the protection for which it asks!

So let’s take a look at some of these “words of crisis,” as Willimon and Hauerwas label them. The first are the words translated in the King James Bible and in the earlier liturgical prayer as “lead us not into,” in the NRSV as “do not bring us into;” this is the Greek phrase me eisenenkes hemas eis, and either translation may be correct. The root verb is eisphero which can mean “lead”, “bring”, “carry”, or even “sustain.”

A problem for many people is not so much in the translation as in the idea that God could or would lead someone into temptation. Walter Kaiser in his book Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity, Downers Grove, IL:1996, p 366) exclaims, “Why should we ask God not to lead us into this? As if God would do any such thing! ‘God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone’ (Jas 1:13).” This is why the newer liturgical form paraphrases the Greek as a plea for protection – “Save us from.”

Save us from what? The Greek word is peirasmon. If that is translated as “temptation”, and that in turn is understood to mean an enticement to evil, then it does seems strange and perhaps even offensive to ask God not to do what God would never do. However, “temptation, when the word occurs in the older versions of the Bible, means more than temptation to sin; it has the wider sense of testing.” (Kaiser, 367) A 1st Century Greek physician and natural philosopher named Dioscorides used the word peirasmos to describe medical experimentation (Mat. Med. Praef. 5.12), and a Greek-speaking Indian philosopher of the century before named Syntipas used the word to denote the afflictions of life which tend to crush those who do not possess sufficient inner fortitude. It is in this way that Jesus or the evangelists seem to have used it when he went with the disciples to the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper.

When they arrived at the garden, he went away by himself admonishing his friends, “Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.” (Lk 22:40) When he returned to them, he found them asleep and again he admonished them: “Get up and pray that you may not enter into the time of trial.” (Lk 22:46) In the Greek of the New Testament, the words of Jesus’ admonitions are nearly identical to this petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Thus, the full first half in the new liturgical form is, “Save us from the time of trial.”

The second half of the petition is rendered the same in both liturgical forms, “Deliver us from evil.” Sometimes the Biblical versions are personalized, “Deliver us from the Evil One” on the basis of some Greek variants, which would seem to limit it to being a request for protection from (perhaps) Satan. However, most translators and commentators support the more general understanding, many noting that Jesus seems to be using a Hebrew literary or poetic form known as parallelism. “‘Lead us not into temptation’ and ‘deliver us from evil’ mean just the same thing: Prevent us being brought into temptation too great for us to conquer.” (Palmer, Albert W., Humanity’s Greatest Prayer, in Prayer and Spiritual Living, Vol 2, Kregel, Grand Rapids:1995, p. 10) As Lutheran writer Lois Tverberg says, “[This petition] is an all-encompassing plea for God to protect us from what is outside us, but what is inside as well.”

The Brazilian theologian Leonardo Boff suggests that this petition “presupposes a bitter awareness that human beings are fragile, subject to temptation of betraying their hope, becoming unfaithful to God, actually succumbing to temptation, and consequently being lost.” (The Lord’s Prayer: The Prayer of Integral Liberation, Orbis Books, Maryknoll:1983, p 97) And Franciscan author Michael Crosby observes, “We cannot offer this petition without being aware of how we ourselves might be contributing to the very evil (for others) that we pray to be delivered from ourselves.” (The Prayer That Jesus Taught Us, Orbis Books, Maryknoll:2002, p 171)

With that “better awareness” we know, even as we utter this prayer, that there will be times of trial. I’m sure that even as Mary sang the praises of the God who “casts down the mighty from their thrones,” she knew that she would still have to deal with life in an occupied Israel under the control of Imperial Rome. Even as she thanked God for “lift[ing] up the lowly” and “fill[ing] the hungry with good things,” she knew that she and Joseph would have to work hard earning very little to support themselves and the baby she carried. She knew and we know that there will be times of trial.

This petition, then, is for us, the family of Jesus, who know that despite our best intentions every day we will be faced with and tempted by choices which may be bad and unhealthy for us or for others, who know that left on our own we will give in and make (some of) those choices. This is a petition that God will give us the protection and the resources we need to resist those choices. “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” is a prayer for God’s protective guidance and strength to endure, because on our own, we cannot resist temptation; we cannot do what is right and good. It is a prayer that what Paul wrote to the church in Rome will be true for us:

[S]ince we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1-5)

Endurance, character, hope, and love: these are the protective gifts we ask for when we pray, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

An oft-repeated alliterative aphorism sometimes attributed to former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan summarizes the Lord’s Prayer as one for provision, pardon, and protection. We pray for our basic needs; we pray for forgiveness; we pray for safety from evil, both that of others and our own.

Despite the difficulties of translation from Aramaic to Greek to English, despite cultural differences between 1st Century Palestine and 21st Century America, in our world with all of its complications, in our world which is (as Willimon and Hauerwas remind us) a battlefield where the battle may already be won but still must be fought, this prayer reminds us that these three things – provision, pardon, and protection – are ultimately all we need to live for God, whose was, and is, and will be “the kingdom, the power, and the glory . . . now and for ever. 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.

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.

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