That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Deuteronomy (page 1 of 5)

Lenten Journal 2019 (15 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 9

I woke up this morning thinking of cleaning toilets. Not in the future sense, the “I have to clean the toilets today” sort of thinking. I did that yesterday. At least I cleaned one toilet yesterday, the one in our master bathroom. Put a gold star on the calendar and mark the day!

It’s probably because I did that yesterday that I woke up this morning thinking about toilets and whether the job I did yesterday would have passed Doris’s standards. Doris was my boss when I was 19 years old and working as a janitor at a small acute care hospital in Southern California. Doris was the hospital’s Executive Housekeeper. She was, I think, the first Muslim with whom I ever had any daily interaction.

Doris was in her 50s when I worked for her, so I’m pretty certain she’s dead now. Actually, this is sad to say, I hope she’s dead. I would rather think of her in Paradise than imagine her facing today’s world of bigotry and the news of Muslims murdered for their faith. Because today I also woke up to the news that 49 Muslims had been shot to death while worshiping in their mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.

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Lenten Journal 2019 (11 March)

Lenten Journal, Day 5

“Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’”[1] This is a verse from today’s Daily Office Old Testament reading; it’s supposed to be Moses’ words spoken to the Hebrews about to enter the Promised Land as recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy, a reminder of the debt of gratitude everyone owes to God, but today it reminds me of a political episode of a few years ago.

President Barack Obama, in a 2012 campaign speech, said, “If you’ve got a business—you didn’t build that.” The “that” in that sentence was meant to refer to “roads and bridges” he had just referenced in the previous sentence, to the infrastructure which he had just described as the “unbelievable American system” that allows businesses to thrive.[2] That was clear to anyone who heard the speech.

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Lenten Community: If I Were Preaching, Lent 1, 10 March 2019

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. – Deuteronomy 26:5

I’m not preaching on the First Sunday of Lent, but if I was . . . I might preach about Lenten community.

“What?” some will ask. “The gospel lesson[1] is about Jesus going off into the desert to be alone and to fast for forty days! Shouldn’t we be preaching about solitude and sacrifice and privation and that sort of thing? You know, Lenten discipline?”

Well, sure, you can do that. I’ll bet you’ve done that every year. I’ll bet our congregations have heard dozens, hundreds of Lenten discipline sermons. They can take another one.

However, as I read the gospel lesson again, it occurred to me that Satan’s temptations of Jesus are all the temptations of solitude: the self-sufficiency of miraculously producing bread without any other assistance – to which Jesus answers, “One does not live alone;” the loneliness of rulership – to which Jesus answers, “Worship and service,” an answer implying relationship and community; the selfishness of self-destruction – to which Jesus simply answers “No.”

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Guardians of Praise – Sermon Pentecost 20, Proper 22B, October 7, 2018

Our gradual this morning asks a question of God about human existence:

What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?[1]

Whenever I read this psalm, my mind immediately skips to lines from William Shakespeare, to words spoken by the prince of Denmark in the play Hamlet:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals![2]

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

The prayer book version of the Psalm uses the word “man” in the generic sense asking the question about all of humankind, then literally translates the Hebrew ben adam as “son of man” recalling to us a term Jesus often applied to himself. While that may make a certain amount of liturgical sense, it distorts the importance of the Psalm. As translated in the New Revised Version of scripture, Psalm 8 asks, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” This is a little closer to the initial meaning of the verse, but the original Hebrew is not pluralized. This translation loses the awe and wonder of a singular individual gazing up at the night sky and overwhelmed by the presence of divinity.

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Teach Your Children (Labor Day): Sermon for Pentecost 15, Proper 17B, September 2, 2018

You, who are on the road
must have a code
that you can live by.
And so become yourself
because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well . . . .

If you are as big a fan of the folk rock of the 1970s as I am, you will recognize the opening lines of Crosby, Still, Nash & Young’s 1970 hit Teach Your Children.[1] Graham Nash who wrote the song has said that it was inspired by a 1962 photograph take by Diane Arbus of a young boy in New York’s Central Park playing with a toy hand grenade. I have no reason to disbelieve that, but I wonder also if today’s lesson from the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell address to the people he has led through Sinai to the brink of the Promised Land, might also have been in Nash’s mind. The song is a neat paraphrase of what Moses says.

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Sabbath: Sermon for Pentecost 2, Proper 4B, June 3, 2018

The theme for today’s lessons is clear . . . we are almost “hit upside head” with the concept of Sabbath. Our reading from Deuteronomy is the law establishing the mandatory day of rest:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work.[1]

Our Gospel lesson relates two of Mark’s stories of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees about Sabbath observance: first, a probably made-up tale about the disciples plucking wheat,[2] and second, a probably true story about Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand in the context of a synagogue Sabbath observance.[3]

So what is Sabbath?

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Chiseled – Sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, RCL Year B, March 4, 2018

Here they are. The “Big Ten”! The words of Exodus[1] that Right-wing fundamentalists want to chisel in granite and put in American courthouses unless, of course, they prefer the similar (but not quite the same) version in the Book of Deuteronomy.[2]

My sort of go-to guy on the Old Testament is a Lutheran scholar named Terence Fretheim, who is Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, Saint Paul, Minnesota. My first grounding in the Hebrew Scriptures was from a short, two-volume study guide he wrote with co-author Lutheran pastor Darold H. Beekman entitled Our Old Testament Heritage.[3] A couple of years ago, Fretheim wrote a short online commentary on today’s Old Testament lesson in which he said:

The Ten Commandments are not new commandments for Israel (see Exodus 16:22-30), but they are a convenient listing of already existing law for vocational purposes. Moreover, the Commandments were not thought to be transmitted in a never-to-be-changed form. They were believed to require adaptation in view of new times and places.[4]

This is why the version set out in Deuteronomy is slightly different.

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Discerning Prophets – Sermon for Epiphany 4, RCL Year B, January 28, 2018

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet.”[1] So said Moses in his farewell address to the Hebrews, to those who were about to enter the Promised Land and begin to become the nation of Israel. As that nation grew and developed it was ruled by tribal leaders and “judges,” by military leaders and priests, by kings (who were occasionally themselves ruled by queens), some of whom were mostly good and others of whom were mostly not-so-good. Throughout all that time, God raised upon not merely “a prophet,” but many prophets: Samuel, Ezekiel, Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Micah, Hosea, Amos, and many, many others.

And there were others who claimed to be prophets but turned out to be either false prophets or prophets of other gods. These were the ones of whom God decreed through Moses, “Any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak—that prophet shall die.”[2] The Hebrew Scriptures tell us of some of these prophets and their deaths: I think particularly of the 450 prophets of Ba’al who served Queen Jezebel with whom Elijah did battle. When their god failed them the people rose up at Elijah’s bidding and killed them.

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

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

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

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Life or Death; Lawfulness or Sinfulness: Sermon for 6 Epiphany, 12 February 2017

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the 6th Sunday after the Epiphany, February 12, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the day are from the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A: Sirach 15:15-20 (or, alternatively, Deuteronomy 30:15-20); Psalm 119:1-8; 1 Corinthians 3:1-9; and St. Matthew 5:21-37. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Moses_Pleading_with_IsraelThe Book of Deuteronomy tells us that when the long Exodus journey of the People of the Hebrews ended, just before they were to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses delivered a farewell address. He was not going to be going into the new land with them.

You may remember that God had been angered by the first generation of wandering Hebrews, what Jesus might have called an “adulterous and sinful generation” (Mk 8:38), who had grumbled against God, had wanted to turn back, and who had eventually been so disobedient that they had fashioned an idol (the Golden Calf) and worshiped it instead of Yahweh, their deliverer.

Furthermore, even when they worshiped and followed God, they didn’t trust God. Not believing God’s promise of the land into which they were to come, they sent spies ahead of them. This angered God, so that God had decreed that none of those who had left Egypt would enter the Holy Land (Numbers, Ch. 14). The Psalmist quotes God:

They put me to the test,
though they had seen my works.
Forty years long I detested that generation and said,
“This people are wayward in their hearts;
they do not know my ways.”
So I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter into my rest.” (Ps 95:9-11)

So Moses was the last of these and, in addition, he himself had been told by God that he would not enter the Promised Land because he and his brother Aaron had doubted God at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. God had said to him and to Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” (Num 20:12)

So at the brink of their entry, probably near Moab in the valley of Beth-Peor where he would be buried in an unmarked tomb, Moses gathered the children and grandchildren of the original Hebrews and summarized all that God had done for them and all that God required of them saying, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity”(Deut 30:15). Follow the laws of God, have life and prosperity; disobey the commandments, death and adversity.

Throughout the discourse, Moses does an interesting thing that we can’t follow in the English translation; he intermixes the use of the plural “you” and the singular “you.” By doing so, he seems to be saying that the obligation to do good, to follow the commandments is both a communal and an individual responsibility. As a whole, the People of God must do these things, but it isn’t sufficient that they do it only as a community. The individual member can’t rely on his or her neighbor to do it for them; he or she can’t rely on the community’s leadership to do it for them. Each member of the community must do it for themselves; the individual needs the support of the community to undertake and accomplish this individual responsibility, but the individual can’t let it slide and just rely on the community to take up his or her slack, so to speak.

Also throughout the course of his speech, Moses makes it clear that though God places this choice of good or bad, life or death, prosperity or adversity, obedience or waywardness before God’s people, God does not underwrite or endorse both equally. In fact, God endorses only one. So, at the end of his address, Moses offers his own advice: “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him” (Dt 30:19-20).

Choose life! I can imagine Moses raising a glass and giving this counsel in the form of the great Jewish toast “l’Chaim!” – “To life!” And given what was at stake, Moses adds, “Hold fast to God,” basically saying, “And don’t mess it up!”)

Several generations later, around 200-175 BC, Shimon ben Yeshua ben Eliezer ben Sira of Jerusalem, a Jewish scribe, echoed Moses’ admonition as he wrote a text which is in the canon of writings called “the wisdom literature.” This body of literature constitutes basically a course of education for young men training for what we might call “the civil service.” The sons of the class equivalent to the “minor aristocracy” of England would be trained to function in the courts of kings throughout the ancient middle east using these writings. We heard this author’s advice to these young men in today’s reading from the Book of Sirach.

The author’s name is Simon, and he is identified as the son of Yeshua, who was the son of Eliezer, who was the son of Sirach, but some for reason we call the book by his grandfather’s, or rather his great-grandfather’s name. I suppose we do that because we think grandfathers are wiser than their sons or grandsons, although I don’t think I’ve convinced my son of that. This book is part of the Christian scriptures we call “the Apocrypha.” It is recognized as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches, but not by Protestants. The Jews don’t recognize it as scripture because it is known only in a Greek translation discovered in Egypt; if there was a Hebrew language original (which one would assume since a scribe from Jerusalem wrote it), it has been lost to history. And since the Jews don’t accept it, the Protestants won’t recognize it, either.

Of course, we Anglicans take our usual middle way . . . we won’t based doctrine on it, but we will use it for the teaching of ethics and morality, which is pretty much the way this book has been used by the church through the ages. Another name for the text is “Liber Ecclesiasticus” or “Book of the Church” because it was used throughout the middle ages to teach clergy.

In any event, Simon the son of Yeshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Sirach, offers advice to the trainee courtiers not at all dissimilar to that offered by Moses to the Hebrews: “If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice. He has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. Before each person are life and death, and whichever one chooses will be given” (Sirach 15:15-17).

Simon the Scribe is a very canny fellow. He uses a metaphor for the choice of life or death, lawfulness or sinfulness; God, he says, “has placed before you fire and water.” At first glance that seems a pretty solid and clear metaphor, destructive fire versus life-giving water; but the metaphor is not all that clear. It’s really rather ambiguous. In some circumstances, yes, fire is destructive and death-dealing, but if you’re freezing to death in a winter storm, fire can be life-preserving; in some circumstances, yes, water is sustaining of life, but if you’re drowning in the sea the last thing you want is more water. Which, then, represents death and which life? One’s choices, Simon the Scribe seems to be saying, are not always clear cut and unambiguous.

And, like Moses, Simon reminds his readers that although the choices may be set before one by God, God does not underwrite or endorse both alternatives. God, he says, has a clear preference: “He has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin. ” (v. 20)

So Moses and Simon the Scribe offer their audiences, both their original audiences and us, this counsel that we have some big, important choices to made: life or death, prosperity or adversity, ethical conduct or sinful behavior. The choice may sometimes be ambiguous, but these are really big matters. And along comes Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and complicates things by telling us that our choices aren’t just about the big stuff. “You’ve heard the commandment,” he says, “‘Thou shalt not murder.’ Well, you’re just as guilty if you think badly of another, if you insult a brother or sister, if you argue with another member of the community. You’ve heard it said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ Well, even if you just think about about it, you’re guilty!” Remember when Jimmy Carter got into public hot water by confessing in that quaint King James language that despite his long and faithful marriage to Rosalyn he had “lusted in his heart” after other women? (Oh, for the day’s when just that was sufficient to get a candidate or politician into trouble…. )

Jesus extended Moses’ admonition and Simon the Scribe’s advice even further. Yes, there are important choices to be made. Yes, they are sometimes ambiguous. And, guess what? They come at us every day, every hour, in everything we do. Not just in the big things, but in the little everyday minutiae of human existence.

I don’t know about you, but it’s not very often I have to decide not to kill someone (only about once a week), but every day I have to decide whether let a zinger of an insult fly or bite my tongue and hold it back, whether to vent my anger over some upset or just shrug it off and let go of it. It’s not very often that I have to decide whether or not to commit adultery; in fact, never (no one seems to think I’m that attractive). But all through the day I have to make . . . we all have to make . . . these ethical and moral decisions. We have to make our choices, daily, and then stick to them as best we can. As Jesus admonishes us, let our decisions to be “Yes, yes” or “no, no.”

Interestingly, in the koine Greek in which the author of our Gospel lesson wrote, he recorded Jesus doing what the Hebrews scripture recorded Moses doing: mixing plural “yous” with singular “yous” in his discourse. Like Moses, Jesus underscores what we all know to be the truth – that none of us can do this on our own, that we have to have the support of our parents, our spouses, our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, our fellow church members.

There is a story in the Book of Deuteronomy (Chapters 27 & 28) about something that happened after the children of the Hebrews entered the Promised Land. Joshua the son of Nun, who was Moses’ assistant and took over leadership when Moses died, was directed to Moses to lead them into the valley of Shechem, the place where Jacob’s well is. Somehow I seem to recall that there were about 40,000 of them at the time, and Joshua divided them by tribes, sending half of them to the summit of Mount Gerizim and half of them to the summit of Mount Ebal on the other side of the valley. And those on Mt. Gerizim recited the blessings of keeping the Law, while those on Mt. Ebal recited the curses that came with disobedience.

I have this vision of Joshua reading the commandments, not just the “big ten” that Moses brought down from Mt. Sinai on the stone tablets, but the other 603 mitzvoth (or “statutes”) that got added to them and as he would read each one, the folks on Mt. Gerizim would shout “Obey this law and you will be blessed” and those on Mt. Ebal would shout “Disobey and you will be cursed.” Can you imagine how 20,000 voices shouting on one side of valley and another 20,000 voices shouting in response on the other side would have echoed throughout the land? Those voices also would have echoed down through time as a reminder that obedience is a communal thing, but also a personal thing, an individual obligation in which one is support by the community.

But even that is not enough. We humans individually are unable to stay in the narrow way and we are also unable to do so as communities, as churches, as nations. As our opening collect says, “in our weakness we can do nothing good without you” (BCP 1979, pg 216) and as St. Paul reminded the Corinthians it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). If we choose, we can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of our own choice; but we can only stay the course if we are aided by our community and upheld by God.

Today and every day, the choice is before us, good or evil, obedience or sinfulness, life or death. Choose life! – l’Chaim – and rely on God (don’t mess it up)!

Amen!

(Illustration: Moses Pleading with Israel, an illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company.)

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

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