Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Burning Bush

Detail, Burning Bush/ Tree of Life Quilt by Janet Rutkowski

Exodus 3:1-8

I hardly dare ask... I know we have no right...
But Michael Brown, I must ask this great favor, this unspeakable gift.

Trayvon was not enough, nor Emmett,
nor the whole host and holocaust of men of color,
(did we even notice Kajieme?)
enslaved, disposable,
less than human through the sites of a gun.

I hardly dare ask.

The hashtag is good-- ‪#‎blacklivesmatter‬--
but I fear it isn't enough,
won't do the job we need it to do,
the enormous breaking down
of laws and structures and hearts
the massive dismantling of privilege unacknowledged
and assumptions unchallenged.

Oh Michael Brown. I know we have no right to ask,
the image is all too close
to the evil fires set again and again...
the symbol of hope, the cross of Christ
transformed into Satan's flag of terror,
crackling and crumbling in a Missouri night.

I know we have no right to ask, But ask I will.

Oh Michael Brown, will you be our burning bush?

c. Patricia Raube 2014

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Oh, What a Night! Sermon on Ruth 3:1-18

"Hay Bale" by Jamie Wyeth

Scripture can be found here...

Try to remember a time when you fell in love. Maybe it was summertime.

Maybe you remember a warm evening spent walking through the park, hand in hand with someone you’d had your eye on for a long time. And now, you knew the feeling was mutual. And you were light-headed and giddy with the new reality. Love!

Or maybe you were in an air-conditioned restaurant. A conversation started… “Tell me about yourself.” And the next thing you knew, it was five hours later, and you regretted the early morning commitment that made you say goodnight before you wanted to. It was love.

Or maybe you were watching the one you’d been married to for a long time already. They were fixing a faucet. It was a hot day. It had been a frustrating project, taking longer than planned, requiring a second trip to the hardware store. You brought a cup of ice water, and your eyes met, for just a moment. And there it was… you’d do anything for each other. Still. It’s still love.

In this morning’s passage from the Book of Ruth we are given a window into an intimate moment—but what is it, exactly? Is it the moment Ruth and Boaz fall in love? Is it the moment when they know they belong together? What exactly happens on that threshing floor?

The story is set in motion by Naomi.

The mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, from different lands, ethnic groups, and religions, have been living in mutual commitment in Bethlehem. Their stomachs were empty, but now they are full. It’s Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: physiological needs come first. Then the need for safety. Then connection—love, marriage, family. Explicitly stating that the goal for Ruth must now be marriage, Naomi sends her daughter-in-law, washed and anointed, to the end-of-harvest celebration, with their kinsman Boaz as the object of Naomi’s strategies. Naomi instructs Ruth,

“… go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.”  ~ Ruth 3:3b-4

There are several ways we can look at this. Maybe what we are seeing is a planned seduction. Ruth is bathed and anointed—she’s put on her perfume, taken care as to how she is dressed. Anyone who has been in love knows the ritual of preparing to spend time with the object of their affections. Choosing the right clothes. Fussing with your hair. This is all familiar.

Where the biblical narrative takes an unexpected jag is in what Naomi suggests next. “Don’t approach him until he’s drunk and ready to go to sleep. Then lie down next to him…”

There is a specter hovering over this scene, the ghost of something else entirely. I’ve stated a couple of times over these past three weeks that Ruth and Naomi have no options for employment. But that is not true. There is a profession open to them, the oldest profession, and the hint, the threat of prostitution hangs around this scene like an unwelcome guest. And I promise you: anyone hearing this story or reading the scroll back in the time when it was written would have understood that fact very clearly. The actions Naomi urges Ruth to take—with the specific goal of obtaining a marriage proposal from Boaz—could easily be interpreted as solicitation, with Ruth as the prostitute and Boaz as the client. This is an extremely risky proposition. If you’d like to know all about the significance of the phrase “uncover his feet,” you can catch me at coffee hour or at bible study on Monday at 5:00 PM.

But this is not prostitution. Ruth is not soliciting, and Boaz is no client. And, in fact, after she follows all Naomi’s instructions to the letter, Ruth stops short. She stops short at stopping short—she does not follow Naomi’s instructions to wait to be instructed by Boaz. Instead, she speaks:

[Boaz says], “Who are you?” And [Ruth answers], “I am Ruth, your servant; spread your cloak over your servant, for you are next-of-kin.”

We interrupt the flow of this sermon to bring you a brief piece of background information on that phrase, “next-of-kin.” According to the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, close relatives must step up to guard the property rights of the family when there is a death. In this case, Ruth is marriageable, and there is, we learn for the first time right here, property associated with Ruth’s dead husband—property she can’t own outright because she is a woman. “Next-of-kin” is a legal designation. It means that Boaz is not only eligible, he is morally required to step forward—to keep the property in the family by marrying Ruth.

But now: did you notice what just happened? That in a story supposed to have taken place something like 3500 years ago, a woman has proposed marriage to a man? God is said to spread a cloak over God’s people repeatedly throughout scripture (in Hebrew, the word is “wings.”) It is a metaphor for complete care and protection, an act of love and nurture. When Ruth asks Boaz to spread his cloak over her, she is asking him to care for her, to protect her. Ruth is asking Boaz to marry her, and she is doing so in language that deliberately ties Boaz’s action to God’s: love as an act of caring and protection. The Hebrew word for this is hesed. It can be translated love, or loving-kindness, or faithfulness. Hesed is the kind of love God has for us.

And Boaz’s answer?

[Boaz says], "May you be blessed by the Lord, my daughter; this last instance of your loyalty is better than the first; you have not gone after young men, whether poor or rich. And now, my daughter, do not be afraid, I will do for you all that you ask, for all the assembly of my people know that you are a worthy woman.” ~ Ruth 3:10-11

There’s that word again, hesed, only here it’s translated “loyalty.” But it’s the same word. Love. Loving-kindness. Faithfulness. The kind of love God has for us.

And here it seems like a good time to notice: this chapter is usually portrayed as an attempt to get Boaz to save Ruth (and, by extension, Naomi, and their family’s property and heritage). But here Boaz, with incredible grace, and humility, and honesty, points out a poignant truth: Ruth is saving him, as well. He reveals that he thinks of himself as less worthy, maybe less desirable. He is honored.

I wonder. Do you think maybe the best relationships are the ones where both parties think that they are the lucky one?

Can you remember a time when you realized that this was the person you wanted to spend your life with? And it was not because they were beautiful or buff or even smart or brave… but simply because you could see their goodness shining through? Their heart? When Ruth looks at Boaz she sees a man who didn’t chase a foreigner, a stranger, away from his field, but provided for her safety as well as her empty stomach. When Boaz looks at Ruth he sees a woman who devoted herself to the well-being of her widowed mother-in-law, despite her own self-interest, and who, even in this act—this bold and daring proposal on the threshing floor—continues to care for Naomi.

Boaz urges Ruth to sleep. Because the author of Ruth is a brilliant storyteller, the happy ending—the fullness and healing the reader is longing for—is not so quickly or easily accomplished. There is another who is a closer relative; this must be dealt with. Boaz, mindful of the conclusions that might be drawn if Ruth were to be spotted leaving in the wee hours of the morning, helps her to leave undiscovered. Still, the atmosphere is light and the symbolism heavy: Boaz loads Ruth down with grain to take home to Naomi. Seed and fertility—fullness of every kind—are promised. Ruth leaves, we have to believe, with a heart as full as her cloak.

Naomi’s question to Ruth upon her return home is translated “How did things go with you, my daughter?” but the Hebrew is a much more spare and enigmatic, “Who are you, my daughter?” Who is Ruth, now that she has returned home from her assignment? Is her reputation intact? Did Boaz understand what she was angling for? Has she returned home a woman promised marriage or not? Ruth’s response, if the text actually reports it in total, is equally spare, and equally enigmatic: “He gave me these six measures of barley, for he said, ‘Do not go back to your mother-in-law empty-handed.’” [3:17] If Naomi’s question (and ours) is, “What happened, exactly?” it goes unanswered. Some things are better left a mystery.

What a night! An assignation on the threshing floor, full of sexual tension and anticipation. And yet it carries with it even more pressing questions of long-term safety and well-being, life and death. Which, if you think about it, is true of every relationship of deep commitment, certainly of every marriage. I have a minister friend who likes to remind marrying couples that they make their promises in the face of death—that, despite the relative ease with which they can change their minds and go their separate ways, in the moment of marrying they commit themselves to staying until either they or their spouse are widow or widower. “Love is stronger than death,” the Song of Songs reminds us, “and passion fierce as the grave.” In love we set a seal on the heart of one another. It isn’t easily erased.

Much like the love of God. God sets a seal upon our hearts and lives, too, and God’s passion is without doubt stronger than death and fiercer than the grave. And God cares about us, our lives and our loves matter to God, in all their messiness and unpredictability and moments of embarrassment and grace. Dr. William Willimon wrote a gorgeous essay on weddings and marriages, in which he concludes:

Our God, thank God, does not wait until we get our lives cleaned up and aesthetically acceptable, until we know what we’re getting into, until all the psychological factors indicate that we are ready to mate, and until we figure out the real meaning of what it means to love another human being forever. Our God -- the one who began his ministry at, of all places, a wedding in Cana of Galilee -- entered the flesh, the tackiness and transitoriness of it all and said, strange as it might seem to us of little faith, that our human unions are of divine consequence.[i]

God’s hand continues to quietly guide the characters in our story. Next week, all will finally be revealed. But we can already see the ending, like a well-plotted romantic comedy. We see it in Ruth, cloak full of grain, moving quietly through the mist of a very early morning to show Naomi the promise of what lies ahead, this very human union that is of divine consequence. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] William Willimon, “Cleaning Up the Wedding,” the Christian Century June 6-13, 1979, p.653.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Empty Ones: Sermon on Ruth 1 and 2

"Ruth" by Henry Ryland (1856-1924)

Scripture can be found here...
Almost 20 years ago, an unnamed character in a mostly obscure comic strip with a niche audience was talking about her criteria for which movies she was willing to see.  She said, “I have this rule, see… I only go to a movie if it satisfies three basic requirements. One, it has to have at least two women in it, who, Two, talk to each other about, Three, something besides a man.” This little sentence, penned somewhat offhandedly by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, took on a life of its own. It came to be known as the Bechdel test, a kind of feminist litmus test for the full representation of women in art and culture. It’s not that people who are interested in those things won’t see anything that doesn’t pass the test—believe me, we’d be watching precious few movies and TV shows if we held to that standard. But—it’s a useful tool, not perfect, just consciousness-raising.

The Book of Ruth is one of just four books in the Bible that passes the Bechdel test.[i] That means that the book of Ruth contains at least two characters—in fact, there are three—who are women, who have names, and who have at least one conversation that is not about a man.

This makes Ruth a remarkable book. It’s a remarkable book written for a pivotal moment in the history of God’s people. The opening sentence tells us that the story is set in the time of the Judges, but scholars will tell you it was written much later, in the time of the return from the Babylonian exile.

This is the background for the book of Ruth, also called throughout the book, Ruth the Moabite. Ruth is not from Bethlehem in Judah, she is not a Jew. She is a foreigner.

The names are important and revealing in this story. The book begins as the tale of a man, Elimelech—a name that means, “My God is king.” Though we don’t have a God who intervenes in obvious ways in this narrative, that name—My God is king—sets the tone for a story in which God’s hand seems to be guiding people and determining outcomes. Elimelech sets out from Bethlehem in Judah with his wife and his two sons for Moab. They are being forced to flee to another land because there is a famine in Bethlehem—Bethlehem, a Hebrew word meaning “house of bread.” There was a famine in the house of bread, which tells us that something is very wrong; things are topsy-turvy, upside down. And Elimelech’s sons are named “Mahlon” and “Chilion,” which translate “sickness” and “wasting,” so, that’s not good. Still, they marry our heroine, the Moabite Ruth (which means kindness) and another Moabite woman named Orpah[ii] (which can mean shadow or darkness). Naomi’s name means “pleasant.”

Here’s why it matters that the book of Ruth was written at the end of the Babylonian exile. After about sixty years of captivity in Babylon, the Jews were permitted at last to return to the land of Judah. During the exile, the priests and scholars of the people had spent much of their time of study and prayer attempting to figure out why God had allowed this terrible thing to happen to them. They came to believe that it was their own fault, that the people had worshiped other gods, and they laid much of the blame for that behavior on foreigners. Aliens. People of other ethnic backgrounds. As they returned from exile, strict laws, draconian laws, went into effect, prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and foreigners. Those who were already married to foreigners were required to divorce, to split up their families. Jewish men were required to send away their foreign wives and children. The book of Ruth, set in another, earlier time, is a story about an alien, a foreign wife, Ruth the Moabite.

Back to our story. All three men die, leaving behind all three women as widows, and Naomi also becomes a mother who has lost her sons. In our day, this would be considered a tragedy of the greatest proportions. The depth of pain and loss for any family who loses one member is great. This family has been hit particularly hard.

But there’s more than the human, emotional toll of grief and loss. There is also the social reality of what it meant to be a woman in that era. These three women have entered a nightmare. In this ancient world, women without men to protect and care for them are incredibly vulnerable. They are in constant danger—danger of starvation, or danger of being kidnapped and sold as slaves. They can’t go out and get a job to support themselves. Well, they could. But it’s not a job any woman really wants. Naomi as the matriarch of her tiny and decimated family makes the decision. They will return to Bethlehem, because there is news that the land is producing food again, the famine is over. There is bread again in the house of bread. Their best hope lies in returning to the land of Naomi’s birth, the place where they might be able to find food and family.

And then a struggle ensues. Naomi lets it be known that even this decision is not foolproof. It’s as if her conscience is telling her: don’t drag these young women along. There are no guarantees. Naomi’s words to them are heartbreaking. “May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me” [1:8b]. Naomi puts herself in the same category as the dead. Naomi is all but dead herself.

When Ruth and Orpah protest, she refutes their pleas with dark humor about the unlikely scenario of her giving birth to sons again, so that they could grow up and marry the young women. “No, my daughters, it has been far more bitter for me than for you, because the hand of the Lord has turned against me” [1:13b]. Naomi cannot account for all that has happened to her, except to believe that God has turned away from her. She is bitter. She is a shell of her former self. She is empty.

Orpah weeps, kisses her mother-in-law, and heads down the road towards her parents’ home.

But Ruth said, “Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you!
Where you go, I will go;
Where you lodge, I will lodge;
your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
Where you die, I will die— there will I be buried.
May the Lord do thus and so to me, and more as well, if even death parts me from you!”
~Ruth 1:16-17

Ruth is a remarkable character in a remarkable book. She chooses to throw in her lot with another woman, against all reasonable assessments of possible risks and rewards. She chooses, further, to bind herself with a covenantal vow, to someone who is, to her, a foreigner. Those of you who were here last Sunday, forgive me for repeating myself, but this is worth understanding. The statement, “May the Lord do thus and so to me,” was surely accompanied by a gesture. A gesture like this, [one indicating the cutting of the throat] or like this [one indicating being stabbed with a knife]. That is covenant language—the Hebrew always refers to “cutting a covenant,” because covenants are always sealed in blood—one way or another. Ruth has promised, on her own blood, to stay with her foreigner mother-in-law, who is also a different religion AND a woman. No pro-con list would have resulted in this choice.

What could Naomi do? The two women, Judean mother-in-law and Moabite daughter-in-law, head to Bethlehem.

They arrive at the beginning of the barley harvest. By the time they get there, their stomachs are as empty as their hearts, and Ruth the Moabite offers to go to a barley field to glean. Gleaning was a practice in ancient Israel and Judah that was codified into law. In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is mandated: when farmers gather their crops—their barley, their wheat, their grapes—they are not to strip the plants bare, and if they leave a sheaf in the field by accident, they are to leave it there. These gleanings are for the poor. They are for widows and orphans. They are for aliens, for those we might call “illegal immigrants,” those who have no particular right to be there. Sometimes the text explains, “You will be blessed if you do this.” Other times it simply says, “I am the Lord your God.” We provide for those who are hungry because it is what the people of God do.

Ruth goes to glean. By coincidence, or by Providence—that quietly guiding hand of God—it turns out that the field she gleans in is owned by one Boaz, whose name means “by strength.” He is related to Naomi’s dead husband. And Boaz notices Ruth. He asks questions about her, and he learns of her loyalty and dedication to Naomi. He learns that she has been gathering the gleanings of barley since early in the morning without stopping.

Boaz speaks to Ruth, and tells her to stay in his field, to stay near his people for protection. He gives her some food to fill her empty stomach, and some kind words to fill her empty heart. And when she returns to the place where she and Naomi have been staying, her report of the day fills Naomi with hope—for the first time since she was reeling with the emptiness of her sorrow and loss.

As we end chapter two, we know there will be bread on Ruth and Naomi’s table once again. And we know that Naomi sees even greater hopes for fullness, for both herself and her daughter-in-law.

It has been a devastating summer, this summer of 2014. All around the world there are wars and rumors of war. Israel and Palestine seem to be abiding by an uneasy cease-fire. The streets of Ferguson, Missouri are still ringing out with gunfire after a young, unarmed black man was killed, and police responded with military force to peaceful protests, which then turned violent, and led to opportunistic looting.  In Iraq the ISIS forces continue to terrorize Christians as well as specific ethnic groups. And these are just the stories that have been in the news.

One theme runs through all these headlines. The theme is conflict based on difference. The difference may be religion, it may be ethnicity, it may be skin color. These are old, old fights, many of them. But in each case, thinking humans are choosing, for the most part, to align themselves tribally. They speak of “those people” when describing those whose actions they find abhorrent.

The book of Ruth tells another story, a cool breeze blowing through a landscape of boiling anger. It tells of love and commitment across the boundaries that ordinarily divide us. It tells of a woman from the region that, today, is part of Jordan, who gave her life and loyalty to another woman from what, today, is part of Israel.

This story was written at a time when immigrants, aliens, were demonized, when they were blamed for everything that was wrong in the post-exile society. This story was written to offer another perspective, one that holds to the notion that, in the words of one writer, “Biological family is too small of a vision. Patriotism is far too myopic. A love for our own relatives and a love for the people of our own country are not bad things, but our love does not stop at the border.”[iii]

The story of Ruth is the story of love that doesn’t stop at the border. It’s a story of human beings giving one another a chance, ignoring the walls that normally divide them, even those walls their religion is telling them to put up. 
-->It’s a story of radical commitment, against all odds, that gives God’s quiet and powerful hand an opportunity to take those who were empty and make them full again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Ruth, Tobit, Mark, and Luke. The number falls to three if you leave out the Apocrypha (Tobit).
[ii] “Orpah” can also mean “mane” or “back of the neck.”
[iii] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical.
[iv] Noam Zion, Megillat RUTH: Hesed and Hutzpah 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Simply Perfect: Sermon on 1 John 4:1-21

Scripture can be found here [1 John 4:1-21]...

Simone Weil was a French philosopher and Christian mystic. She died during the Second World War young, very young, only 34 years old, from TB. She probably died because she was malnourished. She was probably malnourished because she refused to eat any more than the amount of food rationed to French soldiers.

During her short life, Weil kept notebooks full of her musings on God, on the mystery of what it is to be human, on classic conundrums like the problem of suffering. After her death these writings were collected in a book called Gravity and Grace. Here’s one brief reflection from the book:

Two prisoners whose cells adjoin communicate with each other by knocking on the wall. The wall is the thing which separates them, but is also their means of communication. It is the same with us and God. Every separation is a link.[i]

The problem with God is this: we can’t see God. Not directly. We can look around us and see things that bring God to mind, or at least the possibility of God. For me, as a child, it was the depth and power and delight of the ocean. It all whispered “God” to me. For others it is the beauty of art—we reason that humans are inspired, literally, filled with a Spirit that helps them to create such beauty.

For Weil, these are the things that are, to us, like the taps on the wall of the prison cell. We can hear the tapping, even though we can’t see or talk to the other prisoner.

Of course, there is one great exception, one great instance of tapping on the wall that was more akin to breaking it down entirely: Jesus Christ.

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God…” [1 John 4:2]

Any time we read from an epistle in the New Testament, we know we have a snippet from the earliest years of life as Jesus’ followers. There were currents in the early church, rumblings of thoughts and ideas that were carrying the message: Well, Jesus Christ wasn’t really human.

For people today, the hard sell seems to be that Jesus was God. But don’t kid yourself. Then and now, the hard sell is that Jesus was human. That in Jesus, God put such tremendous limitations on God’s own… GOD-NESS, that God truly entered into the human experience. We don’t like to think of the physicality of Jesus. That he was born of a woman, and cried as a baby, and had to learn to walk and talk. That he got tired. That he got hungry. That he got thirsty. That he had a digestive system. That he bled, and that he died. I have a wonderful colleague who, years ago, in telling the story of the crucifixion during a children’s message, was confronted by the upsetting sight of a child bursting into tears, that anyone could be so cruel as to kill an innocent person. So she quickly said, “Don’t worry, he didn’t really die!” Which is a completely understandable response to the stress of the moment, even for a preacher who knew very well that our entire faith depends on Jesus’ actual physical death. But it is also something a lot of us hang on to deep down, so that our categories don’t really get disturbed—there is God, and there are humans, and we can tap on the wall between us, but it can’t ever really get broken down.

But it did. And what broke down the wall was love.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” [1 John 4:7]

God IS love. [1 John 4:8b]

And if God is love, then the nature of God is to break down the prison wall that keeps God and God’s beloved children apart. The nature of God is to tap. The nature of God is to break through.

“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” [1 John 4:12]

That word “perfect.” It is such a problematic word. What do you think of when you hear it? I think of the word “flawless,” like a gorgeous, expensive jewel, a diamond. But some of us also think of demands that we can’t possibly live up to—what in my family we used to call a “harsh magpie taskmaster.” If we hear the commandment to be perfect, we give up almost immediately because we know we can’t do it. We know we will fail.

It’s a good thing that’s not what “perfect” means here. Jesus was an ancient Palestinian Jew, which means he spoke Aramaic, and probably some Hebrew. In those languages, the word we translate “perfect” means complete, whole. In Greek, the word of this epistle, the word we translate “perfect” means something that reaches its goal. For God’s love to be “perfected in us,” means for God’s love to reach its goal, to be made complete. God’s love is what makes us whole, and sharing that love extends that wholeness to a world that is otherwise just scratching on prison walls.

“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” [1 John 4:20]

What the world needs now is love, sweet love. There is a story told of an ancient monk who decided to leave the monastery to seek a closer connection with God in the caves of the desert. As he left, he abbot said to him, “But my son, whose feel will you wash?”

I chose to preach on this epistle months ago. None of us knew then that we would be faced with daily reports from the Holy Land that would fill us with sorrow, this place where Jesus and his disciples, and his ancestors—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel and Leah and their sons—where they walked, where they encountered God, where they lived their complicated lives and offered meals to strangers and fought and loved and died and were buried. And through all that, the ancient writings we all hold dear tell us the same thing today they told our ancestors thousands of years ago. Hear, O people of God, the Lord is God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We will soon gather around this table, which reminds us that God binds together many from the remnants scattered around the earth, and that there is nothing that is broken that cannot be made whole again. We will soon eat bits of bread and drink tiny sips of juice that will remind us of the gift given to us in love: the very life of Jesus, Son of God. We will soon be commissioned to go out and love, whatever the cost, whatever the situation, because God is love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace. Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952. Weil quote thanks to Rev. Stephanie Boardman Anthony in her Narrative Lectionary blogpost at

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Ten Commandments Part 3: Loving the Ones We Can See, Exodus 20:12-17

Scripture can be found here...

I have a subscription to That means that, every single day, sometimes more than once a day, I receive an email from them highlighting their newest finds. Whatever you want, you can probably find the prettiest, shiniest, coolest, tastiest, newest version of it on this website. And, full disclosure, from them I have purchased, in no particular order: earrings, boots, a necklace, olive oil, a lamp, peanut butter, and a panda costume. I have looked at chairs for my living room, stools for my kitchen, lots and lots more jewelry than I purchased, sunglasses, steaks, and bicycles. Their slogan? “F@b is everyday design.”

But here’s the thing about this website. I have noticed something about myself, something that happens inside me when that daily email comes and I find myself poring over it to see what I might possibly need. Want. Need. And what I have noticed is not good. It’s not that I turn green and monstrous, not exactly. But I start to feel uncomfortable, unsettled. I’ve never checked it, but I bet my blood pressure rises. This website, which is brilliantly designed, turns on something in me that I don’t like. It turns on a desire to have what I do not have. It turns on a longing to acquire cool or pretty things just because they are cool and pretty. It turns on covetousness. And so, as much as I have liked the things I have purchased there, and even though I am a repeat customer and will probably buy more fabulous finds in the future, I had to do something to hide that “everyday” subscription from myself. I didn’t like feeling like that. I don’t want to feel like that.

Now, you are probably wondering. Isn’t “coveting” the last commandment? Why is she starting with that one? The answer is simple, though it’s not something I figured out on my own. The whole second table of the law, the whole part of the Ten Commandments that has to do with “loving your neighbor as you love yourself,” can be answered and solved by adherence to the last commandment. “Do not covet.” Dishonoring your parents, killing, breaking marriage vows, stealing, lying about your neighbor—there is a good argument to make that they all start with coveting.

Professor Rolf Jacobson puts it this way:

[Take] King David. He was hanging out on the roof, his eyes fell upon Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, and boom! He wanted her. So he took her. As the king, he was already married and had plenty of access to women in the palace. But he wanted Bathsheba, too. Se he took her. And then, when she turned up pregnant, he arranged for Uriah—and the entire military company he was leading into war!—to be abandoned in the midst of the battle. They all were killed. And it all started with a little coveting (See 2 Samuel 11-12).[i]

Here’s the big thing: God loves us. God wants us to be happy. God created us in the Divine Image, to be in a covenant with Godself, but also to live in God’s creation in peace and harmony. To covet is to predispose ourselves to anxiety, and fear. To covet is to lose our peace. To lose our peace is to lose our connection with God. To read the last six commandments is to encounter a vision of a world that is either steeped in anxiety and fear, or steeped in love—it just depends on how you look at it. Let’s take them one at a time.

The commandment to love our parents is not directed towards children, but towards adults. It’s directed at those of us whose parents are elderly, who need our help, who need us to look at them, not as problems to be solved, but as fragile and beautiful images of God, just like we are. Will we let our anxiety rule us, or our love?

Most of us learned the sixth commandment as “You shall not kill,” but there are multiple Hebrew words for killing, and the one used here indicates, almost always, premeditated murder. The God of the living values life. We are to value the lives and safety of others as highly as we value our own. We are in the midst of an incredibly polarized conversation on guns and gun regulations in this country. I think both sides in the conversation are filled with fear and anxiety, one about the loss of rights and the other about the loss of life. Nothing will be accomplished until we are able to talk to one another from a place of peace, from a place of genuine concern for one another.

The commandment against adultery asks us to hold disruptive desires in tension with the happiness of others. This is the very nature of marriage vows: we choose to place the needs and desires of another person on a par with our own. We promise to love one particular other as we love ourselves—and to not admit another into that covenant.

“You shall not steal” seems straightforward until someone with the mind of a John Calvin helps you to understand its many subtleties:  

Now there are many kinds of thefts. One consists in violence, when another’s goods are stolen by force and unrestrained brigandage. A second kind consists in malicious deceit, when they are carried off through fraud. Another lies in a more concealed craftiness, when a man’s goods are snatched from him by seemingly legal means.[ii] All theft is a violation of God’s image in one another, whether we are talking about an individual breaking in to steal a laptop or a corporation claiming as its own property the drinking water we all need to live.

The ninth commandment, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” sounds like it is about giving testimony in court, and of course, that’s one of its applications. But the temptation to say things that are not true about people we don’t like, or who threaten us, or who have something we want, is something that starts in early childhood and doesn’t ever really leave us.  The bible has a cure for that: “Speak the truth in love,” and we can’t ever go wrong.

God loves us—all of us. God wants us to be happy. God loves you and me, and also the guy at the office whose voice sounds like nails on a chalkboard, and also the cousin who sued my parents right when my mother was dying, and also the husband or wife of that person who makes your heart skip a beat, even though you know it shouldn’t.

Get ready for a shock. The law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. Again, wisdom from Professor Jacobson:

We  [say], “OK, God, we’re down with love. But, how do I love my neighbor?”

God says, “OK, let me be a little more explicit here. Make sure everyone gets one day off each week, take care of the elderly, don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t have sex with someone else’s spouse, don’t hurt your neighbor with your words, don’t desire your neighbor’s stuff. That’s how you love your neighbor.”

Because the law isn’t about you. It’s about your neighbor. And God loves your neighbor so much that God gives you the law. And God loves you so much, that God gives your neighbor the exact same law.[iii]

Do we want a world steeped in fear and anxiety, or one steeped in love? Do we live our lives as troops ready for battle or as loved ones gathered around a table? The world we create in concert with our great Creator has everything to do with which path we take. “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What will it be? Will it be fear? Or will it be love? Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Commentary on Exodus 19:1-6, 20:1-17,” Narrative Lectionary Resources, Working Preacher Website,, Accessed 7-5-2014.
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.8.45.
[iii] Jacobson, Op. cit.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Ten Commandments Part 2: Loving the One We Can't See, Exodus 20:1-11

The things God will do to get our attention...!

 Scripture can be found here...

I don’t think it’s possible to convey the sheer trepidation with which I set out to share these words with you. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the stakes are very high here. Very high.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in a God of love and grace, who will follow, even if we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea. I believe in that God, who wants us, and who seek us out, and who, no matter what, will claim us, in the end.

But what about the days and nights between now and then? What about the hours and minutes and seconds? What we make of them is everything. The stakes are high.

We are talking this morning about what is traditionally called “The First Table” of the law. The commandments are divided into the first table, commandments about God, and the second table, commandments about our neighbor. This echoes just what Jesus said in our first reading. These first four commandments are all about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength.

This is a fearsome thing, to love God so completely. I know I aspire to it. I know I fail at least as often as I succeed. But I also know it is what we are called to do.

God begins with a reminder: it is God who frees us—who has freed us—from slavery of one kind or another. Each of us has to work out with fear and trembling what those things are that enslave us. And as fearsome a thing as it is to even try to comprehend what whole-hearted, and whole-souled, and whole-minded, and whole-strength love of God is, in the end, we may find it more frightening to contemplate a life enslaved to our self-image or our cell phones or our addictions. Hear these words, from the God who sets us free.

But first, this: remember how I said last week that it’s really hard to memorize the Ten Commandments? A quick look at the chart[1] below reveals why that is.

Catholic, Lutheran,
Reformed, Anglican,
other Protestants
1. I am the Lord your God

2. No other Gods (and no    graven images)
1. No other Gods (and no graven images)
1. No other Gods

2. No graven images
3. Do not misuse God's name
2. Do not misuse God's name
3. Do not misuse God's name
4. Keep the Sabbath
3. Keep the Sabbath
4. Keep the Sabbath
5. Honor father & mother
4. Honor father & mother
5. Honor father & mother
6. Do not murder
5. Do not murder
6. Do not murder
7. Do not commit adultery
6. Do not commit adultery
7. Do not commit adultery
8. Do not steal
7. Do not steal
8. Do not steal
9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
8. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
9. Do not bear false witness against a neighbor
10. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse or house
9. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse
10. Do not covet your neighbor's spouse or house

10. Do not covet your neighbor's house

Across the faiths—for Jews and Christians—we agree on the content of the commandments (mostly), but we divide them up differently, which ends up creating different emphases. For Jews, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” is the first Word, out of ten Words spoken. For Christians, this statement of identity and action is preface to the commandments. It is a last reminder of the source of all these words.

The first commandment: You shall have no other gods before (besides) me. ~Exodus 20:3

In the ancient world people believed in many gods. Even the ancient Israelites, for a time, believed that there were many gods—this commandment provides sly evidence of that fact. An order to have no other gods besides YHWH acknowledges that those other gods exist. And having sojourned for 400-plus years in Egypt, the Israelites were no doubt familiar with the likes of the mother-goddess Isis and her husband Osiris, god of the afterlife, and their child, Horus, god of vengeance, protection, war, and the sky, not to mention Imhotep, god of peace.

It is relatively easy for us to disavow these gods and goddesses, and to look upon them as remnants of another age. It is comforting to think of ourselves as having evolved beyond such childish notions. It is less comforting to notice the many gods we still serve, even though they go by other names. Anything that interferes with God’s primacy in our lives is, in fact, another god. It is relatively easy to identify other people’s gods—how many times have we noticed someone else who seemed to worship power, position, sex, possessions, mind-altering substances? It is much, much harder to complete this sentence with brutal honesty: “I confess that _______ is my god.” Which is to say, “I confess that ________ is the thing that has me enslaved.” The first commandment is the hardest: it is the one that urges us to put down those other things that come between us and God. It is the one that begs us to recognize that this is our only hope for true freedom. Can we empty ourselves of our little gods so that we can open ourselves to a real relationship with the one true God?

The second commandment: You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them…” ~ Exodus 20:4-6

OK. First things first. Flat Jesus is not in violation of this commandment, unless: you are actually worshipping your particular version in ceremonies at home, none of which was suggested in last week’s children’s message OR in the take-home letter!

Seriously. What is this about? Well, in a few chapters we will have an example, when the people Moses left at the foot of the mountain get antsy and start melting down their jewelry to make a golden calf. But we have to step back a bit, I think, to really understand the commandment against making idols for ourselves to worship. We serve a Creator-God who is still creating, and to be made in God’s image is to participate in God’s creative acts. Many of us have experiences of God that are mediated through creation: we gaze in awe at the beauty of a waterfall or perfect blue sky patterned with gorgeous cumulus clouds. We hover by a window, listening with spine-tingling delight to a powerful storm. Alice Walker writes, “I think it [ticks] God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see [God is] always trying to please us back.”

That’s why making an idol for worship is to worship in precisely the wrong direction. When we create something for the purpose of worshiping it, we always end up worshiping, not God, but ourselves—our own cleverness and artfulness. This is one of the reasons the Reformers tried to do away with art that represents God in worship spaces: the fear that we would forget to worship God and, instead, end up worshiping the wonderful sculptor or painter, human creativity, rather than the Creator of all.

The prohibition on idol worship suggests something else, especially if we remember the story of the golden calf. The creation of that idol was born entirely of the anxiety that can be generated when the God we worship is not readily visible to us. We long to gaze on God face to face. God is invisible, not so that we will stop seeking, but so that we will seek God more deeply where God can be found.  God will not be seen in our melted down jewelry. God insists, instead, on showing up in scripture, in nature, in prayer, and even in the faces of other created humans. Can we open a space for God by refusing to worship the products of our own labor and creativity?

The third commandment: You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.” ~Exodus 20:7.

As children many of us learned this commandment “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain,” which I still find a useful way of saying this. To do something ‘in vain’ is to do it for no good purpose. It is a waste of time, or, as here, a waste of breath. It is a waste of the Name, YHWH, which is treasured in Hebrew scripture and in Jewish practice to this day. My seminary was located across the street from Jewish Theological Seminary. At some point in my seminary career I learned that there is a repository (called a genizah) at JTS for all seminary-generated paper printed with the name of God. The Talmud Tractate Shabbat prohibits the destruction of anything bearing God’s holy name; such items are to be given burial in the earth. Until that burial, they are kept in genizahs.

Such care with God’s name has slipped away from a lot of us. Hoo boy, it really has. Maybe this could help us: imagine using the name of a person you deeply love in the way we often use God’s name. If we wouldn’t use the name of a cherished child, parent, friend or spouse that way, perhaps we can unlearn the habits that let us to use God’s name that way. Can we open up a space for God by being very intentional in the way we use God’s holy name?

The fourth commandment: Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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…” ~Exodus 20:8-11.

How hard it is to stop. Just stop. And that is what is at the root of the word “Sabbath”: it is a form of the Hebrew word for “stop; cease.” And how many of us are able to find time in our lives to simply cease all our crazed activities, to simply “be still, and know that [God is] God?” In Exodus, there is a rationale given: even God, after all the labor of creation, rested on the seventh day! In Deuteronomy, the rationale is even more pointed: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). As Rolf Jacobson wrote in the commentary, " the Sabbath is also a day of rest and justice. The Sabbath was the first fair labor law." Not to observe Sabbath is to be a slave—to something. We might not be building pyramids for Pharaoh, but we are enslaved to some notion of busyness, or achievement, or perfection, or tradition—something that does not allow us to simply stop. Simply be.

This is not to say that the Sabbath is to be a time in which we can’t do anything. John Calvin found joy in bowling. Ask yourselves this about your Sabbath observances: Is there joy? Is there time to be with the ones you love? Is there time from which you unplug from your other obligations, or from those things that fritter away your time (like phone screens and computer screens)? And if you can’t manage 24 hours in this Eden of rest, can you find an hour? Just an hour for time that is for nothing but enjoyment of people, of creation, of the bliss of rest from a busy life? Can we open up one hour of Sabbath for starters? Can we simply stop, and know that God is God, and we are most emphatically not?

It is a fearsome thing, this first table of the law, which is all about loving God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. These commandments urge us to open a space for the One who is truly the great love of our lives, if we will only allow it. Yes. We believe in a God of love and grace, who will follow us, even if we take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, and find us and claim us. But why wait to be rescued from ourselves? Why not open ourselves to God’s love now? The stakes are so high. We spend so much of our lives fleeing God. Why not spend ourselves on the One who will make us truly free? Can we open a space for God? Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Chart courtesy of