Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Beloved Community: Sermon on Ruth 4:1-22

Ruth and Naomi by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

We come today to the last act of the Book of Ruth, and we find ourselves in the middle of what truly feels like a romantic comedy—one last obstacle to be overcome, the other goel, the (Hebrew word meaning) “next of kin redeemer.” This is the part at the end of “My Best Friend’s Wedding” where Julia Roberts chases Cameron Diaz to a White Sox game at Comiskey Park to convince her that Dermot Mulroney really does love her. Except, in our story, this is the part where Boaz slyly leaves out the crucial bit of information—the land comes with a woman!—to first, give the unnamed “other guy” the thought that he can redeem the land belonging to the family; and then to allow that other guy to reveal himself as the guy who wants the land, but not the woman, too much baggage, too much responsibility, thank you very much, I’ll go home now.

And so Boaz is left as the closest kin, the one who truly can redeem the situation and the family—buy back their honor, and their stability, and their sense of place, their sense of home.

Let’s step back for a minute, and look at the big picture.

You’ve been taken by the wind… you have known the kiss of sorrow.

The story begins with Naomi finding herself to be a wife with no husband, and a mother with no sons. She has two daughters-in-law who don’t belong with her. She thinks herself to be as good as dead.

But she has this one daughter-in-law Ruth, who insists: Wherever you go, I will go.   

Doors that would not take you in… outcast, and a stranger.

When they return to Bethlehem, Naomi is bitter. But her daughter-in-law, Ruth the Moabite, begins, little by little, to restore life’s sweetness for Naomi. First, she feeds her with the grain she has harvested. Then she lets it be known that the owner of the field is a relative of Naomi’s husband.

Notice, none of the three are blood relatives to one another.

You have come by way of sorrow, you have come by way of tears…

After a time, Naomi sends Ruth to make a case to Boaz that he should step up, and obey the laws of their people, and take Ruth as his wife. Boaz is persuaded.

Then we have our romantic-comedy-type Big Last Obstacle, and it is overcome. Ruth and Boaz are wed, and they have a child, Obed. One last name definition for you: Obed means “servant,” “worker.” And Obed does indeed serve God’s purposes mightily, because he provides us the great punch line of the story, the information saved for the very last moment: Obed will be the grandfather of King David, the greatest king in all the stories of God’s people.

But for Naomi, this is a resurrection story. “Blessed be the Lord…” say the women of Bethlehem, as baby Obed is placed in Naomi’s arms. “He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Naomi, who was dead, has come alive again. She is so full of life she becomes the baby’s nurse.

But you’ll reach your destiny, meant to find you all these years,
meant to find you all these years.

What can we take from this story?

Scripture tells us stories of creation and re-creation.

We read in Ruth about the breakdown of not only a family, but an entire society, about the moment when its members might scatter to the winds like the seeds of a dandelion, but instead, come together again, when family is re-created by being re-defined. Ruth says, no matter that we are not related. I choose to make you, Naomi, my family. We are kin.

Scripture tells us stories of God’s love through the covenants we make.

We have the initial unseen covenant between Naomi and her husband, and then between Ruth and her husband.

We have the completely unexpected covenant between the foreigner Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi.

We have the further marriage covenant between Ruth and Boaz.

And we have God’s unseen hand, guiding the makers of these covenants to provide for God’s people in ways that startle and surprise us.

Scripture tells us stories of outsiders who, mysteriously, end up being the lynchpins in God’s surprising designs.

Ruth is a Moabite, which means all kinds of coded things in scripture about being an outsider, about being hated—in one psalm [108:9] we actually read, “Moab is my washpot,” which is a very cleaned up translation of something much more like, “I will wipe the floor with you, Moab.” Naomi’s people despise her people. But of all the players in this little tale, it is Ruth who is most closely aligned with not only the character, but the purposes of God. Ruth is the one whose actions speak of hesed, of loving-kindness, and faithfulness.

And it is Ruth who is the necessary player—it is her re-crafting of familial relationships that ultimately can be credited with the birth of King David.

Think of how this story was heard in an era when intermarriage with non-Israelites was forbidden. Think of how this story was heard as people were being forced to break up their families, sending their wives and children away if they were not descendants of God’s covenant with Abraham.

Think of how God was speaking to God’s people through this gentle little tale of loss and hunger, and re-vitalization and fullness—all because one of those hated foreigners exceeded all expectations and definitions of love and loyalty.

Think of how we can hear this story today.

As summer comes to an end, I want to end, not by talking about a romantic comedy, but a big sci-fi action picture, “Guardians of the Galaxy.” So, we have our hero, a guy kidnapped from family when he was just a kid, and we have what ends up being his truly motley crew—a green killing-machine of woman, a genetically engineered raccoon man, a very extensively tattooed wrestler-type, and a man who is a tree. A tree-man. The tree-man’s name is “Groot.” We know this, because he speaks only the words, “I am Groot,” in response to every situation. “I am Groot.” For those of you to whom this means anything, think “Hodor.”

I am going to spoil the end of this movie for you, so plug your ears if you haven’t seen it. In the great crisis near the end, when it seems all our motley crew is sure to die, Groot does something that will save everyone, but probably kill him. The raccoon man, Rocket, tries to talk him out of it—“But Groot, you’ll die.” And then, with tears brimming in his tree-man eyes, he says, “WE ARE GROOT.”

We are Groot. It’s the most scriptural moment I’ve experienced in a summer blockbuster in a long, long, time. And it speaks a truth that is at the heart of, not only the Book of Ruth, but all of scripture: our redemption, our salvation, always, always, happens in community.  And it almost always happens because we have defied the rules that society clings to about where our loyalties are supposed to lie, and instead, stretch ourselves, open ourselves, to come together in a beloved community of those outside our own tribe.

This is what church is. A beloved community. A community where we come together, not because we are a biologically related family, but to find and forge a new definition of family that does not rely on shared genes or skin color or ethnic background.  Like Ruth. Like Naomi. Like Boaz.

You have drunk a bitter wine with none to be your comfort,
You who once were left behind will be welcome at love's table.
You have come by way of sorrow, you have come by way of tears,
But you’ll reach your destiny, meant to find you all these years,
meant to find you all these years.

Thanks be to God. Amen.


Song Lyrics: "By Way of Sorrow," Julie and Buddy Miller

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